It all began, actually, with a picture. The scene: the Coliseum at Rome. In the foreground, her hands clasped with anguish, a despairing maiden. In the middle distance, a young man of muscular build is creeping towards a lion, obviously hoping to do it a bit of no good. The lion appears to have adopted a similar attitude.
From this illustration I could tell right away that Beric the Briton was my kind of book. In earlier years, poking through the stacks of GA Henty books on the tables at homeschool conferences, I had thought the entire book was about wild Queen Boadicea, British scourge of the Roman invaders. In fact I found that Beric the Briton is actually a snapshot of the Roman Empire around the time of the Emperor Nero.
It begins in Britain, naturally, where we meet our hero Beric. He is the chieftain of a sub-tribe of the Iceni—Queen Boadicea’s tribe. As a child he was sent to the Romans as a hostage, and has spent his days among them growing to appreciate their culture and taking copious notes on how to fight them. After the Romans’ brutal treatment of the Queen and her daughters, Beric joins the ill-fated revolt, escaping from the final battle with a handful of men with whom to wage guerilla warfare against the Romans in the marshes. After many adventures, Beric is captured and sent to Rome, where he trains as a gladiator; witnesses the great fire, the persecution of Christians, and the excesses of Nero; and even leads a gladiatorial revolt.
This all makes for a gripping yarn in the best Henty style. As usual, it’s packed full of historical details, especially in military matters. There are also some unusual characteristics in this book. It’a children’s book; so Henty is obliged to gloss over some of what is really going on in the plot. For example, he doesn’t explain exactly why it would be so shocking for a maiden of good family to go to one of Nero’s orgies. All the same he has obviously read his Suetonius, and does a good job of suggesting dim horrors.
I can imagine the literati sniffing at this approach, but despite its discretion Beric the Briton has interesting nuances. The treatment of Nero is particularly sympathetic—without trying to disguise his weakness or cruelty, Henty tries to be just to the man as someone who genuinely cared about art and was generous to his (momentary, doomed) favourites. He also dismisses out of hand the idea that Nero himself started the fire that burned Rome, attributing to him nothing more sinister than a delight that the old ugly city was burning to make room for a new and improved one.
Interestingly, this is the one Henty book I’ve ever read which focuses on the role of women. The women of Britain are tall, strong, inured to hardships, and liable to throw themselves fiercely upon the enemy. They are also able to take public office. On the other hand, Roman women are little better than possessions, and noble Roman women especially are expected to do little but be quiet and look pretty. When Beric becomes engaged to a Roman girl, he assures her that he will not treat her like a child, the way the Romans do. The interesting question to think about as you read Beric the Briton is this: Did Henty think the women of his own day were more like Roman, or like British women?
Although he expresses a preference for the capability and status of British women, Henty is by no means a protofeminist; in this book or anywhere. There is one episode in this book which particularly surprised me. Henty, that writer of wholesome books in which all the good people have good relationships (and I’m not complaining) depicts a divorce in this one. From her first appearance, the lady who is divorced later in the plot is a discontented nag. Not obviously or ridiculously so; not so much that Henty could not have treated it as comedy instead of tragedy. Nevertheless it happens, in a scene that for Henty is unusually charged with painful emotion.
One final thing before I finish. I particularly enjoyed the romance in this book. In many Henty books, the romance—there is almost always a romance—seems perfunctory. It is almost always firmly sidelined by the main plot. Fame, fortune, and family always await the hero; but the adventure is the main thing. Accordingly, whenever a young lady of good family pops up in a Henty plot, you expect the hero to marry her. Unusually, there are three such young ladies in this book, and Henty keeps you guessing for a while as to which of them is intended for the hero. Just as unusually, Henty takes time to show—instead of mention—the two of them getting to know each other. There was one scene, shortly after a death in the lady’s family, that was particularly moving.
Of course, then there was that particularly distasteful scene near the end where one of the young ladies tells Mrs Beric, half-jokingly, that her own husband is all very well, but of course she really wanted to marry Beric all along. Oh, Henty! Bad form!
Despite this fumble, Beric the Briton was enjoyable and exciting with some unusually well-drawn characters. Highly recommended.