Partiality and excusable truth: Jane Austen as a historian

The abject tendency to grovel and fawn on the rich and powerful is, no doubt, one of the most unpleasant traits of human nature. Yet, it may be argued, sycophancy has its uses, and those that practice it, though undignified, often profit from the vanity and folly of their superiors. The rather more praiseworthy inclination to root for the underdog, by contrast, allows us to experience the defiant satisfaction of swimming against the current, while affording no other personal benefits. And, though we may not always deem it advisable to express our sympathies too loudly, it fills us with the smug feeling of being somehow different.

Chief among the prerogatives that accrue to victors is the dubious entitlement to weave their own narrative and impose their spin on the fickle, the ignorant, and the naive. Therefore, history provides ample opportunity for challenging received views, as well as for vindicating those who have fallen from grace. This favourite if occasionally annoying pastime of wayward teenagers should nevertheless be watchfully encouraged, so that childish contrariness may one day blossom into mature critical thinking. Still at times we cannot help suspecting our leg is being pulled …

***

Though Jane Austen finished The History of England just before her sixteenth birthday, her opinions have sometimes been quoted as if they had been the product of careful adult reflection. Like the rest of the Juvenilia, however, it is meant to be shockingly yet humorously provocative and irreverent. Despite her acknowledgement that “truth is very excusable in an historian,’ it might be a mistake to take her assertions too seriously.

As G.K. Chesterton once put it, ‘those who endure the heavy labour of reading a book might possibly endure that of reading the title-page.’ In this case, we cannot miss the author’s self-definition as a ‘partial, prejudiced, and ignorant historian’ – nor the warning that we are not to expect many dates.

The latter is meant as a criticism of Oliver Goldsmith’s own History of England in four volumes, the Austens’ copy of which was annotated by Jane with revealing marginalia. Goldsmith did not set much store by days, months, or years, so she scrawled a few at the end of volume I, which would indicate she was not altogether indifferent to them. Partiality, ignorance, and prejudice run through the whole work, with references to historical fiction that remind us of Catherine Morland’s words in Northanger Abbey:

‘I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?’

‘Yes, I am fond of history.’

‘I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs – the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.’

‘Historians, you think,’ said Miss Tilney, ‘are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history — and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one’s own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made — and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.’

‘You are fond of history! –and so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person’s courage that could sit down on purpose to do it.’

‘That little boys and girls should be tormented,’ said Henry, ‘is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished historians, I must observe that they might well be offended at being supposed to have no higher aim, and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well qualified to torment readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life. I use the verb ‘to torment,’ as I observed to be your own method, instead of ‘to instruct,’ supposing them to be now admitted as synonymous.’

richard III
Richard III

Jane would have been familiar with the excerpts of Hume’s and Robertson’s Histories in Knox’s Elegant Extracts, where she also scribbled her own comments. I love the ‘postmodern’ way in which she plays with the fact/ fiction continuum: she appears to have been eventually just as willing to check the factual accuracy of her novels as to question that of historical accounts.

Acknowledging he has never written anything but fictions, Michel Foucault explains:

I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or ‘manufactures’ something that does not as yet exist, that is, ‘fictions’ it. One ‘fictions’ history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.

The former is precisely what the Tudors attempted after Bosworth, with a little help from Thomas Moore and Shakespeare’s genius. Goldsmith uncritically follows that tradition. A clever girl like Jane must have seen through it and rebelled, though what she really thought of Richard III remains unclear. After stating that Edward V ‘was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance,’ she discusses the latter’s reign:

The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man.

In other words, the Tudors have given us their own version, and this is what would have been said had they been defeated. She goes on, doubting and joking:

It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.

Is this what she really thinks? None of these events had been personally witnessed by Jane, so, how could she tell? Therefore she suggests alternative explanations: the heroes might have been villains, and wrongdoers might have been acquitted. But we would not have been spared the torture of instruction …

Kitty Percival, the heroine of The Bower, is ‘a great reader, though perhaps not a very deep one,’ and well versed in modern history. She seems to enjoy a good argument, and, engages in a dispute with Edward Stanley, where he warmly defends Richard III, whose character she objects to. Yet he

was so far from being really of any party, that he had scarcely a fixed opinion on the subject. He could therefore always take either side, and always argue with temper. In his indifference on all such topics he was very unlike his companion, whose judgement being guided by her feelings which were eager and warm, was easily decided, and though it was not always infallible, she defended it with a spirit and enthusiasm which marked her own reliance on it.

Therefore, either young Jane Austen changed her mind, or she was never a staunch Plantagenet supporter. There is a third possibility: Kitty is too superficial to be aware of the way in which history is written. But Catharine does express her strong dislike of Elizabeth I, ‘the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, & the Murderess of her Cousin.’ So perhaps Jane’s disapproval of the former, grounded mainly in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, whom she seemed genuinely to admire, was more deeply rooted.

Mary,_Queen_of_Scots_after_Nicholas_Hilliard_(crop)
Mary Queen of Scots

All in all, Austen appears to prefer fiction, where there is no need to ‘dwell on guilt and misery.’ Tragedy is ‘not worth reading’ and there is too much of it in history books: quarrels, war, and plague – and, apart from Henry VIII’s daughters and niece, scarcely any women, as Catherine Morland points out. Anne Elliot agrees:

‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’

Jane must have read her History out to her family, and the references to Shakespeare, Rowe, Sheridan, Charlotte Smith, and Gilpin, as well as to their neighbours and relatives, would have been aimed at amusing them. She may have respected the Scottish Queen for her constancy in her religion, but her avowed partiality for Roman Catholicism would have been meant to make her father laugh at his past concern that his niece Eliza might quit the Church of England on marrying a Frenchman. Her defence of Mary and condemnation of Elizabeth’s behaviour towards her is actually the only serious moment. Otherwise she seems to have followed family tradition in her adherence to the Stuart cause in general, although her vindication of Charles I based on that sole reason reminds us of her loyalty to the House of York.

***

Austen’s text is no ‘solemn history.’ Yet we can trace through it the development of her critical thinking skills as well as of her sense of humour. We are perhaps a bit too prone to write our own fiction about Jane, but I like to think of her as a playfully subversive teenager that calls into question received interpretations, laughs at our expense, and occasionally picks a losing battle.

References

Jane Austen’s The History of England quoted from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolsecond/153.html

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1979. New York: Pantheon Books.

Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. 2013. Jane Austen, Obstinate Heart. A Biography. New York: Arcade.

Goldsmith, Oliver. 1771. The History of England: from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II. Retrieved from http://ota.ox.ac.uk/text/5330.html

Halsey, Katie. 2013. Jane Austen and her Readers 1786-1945. London: Anthem Press.

Moore, Sir Thomas. 1513. The History of King Richard the Thirde. Retrieved from http://www.r3.org/on-line-library-text-essays/marius-richard-the-history-of-king-richard-iii/thomas-more-index/the-history-of-king-richard-the-third-sir-thomas-more/

Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

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