One of the great things about studying history is that you can bring your historical knowledge and understanding to bear upon your own personal, family history. You can give context to your family’s past. And yet, history can remain something deeply personal. The best history is usually about people, their lives and times. I recently attended a symposium in the National Library of Ireland, hosted jointly by the National College of Art and Design and IADT. The topic for the day was “Small Histories”, the history of material culture that made up the everyday lives of people in the period 1870-1921. I gave a paper on Dick Fitzgerald’s How to Play Gaelic Football, but the personal nature of some material put me in mind of a book which my family still have that belonged to one of my grandparent’s when they were young, growing up in the 1920s.
My maternal grandfather, William Power, died in 1992. I was just four years old. He was seventy-eight. I have few distinct memories of him. And little enough of his effects were ever in my parents’ house. One of the things that was – an iron clock on a stand on which there was also a horse with one broken leg, white, increasingly cream in colour, lived most of the time in a cupboard in the kitchen. There was also a fish shaped bottle opener. Besides these, there were also a handful of books. The three books were utterly distinct. One of them, Steadfast and True: A Huguenot Tale, was first published by the Religious Tract Society in London in 1897, my grandfather’s copy an edition published in 1910. The copy of the book that was his, by the time it came to him, was his fourth-hand. Previous readers of the book were Laurence Grainger of 26 Philip Street, William Lonergan of no. 4 on the same street and George Hale of the Lower Yellow Road. When he would have read it first, he would have lived on the Lower Newtown Road.
The book, one of many in the publisher’s ‘Brave Deeds Series’, was written by Louisa C. Silke. Silke authored a huge number of similar books in the late nineteenth century, published by the Religious Tract Society, including Surly Bob (1881), Two Little Rooks (1886) amongst many others. Utterly forgotten now, Silke authored a huge number of books besides these and they all seem to more or less revolve around the same themes of derring-do that were so popularly promoted by publishers like the Religious Tract Society (RTS) in the late nineteenth century. Born in 1841 in Bristol, Silke lived in Bristol, Broadwater and later died in 1914 in Tonbridge, England the same year my grandfather was born.In total she authored over two dozen books in her lifetime, many of them for the RTS. The Society is well-known for its shift to producing literature to be consumed popularly by especially women and children – it also gave authors like Silke and others a chance to have careers as authors. As well as that, the Society it seems was concerned about, amongst other things, the decline in domesticity of men since the mid-nineteenth century and many of the stories it published promoted strongly a domestic role for men.
This book, more than the other two is the one which fascinates me most(the other two are Green on Bills of Sale Law in Ireland, Dublin: Ponsonby, 1888 and the other Emile Reich’s Germany’ Swelled Head: 2nd Edition, London: 1914). The book itself is weak at the spine and cover but regardless has held up strong since it was first published. At 102 years old, it is a remarkable piece of popular culture – utterly foreign but utterly knowable at once. The cover is green and depicts a scene on a beach showing a member of a religious order reading a scroll over the apparently washed up body of a British redcoat with white rolling waves and a cliff-face, in black.
Each chapter begins with an aphoristic quote from a wide variety of writers including Robert Browning, Oliver Wendell Holmes and many others. This no doubt part of the sense of pedagogy that informed the writing of these works for young boys like my grandfather for whom school was a relatively short part of their lives, primary school being the only compulsory part of the education system when he was born in 1914. Of his 78 years of life, only eight of those would have been spent in formal education. But these three books are maybe at least an indication of his interests. It is Steadfast and True: A Tale of the Huguenots that remains the most remarkable to me. To imagine him, a young teenage boy reading of a far off place and time in the hours after school in the tough Waterford of the 1920s is an amazing thing to think of. The bright green, white, red and striking black of the cover less faded than they are now, a century after they were first in a bookshop. The thought too of this book entertaining not just my own grandfather but at the very least three other boys is a fascinating one – although books pass hands today, it is easier to imagine what a rare treat actually owning your own copy of a book (for however short a time) was when it was less common than it is now. Although I could not be writing this without it having finally come to us, ceasing to change hands, that it came to have a final owner, as part of a tiny library, is also somehow sad.
The idea that a book that once gave to several boys the pleasure of adventure in a faraway time and place but probably hasn’t done since my grandfather finished reading it is a reminder that books, to retain their power, need readers. Nonetheless, perhaps this a new adventure that the book is going on: one where it will not only be read, but given a new lease of life as a small history, a little piece of Irish life.
 See John Tosh’s A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England on this subject; One of the few articles on the publishing habits of the Religious Tract Society that I could find was Stephanie Olsen ‘Daddy’s Come Home: Evangelicalism, Fatherhood and Lessons for Boys in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain’ in Fathering, Vol. 5 No. 3, Fall 2007, 174-196