It would be
sensible to read nothing of Dickens but his novels, which are all-sufficient.
But since much of the material of A Child’s History
is now outside the
common knowledge of adult readers, it has become a more interesting book. The
most satisfactory part, probably, is the earlier phase up to the sixteenth
century, when Dickens is competently summarising the national epic, mixing
lively narration with a very faint colouring of Dickensian satire, rhetoric,
and romance. Mainly satire, since the epic is concerned with the actions of
kings and queens, and Dickens is temperamentally hostile to this sort of
Within a week or two
after Harold’s return to England,
the dreary old Confessor was found to be dying. After wandering in his mind
like a very weak old man, he died. As he had put himself entirely in the hands
of the monks when he was alive, they praised him lustily when he was dead. They
had gone so far, already, as to persuade him that he could work miracles; and
had brought people affected with a bad disorder of the skin, to him, to be
touched and cured. This was called “touching for the King’s Evil,” which
afterwards became a royal custom. You know, however, Who really touched the
sick, and healed them; and you know His sacred name is not among the dusty line
of human kings.
This is a
quotation, not to sell the Child’s History
to you, but to give you a
fair idea of what it is like. Most of the things that can be criticized are
exemplified here: tendentiousness, condescension, opinionatedness, a basic lack
of sympathy with his materials, and even with the business of history itself.
At the same time we are undoubtedly learning something about Edward the
Confessor – and so, though I really don’t want to sell the book, it strikes me
as perfect for someone who wants to read some history but whose tastes don’t
lead them towards ordinary historians.
If I wanted to sell
it, I’d move forward a couple of pages, to the close of the next chapter:
O what a sight beneath
the moon and stars, when lights were shining in the tent of the victorious Duke
William, which was pitched near the spot where Harold fell – and he and his
knights were carousing within – and soldiers with torches, going slowly to and
fro, without, sought the corpse of Harold among piles of dead – and the
Warrior, worked in gold thread and precious stones, lay low, all torn and
soiled with blood – and the three Norman Lions kept watch over the field!
seriously uninterested in history, but he was not averse to legends, and when
we read the earlier part of the book (say, up to the reign of Elizabeth) we are
reading material that we more or less accept as legends, because no
character-sketch by Dickens or anyone else will convince us that we really can
know what the character of, say, Edward Longshanks, was like. Considering the
serious uninterest, we must admire the competence he nevertheless demonstrates;
he can still make us read this book. And when he has a great story to tell (the
White Ship, Thomas à Becket, Agincourt
Mary Queen of Scots) he tells it with all the necessary spirit.
But with the entry
of James I, the great tension between Dickens and his material starts to cause
buckling. It doesn’t matter very much what Dickens, or anyone else, thinks of
Richard Coeur de Lion, because we accept that this material is just mist and
you can make what you like of it. But the seventeenth century was, clearly,
still a “live issue”. Dickens really intends to persuade us of the picture he
supplies here (I first wrote, “he really believes in the picture”, but that’s
more than I’m sure of) – this is, though
he doesn’t say so, a Macaulayan, anti-Tory interpretation of the recent past.
He is dead against the Stuarts – all of them, but especially James I and
Charles II, for whom he reserves his most ponderous humour (James is constantly
referred to as “His Sowship” – Buckingham’s phrase, apparently – while his
account of the “Merry Monarch” makes dismal play of the word “merry”). This
distaste drives him towards the strange positions of almost-hero-worship for
Cromwell and William of Orange. This back end of the book is interesting for
the recurring sensation (never experienced in the novels) that the Dickens
processing-plant is being set to work on material that is wholly unsuited to it
– and the material rises up and begins to suggest a fundamental critique of the
processing. But the author himself is uneasy, and you can feel that he is
beginning to find it all a bit of a problem, which writing a “child’s history”
should never be – for controversy and polemics require a greater commitment to
historical detail than Dickens is prepared to give. His perfunctory accounts of
the Plague and the Fire of London suggest flagging belief in the project. After
all that has gone before, his closing sentence on Victoria
seems like a tight-lipped joke.
She is very good, and much beloved. So I end, like
the crier, with GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!
Unlike the crier,
we suppose, he is tired and wants to get shot of the thing.
I think I have been
extremely sensible about A Child’s History
, so I am doubly pleased to
have made the chance discovery of this wilder piece, by Howard MacAyeal: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/9688/aae-Myoldman.htm
which might be the only story ever written that is concerned with Dickens’ book
– and it’s a good one.
[The story has long since disappeared: so has Geocities. I leave the dead link for old times' sake.]
Labels: Charles Dickens