The Controversial Works of G.A. Henty

George Alfred Henty, best known for his historical adventure stories that were popular in the late 19th century, was a prolific English novelist and war correspondent.

G.A. Henty was born in Trumpington, near Cambridge. He was a sickly child who had to spend long periods in bed. During his frequent illnesses he became an avid reader and developed a wide range of interests which he carried into adulthood. He attended Westminster School, London, and later Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he was a keen sportsman. He left the university early without completing his degree to volunteer for the Army Hospital Commissariat when the Crimean War began.

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Depiction of the Crimean War by Franz Roubaud

Henty was sent to the Crimea and while there he witnessed the appalling conditions under which the British soldier had to fight. His letters home were filled with vivid descriptions of what he saw. His father was impressed by his letters and sent them to The Morning Advertiser newspaper which printed them. This initial writing success was a factor in Henty’s later decision to accept the offer to become a special correspondent, the early name for journalists now better known as war correspondents.

Shortly before resigning from the army as a captain in 1859 he married Elizabeth Finucane. The couple had four children. Elizabeth died in 1865 after a long illness and shortly after her death Henty began writing articles for the Standard newspaper. In 1866 the newspaper sent him as their special correspondent to report on the Austro-Italian War where he met Giuseppe Garibaldi. He went on to cover the 1868 British punitive expedition to Abyssinia, the Franco-Prussian War, the Ashanti War, the Carlist Rebellion in Spain and the Turco-Serbian War. He also witnessed the opening of the Suez Canal and travelled to Palestine, Russia and India.

Henty once stated  in an interview how his storytelling skills grew out of tales told after dinner to his children. He wrote his first children’s book, Out on the Pampas in 1868, naming the book’s main characters after his children. The book was published by Griffith and Farran in November 1870 with a title page date of 1871. While most of the 122 books he wrote were for children, he also wrote adult novels, non-fiction such as The March to Magdala and Those Other Animals, short stories for the likes of The Boy’s Own Paper and edited the Union Jack, a weekly boy’s magazine.

Henty’s children’s novels typically revolved around a boy or young man living in troubled times. These ranged from the Punic War to more recent conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War. Henty’s heroes – which occasionally included young ladies – are uniformly intelligent, courageous, honest and resourceful with plenty of ‘pluck’, yet also modest. These virtues have made Henty’s novels popular today among many Christians and homeschoolers.

Henty’s commercial popularity encouraged other writers to try writing juvenile adventure stories in his style; “Herbert Strang”, Henry Everett McNeil, Percy F. Westerman and Captain Frederick Sadleir Brereton all wrote novels in “the Henty tradition”, often incorporating then-contemporary themes such as aviation and First World War combat. By the 1930s, however, interest in Henty’s work was declining in Britain, and hence few children’s writers there looked to his work as a model

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A Tale of the Crimea

Henty usually researched his novels by ordering several books on the subject he was writing on from libraries, and consulting them before beginning writing. Some of his books were written about events (such as the Crimean War) that he witnessed himself; hence, these books are written with greater detail as Henty drew upon his first-hand experiences of people, places, and events.

Even during his lifetime, Henty’s work was a source of controversy; some Victorian writers accused Henty’s novels of being xenophobic towards non-British people and objected to his glorification of British imperialism in such books as True to the Old Flag (1885) which supports the Loyalist side in the American War of Independence, and In the Reign of Terror (1888) and No Surrender! A Tale of the Rising in La Vendée (1900) which are strongly hostile to the French Revolution. However, In Henty’s novel In Freedom’s Cause: A Story of Wallace and Bruce (1885) the hero fights against the English, and bitterly denounces the acts of England’s king, Edward I.

