G. A. Henty and Australia—Part II

A selection of G. A. Henty titles from the National Library of Australia’s collection.

It’s the opening decade of the 20th century. Right across the British Empire, boys are filling their heads with imaginings of adventure and fighting and war. They are supping at English author G. A. Henty’s fictional table and they are replete.

(You can read more about Henty and his copious output here.)

Reading Henty ‘Down Under’

Among this squadron of imperial boy readers is a troop from the Australian colonies.

Let’s picture one of these colonial lads; we’ll call him Tom. It’s December 1908 and Tom is 11 years old. He receives, as his end-of-year school book prize, a copy of Henty’s By Conduct and Courage: A Story of the Days of Nelson.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 1908: 18.

Perhaps Tom, or his brothers, had received other Henty titles over the years and this new book will be added to the family collection. (Imagine there are copies of Under Wellington’s Command: A Tale of the Peninsular War and With Kitchener in the Soudan already on the shelves at home.) Suppose, too, that Tom’s father, who had read serialisations of Henty tales in the newspaper when he was a boy, has borrowed a Henty title from the local Mechanics’ Institute. The lad’s father recalls devouring The Young Colonists: A Tale of the Zulu and First Boer Wars when he was Tom’s age. Now he plans to share it with his son.

 Be Ready to ‘Play a Young Man’s Part’

Frontispiece. By Conduct and Courage: A Story of the Days of Nelson.

Tom reads Henty fictions as if they are historical fact; he is convinced by the author’s declarations of careful research. He imbibes the Henty philosophy—boys should grow up to be ‘bold, straightforward, and ready to play a young man’s part, not to be milksops’. He also absorbs Henty’s ‘horror of a lad who displayed any weak emotion and shrank from shedding blood, or winced at any encounter’ (Fenn, p. 334).

What effect do these narratives have on Tom’s emerging sense of self? Maybe he pictures himself, in a bygone time, standing beside Nelson on the Victory, or with Wellington in Spain or Kitchener at the Battle of Omdurman. Tom’s understanding of the world, and his potential role in it, is being forged by Henty.

Now jump forward seven years to 1915.

Tom has just turned 18 and war is talking hold on the Balkan Peninsula. Advertisements appear in newspapers across Australia imploring men to ‘enlist now!’ Do Tom’s memories of Henty’s historical tales blend readily with these fresh calls to fight for the ‘Great British Empire’?

The Brisbane Telegraph. 22 September 1915: 4.

Henty himself certainly believed his stories had a tangible effect on his youthful readers. The author’s entry in the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature states: ‘Some of the jingoism and enthusiasm to serve in the army that marked the beginning of the First World War is sometimes laid at [Henty’s] door, and indeed he wrote with pleasure in the Boy’s Own Paper (1902) that “officers of the Army and Volunteers have assured me that my books have been effectual in bringing young fellows into the Army”’ (p. 243).

And So to War

Writing from a southern hemisphere perspective in 2006, Angela Woollacott, in her book Gender and Empire, argues that Henty’s stories ‘imparted to the rising generation of soldiers, colonial administrators, and citizens of both colonies and metropole a visceral sense of the excitement and importance of the empire … Generations of British and white-settler boys’, says Woollacott, learnt ‘that the empire proffered an amazing array of exciting places where they could test their mettle and prove their worthiness to family, God and country’ (p. 60).

And so, in 1915, Tom and the ‘rising generation’ enlisted in the AIF—a fighting force that meshed both ‘Australian’ and ‘Imperial’ identities.

Field Artillery Brigade, Chateaux Wood, 29 October 1917. Frank Hurley, photographer.

In 1919, some of them came home. Were they still thinking of Henty’s valorisation of the British at war? And, if they were, might they have agreed with Henty’s biographer, George Manville Fenn, that Henty’s images of fighting were ‘here and there a little too bright in hue’ (p. 321).

 A Postscript

As I was writing this Henty instalment, I happened to read the transcript of an address delivered at a higher education conference in March 2017 by Jeffrey Bleich, US Ambassador to Australia, 2009-2013. In the course of his talk, Bleich reminded his audience of the changes wrought by the second Industrial Revolution during the period 1875 to 1915. ‘It fundamentally transformed how people live’, he said.

