In the autumn of 1791, a very precocious Jane Austen amused herself and her family by creating lively and allusive parodies of the literary and stylistic conventions of contemporary writing. Using fiction, Shakespeare's tragedies, Sheridan's comedies, historical romances and her family's comments as the supporting "evidence" for her outrageous assertions, she re-visioned history as a catalog of crimes against her favorite heroines: Anna Bullen, Lady Jane Grey and Mary, Queen of Scots.
The irreverent, hilarious "History" was obviously intended for pure amusement. "My principal reason for undertaking the History of England," Austen, then 16, confided near the end of "The History of England," is "to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, tho' I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme."
Well, Readers, Austen has convinced me not only of the Scottish Queen's innocence but also of her "superior pretensions, Merit, & Beauty." Mary, Readers will agree, was Perfection and Amiability personified, and it was a truly evil thing that our heroine went to "an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death" at the block of "that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society, Elizabeth."
These are strong words indeed, but then Elizabeth's insensitivity in chopping off the lovely Mary's head compares favorably with Jane Austen's own ruthless abridgment of the monarchs' lives. Although Henry the V, so impressive in Kenneth Branagh's version, gets credit for the famous Battle of Agincourt, Austen summarizes succinctly: "During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for." Challenging the contemporary views of the murderous Richard the III, Austen argues with skewed logic that perhaps "he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbek was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard."
To develop such an ironic -- and illogical -- view of history, the teen-age parodist juxtaposes the political machinations of centuries of turmoil and the internal jealousies of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. While she protests her favorites' innocence, Austen (1775-1817) is often starkly unsympathetic to her heroines.
Lady Jane Grey's renowned self-abnegation provides a perfect vehicle for Jane Austen's humor. Declaring herself disappointed in being appointed queen, Lady Jane preserved her "contempt of what was generally esteemed pleasure" and on her way to the scaffold actually managed to write "a Sentence in Latin & another in Greek on seeing the dead Body of her husband accidentally passing that way."
Henry the VIII's fifth wife, Katherine Howard, who allegedly led "an abandoned Life before her Marriage," escapes condemnation because she was "a relation of that noble Duke of Norfolk who was so warm in the Queen of Scotland's cause."
The "partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian" reminds us nota bene that "there will be very few Dates in this History." Naturally, Austen includes the date of Mary's execution: "Wednesday the 8th of February -- 1585 -- to the everlasting reproach of Elizabeth, her Ministers, and of England in general." Other dates her readers will need to know she "shall of course make choice of."
What important date does she choose for "Henry the 8th"? -- "the 6th of May," for she maintains that "it would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King's reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, & myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect. . . ."
A surprise and delight to even the most jaded Reader, "The History of England" includes the 34 pages of Jane Austen's manuscript, which was illuminated by her sister Cassandra with watercolor miniatures, and a printed transcription.
There is a charming introduction by the writer A. S. Byatt, who points out that the "History" "is somewhere between deadpan farce in tone, and a kind of wild early irony." The noted scholar Deirdre Le Faye supplies background material for would-be Janeites who may not have all the facts and dates on hand.
More than a century after Jane Austen's death, Virginia Woolf reflected upon her place in fiction and concluded that Jane Austen "was writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own." Her very modern mockery of royal personages in "The History of England" certainly confirms Jane Austen's own revelation that "pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked."
Dr. Kaplan is associate professor of English and associate academic dean at Goucher College.
Title: "The History of England: From the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st"
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Length, price: 60 pages, $12.95