September 05, 2009
One of the most common questions I hear from new readers of R.M.B. is, "What's the difference between Henty and Ballantyne?" In answer, I'd like to analyze both authors, and compare different points of their writing. Before reading this, please note that I love the works of both authors. For years, Henty was my favorite, and although Ballantyne has stolen that award, Henty is a very close second. As with all men, they had their strengths and weaknesses in writing. I will attempt to be as unbiased as possible, presenting both sides of each man's writing skill. My analysis is directed towards the majority of each author's books, recognizing that in some they depart from their normal style.
Also, if you're not familiar with G. A. Henty, or his books, here are several helpful articles which have previously been posted:
Did Henty and Ballantyne Know Each Other?
A Few Thoughts on G. A. Henty
Ballantyne and Henty: The Gentlemen Adventurers of the World of Boys' Literature
G. A. Henty
By style, I mean the way in which they wrote their books. In other words, what feelings are imparted to the reader, and how do these differ between authors?
Historical vs. Personal
Henty's writing embraces a historian's style. Henty does not provide in-depth analysis or commentary upon the actions of his characters. He's very matter-of-fact. Stories do not lack color, but Henty leaves the reader to form his own conclusions about the book.
Ballantyne, on the other hand, eagerly comments upon his character's actions and personalities. He will often take a few paragraphs, occassionally a few pages, to directly advise the reader in a certain area. Through the channel of Ralph Rover, narrator of The Gorilla Hunters, Ballantyne describes his feelings about boys who are afraid to encounter danger, calling them "muffs". A humorous passage in The Coral Island advises readers upon the benefits of cold-water baths, as long as they are taken in moderation. R.M.B. is definitely not afraid to directly recommend a particular course of action to his usually youthful audience.
Dialogue and Description
In dialogue, Henty and Ballantyne are very similar. They both possessed a colorful and moderate use of character dialogue. In the realm of dialogue length, I would place them between James Fenimore Cooper, whose uses paragraph after paragraph, and Jules Verne, who tends towards monosyllable expressions. In regards to description, they both have an excellent balance. Ballantyne spends his time on the geographic qualities of the area considered, commenting copiously on the natural fauna and flora of the land, while Henty imparts much historical wisdom about the country or war in which the main character is engaged. Occassionally, Henty will digress for a few pages, detaling extensive troop movements, but Ballantyne is not free of bunny trails either.
War vs. Place or Cause
With but few exceptions, Henty's main characters are caught up in a war. Battles upon land and sea, desperate dashes and spirited clashes all consume the pages of a G. A. Henty tale. That is the spirit of Henty's classics. His heroes are brave, resourceful, and energetic. They get the job done, and they do it well. And yes, often the job is defeating the enemy forces.
Does Ballantyne have this as well? Yes! But not always in the same way. Fighting often takes place in R.M.B.'s books, but not always in the setting of an official war. Sometimes this takes place with pirates, sometimes with cannibals, and sometimes in street brawls. Occassionally these conflicts embrace an official campaign, but it is not the norm. You see, Ballantyne consistently wrote about adventures in exotic locations, such as Algiers, the wilds of North America, or the South Sea. This perilous topograhpy recquired extrodinary survival skills to be learned by the protagonist.
A quote from The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction describes their specialties perfectly. "Ballantyne did for the English schoolboy's geography what Henty did for his history."
Sometimes, however, the settings of Ballantyne's books are not exotic. Instead, they espouse a worthy cause, endeavouring to familiarize the reader with that movement. Fighting the Flames displays the bravery of the London fireman, and the skill with which he fights the destructive elements of heat, smoke, and flame. Post Haste details the amazing amount of correspondance handled by the London Post Office, and the great efficiency obtained by that organisation. Although those institutions have been necessarily modernized in the last century, I find it fascinating to learn about their inner workings during the late 1800's.
Both authors are quite predictable about their choice of main characters. A young man, unmarried at the beginning of the book, he is strong, brave, and capable. Henty always has a clear cut, obvious fellow around which the book revolves. Ballantyne usually has the same type of character in his story, but often the intricate plot will follow other personages as well. His main characters are not so well defined as Henty's.
