Two Histories of England

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The title Two Histories of England invites comparison of these very different works, neither of which fits the modern idea of approaching history with distance, objectivity, and cultural context. Though they share the same purported subject matter, the history of England, and a similar premodern assumption that history is by nature subjective, an anecdotal account to defend personal values and biases, they diverge greatly in highly interesting and diverting ways that David Starkey’s insightful introductory remarks push readers to discover for themselves. Starkey observes that both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens came from Hampshire. While Austen enjoyed the security of a clerical family’s middle-class respectability, Dickens enjoyed the pleasures of rural life until apprenticed in a London boot-blacking factory near the strand when his father went to debtors’ prison. The two histories reflect this difference in class experience, politics, and values. Both writers developed a keen eye for satire, with Austen focusing on the society amid which she spent her entire life, but with Dickens exploring the full range of society from top to bottom. Both were buried in Westminster Abbey, a tribute to their accomplishments as satiric novelists.

Austen’s The History of England: From the Reign of Henry the Fourth to the Death of Charles the First, a thirty-four-page manuscript containing her sister Cassandra’s thirteen watercolor miniatures of the monarchs discussed, was a precocious adolescent’s idea of how to provide her family with evening entertainment. It was not intended for publication, and, in fact, remained unpublished until 1922, 131 years after its completion. Dickens’s A Child’s History of England is a solid work published over a three-year period and containing thirty-eight chapters, of which only three are excerpted here (“England Under Elizabeth,” “England Under James the First,” and “England Under Charles the First”). The work was a product of his maturity, its goal being the education of English schoolchildren. In fact, it became a popular educational tool, a history textbook that Starkey says was used well into the twentieth century, declining in popularity only after World War II as the concept of how one retells history changed, and not disappearing totally from the English classroom until the 1950’s.

Austen intended her history to be read aloud, archly and dramatically, for the amusement of her household. She assumes their knowledge of the sentimental excesses and the contrived moral lessons of the “histories” provided young eighteenth century ladies; she parodies these, calling herself a “partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian” and intentionally muddling facts and forcefully asserting ill-supported biases. Her chosen stance is that of a Yorkist, contemptuous of all Lancastrians, enamored of Charles I, and most disdainful of Elizabeth I. She asserts her partiality to Roman Catholics but regretfully confesses that under James I the English Catholics failed to behave “like Gentlemen” toward Protestants, and were, in fact, quite “uncivil.” Her Henry IV ascends the throne “much to his own satisfaction,” then retires to Pomfret Castle, “where he happened to be murdered,” while his son Henry V thrashed Sir William Gascoigne as a prince but gave up doing so as king, though he had Lord Cobham “burnt alive,” though she forgets why.

She dismisses...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 32 (August 13, 2007): 58.

The Indianapolis Star, November 11, 2007, p. D2.