Austen-Curious Reader: Jane Austen, The Historian?
By Eden Iazeolla
Hello to all my Brilliant Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts!
It has been quite a while since you heard from me last. I have been sitting here working endlessly to digest and write about Jane Austen’s “The History of England” for the last three weeks. Just kidding... you caught me. I took JA with me on a plane and flew to Mexico. For future reference, the Juvenilia makes a great beach read.
Now, because I promised you all that I would not lie to you in the very first “Austen-Curious Reader,” I must admit that this week’s piece was a struggle for me. If the history
textbooks in 9th grade were as funny as Austen’s piece, maybe my knowledge of the history would have been more substantial. In her short history of England, Austen tells her version of the 15th and 16th century succession of the English
throne. Specifically, this piece spans from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st and includes –of course – her usual satirical remarks and charms.
Due to my lack of 15th and 16th century historical knowledge, I would have been sitting here with a completely one-sided, Stuarts-can-do-no-wrong, Elizabeth-is-a-villain, version of history after reading Austen’s piece. Well, I would feel this way if it were not for her clear warning at the beginning of her text and her statement of partiality at the end. I cannot help but wonder if her disclaimers are her making a specific stance on the purpose of history.
A “partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian” is what Austen calls herself at the beginning
of “The History of England.” This statement declares that her version of history is less fact, more opinion. In creating a parody of history, admitting partiality and ignorance, Austen mocks not only the historians that came before her, but the genre itself. What is history if not the retelling of “fact” through other people's voice and pen? It is important to note that the voice and pen of the historian are easily seduced by (often unacknowledged) bias, built off race, location, age, gender, and religion. Austen extends her mockery of historians and their craft through her lack of dates. And, when she does mention dates, like the date of Mary's death being on “Wednesday the 8th of February – 1586," the dates are incorrect. Mary Queen of Scots was executed on February 8th 1587 (if you are interested in seeing more of the original manuscript of "The History of England" click here).
One of my favorite places where Austen shows this “partial” and “prejudiced” tone is when she is covering the reign of Charles I. She writes,
"the events of the Monarch’s reign are too numerous for my pen, and indeed the recital of any Events (except what I make myself) is uninteresting to me."
This notion of Austen’s reminds me so much of Heather King’s blog, “Jane Austen, Teenage Dirtbag?” Austen’s “I don’t care about anything, but what matters to me” mentality is giving teen to the extreme. However, part of the exaggeration in her tone is the mockery of the genre, pointing out that historians tend to write about what they want to talk about, or think is important.
One of the things I cannot stop thinking about is how brutal it would have been to be a lover of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, and then read Jane Austen’s satirical parody of it. The wrath of a teenager is already scary enough, but one that has a pen is even more daunting. While reading the text, I started to ask myself why Austen was choosing to parody Goldsmith’s work. What was it about Goldsmith’s version of history that set her off?
One of the conclusions that I came to was that Goldsmith’s work just happened to be what was available to Austen. Books were a luxury in the 18th century. For instance, Austen’s later novel, Pride and Prejudice, would sell for about 18 shillings a copy, which is roughly equivalent to 50 dollars today. This being said, Goldsmith’s History of England was the most recently published History of England and likely one of her primary sources of history. It is important to note that Goldsmith was also known as an incredibly biased historian, beginning his own History of England with a disclaimer. At the end of his preface, he concludes with the hope that “the reader will admit my partiality.” It is easy to see how Austen’s writing is shaped when her inspiration is looked at closer. Along the same lines, much of Austen’s piece is also inspired by Shakespeare, who is known to be an incredibly partial and prejudiced historian in his portrayal of Richard III. In the end, Goldsmith and Shakespeare got the luck of the draw when it comes to Austen’s self-amusement and family entertainment.
In addition, in Austen’s parody of Goldsmith’s history and reference to Shakespeare’s work, she often makes it a point to do the opposite of what they did in their work. In her retelling of the reign of Henry IV, she quickly describes the king and his son’s dispute. Following this, she declares that
“things being settled between them the king died, and was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.”
On first read, I was so confused on the significance of Sir William Gascoigne and why he ended up in Henry the 4th's section. However, the editor of my edition, Peter Sabor, explains that Austen was making a satiric remark about the “incident being recounted by Goldsmith and dramatized by Shakespeare.” Because the event recounts the typical and ridiculous man versus man dispute while adding no information regarding the succession of the throne, it is no wonder that Austen chose to skip over it. In her artistic process, she makes fun of men’s infatuation with fighting and violence (by referencing Goldsmith’s and Shakespeare's retelling of it) and mocks the typical stiff approach to history. The young Austen's attitude toward historical detail resurfaces in Northanger Abbey, when Catherine Morland declares:
"I read [history] 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 m