Blog Archives

Dickens’s Most Neglected Book: A Child’s History of England

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. Read the rest of this entry


J. C. McKeown’s Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle opens a delightful cabinet of surprising facts from the healing arts of Greece and Rome

‘A doctor should not quote poetry in support of his opinions, for such earnest zeal suggests incompetence.’ This quotation from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is one of the epigraphs to J. C. McKeown’s eye-opening (and occasionally eye-watering) A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome. Yet ‘incompetence’ is clearly the name of the game when it comes to the ancients’ attitudes to healing and curing people. The man who gave his name to the famous oath may have spurned poetry as a means of supporting medical advice, but reading McKeown’s meticulously compiled selection of surprising cures and baffling remedies makes one wonder whether, if you got sick in classical times, having a few hexameters of Homer recited at you might not have been slightly more effective than whatever potion or dressing was proposed by the local quack. Medicine – as in effective, evidence-based medicine – really is a very modern thing. For much of recorded time, our ancestors fumbled about in the dark, relying on superstition or odd logic to come up with possible correctives.

McKeown’s book is divided into fourteen chapters on a variety of themes, including ‘the doctor in society’, ‘attitudes to doctors’, ‘sex matters’, ‘women and children’, ‘preventive medicine’, and, of course, ‘treatment and cures’ (which gets two chapters). Within each chapter, McKeown has assembled an impressive range of sources from the classical world, such as Galen and Aristotle, but also less familiar figures including Apollodorus, Soranus, and the wonderfully named Cassius Iatrosophista, a Greek medical writer from nearly 2,000 years ago who is known as the author of Quaestiones Medicae et Problemata Naturalia. Read the rest of this entry

‘The Smallness of the World’: Dickens, Reynolds and Mayhew on Wellington Street

In this special guest blog post, Dr Mary Shannon writes about the remarkable London street where a number of noted Victorian journalists worked

Last week, I turned a street corner near Oxford Circus and bumped into a friend from university who I had not seen in a good while. We both exclaimed at the coincidence which had brought us both to this same spot at the same time. If one of us had chosen a different route, or been delayed by a few minutes, we would never have even been aware that we had been in such close proximity. What a chance encounter, we both exclaimed, in a city of 10 million people.

And yet, when I thought about it afterwards, the encounter was not so much of a co-incidence after all. The same factors which made us friends in the first place (age, interests, values) brought us to the same city and then made us familiar with the same areas of it: the same locations, the same streets. Our work and social lives brought us to similar places, week in, week out; it was only a matter of time before we crossed paths again. This kind of encounter is not unusual, I think, for many people who live in London. This may be a city of strangers, but it is also a collection of villages, and on a surprisingly regular basis I find myself bumping into friends on busy tube station platforms, on bridges, and at the theatre. When you share similar interests and lifestyles, London can begin to feel like a much smaller place. When you work in the same part of London, it feels localised. When you work on the same street, it feels simultaneously large and small at the same time. Read the rest of this entry