Monday, June 20, 2011

Saint Bartholomew's Eve: A Tale of the Huguenot Wars by GA Henty


Homeschoolers have adopted a lot of things. Denim pinafores, for example. Mary Pride books. The Toyota Tarago. Some things go in and out of vogue: the day of the denim pinafore is probably (and thankfully) past. But some things remain, and GA Henty is one of them. As a veteran homeschooling friend told me, “My dear, I was force-feeding Henty to my little tribe of boys before you were born”--no doubt during the early 1980s! (Practically antediluvian.) Unlike the denim pinafore, however, GA Henty books have only grown in popularity. I grew up on the gorgeous cloth-bound Preston/Speed hardbacks (The Dragon and the Raven was the first I read), but Vision Forum also publish a dazzling array of his many, many works.
GA Henty's shtick—and he had a shtick in the best possible way—was military history. Take a young English boy, about fifteen or sixteen, with a careful upbringing; send him away to the wars; let him meet famous people—Napoleon, Hannibal, Coligny, Josephus; send him through the great battles—Austerlitz, the taking of Tenochtitlan, the seiges of Leyden, Acre, Rhodes, or Jerusalem; then send him home loaded down with honour and a rescued fiancee.
Henty's Wikipedia page has a section entitled “Controversial views” in which it is stated that “Henty's popularity amongst homeschoolers is not without controversy, particularly because some of his work has been considered racist by political commentators such as Rachel Maddow.” It is but to laugh. Henty wrote 122 books. Most of these did not even touch on interracial relations. All of them heavily stressed the importance of bravery, honour, gentleness, mercy, and kindness to all people, even enemies. The thought of 'political commentators such as Rachel Maddow' sitting about gnawing on their knuckles because other people's children are being taught to be both lethally intelligent and angelicly magnanimous stirs up pity rather than resentment. Let them gnaw; but it's a lovely day, dear readers, to buy your first Henty book or your twentieth.
It has been a few years since I last read a Henty book—it may have been A Knight of the White Cross that I read last, or In The Reign of Terror, or Lion of the North; I forget. There was one I'd always wanted to read, though: Saint Bartholomew's Eve, about the massacre of the French Protestants in 1572. When I found it on Librivox.org, I downloaded it with glee and prepared to listen to a GA Henty book for the first time in maybe five years.
How did I stay away for so long?
Philip Fletcher is a child of two worlds—on one side his father, an English yeoman, and the hard training at the local English school; on the other side his noble French mother, a Huguenot refugee, and her family. Philip's family, staunch Protestants and most of them refugees, watch the terrible events unfolding in France with horror as more and more Huguenots spring up to be massacred in greater and greater numbers. Wishing to contribute in the only way they know how to the Protestant cause in France, they bring Philip up to the best of both worlds—English hardiness and steadiness tempered with French skill and grace. At nearly sixteen, already a fine swordsman and possessing a keen intelligence, Philip travels to France to fight alongside his young cousin, the Count de Laville. France during the Huguenot Wars is a dangerous place for a young Protestant of any nationality, and Philip's readiness to take on any dangerous missions leads him into mortal danger again and again. At last the cousins' friendship with the young Prince of Navarre takes them into Paris for the latter's wedding to the King's sister Marguerite of Valois. Someone tries to assassinate the grand old General Coligny, and Philip's friend and valet Pierre anticipates some terrible danger. But surely nothing so awful as a general massacre could possibly be suspected?
I generally find that Henty books must be assessed on their own merits; they are almost their own genre. History and adventure are the main thing. Henty constantly flouts the rules of fiction, pulling back from his hero's viewpoint repeatedly in order to adopt the historian's voice. He pays much attention to important battles and sieges, usually narrating them as a historian before adding, as an afterthought, a summary of the hero's conduct in the battle. This is part of his respect for historical accuracy, which was rigorous.
His characters come in two flavours: Original and Historical. The latter are as plentiful, if not more plentiful, than the former. Henty's dedication to historicity really pays off with his depiction of historical characters. He has clearly studied and assessed them, then communicates that assessment. His characterisation of Henry of Navarre comes in very fine shades—he comes off as a brave, but self-indulgent and wilful boy. Meanwhile, his eulogy of Henry's heroic mother Jeanne D'Albret, Queen of Navarre, brought tears to my eyes:
She was, undoubtedly, one of the noblest women of her own or any other time. She was deeply religious, ready to incur all dangers for the sake of her faith, simple in her habits, pure in her life, unconquerable in spirit, calm and confident in defeat and danger, never doubting for a moment that God would give victory to his cause, and capable of communicating her enthusiasm to all around her--a Christian heroine, indeed. Her death was a terrible blow to the Reformed religion.

