In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle celebrates Dickens’s forgotten history book for children
A Child’s History of England (1851-3) occupies a unique place among Dickens’s works. The only one written specifically for children, and the only book-length work of history he wrote, it is the most neglected of all his books, and has long been overlooked by both critics and readers.
There has been no scholarly edition of A Child’s History of England published by any of the leading publishers, and few studies of Dickens’s writing – even his non-fiction writing – provide any sustained analysis or treatment of the book. Critical opinion has generally been unfavourable: epithets including ‘puerile’ and ‘weak’ have been used to describe it.
G. K. Chesterton’s tart dismissal has been echoed by the succeeding generations: ‘It is indeed A Child’s History of England, but the child is the writer and not the reader.’
But this does not altogether explain why it has attracted such scant critical attention ever since it was published. In many ways it can be used to shine considerable light on Dickens: on his political and religious attitudes, his prejudices, and his sympathies. Why the neglect? This question is posed by John Gardiner, in one of the few pieces of criticism to consider A Child’s History of England.
He provides several possible answers, chief among which is his suggestion that the book’s unusual status as a history book – and, furthermore, a history book written for younger readers – has condemned it to relative oblivion alongside Bleak House and Hard Times (the two Dickens novels which he was at work on both during, and immediately after, the writing of the Child’s History).
A Child’s History of England seems ‘out of character’ alongside Dickens’s titanic novels that deal with contemporary social issues such as urban poverty and the British legal system. These are what Dickens wrote best about, not the Wars of the Roses or the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Dickens was no historian, and whilst this will not work as an excuse for the book’s failings any more than the argument that it’s ‘only’ a children’s book, it is important not to lose sight of Dickens’s principal occupation as a storyteller, a writer of fiction. In this respect the fact that much of the book was dictated (to his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth) rather than written works in its favour, not against it.
Dickens himself, in a letter of May 1852, referred to the work as ‘the dictating experiment’, and Georgina Hogarth later recalled that Dickens dictated the work to her ‘while walking about the room, as a relief from his long, sedentary imprisonment’ engendered by the writing of Bleak House.
Dictation allowed Dickens’s storytelling talents to come more sharply into focus; much of his ‘history of England’, then, is as much a story as a history, and he is attempting to forge a narrative out of historical events which is not dissimilar to his practice or craft as a novelist.
This makes his decision to end his history at the Glorious Revolution of 1688, aside from a few cursory pages on the next one-hundred-and-fifty years of history which feebly attempt to bring the reader up to date, more understandable: he was following Hume’s History of Great Britain (1754-61) in this decision, but then such a conclusion to the book reinforces its sense of narrative, its Whiggish approach to the march of history.
Of course, this is not simultaneously to claim that the book’s biases and other limitations are therefore acceptable, inevitable, or excusable faults. But one absence in the limited body of critical scholarship on this book is of any sustained analysis of the book as a piece of writing. It has been treated merely as a piece of history, as if the prose itself did not matter.
Dickens’s intention for the book was made manifest in the dedication, at the beginning of the first volume printed in 1852, to his ‘own dear children’: ‘WHOM I HOPE IT MAY HELP, BYE-AND-BYE, TO READ WITH INTEREST LARGER AND BETTER BOOKS ON THE SAME SUBJECT.’
This makes the purpose of the book clear: Dickens did not intend the book to supplant or rival those books by Keightley or Macaulay which preceded it. These are writers who influenced him in the writing of the book, and from whom he borrowed the facts and details of the Child’s History. The book, rather, is intended by Dickens as an exciting or interesting study of the subject which will whet his children’s – and other children’s – appetites for English history, and is designed to act as a springboard to the discovery of weightier and more detailed works of history recently published.
Dickens is prepared to treat Henry in much the same way as he treats one of the characters in his own novels. His final summary of Henry the Eighth contains the most oft-quoted line from the Child’s History:
Henry the Eighth has been favoured by some Protestant writers, because the Reformation was achieved in his time. But the mighty merit of it lies with other men and not with him; and it can be rendered none the worse by this monster’s crimes, and none the better by any defence of them. The plain truth is, that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.
