Literary lives

<strong>The History of England</strong>

Jane Austen and Charles Dickens Introduction by David Star

To many a closet David Starkey junkie – for they do exist – one-hour television sessions with Elizabeth I, inconvenient Spaniards and the lucid tones of this silver-tongued host instil both satisfying faux-academic prowess and grisly historical delight.

With Icon's The History of England, gilded and handsome though it may be, readers are served a comparatively muted historical high. The volume reprints Jane Austen's The History of England (1791) alongside Charles Dickens's A Child's History of England (1851-53) on account of their both being child-related, similar in content and written by literary heavyweights. Although both pieces are entertaining reads, it is a cumbersome coupling.

Starkey's lively introduction makes a valiant attempt at unity, but awkwardness prevails. Dickens's is a mature work for children that adopts all the pomposity of Victorian historians with a characteristic eye for gore. It is a shame, therefore, that a short extract was deemed enough. Austen's juvenile "partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian" has more than a whiff of the later novelist's gleeful wit, but there is little space for Starkey to illuminate further. The book, if confused in purpose, is filled with fine writing, and is an enjoyable trinket to own.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Planet saved?: Why the green movement is taking to the streets