This morning I reread Jane Austen’s history “book” once again. It is such a very short and wonderfully written history! And so funny!
Even though it is such a short piece of work I think it deserves more attention than, unfortunately, it is given. Sure you can finish it in about 15 minutes, but those, for me at least, are some very delightful 15 minutes!
I believe Jane probably wrote it as an entertainment for her family (when she was 16). Indeed it is even dedicated to Cassandra, and she makes several references to various family members in it.
The title of the book; “A History of England – From the Reign of Henry IV to the Death of Charles I – By a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian” couldn’t have been more suitable! She truly is extremely partial!
Throughout the whole thing the main focus is on abusing Queen Elizabeth I as much as possible (because Jane didn’t like her) and pour as much praise as she can on Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots (whom she was very partial to!). It’s all just so extreme, the way she does it, so it makes it all really funny! As an example, here is one way she describes Elizabeth. On writing about Elizabeth’s elder sister Mary: She (Mary) died without issue, and then the dreadful moment came in which the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful betrayer of trust reposed in her, and the murderess of her cousin succeeded to the throne.
Whereas Mary Queen of Scots on the other hand is looked on more in this light: It may not be unnecessary before I entirely conclude my account of this ill-fated Queen, to observe that she had been accused of several crimes during the time of her reigning in Scotland, of which I now most seriously do assure my reader that she was entirely innocent; having never been guilty of anything more than imprudencies into which she was betrayed by the openness of her heart, her youth, and her education. Having I trust, by this assurance, entirely done away every suspicion and every doubt which might have arisen in the reader’s mind from what other historians have written of her, I shall proceed to mention the remaining events that marked Elizabeth’s reign. I love the way Jane writes as if she was the best historian there ever was, and the only one who knows the truth (in her opinion)! But even though she is very arrogant in the way she writes this, she does confess at times that she either doesn’t know certain things, or have completely forgotten them. A couple of times she then directs the reader to turn to Shakespeare’s plays, for a better and more detailed account of events and people. 🙂
She makes very light of the death’s of the various people (except the ones she likes, or who are connected to Mary Queen of Scots of course), and has some most amusing ways of describing them. The opening sentence of the book for example:
Henry IV ascended the throne of England much to his on satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin and predecessor, Richard II, to resign it to him, and to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered.
And one more, that I think very funny: He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it.
I do believe it was all mostly done as an amusement for her family, but I am glad that it has survived to this day, because personally I like it so much, and find it highly entertaining!
If someone who reads this hasn’t yet read the book but would like to, it is possible to read it online, in case you don’t want to get it. Here is one place for example.