Henty’s With Clive in India

by Mark Wallace

Up until very recently, I had only the vaguest notion of who G.A. Henty was. Who he was, incidentally, was a late 19-century novelist of imperialism, writing dozens of formulaic novels set all over the globe involving militarism and conquest, mostly focused on English soldiers and their victories over various peoples. The books were aimed at a young readership. I was offered a copy of The Complete G.A. Henty through Amazon on condition that I review it on that site. I accepted. I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet, as I want to read a larger selection, but I’ve read one novel in full, With Clive in India.

This may not be Henty’s most representative novel. He notes in the preface that he has given more space than usual to historical detail, and, in fact, the vast majority of the book is historical rather than novelistic. The only more widely-read work I can compare it to in this respect is Moby Dick – that, too, starts off like a novel but soon ditches the genre almost totally to foist upon the reader endless information on a subject related to the plot. Henty’s style is nothing like Melville’s, however. Henty started out as a journalist, and his prose retains a bland journalistic tone. Whatever his aims were in the novel, they were not literary.

The information that Henty chooses to give is mostly military. Battle scenes abound, as the protagonist in Clive’s forces conquers his way across India, overcoming the French along the way. None of this is very interesting. What I thought would be worth noting, though, were the ideological techniques Henty used to justify and glorify imperialism to his young 19th-century audience. I can make a couple of points about this, some of which were a little surprising to me:

  • Religion: There is none. The Irish servant character, Tim, is overtly religious, but he’s played for laughs. The English protagonist, Charlie Marryat, only brings in religion once in the whole book, I think: when he’s talking to his love interest, Ada, and their lives are in danger he tells her to “pray God to give you strength”. He himself does not pray, though, then or ever, and religion appears to play for him no part. Nor is it introduced by the narrator at any point in relation to the imperial mission.
  • Race: Even knowing little about Henty, I knew of his reputation for racism. The racism in With Clive in India, then, was less overt than I had imagined. There is little denigration of other races, little sense that the Indians or other races present (French, Irish) are essentially inferior or less competent than the English: “Look what rough tools that man is working with, and what delicate and intricate work he is turning out. If these fellows could but fight as well as they work, and were but united among themselves, not only should we be unable to set a foot in India, but the emperor, with the enormous armies which he would be able to raise, would be able to threaten Europe. I suppose they never have been really good fighting men. Alexander, a couple of thousand years ago, defeated them; and since then the Afghans, and other northern peoples, have been always overrunning and conquering them.I can’t make it out. These Sepoys, after only a few weeks’ training, fight almost as well as our own men. I wonder how it is that, when commanded by their own countrymen, they are able to make so poor a fight of it.”

    The argument seems to be that the Indians are inferior in providing leadership. Herein is implied the justification for imperialism. I was surprised at how modest the claim was, ontologically: they’re really the same as us, as long as they have the right guidance. Of course, this can be seen as monstrously patronising, but when compared to Marlow in Heart of Darkness and his horror at the idea of distant kinship, I’m tempted to say Henty’s is a more tolerant view than some that were around at the time. Henty has less of the anxiety about race that you find in Conrad. Charlie and his servants Tim (Irish) and Hossein (Indian) all get along very well, and in a spirit of mutual trust and affection. The ideological energies of the novel don’t come from dwelling on the inferiorities of other races. Late in the novel Charlie introduces Hossein as follows: “He calls himself my servant. I call him my friend.” Hossein remains a servant, though, to the end. Henty idealizes the relationship, so that being a perpetual servant seems like a pleasant and rewarding activity.

  • National myths: Another element that surprised me slightly was Henty’s willingness to chronicle the less salutary aspects of English imperialism. The novel is named after the famous imperialist Robert Clive, and I expected a heroized depiction of him. That is offered, to an extent. But, firstly, there’s very little characterization of him, rather an account of his military campaigns. And secondly, though Henty offers encomia on Clive’s bravery, efficiency, etc., he also offers overt criticism. Clive is described by the narrator at one point as “wholly unscrupulous”. An episode involving extortion, fraud and a forged signature on Clive’s part Henty recounts in detail and attempts no defense of Clive, rather concluding that “the whole transaction [was] one of the blackest in the annals of English history”, “dishonorable” and “disgraceful”.

So, though Henty’s work is widely considered to be  concerned with advocating English imperialism, it seems to accomplish this less by religion, racism or national mythifying than by presenting the military enterprise as being enormously fun, and also financially rewarding. Henty perhaps judged that it is these elements of fun and reward that would appeal to a young audience and prepare them for imperialist ideology, and his popularity seems to indicate he was right.