This Prince [Henry the 5th] after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & Amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions, & never thrashing Sir William again. During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for.
(from The History of England in The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume VI: Minor Works, page 139)
Part of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, The History of England is a short piece Austen wrote in 1791 when she was a teenager. Its full title is The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st and is meant to be a parody of a 1771 work by Oliver Goldsmith, titled The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II. You know right away that Austen isn’t writing a serious history, given that the work is “By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.”
The more I stray from Austen’s novels to her earlier works, the more impressed I become with her as a writer. The History of England really underscores her wit and humor and shows that she had the talent to captivate audiences at a very young age. Her love of literature also shines through in that instead of backing up her history of the monarchs with the works of noted historians, she cites Shakespeare and other literary works.
Austen also pokes fun at the idea of historical bias, particularly how people remember what they want to remember and how the historian’s personal beliefs may play a role in how the past is perceived. As in many of Austen’s novels, in which the narrator engages with readers, she puts herself and even her family and friends into her historical account and never hesitates to insert an opinion.
I cannot say much for this Monarch’s [Henry the 6th] Sense–Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & The Duke of York who was of the right side; If you do not, you had better read some other History, for I shall not be very diffuse in this, meaning by 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. (pages 139-140)
Not being very familiar with the English monarchy, many of the references made by Austen went right over my head. Still, I was able to see what she was getting at and enjoy the humor in it.
The History of England is a must-read for Austen fans. It spans only a handful of pages, and I read it in about 20 minutes during my lunch break. It’s interesting to compare the writings of a teenage Austen with her more mature work, like Persuasion. So far, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Austen, and it saddens me to think how much more she could have done with the written word had she lived longer. (In a side note, yesterday, July 18, was the 194th anniversary of Austen’s death.)
Check out my reviews of other Jane Austen works:
Disclosure: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume VI: Minor Works is from my personal library.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.