Some children’s books seem to be timeless: Peter Rabbit, for instance, or Charlotte’s Web. Others are unmistakably a product of their Zeitgeist and become less accessible with each passing generation: it will be surprising if today’s bestselling author Judy Blume appeals to children in the year 2050 or so. In the case of G. A. Henty (1832– 1902), even the titles, with their potent whiff of Victorian imperial verve and muscular Christianity, are enough to elicit a condescending smile from modern readers: By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War; or With Buller in Natal; or A Dash for Khartoum: A Tale of the Nile Expedition; or The Tiger of Mysore: A Story of the War With Tippoo Sahib.
Henry’s eighty historical adventure novels for boys (yes, for boys—it goes without saying that no writer today would get away with this sort of gender stereotyping) were wildly popular in their day and continued to find a healthy readership right up to the Second World War. Thereafter, the breakup of the British Empire and the degradation of its once proud ethos put them almost instantly out of date. And nowadays, with cultural relativism and political correctness dominating children’s publishing, the kind of broad cultural assumptions Henty held are downright taboo. How many school teachers, for instance, would dare recommend a book with the title A Tale of the Western Plains: or, Redskin and Cowboy? And how seriously will anyone take dialogue like the following (from A Knight of the White Cross):
“Well, young sir, how like you the prospect of your pageship?”
“I like it greatly, sir, but shall like still more the time when I can buckle on armor and take a share of fighting with the infidels.”
Today all children’s literature is furiously vetted by publishers, educators, and librarians fearful of causing offense to some ethnic or social group. I recently read my children a book that had given me great pleasure as a child: Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive, the true story of a young girl, an eighteenth-century colonist, who was captured by Seneca Indians and eventually became a full-fledged member of the tribe. Indian Captive is extraordinarily sensitive to the Seneca way of life as it describes Mary Jemison’s slow and sometimes painful acculturation; in the end, when she is given the choice of staying with the Senecas or returning to the white world, she realizes that the Senecas have become her true family. Yet when I mentioned this book to a librarian at a prominent New York school, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was “racist.”
The kind of broad cultural assumptions Henty held are downright taboo.
How much more racist, classist, sexist, and every other type of -ist then is Henty, whose young heroes have internalized an ideal of their own mission civiliatrice and would certainly concur with the author’s younger contemporary Winston Churchill when he rhetorically inquired, upon joining Kitchener’s mission to the Sudan in 1898, “What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil … what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort?”
Quaintly written on the one hand, culturally passé on the other, Henty’s books were all but forgotten during the second half of the twentieth century, despite the fact that he had inspired not only generations of future soldiers and administrators but also an array of future intellectuals from Henry Miller to Roy Jenkins, for his research and attention to detail was stunning, his historical and local flavor flawless, his battle accounts impeccably accurate. Henty’s descriptions of eighteenth-century Madras in With Clive in India, for instance, and of Hannibal’s heterogeneous, exotic army in The Young Carthaginian, are really masterly. A.J.P. Taylor recalls of Henty books that “the best feature was the battle diagrams with the oblongs for the opposing forces of cavalry and infantry. I reproduced them on the attic floor with my toy soldiers… . As a matter of fact … vague recollections from Henty carried me through when I had to lecture on the Thirty Years’ War at Manchester University.” And Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has named Henty as a powerful early influence: “Such knowledge as I have of ancient Egypt, the republic of Venice, India, southern Africa, the rise of the Dutch republic, the struggle for Chilean independence, the Franco-Prussian War, the Boxer Rebellion, and many other historical episodes, had its roots in Henty,” he wrote. “He … provoked thought about history. A sturdy Tory, Henty wrote about the American Revolution from the viewpoint of the Loyalists (True to the Old Flag) and the Civil War from the viewpoint of the Confederates (With Lee in Virginia). One received a new slant on what had seemed historical verities, nor was one corrupted thereby”—a very important point, but anathema in today’s climate.
To call Henty a sturdy Tory is misleading. He was in fact comparatively liberal, even politically correct according to the standards of his day. Nowhere in his books can one find, for example, the crude anti-Catholicism of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!, or the crude anti-Semitism of Buchan or Belloc, or the crude racism of any number of his contemporaries. Like many Britons who saw action in the wars of Empire, he had nothing but respect for the great fighting nations like the Zulus, the Ashantis, the Pathans, and the Gurkhas. He may have dealt with the American Civil War from the Confederate point of view, but he also wrote about the Battle of the Boyne from the Irish one, and bitterly castigated “the atrocious conduct of William [III]’s army of foreign mercenaries towards the people of Ireland.” A feature of every Henty book is that both sides of a given issue, however apparently questionable one of them might be, are always given due respect. Here, for example, from Under Drake’s Flag, the author steps into the action in propria persona to discuss a knotty moral point:
English boys are accustomed to think with feelings of unmitigated horror and indignation of the days of the Inquisition, and in times like these, when a general toleration of religious opinion prevails, it appears to us almost incredible that men should put others to death in the name of religion. But it is only by placing ourselves in the position of the persecutors of the middle ages that we can see that what appears to us cruelty and barbarity of the worst kind was really the result of a zeal in its way as earnest, if not as praiseworthy, as that which now impels missionaries to go with their lives in their hands to regions where little but a martyr’s grave can be expected. Nowadays we believe—at least all right-minded men believe—that there is good in all creeds, and that it would be rash indeed to condemn men who act up to the best of their lights, even though those lights may not be our own.
