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The Moral Purpose of G.A. Henty’s Writings

One of Henty’s frankly acknowledged aims was to teach British boys how to behave.  As the Daily Telegraph observed of The Bravest of the Brave (1887): “Mr. Henty never loses sight of the moral purpose of his work – to enforce the doctrine of courage and truth, mercy and loving kindness, as indispensable to the making of an English gentleman”. His heroes, all of them archetypal Victorian public schoolboys, even if they are supposed to be Ancient Romans or Egyptians, conformed to what the Christian Leader magazine called “the bright and bracing ideal of the English gentleman”.

Good conduct and irreproachable behavior was more than just desirable. It was essential. It was the justification for Britain’s Empire. As the Times observed in the mid-nineteenth century:

“That which raises a country, that which strengthens a country, and that which dignifies a country- that which spreads her power, creates her moral influence, and makes her respected and submitted to, bends the heart of millions, and bows down the pride of nations to her – the instrument of obedience, the fountain of’ supremacy, the true throne, crown and sceptre of a nation; this aristocracy is not an aristocracy of blood, not an aristocracy of fashion, not an aristocracy of talent only; it is an aristocracy of character.”

This aristocracy of character was sought by the keen promotion of chivalry.  The nineteenth century shows a dramatic and sustained revival in the concept of chivalry. It became all-pervasive, embraced by political movements like “Young England” and Christian Socialism, propagated by youth organizations like the Boys’ Brigade, taught in schools both public and state, and dramatized in literature both fictional and factual.

Interest in matters medieval and chivalric revived as part: of the whole Romantic reaction to the measured, passionless classicism of the eighteenth century. In the practical field, there was the elaboration of a code of behavior for life – the reformulation of the image of the gentleman as an idealized medieval knight, the embodiment of the virtues of bravery, loyalty, courtesy, generosity, modesty, purity and compassion, and endowed with an indelible sense of noblesse oblige towards women, children and social inferiors.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the language and imagery of chivalry had been so far absorbed into the fabric of Victorian life and thought that it was automatic to see the gentleman exclusively in terms of a latter day version of the paladin of medieval chivalry. It was deliberately promoted by key figures of the age in order to produce a ruling elite both for the nation and the expanding Empire which would be inspired by noble and selfless ideals.

The prominence of war in these and other Henty novels is no coincidence.  His dominant theme is war and in particular “the romance of war” – a concept popular in the nineteenth century but in this century increasingly questioned in the wake of two world wars. But it was not war for the sake of war that inspired Henty. As he wrote in the preface to St. George for England: —

“It is sometimes said that there is no good to be obtained from tales of fighting and bloodshed – that there is no moral to be drawn from such histories. Believe it not.  War has its lessons as well as peace. You will learn from tales like this that determination and enthusiasm can accomplish marvels, that true courage is generally accompanied by magnanimity and gentleness, and that if not in itself the very highest of virtues, it is the parent of almost all the others, since but few of them can be practised without it.” ·

This approach to war, the depiction of it as romantic and it as romantic and chivalric adventure, brought forth the highest qualities in its participants, was one which Henty shared with many of his contemporaries.

Counting the life of battle good and respecting one’s enemy is a recurrent theme in Henty, as can be seen from With Lee in Virginia, whose hero Vincent Wingfield is half-English and wholly a gentleman. Henty writes:

‘”The hard work, the rough life, the exposure and hardship, had braced and invigorated them all, and they were attaining a far more vigorous manhood than they would ever have possessed had they grown up in the somewhat sluggish and enervating life led by young planters.

Many of these young men had, until the campaign begun, never done half an hour’s work in their lives. They had been waited upon by slaves, and their only exercise had been riding. For months now they had almost lived in the saddle, had slept in the open air, and had thought themselves lucky if they could obtain a sufficient meal of the roughest food to satisfy their hunger once a day.

‘It’s a glorious life, Wingfield!  When we chatted over the future at school we never dreamt of such a life as this, though some of us did talk of entering the army; but even then an occasional skirmish with Indians was the limit of our ideas.

”Yes, it is a glorious life! ‘Vincent agreed. ‘I cannot imagine anything more exciting. Of course, there is the risk of being shot, but somehow one never seems to think of that. There is always something to do and to think about; from the time one starts on a scout at daybreak to that when one lies down at night one’s senses are on the stretch. Besides, we are fighting in defense of our country and not merely as a profession, though I don’t suppose, after all, that makes much difference when one is once in for it. As far as I have read, soldiers enjoy campaigning, and it does not seem to make any difference to them who are the foe or what they are fighting about. ‘ ”

Henty wrote to inspire his young readers to greatness themselves by providing characters who always demonstrated desirable characteristics such as courage and truth.  We live in a day where chivalry seems almost non-existent.  In fact, in many cases, the very idea of it seems to be mocked.

Henty’s one hundred plus books gives young readers examples of how to handle trials and tribulations, or in other words, how to behave when life gets tough.  At the time of his writings, there was still a standard by which men and women, boys and girls, were expected to behave.

Today, standards on how to live have become blurred.  Biblical principles and exemplifying Christ-like behavior are seen as outdated and irrelevant.  Henty books go against what our current culture teaches our children.  Thus…. All the more reason to get as many of his books into your children’s hands as possible!

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