March 04, 2003

In Times of Peril, G. A. Henty

Completely politically incorrect novel, by modern standards, and sadly unsteady by its own. I have been reading Henty because Neal Stephenson's characters' defence of Victorian principles in Diamond Age seems thin to me, but relevant because the Victorians are so not dead to us - still the parents against which modernism clumsily rebels - and, of, course, there is the daily possibility of my own nation acquiring an empire in a fit of deniability of mind.

Two things were interesting about the political incorrectness; one appealing, one less so. This is a tale of two preposterously courageous young English brothers Warrener, in their early teens in the Indian Mutiny in 1857; they reconnoiter in and out of the losses, seiges, reliefs, sallies, sappings, and reconquests of about a dozen towns and cities, among them the massacred retreat from Cawnpore, the long defense of the residency at Lucknow, Oudh, and Delhi. From what I remember of trying-to-be-unbiased histories of the East India Company and the Mutiny & sequelae, some of the mutiny at Cawnpore really was disgusting by the standards of all the civilizations involved - throwing babies' bodies into a city well - and many, though not all, of the mutinous troops behaved so badly to the peasantry as to make British rule look better. Points, as it were, for the righteous anger of the surviving English, if one can forget why they were there in the first place. One can't; Henty clearly comments that a large cause of the uprising was the British (Crown or Company? I can't tell) casually breaking treaties with adopted heirs of deceased rulers, on the grounds that adoption doesn't count, which was done with no warning - ungentlemanly by Henty's standards - and with scant reason, as adopted heirs were not worse rulers than born ones, and was a total strategic error, since all the other rulers who were adopted or had adopted heirs suddenly worried a lot about the value of their treaties.

As represented by Henty - who was probably whitewashing, but I like to see the moral standards of the age in question - the soldiers who broke oaths are not worth any treaty or quarter; soldiers of neighboring states who fight against the English, and even the kings who command them to do so, have to be conquered but deserve quarter and fair treatment (respectively, their cities are not fired, and their jewels but not their women are fair plunder). Another semi-moral and semi-tactical repeated theme is that people who know they will be killed if they surrender are very hard to defeat, even if it's inevitable that they will be. Finally, there are plenty of loyal troops - the pattern seems to me to have much to do with likely internal wars if the mutiny succeeds, but natives are distinguishable only by height to Henty; no discussion of what a Musselman is likely to think of a Sikh or v.v.. Damn-all consideration given to exactly what loyalty consists of.

I don't think there's even enough consideration given to loyalty among the English; I was flobbersmacked when the brother's father, seeing the budding romance between his sons and two girls who have survived the siege at Lucknow, sums up his opinion as "It would not be a bad thing, for Hargreaves was, I know, a very wealthy man, and there are only these two girls." Never mind romance; let's have at the inheritances.

Then the real mercantilism of the family comes up. They know they're going to take part in the conquest of the palace of the King of Oude; the contents of the palace will be lawful booty; and in the conquest of Delhi, the troops got a lot of jewels & so forth, but sold them for a drinks' worth apiece in the flurry. The Warreners cannily take as much of their pay in gold coinage as they can, so that they can buy up loot at the famously optimal - "blood running in the streets" - time. Now, this is not the chivalry that issues a dying flame in Beau Geste; much more Company than Crown. What really bothers me as a failure of internal standards is that they are knowingly outsmarting their own troops, as well as their brother officers. This especially bugs me because one of the brothers is an accidentally-detached navy man, and the navy was supposed to award even the lowest seaman a small but clearly defined share of all prizes. Do they have a moral qualm? yes; but it consists entirely of how they are to divide the enormous profits among the three of them. And finally, after a dashing last battle around, into, up, & on top of a huge domed tomb, one son is wounded badly enough to have to leave the service; but all possible family problems are averted when the father marries the widowed mother of the Lucknow girls, and the girls marry the brothers, so all the money stays in the family, see, and they retire to a pleasant square in London. At least Henty didn't wound one son in the thigh to avert arguments about primogeniture, but maybe his audience was too young to understand.

I wouldn't be dismayed by historical people mustering out and surviving on loot; it was a ungenerous society and a hard service. I'm amazed that the pop fiction of the time, the images of what a young lad was to grow up & sublimate, was so cheerfully open about ranking money above inconvenient national service as soon as the immediate peril was past. I wonder if that led more to the rise or the fall of the Empire.

But, as a final guilty pleasure, I really recommend the escape in the bear's skin and the fakir's hair. It still isn't Kim - the whole novel shows how Kipling was a better writer & a stouter moralist and a shock to the comfortable sensibilities of his age, however unregenerate he is to ours.

ISBN: none on this copy, an 1895 edition from the public library, now in storage but checked out every year or so (dated slips left between the pages). It is probably still in print for sale.


So wrote clew in Fiction (19th c.).

And thus wrote others:

i want to make a girl friend if any girl would like to be my friend.then plz email me.

yclept: gaurav at January 2, 2004 03:05 AM
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