I love reading Jane Austen’ Juvenilia. Anarchic,witty, cartoonishly violent, even….I find it fascinating and wondrous that it survived.  My favourite of the pieces is The History of England and so, in an openly self-indulgent act, I have decided to commence a new AustenOnly series where week by week we shall take an in-depth look at this witty, angry polemic against the history books of her era written by a 16 year old genius.

Do join me…



But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in… 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

Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…….This damming pronouncement by Catherine Moreland of the sort of history she was taught at her long-suffering mother’s knee, must surely have echoed Jane Austen’s feelings too-she was after all her creator. And the evidence to support this argument can be found in her History of England, written to give vent to her frustrations and irritations with the conventional view of history that she and other late 18th century children were taught. Austen’s History is an anarchic work of genus, a monumentally clever 16 years old’s diatribe against the view of English history that she was taught and that she read as a child.

Jane Austen dated her dedication – to her elder sister Cassandra- on the 26th November 1791 (a date which much later  in 1813 became the night of the Netherfield Ball). As the work of a precocious 16 year old it is a breathtakingly brilliant and confident work of art.

I have loved this piece of Jane Austen’s juvenilia since I first bought a copy of it in 1977 in Warwick. It was a small book, illustrated not with Cassandra Austen’s equally anarchic original water colours, but with tiny black and white wood cuts and the bare, un-annotated text. I confess it was the size of the book and the illustrations that first attracted me, but the text soon caught my imagination. I found it intriguing and funny, the confident authorial voice ringing clearly in my ears. But to be truthful, I didn’t fully understand what her targets were( and there seemed to be many of these) and, more importantly, the reasons why she was on the attack. Were Jane Austen’s irritations with the monarchs themselves, or was it something else?

I had loved 1066 And All That by Sellers and Yeats both in the form of both the play and the book, and it was clear that Jane Austen’s history was written in the same manner- ridiculing the way history is taught, what history we can remember ( which is usually a garbled version of our lessons with very few accurate dates)  and contrasting  taught history- the wars, quarrels of Popes and pestilences– with what is of  “real “ importance or what aspects of history are really interesting.

In this new series of posts, I intend to look at each entry in the History of England, explain the jokes and the reasons Jane Austen’s targets were her targets. Without knowledge of the books/incidents/plays to which Jane Austen refers it is hard to understand exactly the points she was trying to make.

Today, in the first post of this series, let’s take a look at her title page, and what targets she was intending to attack from this innocent looking beginning…

Jane Austen’s main target was the standard history book of school children of the time, The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II  by  Oliver Goldsmith.

(Title page of my 1819 edition, with continuation by Charles Coote)

Goldsmith’s book was terribly popular from when it was first published in 1771, and it continued to be published in many editions( with additional articles on the reigns of monarchs reigning after George II) till well into the 19th century.  Goldsmith had  also written another history book  in the form of a series of letters in 1764. The full title is, as you can see from the title page to the 1807 edition, below,  as follows:

(Title page of my copy of A History of England in a Series of Letters

from a Nobleman to his Son (1807) edition)

The Austen family had a copy of Goldsmith’s 1771 History, which was  published in four volumes, at their home at the Steventon rectory, and it is also quite possible that Jane Austen read Goldsmith’s other histories. The Austen’s edition  included miniatures of the monarchs heads which were executed by the famed Northumbrian wood engraver, Thomas Bewick, whose portrait taken in 1816 by James Ramsay, is shown below.

And it is surely these that inspired ( or perhaps even infuriated) Cassandra Austen,who illustrated The History of England for her sister. The woodcuts in the Austen family’s edition were all coloured in by some unknown Austen child, but family tradition, as recorded in David Gilson’s Bibliography of Jane Austen (1997), records that it was Jane Austen herself who was the prepetrator.  The same hand- or owner of the same watercolours!- has also decorated /highlighted  certain letters, words and phrases in Goldsmith’s book. More on these illustrations in later posts on the individual monarchs.

But there is no doubt that it was Goldsmith’s view of history that she was attacking in her own slim volume, as she was very familiar with it.

(Oliver Goldsmith by Joshua Reynolds)

The four volumes of the Austen family’s edition of Goldsmith’s history are all signed by James Austen, Jane’s eldest brother, and one front free endpaper is missing- which has made experts speculate that Jane Austens signature may have been recorded there and then torn out and given away to an early autograph hunter. The books were passed from James to his son and Jane’s nephew and first biographer, James Edward Austen Leigh.

By 1919 the books were owned by his daughter, Mary Augusta Austen Leigh, and they are still, as I understand it, in the possession of her descendants, a Mr L. A. Impey.  Mary Augusta is of interest to us for she was the first person to decipher the many comments made the margins of this book by Jane Austen and various other members of her family, and which were published in her book Personal Aspects of Jane Austen in 1920. Though The History of England was not  published until 1922, along with the rest of the contents of Volume the Second, the marginal notes made by Jane Austen- imperfect and incomplete as they were presented to the public- fascinated two esteemed authors. Virginia Woolfe wrote about them in her essay Jane Austen and the Geese (1920), where  she maintained that, for her, the marginalia were of tremendous significance for they easily refuted the concept, often taken as fact in the early 20th century, that Jane Austen was

Unemotional unsentimental and passionless.

