George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





This was a strange commencement of the important career of one who in the opinion of journalists began at once to make a brilliant name for himself, for this, Forbess first literary coup, placed him at one stride in the same rank as William Howard Russell of the Times, the well-known author of My Diary in India. The opinion of the journalistic world was directly endorsed by the British public, who proved it by sending up the circulation of the Daily News to a wonderful extent throughout the war; and this lasted until the day when, passing by the Daily News publishing office in Fleet Street, the writer saw posted up Forbess terse telegrams announcing to an astonished world the utter defeat of the French. The rest is familiar history.

Henty states that a good seat upon a horse is one of the valuable qualifications for a war correspondent, for it may come to pass that when at great risk and effort the gleaner of intelligence has obtained his requisite information by following the vicissitudes of the campaign wheresoever the battle rages, he may find himself perhaps thirty or forty miles away from the nearest telegraph station. There is nothing to be done in such a case but for the correspondent to write his valuable despatch as crisply and as carefully as possible, and then ride away at full speed so as to get the message at the earliest moment upon the wires. This task accomplished, he must, after a brief rest, mount once more and return to the front.

Later, it was in this way that, during the Zulu War, Forbes was the first to send home an account of the Battle of Ulundi, bearing with him, so trusted was he, some of the generals despatches as well as his own report. Where, however, the telegraphic facilities are not within reach, it is necessary for the correspondent to entrust the report he has written to the official post-bag, for he dare not absent himself long from the front, not knowing what events of importance may happen while he is away.

In the Franco-German war another correspondent, Beattie Kingston polished gentleman, scholar, and able musician, who had been representing the Daily Telegraph in Vienna and elsewhere was acting as correspondent with the German army; and of other war correspondents it remains to mention the familiar names of Bennett Burleigh and E.F. Knight, the latter of whom distinguished himself by writing the brilliant little account of The Cruise of the Falcon, which reads as graphically as if it had come from the pen of Defoe. After Knight had taken up the risky duties of reporting wars, and had been sent to the Pamir to report our little frontier engagement with the restless mountain tribes, he did something more than go to the front, for in one of the engagements he was with a little column whose officers were all shot down, and with the splendid energy and pluck of the fighting penman he dashed into the fighting line, took the place of the fallen leader, and led the men to success.

This struggle not his own special fight, for he is too simple and modest a man to play the part of Plautuss braggart captain he recorded in his work, Where Three Empires Meet.

Later, when journalism claimed him again to be the war correspondent and he went out to the Boer War, news came to the little club of which he is one of the most popular members, that he was with the advancing line of the 42nd Highlanders at Magersfontein and had been shot down. He lay with the rest of the unfortunates of that saddening day, trusting for first aid to one of the sergeants of the regiment who knelt down to bandage his shattered arm, panting with excitement to be off the while.

Another sufferer this in the great cause of gathering the freshest news, for E.F. Knight paid dearly for his well-earned fame. He was sent down with another wounded man picked out from about forty hopeless cases, just to give me a chance, and though he suffered the complete loss of an arm, he finally recovered, thanks to Sir Frederick Treves. After this he studied and practised the art of writing quickly and clearly with his left hand, and from the Far East sent graphic reports of the Russo-Japanese War. That is the kind of stuff of which George Hentys friends and companions were made.

Chapter Thirty Nine.
Henty and his Books

For the benefit of his many boy readers with whom Hentys stories were most popular, a writer on the staff of Chums paid Henty a visit one day. He described him as a tall man, massive in build, with a fine head and a commanding presence, the lower part of his face adorned with a great flowing beard, and though his hair was almost white, the dark beard was only slightly flecked with silver threads. He had the appearance of a man who had knocked about the world and rubbed shoulders with strange bed-fellows, and looked as though he would be a capital companion and just the sort of person with whom one would like to share the solitude of a desert island. There is no doubt that the writer said this in the full belief that Henty would have been an ideal comrade a brave man, amiable, happy in temper, straightforward, and ready at a pinch to dare danger to the very death.

