Monday, August 16, 2010

Jane Austen, historian

Someone who visited Bath, England, recently brought me back "The History of England by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant historian" -- the first preserved work of Jane Austen, then aged 16 ("n.b. There will be very few dates in this history"). Young Miss Austen is already a sharply opinionated writer, already showing her command of the language and her gift for stinging understatement. On Henry VIII:
Nothing can be said in his vindication but that his abolishing religious houses and leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing so, since otherwise why should a man who was of no religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for ages been established in the kingdom.
Jane Austen offers more on history in Northanger Abbey (the abbey, now the estate of General Tilney, being one of the religious houses seized for the benefit of the greedy, accumulating Tilney ancestors). History, we read, is:
the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and 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.
Note that these are the opinions of Catherine Morland, not the author's own declaration, and Catherine Morland is young, innocent, and has a lot to learn. She is indeed partially corrected here by Henry Tilney, who will be the instrument of her education, sentimental and otherwise. Still it's nicely sharp and contemporary -- and no doubt widely known but it was new to me.
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