Jane Austen was fifteen when she was writing The History o f England and completed the text just three weeks before her sixteenth birthday. Virginia Woolf, in a famous passage in The Common Reader, provides a vivid image of the young writer at work on the Juvenilia: "this girl of fifteen, sitting in her private comer of the common parlour" (170). But the image is only a fantasy, as insubstantial as the myth of Austen's happy childhood, and loving, supportive parents.
This thesis will challenge the accepted description of the Juvenilia as "traditional family literature, known and loved from the author's readings" (Southam, Austen's Literary 17), and argue that these manuscripts were private and contained highly personal material that could only be revealed to a select and trusted audience from her siblings and other close allies. The collaboration between Jane and Cassandra Austen in particular, turns the History of England into their own secret and sometimes traumatic history of family life at Steventon Rectory. Expert opinion is introduced that authenticates my reading of Cassandra Austen's water-colour images of the monarchs as contemporary representations of Austen family members and friends. This thesis will examine the identified images as visual biographies, and include semiotic analysis as a means of authenticating and interpreting both the images and their relationship to the text. The autobiographical reading of the image of Jane Austen as Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, presents a deeply troubled relationship between Austen and her mother. It also suggests that beneath the veneer of filial obedience and respect, the youthful Jane and Cassandra shared a secret contempt and even hatred for their mother.
The most important image in the History is that of Jane Austen, painted about the time of her seventeenth birthday, and authenticated as her image by experts in the separate fields of forensic odontology and geomatrics. Until now, the only authenticated image of Jane Austen has been Cassandra's unfinished water-colour sketch, taken when Austen was in her mid thirties, and condemned by a niece who knew her very well as "hideously unlike" (qtd. in Le Faye, Record 80). Its prettified version, commissioned for the Memoir (1870), continues to be widely circulated and represents the cultural values of rural domesticity associated with the figure of Austen, and used to promote "particular ideas of Englishness" (Sales 11-13). The new image of a young and radiant Austen demolishes this cosy domesticity and is in keeping with current critical opinion, which rejects the prim Aunt Jane of traditional biography, and has a renewed focus on her early work. It will also appeal to a wide reading public of devoted admirers of Austen, who find it impossible to equate the accepted images with the delightful personality who seems to emerge through the novels. More specifically, it will satisfy a yearning for an image of the author at the same age as the youthful heroines she created. Austen's cultural significance ensures that any newly discovered image of her will create a worldwide interest and appeal. It is anticipated that this newly discovered image will become a new cultural icon for the woman who is described as the "best loved of English authors" (Miles 148).
The examination and interpretation of the images in Jane Austen's History of England, which this study attempts, offers only a beginning stage to a much wider field of research. The images of Jane Austen and her mother in the context of the chapter on Elizabeth, provide tantalising new evidence in the form of an autobiograp+hical record that may involve a major re-assessment of Jane Austen's life and work.