Few people, then or now, have had a good word to say for the Spanish Inquisitors, but Henty found a way to help us understand their system of thought. Other aspects of this excerpt, too, will strike a modern reader. Do we believe, nowadays—as opposed to Henty’s “nowadays”—that there is really good in all creeds? It would be nice to think that we do, but there’s not much evidence for it, despite the sugar-coating of tolerance the schools make such an effort to deliver.
The truth is that, far from administering a simpleminded dose of imperialist rhetoric, Henty’s books do indeed prompt young readers to draw their own conclusions rather than simply parrot received opinion. In A Knight of the White Cross, the teenaged hero, Gervase Tresham, learns in the course of his years as Knight of the Order of St. John that his Muslim enemies can be every bit as brave and noble as his Christian colleagues, and that the Turkish system, though (of course!) inferior to the Christian one, has strengths that the Christians might do well to imitate: the Turks, for example, let those of high ability rise to the top of their command, whatever the accident of their birth. The hero of With Lee in Virginia, Vincent Wingfield, although a slaveholder, is a humanitarian and comes close to being an abolitionist, and while the various slave characters in the novel are at first presented as child-like, as the book progresses they evolve into more responsible human beings and end up playing a very active role in the story. The treatment of the issue in fact is complex and demands a certain amount of thought and the kind of imaginative leap most schoolchildren are seldom required to make.
Henty, to be sure, was as bound and defined by the assumptions of his time as we are by ours. Whether an ancient Briton, a Carthaginian officer, a medieval knight, or a sixteenth-century Huguenot, none of Henty’s heroes is ever anything but a Victorian gentleman. As one avid Henty collector has described the books, “They’re always about boys sixteen to seventeen years old who see history taking place, who get involved in some military action, and there’s always a lot of high morals talked about. The hero always married the squire’s daughter and was in the landed gentry by the time he was twenty-three.”
Sometimes Dr. Arnold’s creed is ludicrously out of place in the historical context into whose service it has been pressed. In Under Drake’s Flag two young Elizabethan buccaneers face their apparently imminent death with a rather un-Elizabethan diction and philosophy:
“Well, Ned, we have had more good fortune than we could have expected. We might have been killed on the day when we landed, and we have spent six jolly months in wandering together as hunters on the plain. If we must die, let us behave like Englishmen and Christians. It may be that our lives have not been as good as they should have been; but so far as we know, we have both done our duty, and it may be that, as we die for the faults of others, it may come to be considered as a balance against our own faults.”
“We must hope so, Tom. I think we have both done, I won’t say our best, but as well as could be expected in so rough a life. We have followed the exhortations of the good chaplain and have never joined in the riotous ways of the sailors in general. We must trust that the good God will forgive us our sins, and strengthen us to go through this last trial.”
Campy, yes, easy to laugh at—straight Blackadder, in fact. Henty’s total lack of irony makes him absurd to modern eyes, but also refreshing; recent equivalents of this sort of action adventure, like Indiana Jones, tend to be smirkingly ironic as though in perpetual apology for their unsophisticated subject matter.
The week in culture.
Recommendations from the editors of The New Criterion, delivered directly to your inbox.
But Henty’s books, though hokey, are not unsophisticated, or at least not in a couple of very important ways. First of all, their syntax and vocabulary demand much more of the reader than contemporary books for the same age group, that is, ages ten to fifteen. “These tactics were admirably adapted to the nature of the contest; the only thing which threatened to render them nugatory was the presence of the fierce dogs of the Spaniards.” Would any modern author for the pre-teen market challenge his readers with such a sentence? As for subject matter, Henty assumes a breadth of historical knowledge that practically no teenager, English or American, commands today: for example, in the introduction to his In the Reign of Terror: The Adventures of a Westminster Boy, he writes, “My object has been rather to tell you a tale of interest than to impart historical knowledge, for the facts of the dreadful time when ‘the terror’ reigned supreme in France are well known to all educated lads.” Today, very few educated lads would be able to muster many facts about the Terror, perhaps not even its date, and as for the Ashanti campaign or the Carlist Wars—!
The failure of multiculturalism to provide American students with a truly multicultural education or worldview has been dismal, as we found out in the panicked scramble for information and enlightenment after the September 11 attacks. If we had all been reading Henty’s To Herat and Kabul instead of The Babysitter’s Club as children, we might have been better prepared! And how many of the people struggling to understand what they perceive as the unprecedented crimes of Osama bin Laden remember or have even heard of the Mahdi? They could do worse than to have a look at Henty’s excellent With Kitchener in the Soudan, or John Buchan’s Greenmantle.
