The History of England, Hardback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are the quintessential English novelists, and their place among the very greatest authors is beyond dispute.

Yet both also wrote histories of England, Austen as an adolescent satire and Dickens as an entertaining book for children.

This book brings these fascinating pieces of historical writing together, providing two very different perspectives on the history of England. Jane Austen launches into her satirical history with breathtaking speed and a touching informality, wielding her trademark wit to summarise and satirise the career of every monarch from Henry IV to Charles I.

It is also a rarely seen and revealing glimpse of Austen's precocious talent. Dickens's gory and dramatic history is full of villains and heroes.

He sketches the lives of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I with typically flamboyant twists and turns.

It is a hugely evocative piece, both of the history he conjures up and of the time in which he himself was writing. David Starkey's fascinating introduction explores the merits of each history.

It is the perfect opening to two thoroughly engaging and enthralling histories of England.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Icon Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: British & Irish history
  • ISBN: 9781840467833

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THIS book’s title is misleading: it is not a collaborative history written by two doyens of 19th-century English literature, but rather the entire text of The History of England from the Reign of Henry I to IV, to the Death of Charles I by Jane Austen, and an excerpt from Charles Dickens ’s A Child’s History of England . Austen’s work, written when she was only 16, comprised a mere 20 pages, while Dickens ’s was far more substantial. Hers was intended as an amusing satire but Dickens ’s work, although much of it seems tongue in cheek to the modern reader, was taken seriously enough to be a setwork for British schools until well into the 20th century. How survivors of today’s dry-as-dust history syllabus must envy children who learned of the past by means of Dickens ’s fast-paced, gossipy and partisan prose! In his introduction, David Starkey encourages us to read the histories as works of literature, pointing out how Dickens was true to the sentiments he expressed in his novels, and Austen developed themes here that she was later to master. “Austen’s opinionated frivolousness had a point. More than whimsy, her History of England is a satire on the style of history writing and pedagogy to which young girls of her class and station were routinely subjected,” Starkey says. “Austen’s implicit objection was to the vapidity of history education.” In complete contrast, Dickens wrote a male-centred history bristling with dates, and with the names of the main characters capitalised. Despite using the standard and predictable tools of the sort of history book against which Austen had rebelled, his use of language, his irony, humanity, use of evocative detail and sardonic wit make his writing a pleasure. “Throughout the book he shows himself wholly intolerant of the follies and arrogance of many of England’s rulers, at whose feet he lays much of the blame for the copious ‘turmoil and bloodshed’ of his nation’s history,” Starkey says. After completing the entirely admirable and informative introduction, it is fascinating to examine the varied opinions of the two authors at face value, as might a schoolchild. Austen condemns Elizabeth I as “wicked”, largely because she ordered the death of Mary Queen of Scots. Dickens judges her as “vain and jealous … a hard swearer and a coarse talker. She was clever, but cunning and deceitful.” But while they may broadly agree on the subject of the so-called Virgin Queen, Mary Queen of Scots is another matter entirely. Described as “amiable … this bewitching princess” and “entirely innocent” by Austen, Dickens argues that although she was “captivating”, she was also “deceitful … artful and treacherous”, and he had no doubt whatsoever that she was involved in plots to overthrow Elizabeth. Strangely enough, given the levels of anti-Catholicism that persisted in England well into the 20th century, both writers were generally sympathetic to the Church of Rome, and respected Mary’s devotion to her religion. “Could you Reader have believed it possible that some hardened & zealous Protestants have even abused her for that Steadfastness in the Catholic Religion that reflected on her so much credit?” Austen asks plaintively. In a milder vein, Dickens observes: “In their Protestant zeal, (they) made some very unnecessary speeches to her; to which she replied that she died in the Catholic religion, and they need not trouble themselves about that matter.” Of James I, the teenaged Austen admits: “I cannot help liking him”, while the best Dickens can come up with is that “he was ugly, awkward, and shuffling both in mind and person”. That might not seem very complimentary, but compared with the other things Dickens has to say about “his Sowship”, it is high praise indeed. His loathing for James was such that he was almost sympathetic towards Guy Fawkes and the others involved in the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I, although Austen comments sadly: “I am necessitated to say that in this reign the Roman Catholics of England did not behave like Gentlemen to the Protestants.” The last monarch both writers examine is Charles I, whom they agree was “amiable”. Dickens offers a far more detailed and informative account of Charles’s dispute with parliament, the civil war, and his execution. “With all my sorrow for him, I cannot agree with him that he died ‘the martyr of the people’; for the people had been martyrs to him, and to his ideas of a King’s rights, long before,” Dickens writes. Austen dismisses “the disturbances, Distresses, & Civil Wars” in a single paragraph, and ends her history with the breath-taking candour of youth: “The Recital of any Events … is uninteresting to me; my principal reason for under taking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectively done, and to abuse Elizabeth, tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme.” Do not rely on these authors for a definitive account of the history of England . This is no textbook — it has been published for the enjoyment of fans of these two quintessentially British authors. Austen and Dickens are refreshingly unselfconscious, witty without being deliberately clever or precious, non-PC, but never cheeky, and they are a true delight to read.

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