Tall tales from the homeland

7th January 2005 at 00:00
HE Marshall's 'Our Island Story' has taught generations of children about the British Empire. How does it read on the eve of its centenary? Sean Lang finds out

Lady Antonia Fraser chose it as the book which has had the greatest influence on her work; it inspired the 10-year-old Kevin Crossley-Holland to embark on a history of the world; and in the House of Lords in 2000 the Earl of Onslow called it the best history book ever written. HE Marshall's Our Island Story, first published in 1905, must rank as one of the most influential works of history of the 20th century.

For such a famous work, surprisingly little is known about its author. The historian Robert Lacey, who also fell under the book's spell as a child, says that like many others he pictured HE Marshall as a crusty Victorian brigadier. In fact the initials stood for Henrietta Elizabeth and she was probably a Scottish minister's daughter living in Australia. Our Island Story begins as a conversation between two Australian children and their father, in which they learn for the first time of the faraway island that is their "real" home. Marshall's vivid narrative had a lasting impact. Lady Antonia Fraser drew heavily on the chapter about Boadicea, which she still commends, when writing her own novel, Warrior Queen; Robert Lacey found that his own account of Henry II and Thomas Becket had subconsciously mirrored the Marshall version he read as a child. Both also pay tribute to the iconic impact of AS Forrest's colour illustrations.

Marshall warns her readers that "this is not a history lesson but a storybook", though she hopes they will think more kindly of their history books when they've read it. Modern readers will certainly be struck by the way the book blurs the distinction between history and story. Not only is there not a historical source in sight, but many of the tales have long been recognised as myths. It's no surprise to find Alfred burning cakes or Drake playing bowls, but you also get Arthur and the Round Table, Robin Hood, and even Brutus, the mythical Trojan after whom Britain is said to have been named.

Marshall acknowledged that pedants might quibble at this, but she has an engagingly conspiratorial way of retaining the reader's faith. "Other people say the stories about Arthur and his knights are not true, but at least we may believe that in those far-off, fierce, fighting days there was a king who taught his people that to be gentle was not cowardly and that to be cruel was not brave."

There are lots of people being brave in Our Island Story: missionaries "convert" natives and a sergeant's wife at the siege of Lucknow hears the pipes of the Campbells coming to the rescue. This is old-style patriotic and patronising history of a sort we would baulk at today. If Marshall's heroes are noble, her villains are most heinous: it was "cruel, wicked" Romans who beat Boadicea (none of that "Boudicca" nonsense here). She even suggests that Nana Sahib, the Indian leader responsible for the massacres at Cawnpore, may not have been human but an evil spirit.

Marshall was certainly a firm believer in Britain and its Empire. Our Island Story was followed by Our Empire Story (1908) and histories of Scotland, France and the United States. But she was keenly aware that true heroism is found not in warfare but in peace. Her 1913 History of Germany made the chillingly prescient claim that "peace has done for Germany far more than all the wars and conquests of the Holy Roman Emperors, and the Germans who love their country well know the value of that peace".

Our Island Story was reissued in 1920, updated to cover the First World War, and it ends with a passionate plea for faith to be placed in the League of Nations: "Just as in the old days no baron had the right to break the peace of his country, so now no state has the right to break the peace of the world."

The book is a period piece, but it still makes surprisingly compelling reading for children. Kevin Crossley-Holland says that it gave him a sense of his own place in a continuing and many-layered story. Marshall's role as historical storyteller has passed now to the television historians, and Our Island Story has become just another part of the very story it once told.

Se n Lang is a research fellow in history at Anglia Polytechnic University and honorary secretary of the Historical Association. The text of Our Island Story and of some of HE Marshall's other writings is available from the Baldwin Project via www.mainlesson.com, www.tanglewoodeducation.com, and www.amblesideonline.org

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