Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Books That Made Me Fall In Love With History - by H.M. Castor

When I think of the six wives of Henry VIII, in my mind’s eye I always see their faces arranged in a curious geometrical pattern – and not in chronological order, either. That’s because of this book cover:



It’s a 'Pitkin Pictorial' book from the early 1970s, and my family owned a copy when I was a child (I’ve just been joyfully reunited with the same edition courtesy of a second-hand bookshop). For me, not only will Catherine of Aragon be forever squashed under the weight of Anne Boleyn, with Jane Seymour to her right and Anne of Cleves diagonally above, but those particular six portraits are, in some quintessential way, those women for me, no matter what other portraits I've seen since (and notwithstanding the fact that the ‘Catherine Howard’ – the woman in black at the bottom right – has since been identified as the portrait of a different person entirely).

I loved these large-format Pitkin books as a child, and they did so much to ignite my love of history. Now, when I look at them, I’m slightly mystified as to why. Compared to many children’s history books in the shops today, they were very low-key. They didn’t have jokes or flaps, strip cartoons or stickers. I’m not even entirely sure that I read the (small print) text – or not all of it, at any rate. But I did read the picture labels, and the layout of the pictures themselves is imprinted so deeply on my memory that I know I must have stared at them for what added up to hours and hours.



I think the size of these books was important. They weren’t overwhelmingly long, as the ‘kings and queens since 1066’-type books needed to be; in fact they were thin enough to be held together by staples instead of a spine – as many picture books, indeed, were then. Just one subject per book, too (though the 6 wives came as a job lot). And plenty of beautiful colour paintings (how I pored over those costumes!).



The Henry VIII & Mary Queen of Scots books above are survivors from my childhood. (Interestingly, the Mary book, I’ve just noticed, isn’t a Pitkin book – it was published by Jarrold & Sons, but in almost identical style.) What haven’t survived the years – but I wish they had – are the Jackdaw folders I loved when I was just a bit older. Anyone remember them? Folders full of facsimile documents on a particular topic… and when I think of how we had to look at ‘gobbets’ for A-level History (a rather unappetising name given to extracts from historical documents, upon which we were required to comment) I realise what a bonus it would have been to’ve been given them in facsimile form in a decorated envelope – ah, presentation is all!

Books on history weren’t the only kind, though, that made me fall in love with the past when I was a child. Historical costumes were always a focus of fascination for me, and my sister had a book of fairytales illustrated sublimely by Severino Baraldi, who clothed his characters in beautiful medieval and renaissance outfits. 


Who couldn’t be beguiled by these?



(To see more of Severino Baraldi's gorgeous illustrations from the same book, click here.)

Similarly, the illustrations by Errol le Cain in my Picture Puffin edition of Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’ afforded me many, many hours of happy absorption, and though they contain a charmingly eccentric mix of costume styles, still they conjure a firmly historical world:



Just look at these footmen!



Later, when I was a teenager, historical fiction played its vital part in fanning the flames of my enthusiasm for history, most triumphantly in the form of ‘The Lymond Chronicles’ by Dorothy Dunnett: a series of six meaty novels set in the mid-16th century which I adored (and still do). They are superbly-written, grippingly-paced books, erudite, hilarious, exciting & moving: astonishing, in my view, both as literary achievements and as pieces of scholarship. They have suffered, over the years, the indignity of some terrible covers (the editions I first owned were so bad that I even started buying duplicates once I saw some better covers had been issued), but if you spy them any time, in good jackets or bad, I would heartily recommend that you pounce on them if you haven’t read them, as they are ferociously good.


One of the better covers, covering up some of the dodgy ones!

(Sadly, Dorothy Dunnett is no longer with us - she died in 2001 - but it’s only recently that I’ve seen this lovely interview with her.) 

What were the books that first fired your enthusiasm for the past?



H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK and by Penguin in Australia. It is now available in paperback, hardback & ebook format.
H.M. Castor's website is here.


Books featured in this post:
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by G.W.O. Woodward, published by Pitkin Pictorials.
Henry VIII by G.W.O. Woodward, published by Pitkin Pictorials.
Mary Queen of Scots by Rev. J.A. Carruth, published by Jarrold & Sons Ltd.

Magic Fairy Stories from Many Lands edited by Susan Taylor, illustrated by Severino Baraldi. Copyright Ward Lock Ltd.
Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper by Charles Perrault, illustrated by Errol Le Cain. Text copyright Faber & Faber Ltd. Illustrations copyright Errol Le Cain. Published by Picture Puffins.
The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, published by Michael Joseph Ltd.

24 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

For me, it was The How And Why Wonder Book Of Lost Cities, plus all those children's weekly magazines. Mind Alive was especially beautiful, with those binders you could buy. I also had a book with gorgeous illustrations of dinosaurs . But the How And Why book really did it for me, getting me into a love of history and archaeology. Reading about Schliemann made me go ad look up Troy, and n from there. The illustrations weren't glossy, but they meant something to me. Many years later, when I wrote Rolling Right Along, a history of the wheel for children, I was delighted to find the illoes were very How And Why.

