The History of England
from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st
by Jane Austen
[Henry the 8th] ‘ . . . [his] last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it.’
[James the 1st] ‘. . . had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his mother’s death.’
This charming little book, which I have read several times and often dip into, but have never reviewed, was written by Jane Austen when she was only sixteen. It is one of five items of juvenilia contained in Volume Two of a series of three notebooks treasured by Cassandra Austen – who did the illustrations – after her sister’s death, and subsequently bequeathed to relations and family friends.
Jane wrote finis at the end of The History of England on Saturday, 26th November 1791. It occupies a mere thirty-four pages of Jane’s handwriting and was a teenage response to the ponderous historical tomes from which children of the age were expected to learn. The work demonstrates all of Jane’s latent, but as yet underdeveloped skill at parody and satire – of making fun of postures and attitudes she found ridiculous. Describing herself as a ‘partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian’ , she treats us to a feast of outrageous black comedy, sending up kings, queens, princes and politicians with her unique wit.
[Elizabeth] ‘. . . a disgrace to humanity, that pest of society . . .’
‘. . . the dreadful moment came in which the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, & the Murderess of her Cousin succeeded to the Throne.’
One can never be absolutely certain whether Austen’s personal opinions, such as her strong support for the Stuart dynasty – especially Mary – expressed so clearly here, are genuinely held or whether the whole thing is merely a symptom of teen rebellion. After all, as daughter of a Church of England clergyman, she might have been expected to have less enthusiasm for the Roman Catholic cause. Some Austen fans have attempted to convince us that it was ALL a joke, that she did not really mean it, but I am not so sure.
[Richard the 3rd] ‘. . . It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews and his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two nephews . . . & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife . . .’
[Henry the 4th] ‘It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he certainly had four sons . . .’
Jane’s style and her approach to history will recall for some readers another work by two wits of the early 20th century, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, whose 1066 And All That, published in 1930, gave me and my fellow students so much enjoyment. Some literary (and history) purists will no doubt cast this work as cheap, trite and fatuous.
It is my belief, however, that to appreciate and value history, one has to be prepared to smile, or even laugh uproariously at its absurdities which – Jane Austen’s ‘partial and prejudiced’ views notwithstanding – are, like its injustices, many and varied.