Like the ‘disruptive technologies’ of the current Digital Revolution, these rapid and extensive changes left much of that earlier population with feelings of uncertainty, disorientation and anxiety. Bleich’s observations made me wonder whether those Australians who went to fight for Empire in 1915 ultimately discovered that they were fighting for a world that had already past—just like the worlds in G. A. Henty’s novels.

The Third Henty Instalment

The third (and final) part of this reflection on G. A. Henty will take a closer look at Henty’s only Australian novel—A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia.

First instalment of serialisation. Weekly Times (Melbourne), 11 April 1891: 5.

Links and Sources:

G. A. Henty and Australia—Part I

‘I’m not sure about Marriott … I know we’ve got lots of G. A. Henty’, says Lady Edith Crawley to a convalescing World War I army officer in Season Two of Downton Abbey.

The grand estate of the Earl of Grantham, home to the Crawley family, might not have been typical of the way most British folk lived in 1917, but the presence of ‘lots of G. A. Henty’ was common—not just across social classes in England, but throughout the British Empire and beyond.

George Alfred Henty

George Alfred Henty

English author George Alfred Henty (8 December 1832–16 November 1902) had been dead for over a decade by the time Lady Edith made her observation about the contents of Downton’s library. In the quarter of a century leading up to his death, Henty had published nearly 100 books, almost all of them boys-own-adventure stories with precise historical settings.

Henty did not begin his working life as a novelist, but he had displayed a flair for writing from early adulthood. His letters home from the Crimean War showed sufficient promise for him to be offered work as a journalist and he subsequently became a war correspondent. His career as a children’s author took off in the 1880s. Henty had made a couple of forays into juvenile literature during the previous decade, but only turned to full-time fiction writing from 1880 until his death in 1902. In this 22-year period, he produced over 90 books.

‘There is nothing a boy likes better than a good description of a fight’

Henty’s plot lines invariably revolved around historical wars, skirmishes or other fracas. His biographer, George Manville Fenn, says that it quickly dawned on Henty that ‘there is nothing a boy likes better than a good description of a fight’ (George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life, p. 319). Even so, Henty underpinned his narratives with thorough research and a commitment to accuracy.

The Tasmanian

‘Literature: New Books.’ The Tasmanian 26 January 1895, p. 5

Popular opinion had it that Henty readers could learn ‘in-depth history’, as well as ‘superior vocabulary and literary techniques’, while being ‘entertained by a master storyteller’ (Robinson Books G. A. Henty Collection).

Henty himself claimed that his facts—dates, places and military names—were ‘all strictly accurate’ and that those who read his tales ‘with care’ could reasonably expect to ‘pass an examination’ on the subjects he covered (‘Preface’, A Tale of the Peninsular War, 1880).

Invasions, Incursions and Insurrections


A selection of G. A. Henty titles from the National Library of Australia’s collection

Henty’s interests were broad. They ranged from Britain (Beric the Briton: A Story of the Roman Invasion and A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection), through Europe (By Pike and Dyke: A Tale of the Rise of the Dutch Republic and Through Russian Snows: A Story of Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow), across North America (Redskin and Cowboy: A Tale of the Western Plains and With Wolfe in Canada: The Winning of a Continent) and into Asia (Among Malay Pirates: A Tale of Adventure and Peril and On the Irrawaddy: A Story of the First Burmese War). Although northern hemisphere events dominated, countries south of the equator were not entirely forgotten—there are some stories set in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Henty’s Australian Connections

A Final Reckoning. Cover of Blackie's Colonial Library edition.

A Final Reckoning. Cover of Blackie’s Colonial Library edition.

Of the five novels Henty published in 1887, one was A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia, set predominantly in colonial New South Wales. An English lad, wrongly accused of theft, escapes conviction and migrates to the colonies. He acquits himself admirably in his job as a police officer (displaying customary British pluck and determination), captures the ne’er do well bushranger (who had committed the original crime in England), ‘gets the girl’, and moves up a notch or two in his socio-economic ranking. Hey ho, everyone’s happy (except the 50 or so Aboriginal men slaughtered along the way … more about that in a later instalment of my Henty-themed meanderings).

A Final Reckoning is Henty’s only major piece of writing set in Australia. (An excerpt from A Final Reckoning was published in the early 1920s in book form, under the title Among the Bushrangers, and there are a couple of short stories set in Australia.) But despite the lack of local settings, Henty’s tales were enormously popular throughout the Australian colonies.

