John De Falbe on H. E. Marshall, Our Island Story

Putting the Story into History

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The year 1905 was not the zenith of the British Empire in territorial terms (surprisingly perhaps, that was 1947, before Indian independence), but imperial confidence was about as high then as it would ever be. No baleful auguries of the Western Front had yet been observed, no rumours of equal political rights for native peoples had reached suburban English parlours. The future would be a triumphant continuation of British supremacy, built on hard-won principles of good governance and justice. There can be few more solid expressions of that faith than the publication, in that year, of the children’s history book Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall. It is a stirring compendium of tales, beginning with Neptune raising himself from the waves and giving ‘his sceptre to the islands called Britannia, for we know: “Britannia rules the waves.”’

It proceeds via Romans, Vikings, Normans, Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts and Hanoverians to the ‘great and glorious reign’ of Queen Victoria. But it is not an uncritical chronicle of Kings and Queens. Many of them are roundly condemned as bad, and the narrative is alive with anecdotes of lesser heroes and heroines: Judge Gascoigne, for example, who sent Prince Hal to prison for contempt of court, and Jenny Geddes, who threw a stool at the Dean of St Giles in Edinburgh for reading from the new Prayer Book ordered by Charles I. And as early as Edward the Confessor, when he promised the crown of England to his cousin William of Normandy, we read that he ‘had no right to do this . . . The kings of England had really no power to act in great matters without calling together a council of the nobles and wise men. The English had always been a free people, who had a share of governing themselves. Their kings had been kings, not tyrants.’ However much one might wish to contend the truth of this statement applied to eleventh-century England, it is interesting that it was felt to be a notion suitable for a nur

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About the contributor

John De Falbe has been selling books at John Sandoe’s in Chelsea for over 30 years. He is the author of three novels, The Glass Night, The Bequest and Dreaming Iris.

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