Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (2016)
* Chapter 1 *
Words, Names, Persons, and Places
Fiction, Names, and Riddles
“The name of Newton-Priors is really invaluable!—I never met with anything superior to it.—It is delightful.—One could live upon the name of Newton-Priors for a twelvemonth” (30 November 1814; Letters, 284).
So Jane Austen wrote in the autumn of 1814 to her niece Anna (daughter of Jane’s brother James). Before her wedding to Benjamin Lefroy three weeks earlier Anna had been writing a novel; now Jane Austen encourages her niece, even after marriage, to continue. Anna’s aunt has read a new chunk of manuscript. As a mark of Anna’s promise she singles out her invention of a name. “Newton Priors” strikes Jane Austen as a particularly happy name for an imaginary place.
Presumably Austen appreciates Anna’s wit in playing with the real place name “Newton Abbot(s),” combining the common “Newton” (i.e., “new” + tun, settlement or town) with the ecclesiastical, medieval, and important “Priors.” A “Prior” is a cut below an “Abbot.” Perhaps Anna Austen’s characters have been living on the site of a priory but behaving in a manner not consonant with the priory’s origins. Austen is always interested in cultural layers of the past and especially in ecclesiastical foundations. Her own novels display an acute attention to the shimmer of historical significance within names. Austen achieves meaning that goes down deep into layers of English history and relationship to the land.
Would Austen be bothered with such details? An artist cannot do anything slovenly. Jo Modert’s groundbreaking essay “Chronology within the Novels” made us aware of the kind of care that Austen could put into apparently casual details.1 Building on work by R. W. Chapman, Mary Lascelles, and Vladimir Nabokov, Modert taught us to appreciate Austen’s subtle evocation of human time, the “hidden calendar game for the reader” in Emma. Jane’s pianoforte arrives on Saint Valentine’s Day; Frank almost confesses the true state of affairs to Emma on Shrove Tuesday (22 February), a proper time for confessions. The Box Hill expedition takes place on Midsummer Day (New Style). Midsummer madness briefly reigns. Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma on Old Midsummer Day.
Names of places and persons in Austen’s novels are chosen with equal care. The name of an estate or a village is never insignificant. First names and surnames always matter. The question of naming brings out a poetic complexity in Austen—as well as different kinds of comedy. Jane Austen’s family was highly conscious of names. There is evidently a family joke regarding the first name “Richard,” as we see early in Austen’s extant letters: “Mr. Richard Harvey’s match is put off, till he has got a Better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes” (16 September 1796; Letters, 10). The joke is echoed in the third sentence of Northanger Abbey (“Her father was . . . a very respectable man, though his name was Richard”). Why is “Richard” so funny? The merriment evoked goes beyond an association of the name with Shakespeare’s King Richard III or with Sir Richard Crofts, villain of Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline: The Orphan of the Castle (1788), one of the young Jane’s favorite novels. Current American slang would make “Dick” a word obscenely signifying hypermasculinity, but the evidence of slang dictionaries of Austen’s day indicates that “Dick” is associated with effeminacy, male weakness, or failure—or with being a poor substitute for something else: “That happened in the reign of Queen Dick, i.e. never; said of any absurd old story. I am as queer as Dick’s hatband; that is, out of spirits, or don’t know what ails me.”2 Another dictionary adds that “Dickey” is “A sham shirt,” also “An ass. Roll your dickey: drive your ass. Also a seat for servants to sit behind a carriage.”3 “Roll your dickey” seems to be getting close to the contemporary American meaning, but with an additional suggestion of imbecility or incapacity. In Pride and Prejudice the port-drinking attorney Mr. Philips is about to fire his servant—another unlucky “Richard” (P&P, I, ch. 14). Austen seems unable to contemplate the name “Richard” without associations of bumbling or failure, deficiency in masculinity—all emerging in the harsh reflections on poor Dick Musgrove in Persuasion. But “Dick” is funny even when submerged in another form; “Miss Dickins,” that “excellent Governess” of the young Lady Williams (a “Kitty”), eloped with the butler (“Jack and Alice,” Juvenilia, 18).
Names encountered in daily life provided amusement. The death of a farmer “Clarinbold” or “Claringbo[u]ld” stimulated Jane to a comic flight:
Everything quite in Stile, not to mention Mr. Claringbould’s funeral which we saw go by on Sunday. I beleive [sic] I told you in a former Letter that Edward had some idea of taking the name of Claringbould; but that scheme is over, tho’ it would be a very eligible as well as a very pleasant plan, would any one advance him Money enough to begin on. (15–16 September 1796; Letters, 9)
A name like other property is really not needed anymore by someone whose funeral has gone by. The departed farmer’s surname might now be taken by somebody else as a commodity—if the purchaser could afford it. The joke about Edward becoming “Claringbould” has a slight edge. Austen has noted that her brother Edward is fond of gaining lands, and this brother is indeed going to change his surname. Adopted and made the heir of the Knight family early in life, Edward eventually left off being an “Austen” and became a “Knight.”
