Many modern readers are fond of deriding Rudyard Kipling for his British Empire jingoism and "racism." It's an oddly short-sighted criticism—will future Americans look back on our era and criticize the war protests? or our preoccupation with naming ethnic and racial minorities? Given a slightly different context, those could just as easily be seen as gravely xenophobic.
George Alfred Henty is often accused of Kipling's crimes: portraying the "lower" races as brutish children, glorying in British Empiricism, revelling in Victorian patriarchalism. The charge is undeniable and flavors his 100 novels (and numerous short stories), but it would be surprising if it didn't. "The sun never sets on the British Empire" was the boast of every loyal Briton during the twilight of the 19th century, and no one thought twice about it except to extol their Island virtues.
What few critics admit is that Henty's non-white characters are far more human than those found in the majority of books by his contemporaries. A former military man and war correspondent who'd been everywhere and seen everything, his depictions of native peoples may shock our hyper-sensitive ears, but hardly contradicts or overplays what honest historians tell us.
One suspects what anti-Henty spokesmen really don't like is the Christianity and virtue of his heroes. These are perfect books for boys—long on action and historical detail, short on romance, and always featuring a young man whose sterling character and sheer grit ushers him successfully from one hardship to another. He always gets the girl, and though most 12-year-olds won't admit it, that makes them happy, too. But it's the blazing action and harrowing adventure that gets them involved.
Most of Henty's novels take place in a Victorian colonial or historical setting. His adventurers fight beside King Alfred, General Clive, Wellington, Robert E. Lee, Nelson, William Wallace, and hosts of other great military leaders, always in the name of truth and justice. Henty's knowledge of military history lends a realism lacking in stories written by those with "researched" knowledge; he was present at many of the conflicts he depicts, and we smell the tang of powder and hear the metal clashing.
Not that these are high literature. After researching a period, Henty dictated hisstory to a secretary, more like a bard in the oral tradition than a modern novelist. Yet what he lacks in literary grace he makes up for in the things every boy needs to grow up manly, virtuous, and normal: blood, fire, sand, steel, prayer, struggle, and bravery. It's not a good idea to let your sons read exclusively Henty, but they should get a dose. The renaissance of popularity his books are enjoying is well deserved, especially in a culture devoid of legitimate masculinity.
A number of publishers are reprinting all or some of the novels, and many are doing a fantastic job. We've elected to carry the new editions from Robinson Books, which appear both in hardcover facsimiles and quality paperback and include nearly the entire catalogue. We also offer audio versions read by Jim Weiss (slightly abridged and recorded on regular CDs) and Jim Hodges (uncut and recorded on single MP3 discs). If you've never read Henty, you're in for a unique and enjoyable experience; if you have, we'd love to help you fill out your collection.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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