Now Henry is not even a ‘character’, but has been reduced to a ‘monster’, a ‘disgrace’, and a ‘blot of blood and grease’, all of which leaves the reader in little doubt about how Dickens feels about the king, and about how we should feel about him.
Dickens’s reduction of Henry to a character, and then to something less than a character, is characteristic of much of the writing in the Child’s History that is most alive to the absurdities of history. Here is Dickens’s summary of the Dissolution of the Monasteries:
There is no doubt that many of these religious establishments were religious in nothing but in name, and were crammed with lazy, indolent, and sensual monks. There is no doubt that they imposed upon the people in every possible way; that they had images moved by wires, which they pretended were miraculously moved by heaven; that they had among them a whole tun measure full of teeth, all purporting to have come out of the head of one saint, who must indeed have been a very extraordinary person with that enormous allowance of grinders; that they had bits of coal, which they said had fried Saint Lawrence, and bits of toe-nails which they said belonged to other famous saints; penknives, and boots, and girdles, which they said belonged to others; and that all these bits of rubbish were called Relics, and adored by the ignorant people. But, on the other hand, there is no doubt either, that the King’s officers and men punished the good monks with the bad; did great injustice; demolished many beautiful things and many valuable libraries; destroyed numbers of paintings, stained glass windows, fine pavements, and carvings; and that the whole court were ravenously greedy and rapacious for the division of this great spoil among them.
For all of the supposed ‘anti-Catholic’ bias of Dickens’s A Child’s History of England, and for all that this passage may reduce the complex historical event to a caricature, it is far from being a simple condemnation of the Catholic monasteries. Dickens’s allowance that there were ‘good monks’ among the bad, and his focus upon the physical objects which were destroyed in the Dissolution, demonstrate that, whatever his religious sympathies, he is not about to offer a piece of out-and-out Protestant propaganda.
The passage shows how a part of England’s heritage was destroyed in the process, and that however much he may have applauded the abolition of the monasteries, he cannot applaud the destruction of the art and architecture which formed a part of them.
The writing is among the sharpest found in the Child’s History: it demonstrates Dickens’s eye for the absurd, with the descent from ‘images’ to ‘teeth’ to ‘toe-nails’ a fine bathetic touch; and passages such as this from the Child’s History, which show Dickens’s writing at its most comical or typically ‘Dickensian’, are the most successful ones in the book. However, they also demonstrate that Dickens’s account is not so biased (specifically, so anti-Catholic) as has been claimed.
In fact, Cromwell and his fellow destroyers – who are little more than looters or pirates dividing their ‘spoil’ among themselves in Dickens’s account – come off far worse than even the worst of the monks, because Dickens’s description of their fraudulent relics amuses us, whilst his recounting of the destruction of the monasteries leaves this humorous voice behind.
‘The child is the writer not the reader’: Chesterton’s words may be truer than he even he, in his wit and wisdom, may have realised. In his enlightening study of Dickens’s style, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination, John Carey notes that Dickens’s humour frequently turns on his deliberate refusal, as narrator, to collude in the conventions inherent within everyday life. In other words, Dickens’s narrators – who are often children anyway, as David Copperfield and Great Expectations most obviously demonstrate – frequently see the world as a child would, and ‘see through pretence’, as Carey notes.
A writer of a history – even if that writer is Dickens – cannot adopt such a voice for a non-fiction work, but there is one crucial aspect of the style of the Child’s History which can be productively compared to this narrative style of his fictional writings. Because Dickens is writing for children, and intending them to use his book as a way of awakening within his young readers an interest in history, his style is at its most effective when it employs this childlike style of narration that is also often found in his fiction.
It prevents the book from being a tedious recycling of historical facts and ideas proposed by other writers, and transforms it into a book that is recognisably by the author of Oliver Twist and Bleak House.
It is when he reduces Henry the Eighth to a ‘blot of blood and grease’, or describes how the monks have toe-nails which they are fraudulently passing off as saintly, that he finds the most effective voice for the book.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.