- “Quick, Ethel, Your Rifle!”: Portable Britishness and Flexible Gender Roles in G.A. Henty’s Books for Boys
Out on the Pampas. With Clive In India. With Roberts to Pretoria. Maori and Settler. By Pike and by Dyke. These titles are no longer familiar, though their author, George Alfred Henty, dominated children’s literature between 1871 and 1906. The wildly prolific Victorian adventure writer had been among the first generation of correspondents who traveled the globe and sent reports to London via telegraph. In this capacity, he covered the Crimean and American Civil Wars, traveled through the Near and Middle East, and documented colonial unrest in Africa and the Pacific. His name thus carried cultural clout, adding further credibility to his “books for boys.” Henty came to be known as “The Boys’ Historian,” whose 90-odd children’s novels were crafted to “foster the imperial spirit” in young men by supplying “absolutely trustworthy” accounts “of all the great wars in which the English people have been engaged since the Norman Conquest” (The Cornet of Horse i–ii). These jingoist, racist novels, often accompanied by Henty’s dedicatory essays to “My Dear Lads,” proved so popular that schools regularly limited the number each student could borrow per week. Historian Bernard Porter describes a public school headmaster, for example, donating “popular novels by the ultra-imperialist G.A. Henty” (52) for student use in the 1890s. Circulated in libraries, purchased by parents, awarded as Sunday school and boys’ club prizes, and read as history textbooks for the Civil Service exams, Henty’s canon, in the words of his biographer George Manville Fenn, “taught more lasting history to boys than all the schoolmasters of his generation” (320). [End Page 154]
Fenn’s assessment suggests the extent to which Henty’s success hinged on his novels’ educational appeal: including pirated editions, twenty-five million Henty books were sold before 1914 (Arnold 17).1 While many of these boy readers later died in the trenches of the Marne and the Somme, the names of others who lived to recall Henty fondly—Arthur Schlesinger, J. Paul Getty, Wendell Willkie, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, A. J. P. Taylor, Henry Miller, and Winston Churchill—speak to his lasting influence. Yet theirs became the last generation who considered Henty as a household name.
During the past five to ten years, however, Henty’s canon has experienced a revival, in large part because American advocates of home schooling have rediscovered and promoted his work. Numerous reviews in right-wing and conservative Christian journals and websites applaud Henty’s texts as model readings and thoughtful presents for children, especially boys.2 These reviews often ignore Henty’s racism by packaging his version of empire as refreshingly heroic and patriotic. In The New Criterion, for example, Brooke Allen claims:
The failure of multiculturalism to provide American students with a truly multicultural education or worldview has been dismal, as we found out in the panicked scramble for information and enlightenment after the September 11 attacks. If we had all been reading Henty’s To Herat and Kabul instead of The Babysitter’s Club as children, we might have been better prepared!(23)
In a column on the American Right for The Economist, Adrian Wooldridge specifies Henty’s primary audience as “the growing number of people who, out of religious conviction, academic frustration and, thanks to a spate of school shootings, simple fear, choose to educate their children at home” (30). These parents see Henty as a “hero…[whose] books relentlessly preach the virtues of family loyalty, female modesty and patriotism” (30). According to Wooldridge, many home schoolers are so persuaded by the ideological content of Henty’s novels that “demand still exceeds supply” (30) of the reprints.
Before this boom in interest, Henty’s novels were rare books, seldom if ever republished. Now Robinson Books, an Oregon-based publisher, has formatted ninety-nine Henty novels as a CD-rom set. Three other houses, Preston-Speed Publications, Lost Classics Book Company, and Memoria Press, also market Henty titles for the purposes of home schooling. Dover Publications joined them in 2005, when it reissued six Henty novels. Within the past three years...