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The Apostle of Heroism

by Eddy Butler

The popular heroes of to-day’s youth are a malodorous mixture of drug-taking ‘pop’ singers and overpaid footballers. Children collect stickers and cards adorned with their heroes’ images. They read magazines and comics which illuminate the tawdry lives of these ‘heroes’. Their every pronouncement is regarded as a pearl of wisdom, their every action reverentially copied. Older ‘children’ read a range of spurious, glossy, sex-mad ‘new lad’ or ‘laddette’ magazines. The heroes of this older generation are customised to appeal to a more ‘adult’ audience but are out of the same mould as those adored by their younger brothers and sisters.

A hundred years ago Britain’s youth also read comics and children’s magazines. They too collected cards and other items associated with their heroes. Indeed some of these heroes also played Association Football! But there is a fundamental difference between the former and present eras. In the past sportsmen were modest, polite and would never dream of doing anything but play strictly by the rules. There was no ‘pop’ music around then as we know it to-day, no limp wristed, drug-crazed ‘stars’. Instead of minstrels and court jesters, the popular heroes of those days were intrepid men of action who daily ‘made Britain great’. These men were familiar to every household and were often just as well known by their nicknames - Baden-Powell (‘B.P.’), Kitchener of Khartoum (‘K of K’), General Roberts (‘Bobs’) or ‘Chinese’ Gordon.

Undoubtedly the foremost name in children's fiction in Victorian Britain was George Alfred Henty. Henty, more than any other writer, popularised the manly British virtues which became a national stereotype and underpinned Britain's imperial might at a time of national greatness. Those ready to sneer should ponder whether modern writers and opinion formers have a record of which to be proud.

Henty was born in Cambridgeshire in 1832 and went to Westminster School followed by Cambridge University. His academic career was undistinguished. He was bullied at school due to his poor health and weak physique and left university before obtaining a degree. In mitigation, this latter factor was caused by Henty’s joining the Army Hospital Commissariat as a junior officer in 1855 in order to participate in the Crimean War.

While in the Crimea Henty’s journalistic career took off after his letters on the siege of Sevastopol were accepted for publication by the Morning Advertiser. Henty stayed in the army after being invalided home from the Crimea and in 1859 was seconded to organise Italian hospitals during a war with Austria. However, in 1865 Henty resigned his commission and joined the Standard as a full- time correspondent.

From being a weedy boy, Henty had by now matured into a bear of a man, with a barrel chest, broad shoulders and a full W G Grace-style beard. At college reunions his old student friends were amazed at the transformation which was undoubtedly helped by Henty’s journalistic specialisation. He became a leading war correspondent and was greatly attracted to the dangers and rigours involved in front line reporting. For the next ten years no small war was complete without Henty's journalistic presence.

In brief, the highlights of Henty's curriculum vitae would read as follows:-

1866 accompanied Garibaldi on his invasion of the Tyrol and witnessed the naval battle of Lissa in another Austro-Italian war;

1867-68 followed the British military expedition through Abyssinia;

1869 sent to report on the opening of the Suez Canal;

1870-71 reported on the Franco-Prussian War and nearly starved to death during the siege of Paris;

1873 witnessed the Russian conquest of Khiva on the Turkestan steppes;

1873-74 back to Africa to accompany Sir Garnet Wolseley during the Ashante War in what is now Ghana;

1874 reported on the Carlist insurrection in Spain;

1875 accompanied the Prince of Wales on his tour of India; and

1876 reported on one of the early inter-ethnic flare-ups in the Balkans.

While becoming probably the leading war correspondent of his time, Henty began to branch out into writing books. Initially these were usually drawn directly from his experiences and were aimed at an adult readership but he also began to write fictionalised accounts for children. During his lifetime Henty was to write around 200 titles, of which around 80 were juvenile sagas, the rest comprising orthodox novels and factual accounts of various campaigns, an amazing quantity of work. His first book for boys, Out in the Pampas, was written in 1868.

