I have been really enjoying history, lately. Perhaps it’s my age showing. Perhaps it’s my way of dealing with the overwhelming amount of “history” that’s happening to us right now. It makes me feel like I have more perspective and I also feel like I relate to the people on the pages of history more now than I have before. Since all the novels assigned to my son for the school year are related to his history class—Modern World History—I get to do a middle grades tour de-last-couple-centuries, and I anticipate enjoying it all. The first book was Calico Captive.
The second book was In the Reign of Terror, by G. A. Henty. The kids are in the midst of reading it, and I just keep blabbing to them about Henty and about Les Misérables. Why? Well, as far as Henty goes, I had never heard of the guy, but I suppose I really should have. His popularity was a little before my time—like the 1890s—but many of his books still stay on middle grades reading lists. And when I say “many of his books,” I mean some of his 122 historical-slash-adventure fiction novels. Woah, nelly! Did you say 122? I did. I keep thinking of them as the Hardy Boys of historical fiction, though each book was a different historical event or time, from the Civil War to ancient Egypt, from freedom-fighting Scotland to—right here at In the Reign of Terror—the French Revolution. Which leads me to the second half of my “why?” Why Les Misérables? Because if pressed to reveal what I knew about the French Revolution before this month, I would have mumbled something like, “Onmyown, lookdownlookdown, onedaymore.” Despite the efforts of history teachers of my past, the most that ever stuck was Les Mis the book, Les Mis the musical, and Les Mis the movies, which means that the Revolution mostly meant romance blossoming out of the danger and sorrow, the downtrodden rising up and sacrificing for freedom!, revenge and forgiveness and basically new beginnings. It was surprising to me, then, to begin reading Reign of Terror.
Reign of Terror is one of Henty’s more enduring titles. I imagine the general make-up is similar to his others. A 1700s English teen, Harry Sandwith, is sent to France to live with a family of French nobility for the edification of the young monsieurs. The Revolution worsens until the house is in disarray, scattered between prison, the countryside (trying to flee the country) and in hiding in the city. Young Harry must do what he can, even risk his own life, to protect the daughters of the house, even if they are the only ones to survive the violence. This perspective—from the standpoint of a friend of nobles and from the angle of mere children—the Revolution doesn’t look quite so shiny anymore. You still see a gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots, but you also see the executions of the enemies of the people as murders of, in many cases, innocents (including women, children, and clergymen). Jeanne and Virginie are just girls: girls who have now lost everything including their parents and most of their family and who still possess the will to live and to love.
I don’t know about you, but I like when my perspective of history is stood on its head a little bit. Seeing things from different sides lets me know that there is complexity in the issues of today, as well, not to mention that history is so big: it’s impossible to see it all clearly and to evaluate it from some sort of neutral worldview. I assume that I’m wrong about something, about many things, and to have assumed that the people overthrew the monarchy in a blaze of glory without burning some bridges was naïve (although mostly just not something I had thought much about). Considering there are some parallels between the French Revolution and what is happening in our country today (not too much, but some), I found this reading of the Revolution interesting and edifying.
Yes, but what about the book? I can understand why Henty was popular with the lads of his day. The writing is okay, though it is outdated and was difficult for some of my students to read. My vocabulary sheets were like a page long for some chapters. But Henty’s characters are worth knowing and they have all sorts of adventures. On top of that, I’m sure adults were always thrilled to know that a reader of Henty would walk away with capital-K knowledge about an event, a time period, the food, the clothes, the customs, the weaponry, the conveyances, the inside of a lugger… The real point being that among all that learning is tucked fist fights, knife fights, daring escapes, executions, more daring escapes, and even a little romance. And, to top it all off, Harry grows from a boy into a real decent man.
I’m not going to recommend Henty too strongly, because, as I said, it is outdated and of okay writing. But I am tempted to read more of his books, myself. If I was a kid coming across these, I think I would feel the same. It’s like a spoonful of sugar with your medicine and satisfyingly formulaic plotting and characterization all at the same time.
NOTE: I did forget to mention that the cover I have, not an original, is an absolute travesty. It’s horrible. I am tempted to cover it with some brown paper. Harry easily looks to be in his 50s, and that’s just the beginning of it. You’ll know it when you see it. Oh, so bad. The original illustrations inside are fine.