G.A. Henty Introduction
Henty, George Alfred (1832-1902) English war correspondent and author,
helped set the standard for 19th Century boys’ literature, primarily
through his prodigious output of 77 historical novels for boys plus 11
intended for a more adult audience.Henty also produced numerous short
stories and edited two short-lived boys’ magazines,
“The Union Jack” and “Beeton’s Boy’s Own Magazine.” Henty’s stories were influential on the generation that fought World War I—F. Scott Fitzgerald describes his protagonist in “This Side of Paradise” as having “all the Henty biases in history”—and continued to reach and inspire later readers, including historians A.J.P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman and novelist Mordecai Richler.
G. A. Henty pioneered at the same time, adventure and historical fiction. He combined the two into a remarkable series of action novels and short stories that accurately portrayed the background of the British Empire in its glory years while weaving in a young hero whose interaction with large world events entertained the reader while educating. He followed on the heels ofWalter Scott, and developed his special genre to a point where scores of others looked to him for a blueprint.
Henty did even more than developing a great literary contribution. He brought the Empire to its citizens all over the globe. Through reading his novels, friends of England learned of the breath of the Empire and the moral values of loyalty, courage, dedication, and honesty. Later critics complain of denigration towards the real and imagined enemies of British power, and certainly various books reflect the lack of tolerance for cultural diversity endemic in the course of world domination by victorious armies carrying the Union Jack.
The exhilaration produced by the tales still inspire new generations of readers both young and old, not to mention collectors and educators. During the 1880’s Henty books started to appear with regularity and create much anticipation among the large readership of older boys.
The man behind the books lived the life he wrote about. His life (1832-1902) closely paralleled the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). His works addressed many of her accomplishments, and certainly the spirit of her rule. During his school years at Westminster School and Cambridge University, he participated in a rigorous program of study and physical activity that included boxing, wrestling and rowing.
His experience with war started with his entry in the Crimean War, and then later as a war correspondent in Europe and Africa. He covered the Garibaldi revolution in Italy, the Franco-Prussian War, Austro-Italian War, Turkish-Serbian Wary, and the Spanish conflict with the Carlists. During the Italian skirmishes, troops from that country took Henty prisoner, thinking him an Austrian spy. The sentenced him to death, but his convincing argument to a commanding general won him release.
Henty’s travels also took him to India, where he accompanied the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), and to the California gold fields. With these experiences,Henty was well prepared to relate the adventures of war and history.
He did just that, first to his own children, where he would continue a story sometimes for days, adding facts of battles to interloping activities of young heroes. The man was a natural storyteller. And write he did.
He completed over 144 books, plus numerous short stories and articles. He wrote at a frenetic pace, keeping a group of secretaries extremely active. Henty himself jotted down his approach to organizing a tale:
“When I have once fixed, not on the story but on the epoch, I send up to a
London library and procure ten books on the subject. I glance through
these. Perhaps only two of them will suit my purpose, so I send the others
back and get another batch, until I have got everything I want. I get
these books about ten days before I start writing. Then I have on my
shelves at least a dozen atlases, some of them being amongst the earliest
printed. These are very useful to me for stories of the Middle Age, as I
get the roads and coastlines that then existed, and which many places have
changed materially during the last three
hundred years. I have, of course, a number of encyclopedias from which I glean a lot of information about the character of the country, its population, products, and so on. Thus equipped I am able to start off on the story without having to pause to look up information. I sit on my sofa and smoke with two or three books open before me, the sofa being shared by three or four of my five dogs.”
With his books, Henty stirred many a youth’s interest in history. As an amateur historian, he drew varied appraisals ranging from acceptability to criticism of his sources and hence his representations of actual events. As a writer of prose, however, the evidence speaks for itself. He won over 25 million readers and became perhaps the first blockbuster author. Some similarities abound in the novels. Most feature a male hero in his middle to late teens. There are varieties of family misfortune, timely acts to save a life, rescues of young girls, captures, escapes, rewards, legacies, battles, and liaisons with historic figures. Happy endings abound, and the hero often ends up the husband of a fair damsel.
In sea stories, the boys often start as midshipmen, and in land campaigns they might take on the duties of drummer boys. Medieval boys serve as pages, but in practically all cases the hero is of British descent.
A number of publishers worked with Henty, and his best connection might have been with Blackie & Son, where conscientious editing prepared quality copy for printing. Some of the criticism for his history came from Henty’s sparse credits to his sources and the limited number of those sources used for reference. The other complaints against Henty amount to charges of racism and imperialism. He might cheerfully admit to his praise and unabashed imperialist proclivity. Against imperialism lie the charges of domination and inconsideration towards conquered peoples. These accusations do contain merit. The other side of the argument, however, is that Imperialism, at least the British variety, educated, cared for, introduced law to, and uplifted countless peoples. These debates go on endlessly and find themselves thrust into every political foray imaginable, both local and international.
The charge of racism is more serious and merited, for slaves, Irish, Asians, and others can lodge objections to the Henty perspective. He reflected an era when slavery still persisted legally in the world, and where racist attitudes prevailed. Not that they have been eliminated by any means, but the reader or instructor can take the historic context into consideration.
In sum total G. A. Henty inspired six or seven generations to a study of history. He entertained millions and fathered a literary genre that features adventure and history combined into a historic novel. He wrote many more books than even the most prolific of authors and lived a life of adventure and danger that gave him license to speak of war and action. At least another six or seven generations will eagerly read Henty books.