Henty’s popularity amongst homeschoolers is not without controversy. Quoting from the chapter of By Sheer Pluck called “The Negro Character” (“like children”), American television host and political commentator Rachel Maddow called Henty’s writings “spectacularly racist”. Carpenter and Pritchard note that while “Henty’s work is indeed full of racial (and class) stereotypes”, he sometimes created sympathetic ethnic minority characters, such as the Indian servant who marries a white woman in With Clive in India, and point out Henty admired the Turkish Empire. Some even accuse Henty of holding blacks in utter contempt, and this is expressed in novels such as By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War and A Roving Commission, or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti. Kathryne S. McDorman states Henty disliked blacks and also, in Henty’s fiction, that “Boers and Jews were considered equally ignoble”. In By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War, Mr. Goodenough, an entomologist remarks to the hero:

They [Negroes] are just like children … They are always either laughing or quarrelling. 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. … They are fluent talkers, but their ideas are borrowed. They are absolutely without originality, absolutely without inventive power. Living among white men, their imitative faculties enable them to attain a considerable amount of civilization. Left alone to their own devices they retrograde into a state little above their native savagery.

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Illustration from the novel Facing Death

In the Preface to his novel A Roving Commission (1900) Henty claims “the condition of the negroes in Hayti has fallen to the level of that of the savage African tribes” and argues “unless some strong white power should occupy the island and enforce law and order” this situation will not change.

A review by Deirdre H. McMahon in Studies of the Novel in 2010 refers to his novels as jingoist and racist and states that during the previous decade “Numerous reviews in right-wing and conservative Christian journals and websites applaud Henty’s texts as model readings and thoughtful presents for children, especially boys. These reviews often ignore Henty’s racism by packaging his version of empire as refreshingly heroic and patriotic.”

Despite the controversies, Henty wrote 122 works of historical fiction. Several short stories published in book form are included in this total, with the stories taken from previously published full-length novels. On 16 November 1902, Henty died aboard his yacht in Weymouth Harbour, Dorset, leaving unfinished his last novel, By Conduct and Courage, which was completed by his son Captain C.G. Henty. Henty is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.


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Know Your Onions

To “know your onions” means knowing a lot about a subject. It’s a phrase that isn’t so common anymore. It’s a child of 1920’s slang, a slang that dreamed up such gems as “the bee’s knees”.

This is perhaps one of the stranger idioms you will find. What do onions have to do with being smart, anyway?

It all starts with a man with the unfortunate last name of ‘Onion’. English language expert Charles Talbut Onions edited the Oxford English Dictionary from 1895 through the mid-20th century. C. T. Onions knew his stuff where the English language was concerned, which creates the possibility that has name alone was enough to get the phrase going.

But there was more than one Onions. Mr. S. G. Onions of the numismatic industry produced coins for English schools starting in 1843. These coins were not used as real currency, but instead as learning tools for students learning to count. They had inscriptions that explained how currency added up, similar to “60 cents make a dollar” and so forth.

However, the first print appearance of “know your onions” didn’t occur until the 1920’s – in the U.S., far from either Onions’ lineage. The fact that the phrase seemed to first pop up in America suggests that neither of the Onions had a hand in its evolution.

Similar phrases, like “know your apples,” were created in the 1920’s, but only onions stuck around.

The idiom also makes for a great song.

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It Costs an Arm and a Leg

According to this common idiom, anything that costs “an arm and a leg” is very expensive.

Many claim to know where the phrase “an arm and a leg” came from. But what is the actual source of this strange idiom?

One incorrect source, part of a popular email titled “Little History Lesson” that spread like wildfire in 2000, claimed that something costing “an arm and a leg” comes from the days of George Washington. Some paintings, the email said, show Washington with an arm behind his back, and other paintings show all his limbs. The painters purportedly charged by the number of limbs in the painting.

But this story is false. While painters might charge for extra details or larger paintings, there is no evidence to suggest a per-limb fee.

The phrase only really shows up after WWII – way after Washington’s time. The earliest known source that phrases.org finds is from The Long Beach Independent in 1949: “Food Editor Beulah Karney has more than 10 ideas for the homemaker who wants to say ‘Merry Christmas’ and not have it cost her an arm and a leg.”

As part of the cost of WWII, many soldiers had lost limbs during the war. Perhaps these amputations created a dark influence over the English language.

