Bringing up Great-Grandfather

Paul Sparkes
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Books for boys celebrated flags, guns, spears and Empire

“As Ned observed the preparations for the execution of his friend, the sweat stood in great drops on his forehead, and he would have given anything to be able to rush to his assistance and to die with him. Had his hands been free, he would without hesitation, snatched up a bow and sent an arrow into Tom’s heart to release him from the lingering death which awaited him and he would then have stabbed himself with a spear.”

“Ned and Tom become masters of the situation” (no surprise there).

So you think entertainment for young people today is all violence? The above segment is from the good old days. It is taken from a run-away bestseller, “Under Drake’s Flag,” written by that master of thrilling stories for boys, George Alfred Henty (1832-1902).

In their youth, our grandfathers and great-grandfathers turned page after page of violence as their young minds digested the output from Henty’s murderous imagination — anything from jungle escapades with wild animals and toxic insects to pirates who left trails of blood across wild, wild oceans.

For the girls, it was different. The adventures encountered by their heroines were never truly daunting. By the mid-20th century, Nancy Drew provided something of an edge when she gently excised criminality from society without herself being adversely affected.

The field of Henty and Horatio Alger (1832-1899) would evolve into that of Franklin W. Dixon (who was actually several writers, and androgynous at that) whose Hardy Boys came up through the 20th century into the 1950s and beyond.

But for Frank and Joe and their weight-challenged friend, Chet, much of the blood had been stanched and buried with Henty and Alger. Dixon’s books concentrated (in the midst of mystery solving) on extending much deference to a suit-and-tied father (Mr. Hardy) who worked constantly.

The old sword-and-pistol stories appear to have sold well here. I say “appear” because I cannot prove that. Nevertheless, today, any number of them repose in junk stores. They are not difficult to find. There are thousands available online. The little museum in Petty Harbour has several Hardy Boys books. Not too many years ago, I crept up into an old store’s attic in Chester, N.S., and saw hundreds of dust-covered Hentys, Algers and God knows what else, but included were books by Canadian Archer Wallace, who made a somewhat soft-edged contribution to the genre.

A mix of tragedy, some philosophy to put it in perspective and a little mystery to help the reader set aside grief and turn pages is part of the style of old adventure books for youth. This is from Alger’s “Sink or Swim”:

“On the third day after the body was found, the funeral took place. Harry attended as chief mourner, for his mother was compelled to remain at home on account of illness. But when the funeral was over, other cares forced themselves upon their attention. It is only the rich who can afford to give themselves up unreservedly to the luxury of grief. The poor must rouse themselves to battle for their bread … but Harry was young, healthy and sanguine and his spirits were lighter. ‘Whatever we do, Mother,’ he said, ‘we won’t despond. There are many great ways of getting a living and I know that we shall get along somehow.’”

In 1976, I read a magazine article, clipped it, folded it and slipped it into a copy of a shabby old G.A. Henty book which I have never read. The article was all about collecting adventure books, and especially those of Henty.

In part, it said that most antiquarian bookshops keep a few Hentys, but some in particular (it named them — in London) made them their specialty.

More interesting than that was the information that “Henty was so successful — his last 31 titles sold over 150,000 copies each — that his influence around the turn of the century was profound.”

In the mid-1970s, rare copies of Henty’s books sold for upwards of $100 each. The value of books as collector items depends upon whether they are first editions and also upon the number of copies printed. It’s not always easy to determine either.

As an example today, a good first edition of Henty’s “Under Drake’s Flag,’ issued in 1883, is worth about $200 Canadian.

George Henty must have made good money in his day. His competition for the young audience was virtually nil. There was no radio, no television, no movies. Reading, I think it is safe to say, was considered a delightful and eagerly anticipated occupation.

My grandmother once told me that when, as a child, she had learned to write properly, she would spend ages copying out text from books and magazines — only for the pure enjoyment of practicing handwriting. Imagine that in this day of the language of texting.

Another segment of “Under Drake’s Drum” will give you some of the flavour of such books in that period. The English were invariably the winners in whatever they undertook, whether it was swimming at night in shark-infested waters or taking on thousands of bloody-minded Spaniards burdened with filthy lucre from the New World.

Not unlike the ever-successful Hardy Boys of the future, Henty’s two heroes in this book are youthful, educated, impeccably honourable and with an infallibility to rival the popes of their time.

“When the Spaniards arrived within three or four feet of the top (of the barricade) Ned gave the word and a line of thirty powerful negroes, each armed with a long pike, suddenly arose and with a yell threw themselves over the edge and dashed down upon the Spaniards … the heavily-armed Spaniards fell over each other … the first line of negroes being succeeded by another armed with axes who completed the work which the first line had begun, the slaughter for a minute was terrible.

“For some thirty paces the negroes pursued their advantage and then, at a loud shout from Ned, turned, and with a celerity equal to that of their advance, the whole were back over the barricade before the Spaniards in the rear could awaken from their surprise, and scarcely a shot was fired as the dark figures bounded back into shelter.”

Perhaps these books subliminally became part of our conditioning. After all, we did accept without a murmur the properly English solution to our debt crisis in the 1930s and welcome a London-based Commission of Government.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:

Organizations: Commission of Government

Geographic location: Henty, Alger, Hentys Petty Harbour Chester Newfoundland and Labrador

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