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Not the good old days of history

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I’ve just put the image of Lady Jane Grey below as an ornament in the sidebar of my home blog, Philobiblon. The image is from Stories of the Lives of Noble Women by W.H. Davenport Adams, a text of 1883.

I’ve got a couple of these books, usually Victorian or Edwardian, and obviously designed as suitable presents for school and Sunday school prizes, or for unimaginative grandparents to give their grandchildren.

That seems to me to be the market anyway – another of these texts, Brave Women and Their deeds of Heroism by Joseph Johnson, was given to Edna Smith by the Wigan and District Equitable Co-operative Society for the “Children’s Examination, 1900-1″.

They are fervently religious, respectful of authority, and frequently light with historical fact, but they must have been an important source of hisorical knowledge.

They remind me of an incident in George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter (a much-under-rated Orwell, I’d suggest). Dorothy, the runaway clergyman’s daughter, has been forced to take a post in a miserable suburb of south London, and here she finds:

The whole atmosphere of the place was so curiously antiquated – so reminiscent of those dreary little private schools that you read about in Victorian novels. As for the few text-books that the class possessed, you could hardly look at them without feeling as though you had topped back into the mid-nineteenth century. There were only three text-books of which each child had a copy. One was a shilling arithmetic, pre-Great War but fairly serviceable, and another was a horrid little book called The Hundred Page History of Britain – a nasty little duodecimo book with a gritty brown cover, and, for frontispiece, a portrait of Boadicea with a Union Jack draped over the front of her chariot, Dorothy opened this book at random, came to page 91 and read:

After the French Revolution was over, the self-styled Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte attempted to set up his sway, but though he won a few victories against continental troops, he soon found that in the’thin red line’ he had more than met his match. Conclusions were tried upon the field of Waterloo, where 50,000 Britons put to flight 70,000 Frenchmen—for the Prussians, our allies, arrived too late for the battle. With a ringing British cheer our men charged down the slope and the enemy broke and fled. We now come on to the great Reform Bill of 1832, the first of those beneficent reforms which have made British liberty what it is and marked us off from the less fortunate nations [etc., etc.]….
The date of the book was 1888. Dorothy, who had never seen a history book of this description before, examined it with a feeling approaching horror. …
(Penguin, 1971, p. 187)

Did the “good old days” of history education ever exist, you have to wonder.

*****

I’m hosting the next History Carnival on August 15. Don’t be shy – nominate your favourite post! Email me (natalieben (at) journ (dot) freeserve.co.uk) or drop a comment here.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.