15-Year-Old Jane Austen Writes a Satirical History Of England: Read the Handwritten Manuscript Online (1791)


Last week, we post­ed about the British Library’s colos­sal online exhib­it, which includes over 30,000 items, all freely dig­i­tized for read­er perusal. Although we’d men­tioned some of the choic­est hold­ings — the orig­i­nal writ­ings by Mozart and da Vin­ci, for exam­ple — we’ve recent­ly come across anoth­er piece of lit­er­ary his­to­ry that com­pelled us to revis­it the col­lec­tion: a brows­able man­u­script of Jane Austen’s The His­to­ry of Eng­land, penned in 1791, when the author was only 15 years old.

Austen was, by and large, a home­schooled and auto­di­dac­tic child. Although she had tak­en part in some for­mal school­ing between the ages of 7 and 10, ill­ness and the family’s lack of means dic­tat­ed that she had to rely on her father’s exten­sive library for an edu­ca­tion. By the time she was fif­teen, Austen had evi­dent­ly gath­ered suf­fi­cient mate­r­i­al to fuel her writ­ing, and had com­plet­ed a his­to­ry of Eng­land, begin­ning with Hen­ry IV (1367–1413), and end­ing with Charles I (1600–1649). Above, you can see one of the book’s many illus­tra­tions drawn by Jane’s elder sis­ter, Cas­san­dra, depict­ing Edward IV, of whom Austen writes, “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.” In spite of its brevi­ty — the book num­bers only 36 hand­writ­ten pages — Austen’s juve­nil­ia shows unmis­tak­able signs of her dis­tinct satir­i­cal voice. The vol­ume is, in fact, a par­o­dy of the stuffy claims of objec­tiv­i­ty found in 18th cen­tu­ry grade school his­to­ry text­books, like Oliv­er Gold­smith’s The His­to­ry of Eng­land from the Ear­li­est Times to the Death of George II.  Rather than fol­low suit, Austen skips triv­i­al­i­ties such as key dates and events, not­ing to her read­ers in the intro­duc­tion to a sec­tion on Hen­ry VIII,

 “It would be an affront to my Read­ers were I to sup­pose that they were not as well acquaint­ed with the par­tic­u­lars of the 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”

I had the sense that Austin rel­ished writ­ing such humor­ous prose as much as I enjoyed read­ing it. Uncon­strained by the for­mal­i­ties of her medi­um, she takes to ref­er­enc­ing Shake­speare and giv­ing voice to her numer­ous opin­ions. Take, for exam­ple, her entries on Hen­ry V and Hen­ry VI:

henry austen

 Hen­ry the 5th 

This Prince after he suc­ceed­ed to the throne grew quite reformed and 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. He after­wards mar­ried the King’s daugh­ter Cather­ine, a very agree­able Woman by Shake­spear’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 lived & made such a row among the Eng­lish. They should not have burnt her — but they did. 

mary austen

The whole book, includ­ing the above pages on Queens Mary and Eliz­a­beth, may be viewed at the British library’s web­site.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman, or read more of his writ­ing at the Huff­in­g­ton Post.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Stamp Col­lec­tion Cel­e­brates Six Nov­els by Jane Austen

Read Jane Austen’s Man­u­scripts Online

The Recipes of Icon­ic Authors: Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath, Roald Dahl, the Mar­quis de Sade & More

Find Jane Austen’s Works in Our Free Audio Books and Free eBooks Col­lec­tions


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Comments (3)
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  • Frank Schmidt says:

    Thank you for bring­ing this won­der­ful bit of lit­er­ary his­to­ry to the world atten­tion. In the future, how­ev­er, out of respect for the writ­ers whose prose you admire, please refrain from abus­ing the Eng­lish lan­guage by using the word, “ref­er­ence,” as a verb. Miss Austen would cringe.

  • Jack says:

    Fan­tas­tic and a joy to read

    and @Frank Schmidt: Ref­er­ence is a verb (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/reference)

  • Arnie Perlstein says:

    I am sur­prised that you left out the most inter­est­ing part of the FIFTEEN year old Jane Austen’s His­to­ry of Eng­land, this pas­sage about James I:

    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 exel­lent Sha­rade on a Car­pet, of which the sub­ject I am now on reminds me, and as I think it may afford my Read­ers some Amuse­ment to find it out, I shall now take the lib­er­ty of pre­sent­ing it to them.

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

    The prin­ci­pal favourites of his Magesty 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 Buck­ing ham.

    For why I believe Jane Austen was point­ing to Fan­ny Hill, read this:


    @JaneAustenCode on Twit­ter

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