My copy of this book is sixty years old. It was given to me as a leaving present by my teacher when I left my school in Lagos to go to Jesselton, North Borneo. I covered it back then in brown paper to preserve it and the paper has weathered the years very well.
The inscription inside the front cover reads: Adele weston June 1st 1951. Lagos.
I wasn't as fussy then as I am now about the accent on my first name and I'm not a hundred percent sure of my capital letters either.
Our Island Story is written by a woman, Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall. It was first published in 1905 and in 2005, after having been out of print for ages, it reappeared in a centenary edition. If any of you was a teacher at that time, you might remember your free copy of this book appearing in the post. It was distributed, apparently, to every school in the country as a kind of present and I have no idea of the way it was received when it arrived, nor what the children who read it in the 21st century thought of it. Marshall mixes legends in with 'proper history' and that might have made it seem a little more 'fictional' than your average history book.
I'm certain that the kind of history purveyed in its pages is full of dreadfully old-fashioned things: Colonial not to say Imperialist views and a storytelling style that was common in the kind of book read by children in the Enid Blyton days: bland and cosy to say the least. There are clear villains and heroes. The British are always the best, it goes without saying, but one thing can be said for Our Island Story: it had lots of great women in it: Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Flora Macdonald, not to mention Florence Nightingale and the wonderful (no Boudicca nonsense here!) Boadicea.
Just get a load of that hair! This picture accounts for my passion for red-headed heroines. They feature in a great many of my books. Okay, Rita Hayworth and Anne of Green Gables can take their share of the blame, but Boadicea was the start of it. The caption under the picture reads: "Will you follow me, men?" - a feminist call to arms if ever there was one. I fell in love with the romance of history through pictures like these and the stories which accompanied them.
Look at this illustration showing the two Princes in the Tower. Was there ever a more heart-rending caption than the one under this picture? It reads: The days seemed very long and dreary to the two little boys.
And now see this. Look at the dresses accompanying the story of the Pipes at Lucknow. In the text, one of the women is described as being in a fever and crying out deliriously: "Dinna ye hear them? Dinna ye hear them?" and those are the words under this picture:
Well, if that was what one looked like while waiting in agonies of fever for the relief of Lucknow, it didn't seem to be such a terrible fate after all. The illustration led directly to years and years of very inadequate crinoline-drawing on my part. My rough book at school was covered in dresses just like these and these two outfits, the purple and the blue are what come into my mind when I think of someone in Victorian costume.
Here is Richard Coeur de Lion...oh, I loved his story! The caption reads. "Richard went away to Palestine."
Here, another favourite of mine to this day, is the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots. Her caption says: "For nineteen years, this poor queen was kept in prison." I found it heart-rending and cried whenever I read her story.
And here was a tale that bred in me a continuing love of romance. It's the story of Flora Macdonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie and the words under the picture say: "They took a sad farewell of each other." To me, when I was seven, it was total bliss, imagining that farewell. You can't see it very well in my photo, but that white blob at the lovers' feet is a pretty little sheep.
These photos were taken with my very low-tech camera and my non-existent photographic skills but I hope they've shown a little of the magic of this book. Almost every history book I've read since is 'better' in the sense of being more accurate or better-written or illluminating, but this will always be the enchanting one, the one that told me, loud and clear: There are brilliant stories in these pages of gallantry and tragedy and love. Come in, don't be scared you won't understand this thing called History. You will, and you'll love it.
PS Since I wrote the first draft of this post, it's emerged that fewer and fewer pupils are opting to study History for GCSE. Eve Edwards argued recently on this blog that historical novels should be used to enthuse children about history and she's right. She says, also, that History is being studied in all sorts of interesting ways today, when it IS studied. But I think there's also room for presenting it as a series of thrilling stories, just as H. E.Marshall did in her book.