Jane Austen on history and historians
Jane Austen, we know from her letters, was a keen reader. She read novels, sermons, plays and poetry, magazines and, of course, histories. Did you know, though, that she also wrote a history? This is her juvenilia piece, The history of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st (online text), illustrated by her older sister Cassandra and completed in November 1791, the month before Jane turned 16.
It’s not, however, like any history you’ve read before, except perhaps Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and all that. Published in 1930, this book, Wikipedia tells us, is “a parody of the style of history teaching in English schools at the time”. Well, interestingly, scholars argue that Austen’s History is a parody of the histories being taught in the schools of her time, in particular, Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771). The parody starts on her title page where she tells us “N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History”. She also identifies the author of her history as “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”, satirising Goldsmith’s claims to be objective. “It is hoped the reader admits my impartiality” he wrote in his Preface, but many readers, including our Jane, would not admit this at all given some of his pronouncements!
And so, as you’d expect in a parody, Austen is unashamedly subjective in her History, usually promoting the opposite to the prevailing view of her times. She is, for example, partial to the Stuarts, and particularly to Mary Queen of Scots, and is critical of Elizabeth I, “that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society”. She continues:
It was the peculiar misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers —— Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive Mischeif, had not those vile & abandoned Men connived at, & encouraged her in her Crimes. I know that it has by many people been asserted & beleived that Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, & the rest of those who filled the cheif Offices of State were deserving, experienced, & able Ministers. But oh! how blinded such Writers & such Readers must be to true Merit …
If you know anything about Austen scholarship, you won’t be surprised to hear that her History has been the subject of intense theorising, with various perspectives being explored, in addition the parody/satire angle. Other perspectives include that it
- explores ideas about historiography, and the blurring of fact and fiction; and/or
- reflects Jane and her sister Cassandra’s maternal line’s Jacobite/Stuart sympathies (which were not shared by the men of the family) or, conversely, it reflects their anti-mother attitudes; and/or
- supports a feminist reading of her work; and/or
- conveys Austen’s irreverence towards authority.
My aim is not to discuss these here, though, because I want to refer briefly to Northanger Abbey, the first version of which was written around 1798–99 (that is, only a few years after the History). It is famous for its defence of the novel, but it also contains references to other sorts of reading including, yes, history. I want to share some of these, which make interesting reading in the light of her History. The references come from heroine Catherine Morland’s conversation with Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor.
When you read Austen, you need to know whether Austen approves of the characters who are speaking, as this affects how we are meant to read the character’s pronouncements. Now, in Northanger Abbey, Catherine is our heroine, but she is also young and a little naive. As the novel progresses, she is “taught” by the somewhat older and wiser, Henry Tilney, but he can also be a little pompous. So, I think we can read the following comments with some respect for Catherine’s position, as well as for Henry’s.
“That is, I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?” [Catherine]
No, not necessarily, Austen is perhaps suggesting:
“… I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.” [Catherine]
We hear you Catherine! And we think back to Austen’s History where, surely with tongue in cheek, she refers her readers to “inventive” writers for authority, such as Shakespeare (“whereupon, the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays” or “he afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very agreeable Woman by Shakespear’s account”) and Sheridan:
Sir Walter Raleigh flourished in this & the preceding reign, & is by many people held in great veneration & respect — But as he was an enemy of the noble Essex, I have nothing to say in praise of him, & must refer all those who may wish to be acquainted with the particulars of his Life, to Mr Sheridan’s play of the Critic, where they will find many interesting Anecdotes …
And so the discussion continues, with the reasonable Eleanor Tilney stating that she likes history but is happy if historians, such as Austen’s revered David Hume, embellish speeches to make them readable.
“Historians, you think,” said Miss Tilney, “are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history—and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one’s own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made—and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.”
Ah Eleanor, I hear you. The scene concludes with Catherine making some concessions while suggesting that she used to think all historians did was to write “great volumes … for the torment of little boys and girls”, and Henry Tilney teasing her about this idea of historians aiming to “torment” rather than “instruct”.
Reading or studying history appears in other novels too, particularly in Mansfield Park, where, for example, Austen tells us Fanny, her heroine, had to “read the daily portion of history” but where she also says of Fanny and her sister, Susan, that “their conversations, however, were not always on subjects so high as history or morals”.
I’ve barely touched the surface of Austen’s discussions of history and what we might make of them, but I hope at least that I’ve shown why students (and lovers) of Austen never run out of ideas to think (and argue) about!