Henty found that his stories set in the Imperial age were the most popular. Soon he was publishing three ‘juveniles’ a year, timed to coincide with the Christmas market and priced at five or six shillings apiece. These volumes were invariably beautifully bound with coloured hard back covers, attractive illustrations and detailed maps. At the height of his fame upwards of 200,000 titles were sold a year in Britain and a further 50,000 in America. So popular did these books become that boarding school libraries had to limit the number of ‘Hentys’ that could be taken out each week! The books were avidly read by candle-light under bed covers and were the most popular prizes of all at presentations at school speech days. Any Victorian uncle stuck for an idea for a present to a nephew needed to look no further than the latest ‘Henty’!

The titles given to Henty’s juvenile stories tended to follow a set formula. For example, With Clive in India or With Wolfe in Canada. Indeed something of a race developed to be the first to bring a book out with such an apt title. Henty had many imitators and one, Captain Brereton, was quickest off the mark following the Second Afghan War, with his With Roberts to Kandahar. Henty gained revenge when he got in with With Roberts to Pretoria, which was incidentally his last book, published in 1902. Many of Henty’s books were virtually contemporaneous with the events covered, such as the Boer War juveniles With Roberts to Pretoria and With Buller in Natal, published in 1901.

Not all Henty’s books used the same formula for the title. There was also, for example, In Times of Peril, set in the Indian Mutiny, St George for England, set during the Hundred Years’ War or Held Fast for England (subtitled A Tale of the Siege of Gibraltar). Of course, the very titles of these works give an immediate flavour of the contents!

Besides writing books, Henty also found time to edit and be a regular contributor to a newsagent’s worth of children's magazines, such as The Union Jack, Boys’ Own, Chums and The Captain. As James Morris in his Pax Britannica trilogy noted of Henty, “probably nobody more profoundly influenced the late Victorian generation of young Britons”.

In contrast to the fashionable writers of today, in Henty’s children’s tales, England could do no wrong. However, they were also extremely accurate in their historical detail. Henty’s worship of England’s and Britain’s rich history did not, however, stop him from writing In Freedom’s Cause: a Story of Wallace and Bruce. Victorian Britain had no problem in linking the symbols and strengths of Scotland’s past within the whole greatness of our island story.

Although Lawrence James in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire was correct in describing Henty as “a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist”, it is an exaggeration to say that Henty's books had a blinkered British imperial bias. Three-quarters of his juvenile fiction books were devoted to such varied subjects as the Luddites, Romans, Carthaginians, Ancient Egyptians, Crusaders, Ancient Britons and Russian nihilists!

The most important thing to Henty was to excite the reader. As he himself said, “a book for boys should possess plenty of good stirring adventures, without any preaching... You don’t want any bosh about love or sentiment in boys’ books”. Furthermore, “An English boy of today says ‘Give me ‘Bobs’ or ‘Kitchener’ or good old ‘Buller’ ’. Books dealing with these heroes, modern and right-up-to-date are always sure of selling”.

In contrast to his own unhappy childhood, Henty's fictional child heroes were athletic and popular. Rather than wallow in self-pity at his own unfortunate experiences, Henty tried to encourage self-reliance in the young. This passage from Through the Sikh War sums it up:

“Can you thrash most of your fellows your own age? Can you take a caning without whimpering over it? Do you feel, in fact, that you are able to go through fully as much as any of your companions? Are you good at planning a piece of mischief, and ready to take the lead in carrying it out?” And one might add, manfully own up if caught out!

One of the myths of the British imperial ethos is that the ‘muscular Christianity’, of which Henty is taken to be one of the most influential apostles, encouraged brawn over brain. To the modern liberal, the British Empire was run by a collection of unthinking, insensitive, authority bound but still incompetently amateurish dullards. This of course is in sharp contrast to the light of touch and profound ‘new man’ of reason. This was simply not the case with Henty. The ‘new man’ is damaged goods; the weakling; the bullied schoolboy now grown up but determined to recreate a soft world in his own image (and in so doing only succeeding in enfeebling his own country while the rest of the world marches on, trampling him figuratively under foot). By sharp comparison Henty is the bullied schoolboy who overcame his feeble youth and sought to ensure that future generations of boys would avoid his own childhood unhappiness by the pursuit of ‘manliness’. For Henty the solution did not lie in priggish moralising nor in pious sentiments. His heroes certainly were not bullies and indeed invariably trounced bullies and defended the weak.

