Discussion of Jane Austen’s juvenilia work, The history of England
The history of England from the reign of Henry IV to the death of Charles I is one of several pieces Jane Austen wrote as a young girl. It was completed in November 1791 when she was nearly 16 years old, and was illustrated by her sister, Cassandra, with “portraits” of the monarchs discussed.
As always, we had a lively discussion that ranged widely over a number of perspectives. The History of England, we decided, is probably the richest of her juvenilia for discussion. Critics have looked at it from such perspectives as:
- parodying popular histories of the time, and thus being a study of historiography
- reflecting Jane and Cassandra’s maternal line’s Jacobite/Stuart sympathies (not shared by the men of the family)
- reflecting Jane and Cassandra’s anti-mother attitudes
- supporting a feminist reading of Austen’s work
- conveying Austen’s irreverence towards authority
We mostly focused on the first three perspectives, in our discussion.
We started by discussing the introduction to the Juvenilia Press edition of the History, which includes one of the popular arguments that the work represents a condemnation of her mother. This derives from the fact that in her History, Austen expresses unqualified support for Mary Queen of Scots, and condemns Queen Elizabeth I. Juvenilia Press argues that Cassandra’s model for her portrait of Mary is Jane, and for her portrait of Elizabeth is their mother. Scholars argue that this autobiographical reading – this interpretation of the history as a metaphor for her family’s history – evidences Austen’s love of hidden meanings.
(We talked a little more about the portraits, and Juvenilia Press’s research demonstrating that several portraits are modelled on family or friends. Given this evidence, we’re inclined to believe that all the portraits draw from people known to the family, even if their identity is lost to us now.)
Overall, we saw some evidence for an autobiographical reading – whether it was consciously done or not. The History’s focus on beheadings and overthrowings, and the sympathy it shows for vulnerable or marginalised women and for the poor princes (“wretches”) in the Tower, could be read metaphorically – either specifically in terms of Austen’s feelings about her mother and/or more generally on her lot in life.
Critic Bridget Trophy, for example, suggests that the History was written as Austen was coming out of her education (her youth) and was starting to understand the reality of her situation as a woman who had few prospects for a good marriage. Southam suggests that the History reflects her recognition that her independence is conditional on the support of the men in her life.
We then moved on to Spongberg’s interpretation presented in JASA’s journal Sensibilities (No. 51, December 2015). She argues that the History demonstrates Austen’s support of the Stuarts, a support which Spongberg says came from Austen’s maternal line. Spongberg, in other words, disagrees with the anti-mother reading of the History. However, we were not totally convinced by her argument, partly because Spongberg doesn’t address the satiric aspect of the work.
With some differences around the edges, and accepting some aspects of other arguments, we agreed that we see the work primarily as a satire, a parody, a romp, which interpretation the Juvenilia Press also explores. We liked, therefore, the arguments that this is Austen ridiculing the prevailing “histories”, in particular Oliver Goldsmith’s, that were being used in schools at the time. One member argued that the proof for reading the History as satire or parody lies in the fact that Austen, a Church of England minister’s daughter, writes “as I am myself partial to the roman catholic religion …”. Of course, given that we saw most of the History as tongue-in-cheek, it’s hard to argue anything categorically! Where lies “the truth”? Even this idea – that of “truth” – Austen takes a shot at, saying “Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian”. How naughty – or, more – how cynical she was! We couldn’t resist noting Catherine Morland’s comment in Northanger Abbey that a great deal of history must be “invention”.
Further supporting the parody theme, members shared research which argues that there was a trend at the time to reducing history to palatable “factlets”. Goldsmith’s history, History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771), included, we understand, few dates. Austen parodies this on her title page:
N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History
Also on the title page, Austen declares herself to be a “partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian”, referencing the dry, so-called objective, school histories, and particularly Goldsmith’s claims of being unbiased. So, throughout her History she expresses opinion. Juvenilia Press’s editor, Annette Upfal, writes that “her narrator is intrusive, authoritarian and belligerent, demanding the total support of the reader for her blatantly biased views”. These views are naughtily, members suggested, the opposite of the prevailing views of the day.
Further to these ideas of “truth” and “partiality”, Austen, again with tongue surely planted firmly in cheek, refers her readers to fictional writing, such Shakespeare and Sheridan, for historical authority (“whereupon, the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays”) and includes references to her family and friends.
David Starkey, who introduced a book containing both Austen’s history and one by Charles Dickens, comments on her cynicism, detachment, satire and mischief. He describes Austen’s work as not brilliant prose but as having a penetrating irony.
One member was interested in the rather defined period of history Austen chose. She begins with the Lancastrian Kings and the ensuing war with the Yorkists, and ends with the reign of Charles 1 and the beginning of another civil war.
And finally, we couldn’t resist mentioning her risqué references to homosexuality, such as in her repeating the “Carpet” charade about James I’s “pet” Robert Carr. Austen, as we know, was no shy violet – as her History so vividly demonstrates in more ways than one.
- The Chawton Years symposium, Saturday 16 April
- Regency School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, offering a variety of hands-on activities, Friday 15 April
- Writing Regency Romances workshop, Sunday 17 April
- Croquet Classes, available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 15-17 April