As an interesting sub-note, main characters are almost always British, Scottish, or Irish. Henty is not always able to do this in his historical novels where these nationalities did not yet exist, but whenever possible he does. It's humorous to note similarities between foreign main characters in his historical novels and "modern" British chaps. Ambua, main character in The Cat of Bubastes, belongs to the conquered Rebu tribe, made up of men with blue eyes and golden hair which are very similar to Britons. Malchus, in The Young Carthaginian, may belong to Carthage, but he holds the same dislike that a hearty British lad might to corpulent luxuries, preferring the simple and open-air life of the Gauls.
In this field, Ballantyne is much the superior. Henty's characters start out strong, brave, and respectful. And they remain so throughout the book. R.M.B., on the other hand, develops his characters superbly, showing their willingness to learn from experience, and often quelling un-Godly character traits which they posessed at the beginning of the story.
While not romantic novels, per se, both authors often introduce a modest and comely heroine who is saved from some terrible danger by the young, main character, leading to a marriage near the end of the book. With this said, Henty and Ballantyne offer a model of interaction between boys and girls. They are not falsely modest, and neither are they forward. The young men are respectful, courteous, and prepared to rescue from any danger. The young ladies are not flirtatious, nor forward, but examples of Christian femininity. It is refreshing to read books without fear of wrong relationships developing between hero and heroine.
Never, either by Ballantyne or Henty, is cursing put into print. Never. The Lord's name is not blasphemed, and no other swearing appears. I appreciate this, being a point which many other classic authors do not respect.
Henty's characters usually are not great imbibers of strong drink. Occassionally they "take a dram" after a cold, wet day, or some such reason. But Henty is careful to warn against the harm of excessive drinking. Ballantyne does the same, probably in somewhat stronger terms. Vividly he describes the follies and wickedness man can entertain when besotted by spirits. If not at the beginning, almost universally by the end of the book, Ballantyne's characters completely abstain from strong drink, (meaning any type of rum, wine, whiskey, etc.).
Victorian readers accepted smoking as normal. Henty and Ballantyne often followed this idea. Frequently their main characters are smokers. Some of their books, however, display the ridulousness of the habit. One thing to remember is that smoking was not largelly known to cause adverse health affects in those days. Indeed, many doctors in that time period advised their patients to smoke as a curative measure! The point could be argued in great depth, but I would simply point out that the reason we do not smoke, namely the harmful consequences to our bodies, was not understood at that time.
Steady vs. Winding
Henty's plots are predictable. There's a war going on, most likely the young, main character enters the army low in the ranks and makes his way higher. He is captured at least once, escapes imminent death, and returns to the battlefield. Often he saves a young lady from danger, and marries her near the end of the story. Although these things may be predictable, they are not always the case, and there are intricacies in each book, so don't stop reading Henty! With this in mind, Henty keeps on track with his plots. They are straightforward and dependable.
The plot is not Ballantyne's greatest strength. His stories wind around, diverging to many subplots, and running down bunny trails. We may leave the main character for several chapters to follow other [sub-main characters] in their divergent paths, until they meet more sub-sub-main characters who we follow along their divergent paths . . . and so forth. I will say that the best scenery can sometimes be found on the windiest of roads, and this holds true in Ballantyne's tales.
Colloquial and Brogue
I love the good Scottish or Irish brogue that both authors put into their books. (Also, the hackney English is quite interesting). The way in which a man talks gives insight into his character, land of nativity, and upbringing. It can be hard to gain this flavor when reading unless the author can skillfully reconstruct words to appear as they would sound in real life. Both do a great job at this underestimated facet of writing.
Henty was an Anglican, belonging to the Church of England. Ballantyne was a Presbyterian, an elder in the Free Church of Scotland. They both had differing theology, and different perspectives. So far, I have agreed with Ballantyne's theology in all the books which I have read. Henty, although a firm Christian, and sound on many topics, does have some theological discrepencies which I regret. These, however, do not in my opinion present a great problem, as they are few and far between, and do not infiltrate the books.
So, all things considered, if I were stranded on a desert island with one author's books to choose from . . . I would pick Ballantyne. But if I lived in modern day America with the ability to buy a large variety of books . . . I would buy both!
Tutela ex Vulnero,