Jane Austen’s The History of England: A Gratifyingly Imprecise Guide

The full title is The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, already an incomplete history. Austen takes it a step further and clarifies that it’s “by a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian,” and boy is it ever. But you know what? That’s what makes it all the more entertaining. I love this history because “N.B.[1] There will be very few Dates in this History,” and I, as my brother would agree, am awful with numbers.

This is the version I read, which includes an excerpt from Charles Dickens’ version that was used as a textbook in Britain for a while.

I don’t know how much you know about British history, nor how much you care to know, but this 34-page manuscript is worth the read even if it won’t give you accurate information. It will, at the very least, make you giggle if you enjoy reading about various kings, queens, and their antics with Austen’s hallmark witty remarks in tow. There are several gems tucked away in the pages that are prime examples of what was going to come as her writing matured. At the age of sixteen, her writing was beginning to take shape, and much better than mine was at that age. (I recently learned that all I wrote in high school was poetry. Why did I ever consider myself a poet? I’m not a poet. Nope. Not even close.)

The narrator is self-conscious, aware of playing a role, often addressing the reader directly, like “whereupon, the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays.” She uses this direct speech to drive her witticisms home, an effective ploy for her satire of Britain’s history. But the wonderful author of some of the most beloved classics will not keep this, rather simple, narrator for her more mature writings. She develops it into free indirect speech, or when the narrator has full access to a character’s thoughts, sometimes making it difficult to know if it’s the narrator or the character speaking. That’s not a very good explanation. Let me try it this way. With an example!

Regular third person: The cold air bit at his skin as he stepped outside. Pulling the scarf tighter around his neck, he wondered if spring would ever come.

Free indirect: The cold air bit at his skin as he stepped outside. He pulled the scarf tighter around his neck. Will it ever be spring?

Did that make sense? Please chime in if you have a better explanation. I wrote this during commercials while watching a Taiwanese drama in the middle of the night so…coherency is low on the list.

Anyway, Austen’s narrative style matures with each novel, which you’ll see as I go through her other works. Can you trust the narrator in The History of England? No, but I think that with that comes a certain danger or risk that humans can’t help but crave from time to time. You’re probably thinking, “Maya, it’s just a sixteen-year-old’s exploration into satire. Those words aren’t dangerous.” My answer? Words can move people so don’t underestimate them. (Although, admittedly, these will only move you to laughter.)

My vote: READ IT!

[1] Lat. nota bene, or note well

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