Names might seem as unalterable and fated as a birthplace, cementing a lasting identity. Women’s surnames are alterable, changing upon marriage, but a man’s surname stands for his permanent identity and inheritance. That supposition is not always borne out by facts. The eighteenth century went in for dramatic changes of name. Power of will overrides the “natural” or “given.” Voltaire, for one, invented his own name, as did the Italian poet Metastasio. The Czarina we know as “Catherine the Great” (1729–96) began as Prussian Sophie-Friederike Auguste. A number of men around Jane Austen altered their names. The father of the Harris Bigg-Wither who was to propose to Jane Austen (with a one-day success) had been, wonderfully, “Lovelace Bigg.” On receipt of an inheritance, Lovelace Bigg changed his surname to Bigg-Wither, although only his male heirs used the double-barreled form. James Leigh, Jane’s mother’s brother, had changed his name to “Leigh-Perrot” in order to inherit the property of his great-uncle Thomas Perrot at Northleigh in Oxfordshire. If Great-Uncle Thomas imagined he was preserving his familial property as well as his family name, he would have been grievously disappointed. James Leigh-Perrot tore down the inherited house at Northleigh, selling the land to the Duke of Marlborough. Uncle James, with the proceeds of his inheritance, acquired property in a more prosperous area between Maidenhead and Reading.4 There he built a fine new house, calling the place “Scarlets.” Throughout these decisive changes to his property and location, he remained “Mr. James Leigh-Perrot,” solemnly honoring as heir the legacy of the surname although—against the true intention of the bequest—Thomas had cashed in the inherited estate and shaken off the ancestral region.
Surnames announce a place in the power structure; they represent tribal membership, property, activity, location, and continuance. According to Christian tradition, in Heaven (or presumably Hell) we shall wear only our first names; just like a title (“Mr.,” “Duke,” “Dr.”), a surname is a social tag of which we shall have no need once we take leave of society. Yet “owners” of names, fancying them as a kind of property, are reluctant to let their existence and strength fade from the world. They may attempt to fasten their names to survivors, often with mixed results. Both the fixedness and the mutability of personal names stimulated Jane Austen’s curiosity and comic sense. Surnames are such awkward describers. Are they nouns—objects in themselves? Or perhaps they are but transient adjectives that can be sold as goods in Vanity Fair. The most notable case of name change within Jane Austen’s novels is the case of the half-orphan Francis Churchill Weston, transmogrified into Francis (“Frank”) Churchill, when after his mother’s death the infant is taken in by a maternal uncle and his wife. “Churchill,” once given as a middle name in compliment to the maternal surname, later becomes Frank’s surname as well. Status and financial expectations depend on those whose name he carries about with him, not on his flourishing biological father. In the same novel, Harriet Smith bears what is obviously a made-up surname to conceal her illegitimacy; the very anonymity of that surname draws attention to it as artifact and mask.
Jane Austen consistently responds to the sound and meaning of names, even those encountered by chance in newspapers. In April 1805 she expresses comic dismay on reading in the papers of a marriage “of the Rev. Edward Bather, Rector of some place in Shropshire, to a Miss Emma Halifax—a Wretch!—he does not deserve an Emma Halifax’s maid Betty” (21–23 April 1805; Letters, 104–5). The clergyman with the absurd surname (reminiscent of someone in a bathing machine) has comically offended against taste in uniting himself with a woman of such an elegant and novel-worthy a name as “Emma Halifax”—a woman with the first name that Austen had given her new heroine, Emma Watson, combined with an aristocratic surname (employed in Catharine). The novelist in mock distress contemplates an elegant “Emma Halifax” doomed to become “Emma Bather”; a low-class “Betty Bather” would have been more appropriate.
Jane Austen’s sensitivity to names is closely related to her penchant for riddles and wordplay. She feels the attraction of puns. Lord Chesterfield preferred to believe that such forms of “false wit” (along with old sayings and proverbs) had happily disappeared: “The reign of King Charles II. (meritorious in no other respect) banished false taste out of England, and proscribed Puns, Quibbles, Acrostics, &c.”5 During the eighteenth century it had become officially established among the educated and well-bred that puns are grossly old-fashioned and “low.” They are, however, a favorite English form of wit; Shakespeare is full of them. In Northanger Abbey, we are told that the heroine’s parents “seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun, and her mother with a proverb” (NA, I, ch. 9). Reverend Mr. Morland appears unaware that proverbs and puns have been banished since the reign of Charles II. Actually, eighteenth-century literature is very hospitable to wordplay. A favorite device in poetry and prose is “periphrasis,” a talking around a noun (concrete or abstract) without employing the normal word. (A famous example is “While China’s earth receives the smoking Tyde” in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.6) Such roundabout description offers new angles of vision within a sort of riddle. Riddles combine immediate mental activity with philosophic perception that any words are odd. The strangeness of the notion that words can stand in for things, or reality, exercised John Locke and others. A riddle makes us look afresh at the strangeness, the arbitrary weirdness, of language. We shall not understand Austen if we do not love riddles.
