George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life
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Such letters come abundantly to a boys’ author; but Henty thought far more highly of those which he received from girls, for where there is a girl in the same family the brothers’ books are generally common stock, and are carefully read, appreciated, and judged. The author declares that girls write more intelligently and evince greater judgment in their criticisms, while those who write, especially American girls, make a point of requesting an answer, and do not shrink from asking for the author’s autograph to add to the collection being made.
At the same time, unconscious of the estimation in which the sister is held by her correspondent, the boy does not fail to write in a half-contemptuous spirit like this: “Dear Mr – , I have read your story, which I and my brother think splendid. Emmie has read it too, and she says it’s delightful; but then, she’s only a girl.”
A propos of the boy seeker for an author’s autograph, there are many of these acquisitive young gentlemen who make applications by post and do not get one, even on days when the author is in his most amiable frame of mind. Possibly this is due to the fact that they are perfectly unconscious of being propagators of a custom which has grown into a heavy tax. Others, more wise in their young generation, make a point of enclosing a carefully-directed and stamped envelope, which places the person addressed in the position of a creditor, whose conscience immediately smites him with the suggestion that it would be churlish and rude not to reply. And somehow almost invariably those young gentlemen obtain the addition to their collection that they have sought.
Boys’ writers most probably do not have more worries than other people, but they have to submit to one nuisance from the selfish and thoughtless which does go very much against the grain. Fancy being a man who feels himself in duty bound to fulfil an engagement to write some four, five, or six thousand words of a story pretty well every day. Is it not extremely probable that when that long tale of words is written he will lay the pen down with a feeling of weariness, almost of loathing and disgust. Imagine his feelings, then, when he finds in his correspondence a letter from some absolute stranger, enclosing a long manuscript which he has written “especially for boys,” with the request that “as the recipient is so clever and knows so well exactly what a boy likes, he will be good enough to read it at once and give his opinion upon its merits”? Now, human nature is human nature, and as a weary writer has a great deal of that sad human nature in his composition, and is prone to be irritable, surely it is not surprising that for a few minutes he falls into a fretful state, and mentally asks this would-be scribe why he does not send his MS to an editor or other practised judge of people’s works for his opinion about the unknown one’s literary production?
Henty uttered his wail to one of his visitors who recorded an interview, and then confessed to being as weak and amiable as many others of his craft, for he says: “I do generally read them, and have helped several men to get publishers; but, of course, the great majority of the stories are hopelessly unfit for boys.One does not like to write back and say that the work is confounded rubbish, although I suppose it would be the most merciful thing to do, as it would prevent the writer from wasting his time. I let them down as lightly as I can.”
There is a well-known old proverb, for which we have to thank one of the old Roman writers, who spread their Latin and their works through the civilised world, that a poet is born, not made, and it applies equally to the story-teller or writer of narrative. Henty was a story-teller from quite early days; for, following up his boyish attempts, the days came when, as a married man, with his children gathering round his fireside, it became a custom for them to come and say the familiar good-night, with the appeal to father to tell them a story. At first the stories were brief of the briefest, and doubtless versions of the old popular nursery tales. These, however, soon began to give way to invention, and these again would be followed by flights of fancy as the young author’s wings grew stronger, till, from being so brief that they only sufficed for one evening, his stories expanded and gradually merged into those which were cut short with, “There, it’s growing too late now. I must finish to-morrow night.” Doubtless invention in the furnishing of these little narratives, composed expressly for the juvenile audience, soon had to give way to study, and their author began to seek his inspiration from some incident in history. Gradually, too, as he realised the interest taken in his narratives by his own children, they began to be more thoughtfully designed, and grew longer, while the idea strengthened that they might prove as attractive to other children as to his own, until by a natural sequence the story-constructing took up more thought, grew more businesslike, and developed, as it were, into a profession.
It is easy, too, to imagine that as some of these stories – which were told for the benefit of his two boys, and the two little girls who were carried off by consumption on the verge of womanhood – ran to a length of four or five nights, they gave their originator the power to compose with fluency and ease. For throughout his life Henty practised storytelling as opposed to story-writing. It is not everyone who finds dictation easy, but for twenty years he dictated all his fiction to his secretary and amanuensis, Mr Griffiths, even down to the very last tale which he finished, prior to his being stricken down by paralysis.
