Edited by George Justice

Novel Approaches to History

British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820

By Devoney Looser.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xi + 272 pages.
Hardcover. $45.

Reviewed by Emily Auerbach.

In Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland unintentionally speaks an important truth when she notes of history, "a great deal of it must be invention." We continue in our own times to argue over the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, as biographers stir up controversy by inserting themselves into their stories as fictional presences (Edmund Morris's Dutch, for example). Novelist A. S. Byatt ambiguously entitles her most recent collection On Histories and Stories (2001) and notes the interest in "history as fiction [and] fiction as history."

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. We sense the blurring of terms in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's remark about novelist Smollett's History of England, 1756: "My dear Smollett … disgraces his talent by writing those stupid romances commonly called history" (Letter, 3 October 1758).

In her intriguing new study British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820, Devoney Looser argues that history "has too often been defined narrowly where Austen is concerned." Professor Looser argues that "to investigate history without considering fiction (or vice versa) prevents our achieving a more complete understanding of either genre." This notion justifies her surprising inclusion of Jane Austen as one of six representative British women historians, a term broadly defined to include those who made "contributions to historical discourse." Along with Lucy Hutchinson, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Charlotte Lennox, Catharine Macaulay, and Hester Lynch Piozzi, Jane Austen debated the methods of history. To make her case for Austen, Looser focuses on her letters, juvenilia, and Northanger Abbey.

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." To the pompous James Stanier Clarke, Jane Austen politely but firmly announces her decision to keep to her own style, though she acknowledges that she is "fully sensible that a Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity" than her own domestic novels.

Yet Looser reminds us that a saucy, 15-year-old Austen had already written history: "The History of England" by a "partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian." Looser discusses this work not as a mere adolescent romp but as a serious lampoon articulating the biased nature of any so-called history:

Henry the 6th

I cannot say much for this Monarch's Sense--Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. … I shall not be very diffuse in this, meaning by it only to vent my Spleen against, & shew my Hatred to all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, & not to give information. … 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. (from "A History of England," written around 1790)

Looser notes that in "The History of England" Austen "generates comic history, implicitly disavows schoolroom history," uses literary sources to construct history, and devotes more time to women rulers.

Looser next turns her attention to Northanger Abbey. "History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in," Catherine Morland confesses to Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Catherine Morland seems a poster child for "herstory" as she goes on to explain that history bores her because it describes the "quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page" but has "hardly any women at all." Catherine also faults historical writings for offering less entertainment than her gothic thrillers.

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." 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:

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.

Looser concludes, "Eleanor reads histories as if they were novels." In Northanger Abbey Austen boldly presents herself as a substitute historian whose fiction offers more humor, truth, and lasting worth than biased multi-volume histories and deadly dull schoolroom textbooks.

Because she spends only a sixth of her time in British Women Writers and the Writing of History analyzing Jane Austen, Looser will leave Austen fans wanting more. The book offers fewer than 30 pages specifically about Austen. Yet even with this brief discussion, Looser's study can alter readers' perception of Austen's place in history--that is, in history as a discipline. In addition, Looser offers readers profiles of earlier women like Catharine Macaulay who redefined history and overcame belittling attitudes. Sneering reviewers called history "unadapted to a female pen" and dismissed one woman's work as "a series of dreams by an old lady."

In her eloquent defense of novels as the genre that displays "the greatest powers of the mind" and "most thorough knowledge of human nature" in the liveliest, "best chosen language," Jane Austen triumphs over "the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England." Yet Austen's brilliant rhetoric need not blind us to her complex fusion of history and fiction nor to the simultaneous accomplishments of early women historians with the courage to write.

Emily Auerbach is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the producer of the JASNA-funded public radio series "Jane Austen and the Courage to Write," and the author of Searching for Jane Austen, forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press.

JASNA News v.17, no. 2, Summer 2001, p. 26

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