A curious history

2008-10-02 08:05

THIS is a curiosity - something to be dipped into rather than read. After all, no one would take the “history” presented here seriously. The main interest is for the light the book sheds on the two authors.

David Starkey's introduction puts the two pieces into perspective and notes the similarities between Jane Austen's History, written when she was just 16, and the much later Sellar and Yeatman classic, 1066 and all that.

“N.B. There will be very few dates in this history,” is how Austen starts her parody of the kind of history a child of her time would have been taught.

Kings and queens are summarily dispatched and Austen reserves her main satire for Queen Elizabeth I - a villain forever for her treatment of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. The best thing about it all is the glimpse into a mind that was already sharply satiric in adolescence and a writer with an ingrained sense of fun.

Charles Dickens's A Child's History of England is not juvenalia. The author was well known by the time he wrote it in the 1850s and it represents the genre that Austen was parodying, despite coming on to the scene later. But to give Dickens his due, he does try to make history lively and people-centred, and if it is all pretty inaccurate and arbitrary, at least it is fun - and was still in print and used in some schools up until World War 2.

The two pieces together make an odd, if attractive, little book, although quite who the market would be is not altogether clear.

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