Book name: On the Irrawaddy
Author: GA Henty
Publisher: Blackie & Sons
Format: Print, ebook, audiobook
Publication Date: 1896
Star Rating: 4/5
GA Henty was an immensely popular writer of fiction for children in Victorian times.
Due to the gendered nature of fiction for children at that time, GA Henty’s books were overtly described as being ‘for boys.’
On the Irrawaddy is set in what we would now recognise as Myanmar and in an area known as the Arakan that abuts what was then known as the Kingdom of Ava.
Stanley Brooke has been brought up in India. He’s English and is fourteen.
His father, a career soldier, has just died and his mother and sisters are about to return to England.
Stanley’s future is less clear. His uncle is in business locally and offers to let Stanley stay on a work for him.
It’s an intriguing feature of 1897, when On the Irrawaddy was published, and the earlier time when the book is set (1822) that his family accept going out to work full time as a good thing for a fourteen year old.
In 1822, England’s role in India had been based upon the trade via the East India Company. However, her soldiers and merchants were everywhere, including Calcutta.
War is brewing between the Kingdom of Ava and India, with the British troops playing a central role in holding back Ava’s territorial ambitions.
Naturally, we can understand that this is because the British Empire has ambitions of its own with regards to India and what we would today think of as Myanmar.
When the book was published, India was a firm fixture of the British Empire.
Stanley has many adventures of the kind that made GA Henty incredibly popular in his day.
When Stanley is separated from his uncle and war breaks out, he volunteers to assist his father’s old regiment as interpreter. He now speaks multiple local languages fluently.
He insists on acting as a volunteer so that he can obey a command from his uncle to return to their business without delay.
Stanley is then captured during an attack where the other officers are killed. He is taken as a prisoner deeper into Ava territory but escapes and, using disguise and his fluency in the language, is able to make his way back to his regiment.
This is just the beginning of his adventures!
Stanley is a well-developed character and highly likeable. He is loyal to family, regiment and British Empire in a way that (for authors and publishers of the day) made him an ideal role model for young men and boys reading his story.
While we would naturally respond differently, this is a valuable window into how children’s fiction was used in order to bolster the British Empire and the values considered essential to its welfare.
The modern reader is likely to have far more complex responses to this story and in particular its underlying philosophy. The values that Stanley embodies such as loyalty, bravery and honesty are timeless. Yet we would oppose them when placed in the service of colonialism.
On the Irrawaddy was never dull. The characterisation was subtle, Stanley is likeable for many different reasons and the background was very vivid. Some of the early chapters leant a little heavily on summarising the military situation in the area before Stanley’s story began, but once it got going it was full of action and courage. Exactly what GA Henty’s young readers wanted to immerse themselves in!
I really enjoyed this story. GA Henty always delivers.
Thank you for reading my review.
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