Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I Read Dickens: A Child's History of England

1. Old History
This history is old school. It is about Kings and Queens, battles, dates, Bishops and Popes, nobles and laws. Occasionally a commoner becomes prominent to be named, and even more occasionally the common people as a group are mentioned, usually when they are being oppressed, or when laws are passed to stop oppressing them. A few times Dickens mentions technological advances, usually comparing them to the advanced infrastructure of his day (c.1850).

As a history of England, other countries make an appearance only when they impinge on our shores. The Pope, France, Spain and, especially, Scotland and Ireland, are regularly featured. I was pleased that Dickens gave quite a fair account of Canute and his successors; the Danish Kings seem to get short shrift in modern times.

As I said, it's an old school history about what kings did, rather than, say, an economic history about why they had those decisions to make and what the consequences were for the wider society. One reason why it's old school is, of course, that it was used as a textbook in old schools, apparently up to WW2 in some cases.

2. Think of the Children!
For Dickens, as a child's history, it must also be a moral history.  Dickens is not shy in declaring actions good or bad, and will then happily tell us that this makes the king (or queen) a bad person who did bad things or a bad person who did a few good things, usually forced to do so by parliament[1]. This includes some events which modern historians do not consider as cut and dried as Dickens does.

As a history for children there are a few events that are lightly glossed over. Not people being burned at the stake or being executed in horrific ways, that's educational. However some ladies are "insulted" and some king's favourites are "favourites" rather than favourites, if you know what I mean.

3. A History of Histories
You know, this was kind of interesting. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this book is the source of many historical stories that "everyone" knows, but Dickens' choice of which stories to tell, followed by the adoption of the book as a textbook, certainly seems to have influenced general knowledge of history in this country for nearly a hundred years. His occasional statement that he doesn't know some things but it seems likely to him gives the rest the stamp of truth, even for unproven and glossed over events.

I don't think I can recommend this as a history even as an introduction. As a historical curiosity though, it's amusing, moves along swiftly and not totally divorced from the facts.

Read This: If you're curious about old school history.
Don't Read This: If you're looking for unembroidered facts, or even a clear labelling and division of facts, analysis of facts, conclusion and opinion.

[1] He does approve of a few monarchs, but in general doesn't like most of them. Somehow he never draws the obvious conclusion from this.
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