Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jane Austen as Crypto-Catholic Historian?

Cassandra Austen, Portrait of Henry IV
Jane Austen's The History of England (c. 1790)
(Image from Wikipedia)

Readers may recall my recent blog entry presenting the opinion of "Jane Austen on Historians," in which I cite some direct discourse by the young Miss Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey, as evidence for Austen's own view:
"I read [history] . . . a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all -- it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes' mouths, their thoughts and designs -- the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books." (Austen, Northanger Abbey, chapter 14)
Despite these views expressing what I would plausibly take to be Austen's own opinion as to the veracity of history, "which may be as much depended on . . . as anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation," Austen herself penned a History of England. Moreover, I am cautioned by others not to take Catherine's words as so strictly the views of Jane:
Devoney Looser cautions readers against equating Catherine's simple dismissal of history with Jane Austen's complex response. In his recent biography of Jane Austen, for instance, David Nokes too quickly concludes of Catherine's remarks about history, "These were Jane's thoughts, too." Looser demonstrates that, in contrast to Catherine Morland, Jane Austen found history of "paramount importance."
Or so writes Emily Auerbach in her review of Devony Looser's Novel Approaches to History British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), a review published in JASNA News (Volume 17, Number 2, Summer 2001, p. 26). Auerbach takes -- as does Looser -- Jane Austen's view of history to be closer to that of Catherine Morland's interlocutor, Eleanor Tilney:
How much richer the discussion of history in Northanger Abbey becomes if we consider Eleanor Tilney, not Catherine Morland, as a model reader of history. Like Catherine, Eleanor recognizes that history mixes fact with fiction, but she reads with discernment and enjoyment.
Auerbach then cites Eleanor's own words:
I am fond of history -- and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as any thing that does not actually pass under one's own observation . . . . If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made -- and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.
Of course, I cited these myself in my earlier blog entry (and also, fleetingly, above) as more evidence that Jane Austen turned a jaundiced eye upon the writings of historians. But I take Auerbach's point. Austen's perspective on history is closer to Eleanor's than to Catherine's. Nevertheless, Austen distrusts the writings of historians -- and had already done so at 15, when she penned her historical spoof, as noted by Kathryn Sutherland:
[I]n her early spoof 'History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian', written out according to her own dating in November 1791, when she was not quite 16, JA [Jane Austen] inverted the conventionally approved account of the past (as the gradual, Whiggish progress towards liberty and the defeat of Stuart absolutism) by setting up history as a pro-Stuart tragedy. Its climax and conclusion is the execution of Charles I in 1 649, and its heroine is his grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots, 'one of the first Characters in the World', also executed, in 1587. (See 'The History of England', in Catharine and Other Writings, ed. Doody and Murray, 136; and Christopher Kent, 'Learning History with, and from, Jane Austen', in Jane Austen 's Beginnings, 59-72. JA's contrasted presentation of Mary and Elizabeth I, the one vulnerable, beautiful, and innocent, the other unattractive and severe, resembles that in Sophia Lee's The Recess, or A Tale of Other Times (1783-5). JEAL [James Edward Austen-Leigh] is unnecessarily po-faced in accounting for his aunt's hilarious exercise in political uncorrectness. In MAJA [My Aunt Jane Austen: A Memoir], his sister Caroline presents the same detail with less qualification. (A Memoir of Jane Austen: And Other Family Recollections, by James Edward Austen-Leigh, edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 2002, pages 230-231)
In writing such an anti-Whiggish spoof, Austen is implicitly suggesting the biased and partial character of all historical writings. Of Henry the Sixth, she writes:
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 and 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, and shew my Hatred TO all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, and not to give information. This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses and misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her. It was in this reign that Joan of Arc lived and made such a ROW among the English. They should not have burnt her -- but they did. There were several Battles between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, in which the former (as they ought) usually conquered. At length they were entirely overcome; The King was murdered -- The Queen was sent home -- and Edward the 4th ascended the Throne. (Jane Austen, "History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st," in Love And Friendship And Other Early Works)
Austen is writing in the guise of a historian "partial to the roman catholic religion," and thereby as little to be trusted as those Whig historians partial to the Protestant Reformation. Yet, I can't help but wonder where Austen's true sympathies lie. Take her observation on Henry the 8th:
[N]othing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and 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. (Austen, "History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st")
Austen writes with fine irony here in suggesting that Henry the 8th had done England a favor in leaving it so many ruined abbeys to grace its landscape, a bequeathment so useful for Romantic poets and Gothic novelists -- even such as Austen herself in her Gothic parody, Northanger Abbey. Her irony is so penetrating that one could imagine that Austen actually had Catholic sympathies and regretted the destruction wrought by the Reformation. But someone more expert than I in Austen will have to inform us as to her actual religious views.

But as for her views on history, we should consider another point raised by Auerbach:
In Austen's era terminology was even more fluid than in our own: "history" could mean either a factual or imaginary narrative; a "romance" might be a biographical account or a fantastical tale . . . . Austen's letters show her awareness that novels and histories were competing for sales and status. She ironically jokes to Cassandra that the "too light & bright & sparkling" Pride and Prejudice might be improved by mixing it with "a long Chapter" about "the history of Buonaparte." (Auerbach, JASNA News, Volume 17, Number 2, Summer 2001, p. 26).
Austen is once again being ironic, but she is serious in comparing history to fiction. I'm glad, however, that she didn't bring in Napoleon, for much as I like Pride and Prejudice, I wouldn't want to have seen it stretch like War and Peace to over 1400 pages! Elizabeth and Darcy are long enough in getting together already! I wouldn't be able to sublimate for 1200 extra pages while Darcy unlearns his pride and Elizabeth her prejudice . . . and vice versa.

And we would have even fewer Austen novels than we already have.

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At 10:29 PM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

Dr. Jeff-er-y,
I'm still in the back of the class reading and learning everyday. I have even pulled out a Jane Austen with intent to actually read one!

At 2:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A warning (of sorts) J,

Some of Jeffery's recent posts have been very hard to comment on. I would point out (Jeff are you reading this?) had Jeff sought a subject fit for easy commentary - he'd of titled at least one -

"Jane Austen: Amortized Mortgage Deriviative Credit Default Swaps."


At 4:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeanie, if you do your homework, you might move up to the head of the class.

But you'll need to love actually reading something by Austen.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I prefer to write on topics that haven't been touched before. That's why you'll never find me writing on "Jane Austen: Amortized Mortgage Deriviative Credit Default Swaps." Everybody's already written about marriage, money, and mortgages in Austen's works.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, like I said, if was supposed to be easy, you'd a titled something, "Jane Austen: Amortized Mortgage Deriviative Credit Default Swaps."

As it is, you've presented something along the lines of: "The Goverments' Plan To Take Care Of Amortized Mortgage Deriviative Credit Default Swaps."


At 6:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're right, JK. I really ought to say something about Jane Austen's financial plan, which makes far more economic sense than any that I've heard thus far from our government.

America just needs to marry well, someone with '30,000 pounds' -- whatever that is in today's money (several trillion, I think) -- and everything will turn out well.

Jeffery Hodges

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