Jane Austen, “The History of England”

The Introduction

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 While these writing remained unpublished until after Austen’s death, they were “well known within the family circle” as Austen shared and dedicated many of the pieces to loved ones (Bree, Sabor & Todd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

The Text

“The History of England” was never published in Austen’s lifetime. The below transcription is a reading version compiled by using the digital database of “Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts” and the 2006 publication Jane Austen Juvenilia edited by Peter Sabor.

To listen to a recording of “The History of England” scroll to the bottom of this page.

The History of England
 from the reign of 

Henry the 4th
to the death of

Charles the 1st.

by a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.

To Miss Austen eldest daughter of the Revd George Austen (1), this book is inscribed with all due respect by

The Author

N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History.

Henry the 4th

Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle (2), where he happened to be murdered. It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales came and took away the crown; whereupon, the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespeare’s Plays (3), & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.

Henry the 5th

This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions, & never thrashing Sir William again. During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt (4). He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very agreable Woman by Shakespeare’s account. Inspite of all this however he died, and was succeeded by his son Henry.

Henry the 6th

I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense. Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & the Duke of York who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History, for I shall not be very diffuse in this, meaning by it only to vent my Spleen against, & shew my Hatred to all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, & not to give information. This King married Margaret of Anjou, a woman whose distresses & Misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her. It was in this reign that Joan of Arc (5) lived & made such a row among the English. They should not have burnt her — but they did. There were several Battles between the Yorkists & Lancastrians, in which the former (as they ought) usually conquered. At length they were entirely overcome; The King was murdered — & Edward the 4th ascended the Throne.

Edward the 4th

This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him, & his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who, poor woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity & Avarice Henry the 7th. One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore, who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son.

Edward the 5th

This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that nobody had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3d.

Richard the 3d

The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth (6), he succeeded to it.

Henry the 7th

This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this marriage he had two sons & two daughters, the elder of which Daughters was married to the King of Scotland & had the happiness of being grandmother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of her, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future. The Youngest, Mary, married first the King of France & secondly the D. of Suffolk, by whom she had one daughter, afterwards the Mother of Lady Jane Gray, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting. It was in the reign of Henry the 7th that Perkin Warbeck & Lambert Simnel before mentioned made their appearance, the former of whom was set in the Stocks, took shelter in Beaulieu Abbey (7), & was beheaded with the Earl of Warwick, & the latter was taken into the Kings kitchen. His Majesty died & was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth.

Henry the 8th

It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, & myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign. Among these may be ranked Cardinal Wolsey’s telling the father Abbot of Leicester Abbey that “he was come to lay his bones among them,” the reformation in Religion, & the King’s riding through the streets of London with Anna Bullen (8). It is however but Justice, & my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, & her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, & the King’s Character, all of which add some confirmation, tho’ perhaps but slight ones when in comparison with those before alledged in her favour. Tho’ I do not profess giving many dates, yet as I think it proper to give some & shall of course make choice of those which it is most necessary for the Reader to know, I think it right to inform him that her letter to the King was dated on the 6th of May. 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. His Majesty’s 5th wife was the Duke of Norfolk’s Neice who, tho’ universally acquitted of the crimes for which she was beheaded, has been by many people supposed to have led an abandoned life before her Marriage — Of this however I have many doubts, since she was a relation of that noble Duke of Norfolk who was so warm in the Queen of Scotland’s cause, & who at last fell a victim to it. The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it. He was succeeded by his only son Edward.

Edward the 6th

As this prince was only nine years old at the time of his Father’s death, he was considered by many people as too young to govern, & the late King happening to be of the same opinion, his mother’s Brother the Duke of Somerset was chosen Protector of the realm during his minority. This Man was on the whole of a very amiable Character, & is somewhat of a favourite with me, tho’ I would by no means pretend to affirm that he was equal to those first of Men Robert Earl of Essex, Delamere, or Gilpin. He 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. After his decease the Duke of Northumberland had the care of the King & the Kingdom, & performed his trust of both so well that the King died & the Kingdom was left to his daughter in law the Lady Jane Grey, who has been already mentioned as reading Greek. Whether she really understood that language or whether such a study proceeded only from an excess of vanity for which I beleive she was always rather remarkable, is uncertain. Whatever might be the cause, she preserved the same appearance of knowledge, & contempt of what was generally esteemed pleasure, during the whole of her Life, for she declared herself displeased with being appointed Queen, and while conducting to the scaffold, she wrote a sentence in latin & another in Greek on seeing the dead Body of her Husband accidentally passing that way.


This woman had the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, inspite of the superior pretensions, Merit & Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland & Jane Grey. Nor can I pity the Kingdom for the misfortunes they experienced during her Reign, since they fully deserved them, for having allowed her to succeed her Brother — which was a double peice of folly, since they might have foreseen that as she died without Children, she would be succeeded by that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society, Elizabeth. Many were the people who fell martyrs to the protestant Religion during her reign; I suppose not fewer than a dozen. She married Philip King of Spain who in her Sister’s reign for [sic] famous for building the Armadas. She died without issue, & then the dreadful moment came in which the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, & the Murderess of her Cousin succeeded to the Throne. —