The visit paid to him was, primarily, to ask him how he wrote his books. How does a man write his books? is a question that calls for a little thought before answering. One man will write them mentally from end to end before putting pen to paper; another will jot down sketchy notes which, after months of thought and labour, represent so many scraps that have to be picked out, set in something like order, and then fitted into shape as if they were pieces of a dissected puzzle; and only then, after much work, do they take form as a comprehensive whole. Again, another will spend years over the construction of a book, sparing no pains, in the full knowledge that he will never be able to write another; and after all it may prove to be not worth the reading, or, if worth the trouble, it may be utterly wanting in that indescribable element which enchains the reader at once and keeps his attention riveted to the very end. Yes, that indescribable something which is given to so few by nature the few who, somehow, find themselves writing as no man to their knowledge ever wrote before; and so say their readers. For there is a peculiarity in some mens thoughts when placed on paper in print a something which attracts, through the soul that is in it, people of all ranks and classes the highly-cultivated classical scholar, the student of other mens works, the great criminal or civil judge whose life has been spent in examining the ways, thoughts, and acts of every form of human nature, the best as well as the vilest and worst.

And yet this book which affords such intense delight to its reader, often by its pathos, less often by its mirth for, strangely enough, one finds that the gift of being humorous is extremely rare will give as much pleasure to the half-educated child as it does to the man whom poor old Captain Cuttle, Dickenss simple-hearted child-like creation, described as chock full of science. Now, how is this? I, the writer of these lines, have been a reader for seventy years, and I must frankly confess that I dont know, and my honest belief is that I never shall. But this I do know, that I found all this attraction ready for my reading thirst in a story entitled Rip Van Winkle, in the pages of an old, old magazine called the Queen Bee. This story somehow painted a picture in my young brain of the Catskill Mountains and the Dutchmen playing ninepins, while the roll of the balls resounded and re-echoed like thunder, and the voice that rang out, crying, Rip Van Winkle! Rip Van Winkle! sounds, at any time when I think upon it, loud and clear. There is the picture still, like a dream of the photography that I was to live to see in all its present beauty, only clear and bright and better still; for there are the colours of nature which some of us yet may see photographed in the continuation of these wondrous days in which science has given us so much.

There is no saying how a man contrives to write a book; but this is the question that George Hentys visitor asked, as he sat near a table where closely-written sheets lay in a heap, apparently just as they had been laid together by the writer. There was a half laugh, followed by the rather disconcerting reply: I do not write any of my books myself. I get a man to do them for me an amanuensis, of course; it all comes out of my head, but he does all the actual writing. I never see any of my work until it comes to me from the printers in the shape of proof-sheets. My amanuensis sits at the table, and I sit near him, or lie on the sofa, and dictate the stories which I publish.

So said Henty to his visitor, and he might have added, and smoke the while, for nature must have needed something in the way of sedative for the brain so constantly upon the strain.

Then questions were asked by the eager enquirer as to how long this writing went on for so great an output, as a manufacturer would call it, to result. In the words that followed the real secret was explained and it lay in the quiet, steady, regular application which is seen in the man who is discovered one day, trowel in hand, by a small pile of bricks which he goes on laying in position; he gives each a tap or two and a scrape, and in course of time, lo and behold! as the old writers say, there stands a magnificent house.

What do I call a good days work? said Henty. Well, say my man comes at half-past nine in the morning and stays for four hours, till half-past one; we can get through a good deal of work in that space of time. Then perhaps he comes round in the evening for a couple of hours; so in the course of a day I finish a chapter, that is, about six thousand five hundred words. I call that a good days work.

And so would anyone. Six thousand five hundred words of consistent description and conversation, all forming a portion of an interesting tale which will hold a boys attention often a mans! Think of it! At half-past nine that morning there was nothing; when work was knocked off in the evening there was a chapter that would some day be read with satisfaction a something made out of nothing save a few flying thoughts. With George Henty that was how a story was written.

Such books as these would average in length from a hundred and thirty to a hundred and fifty thousand words; that is to say, about the length of the old three-volume novel, a class of work at which Henty also tried his hand. One of his first novels, A Search for a Secret, was published by Tinsley Brothers in 1867, and from time to time another was turned out which achieved a fair amount of success; indeed, almost up to the end of his life Henty wrote an occasional novel when a good plot occurred to him and when he felt in the mood. But quite early in his career he was invited by an old club friend, the late Thomas Archer, to contribute a story suitable for the reading of boys to a series of juvenile works that Messrs Blackie and Son were about to produce, and which Mr Archer was to see through the press.