The liberal hand-wringer is rather like a bed-wetter (if you will forgive this allegory) who, to make himself feel better, tries to convince the rest of society that bed-wetting is normal, perhaps even admirable and to be encouraged. For them, the solution to their problem is to turn us into a nation of bed-wetters, so that they need no longer feel embarrassed by their affliction. Henty, an ex-bed-wetter in his youth, if you will, understood the problem as a sufferer, but wanted a society where bed-wetting was a thing of the past, a trait to be eliminated. This was to be achieved by developing a virtue which is not limited to those of any particular intelligence nor requiring any great physical strength. This most Hentyesque of virtues is best summed up by what is now a near-forgotten word - 'pluck'.

What perhaps marks out one of Henty’s heroes from other writers of a similar ilk is their unorthodoxy. Their willingness to engage in plucky diversions and well-planned and unexpected attacks upon enemy positions. Taking the enemy unawares rather than by suicidal frontal assault. These grown-up ‘adventures’ invariably followed on in Henty’s fiction from schoolday pranks and adolescent high spirits but, importantly, never from malicious misbehaviour. If, according to the Duke of Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, for Henty victory came through learning how to scrump apples!

Henty himself was not averse to engaging in such pranks and one such nearly led to his early death. During the Ashante campaign, in a lull in the fighting, the explorer H M Stanley, who was there as a correspondent for The New York Herald, suggested that they should go on a jaunt into enemy territory in Stanley's steam launch. Henty later said, “No doubt it does seem a stupid sort of thing to do. If it had been an Englishman I would draw back; but if Stanley can do it, I can: and I am not going to let any Yankee say he was ready to do a thing, but an Englishman funked going with him.” Stanley’s boat capsized during the trip and they both nearly drowned. When back at camp Henty and Stanley fortified themselves with Henty’s supply of several cases of spirits, claret and champagne, “which proved invaluable to brace us up to do our work”.

Henty, incidentally, wrote two books drawing on his experiences during the Ashante campaign. One of them, The March to Coomassie was a reissue of his journalistic letters and was aimed at the adult market. The other, By Sheer Pluck was a typically rip-roaring children's adventure with an authentically Hentyesque title. Within By Sheer Pluck there is a brief story told by an aged sailor to the young hero. Strange as it may seem, this seafaring yarn is an almost exact mirror of the story in The Sea Wolf, written by Jack London and published two years after Henty’s death. We know that Henty’s novels were popular in America. Is it too much to speculate that a mischievous Jack London got hold of By Sheer Pluck and played a trick on his greedy publishers by regurgitating and expanding upon Henty’s story to create his own masterpiece on the flawed superman?

When reading Henty’s juvenile fiction a marked tendency soon becomes apparent. It is a recurring theme that the young hero starts out life as an abandoned orphan brought up by an honest family of solid yeoman stock. The youngster will overcome a local thickset bully who, rather like Little John with Robin Hood, becomes his devoted companion. The two of them will go through a whole series of adventures into early adulthood, usually standing at the right hand of the major historical figure of the period, be it Nelson, Sir Francis Drake or the Black Prince. Then the hero will be discovered as the long lost son of a disinherited member of the nobility and as a reward for his loyal and brave services will be restored to rank and honour. The thickset companion will be elevated somewhat, by being knighted or given a commission in the army. The moral is that blood will out. You can't keep a good man down. If someone achieves something it will, if you look deep enough, be due to his breeding. A most unfashionable doctrine in the late twentieth century, but not in the late nineteenth!

If Henty recognised differences in rank within the British people, then the more so did he see the British as better than all others. It has been said of Henty that in all his books the white man is superior to the native and the Englishman superior to all other whites. This gave the British Empire its moral authority, especially considering, as Henty put it, “the utter incapacity of the Negro race to evolve, or even maintain, civilisation without the example and the curb of a white population”.

The question whether Henty was a ‘racist’ for making statements such as these entirely misses the mark. Views relating to race, such as those expressed by Henty, were the norm in his day. Given his background and experiences it is inconceivable that Henty would believe in anything but Anglo-Saxon supremacy. The following passage from By Sheer Pluck is typical:-

“They are just like children. They are always either laughing or quarrelling. They are good- natured and passionate, indolent, but will work hard for a time; clever up to a certain point, densely stupid beyond. The intelligence of an average negro is about equal to that of a European child of ten years old. A few, a very few, go beyond this, but these are exceptions, just as Shakespeare was an exception to the ordinary intellect of an Englishman. They are fluent talkers, but their ideas are borrowed. They are absolutely without originality, absolutely without inventive power. Living among white men, their imitative facilities enable them to attain a considerable amount of civilisation. Left alone to their own devices they retrograde into a state little above their native savagery.” Looking across Africa, a generation after the end of colonialism, it is difficult to quarrel with the last sentence at least.

