Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Jane Austen on history

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 is not my favourite Jane Austen novel, but I do smile at how this discussion of history in Chapter 14 predicts so much of current discussions about history versus fiction, about  history "dying," and about the rivalries between political and social historians.

Be clear: this is not exactly Jane Austen speaking her mind. In her novels, it is not always immediately obvious just who is being teased. Certainly Catherine Morland, the speaker here, is not Austen. Indeed, she is very much an innocent abroad here, one whose mind has been influenced by too many Gothic romances. But she is also dismissed out of hand by the men she is talking with because, as Austen puts it, 

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

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