In writing his books Henty was wonderfully practical. He thoroughly enjoyed a quiet evening and a dinner with friends at his club, but, speaking from old experience, he never allowed this to interfere with the work he had on hand. More than once the writer has said to him, “What! going already?” (“already” being almost directly after dinner). “Yes,” he would reply; “I shall perhaps have some telegrams to write up next door,” (“next door” being the Standard office). On other occasions it would be, “Yes; going home. My man will be waiting when I get there,” (“my man” representing his amanuensis, ready for him in his study at Lavender Hill). And in response to the remark, “Rather late to begin when you get home”, “Oh yes, but I daresay I shall get a couple of thousand words done”; and that meant from Henty that the work would be done, for he was a man who meant work, and did it. This would happen usually when he was extra busy preparing some book for the press. He had a quiet, determined way of making hay when the sun shone, for the Standard made great calls upon his time, requiring him to write matters of fact, and at such times fiction had to be laid aside. His long absences from home in times of war interfered greatly with his peaceful avocations, but he treated all these journeys as so many copy-collecting trips. They provided him with material which he would afterwards cleverly utilise, as can be gathered from passage after passage in his many works.
For details of the many stories for the young written by Henty, one is disposed to refer the reader to the publisher’s list; but to follow upon what has been said respecting the correspondence that reaches a writer from his young readers, a letter that has come to hand, written by a Canadian boy some years ago, is very amusing in its admiration of his favourite author. It indicates such an amount of steady reading, it evinces so much ingenuity, and (if it should ever reach the young writer’s eyes and he will take the criticism in the good part in which it is meant) displays so much need for improvement, that one gives it in full as an amusing list of the author’s works from the boy’s point of view.
The little lad calls it “a story.” Well, it is an original story of stories, and, as intimated, emanates from Canada. It is here given in a confidence which suppresses names, and thus cloaks the literary mistakes of the past: —
Doubtless, as was often his custom, George Henty, who was proud of, as well as amused by, the above letter, replied to the young writer. One would be glad to know.
In addition to the three-volume story, A Search for a Secret, mentioned earlier, Henty produced several more, so that he may claim to be one of those who saw out the old days which preceded the six-shilling novel. He concluded his series of novels with another secret —Colonel Thorndykes’– but this, like those which had preceded it, only achieved what the superfine litterateur terms a succ?s d’estime, which is not the success beloved of the publisher, who has a bad habit of judging an author’s merits by reference to his ledger and counting the number of copies sold.
Henty’s novels were well contrived and thought out, and full of interesting matter, but not one of them seemed to contain that unknown quality which nobody appears as yet to have been able to analyse, but which causes the British public to go reading mad over something which hits the fancy of the time.
As a novelist he was unsuccessful; not that it mattered, for he soon laid the foundation of what was to prove an enduring fame, one which set an enormous clientele of young readers looking forward year by year for his next book or books – one, two, three, or even four per annum – until he had erected a literary column familiar in the bright young memories of thousands upon thousands of readers to whom the names of his works are well known.
In the long list of his other writings, A Story of the Carlist Troubles, another volume more modern and up-to-date, relating to the Sudan when Kitchener was in command, and a romance telling of a search for the treasure of the Peruvian kings, were among his last productions, while editions after editions of his earlier works kept on appearing, and were eagerly read. These new issues of his earlier books of course appealed to a much wider public than before, since the writer’s popularity had gone on increasing with every fresh story from his pen.
As is often the case with a young and enthusiastic writer, Henty in his early days made more than one attempt to publish his productions at his own cost, only to learn the severe lesson that these business transactions are matters of trade, and do not often prosper in the hands of an author.
One of his hardest fights was over the Union Jack, which he edited for some years. It was a boys’ journal, which ought to have succeeded, and over which he worked very hard both as author and editor; but somehow, in spite of the names of the able men whom he enlisted as his literary lieutenants, the sun of prosperity did not shine upon it brightly, and after a last effort, in which he took in new blood, he gave it up in disgust. He must have thought, after the fashion of others before him, that the success of periodicals is a matter of accident. It would be difficult indeed to come to any other conclusion when one sees the way in which clever and scholarly productions, fostered by the best literary ability, struggle into life and hold on to a precarious existence for a few brief weeks or months, and then die from lack of appreciation, while others that are perfect marvels of all that a magazine should not be, rush up into popularity and become, as it were, gold-mines to their proprietors.
So far as Henty was concerned, however, there is the consolation that whatever disappointments he may have had over his early productions, they formed a portion of the literary concrete upon which he raised a structure that made his name familiar to every young reader of his time.