Further passages in the same book drip with sympathy for black characters. Henty used this novel to express opposition to the horrors of the slave trade and depicted the barbarity that can result from the institution of slavery. He also described the destruction done to African native society by slavery which encouraged vicious inter-tribal warfare in which conquered people became plunder to be sold by the inland tribes to the coastal stations of the European powers. Henty’s ‘racism’, if indeed that is the correct word to describe it, has to be put alongside his humanitarianism, compassion and the warmth that he felt towards those whom he admittedly regarded as inferior. Henty’s ‘racism’ could never have led to genocidal death camps. At worst, its end result would be a condescending pat on the head.

Besides being best known as a children’s writer Henty remained a respected figure in the field of journalism throughout his life. As a mark of this respect he was chairman of the Savage Club, a meeting place in London for bohemian war correspondents, artists and cartoonists. One Savage Club dinner was held to welcome back a group of journalists who had covered the Gordon Relief Expedition which had fought its way up the Nile Valley in 1885 in the face of the Mahdi’s Dervish hordes. Seven out of a contingent of twenty journalists had failed to return. Henty hailed the surviving correspondents as men who “have come back to us out of the jaws of death...Why, gentlemen, from the days of the Crimea, when William Russell, Nat Woods, and in a humble way, myself, began the work of correspondents with the British Army, all the wars, all the campaigns together, have not caused such mortality as this.”

Like Kipling, Henty became strongly emotionally attached to the imperial story, to the British Army and to the British soldier. As a war correspondent he had shared the fate of the common soldier. In the colonial wars of the late Victorian era Britain’s various native foes did not take prisoners and would not differentiate between a soldier or a correspondent. Journalists went armed and regularly joined in the fighting. Henty did not desert Tommy Atkins when he was safely at home in London. For example, when he heard news of the British defeat at Majuba Hill in 1881, during the First Boer War, Henty reportedly burst into tears at the disgrace; and said of the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, when the Dervish army was decisively defeated, “only now was the stain upon British honour caused by the desertion of Gordon finally wiped out.”

The liberal consensus which has ruled the post-war world has had little use for Henty. Some of his books were reprinted in the 1950s as the ‘Foulsham Henty Library’. There was, however, a warning on the inside cover of these volumes that, “this book has been carefully edited and slightly abridged to meet the reading tastes of the Modern Boy”. Political correctness is not a new disease!

If you want to read one of Henty’s stirring tales today, you will have to search through second- hand bookshops for examples of the beautifully bound original volumes. I suspect that most are merely bought up for their attractive coloured covers and line rooms like wallpaper, never opened, never read. The new owner blissfully unaware of the heresies within.

Henty gave hours of imaginative pleasure through his books to schoolboys of all classes and backgrounds, for several generations of children, at least until the outbreak of the last war. So tight was his grip on that market that his overwhelming popularity continued for some fifty years after his death. During that time countless thousands of young men were inspired to go and serve the Empire around the globe.

Despite the wealth generated by his books Henty lived modestly in a terraced villa in Battersea and his only luxury was a yacht, the Egret, on which he died in Weymouth harbour in 1902. He is buried in Brompton cemetery in west London.

It is difficult to put a date to the demise of the heroic spirit which once lay so close to the surface within the British people and about which Henty wrote so passionately. The horrific carnage of the First World War undoubtedly played a major part. Yet were there any Battle of Britain fighter pilots who had not read their share of ‘Hentys’? The spirit of Henty lives on most closely in the unconventional world of Britain’s elite Special Forces. The careers of the founders of the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service read like stereotypical Henty yarns. The flood of memoirs and books about British Special Forces and their missions which are lapped up by the public can perhaps be seen as a fitting memorial to Henty. It also goes to prove that within the British people there remains a residual craving for the return of the hero.

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