Sunday, March 08, 2009

Jane Austen on Historians

(Image from Wikipedia)

If Jane Austen is right (and she most certainly is), then my past 25 years as a sort-of 'historian' have been . . . well judge 'sort of' for yourself based on how the young Miss Eleanor Tilney responds when the equally young Miss Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey, confesses her adolescent lack of interest in history (to which Mr. Henry Tilney, older brother of Eleanor, ultimately adds his own response):
"I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?"

"Yes, I am fond of history."

"I wish I were too. I read it 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."

"Historians, you think," said Miss Tilney, "are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. 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 anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. 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."

"You are fond of history! And so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person's courage that could sit down on purpose to do it."

"That little boys and girls should be tormented," said Henry, "is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished historians, I must observe that they might well be offended at being supposed to have no higher aim, and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well qualified to torment readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life. I use the verb 'to torment,' as I observed to be your own method, instead of 'to instruct,' supposing them to be now admitted as synonymous."
I first read Jane Austen's works at the mature age of 25, back when I was a 'turtle' in the Atherton home of the cultured, elderly Mrs. Elizabeth Rosenfield. Until recently, I had believed myself to have read every Austen novel at that time, but I seem to have read only those in the set that Mrs. Rosenfield possessed and now see that I profoundly erred in failing to establish for certain that she possessed not all of them, and in thereby neglecting Northanger Abbey through my failure.

I say 'erred' because had I known of Austen's persuasion on the 'virtue' of studying history as written by historians -- namely, that historians not only rely upon untrustworthy records but actually elaborate those specious records with embellishments of their own -- then I would have dropped out of Berkeley and pursued a life of straightforward literary fiction rather than the crooked historians' nonliterary fiction that I ignorantly opted for.

Instead, I have spent my life striving to torment others in their lives -- albeit unsuccessfully, I might add, for I have only rarely secured the opportunity to truly torment any students in that historians' way and have therefore had to content myself in tormenting my own poor self both through what I do and what I do not do.

Still, I've had the privilege of tormenting somebody . . . or perhaps just a mere nobody, which may have been for the best after all since Ms. Austen has persuaded me that historians traffic in nothing but fabrications.

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At 9:58 AM, Blogger John B said...

A surprisingly post-modernist perspective. I've never paid much attention to Jane Austen before, and I see I should remedy that.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jane Austen is great, and ever up to date (though even pre-postmodern historians also knew of the problems with sources and interpretations).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect that historians look at things from their own biases and perspectives, and this influences their production.
I have read several histories of the Civil War, and of Abraham Lincoln.
Each author sees that event and personages based on his or her point of view.
Luckily, you have sources such as I and your cousin Bill, whose accounts of our exploits are always unbiased, true and reliable.


At 7:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I am indeed blessed with such reputable sources as my own dear kin, who can be faulted with neither unwitting error nor willful misrepresentation . . . for one must keep family reunions harmonious.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:22 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Facts only would bore-and would make for some very slender history books. Embellishment is necessary-that's why Cousin Bill's and Uncle Cran's writings stay atop the best selling list.

At 5:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Shouldn't I be receiving some royalties for my contributions? I seem to recall adding some of the 'fact enhancers'.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might it not be better, then, to read novels about historical figures and events, rather than read the actual histories themselves?

Often, an historical novel will give us a better feel for the periods and personages involved, than would a straight-out history book or biography.

Thus, to read or write an historical novel may be a more honest and more fulfilling a pastime.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christopher, I'd say that one should read both.

Historians are aware of the problems that Ms. Austen notes, and they try to take these into account.

Writers of historical fiction need not worry too much about either problem, but they are, in fact, dependent upon what historians have written for the plausibility of historical fiction.

Jeffery Hodges

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