Most likely, however, is the combination of two previous phrases from the 19th century: “I would give my right arm” and “If it takes a leg”.

The Fable Behind Willow Pattern Pottery

In simpler times, a romantic tale emerged. The story was set in China, but actually came from an English designer named Thomas Minton. The English often romanticized far-off, exotic places in the 18th and 19th century, so it only made sense that the tale would come around at that time.

Minton designed the now-iconic blue and white porcelain in 1790 and it has stayed in vogue ever since. The traditional willow pattern always features a willow tree and a bridge. The popular story behind willow pattern pieces was based on the design itself, rather than basing the design on an already existing story.

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A traditional willow pattern plate. Photograph CC 3.0

 

The story goes like this (via Wikipedia):

“Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.
On the eve of the daughter’s wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves (possibly a later addition to the tale, since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates).”

The style is so iconic that willow pattern pieces are often used in TV and film to imitate a classic 19th century setting. It’s truly a beautiful, traditional design that will doubtless stick around for a long, long time.

Why Do You “Lose Your Marbles”?

To “lose your marbles” means to go crazy. Once you lost your marbles, your sanity is far gone. But that seems like an odd association – what do marbles have to do with sanity?

There are a number of different possible origins of the phrase. But what was the first use? The meaning likely comes from the connection with a child losing his toys, such as his marbles, and not being happy about it. In 1886, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat published this sentence in an excellent summation of the connection of ideas: “He has roamed the block all morning like a boy who has lost his marbles.”

In the late 1800’s to “lose your marbles” meant getting angry. For a while “marbles” danced the line between meaning “anger” and “sanity”. One interesting note is that in the 1920’s, a person who had lost control had “let his marbles go with the monkey”, a phrase that came from a story about a boy whose marbles were taken by a monkey.

The meaning changed by the 20th century, however. In 1898 The Portsmouth Times published this line: “Prof. J. M. Davis, of Rio Grande college, was selected to present J. W. Jones as Gallia’s candidate, but got his marbles mixed and did as much for the institution of which he is the noted head as he did for his candidate.”

And in 1927, American Speech sealed the deal by defining losing your marbles as “Marbles, doesn’t have all his (verb phrase), mentally deficient.”

 

Sources:

Phrases.org

Idiomation

Keep the Ball Rolling

You’ve probably used the idiom before; you want to “keep the ball rolling”. The phrase, if you aren’t familiar, means to keep up a situation or activity, to keep it going.

The source of this phrase is early. It starts with an eccentric man named Jeremy Bentham, who wrote to George Wilson in 1781 to try and keep a conversation going. He wrote, “I put a word in now and then to keep the ball up.” (“Keep the ball up” was an older, British version.)

But the guy who really established the phrase was none other than Benjamin Harrison in his 1888 presidential campaign. His supporters created a giant ball covered with campaign slogans and rolled it from campaign to campaign across the country, chanting “keep the ball rolling”. They rolled the ball about 5,000 miles, across many states, to Indiana, Harrison’s home state.

Don’t you hear from every quarter, quarter, quarter / Good news and true, / That swift the ball is rolling on / For Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.

Harrison’s campaign was the first with a political slogan (“For Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”). Harrison’s campaign against Grover Cleveland was a close one, but Harrison won in the end.

That Just Takes the Cake!

You’ve heard the phrase before – often as an expression of incredulity. “That just takes the cake!”

But what does cake have to do with winning the prize, so to speak?

You may think it comes down to the game that revolves all around cakes, the cake walk – but the first “take the cake” reference occurred circa 420 B.C. Aristophanes’ fourth play The Knights, a tale of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, contained a line that literally translates to, “If you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours.” Of course, this doesn’t refer to a literal cake (though that would be pretty cool too). It uses “cake” as a metaphor for victory.

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“The true cake walk at the new circus.”

While this is a logical origin of the phrase, the use came and went in just the one line – disappearing until the 19th century. This is when William Trotter Porter’s A Quarter Race in Kentucky used this line: “They got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side…each one to start and ride his own horse…the winning horse take [sic] the cakes.” Once again, cake refers to victory.

