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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Jane Austen’s History of England….and all that

Three weeks, ago, I wrote about Jane Austen’s broad winks, in Northanger Abbey, at Sophia Lee’s 1783 Gothic classic novel  The Recess & Sir Walter Scott’s Preface to Waverley:

That led me to think about how the well-known riffs on history vs. fiction in Northanger Abbey had their origins in the 16 year old JA’s juvenilia The History of England...

Some quick searching online confirmed that I am not the first Austen scholar to detect that JA’s extraordinary sympathy (indeed, identification) with the tragic Mary Queen of Scots surely also had its roots in Sophia Lee’s Recess:  [Elisabeth Lenckos review] JASNA News 18/3,Win. ‘02
“Alliston suggests that The Recess is proof of the novelist’s prerogative, the artistic license of the free-roaming literary imagination, to do what the historian could not, that is, write history from a new and different perspective and revise some of its traditions and assumptions. Thus, Sophia Lee shifted the center of her readers’ attention and sympathy from Elizabeth to Mary, from the public to the private sphere, and rewrote some important chapters in Elizabeth’s life to accord with her view of the British queen as the villain of the story. Lee’s imaginative rewriting of history, so it may be argued, paved the way for future authors of historical novels, a development from which the young Austen perhaps benefited when she wrote her own highly irreverent History of England (1791). This is a work in which, coincidentally, Elizabeth receives, to put it mildly, a less than sympathetic portrayal….”

April Alliston edition of The Recess (2000)
xxi: “JA’s NA also alludes to The Recess, although its primary reference is to Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (a more recent best-seller when Austen’s parody was published). More importantly, The Recess led the way for both Radcliffe and Austen in its innovative play with conventions of probability, implicitly but uncomfortably questioning both gender norms and the status of historical truth. When the heroine of NA prefers Gothic romance to ‘real solemn history’, her preference makes sense because of Lee’s earlier blurring of the boundaries between them. Austen’s juvenile work, The History of England (written in 1791), further underscores her skepticism of the more aggressive claims to objective truth made by ‘real solemn’ historians such as Hume—and it may also be poking fun at The Recess by humorously exaggerating Lee’s sympathy with Mary at the expense of Elizabeth. [I owe the observation about the possible connection between Austen’s History and The Recess to Isobel Grundy]”

Novel Histories: British Women Writing History, 1760-1830 by Lisa Kasmer (2012) Intro
While parodying the m.o. of histories at the time, Austen’s History of England plays with genre expectations at a dizzying pace….Austen parallels Lord Essex to a character from Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline (1788), making little distinction between the historical personage and the fictional character …Austen also makes her QE and Queen Mary echo the characterizations of these rulers in Sophia Lee’s The Recess…a historical romance in Gothic vein. In Austen’s most colorful moment, she accuses Elizabeth of being a ‘Murderess’ who ‘confined’ and ‘allowed an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death’ of Queen Mary, who bore her fate ‘with a most unshaken fortitude…with a magnanimity that could alone proceed from conscious Innocence.” Austen thereby uses the Gothic trope of the evil woman unfairly punishing a beautiful and saintly victim. In creating a continuum between the genres of history and historical fiction, Austen not only exposes the fictionality of history, but also confirms that history…”

