Personalities with a past
series Tudors and Stuarts. By Peggy Burns. - 0 7502 1266 7. Ancient Greeks. - 0 7502 1503 8. Victorians. - 0 7502 1267 5. By Clare Chandler. Middle Ages. By Peter Chrisp. - 0 7502 1268 3. Second World War. By Adrian Gilbert. - 0 7502 1269 1. Scientific Revolution. By Nina Morgan. - 0 7502 1549 6. Roman Empire. By Penelope Scott and Susan Williams. - 0 7502 1525 9. Industrial Revolution. By Nigel Smith. - 0 7502 1548 8 Wayland Pounds 9.99 each
Paul Noble on people who made history.
Enthusiasm for Tudor houses, the wonders of the canal lock or some other technical triumph, can sidetrack a study of the past to such an extent that it becomes little more than an arid examination of objects when it should be an exploration of the rich and fertile world of human experience. Studying dinosaurs is not the only way to miss people out of the past and, as James I might have said, "No people, no history".
The History Makers series is a good antidote to this approach, because people are at the heart of the series, albeit special people. Most are famous, all played an important part in their own times or bequeathed posterity some kind of legacy. The worthy predominate, but people like Elizabeth Fry and Benjamin Franklin, with attributes or achievements to be admired, do cohabit with Adolf Hitler who is, I think, the only undisputed villain featured. Admiration is tightly controlled, though detectable, in the treatment of such diverse characters as Agrippina, Lady Jane Grey, Pliny and Eisenhower.
Each "history maker" is dealt with in two double-page spreads, although a few are given only one. A date chart - a colour insert in the margin - serves up a potted biography and gives instant access to the salient facts about the person and the period. A contents list, glossary and index as well as a list of books to read and places to visit are included. There are also a couple of paragraphs of publisher's hype dressed up as notes for teachers at the front of each volume.
Hard-bound and sturdy, each book is distinctively and attractively designed and all 46 pages are illustrated. The picture research is first class and, whether you look at the Roman Empire or the Second World War, you will not only find high quality pictures but many that are unfamiliar.
Stylistic variation due to the use of a variety of authors is generally an asset. Peggy Burns (Tudors and Stuarts) employs a narrative style ("The night was calm and quiet") and attempts to get inside her characters, whereas Scott and Williams (Roman Empire) use a functional mode borrowed, I think, from an early model Amstrad. "This is how . . ., "This is what . . .". Every single entry begins with "this".
Some treatments are much stronger on background information than they are on the personalities themselves and we learn what people were rather than who they were. Excusable, perhaps, in the case of Boudica about whom very little is known, but there are times (St Paul is an example) when one feels that the history makers are background in their own biography.
Choice of periods has the series straddling the primary secondary divide. The Stuarts are no longer part of the primary curriculum and the Middle Ages never were, whereas the Victorians and the Ancient Greeks are key primary topics. Readability factors suggest a secondary rather than a primary home for the books and this is certainly true for Morgan's meaty Scientific Revolution. Then again some are rather thin on content and more demanding older readers could be left wanting. In the Second World War, the Books to Read list includes Kenneally's Schindler's Ark and Calder's Einstein's Universe - definitely not primary reading.
Selecting a dozen worthies to represent a historical period is not easy and I enjoyed Wayland's selection which is interesting and not entirely predictable. Women are visible in all the volumes to the point where they outnumber the men in the Victorians. But some choices are idiosyncratic. Elizabeth Fry (barely a Victorian) is a history making Victorian but Queen Victoria is not and there is no room for Annie Besant. Julia Cameron's film made history but Fox Talbot's does not even receive the exposure of a footnote. The preference of Lady Jane Grey to Elizabeth I must have caused a few gyrations in the vaults.
Paul Noble is headteacher of Blunsdon St Andrews Primary School, Swindon.