‘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.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.
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
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
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’
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’.
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. Armstrong’s 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’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.