In these two forgotten gems of English literature, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens offer delightful, irreverent histories of their native land.
hen she was only sixteen years old, Jane Austen composed her bitingly satirical History of England for performance in her family's drawingroom. A startling and precocious example of her celebrated wit--not to mention a brilliant social commentary--this lively piece sweeps rapidly across almost four centuries of British monarchy. In rambunctious and wickedly funny prose, Austen's critique spans from Henry IV to Charles I, from Richard III to Mary Queen of Scots, offering a fierce parody of the kind of biased history that young ladies of Austen's time were being forced to study. Reproduced here in its entirety, this is a rare, tantalizing look at the great novelist's budding talent, and an extraordinary bit of literary history that lay unpublished for more than 130 years.
Charles Dickens's A Child's History of England, by contrast, was written and published at the height of its author's considerable fame. A gory and dramatic account, full of villains and heroes, the essay was originally intended as a study-piece for his children, but in fact represented a sly, unconventional countertext to the more straitlaced historical canon. Dickens's exciting, flamboyant narrative is hugely evocative, both of the history he describes and of the time in which he himself was writing.
With an insightful introduction by bestselling historian David Starkey, Two Histories of England brings together, in a single, irresistible volume, these remarkable--and remarkably overlooked--literary treasures by two of the world's most beloved writers.
Unbeknownst to most readers today, Austen and Dickens each wrote a satiric history of England. Austen's The History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st--written in 1791 when she was 16--is a deliberate parody of the intellectually vapid histories to which girls of her class were routinely subjected. Reprinted in its entirety, Austen's juvenilia is witty, cold-blooded and contrarian: during Henry V's reign, she writes, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for, and the history's purpose is supposedly to vindicate Mary Queen of Scots and abuse Elizabeth. Dickens was already a bestselling novelist when he published A Child's History of England in the early 1850s, which was part of the British school curriculum for decades; an excerpt appears here. Using plain language, sharp if heavy irony and evocative detail, Dickens is radical and opinionated: Elizabeth is coarse, capricious, and treacherous and James I is a greedy, dirty drunk. Although a knowledgeable introduction by historian and TV presenter Starkey (Elizabeth) offers interesting biographical tidbits and puts each book in its proper context, American readers will find these to be amusing minor works by a pair of English national treasures. (Oct. 2)
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September 30, 2007
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