Sue Bursztynski said...

And I remember those Errol Le Cain pictures - beautiful! :-)

H.M. Castor said...

I had a How and Why Book of Dance (ballet was my other great love) - it was fab. I love the sound of Rolling Right Along!

Michele said...

For me, it wasn't books that fuelled my love of history, but two teachers at my grammar school - Mrs Gorge (who sadly retired at the end of my first year and is no longer with us), and Miss Farrow. They both made History come alive in the most marvellous ways so that I wanted to be able to step back in time to meet the people and see the things they taught about.

JO said...

During my A lever history course we did a project on monasteries and their dissolution, so I went to Southwark cathedral to find stuff out - and was invited into their library, where I read an original copy of Mayhew's Life and Labour of the London Poor. Not much use for my project (I had to go back again to do that!) but I was enthralled - by the fact that, at 17, I was privileged to handle this book at all, and by the window of London life it gave me. Over fifty years on, and I still tingle when I think of it!

H.M. Castor said...

Wow, Jo - what an experience! And what a book that is, even in a less precious edition. And Michele - how wonderful to've had such teachers. I had a brilliant & inspiring teacher too - Miss Lenygon - who made a huge difference to me, and I'm lucky enough still to be in touch with her.

Leslie Wilson said...

We had that Cinderella! Such lovely illustrations, but iy seems to have gone missing...I think, Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutclifffe.

Michele said...

Been cogitating on this topic while doing my laundry (well, laundry's boring!) and I still can't think of a single book that influenced me as much as my two History teachers did. However, I know that novels like The Ghost of Thomas Kempe and Tom's Midnight Garden sparked a lifelong interest in time-travel (which, inevitably, was also fuelled by Doctor Who and Sapphire & Steel).

Sue Bursztynski said...

Ooh, yes, the original Doctor Who, with its time travel stories! Even as a small child I drooled over Ian, and wished I could have my own time machine. As for history teachers, I think I just had a crush on Mr Watkins, who was young and pretty. He did, however, tell us that story about the handmaiden with the silver headband in her pocket in the mass grave in Ur, which was in Leonard Woolley's book. That story stuck in my mind till I grew up and incorporated it into my children's book on archaeologists, so I owe him that much. There was one teacher in my later years who told us the stories of the two world wars and how the murder of Archduke Ferdinand nearly didn't succeed. She had also been in Italy just before the second war and said she'd had a dreadful urge to draw moustache and glasses on the giant photos of Mussolini! That sure brought history alive for me, but I was already in love with it. She also warned us about the bias in history books, something I didn't hear again till university.

Mark Burgess said...

I have the Pitkin Henry VIII and I also remember the Jackdaw folders, though I never had one.
The books that really stand out for me, and nurtured my early interest in everything, were the Ladybirds with their text on the left full page pic on the right format. For stories, Cynthia Harnett. Her lovely drawings and meticulously researched tales took me straight to medieval England.

Tamise said...

Thank you for posting the photo of the cover of 'Magic Fairy Stories from Many Lands.' I had that book and had forgotten all about it. Wonderful to see it again.

H.M. Castor said...

Michele, I'm glad the question enlivened your laundry session! And I entirely agree, time travel was something I loved in stories too, and the link is definitely there for me with my interest in history. Mark, I can't believe I've missed out Ladybirds from this blog! I've posted a picture on FB of my Ladybird Henry VIII to try to make amends. Thank you Leslie and Tamise for your comments, too. And Sue, I am intrigued by the silver headband - I must look that up...

Sue Purkiss said...

My first favourite would be the Ladybird book of Elizabeth 1. I remembered the pictures for years after the book had disappeared - and then I found a copy in Hay-on-Wye and they were still just as lovely! Our Latin teacher, Mr Gibbons, recommended Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece, and I read a lot of Jean Plaidy. Read Dorothy Dunnet much more recently, and I do agree - a very clever writer.

Deborah Watley said...

I loved the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These, slightly fictionized, stories start with Laura as a little girl in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and follow her family's moves to the prairies of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota in the late 1800s.

adele said...

LOVED Erroll le Cain. How lovely to see him again.
#And Our Island Story did it for me and later lots of historical fiction: Man on a Donkey, Mary Renault, Margaret Irwin etc. Super post.

Ann Turnbull said...

Oh YES, that story about the silver headband! Suddenly those ancient skeletons were living, breathing women - it's so poignant.

On my 15th birthday my sister gave me Life Under the Pharaohs by Leonard Cottrell, and I read it till it fell to bits (but thank goodness I still have the bits).

Theresa Breslin said...

Oh, yes - the Jackdaw Folders! The ones i "inherited" were falling to bits and so, for a quite while, I thought the letters were the real thing

Geri, The History Lady said...

Hi Harriet - for me it was Jean Plaidy's "Young Elizabeth" and "Young Mary Queen of Scots" which I still own but are yellow and dog-eared 40 years on! I think it shows that the things you love in your formative years influence your future more than you think!

Geri
PS: Could not agree more on Dunnett, just finished Game of Kings and reviewed it on blog. Late to the party, but loved it.

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