Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Our Island Story

I like history, particularly the history of the English-speaking peoples. This is quite rare amongst my generation for, when I was at school, history was renowned as the most boring subject of all, being a matter of memorizing dates of long ago events that seemed to have no relevance for our young lives. The reason that my love of history survived the experience of school comes down to one chance happening, an apparently innocent gift that later proved to be life-changing. Someone, I have no recollection of who it was or the event that occasioned it, gave me a book called Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall.

I was about six or seven years old at the time, the perfect moment as it turns out, since I had learned to read and was about to devour every book in sight. Our Island Story was one of the first of these and I read it repeatedly over the next ten years. A great, thick tome of a book, it became one of my most treasured possessions and I passed it on to my son, Mad, when he was old enough to read it. So often has it been read and referred to that now its cover hangs by a thread and it bears the scars of a long and useful life. There can be no better testimony to the worth of a book.

It is a history of the island of Great Britain, written for children by someone who must have loved both history and children for it succeeds admirably in reaching its clientele. Each event is given a chapter to itself and each chapter is three to four pages long, the perfect length for a young child to absorb easily. And H.E. Marshall understands the magic of history so that he or she includes legends and folk lore amongst the factual events, thereby allowing the history to live again in an imaginative child's mind.

At the time, I had no idea how deeply the book was affecting me. It was only in my late teens that I was able to see how it had revealed a new world and given me an overview of history that enabled me to survive the deadly teaching of the subject at school. I realized very early that it was not necessary to memorize more than a few dates; given the basic understanding of the flow of history that the book had provided me with, I was able to learn just a few pivotal dates and extrapolate all others from there. While my classmates sweated to fix innumerable dates in their minds, I was able to sit back and enjoy the story.

My interest in history continued after formal education and I developed areas that I read quite deeply into, the period between 500 and 1000AD in particular. I discovered that Our Island Story was a romanticized and very abbreviated form of the truth, yet it remained the foundation of my historical understanding; the overview of time that it gave me was still useful. And this is entirely in keeping with the Introduction to the book, as given below (it also becomes apparent that the book was written in one of the colonies, probably Australia):


"What a funny letter, Daddy," said Spen, as he looked at the narrow envelope which had just arrived, and listened to the crackle of the thin paper.

"Do you think so?" said Daddy. "It is from home."

"From home!" said Spen, laughing, "why, Daddy, this is home."

"I mean from the old country, Spen."

"The old country, Daddy?" said Veda, leaving her dolls and coming to lean against her father's knee, "the old country? What do you mean ?"

"I mean, 'the little island in the west' to which we belong, and where I used to live," said Daddy.

"But this is an island, a great big one, Mother says, so how can we belong to a little island?" asked Spen.

"Well, we do - at least, the big island and the little island belong to each other."

"Oh, Daddy, do 'splain yourself, you are not 'splaining yourself at all," said Veda.

"Well," said Daddy with a sigh, "long, long ago -"

"Oh!" said Spen, "it's a story," and he settled himself to listen.

"Yes," said Daddy, "it's a story, and a very long one, too. I think I must ask someone else to tell it to you."

And Daddy did ask some one else, and here is the story as it was told to Spen and Veda. I hope it will interest not only the children in this big island, but some of the children in "the little island in the west," too.

I must tell you, though, 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.

H.E. Marshall.

"This little book" turned out to be 645 pages long; how different was the world then!

Mad told me recently that Our Island Story has been re-issued after many years of being out of print. This surprised me for it is very non-PC and makes no secret of its patriotism, something that was more fashionable in 1905, when it was first published, than it is now. A little research has revealed that there is a plan to send a free copy to each of the UK's primary schools. That is little short of miraculous. Perhaps there is hope for the old country yet.

The book held one more surprise for me, however. As a child, I never really noticed the name of the author but writing this caused me to become curious about the person behind the book. It turns out that H.E. stands for Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall. And there is an aura of mystery around the name. Consider what the Wikipedia entry has to say about her:

Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (aka H.E. Marshall). Born 1876 - date of death unknown. A British author, about whom almost nothing is known.

Isn't that amazing? An author, who helped to shape my life and (I now realize) the lives of countless others, disappeared into history so that not even the date of her death is known. There has to be some irony in that.

Technorati tags: ; ; .


I remember you reading that to me! I actually like History its my favourite subject tis interesting. That is a pretty weird fact about the auther.
Date Added: 16/12/2005

Gone Away
That's mah girl! :) I don't think any of you escaped having it read to you, Boogie. ;)
Date Added: 16/12/2005

I seem to remember the illustrations were one of the lovely things about that book. Like Jock of the Bushveld they held a style and magic from another age - not long past but gone nevertheless.
Date Added: 17/12/2005

Gone Away
You're right, Mad, and I forgot to mention the illustrations. And I also omitted to mention that the book is out of copyright in the States and the whole thing, including illustrations, has been put online at the address I mentioned in the article. Thanks for reminding me.
Date Added: 17/12/2005

Yes, this has become a bestseller in a politically "correct" age where only the views of the prevailing elite matter. God bless Henrietta. What a gal!
Date Added: 17/12/2005

I like the idea of a history book for kids. The problem with teaching kids subjects like history is the dry way things are introduced to them and learning is a chore instead of an adventure. I checked out the links, started reading myself. Blogs that teach you things, what will happen next?
Date Added: 17/12/2005

Clive, An incredible work, indeed. My favorite was "The Coming of King Arthur." My grandparents came from St. Andrews, Scotland during the early thirties, and with them, they brought a rich history of both Scotland and England. I hope someday to visit for a good look-see myself. Thanks for coming by. I appreciated the comment you left.
Date Added: 18/12/2005

Gone Away
It really is incredible that this, of all books, should have achieved such late fame, John. It almost gives me hope again... ;)
Date Added: 18/12/2005

Gone Away
I think that is what is so effective about Our Island Story, Twelve - it teaches by stealth! I sometimes wonder whether I would have developed an interest in history without its influence on my early life.
Date Added: 18/12/2005

Gone Away
Ah, the glories that were, Scot! England and Scotland may be of little account in the affairs of the great today, but they are both rich in history. I am certain you would enjoy a visit immensely. And I must thank you for your comments as well - they are always thoughtful and well considered.
Date Added: 18/12/2005

Always a pleasure to read your thoughts. Trying to make it to everyone on my blogroll this week to wish them a Wonderful Happy Merry Joyous Christmachanukwanzaa! Peace and joy to all of you!
Date Added: 19/12/2005

Back to the main blog

Have your say

You may use HTML in comments. A carriage return is <br />, use two for a new paragraph. For bold text use <strong></strong> and for italic text use <em></em>. If you know what you're doing feel free to use more complex mark-up but please no deprecated tags or JavaScript.

Name *

Comment *

Email *


Commenting has closed for this post


Plan your next journey with
Price Comparison UK
Copyright disclaimersXHTML 1.0CCS2RSS for news aggregators