A Trove Australia search (in February 2017) for occurrences of Henty’s name in Australia’s digitised newspapers delivers thousands of ‘hits’. ‘G. A. Henty’ appears over 3,500 times between 1880 and 1919. The peak period is in the 1890s when the author’s name is mentioned on nearly 2,000 occasions. (He is listed many more times, in association with his book titles, but with only his surname printed, minus the distinguishing ‘G. A.’ initials.)

‘A household word in all English-speaking lands

Serialisation advertisement in The Australian Star, 26 July 1899, p. 2

Serialisation advertisement in The Australian Star, 26 July 1899, p. 2

Almost half of Henty’s output was published in the 1890s, at an average of three to four books per year. During the same decade, several of his titles, including A Final Reckoning, A Hidden Foe, The Curse of Carne’s Hold and The Lost Heir, were serialised in colonial newspapers.

The Australian Star’s advertisement for The Lost Heir (reproduced at left) is characteristic of the period. It proclaims that the paper’s new story—‘a stirring tale of love and adventure—is ‘by a writer whose name is a household word in all English-speaking lands’.

The Australasian, Melbourne, 18 December 1891, p. 45

Copies of Henty books regularly found their way into the hands of Australian boys as school and Sunday School book prizes, and as Christmas presents. The Australasian’s advertisement in December 1891 (extract reproduced at right) is typical. It advertises six ‘Christmas Books, three of them by Henty. The Henty titles are: The Dash for Khartoum (‘the expedition up the Nile, for the relief of General Gordon at Khartoum’), Held Fast for England (‘the defence of Gibraltar during the famous siege of 1779-83’) and Redskin and Cowboy (‘a tale of the wild frontier regions of the United States’).

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that, of the three other books advertised, one is C. J. Hyne’s Stimson’s Reef, a tale in which the hero and his friends discover hidden treasure on an uninhabited island. The story is described as ‘just the kind [of book] that should be thoroughly enjoyed by every healthily constituted schoolboy’. Another of the books is Annie E. Armstrongs Three Bright Girls: A Story of Chance and Mischance, ‘evidently intended for young girls’. The girls and their mother, who have ‘previously lived in idleness and luxury’, are suddenly ‘plunged into poverty’. It appears that the upwardly-mobile outcomes afforded to Henty’s and Hyne’s heroes did not cross the gender divide.)

Henty’s Colonial Impact

What was the impact of this Henty deluge of the 1890s—a decade in which many colonial families suffered the effects of economic depression, but in which aspects of Australian identity, especial politically and artistically, were taking shape?

That’s the question I’ll consider in Part II of ‘G. A. Henty and Australia’.

Links and Sources:

  • Lady Edith Crawley (played by Laura Carmichael) in the Downton's Library. Downton Abbey (2010-2015) Carnival Film & Television in co-production with Masterpiece Theatre. http://www.itv.com/downtonabbey

    Lady Edith Crawley (played by Laura Carmichael) discussing books in Downton’s Library. Downton Abbey (2010-2015). Carnival Film & Television in co-production with Masterpiece Theatre. http://www.itv.com/downtonabbey

    Lady Edith’s quotation, which opens this post, is from Season 2, Episode 3 of Downton Abbey. You can find the script for the complete episode here. The book to which Lady Edith refers in the first part of the quote may be J. A. R. Marriott’s 1913 publication, England Since Waterloo. It is also possible that she is referring to a book by the British naval officer and author of seafaring adventures Captain Frederick Marryat, but a weighty tome by former Oxford don and Conservative parliamentarian J. A. R. Marriott would offer a greater contrast to her suggestion of Henty stories for the convalescing officer.

  • For more information on the library at Highclere Castle (the library used for the filming of Downton Abbey) visit the castle’s website.
  • Fenn, George Manville. George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life. London: Blackie & Sons, 1907. (Full text available via the Internet Archive.)
  • Henty, G. A. The Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia. London: Blackie & Sons, 1887. (Full text available on various internet platforms including the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, The Literature Network and the International Children’s Digital Library.)
  • The Robertson Books on CD: G. A. Henty Collection
  • Trove Australia
  • The Henty Society
  • G. A. Henty has quite a following on the Good Reads website. You can view readers’ comments on most of his novels here.
  • The Henty novels mentioned in this post, along with many more, are available at the National Library of Australia; for a list of these, click here.