Two Histories of England

Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed upon his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2nd to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. That sentence opens Jane Austen’s youthful send-up of high-minded history. She was just 16 when she wrote it, but her trademark wit and impatience with lazy romanticism are already prominent in this brief, sometimes hilarious parody. Her dunce of a narrator performs feats of sublime illogic, as in this time-tangled summary of a duke’s execution: ?He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it.? If Austen’s private parody highlights her genteel sarcasm, Charles Dickens’s long-popular A Child’s History of England is an equally potent distillation of the author’s writerly character. Sentimental, moralizing, and careless with facts, A Child’s History (offered here in abridged form) is also a display of Dickens’s unequaled mastery of telling detail: the little dog that faithfully lay down beside the decapitated Mary, Queen of Scots; ?His Sowship,? James I, fecklessly knighting supporters on his way to his English coronation; and the doomed Charles I, ?who had always been a quick walker,? on his tragic route to the block. Both writers make the most of the many executions, finding pathos and sardonic humor in what winds up as a bloody history indeed. –