Saint Bartholomew's Eve was a moving and powerful story—and while Henty is an able storyteller and makes his historical narrative palatable with plenty of top-secret missions, duels, and midnight skirmishes, the power of the story owes more to the Author of history than to Henty himself. I knew very little about the Huguenot wars when I began reading this book, and now I am as much in awe of Jeanne D'Albret and Admiral Coligny and the rest as I could be. I dare you not to be inspired by the moment when Coligny was being carried off the battlefield severely wounded in the face after a totally crushing defeat:
For a moment the lion-hearted general had felt despondency at the crushing defeat, being sorely wounded and weakened by loss of blood; but as he was carried off the field, his litter came alongside one in which L'Estrange, a Huguenot gentleman, also sorely wounded, was being borne. Doubtless the Admiral's face expressed the deep depression of his spirit; and L'Estrange, holding out his hand to him, said:
"Yet is God very gentle."
The words were an echo of those which formed the mainspring of the Admiral's life. His face lit up, and he exclaimed:
"Thanks, comrade. Truly God is merciful, and we will trust him always."
Coligny then decided that no trifling flesh wound would stand in the way of religious freedom. He gathered the shattered remnants of his army, knocked off a few rich cities in order to pay his German mercenaries, made a lightning tour of hostile territory (ie, most of France) to pick up a few troops that were travelling in from the east and south, and then set out for Paris. Charles IX made terms.
So much for the historical content. Henty's original characters and plot are of slightly less quality than his historical reporting, as usual. His biggest fault is a tendency to repeat himself. I won't bore you with the details, but it generally goes like this: Terrible danger threatens. Philip thinks of a plan! He explains the plan to his friends. Then they carry out the plan in detail. Then reinforcements arrive, and ask what happened. Philip explains his clever plan. Everyone agrees that it showed uncommon resource and sagacity. Then some of them explain it to the late-comers.
A lesser fault may be the tendency of other characters to praise the hero (who is always a picture of perfection from first to last) to the skies. It's not the practically-perfect-in-every-way hero I object to, on principle. It's good to know what manly virtue and courage looks like under pressure, and the more three-dimensional historical characters make up for the hero's uniform wonderfulness. But it becomes a little irking when the Prince of Conde says, “My boy, I could not have done it better myself” for the fourth time. Just once, it'd be nice for the hero of a GA Henty book to do something incredibly intelligent and brave, and be totally overlooked.
This aside, have I mentioned how good this book is? I've long been a fan of Reformation history; and now I look back, I realise my enthusiasm for the bravery and faith of the Reformers is due in large part to GA Henty. He makes the history come to life. His characters introduce us, as well as the hero, to the great men and women of the time with their follies and strengths; he shows us history through the eyes of those that lived through it, and his battles are not long-dead causes fought by long-dead men over tracts of land that have long ceased to be important. As I travelled with Philip, Francois, Pierre, the Queen of Navarre, and Admiral Coligny through the battlefields of the Huguenot wars, I found myself gripped again and again by anxiety. Who would win this time? Who would live and who would die?
Why should you read GA Henty? Because he makes you care, and he makes you remember.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

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