Sixteen-year-old English schoolboy, Harry Sandwith, is on a one-sided ‘exchange’ in the home of a French noble family two years after the outbreak of the French Revolution. His father hopes that he will pick up some of the life-skills that plodding through an expensive private school for a final two years probably won’t give him. His hosts hope that the perceived English virtues of adolescent manliness will rub off on their own boys.
Dutiful and reluctant acceptance of their father’s orders to respect and make their guest welcome sets the tone at the beginning of Harry’s two-year stay. However, soon things change. With his openness and courage, he wins their admiration and the affection – especially after rescuing (at the risk of his life) some of the children who are attacked by a rabid dog. When the terror of the Revolution hits full pace, the parents give themselves up to the ‘justice’ of the homicidal mob. Harry then uses his considerable daring to lead the girls through the chaos of Paris, past the evil artifices of the town and country revolutionary committees, and safely across the Channel -winning the heart of one of the girls in the process!
The Terror offers Harry a chance to display his quick-wittedness and ‘courage under fire’. In so doing, he reverses the natural prejudices that being thrust into an aristocratic home were sure to generate. As with many of Henty’s male protagonists, Harry’s youth neither leads him to seek romance, nor to recognise its earlier awakenings in others. But when maturity is hastened through the facing up to the dramatic responsibilities that life throws at him, he tenderly and chastely nourishes and protects it.
With In the Reign of Terror, published almost 30 years after Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, there is a keen sense that, no matter how dreadful things may seem, an individual can always make a difference. Henty’s 122-book formula again proves successful here, i.e., throw an honest adolescent with fortitude – and who has been raised to respect and obey his parents – into the eye of one of history’s ‘perfect-storms’ and watch him thrive. Add a sprinkling of clean love that develops in proportion to the protagonist’s ability to assimilate it, and you have a blue-print for character that any discerning mum who wants to be proud of her son will easily recognise.
David Breen is a teacher working in New Zealand.