“By a biased, prejudiced and ignorant historian.” Who else but Jane Austen could start a book with such a cheeky line? Austen opens England’s history with those words, and she would just get funnier from there. “There will be very few dates in this story,” she warns her readers in her introduction. Anyone looking for a more serious historical text should look elsewhere. She did not write to teach, but to express herself, in her own satirical way.
Austen was only fifteen when she wrote England’s history in 1791, but she was already finding her place as a quick-witted writer and social commentator. As a teenager, the prospect of publication was not yet his ultimate goal. She wrote primarily as a form of self-amusement and for the private entertainment of her family, which allowed her a high degree of freedom for developmental experimentation with form, style, and subject matter. She had several childhood projects underway, including a sarcastic history textbook that poked fun at the prevailing rigid approaches and attitudes towards the telling of past events. According to Austen researcher Misty Krueger, “many scholars have identified Austen’s story as a parody of the writing of history, particularly that of Oliver Goldsmith. History of England from the earliest times to the death of George II (1771) and his abridgement of these volumes (1774). It’s likely that Austen, having read the book as part of her rigorous self-education regimen, put the boring tome down with a weary sigh and said to herself, “I can do better.”
Jane Austen, as usual, had bold opinions on her chosen subject and was not interested in presenting fictionalized versions of anyone or anything. England’s history offers readers a mocking tour through the tenures of England’s monarchs by a guide who is not at all shy about knowing which ones she likes best and which she finds in bad taste. “It would be an affront to my readers if I supposed that they did not know the details of this king’s reign as well as I do,” she explains in her review of King Henry VIII. “It will therefore spare them the task of re-reading what they have read before, & myself the trouble of writing what I do not remember perfectly, giving only a slight outline of the main events which marked his reign.”
Young Austen had a particular interest in the reviled Stuart dynasty, and her work reflects the spirit of a young rebel crusader seeking belated justice for a cause. History had been violent and partisan towards the Stuarts; Austen would marshal their mangled reputation with her writing without sacrificing her own sense of humor in the process.
“Austen offers her readers a multivalent, multimodal text that embraces parody and historiography, while engaging in the traditions of martyrology and vindication, or defense,” notes Krueger.
Austen’s most serious efforts were devoted to Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, and her execution of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Austen points an accusing finger at Elizabeth’s advisers for allowing her ‘to bring this lovely woman [Mary] to a premature, undeserved and scandalous death. When Austen called herself “partial and prejudiced,” she meant it. With all my heart.
England’s history was an artistic collaboration. Austen’s older sister, Cassandra, an amateur watercolourist, was recruited to provide illustrations for the text. Cassandra, smart and talented in her own right, seemed to have fully understood the nature of the mission. His depiction of Elizabeth I is that of a sneering, scheming, witch-like figure with a crooked, crooked nose. Mary, Queen of Scots, is a perfect, innocent fairy tale princess with a doll-like heart-shaped face. One can easily imagine Jane and Cassandra sharing a good laugh over their two-man smear campaign against the revered Elizabeth who, in their eyes, was the villain, not the heroine, in the story.
Jane Austen would eventually pursue a career writing fictional (and more three-dimensional) heroines, and her brief stint as a historian matched the scope of the work itself, which spanned only thirty-four pages in the manuscript of Austen’s early writings titled “Volume the Second.” Austen may have realized later in life that being “partial, prejudiced and ignorant” did not allow her to explore the full potential of her literary abilities after all.
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From: Michelle Levy
ELH, Vol. 77, no. 4 (winter 2010), p. 1015-1040
Johns Hopkins University Press
From: Misty Krueger
The Eighteenth Century, vol. 56, no. 2, special issue: Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries (summer 2015), pp. 243–259
University of Pennsylvania Press
By: Jane Stabler
Nineteenth Century Studies, Vol. 21 (2007), p. 1–18
Penn State University Press
By: Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer
The Historical Journal, vol. 53, no. 4 (December 2010), p. 827–848
Cambridge University Press
By: GR Batho
The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 127, part 1 (April 1960), pp. 35–42
Edinburgh University Press