Couple of days ago I posted a quote from G.A. Henty’s novel THE CARTHAGINIAN
BOY. Some readers have e-mailed in to ask my opinion of Henty, as a writer
for kids. Apparently he is a big hit with the home-schooling market.
Brooke Allen had things to say about this in her New Criterion piece on
Henty a few months ago.
I can’t actually say I am a big Henty fan. I see the home-schoolers’ point:
His stories convey strong Christian values and masses of fascinating
historical information. Set against the sort of PC drivel that makes up
much of the “young teen” book market nowadays (courageous orphaned Native
American girl overcomes discrimination and teams up with street-smart
homeless African American boy to find happiness at last after being taken in
by loving same-sex couple…) they look pretty good.
However, there is one (for me) big drawback to Henty: He was a simply
terrible writer. He has no ear for the rhythms of speech, and as Brooke
points out in her article, he wrote in haste and didn’t bother to edit. At
one point in THE CARTHAGINIAN BOY, some people are — I am not making this
up — precipitated over a precipice. The broader skills of a novelist are
also absent. One never feels that Henty has much interest in his
characters. Sometimes he just forgets about them for pages at a stretch and
drones on about military deployments, diplomatic exchanges, or political
squabbles in a dull schoolmasterly style — not very captivating stuff,
surely, for a modern teen. I never find myself caring much about a Henty
character. If the author doesn’t care, why should I?
Brooke suggests some alternatives — good adventure stories by writers who
could *write*. Matters of juvenile taste kick in here: As a boy I *liked*
Scott and was bored by Stevenson, though now of course I can see that
Stevenson was much the better writer. You just have to try these things and
see what “takes” with the child. (For older teens, I think Hugo deserves a
mention — a tremendous story-teller, though a bit *noir* for 13-year-olds
perhaps. At any rate, if your kids enjoyed the happy-clappy Disney version
of Hunchback, you had better give them some careful preparation before
handing them the book…)
One historical-fiction writer I would put in a word for is Alfred Duggan , another great
favorite of my boyhood. He writes beautifully, pulls you into the inner
lives of his characters, and covers many neglected corners of history with
confident understanding. (Did you know, for example, that there was a
Frankish kingdom in medieval Greece?) For home-schoolers, I would have to
admit that Duggan doesn’t have the “muscular Christianity” approach of
Henty — his best characters are spiritually tepid and rather worldly. Not
surprising — Duggan belonged to the “disillusioned” post-WW1 generation.
(He was a college friend of Evelyn Waugh.) The stories are wonderful,