[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND
Jane Austen (1791)
Folio Society, 1993; quarter bound in vellum, with gold title, and marbled boards, in embossed card slip-case.
…with one argument I am certain of satisfying every sensible & well disposed person whose opinions have been properly guided by a good Education – & this argument is that he was a Stuart.
Like Emily Bronte, Jane Austen was the daughter of a clergyman who spent her life as a member of the very discreet provincial middle class, and who never knew the love of a man – worse, according to the scheme of things back then, neither of them ever married. It was a time when so many women were condemned to live and die in obscurity. It is therefore remarkable that their novels were so different – it is like comparing a Haydn minuet to Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.
This little history stands on the shelf for the novels of Jane Austen. She wrote it when she was barely sixteen. The handwritten manuscript is there in facsimile as illustrated by her sister Cassandra, and the text is set out in print. As histories of England go, this one has the supreme advantage that it can be read in the time that it takes to give the dog a short walk.
In Northanger Abbey, the seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland says: ‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in….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.’ That would be the view of the author of this little history, the ironical tone of which is signified by the observation that it ends with and which is set out at the head of this note.
The little book is notable chiefly for the fact that the author does not seek to hide or apologize for the fact that she is a she – and one who valiantly defends those of her sex – such as Joan of Arc (yes, the French witch!), Anna Bullen, and Mary Queen of Scots. Curiously, she buckets two – Margaret of Anjou (the She-Wolf of France) and Elizabeth (‘that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society’) – who were the strongest of the lot, and more than capable of standing toe to toe with the men.
And what of the novels? The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English says that Austen’s ‘life was conspicuous for its lack of event – allowing biographers to make it a study in quiet contemplation or quiet frustration – and for the strength of family ties.’ That for some would be a fair assessment of the novels, pretty and prim comedies of manners, where nobody works for a living, and nobody seems to live, and hardly anything ever seems to happen. The revolting measure of the worth of a person by their income – all unearned – and the even more revolting dependence of women on the institution of rightless marriage to take them from one form of oblivion to another form of servitude can, after a while, get you down.
I prefer now to take these novels being read to me by Patricia Hodge, Amanda Root, or the woman with the best voice on the planet, Juliet Stephenson. That way, the worst reaction that you can get is like that which comes a couple of hours after downing a Chinese take-away.
But, then, who could ever forget the way that the gruesome Mr Collins grovelled before the awesome Lady Catherine de Burgh, or the lordly magnificence of the disdain of Laurence Olivier to Greer Garson when he declined an invitation to take part in archery on the ground that he was in no humour to indulge the middle classes at play. If you want to get down and dirty about snobbery, the Poms are bloody geniuses at it, and I think that the artistry of Jane Austen was a significant part of the English awakening – and a badly needed awakening.
People like Balzac, Ibsen and Chekhov put their own bombs under the bourgeoisie. They were all brilliant and compelling in their own right – and they are all on this top shelf – but none was as dry or as subtle or as English as Jane Austen.