George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





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 authors 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 its delightful; but then, shes only a girl.

A propos of the boy seeker for an authors 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 peoples works for his opinion about the unknown ones 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 authors 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, its 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 publishers 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 writers 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 authors works from the boys 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:

G.A. Henty, Esq.

Dear Sir,

Hoping you will excuse me for troubling you, but I would like you to read the little story I have made (while staying home from school with the measles). I have read and enjoyed a great many of your books. Following is the story made out of the names of some of the books you have written:

Jack Archer, while travelling Through Russian Snows, met Captain Bayleys Heir, who had been Through the Sikh War as One of the 28th and was True to the Old Flag, was swimming In Greek Waters, being pursued by The Tiger of Mysore, which had come Through the Fray By Sheer Pluck. All of a sudden along came a man who was The Bravest of the Brave while With Wolfe in Canada and With Clive in India; he also showed valour At Agincourt, which was Won by the Sword By Englands Aid, headed by A Knight of the White Cross, who was with Wulf the Saxon and Beric the Briton in fighting The Dragon and the Raven, which were For the Temple, met The Cat of Bubastes, followed by The Young Carthaginian, who was Condemned as a Nihilist for killing The Lion of the North and The Lion of Saint Mark, which were owned by The Young Colonist and Maori and Settler, who said they were With Buller in Natal, and had come to arrest him as A Jacobite Exile, with their colours Orange and Green, in the name of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It happened when on Saint Bartholomews Eve along came Saint George for England By Right of Conquest. In Freedoms Cause he was Held Fast for England In the Reign of Terror. Under Drakes Flag he made The Dash for Khartoum, which With Lee in Virginia For Name and Fame he fought and won By Pike and Dyke, assisted by Redskin and Cowboy. All this happened When London Burned.

Trusting you will let me know if you receive this, and how you like the story, Yours very truly, .

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 Thorndykesbut this, like those which had preceded it, only achieved what the superfine litterateur terms a succ?s destime, which is not the success beloved of the publisher, who has a bad habit of judging an authors merits by reference to his ledger and counting the number of copies sold.

Hentys 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 writers 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.

Chapter Forty.
An Appreciation

Much has been said about the writing of a boys book and the changes that have taken place during the present generation or two. It may be taken into consideration that to go back to, say, 1830, there were hardly any books for a boy to read. We had Evenings at Home and Robinson Crusoe, of course, and there were some cheaply-issued stories by Pierce Egan the younger. A very attractive volume, too, was a tremendously thumbed and dogs-eared Boys Country Book, by William Howitt. Marryats and Coopers works, with a few of Scotts, however, found plenty of favour with boys, who soon afterwards began to read Dickens, a writer who caught on with them at once. Soon after this Kingston and Ballantyne had the field almost to themselves, while the publishers were shy about publishing exclusively for boys; even to this day the trade, as it is termed, class books written especially for boys as juvenile literature. The term is correct, of course, for our recollections of Latin teach us that juvenile relates to youth; but to a boy the very term seems to suggest a toy-book, untearable, perhaps, with gaudy coloured pictures, and this begets in him a feeling of scorn. He does not want juvenile literature. His aim is to become a man and read what men do and have done. Hence the great success of George Hentys works. They are essentially manly, and he used to say that he wanted his boys to be bold, straightforward, and ready to play a young mans part, not to be milksops. He had a horror of a lad who displayed any weak emotion and shrank from shedding blood, or winced at any encounter. The result is shown again and again in his pages, and though some of his readers may object to the deeds of his heroes, no one could look down upon their vigour and determination. The fact is, he painted his own boyhood in all the boy the young man as he wished him to be, and the man.