The New York Times has reported that the study of foreign languages has declined significantly in the last forty years and that at last count, in 1998, only 8 percent of college students were enrolled in a foreign language course. In a recent article for the Times magazine section, Margaret Talbot wondered just what exactly the multicultural approach has achieved: “What it apparently did not do was promote the study of other languages, or indeed of other cultures… . It was the upbeat ethnic-festival approach, which is nice, but which also allows you to leave out a lot of groups, like those that speak difficult languages or live in rough neighborhoods of the world or don’t seem to treat women particularly well.”
Henty, like his heroes, was an eyewitness to some of the most exciting events of his time.
Now, suddenly, Henty is a wallflower no more. Three publishing houses, Preston- Speed Publications, Lost Classics Book Company, and Memoria Press, have begun reissuing Henty titles for the home-school market, and home-schooling parents are buying them in quantity. They like them for several reasons: most of all for their educational value, but also for their unswerving moralism—as PrestonSpeed’s press material tells us, Henty’s heroes are “diligent, courageous, intelligent, and dedicated to their country and cause”—and for what the largely evangelical Christian home-schooling population sees as a congenially Christian point of view. It is true that Henty’s heroes are professed Christians, or if not actually Christian, as in the case of Hannibal’s junior officer, Josephus’s lieutenant, or Beric the Romanized Briton, at least some species of proto-Christian: but it should be pointed out that modern American evangelical Christianity and the Victorian muscular variety are two rather different things. High religious enthusiasm was not the norm among British Imperial army officers; General Gordon’s evangelistic fervor, for example, was considered exceptional. Jan Morris has provided an amusing characterization of the religious attitude of the British officer class (to which Henty’s heroes always belong at least in spirit): “Most officers considered themselves good Christians, but they did not think too deeply or too often about their religion, and when they did, their thoughts were not likely to be profound. Wolseley once wondered what heaven was like and thought ‘surely there must be a United Services Club there where old Army and Navy men may meet to talk over wars by land and sea.’”
On the whole the home-schoolers’ revival of Henty is a very fine thing, but they miss the mark when they try to kill two birds with one stone by making Henty serve both as history and literature. History yes; literature no. Henty books, while entertaining, are formulaic, stilted, and carelessly written—about on the level of The Hardy Boys, only with vastly more interesting subject matter. The fact that Henty wrote 144 books in his career should indicate their quality: they are unedited, repetitive, and sloppy; he must have dictated at a tremendous pace and done very little proofreading before the books went to press. He was a writing machine, and the finished products reflect that fact.
Yet one can understand the home-schoolers’ dilemma. They reject the always controversial Catcher in the Rye and its ilk, as well as the new books that boost sensitivity toward gays, native Americans, and other minority groups—a genre that cannot qualify as “literature” any more than Henty can. As Adrian Wooldridge has written in The Economist, “The fact that so many people feel that they have to choose between politically correct yuckiness and Victorian imperialism surely suggests that there is a lucrative gap in the children’s book market.” Yes, except that there are plenty of alternatives that should already fit the bill for those who like and approve of Henty yet want real literary content. Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper have become hopelessly dull and dated, but what about Robert Louis Stevenson? If Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is too rich for the home-schoolers’ blood, there are always Kidnapped,Catriona, and The Master of Ballantrae. And what about Lorna Doone, Kim, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Northanger Abbey, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Turn of the Screw? Even old chestnuts like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Beau Geste, and Lives of a Bengal Lancer are infinitely better books than anything Henty wrote.
Henty, like his heroes, was an eyewitness to some of the most exciting events of his time. As a journalist, he was in Paris under the Communes, with Wolseley in the Ashanti Country, and with Napier in Ethiopia; he saw the Carlist wars in Spain, spent time with Garibaldi’s army in Italy and with the Turks in Serbia, visited the California gold fields, was present at the opening of the Suez Canal, and toured India with the then-Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). His books reflect the excitement of a heady historical moment. “What theatre!” Jan Morris has remarked of the era. “The tragedy of Isandhlwana, the thrilling defence of Rorke’s Drift! Gordon martyred at Khartoum! ‘Dr. Livingstone I presume’! The redcoats helter-skelter from the summit of Majuba, Sir Garnet Wolseley burning the charnel-houses of Kumasi!”
It was only a century ago, yet its essence is already as defunct as that of Periclean Athens. During the decade after Henty’s death, younger writers like Forster and Conrad created the new vision of Empire, and it is a vision that persists today. Rightly or wrongly, the imperial ideal has been hopelessly degraded. The last war of the British Empire, the Falklands War, was a pathetic affair likened by one observer to two bald men fighting over a comb; what excitement it generated was both febrile and transient. What would a modern equivalent of Henty write about? What emotions would he attempt to awaken? What titles might he come up with? In the Caves of Kabul? To Kuwait With Stormin’ Norman?
The home-schoolers’ effort to revive Henty is both admirable and touching; let’s hope it is not entirely quixotic.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 8, on page 20
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com