I write this letter with a heavy heart. Just when I thought all my fears and preconceived ideas about you had been conquered by your wit, charm and fantastic books, and that we were cruising along the highway together on the kind of extended literary road trip one can only have with a dead author, we hit the road kill. The size of an elk. Or, more appropriately, the size of King Henry VIII.
I’m talking about A Child’s History of England.
Seeing as how it was meant as an entertaining and easy introduction to the kings and queens of England for your son, and that it was published in installments in the journal Household Words for the edification of children everywhere, I really expected it to be more of an adventurous romp through the pages of history in your usual whimsical and accessible style. Now, however, being almost finished, I feel that if your son ever read it, that it was more of a punishment than a reward. The Brussels sprouts of your body of work.
It’s been painfully slow going, I have to confess. What frustrates me is knowing that you can write about historical events in an extremely powerful way – I need only think back to the riots in Barnaby Rudge to remember how awesome you are at weaving fact into fiction and creating an amazing and factual story. To be fair, almost a thousand years of history is quite a lot to stuff into 470-odd pages, and you have to give necessarily short shrift to many of the early monarchs, but after reading a few hundred pages it all blurs into a long procession of (usually) selfish kings, sidelined queens, greedy nobles continually fighting for power, and a succession of rather pointless wars and treaties and broken treaties and more wars, usually with France.
Being a degree-carrying historian myself, it’s rather hard to take anything purporting to be a “history” very seriously that doesn’t contain a) a good thick bibliography at the back, b) references to primary source materials, c) more footnotes on a page than text, and d) at least an attempt at an unbiased approach to the topic. Given that this is meant for a younger audience, I can forgive the lack of much of this, but really, Charlie, unbiased is a word that absolutely cannot be applied to you. In case you need reminding, here are a few of my favorites:
Of Henry VIII: “The plain truth is, that he was an intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England.”
Of Elizabeth I: “She had her fine qualities, but she was coarse, capricious, and treacherous, and had all the faults of an excessively vain young woman long after she was an old one. On the whole, she had a great deal too much of her father in her, to please me.
Of James I: “He was cunning, covetous, wasteful, idle, drunken, greedy, dirty, cowardly, a great swearer, and the most conceited man on earth.”
In fact, just about the only monarch of which you have anything positive to say is Alfred the Great, who, as you put it, “possessed all the Saxon virtues. Whom misfortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil, whose perseverance nothing could shake.”
I think I’d feel better about the whole thing if you had changed the title to something less lofty. Perhaps, “Some Interesting Anecdotes about Monarchs Who You Shouldn’t Look Up To, Because They Weren’t Very Victorian” or “Lots of People Die Brutal Deaths, But It’s Okay Because They Generally Weren’t Very Nice.” At least then your reader would know what they were in for.
The trouble with all of this is that even when I’m reading about something I didn’t know much about, say, the background and details of the Gunpowder Plot, I can’t be sure if what I’m reading about is the truth, or the truth as seen through your very particular gaze. Multifaceted I’m afraid you are not, my friend.
But you are still my friend, for all of this turgid history bogged down in a quagmire of Victorian values, and we must look to the future, thank god. So let’s stop poking the roadkill with a stick, get back in the car, and head for that ominous-looking Bleak House up the road.
Yours affectionately (if not historically),