Two Histories of England: By Jane Austen and Charles Dickens
This little truffle of a book must be making up for its brevity (at 157 pages) by presenting itself as a ready-made hostess gift: The two miniature histories, one each from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, are gift-wrapped in a his-and-hers jacket cover with a woman's silhouette framed in bright pink on the front, a bearded man's outline against purplish blue on the back. The package, as frivolous as it is, holds satisfying if insubstantial morsels of Austen's maturing wit and Dickens's full-grown mastery.
"N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History," a teenage Austen begins her satirical History of England, which she wrote simply to entertain her family. Writing as a "partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian" with a strong Catholic bias, Austen races through the isle's past in 17 pages, playfully skewering the era's uninspired pedagogy along with the rulers she describes.
She praises Henry VI, for his "undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another," and Henry VIII, "whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth." Edward VI was beheaded, "of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it."
It's not her best work, but Anglophiles will chuckle from time to time at a young Austen's deadpan, upper-crusty absurdity, so different from her more subtle later novels.
Dickens, according to the book's excellent introduction by David Starkey, was already a best-selling author when he finished A Child's History of England in 1853. Set down with a strong sense of irony and gallows humor, his little history describes an unending war between idiocy and honor, with no clear winner emerging over the centuries.
For the simple coffee-table purposes of this little book, though, his grown-up and cuttingly subversive writing style works better than Austen's for flipping open and reading in bits and pieces, particularly because it spills over with elegantly diffuse but matter-of-fact insults.
Lord Darnley, who married Mary Queen of Scots, "was a tall simpleton; and could dance and play the guitar; but I know of nothing else he could do, unless it were to get very drunk, and eat gluttonously, and make a contemptible spectacle of himself in many mean and vain ways." George Villiers, one of many probable lovers of King James I, "was an ignorant presumptuous swaggering compound of a knave and fool, with nothing but his beauty and his dancing to recommend him."
Readers may find some tempting parallels with modern politics in the section on Charles I, who "had monstrously exaggerated notions of the rights of a king," fought a hugely unpopular and expensive war with Spain, and wrangled constantly with Parliament. The king was "unpleasantly anxious" to send a political enemy to the rack, but Parliament determined that torture was illegal--"it is a pity they did not make the discovery a little sooner," Dickens notes sadly--and the man was instead executed.
But startlingly compassionate moments also spring up very often in A Child's History. When Charles I's own head is removed, Dickens quietly remarks that "you and I both wish the Parliament had spared" the king. Elsewhere, the author tells how the red wig of Mary Queen of Scots--of whom Dickens is no great fan--fell off after her beheading: "But she was beautiful enough to her little dog, who cowered under her dress, frightened, when she went upon the scaffold." Starkey is wise to offer us Austen's comparatively childish writing before Dickens' sophisticated and compact work.
English children studied this as a history textbook until the 1950s, though Dickens does not claim impartiality and he is no relativist. But he tempers his biting criticism of the excesses of monarchy and fanaticism, conceding very often that even the most ruthless rulers have moments of real courage and humanity despite their vile personalities.
Even more so than in his novels, Dickens' authoritative voice is warm and confidential. Like Austen's narrator, he is undoubtedly partial and prejudiced, but Dickens isn't so much pushing an agenda as distilling the past into ethical guidelines for schoolchildren--don't be greedy, don't be cruel, don't be arrogant--and injecting some lessons in dry humor while he's at it. Maybe the distance of time and place dampens the indignation within his clearly biased storytelling, but it's a touching, enjoyable little work, with a gentlemanly air lacking in today's history books.