A Victorian author of ripping yarns about great figures from history and plucky empire-builders is enjoying a renaissance thanks to a children's 'audio theatre' series and the growth of the Christian 'homeschool' movement in the US.
G A Henty (1832-1902) was a novelist and war correspondent who wrote historical adventure stories such as The Dragon and the Raven, Through Russian Snows – about Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812 – and Under Drake's Flag. Henty was a firm believer in the virtues of the British Empire and set a template for uplifting stories which was followed in journals such as the Boys' Own Paper and Chums. Authors such as Frederick Brereton and Percy F Westerman, author of The Wireless Officer, also wrote in the 'Henty tradition'.
Though his books are not now widely read in the UK, his stress on the virtues of courage, faith and modesty have made him popular with Christian conservatives – though this popularity is arguably based on a very selective reading of his work.
Now, Heirloom Audio Productions has released its second Henty-based drama following the success of Under Drake's Flag. In Freedom's Cause, based on the Henty book of the same name, tells the story of the 14th-century Scottish hero William Wallace, famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart, for a Christian audience.
It stars Golden Globe winner Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna Bates in Downton Abbey, Billy Boyd (Pippin of The Lord Of The Rings), Skandar Keynes (Edmund of The Chronicles of Narnia series), and Brian Blessed.
Described as an "active listening audio adventure", the drama includes music and sound effects to create a fast-moving and gripping story.
Director Bill Heid wrote a tribute to Henty, saying: "Who doesn't enjoy a rousing tale of action, suspense and maybe even a narrow escape or two from danger? There is something to be said for a good, quiet life, but there is also, deep inside all of us, a part that clamours for involvement in something big and great ... This is G A Henty at his best."
He argues that Henty "shows us that there is a fun way to learn about history", that "courage and valor really are virtues" and that "we need a different perspective". "If we are only ever exposed to thoughts and voices from our own society and era, we will be sadly limited in our experience and understanding. It does us good to learn from other cultures, times and places."
In pushing Henty, Heirloom is tapping into – and helping to create – a market in the Christian homeschool movement which deliberately sets out to offer a counter-cultural educational narrative. For instance, one homeschool website says of him: "His books are historically accurate and are full of noble character traits... traits we want to instill in our boys such as: honesty, chivalry, integrity, courage, loyalty, honour, hard work, charity, justice, and the list goes on and on."
As Heid said: "Everything in our world is sort of sterilized and secularized, and the faith of the men has been taken out of textbooks in America and around the world. These projects are all about putting Christ back into history."
However, as well as an attempt to connect modern Christian faith with ideas such as heroism and self-sacrifice, there is an overtly political aim behind the Henty renaissance. Click through to the order form for In Freedom's Cause and the message reads: "Dear Friend, Thanks for making the decision to join the cause of freedom. Thanks for choosing In Freedom's Cause.
"We all know that our country is in trouble and it seems that a lot of Americans are searching for a cause to get behind. What better cause could there be than teaching our children about the true nature of freedom?
"Now, we all know that freedom isn't free. There's always a heavy cost. In this captivating TRUE story, William Wallace paid the ultimate price... his life. Folks, our kids need to know the real story behind Braveheart. They need to know that freedom requires vigilance, faithfulness and even sacrifice."
The narrative that America "is in trouble" is one beloved by conservatives. In a Rasmussen poll in December, 67 per cent of respondents said that "America was heading in the wrong direction". The figure rose to 87 per cent among Republican voters and 69 per cent among independent voters. The idea by itself is too vague to be of any practical use for policy-makers, but it may indicate a mood among voters (though recent opinion polls put approval for President Obama at above 50 per cent).
But is G A Henty the right recruit in the conservative cause? With all his undoubted story-telling gifts and personal courage (he reported from the front line in conflicts including the Crimean War, the Abyssinian expedition, the Carlist wars in Spain and the Franco-Prussian War) many even at the time found some of his views abhorrent. For instance in By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War (which Henty also covered) one character says of black people: "They are good-natured and passionate, indolent, but will work hard for a time; clever up to a certain point, densely stupid beyond. The intelligence of an average negro is about equal to that of a European child of ten years old ..."
Strangely, given his popularity with US conservatives, Henty wrote a pro-Loyalist novel, True to the Old Flag, which tells the story of the American Revolution from the opposite side. He was also accused of antisemitism.
While in many ways his books are admirable, they should arguably come with a health warning – which their promoters have shown little signs of wanting to provide.