Saturday, October 24, 2015

Charles Dickens: A Child’s History of England (1851-53)

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 company.

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!

Dickens was 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, or 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: 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.]



At 2:33 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

Then I have a present for you, Michael:

It's time to acquaint yourself with the Web Archive "Wayback Machine", one of those way out San Francisco outfits which survives on good vibes and donations.

And I guess people who like that also like, which does for images something similar to what Shazam does for music if you have a smartphone.

At 7:00 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

And now I find that the same text is available on the author's own site here

And it certainly is good! So many layers there. I particularly like his (Howard Macayeal's) panegyric upon the English Gentleman.

His wildness, coupled with your sensibleness, make my day.

At 1:06 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Ah yes, I always forget about Wayback. Does Google not webcrawl it?

What a treat to read the story again. I still get the same feeling I had then, an all too uncommon one, of happening on something I couldn't easily classify. I felt like that when I discovered your blog, too.


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