The Corner

G. a. Henty

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,



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