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Jane Austen’s ‘History of England...’

Image from Jane Austen’s History of England

Jane Austen’s History of England
British Library Add. MS 59874, ff.85v-86
Copyright © The British Library Board
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‘The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian.’ It is with these words that the 16-year-old Jane Austen began her study of the English monarchy; from the outset she meant it as a gleeful parody of Oliver Goldsmith's History of England, published in 1771. This is her autograph manuscript with roundel illustrations by her sister Cassandra.

Who was Jane Austen?

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was a parson’s daughter, well-connected with the landed and professional classes, and it was to their world that she confined herself in her novels, writing to a niece that ‘3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on’. Her novels were written in the intervals of a busy family life, the last three (Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion) in the parlour of her mother’s cottage at Chawton, in Hampshire.

In a 'Biographical Notice' to Northanger Abbey, posthumously published in 1818, her brother Henry wrote that ‘Though in composition she was equally rapid and correct, yet an invincible distrust of her own judgement induced her to withhold her books from the public, till time and many perusals had satisfied her that the charm of recent composition was dissolved’.

Why is this manuscript important?

Jane Austen’s ‘The History of England’ ranks as one of the most precocious and engaging works of juvenilia ever produced by a leading literary figure. Written in 1791, the manuscript is illustrated with delightful medallion portraits of monarchs painted by Jane’s sister Cassandra.

From the age of 12, Jane spent more of her spare time in literary composition than in serious study. She preserved 26 items of juvenilia, dating from around 1787 to early 1793, and later copied them into three notebooks entitled Volume the First, Volume the Second and Volume the Third. The ‘History of England’ appears in Volume the Second.

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