Tuesday, 13 December 2016


At the age of fifteen, Jane wrote her mischievous little History of England From the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st. She was imitating the potted histories, popular at the time, in which hack writers presented biased, dull or distorted versions of events. The work is introduced as being 'By a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian'! At the start she promises: 'There will be very few Dates in this History'.

Much of the fun arises from the author's vaunted ignorance: 'Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for.' Readers know all about Henry VIII already: 'It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, and myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch'.

Jane writes with a strong Yorkist, pro-Stuart, roman-catholic-sympathizing prejudice. Richard III must have been all right as he was 'a York'. She supposes him 'a very respectable man'. Of Henry VI she writes, 'I cannot say much for this Monarch's Sense – Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian'.

She vents her spleen against Elizabeth I, 'that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society ... the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, and the Murderess of her Cousin'. Elizabeth and all her counsellors are damned for their treatment of Mary, Queen of Scots.

To 'prove' that Mary Queen of Scots was innocent, she says, 'I now most seriously do assure my Reader that she was entirely innocent; having never been guilty of anything more than Imprudencies into which she was betrayed by the openness of her Heart, her Youth, and her Education. Having I trust by this assurance entirely done away with every Suspicion and every doubt which may have arisen in the Reader's mind, from what other Historians have written of her, I shall proceed ..'.

Much of the comedy comes from the truncated descriptions of various historical personalities and events. For instance, on Joan of Arc: 'They should not have burnt her - but they did.' (And really, what else is there to say?) Or on Edward, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector in the reign of Edward VI: 'He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it'. The reader also receives literary commentary that perhaps reflects Austen's own view of writing: 'Jane Shore … has had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading'.

The climax of the history is the celebration of Mary Queen of Scots and the attendant shattering denunciation of Elizabeth I. Jane strikes a blow for lovers of historical romance everywhere as she argues in favour of Mary's superior claims to the English throne and her personal virtues, despite the machinations of those around her. Jane celebrates the two most romantic ruling dynasties in English history: the Yorks and the Stuarts. She makes no apologies for this and indeed revels in it. As she explains in her section on Charles I, while rebutting the accusations that he was a tyrant: 'with one argument I am certain of satisfying every sensible & well disposed person whose opinions have been properly guided by a good Education - & this Argument is that he was a STUART’ - after all, as she put it so well - 'Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian'.
There is much black-humoured whimsy. Edward VI became King at the age of nine. The Duke of Northumberland, as Protector, 'performed his trust.. so well that the King died'.

Jane Austen even excuses Henry VIII for laying waste abbeys and monasteries: he must have foreseen the eighteenth century's craving for picturesque ruins! 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 it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for Ages been established in the Kingdom.' (This joke was made earlier, though less elaborately, in Gilpin's account of his Northern Tour, which Jane had surely read.)

On the final page of the History, she jokes that her 'principal reason' for undertaking it was 'to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, tho' I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme..'.  The History is in effect a wonderfully satirical (and very concentrated) view of history from the early Fifteenth Century to the middle of the Seventeenth. It serves the purpose, as she puts it, 'only to vent my Spleen against, & shew my Hatred to all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, & not to give information'.

This Gibbonesque sentence from the section on Elizabeth demonstrates well young Jane Austen’s control over complex phrasing and syntax:

But oh! how blinded such Writers and such Readers must be to true Merit, to Merit despised, neglected and defamed, if they can persist in such opinions when they reflect that these Men, these boasted Men were such Scandals to their Country and their Sex as to allow and assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship and Merit were to no avail, yet as a Queen and as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance and protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death.