This is where the cake walk comes in. In black southern communities of the U.S., couples dressed their best and paraded through a course with cakes with their best walk. The best-dressed, most charismatic couple won the walk, often winning some of the cakes they had walked through.

See this 1874 reference to a cake walk: “The cake-walk, in which ten couples participated, came off on Friday night, and the judges awarded the cake, which was a very beautiful and costly one, to Mrs. Sarah and John Jackson.”

It’s still a mystery as to why Aristophanes’ first real “take the cake” disappeared for centuries, and why it only reappeared in the 19th century.

 

Sources:

Phrases.org

Historical Origins

More Bang for Your Buck

The phrase means “more value for your money,” and it has a more political origin than you might expect.

It all starts in the 1950’s with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, Charles Erwin Wilson. He used the word “bang” quite literally as a reference to nuclear weapons because the new New Look security policy called for greater reliance on nuclear weapons.  In this context, Wilson used the phrase as “more bombs for your money”. The U.S. Military wanted to use more weaponry power and the phrase “bigger bang for your buck” could hardly be a better summation.

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Charles E. Wilson and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Arthur W. Radford observing a controlled explosion.

Thanks to the phrase’s catchy alliteration, it stuck around. But it did lose its political connotation as time passed on, moving instead toward the meaning that we know and love today.

The first transcribed account of “bang for the buck” appeared in New Language of Politics in 1968, where the author William Safire recounts Wilson’s invention of the phrase.

The earlier equivalent of “more bang for your buck” was Pepsi’s 1950 slogan “more bounce to the ounce”.

 

Sources:

Phrases.org.uk

Wikipedia

Web Citation

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen

You’ve heard the phrase before – “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” But did you know that we have a former U.S. President to thank for it?

The more obvious source of the phrase says that a kitchen with a hot stove and a hot oven will overheat. Only those prepared to withstand the heat will keep working in the kitchen.

Harry S. Truman used the phrase even before he became president.

Truman took that reasoning to heart and used the saying quite often. When he was a senator he found his favorite saying being written into a newspaper article:

“Favorite rejoinder of Harry S. Truman when a member of his war contracts investigating committee objects to his strenuous pace: ‘If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

President Truman on opening day of baseball season.

President Truman on opening day of baseball season.

His achievement of the position of president, of course, significantly increased awareness of the phrase. (Some suggest that it was actually Truman’s military adviser General Harry Vaughn who created it.)

Truman is also said to have created the phrase “pass the buck”.

It’s not surprising that Truman, known for his frank way of talking, spread this popular phrase to the public.

That’s All She Wrote

 

“That’s all she wrote” is an American phrase used to say that there is nothing else to say about a subject.

And where did it come from? Well, some say it’s the product of some unfortunate soldier in WWII. The tale goes like this: A soldier eagerly opens a letter from his sweetheart. He starts reading to his buddies: “Dear John.” They tell him to go on. “That’s it; that’s all she wrote.” The poor serviceman knows he just got dumped.

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It’s an entertaining tale, and plausible enough. The “Dear John” phrase started being used around WWII, and a number of newspapers reference the letters. Some people credit Franklin Roosevelt with originating the phrase, though that’s probably only because he wrote a lot of letters to people named John.

Concrete written records of “that’s all she wrote” start appearing in 1942; one of the first references from the St. Petersburg Times said: “The things that brought tears to their eyes included…the downcast GI about whom another told them ‘He just got a Dear John letter.’”

The source might also have come from a song by the popular singers Aubry Gass and Tex Ritter which had the line “And that’s all she wrote, Dear John”. And the musician Ernest Tubb sang the country song “That’s All She Wrote” with the lyrics: “I got a letter from my mama, just a line or two / She said listen daddy your good girl’s leavin’ you / That’s all she wrote – didn’t write no more / She’d left the gloom a hanging round my front door.”

It’s perhaps not the most cheerful of phrase origins; but the original WWII tale made the phrase stick around to this day.