Invisible Ink: No 179 - G A Henty


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The Independent Culture

You may only be familiar with GA Henty's name if you walk the dog in London's Brompton Cemetery, where he's buried, but in his time he was very well known indeed. A prolific novelist and special correspondent who reported on the appalling conditions of the Crimean War, he wrote 122 novels by my count, and you'll probably find one or two on the shelves of your local Ukip office, assuming anyone there can read.

Henty rose from a privileged background to cover a good number of the 19th century's more interesting wars first-hand, from the Franco-Prussian to the Russo-Turkish. He also witnessed the opening of the Suez Canal. He exemplified the sturdy ethos of the British Empire, and his books are horrible. Most are aimed at children, and involve chaps living in difficult times, facing their problems with firm resolve, pluck, intelligence, honesty and courage. The heroes are also dashing, handsome, and modest, obviously. These tales were set in different eras ranging from Arthurian times to the Crusades, in Carthage, in the American War of Independence, the Spanish Main, the Boer War and in Australia. Some years Henty simply went bananas and got a new book out every two months. Volume after volume poured out of him, adventures set in Egypt, the Punjab or Colorado, during the Restoration or the Reign of Terror, during the Norman Conquest or the Siege of Rhodes, with Wat Tyler or Napoleon. A typical title would be By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War.

Even in his own lifetime there were those who questioned his xenophobia and endless glorification of imperialism. In True To The Old Flag, set in the American War of Independence, he supported the Loyalists, in No Surrender! he was hostile to the French Revolutionists, in Facing Death: A Tale of the Coal Mines he moans about the strikers. In Freedom's Cause: A Story of Wallace and Bruce he gets a bit muddled up and supports the Scots against the English.

Then there's the racism: “The negroes are just like children, 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 10 years old.”

What's interesting is how popular Henty has remained within Conservative Christian circles, and on US websites that admire his texts as ideal reading for young lads. His books are highly collectable. In 2002, The Guardian celebrated the centenary of his death.