Hands up those who have read Charles Dickens' "Child's History of England"?
With the 200th anniversary of his birth due on 7 February, I have - and I could not put it down. It is a fascinating insight into Charles Dickens' more serious thoughts - if you can call them that. This is a book which purports to be written for children but is in fact a heavily political description of history. from the point of view of the yeoman and former serfs of England.
Dickens shows himself to be a man of fascinating, strong and decisive opinions. The puzzle is why he should want to write in such detail about the "repulsive", inhuman and rich ruling classes of long ago.
This book is long for any child - even a Victorian one. However, it holds the attention, partly due to Dickens' sheer effort in putting it all together imaginatively and in shaping the narrative.
He must have read assiduously to examine these lost crannies of medieval history and obscure motivation. It is also teeming with characters, as Dickens' novels are, particularly with powerful nobles with the same family names, but living in different eras. He also masters the complex titles and intrigues of medieval French aristocracy.
In one sense, Dickens is incredibly unhistorical, though broadly speaking has a clear grasp of the sweep of time. For a start, the book hardly offers any dates. Nor does one know whether his stories are true or false.
For example, he offers an unforgettably touching story about Thomas a Becket's "Saracen" mother. He claims that his father met her while on Crusade and she fell deeply in love with him but he went home alone, having taught her two words: "Becket" and "London". Using the word London, she got a ship to London and then called out "Becket" through in the streets of medieval London finally found her love, who then married her. Sadly, this is entirely untrue. Becket's mother was apparently French. He admits that another of his tales about Queen Eleanor, the poisoner, is false - and admits he is telling it simply because "I like it". It is clear that the power of "good stories" overwhelms him, every now and then.
Above all, Dickens writes, slightly tongue in cheek, about medieval ruling males (Kings, Lords and Knights) as mostly, war-crazed, greedy madmen who should all have been hanged for 'crimes against humanity' - and above all for their unequal treatment of the poor.
He makes a lot of the unfairness of Knights and Crusaders being "ransomed" - while the poor were starved, lost their homes during the usual "rape and pillage", were cut in half, burnt at the stake (an "appalling" imported custom) or otherwise scewered in battle. Quite unlike Shakespeare, Dickens is refreshingly unimpressed by "bloodlines" or the dignity of "noble families". People have to earn his respect, whatever their title - which is also true in life - if one is honest.
There is no sense of "logic" or "balance" in Dickens' extreme world view, which is, as always, heavily biased to the poor. However, even he has his "exceptions" - like indigent Joan of Arc, who in his view simply wanted to "attract attention" to herself.
Charles Dickens, the historian, is utterly strong-minded, opinionated, instinctive, idiosyncratic, emotionally responsive to his often stereotyped or even "cartoon" characters, without any acceptance that there might be another way of interpreting the same facts. Inspite of this, his heart is usually in the right place. This utterly subjective bias, plus his passion and dazzling ability at English, nevertheless makes him a rivetting writer, even about history - and even if he lacks the breathtaking, rapier-like perception of Shakespeare.
Here is a snapshot of Charles Dickens' historical "opinions":
Mad, Bad or Ugly
Henry VIII - a monster with swinish eyes. He could never have been good- looking in his youth - if he ended up looking as Holbein portrays him
Richard "Coeur de Lion" - the biggest "thug" of English history who loved nothing more than "knocking heads together" and was almost more evil than King John. Both of them were completely treacherous sons. Richard should be called "Human Heart" not "Lion Heart"
Anne Boleyn - very pretty, but she deserved her fate for writing manipulative letters to the bored and lustful Henry VIII
Elizabeth of York - an "accomplice" to murder, ready to marry Richard III and wanted his wife Anne murdered. The implication is that she should not be "Queen" on our pack of cards.
Henry VII - cunning, treacherous and v unpopular, but at least he was not "sadistic"
Henry VI - inadequate - and probably cuckolded.
Wolsey - clever, flashy and very carnal
Scotland-bashing English Kings
The Good and Admirable
Henry V and his pretty Queen Catherine
Poor and courageous Lollards
Luther - who he says won Europe's freedom from priestcraft
The incredibly brave "men of Kent"
The mountainous, hospitable and harp-playing Welsh
Beautiful Queens of England
The Mentally Deluded
Joan of Arc - clearly she had a quite common "mental condition" ("Voices"). Dickens' view is that Joan should have "gone home" earlier in her career - and married a poor carpenter i.e. her fate, dying at the stake was mostly her fault. However, he readily assumes that those who burnt her (yet again, English "nobles") will burn in Hell for it.
To be continued.....