As I was Googling to find the above quotes, I came across a reference to the 1922 parodic history 1066 And All That , and it made me wonder whether it owed a debt to Austen’s History of England. I quickly found an excellent article by Peter Sabor called “JA’s The History of England and 1066 And All That” on that very topic. Here are some relevant excerpts from Sabor’s article:
“…Several critics have been struck by the resemblances between the two works. Deirdre Le Faye for example finds The History of England ‘uncannily prophetic’ of 1066 and All That, while Daniel Woolf believes that it is ‘anticipatory’ of Sellar and Yeatman’s ‘much later parody’. I suggest, in contrast, that there is nothing surprising about the parallels between the histories: their resemblance is not uncanny if Sellar & Yeatman, as I believe, were among the early readers of Austen’s astonishingly precocious work. They had, after all, eight years in which to study the techniques of their youthful predecessor, and in 1066 and All That, as its subtitle, ‘A Memorable History of England’, indicates, they put The History of England to good use.
The most obvious source for 1066 And All That, as several readers have noted, is the illustrated history by the Scottish children’s writer Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, Our Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls (1905). Replete with anecdotes, many of the apocryphal, it contained a wealth of stirring stories that Sellar & Yeatman could recast in comic and often surrealist form. In doing so, they were mirroring Austen’s abusive treatment of Goldsmith; while Marshall provided Sellar & Yeatman with copious material to parody, Austen furnished many of the satirical techniques that they deployed.…In 1922, the year in which The History of England was first published…Sellar and Yeatman…graduated from…Oxford. …In the late 1920s, they began to collaborate on the book that would make them famous: 1066 and All That. Excerpts began appearing in Punch in September 1930… By 1935 it had reached a twentieth edition…Like Austen, Sellar & Yeatman furnish their work with a mock dedication…Both The History of England and 1066 and All That are furnished with illustrations designed to heighten the humour of their respective works.
….In her sketch of the dying Cardinal Wolsey, Austen quotes his words to the Abbot of Leicester Abbey ‘that “he was come to lay his bones among them.” The line is taken from Goldsmith’s history, which in turn is indebted to a report of Wolsey’s words in Henry VIII… Sellar & Yeatman quote the same lines but with an ingenious twist, combining them with Mark Antony’s famous words in SS’s Julius Caesar: “Father Abbot, I come to lay my bones among you, Not to praise them.” …
…Austen’s wild prejudices are echoed by those of Sellar & Yeatman. Consider, for example, their respective treatments of Sir Francis Drake. In Austen’s zany account, this ‘ornament of his Country and his profession’ is depicted as the precursor of his namesake, Austen’s brother Francis [quote from The History of England ]
…For Sellar & Yeatman, Drake’s storied career affords fine opportunities for comedy, as they scramble and recompose some of the myths surrounding him….…Neither Marshall nor Austen is so much as mentioned in 1066 And All That…it is a spoof…This silence has a precedent in Austen herself. The only historian mentioned anywhere in her work is John Whitaker, author of Mary Queen of Scots Vindicated (1787). Oliver Goldsmith, author of the four volumes that she recreated as The History of England, is never named. And Austen, in turn, would not be mentioned in the book that recreated her mock history in the 20th century: 1066 and All That.”

I would only add to the above that I obtained a copy of 1066 And All That from the library, expecting to find some subtle allusions in it to Austen’s youthful history beyond the Wolsey wink. Alas, I was very disappointed, not only in the lack of any other specific allusions, but also in the marked inferiority of with compared to Austen’s production. Sellar & Yeatman rarely exceeded the quality of the entries in The Loiterer, which of course was the work of JA’s elder brothers James and Henry.

Think I might be displaying unjustified favoritism toward Austen? Well, then, here’s an example which I think is exemplary of the contrast between what JA managed at age 16, and Sellar & Yeatman came up with 131 years later in 1066 And All That:

First here’s what S&Y wrote about Henry VIII and “The Monasteries”:

“One of the strongest things that Henry VIII did was about the Monasteries. It was pointed out to him that no one in the monasteries was married, as the Monks all thought it was still the Middle Ages. So Henry, who, of course, considered marrying a Good Thing, told Cromwell to pass a very strong Act saying that the Middle Ages were all over, and the Monasteries were all to be dissolved. This was called the Disillusion of the Monasteries.”

Lame, lame, lame, is all I can say. A whole paragraph invested in generating one weak pun not even worthy of a groan.

And now, here is what JA came up with on that same topic:

“The Crimes & Cruelties of this Prince, were too numerous to be mentioned, (as this history I trust has fully shewn;) & nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & 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 it, 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.”

I think it’s clear that Austen’s wit and command of language is vastly superior to that of her 20th century imitators. And then, behind the superficial pleasure of witty verbiage, there is for the scholar the deeper please in the Austen of the well recognized satire of Gilpin’s pompous comments on picturesque monastery ruins.

Now, I am sure that Sellar and Yeatman had a knowledge of English which dwarfs my own, and therefore surely there are at least some in-jokes scattered throughout 1066 And All That which I missed in my quick scan of same. But with high confidence, I can say that the humor of their little book largely evaded me on pretty much every page. Whereas there is scarcely a sentence in all of JA’s much shorter History of England that I would not miss. And ultimately the young Jane Austen is much braver in taking on and satirically goring a variety of historical sacred cows than her modern imitators. Where in their work, e.g., is anything comparable to her famous sexualized Sharade about James the First? I didn’t see it if it was there.

So I conclude with the recommendation to those who know 1066 And All That to give Austen’s work a try, and see if you don’t agree with my opinion about the stark contrast in quality between them.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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