George Alfred Henty (1832-1902), better known as G.A. Henty, is most widely known for his contributions to 19th century literature as a historical and adventure novelist. However, there’s so much more to G.A. Henty’s life than meets the eye. The man accomplished more in his seventy years than most of us could even dream about.
G.A. Henty was also a sailor, a soldier, an English war correspondent, world traveler, and his larger-than-life personality was reflected in his writings. The world was his office. As a sailor, soldier, and a writer, he traveled the globe – spending time in Russia, India, Italy, France, and Egypt just to name a few. He fought in the Crimean War, and was even accused of being a spy by the Austrians.
Henty’s stories were influential on the young boys that eventually grew up to become the generation that fought in World War I. Henty’s remarkable stories were something different and were a breath of fresh air in the literature world. His writings were new and exciting and offered the literature world something it was lacking.
Henty’s works would eventually go on to pioneer a new genre of adventure and historical fiction that is still popular with children and adults of all ages. To this day, modern historical and adventure writers look to Henty’s works as a blueprint for success.
Henty did more than just write engaging and entertaining stories. In his works, he brought England to the world. His stories bubbled over with moral values of loyalty, courage, honesty, and perseverance. Boys were particularly drawn to Henty’s books and still are to this day, for it is said that Henty helped teach boys how to be men.
Beyond the page, Henty was an authentic man. He lived much of the same life he wrote about with a similar level of passion and gusto. Though a sickly young child, G.A. Henty grew up to be quite strong and was to be a force to be reckoned with. He studied hard in school, took on the most rigorous programs of study, and excelled in nearly every activity or hobby he tried – from boxing to boating.
Henty began his British national service as a soldier in the Crimean War, and later became an English war correspondent in Europe and Africa. He watched many battles take place around the globe. He first covered the Garibaldi Revolution in Italy, and it was there he was accused of being an Austrian spy. He was taken prisoner and was sentenced to death. However, being the passionate orator he was often known to be, he eventually argued his case and won his release.
Despite his brush with near death, Henty continued his travels to cover the Franco-Prussian War, the Austro-Italian War, and the Carlist Wars. He traveled to India with the Prince of Wales, witnessed the opening of the Suez Canal, and even traveled to America to see the gold fields of California.
His life was a natural adventure. He observed, documented, and wrote everything imaginable, from the significant to the seemingly insignificant detail. He told the stories of his travels to his children, and wrote prolific letters to a few fortunate friends. Simply put, Henty was a natural storyteller.
He wrote more than 120 books, as well as many short stories and articles in his lifetime. He wrote at a furious pace, and once said that it was a “good day” if he was able to pen at least 6,500 words before the sun went down. When Henty wasn’t writing, you could find him buried in a pile of books for his own personal study, or on his yacht, the Egret, or perhaps relaxing at home with his dogs. (He was quite the animal lover.)
Some modern scholars have criticized Henty for being an amateur historian, and have questioned his representations of actual events. Perhaps he did embellish the truth a bit, but that’s the right of any good writer. However, his prestige as a writer speaks for itself. Henty has captured millions of readers through the years, and his stories are as timeless and popular today as they were in his own generation.
Henty’s novels follow a similar theme, though each distinct in it’s own special way. His tales tend to feature male heroes who risk their lives to save other’s lives, men who are willing to rescue the damsel in distress, and so on. They are filled with themes of bravery, loyalty, family, and happy endings. In many of his novels, you will find a sailor, a soldier, or oftentimes, both. Again, Henty wrote about the life he lived.
Henty himself was a man of strong common sense, and so were his characters. George Manville Fenn, in his biography of G.A. Henty, wrote:
“There was nothing namby-pamby in Henty’s writings, for his adolescent characters were not so much boys as men, saving in this, that he kept them to boy life. There was a reality and power about Henty’s work which caused many of his characters to be remembered long after the book had been laid aside.”
And that was Henty’s gift in a nutshell. He left, and still leaves his readers with stories that they’ll remember for life. He entertained millions and his books will be enjoyed for centuries to come.
George Alfred Henty died doing what he loved most next to writing…yachting. According to Henty’s son, in the autumn of 1902 he complained of feeling very unwell. He decided to put his boat back into commission one last time, and took a short cruise. Shortly thereafter, he anchored the boat in Weymouth Harbor, and a few days later, passed away quietly on his boat.
To learn more about G.A. Henty and his fascinating life, read George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life a free ebook biography by George Manville Fenn at Project Gutenberg.