Katherine Mansfield, in her essay Friends and Foes (1920) also found them fascinating, calling them Jane Austen’s

Fiery outpourings

Too, too true.

The marginalia made by Jane Austen appear mostly in the 3rd and 4th volumes of Goldsmith’s History. The first volume has no marginalia but does contain a summary of events and dates written by an infuriated Jane Austen (see below). In the second volume she restricted herself to inserting only one comment: she added the word “wretches” next to the passage describing the deaths of the Young Princes in the Tower, the sons of Edward IV who were murdered in the Tower of London in the late 15th century.

(The Princes in the Tower by Sir Edward Millais)

In the 3rd Volume her  marginal note commentary begins with the commencement of the English Civil War, when her beloved Stuarts were set against the Puritanical section of society and Oliver Cromwell. Her comments then continue until the end of Volume 4 with the death of George II in 1760.

Some of the notes were written in ink but most were made in pencil. Some of the pencil notes have faded with time and others have been overwritten in ink by some different (and unknown ) hand, but presumably, by someone who was still a member of the Austen family.

Continuing in the family tradition, James Edward Austen Leigh also added his own set of marginalia to the Austen family copy of Goldsmith’s History. Also peppered amongst the pages are doodles or sketches and some portraits of the monarchs. There are also some dates in the margins which scholars have interpreted as meaning that a few pages were allotted reading for the Austen children to study each day.

Back to that title page…..Jane Austen’s fiery outpourings are clearly evident in her admission, freely given on the title page to her work, that her history is written by a

partial prejudiced and ignorant Historian.

She was obviously irritated by the statements Goldsmith made within his History claiming to be impartial, when  his prose suggested he was anything but. His History of 1771 concluded with the following sentiment:

I hope that the reader will admit my impartiality

And at the beginning of his chapters on George I, Goldsmith wrote this about the character of the Old Pretender, James Edward Stuart:

The Jacobites had long been flattered with the hopes of seeing the succession altered by the new ministry…Upon recollection, they saw nothing so eligible in the present crisis ,as silence and submission: they hoped much from the assistance of France and still more from the popularity and councils of the pretender. This unfortunate man, seemed to possess all the qualities of his father; his pride, his want of perseverance and his attachment to the catholic religion. He was but a poor leader, therefore, to conduct so desperate a cause; and in fact all the sensible part of the kingdom had forsaken it as irretrievable.

Jane Austen’s appalled marginal note to this passage –she was, as we will learn, an ardent admirer and supporter of the Stuarts in all their guises- was as follows:

Oh! Dr Goldsmith Thou art as partial an Historian as myself!

The marginal notes make fascinating reading and, when read in conjunction with Jane Austen’s History of England, throw more light on Jane Austen’s criticism of Goldsmith’s works. They have all recently been translated in the latest Cambridge University Press edition of Jane Austen’s works and I shall included extracts from them, where appropriate, in this series of posts.

On the title page there is also the caustic comment by Jane Austen that:

N.B. There will be very few dates in this History.

This is again a clear and direct attack on Goldsmith. His first history, published, in 1764 contained no dates whatsoever. The four-volume history of 1771 contained a few more, -two in fact!-but they were unsystematically given, dotted about the test in no particular order. Jane Austen obviously disliked this feature, probably finding it frustrating and she most likely expected more of a book purporting to be used as a school text. Hence her deliberate warning for her prospective readers, and the reason why she had written the following dates on the front free endpaper of Volume I of the Austen family’s copy of the 1771 History, in semi-scholarly frustration:

Caesar landed                                 Ante Christ        8

Caractacus conquered by Ostorius Scupula      50

Romans left England                                             488

Alfred beat out the Danes                                     876

Battle of Hastings                                               1066

William Rufus came to the Throne                 1067 (in fact, wrong-he came to the throne in 1087-jfw)

Henry 1st came to the Throne                        1100

Stephen ditto                                                   1135

There, you see: at least she knew of these dates even if Goldsmith was not so forthcoming with sharing his knowledge with students…..*giggle*

To help enliven this series you can access a facsimile reproduction of Jane Austen’s History of Englanda Virtual Book– online at the British Library’s site, here. I do recommend it as it is a magical experience : you can “turn” the pages to see all the text and illustration as written by Jane Austen. I will be linking this every time I post on the subject,and I will also link to it on the AustenOnly Juvenilia page, accessible either through the header or the column to the left, and links to all the posts in this series and more will be accessible from there.

The History of England was bound into a collection of Jane Austen’s early works and was known in the Austen family as Volume the Second ( Jane Austen’s other juvenilia was collected in Volume the First and Volume the Third). The British Library acquired Volume the Second in 1977. Volume the First is now available to view online as a facsimile here, Volume the Second here and Volume the Third here, via the wonderful Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts site.

There is much more of this fascinating material to come, and I do hope you will join me on this voyage of discovery….into English history, how it was taught and the thought processes/reactions to it of our very special but partial and prejudiced narrator.