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Henty and Social History

In his classic study of the Victorian mentality, The Victorian Frame of Mind, Walter E. Houghton declares: “If we hope to discover the inwards thoughts of a generation, it is to literature that we must look.”  This is why, for historians, the works of G.A. Henty, the acknowledged king of boys’ writers in the late-Victorian period, are so fascinating and informative. He distilled for his young readers the approved doctrines and dogmas of his age – a fact noted and applauded in the contemporary press. But he also highlighted some of the contradictions and conflicts of attitude in British society, and that makes him doubly interesting to historians.

It is all too easy to adopt a simplistic attitude to Henty – something often done by people who have never read him and who dismiss him as an unthinking jingo, a racist, a Fascist, a xenophobe.  A superficial rummage through Henty’s books can produce some evidence for such a view. For instance, in the preface to St. George for England, Henty makes the ringing statement, “‘The courage of our forefathers has created the greatest Empire in the world around a small and in itself insignificant island; if this Empire is ever lost, it will be by the cowardice of their descendants” – an assertion which makes it clear that Henty was a believer in the British Empire.

But he was not an uncritical believer. He was perfectly prepared to criticize when he felt criticism was merited. He criticized the conduct of the Crimean War and the First Burmese War, and in To Herat and Cabul wrote of the First Afghan War:

“Of all the wars in which our troops have taken part, never was one entered upon so recklessly and so unjustifiably.  The ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed, was sincerely anxious for our friendship.  He was alarmed at the menacing attitude of Russia, which, in conjunction with Persia, was threatening his dominions and intriguing with the princes of Candahar.  Our commissioner at Cabul, Mr. Burnes, was convinced on the Ameer’s honesty of intention, and protested most strongly against the course taken by the Indian government, who determined upon setting up a discredited prince in the place of Dost Mohammed. In spite of his remonstrances, the war was undertaken”.

Henty unsparingly describes the incompetent generalship, the inadequate arrangements and finally the retreat of the demoralized and starving British army from Cabus back to India.  ‘”They went as sheep to the slaughter in the trap the Afghans had prepared for them. It would almost seem that their fate was a punishment for the injustice of the war. Misfortunes have befallen our arms but never one so dark and disgraceful as this.”

This is hardly the attitude of a man who believes “my country right or wrong”.  What Henty believed in, like so many of his contemporaries, was the essential rightness of the concept of the British Empire. But he also believed that it was vital that it should live up to certain standards of conduct, foresight and efficiency, and when it fell below these standards, Henty was ready to criticize it.  Today, when the concept of Empire is discredited, it is hard to explain and to convey the feeling which Empire inspired in its more visionary devotees.  It was akin to a religion, as is clear from Lord Curzon’s statement that in Empire we had found “not merely the key to glory and wealth but the call to duty and the means of service to mankind.”

This necessarily required commitment to the acquisition and fair administration of territory rather than merely its economic exploitation.  The late-Victorian period saw a movement from the informal Imperialism of the late-Victorian period to a more formal Imperialism – a movement directly reflected in boys’ fiction as the exploration-trade-missionary activity themes of the mid-Victorian writers like Ballantyne and Kingston are replaced by the military adventuring, conquest and colonization of Henty and his contemporaries, notably Dr. Gordon Stables.  Henty’s books reflect and generate an expansive attitude to Empire, his books affirming the riqhtness of the Empire by depicting it as a vehicle for self-fulfillment through adventure.

Whether a boy serves with Clive in India, with Wolfe in Canada or with Kitchener in the Soudan, it all takes place in the Technicolor realm of adventure, a realm that is ageless, changeless and timeless. It is a world of secret missions and narrow escapes, breathless encounters and desperate journeys, fierce fights and dramatic rescues. The boy reader is carried along on a whirlwind of action. He is not preached at or talked down to. But he inevitably absorbs along with rich dollops of action, the underlying ethic, that this adventure is the testing ground for character where the young British boy fulfills his destiny to become what the philosopher Santayana called “the schoolboy master of the world”.

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