This was the commencement of a long series of boys books a long way on towards a hundred which achieved universal success, and for the task of writing which their author, in his avocation of war correspondent and descriptive writer, had in a manner passed his life priming himself.

In his choice of subjects, almost from the first, he drew on his old experience, and in one of his earliest essays he, the son of a coal-mine proprietor, naturally enough began upon a story dealing with the perils and dangers (not of the sea where the stormy winds do blow) encountered by the stern-visaged grimy men who gain their daily bread by descending with their lives in their hands into the bowels of the earth. He tells a tale here of the men who, with Davy lamp in hand, go right down among the coal seams, to where the atmospheric pressure is light and the insidious gas can be heard hissing out of the strata. He describes how, weary and tempted by the longing for a pipe, some weak-minded comrade may contrive by the help of a nail to pick the lock of his carefully-secured safety lamp, so as to expose the flame for a pipe to be lit. Then comes the ignition of the gas in one scathing burning blast, the herald of death to the offender and to those nearest the explosion, while for those who are farther away, and who are warned by the thunderous roar, there is the race for life as they tear for the pits mouth, to be too often overtaken by the deadly choke-damp, whose poisonous strangling fumes follow the firing of the gas. Others, imprisoned by the falling rock and coal, after fighting hard to escape, have to sit and wait and pray that the help which they know will be trying to reach them as soon as comrades can descend, may not come too late.

This, Facing Death, was Hentys first story for boys. But a soldier by training, he soon turned to the military element. It speedily dawned upon him that there is nothing a boy likes better than a good description of a fight with fisticuffs not objected to against some school tyrant and here, in his descriptions, the writer was thoroughly at home. He knew how his heroes should behave, and in such encounters there was the vraisemblance that added power to his narrative. Then, too, as war correspondent who had seen fighting in the Crimea, in Italy with Garibaldi during the War of Independence, with Lord Napier in Abyssinia, in the Franco-German War and during the Commune, in Russia, in the West Coast forests on the way to Coomassie, in Spain during the Carlist Insurrection, and in the Turco-Servian War, his mind was stored with material and with picturesque backgrounds for stories to come.

Here was a stupendous collection of embryo copy for boys books on fighting full of reality from beginning to end. From his wide experience he knew and described how fighting should be, and was carried on. When he felt a desire for change, he struck farther back, and enlisted as the years went by various heroes of history whose names have been immortalised. At one time he would be weaving a story about the prowess of our men in India with Clive, at another time following Wellington through the Peninsular War. He was, in imagination, with Roberts at Kandahar, with Kitchener at Khartoum, and with Buller in Natal. He often made a plunge into naval history and dealt with our naval heroes. Unconsciously, too, all this while he was building up a greater success for his boys books by enlisting on their behalf the suffrages of that great and powerful body of buyers of presents who had the selection of their gifts. By this body is meant our boys instructors, who, in conning the publishers lists, would come upon some famous name for the hero of the story and exclaim: Ha! history; thats safe. In this way Henty linked himself with the great body of teachers who joined with him hand in hand; hence it was that the book-writer who kept up for so many years his wonderful supply of two, three, and often four boys books a year, full of solid interest and striking natural adventure, taught more lasting history to boys than all the schoolmasters of his generation.

Naturally the works that dealt with his own experience were the simple honest truth; but the same may be said of those in which he had to deal with the past, and therefore had to strengthen and supplement his knowledge by the study of the best works he could get hold of preparatory to writing fiction dealing with some particular epoch. For, following upon the choice of his subject, say the battles of some war through which he carried his heroes, he confessed that he got together a pile of books from one of the big libraries and stored his mind with material for the purpose of the story he was about to weave; so that his fiction was very near akin to fact, though possibly it was highly coloured. No boy dislikes colour, and Hentys readers did not object to a little blood. His boys were fighting boys, and very manly, full, as he termed it, of pluck; and though he dressed them up and carried them through peril and adventure galore, it was all good honest excitement, even if here and there a little too bright in hue. As to that, he had the example of the famous romanticist of the north, the great Sir Walter, who said that in equipping a character in one of his romances he liked to give him a cocked hat and a walking-stick to add to his appearance.

