Critical Introduction to “The History of England”

Written in the early 1790s but published posthumously, Jane Austen’s “The History of England” from Volume the Second of her Juvenilia presents a witty and satirical account of Britain’s royal history (Bree, Sabor & Todd 11, Sabor xxix). Austen’s juvenile writings (what has come to be termed her Juvenilia) are a collection of short writings – mostly short stories – organized in three notebook volumes with the “mock-solemn titles” Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third (Bree, Sabor & Todd 17). While these writing remained unpublished until after Austen’s death, they were “well known within the family circle” as Austen shared and dedicated many of the pieces to loved ones (Bree, Sabor & Todd 12).

Even though Austen wrote the works during her teenage year, she continued revising the notebooks throughout her lifetime (Bree, Sabor & Todd 17, 13). Importantly, the manuscripts of her Juvenilia, unlike the novels, survive and evidence this continuous revision. These revisions are testament to Austen’s perfectionism and the changes help to “illuminate” her style choices (Bree, Sabor & Todd 15). The overall tone of the Juvenilia exudes sarcasm and is often “merciless in exploiting the comic potential of human faults and failings” (Bree, Sabor & Todd 20).

“The History of England” is no exception to this satirical tone. The text has been interpreted as a parody of the narrative history genre popular during Austen’s lifetime. Austen’s text utilizes the form of a traditional British history by listing the monarchs in order or reign and providing brief synopses of the notable moments as a ruler of England. However, instead treating these entries with reverence, Austen presents a parody that satirizes the some of the ridiculous, immature, and ironic events in England’s history. Seen as a collaborative project between sisters, “The History of England “ is accompanied by 13 watercolour portraits drawn by Cassandra, Jane Austen’s sister (Sabor xxxi). These drawings garnered a lot of attention when the work was first published in 1922 and have continued to be a subject of criticism for Austen scholars today (Sabor xlvi). “The History of England” has occupied a feminist space because of its emphasized portrayal of female monarchs and due to its captivating style it has inspired several adaptations (Sabor lvi, iviii).

While is has long been argued that “The History of England” is Austen’s satirical rendering and personal parody of the infamous historical narratives of the eighteenth-century Britain, has only been evidenced through qualitative measures. Using close-reading analysis of the monarch’s entries and Austen’s continuous return to the voice of the “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian”, scholars have argued in favour of Austen’s critique (Drabble qtd in Sabor lvi). However, given the lack of concreteness in qualitative evidence, I decided to test this reading’s relevance when placed under quantitative methodologies in order to bolster a stronger claim for Austen’s use of personal and verbal irony in “The History of England”.

In order to accomplish this goal, I turned to an algorithmic approach by calculating word frequencies in “The History of England”. The rationalization behind this was that I believed by showing Austen’s use of specific, emotionally charged words and phrases, a substantial claim could be made about the intended tone of the entire work. To compute the data, I ran the text of “The History of England” through an online text analysis tool called “Textalyser”. Once completed, the program provided me with this list of word frequencies:

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Most Frequent Words – Austen’s “The History of England”

It is important to note that this list removes common articles such as “a” and “the” to provide results that capture the vocabulary that represents the most meaning in the work. Instantly, we see evidence supporting the qualitatively based claim that Austen’s work relied heavily on the sarcastic voice of her narrative. The word “I” is the most commonly used word in the text and occurs more the twice as often as the second ranked word “king”. While words like “king” and “reign” seem intuitive to appear in a history of British monarchs, “I”, “am”, and “my” strike a different chord. These words are fundamentally linked to the first-person narrative voice and their dominance in the word frequency evidences the strong influence of narrative opinion in Austen’s work.

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2-Word Phrase Frequency – Austen’s “The History of England”

Further support is found in the list of frequently used word phrases as “I am”, “I shall”, “I think”, “as I”, and “which I” all rank near the top of the list appearing a least four times across the text. Again, the dominant presence of the personal pronoun “I” across all of these statements evidences again the centrality of Austen’s narrative voice in the retelling of British history.

Comparatively, when several excerpted passages from Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of England” (passages that reflect the same historical monarch entries as those that are replicated in Austen’s “The History of England”) are placed in the “Textalyser” they produce very different results.

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Most Frequent Words – Goldsmith’s History

In the totality of the results, there are zero personal pronouns or emotionally charged statements evoked. Goldsmith’s narration is neutral and plays second fiddle to the dominant, historically factual narrative it attempts to convey. This can be seen in direct opposition to Austen’s admittedly “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian”.

These conclusive results both work to affirm and advance the scholarly understanding of Austen’s “The History of England”. The qualitative and comparative information generated in calculating word frequencies evidences the assumption that Austen purposefully utilized a dramatic and opinionated narrator in order to satirize the neutrality and bore of common histories.

Furthermore, understanding Austen’s narrative voice in this way helps to shape not only our reading of her Juvenilia but also of her later novels. I argue that Austen’s prevalent use of personal pronouns in her narration of “The History of England” can be seen as a catalyst to her employment of free indirect discourse in her later publications.

Free indirect discourse a form of thought or speech that relies on blending the narrator’s voice with the voice of a given character in the text (Case & Shaw 199). Free indirect discourse is a type of narrative style that negotiates the tender balance between direct discourse, or first-person narration, and indirect discourse, or third-person narration, by combining these voices into one. This fusion of objective narration with subjective characterization connects the audience to the protagonist in manner much similar to a first-person narrative style but without compromising the favourable omniscient qualities of classic third-person narration. This uncharacteristic narrative genre is often left undiscovered when read by a passive audience but, when analyzed more closely, free indirect discourse passages possess unique traits that make them decisively different from traditional styles of narration.

Austen has been recognized as one of the most powerful manipulators of free indirect discourse because she constructs narrators whose voices are inexplicitly linked to those of her characters (Morini 27, Lanser 73). Through her use of free indirect discourse, intimacy is created between the reader and the heroine that is not capable of forming in a traditional third-person narrative text.  While third-person narration segregates the reader from the characters in the work, free indirect discourse allows the reader into the minds of Austen’s characters while remaining far enough removed to present a, somewhat, objective story.

Austen’s narrative style in both her early Juvenilia work, such as “The History of England”, and her novels evidence her keen ability to navigate the triangulated circuit between “writer, reader, and text” with extraordinary skill (Lanser 5). Deconstructing and exploring Austen’s use of personal pronouns in “The History of England” reveals strong indication of a free indirect “precursor”. Similar, but less sophisticated than the effects of free indirect discourse, Austen’s use of personal pronouns allows her opinion as an author to infiltrate her work. While the qualitatively based argument for Austen’s satire has been previously evoked, this new intervention of quantitative analysis helps to both support and progress this claim. This argument surrounding “The History of England” transforms the evoked satire from a mere literary tool to evidence for the development of Austen’s narrative style and its readership important implications.

*To view pages images of the manuscript click here


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