It was the peculiar misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers —— Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive Mischeif, had not those vile & abandoned Men connived at, & encouraged her in her Crimes. I know that it has by many people been asserted & beleived that Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, & the rest of those who filled the cheif Offices of State were deserving, experienced, & able Ministers. But oh! how blinded such Writers & such Readers must be to true Merit, to Merit despised, neglected & defamed, if they can persist in such opinions when they reflect that these Men, these boasted Men were such Scandals to their Country & their Sex as to allow & assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship & Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen & as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance & protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death. Can any one if he reflects but for a moment on this blot, this ever-lasting blot upon their Understanding & their Character, allow any praise to Lord Burleigh or Sir Francis Walsingham? Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only freind was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself, who was abandoned by her Son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached & vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death! Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; Constant in her Religion; & prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that could alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened & zealous Protestants have even abused her for that Steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of their narrow souls & prejudiced Judgements who accuse her. She was executed in the Great Hall at Fotheringay Castle (sacred Place!) (9) on Wednesday the 8th of February — 1586 —— to the everlasting Reproach of Elizabeth, her Ministers, and of England in general. It may not be unnecessary before I entirely conclude my account of this ill-fated Queen, to observe that she had been accused of several crimes during the time of her reigning in Scotland, of which I now most seriously do assure my Reader that she was entirely innocent; having never been guilty of anything more than Imprudencies into which she was betrayed by the openness of her Heart, her Youth, & her Education. Having I trust by this assurance entirely done away every Suspicion & every doubt which might have arisen in the Reader’s mind, from what other Historians have written of her, I shall proceed to mention the remaining Events that marked Elizabeth’s reign. It was about this time that Sir Francis Drake the first English Navigator who sailed round the World, lived, to be the ornament of his Country & his profession. Yet great as he was, & justly celebrated as a Sailor, I cannot help foreseeing that he will be equalled in this or the next Century by one who tho’ now but young, already promises to answer all the ardent & sanguine expectations of his Relations & Freinds, amongst whom I may class the amiable Lady to whom this work is dedicated, & my no less amiable Self.

Though of a different profession, and shining in a different sphere of Life, yet equally conspicuous in the Character of an Earl, as Drake was in that of a Sailor, was Robert Devereux Lord Essex. This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in Character to that equally unfortunate one Frederic Delamere. The simile may be carried still farther, & Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble & gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb, after having been Lord Leuitenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his Sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, & died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.

James the 1st

Though this King had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him. He married Anne of Denmark, and had several Children; fortunately for him his eldest son Prince Henry died before his Father or he might have experienced the evils which befell his unfortunate Brother.

As I am myself partial to the roman catholic religion, it is with infinite regret that I am obliged to blame the Behaviour of any Member of it; yet Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian, I am necessitated to say that in this reign the roman Catholics of England did not behave like Gentlemen to the protestants. Their Behaviour indeed to the Royal Family & both Houses of Parliament might justly be considered by them as very uncivil, and even Sir Henry Percy tho’ certainly the best bred man of the party, had none of that general politeness which is so universally pleasing, as his attentions were entirely confined to Lord Mounteagle.

Sir Walter Raleigh flourished in this & the preceding reign, & is by many people held in great veneration & respect — But as he was an enemy of the noble Essex, I have nothing to say in praise of him, & must refer all those who may wish to be acquainted with the particulars of his Life, to Mr Sheridan’s play of the Critic, where they will find many interesting Anecdotes as well of him as of his freind Sir Christopher Hatton. — His Majesty was of that amiable disposition which inclines to Freindship, & in such points was possessed of a keener penetration in Discovering Merit than many other people. I once heard an excellent sharade on a Carpet, of which the subject I am now reminds me, and as I think it may afford my Readers some amusement to find it out, I shall here take the liberty of presenting it to them.

Sharade (10)

My first is what my second was to King James the 1st, and you tread on my whole.

The principal favourites of his Majesty were Car, who was afterwards created Earl of Somerset and whose name perhaps may have some share in the above-mentioned Sharade, & George Villiers afterwards Duke of Buckingham. On his Majesty’s death he was succeeded by his son Charles.

Charles the 1st

This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered Misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother; Misfortunes which he could not deserve since he was her descendant. Never certainly were there before so many detestable Characters at one time in England as in this period of its History; Never were amiable Men so scarce. The number of them throughout the whole Kingdom amounting only to five, besides the inhabitants of Oxford who were always loyal to their King & faithful to his interests. The names of this noble five who never forgot the duty of the Subject, or swerved from their attachment to his Majesty, were as follows — The King himself, ever steadfast in his own support — Archbishop Laud, Earl of Strafford, Viscount Faulkland, & Duke of Ormond, who were scarcely less strenuous or zealous in the cause. While the Villains of the time would make too long a list to be written or read; I shall therefore content myself with mentioning the leaders of the Gang. Cromwell, Fairfax, Hampden, & Pym may be considered as the original Causers of all the disturbances, Distresses, & Civil Wars (11) in which England for many years was embroiled. In this reign as well as in that of Elizabeth, I am obliged in spite of my attachment to the Scotch, to consider them as equally guilty with the generality of the English, since they dared to think differently from their Sovereign, to forget the Adoration which as Stuarts it was their Duty to pay them, to rebel against, dethrone & imprison the unfortunate Mary; to oppose, to deceive, and to sell the no less unfortunate Charles. The Events of this Monarch’s reign are too numerous for my pen, and inded the recital of any Events (except what I make myself) is uninteresting to me; my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme. —. As therefore it is not my intention to give any particular account of the distresses into which this King was involved through the misconduct & Cruelty of his Parliament, I shall satisfy myself with vindicating him from the Reproach of arbitrary & tyrannical Government with which he has often been charged. This, I feel, is not difficult to be done, for with one argument I am certain of satisfying every sensible & well disposed person whose opinions have been properly guided by a good Education — & this argument is that he was a Stuart (12).

Finis (13)

Saturday Nov: 26th. 1791 (14)

*To view page images of the manuscript click here