History and historical literature

Posted by Helen Friday, August 15, 2008 ,

Being an historian by training and interest (though not, sadly, by employment) I have always found it odd that people should not be interested in history. But it’s about people and what they do and why they do it. How can it not be interesting? The usual reply consists of a list of unrelated and rather dull topics that passes for history these days in schools.

It has been obvious for some time that what excites people is narrative history, which is, presumably, the reason for the popularity enjoyed by popular history books and TV series in the last few years. Of course, as Andrew Roberts pointed out to me in an interview for the Conservative History Journal, this popularity may not last and can be replaced at any time by any other subject.

For all of that, it is clear that there are many people out there who want to know about history and feel cheated by its non-teaching at schools. This influenced Civitas a couple of years ago when it decided to reprint the old children’s classic, “Our Island Story” by H. E. Marshall.

I re-read it in its hardback version and thought it was a pity that the new edition was quite so heavy to pick up, what with thick glossy paper and rather thick cover. It was meant to be for children who would find it difficult to manoeuvre a hefty volume of that kind. This might well have been sorted out in the paperback edition.

There was something of a surprise as I did not remember how much of the history Henrietta Marshall wrote was actually based on literature, most notably, of course, Shakespeare’s plays. There are many quotations from the plays as well as other poetry.

Poetry, of course, is a great incentive for learning history, especially if it is of the more heroic kind and those plays have been inspiring debates for centuries. However, none of that is history in the acceptable sense of the word. It is more a reflection of the way teachers wanted children and young people to see their own national development.

Browsing through some second hand books at a summer fair recently I came across a slim tome I had not heard of before. It is by Peter Mandler, the Cambridge historian and is entitled “History and National Life”, complete with that famous picture of the young Walter Raleigh listening to the stories of an old salt on the cover.

This is an interesting topic and I shall enjoy reading the book and reporting on it, despite the rather poor review by Roger Spalding published in the Institute of Historical Research.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. I am proud that some one would write about history.

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. go history1

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