Jane Austen, The History of England
Dedicated to her beloved older sister Cassandra, who also provided the illustrations, this history is a comic parody of the ponderous tomes that were foisted upon the young in the eighteenth century. Consisting of a series of brief characterizations of the English monarchs from Henry IV to Elizabeth I, it reveals the author as a fanatical champion of the Stuart cause and of the executed Mary Queen of Scots. Pulling no punches, she describes herself from the outset as “a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian,” thus slyly suggesting that perhaps some published historians should confess themselves the same.
Austen sometimes imitates the style of an unintelligent student’s essay, as she makes remarks like “Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for,” and describes Lady Jane Grey as being “famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Since their father ran a sort of informal boys’ boarding school in their home, the girls must have been very familiar with this sort of production.
At other times, Austen reveals flashes of the dry wit that would characterize her mature novels, as when she says of Henry VIII that “little can be said in his Vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of Time has been of infinite use to the Landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing so.” Here we can distinctly hear the voice that she would later hone and refine, tempering the edge of her satire but keeping its brilliance.
|Villanous Elizabeth, saintly Mary|
As I learned from my recent reading of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, this was one of the pieces that Austen copied into three vellum notebooks as a young girl (the History was written when she was just fifteen). Volume the Second, which contains the History of England and several other works, is now in the British Library, and through their virtual gallery you can view the original text here. It’s a priceless opportunity to be able to experience the energy and flow of the author’s handwriting, as well as the original colored drawings, though seeing the real thing would be even better.
In The Real Jane Austen, Paula Byrne points out that several of the portraits of the English monarchs are similar in appearance to Jane Austen’s relatives with the same names. Could it be, she suggests, that the heroine of the piece, the saintly Mary Queen of Scots, is a portrait of the author? It’s an intriguing idea, but even if we can never be sure what Jane Austen looked like, in The History of England we do have a clear window into the young author’s mind.