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NA439512 - MARSHALL: Our Island Story, Vol. 1 (Unabridged)
Our Island Story is a remarkable history book. It was written at the beginning of the 20th century by H.E. Marshall—her full name was Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall—and she wrote a number of books for younger readers (boys and girls, she called them in the gracious manner of the time). They included Scotland’s Story: A History of Scotland for Boys and Girls (1906), Beowulf: Translations (1908), The Child’s English Literature (1909), A History of France(1912), This Country of Ours (1917), The Story of the United States (1919), and Kings and Things (1937).
History fascinated her, and she liked nothing better than to re-tell history through the personalities of the people who made it. Our Island Story for Boys and Girls to give it the full original title, tells the story of Britain by shining a friendly spotlight on the major figures—the rulers, the heroes, the villains and even the weak and the vanquished.
Addressing her readers, H.E. Marshall wrote:
‘I must tell you that this is not a history lesson, but a story-book. There are many facts in school histories that seem to children to belong to lessons only. Some of these you will not find here.
But you will find some stories that are not to be found in your school books—stories which wise people say are only fairy tales and not history. But it seems to me that they are part of Our Island Story, and ought not to be forgotten, any more than those stories about which there is no doubt.
So, although I hope you will not put this book beside your school books, but quite at the other end of the shelf, beside Robinson Crusoe and A Noah’s Ark Geography, I hope, too, that it will help you to like your school history books better than ever, and that, when you grow up, you will want to read for yourselves the beautiful big histories which have helped me to write this little book for little people.
Then, when you find out how much has been left untold in this little book, do not be cross, but remember that, when you were very small, you would not have been able to understand things that seem quite simple and very interesting to you as you grow older.
Remember, too, that I was not trying to teach you, but only to tell a story.’
And the stories are fascinating. Generations of young readers first encountered St Alban, King Alfred, King Harold, William the Conqueror, Thomas à Beckett, Edward I, Robert the Bruce, Henry V, Sir Francis Drake, and Queen Elizabeth I for the first time in Our Island Story.
These accessible life stories stayed with the young readers because the accounts are well-told—in a lively and colourful fashion. The fact that legend mixes with history doesn’t seem to matter. Wat Tyler rebelled and was slain—this is true. King John was forced to sign Magna Carta, the bowman of England won the Battle of Agincourt against exceptional odds, and the Wars of the Roses—the red and the white—divided England and civil war raged. All this did happen.
But the stories of Albion and Brutus, the legendary beginnings of England, Robin Hood, and perhaps the greatest story of them all, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, are the stuff of myth. Does it matter that fact and fiction interweave seamlessly? Not really, because fiction can influence history, as it has done so powerfully in the case of King Arthur. Knightly chivalry has affected the behaviour, thought and art of many following centuries—including our own.
H. E. Marshall was writing at a time when the British Empire cast its rule over a quarter of the globe. Now, in the 21st century, Britain plays a very different role in world affairs. And within itself, it is a very different place, having much more of a multi-ethnic populace with broader horizons and more versatile attitudes towards life and the way to live it than when Our Island Story was written.
Yet there is no reason to ignore the rich and thrilling history that made England and, more widely still, Britain. There may be times when H. E. Marshall speaks in a tone which seems dated; that is inevitable. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that many of our current prominent historians say it was this book that started them on the historical road, that awoke in them a love for the past, the characters and the events.
She takes her story to the beginning of the 20th century, the death of Queen Victoria and the gathering clouds of the First World War. Since then another century has passed, and the world has changed in ways that not even she could have imagined. But her book lives on.
Notes by Nicolas Soames
List of kings from Edward the Confessor
Edward the Confessor reigned 24 years, from 1042 to 1066 A.D.
William I reigned 21 years, from 1066 to 1087 A.D.
Henry II reigned 35 years, from 1154 to 1189 A.D.
Our Island Story has been republished by Galore Park
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