Most of us have read or heard about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allen Poe, but what about G. A. Henty? If you haven’t, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. You really need to know more about Henty, one of the most prolific 19th-century authors.
A contemporary of Dickens, Henty is arguably a neglected author whose work deserves to be rediscovered. According to reliable authorities, Henty wrote 122 stories, all featuring a young person who participates in important historical events and many of the times succeeds in rescuing such important figures in history as King Richard the Lionhearted, Robert E. Lee, and Robert Bruce.
Henty’s books cover all places and periods in history; the list is long and impressive: Burma, Italy, London, America, both North and South, Moscow, Spain, Peru, Afghanistan, India, South Africa, France, Egypt, Siberia, Australia, Jerusalem, Scotland, Malaysia, Sweden, and New Zealand. His novels, all factually accurate, cover many periods: ancient history, the Middle ages, the Reformation, and his own nineteenth century England.
Henty’s young heroes fight wars, conquer evil empires, prospect for gold, rescue frightened maidens, and often help restore kingdoms. His heroes go on Crusades, travel through Russia with Napoleon’s retreat, wrestle with tigers, participate in the fall of Jerusalem, do daring deeds during the French Revolution, fight with General Lee, help free the Netherlands, resist Indians and discover gold in Colorado, and even march with Cortez in Mexico and Hannibal in Carthage.
Most of the time they reflect Henty’s own values. They often have names like Archie, Will, Leigh, Philip, and Tom. They are British to the core, believe in honesty and valor, and know that faith, virtue, and English common sense will always triumph.
In addition, while Henty always was intent on writing his tales for “amusement” and entertainment, he insisted on historical accuracy in all his stories. He never forgot, however, that he was writing fiction to entertain and amuse.
In his Preface to ‘With Lee in Virginia’ he ends with these words:
“I have burdened my story with as few details as possible, it being my object now, as always, to amuse as well as to give instruction to the facts of history.”
Henty was born on December 8, 1832 at Trumpington, near Cambridge, but he spent his early years near Canterbury, where his father, an owner of a coalmine, built a home for his large family. In 1847 he attended the Westminster School, where, now fully recovered from his sickly childhood, he became a skillful rower and boxer. He then proceeded to Caius College, Cambridge, where he read for a degree in Classics. Not really a scholar, Henty left Cambridge after spending just one year there, but it was at Cambridge where he demonstrated his skill in such sports as cricket, boxing, and rowing. Later in life he became an avid yachtsman.
Henty then went to London, had a number of odd jobs, including a time in his father’s coalmine, and then his life took a turn for the better when at the beginning of the Crimean War he volunteered for and served as a lieutenant in the Army Hospital Commissariat. He subsequently was awarded the Turkish Order of Merit for “reckless performance in battle.” He was promoted to Captain, but was wounded and sent home.
Shortly before resigning from the army Henty in 1857 married Elizabeth Finucane, with whom he had four children. After her death of tuberculosis in 1865, Henty married Elizabeth Keylock, his former housekeeper, in 1889. He died in 1902 aboard his yacht. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.
Even though Henty’s life was one filled with personal difficulties and exciting adventures, it is his writing that remains of chief interest to us. While serving the Crimea, Henty had written letters to his father describing the conditions there. His father was so moved by the letters that he sent them to The Morning Advertiser, which published them.
Henty next became a war correspondent for The Standard. He reported on the Austro-Italian War, during which time he met Garibaldi. He then went on to cover many events, including the 1868 British expedition to Abyssinia, the Franco-Prussian War, the Dreyfus Trial, and the Ashanti War.
His on the spot reporting for that paper, as might be expected, led to his meeting many famous figures and took him to many places, many of whom and many of which found a place in his stories. His need to describe events vividly and his desire to make the events meaningful also polished his already impressive narrative proficiency. Many critics and readers have commented on and admired Henty’s attention to detail and the authenticity he brought to his historical adventures which covered many periods of time and encompassed various historical eras.
After years of reporting, Henty, physically and spiritually exhausted, resigned and devoted the rest of his life to writing his adventure stories for young people.
Henty always insisted that his ability to tell a good story was due to the time and effort he put into his making up and telling stories to his own children as they were growing up. The first of his “boy’s novels” (as they are sometimes called) was ‘Out on the Pampas’ which was written in 1868 (published in 1871), and its main characters were named after his own children, Charlie, Hubert, Maud, and Ethel. Henty often told friends how thrilled and delighted they were because of this.
He died before he finished the last novel he was working on, ‘By Conduct and Courage’ (1902), and his son, Captain C. G. Henty, finished it. Between these two, as we know, were 120 boy novels, many of which, we are told, he dictated to one of his secretaries while pacing back and forth and “furiously smoking” his pipe.