There was nothing namby-pamby in Hentys writings, for his adolescent characters were not so much boys as men, saving in this, that he kept them to boy life, and never made his works sickly by the introduction of what an effeminate writer would term the tender passion. No, he said, I never touch on love interest. Once I ventured to make a boy of twelve kiss a little girl of eleven, and I received a very indignant letter from a dissenting minister.

Men who write books build up for themselves plenty of critics besides the authorised judges to whom their works are sent out by the publishers, and unfortunately the self-constituted censors do not possess the broad knowledge of the genuine critic.

But for outspoken, downright, honest but self-satisfied criticism, no one equals the cocky schoolboy who has entered upon the phase when he begins to feel that he can write, and has begun to get over the natural repugnance to express himself in correspondence. Early in life your natural boy only writes as much as he feels bound to set down with pen, ink, and paper. These effusions one may call duty-letters home. The next letters are those relating to his wants; they come more freely, and of course often savour of pocket-money. It is later, when he has taken to reading, and has arrived at the stage when his spelling is more regular, his grammar fairly correct, and his words flow more freely from his pen, that he becomes opinionated, and informs those to whom he writes what he thinks.

Sometimes an author is favoured by these young gentlemen, and more than one communicated with Henty and informed him that he had read his last book, which was, of course, satisfactory; but the criticisms and the points fallen foul of would have been unpleasant only for the fact that they formed food for mirth.

One day, during a chat concerning the success of a well-known magazine that was current some five-and-twenty or thirty years ago, which he edited, Henty laughingly complained to the writer about the way in which boys of this type troubled him with their opinions. One of them it was in the early days when this corrupt word was beginning to be utilised in boy life as something very forcible and expressive wrote and asked him why he put such rot in his paper. One fancies one can recall at the present moment the grim, half-amused, half-angry expression of the editors face as he related the anecdote. But it is only fair to say that such young gentlemen are the exceptions, and when a boy does praise, he can do it with a warmth that makes his favourite authors cheeks glow with pride, for he feels that the criticism is very honest and true.

And boys can write very very pleasant letters, such as set one thinking that one would like to know the writers. Some of their letters show very plainly what the young correspondents have thought as they read, though they often enough cause much amusement by their na?vet?, especially those which come suddenly from the most out-of-the-way places. These are some of the great rewards which come to a writer, and make up for many a long day of drudgery in the cause of duty on days when nature is preaching idleness to a worker, and is calling to him with her myriad voices to leave the pen and desk and come and commune with her while there is time; on days those rare days when she is all smiles, and full of suggestions of those bright days of the past, which seem to have become rarer as one has been growing old.

Henty had a little selection of correspondents letters sent from out-of-the-way places. One was from an American boy, written with all the quaint na?vet? and ignorance of one who was on his travels to see what the world was really like. He writes from Italy, after doing England with his father:

Hotel Europa, Venezia, March 22nd, 1889.

Dear Mr Henty,

I am an American boy, ten years old, travelling in Europe. I read some of your books at home, and enjoyed them so much that, as soon as I arrived in London, I wanted to go to Mr Blackies, hoping to see you and all your books. So when I had been to Westminster Abbey and the Tower, my father took me there; but I could not see you, and the books were shut up. But the gentleman was very kind to me, and brought some of them out, and I went home laden. I think The Lion of Saint Mark is splendid. I am reading it here, and am sure Malleo lived in this house. I have been to the very place in the Piazetta where Matteo and Francis had their first conversation.

Yours respectfully, .

Nothing could be more amusing than the boys mingling of shrewdness and innocence respecting the authors connection with his publisher. There is something in it suggestive of the days of Newbery and Dodsley, with an idea evidently in the boys mind that publishers kept authors in stock. But it is the letter of a clever boy notwithstanding, blessed with a father aiming at increasing his boys store of knowledge in the wisest way extant.





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