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Our Island Story

Author ,
Category Articles
Date June 15, 2006

Our Island Story, was written by Henrietta Marshall, and has been republished by Civitas and Galore Park, (2005, £25). One of the saddest aspects of the destruction of our educational system is children not learning any history at school and not reading a great deal of it at home. Quite apart from the need to know the history of one’s country (and of other countries as well), history is one of the most exciting subjects for young minds. After all, it is about people and what people did and what sort of adventures they had in the past. Just like most people, I remember playing historical games, re-enacting various events, representing heroes and (in my case) heroines.

I asked a younger colleague recently whether she had liked history at school. So dull, she said. We did the suffragettes, industrial development and … what else? … development of social policy. No wonder she found it dull. No wonder history lessons, even if they exist, are the bane of every child’s life.

It is quite clear that the answer is more narrative history that starts at a certain point and continues to the present day or near enough. ‘Doing’ the Romans, the Tudors and the Second World War, all very inadequately, is not going to give any idea of the exciting adventure of history.

So, one can applaud Civitas and Galore Park Publishing for republishing the long lost Our Island Story by Henrietta Marshall. Many of us have the fondest memory of that book with its delightful illustrations and wonderful stories.

Little is known about Henrietta Marshall (most people, including myself, had not realized that H E Marshall was a woman) except that she wrote a whole series of history books for boys and girls.

So how do I feel about it after all these years? Allowing for the fact that I am not a child any more, I still find the book very enjoyable. Who can resist chapter headings like: Henry IV – The Story of the Battle of Shrewsburv or James VI of Scotland, James I of England – The Story of the Guy Fawkes Plot. They are all stories. How can any child resist that?

The mock-mediaeval illustrations, even when they depict later events, are a delight and I cannot imagine any child not becoming fascinated by the picture of William of Normandy riding alone to defy the English army or by the Princes in the Tower or by Judge Gascoigne sending Prince Hal to prison.

Above all, the book gives a coherent view of British history. Its starting point is England, as Henrietta Marshall wrote a history book about Scotland for children as well, (there is a treasure waiting to be published), but it becomes British history in the true sense of the word.

Nor does it incline in any political way, except to the influence of the Whig theory of history, and the sort of Whig history-writing many of us still experienced at school which was beautifully lampooned by Sellar and Yeatman in 1066 And All That is there. Nothing wrong with that, one might say.

However, I do have some complaints. The first is the format of the book. Books for children should have cardboard covers and cheap paper – a book to read in bed, or outside on a bench, or lying on the floor. The new edition is far too beautiful – heavy with thick, glossy paper. How many young children could actually lift it up and how many of the older ones would bother? The book is meant for school libraries and Civitas has made a great effort to get it into as many primary schools as possible. I wonder how many of the volumes were borrowed by pupils. Would they have been scared off by the sheer quality of the production?

The second criticism is more substantial and needs to be addressed by the history-writing community as a whole. Henrietta Marshall’s prose is wonderful but, inevitably, dated. It can strike many children (and adults) as being unbearably coy. Her habit of relying on Shakespeare and other poets for historical verification is questionable, though undoubtedly that makes for more interesting reading at times.

The truth is that we need a new Henrietta Marshall: someone who will write a history book for children but will do so seriously. The continuing volumes of deliberately funny and full of knowing winks and nudges of the very bloody history of this, that and the other, are no substitute. History and its readers, particularly if they are children, need to be treated with respect.

Taken with permission from the Salisbury Review Summer 2006

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