Perhaps the best commentary on this large body of work and on what the author thought he was attempting to do in these novels is summed up by one of his biographers. “Henty,” C.D. Merriman comments, “had already lived a full life of hard work, integrity, and virtue based on Christian values and his characters and their experiences embodied the true spirit of that which he believed in so fully. He was a man known to be quick to temper, but just as quick to forgive.”
Henty’s own description of his lads, his fictional heroic characters, echoes these remarks. “Heroism,” he said, “is largely based on two qualities–truthfulness and unselfishness, a readiness to put one’s own pleasures aside for that of others, to be courteous to all, kind to those younger than yourself, helpful to your parents, even if helpfulness demands some slight sacrifice of your own pleasure.”
A brief look at two of his novels will show why Henty had such a wide reading public at the height of his fame. ‘In the Heart of the Rockies (An Adventure on the Colorado River)’ is typical of all of Henty’s books in that it tells the story of a teenage boy who feels the need to both help his family and better himself. He is heroic in the sense that, in Henty’s words, “he unselfishly puts aside his own pleasures to aid others.”
The year is 1860 and the hero, recently orphaned sixteen-year-old Tom Wade, is anxious to help his sisters survive, financially and spiritually. Unable to find work in England, he sets out to join his uncle in the American West. His goal is to find gold, become rich, and return to England and rejoin the family. As one might expect in a Henty novel, Tom encounters all kinds of dangers, including Native American warriors, harsh mountain winters, and wild animals. In the end he finds his uncle, they discover and profit from a gold mine, and he returns to England a wealthy man.
One of the highlights of the novel is their ride to freedom from their enemies down the Colorado River. Discussing their desperate plight, Uncle Harry tells them: “I see but one way out of it, boys. It is a mighty risky thing, but it can’t be more risky than stopping here, and there is just a chance. My proposal is this, that we take to the river and try and get through the canyons.”
Tom and the others are taken aback. “The proposal took them by surprise. No man had ever accomplished the journey. Though two parties similarly attacked by Indians had attempted to raft down some of the canyons higher up; one party had perished to a man, one survivor of the other party escaped to tell the tale.” Happily, Tom and the others make it. Henty’s boy hero survives to tell the tale once again.
The ending of the novel is typical Henty: “Tom’s sisters all in due time married, each being presented on her wedding-day with a check for ten thousand pounds, as a joint present from her uncle and brother. Tom himself did not remain a bachelor, but six years after his return to England took a wife to himself, and the house at Blackheath was not too large for his family.” One can see why Henty’s novels remind one of those of another famous Victorian author, Charles Dickens.
‘With Lee in Virginia (A Story of the American Civil War)’ displays the same characteristics that made Henty’s novels so appealing to many readers, both young and adult. One reader, reminiscing about his childhood reading of Henty’s novels, wrote: “Whenever I ran across one of his books in our local library I quickly checked it out, rushed home, and read it–usually without putting it down.” ‘With Lee in Virginia’ serves as proof of this assertion.
The 16-year-old hero of ‘With Lee in Virginia,’ Vincent Wingfield, is the son of an English officer, now dead, whose widow is now a large plantation owner with 200 slaves. Vincent himself finds slavery repugnant. Indeed, one of Henty’s chief concerns in this novel, which has as its background real historical events of the period, including the election of Lincoln in 1860, the Battle of Bull Run, and Sherman’s march through Georgia, is to reveal the dark side of slavery: the selling of slaves, the breaking up of families, and the cruel treatment of human beings.
When civil war breaks out, Vincent goes to fight for the South. Again, a typical Hentyian hero, Vincent serves valiantly under Lee, acts as a spy to gain valuable information for the famous General, and at the end of the war is made a Major to acknowledge his valuable service to the cause. His mother frees all the slaves, many of who remain to work on the plantation.
Faithful readers of Henty would be able to anticipate the ending: “Vincent, two years after the conclusion of the struggle, took his wife over to visit his relations in England, and, since the death of his mother in 1879, has very year spent three of four months at home, and will not improbably ere long sell his estates in Virginia and settle in England altogether.”
G. A. Henty today remains largely an unread and unknown 19th-century novelist. It is true that Henty’s admirers will probably never find themselves in the situations Henty’s heroes do; but they are able to experience them vicariously and in that process learn much about themselves and the world in which they live. That, in the final analysis, is what all writers want their readers to do, and it is for his success in accomplishing this that Henty’s novels deserve to be more widely read and his young lads deserve wider recognition.
Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (English) of the City University of New York. He taught for for many years, specializing in 19th-century British and American literature. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and has participated in many national and international conferences. He edits Dickens Studies Annual, lectures and does freelance work.