Into the Past
Captain Cook and the South Pacific. By Oliver Alexander the Great. By Charles Mercer. (Cassell, 21s.)
WALKING round Richard Buckle's lavish Shake- speare exhibition at Stratford, I found myself more irritated than stimulated by all the ingeni- ous inventions with which the exhibition sought to present the local colour of Shakespeare's age. The only moments at which awe, and a true stretching of the imagination, moved in me were when I was confronted with actual, not recon- structed, objects : a handful of old books, some portraits of Elizabethans, the Mortgage, the Will. Staring at those sprawling signatures beneath the undecipherable legal script brought Shakespeare and his times close in a way which no other man's reconstruction, however imaginative, could do. This book, this paper, were the actual things Shakespeare's eyes had rested on, as mine do now : there is the real excitement.
Jonathan Cape's 'Jackdaw' series of portfolios of historical documents use this easily-tapped excitement to stimulate in children the sense that 'History' is not just a collection of doubtful facts locked between the covers of a school textbook, but rather the detritus of lives as real as our own. Each portfolio—a foolscap cardboard en- velope—contains facsimiles of documents, maps, engravings, contemporary to the period in ques- tion, and a number of 'Broadsheets' written by the editor, John Langdon-Davies, which give the factual background to the events. Thus the port- folio on The Young Shakespeare has a 1580 engraving of a football game; a page from Holinshed and from Lily's Grammar; the 1593 maps of London and Westminster; a page from the Sir Thomas More play (three pages of this are thought to be in Shakespeare's hand: they are listed in the Stratford catalogue, but I couldn't find them); a page of photographs of Elizabethan buildings and another of facsimiles of Elizabethan handwriting. Mr. Langdon- bavies's broadsheets—inevitably something of a come-down after the excitement of the reproduc- tions, but obviously useful to schoolteachers— deal with the social and cultural background of Shakespeare's early youth.
Other 'Jackdaws' already published include The Battle of Trafalgar, Magna Carla—with a full translation of this great document—and The Armada, and many more are promised. In each, inevitably, one can find choices to quarrel With: why, for instance, include the Holinshed in the Shakespeare portfolio, and not the anno- tated Hall's Chronicle, in which the marginalia are probably in Shakespeare's hand? But such objections are personal and no real criticism of an invaluable educational series.
The Cassell series of 'Caravel' books, edited in America with scholarly thoroughness, are aston- 1 ishingly good value—large 150-page volumes illustrated on every page, frequently in top- quality colour, with 'a text that is clear, authori- tative, and packed with human interest. Here again the excitement of actuality is present: in Captain Cook and the South Pacific, for instance, are mingled contemporary maps and engravings, facsimiles of Cook's Journal, with photographs of the places he visited, virtually unchanged since the day he first set his wondering European eyes upon them. Ingenious juxtapositions connect the past with the present: Russia under the Czars shows on one page Meissonier's famous painting of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, and on the next a photograph of German troops bogged down in Russian snow and mud only twenty years ago. In Alexander the Great the editors have managed to fill the volume with magnificent illustrations from Roman, Greek and Persian art, and photographs of the ruins of cities which Alexander conquered. It would be difficult to overpraise the imagination and thoroughness with which this series is being prepared, or the high quality of its art work. If my own youth had been enriched by such books I would surely have been a better-educated man.