Book Review: THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND (Jane Austen) : BH | HistoryNet MENU

Book Review: THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND (Jane Austen) : BH

8/12/2001 • British Heritage Book Reviews, Reviews

Reading the juvenilia of some authors provides only a glimpse of their mature style. In the juvenilia of Jane Austen, however, it is more than just a glimpse–even at the tender age of 16, Austendisplayed the wit, insight, and ironic tone that characterizes her later masterpieces.

Jane Austen’s THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND offers readers a delightful opportunity to explore this juvenilia.

A beautiful edition of this early Austen treasure has been published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. The book contains a complete facsimile of the original text, the first to be published since the British Library bought the manuscript in 1977. Also included are an introduction to the text by highly acclaimed British author A.S. Byatt and a note on the text by Deidre Le Faye. A transcript of the facsimile follows the original.

The text, written by Austen in the autumn of 1791, parodies Oliver Goldsmith’s 1771 schoolroom standard The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II . Jane no doubt had spent much time with the work; her family kept a well-thumbed copy in their Steventon home. Her pencil-scrawled marginal notes testify to her distaste for the Goldsmith’s strongly pro-Whig sentiments. For instance, in the case of the Stuarts, Jane remarked: ‘A family who were always ill used Betrayed or neglected–whose virtues are seldom allowed while their errors are never forgotten.’

The facsimile’s value is enhanced by illustrations sketched by Jane’s sister Cassandra. As irreverent and humorous as the text, they depict dour-faced royalty dressed in ridiculous clothes. One particularly humorous example of Cassandra’s artistic expression is the side-by-side portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scotts. There is little question that Cassandra shared her sister’s sympathy for the Stuart cause.

Although the text is brief, (it covers only the period ‘from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st’) Jane’s delightfully humorous tone shines throughout. Her droll observations justify the book’s subtitle: ‘By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian. N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History.’

If you treasure the writing of Jane Austen, or if you ever need to give a gift to someone who does, look no further than this exquisite edition of The History of England. No Jane Austen collection is complete without it.

The History of England by Jane Austen published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $14.95, hardcover.

Leigh Ann Berry

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