March 11, 2006

Farm School bait: Children's history book reviews

Many thanks to Susan at Chicken Spaghetti who offers a delicious bunch of "Weekend Links," including chicken books, a must if your blog is entitled Chicken Spaghetti or Farm School!

Most interesting of all, though, as far as I'm concerned, is her link to the Guardian's round-up of children's history books, "A light in time's bottomless well," which includes E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World and H.E. Marshall's Our Island Story. I've already written about Island Story, though I haven't seen the book yet (I see a paperback version is available in Canada now, hurray), so it's nice to read a review. And I have my own review of Little History still in draft form; maybe I should use the Guardian article as the kick in the pants I need to get it finished and posted here. Might be a good project for the weekend while the kids are still under the weather instead of out in it.

The Guardian's reviewer Amanda Vickery calls it Island Story "heroically insular" and writes,
The government calls for an inclusive, multi-ethnic national history, but the right wants a patriotic narrative that will find the roots of British identity in Anglo-Saxon institutions and the battle of Trafalgar. The Daily Telegraph and the think-tank Civitas have tossed HE Marshall's Edwardian nursery classic Our Island Story into the breach. What would Henrietta Marshall make of this evangelical campaign? "This is not a history lesson, but a story book," she insisted in 1905. Frank about her debt to legend, she said her tale did not belong with the schoolbooks, but "quite at the other end of the shelf, beside Robinson Crusoe and A Noah's Ark Geography". ...

Our Island Story was written at the high tide of Rule Britannia. Edwardian bombast holds it aloft. No quality is lauded more than courage, but rudeness always gets a ticking off. Charles II was "lazy, selfish and deceitful, a bad man and a bad king", but many loved him because as well as being clever and good-tempered he "had very pleasant manners".

It is no bad thing to have Boudicca, the Black Prince and Bonnie Prince Charlie strung together in a sequential narrative. Yet the deficiencies of the national curriculum will not be addressed by a book that gives more weight to Merlin than to Richard II. To recommend Our Island Story as a textbook for nine- to 12-year-olds is like relying on Mel Gibson for the history of Scotland. "Remember," wrote Marshall, "that I was not trying to teach you, but only to tell a story." Just as well for the Maoris, who are written off as a race of savage cannibals.
Which to me, and Lady Antonia Fraser too (nothing like good company), is missing the point, because a) Island Story isn't meant to be a replacement textbook and b) its value is that it isn't a textbook. Although I quoted from her extensively the first time around, her argument bears repeating:
While the idea of a reprint is hugely welcome, you might initially wonder whether it stands up in today's climate or whether it contains racist horrors likely to make one cover the children's eyes. But actually there is not a great deal to cause modern liberal sensitivity to bristle.

There is the occasional eyebrow raiser: in one chapter, the Maoris are depicted as cannibals, which is not an account that would go down terrifically well in New Zealand today. But other than that, the general approach is not all that incorrect. Henrietta Marshall is, for instance, on the side of the colonists in the War of Independence; she believes that one should never have to pay tax without representation. ...

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed.

Indeed, the reprinting of this book brings the way that history is taught back into sharper focus. Much has been written about the decline in the learning of "chronological" history, of the fading out of narrative history, of the rise, at the cost to all, of social history that seeks to promote "empathy" yet robs history of its context. Marshall is a great reminder of the power of narrative history. I would regard myself as a narrative historian. I feel very strongly the need for chronology - it drives me mad when people can't place figures or events correctly. This book sticks out now because it seems to say "I will tell you stories", an idea with which I profoundly agree.
While H.E. Marshall doesn't cut much ice with Vickery, Sir Ernst with his more modern views and "expansive sympathy" fares far, far better:
Gombrich opens with the most magical definition of history I have ever read. The past is a bottomless well. Throw a burning scrap of paper down that well "and as it burns it will light up the sides of the well. Can you see it? It's going down, down. Now it's like a tiny star in the dark depths. It's getting smaller and smaller ... and now it's gone." History is the burning scrap of paper that illuminates the past. "And in this way we light our way back."
Submitted for your consideration...

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