There was a reality and power about Hentys work which caused many of his characters to be remembered long after the book had been laid aside, though, of course, it was not really characterisation which was his forte, but rather the depicting of historical incidents and brave deeds on the frontiers of the empire. He did a great work for the boy reader in throwing open for him the big doorway of history. There was scarcely a book from his pen, and especially is this the case with the later ones, which did not serve to impress some important period of fighting or diplomatic action upon the mind of the reader. Knowledge thus gained is generally the most useful, for it is imbibed with avidity. Henty came out of long years of exciting work as a chronicler of things seen on the battlefields of the world, and he had the gift of ready portrayal, allied to a retentive and observant mind. Amidst the purple slopes and white walls of Italy he seemed as much at home as on the Venetian lagoons or in the forests of Germany. The entire panorama of the world was his sphere of action, and old-world romance suggestive of forgotten stairways and ancient palaces was, so to speak, a department in which he excelled. He could write as few men could of that mediaeval tramp of crusading hosts, of glinting armour, of all that stirring pageantry of the old, old days which sometimes in the heat of interest makes our own time seem trivial and of poor account; and yet, although he possessed this key to romance, maybe he was really at his best in dealing with the thin red line of modern times. Still, among his older books, The Cornet of Horse stands out as pre-eminently strong and dramatic, and the account of a remarkable adventure during the campaign in the Netherlands, when the commander, who was afterwards cited as Marlbrouck to naughty French children, defeated the French at. Oudenarde and Malplaquet, is outlined clearly in the memory; so does the miller near Lille who befriended the young Englishman. The writing was strong, the colour vivid, and the reader had a birds-eye view of what was passing at that time when Good Queen Anne was on the throne, and, as a bard put it, sometimes counsel took and sometimes tea, while in France the Grand Monarque ruled as few kings have ever ruled before or since. It was a book that made boys think, giving them a wonderful impression of the time, making John Churchill a real live general, and showing why we went to war with France in defence of the stolid Dutch. Then a story of quite another type is probably still a first favourite, namely, The Young Franc Tireurs, which deals with the Franco-German War in a style to be expected from one who was there. How real is the talk between some German soldiers after the capture of Napoleon the Third!

The merit of these stories is their directness. No nervous under-view, no imagining of things which are not there, but the easy, straightforward writing of a manly Englishman who took things as they were, who disdained the building of structures on flimsy might-have-beens, but liked a solid foundation of fact. His campaigning stories brought the stress of war right home. He imparted a real touch to these with maps and charts. He had been close into so many firing lines that these tales had the ring of absolute truth, while he knew the soldier by heart and could depict him to life without any sham heroics or exaggeration. Wars grim traffic had indeed few mysteries for the pleasant, frank Englishman who could talk of the graver issues of life with distinction and advantage to the listener.

Far less known than his boys books are his novels. Yet there is ingenuity and interest in such stories as The Curse of Carnes Hold, while through one and all of his works there is to be found a spirit of bold endeavour and a deep insight into the apparent puzzles of life. It was inevitable that a war correspondent who had had a front seat for years in the great arena of the worlds happenings should know better than most men how events would shape themselves, and what occurrences might be looked for in the largest sphere of politics. Perhaps this acquaintance with the greater issues of life gave him more sympathy. He knew men, knew their failings, their ambitions. You met him in some spring-time in the Strand with its unceasing rumble of traffic and its colour, and the glimpse of green at the end of a street leading to the Embankment Gardens, and you heard that he was just back from over there, a long way beyond town and the Silver Streak, maybe from Ashanti or Abyssinia. He had the warriors look the look of one who knows too much ever to be trivial and the stirring days of European war were all familiar to him. Perhaps this is what gives even his books which deal with the long ago a vital interest. Fashions change; humanity scarcely at all. On the battle-field men are much the same as when Alexander swept southward with his legions to India, or when the great wars of the Middle Ages threatened to obliterate the arts. So it is that his historical books have a deep significance. Pick up one of these, and you are taken back into the dim old past, and realise why men fought, though the reasons for the warfare are now as cold as the watch-fires of then. Here we have the grandeur of the chroniclers task. His to revive any latent ardour in a nation or an individual by drawing aside the curtain on what men did, and how they acted nobly for God and the king, for truth and the right, in the bygone days. Not in vain these wars, though the map of Europe has changed; and the historical writer who re-creates the best out of the stirring times that have lapsed, who shows in dramatic style why this guage of battle was thrown down, why that edict went out from Versailles, and what really was the inwardness of the long campaigns, which at a casual glance seem only to bewilder the mind, has a task which in importance is second to none. The young generation which has read his books and had its imagination fired will contain, of course, only a small percentage of soldiers, but the sense of grit and the dogged indomitable spirit to be derived from such works will stand in good stead to all, whether the battle be faced in the humdrum of daily life or actually with the forces of the king. Hentys was a grand influence for good in times of easy belittlement and cheap disparaging criticism of many of those elemental virtues which are nevertheless supreme in the making of a nation. He showed in rugged, graphic style what had been done on tented field, in grim old mediaeval castle. He recalled deeds which are a lesson for all time, and in his brilliant martial scenes there is the echo of the clash of arms. It does not require a poet to give value and significance to such a retrospect, though in this re-creation of past scenes, of the going and coming, the tramp of armies, the riding in of couriers to unfamiliar cities, there necessarily is much poetry as well as brave and heart-stirring effect, for in the panorama conjured up there is the whole sum of life, its doubt, its passion, and its tears.





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