In Jane Austen’s lifetime there was a decided taste for works of riddles and “charades.” Every reader of Emma remembers Harriet’s manuscript “riddle book.” Such collections are no new thing. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, young Slender asks Simple, “You have not the book of riddles about you, have you?” to which Simple replies, “Book of riddles! why, did you not lend it to Alice Shortcake upon Allhallowmas last, a fortnight afore Michaelmas?” (Merry Wives, act 1, sc. 2; Shakespeare Plays, 2:459). Master Slender apparently hopes for aid from his “book of riddles” to support him in courtship. So too Mr. Elton in his (hopeless) courtship of Emma has apparently eked out his slender wits in consulting one of many published books of enigmas. Both the riddle of “Woe-man” recollected by Mr. Woodhouse (but already collected by Harriet) and the gallant riddle attributed to the Reverend Mr. Elton in the ninth chapter of Emma appear in at least one of the published “riddle books.” Mr. Elton’s elaborate charade on “Courtship” is not his invention—nor Austen’s. It can be found in the second volume of A New Collection of Enigmas, Charades, Transpositions, &c. (1791). This set of verses is treated as if Mr. Elton were the ingenious original author—but that is Austen’s joke. the smiling Mr. Elton simply plagiarized his text, adding a couple of pointed lines of compliment (aimed at Emma, but misread as directed to Harriet).
A number of printed collections like the one Mr. Elton got hold of (perhaps already possessed) appear throughout the eighteenth century. As in Slender’s case (and Mr. Elton’s) such riddle collections are advertised as aids to courtship. They have titles like Delights for Young Men and Maids: Containing Near an Hundred Riddles with Pictures, and a Key to Each; this seems to have been reprinted at regular intervals between circa 1725 and circa 1755. Riddles evidently suggest sex—and/or marriage—disjunction, conjunction, the bringing of unlikely elements together. We find Women’s Wit; or, A New and Elegant Amusement for the Fair Sex (offering “Puzzling Enigmas, Rebusses & Riddles”) published “By a Lady” (ca. 1780).7
Like Harriet Smith—or Miss Nash of Mrs. Goddard’s school—the Austen family compiled a manuscript collection of riddles, eventually published in 1895, as Charades &c. Written a Hundred years ago By Jane Austen and Her Family. This collection is innocuous enough but does testify to the family fondness for puns. One of the three riddles ascribed to Jane Austen, however, has a darker tone than one might expect:
When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
And my second confines her to finish the piece,
How hard is her fate! but how great is her merit,
If by taking my whole she effects her release!
The answer to Riddle No. XVIII is “HEMLOCK.”8 Certainly this excessive revolt against sewing may record hyperbolically the author’s occasional genuine revulsion at the constant feminine task. Austen hyperbolically urges a classical suicidal escape from the imposed dullness of female life, equating a reluctant young seamstress with Socrates.
We do not truly know Jane Austen if we do not recognize that she is very fond of puns and plays on words. “Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat,” cries Mary Crawford—her disclaimer ensuring that we shall all indeed think of an obscene pun related to homosexuality in the Navy (MP, I, ch. 6). This is denied by some; John Wiltshire’s annotation asserts Jane’s innocence. But the young author of the “History of England” shows that she already knew about homosexuality:
His majesty [King James I] was of that amiable disposition which inclines to Freindship [sic], and in such points was possessed of keener penetration in Discovering Merit than many other people. I once heard an excellent Sharade on a Carpet, of which the subject I am now on reminds me . . .
My first is what my second was to King James the 1st, and you tread on my whole. (“History of England,” Juvenilia, 187)
Austen knows that Robert Carr was the king’s “pet”—and what the term means (“keener penetration”). Miss Fanny Carr (a doubly suspicious name) in The Watsons is the best friend of Miss Osborne. Tom Musgrove, airing his French, calls her “a most interesting little creature. You can imagine nothing more naive or piquante” (Later Manuscripts, 323). This description serves rather to confirm than deny a sexual connection between Miss Osborne (“not critically handsome”) and Fanny Carr, so often referred to together.
Mary Crawford may be officially rebuked by the outcome of Mansfield Park. Yet—disturbingly—Mary shares Jane Austen’s own kind of wit. In her more risqué vein Jane writes to Cassandra in 1808: “I must notice a wedding in the Salisbury paper, which has amused me very much, Dr Phillot to Lady Frances St Lawrence. She wanted to have a husband I suppose, once in her life, and he a Lady Frances” (24–25 October 1808; Letters, 151). Jane Austen’s joke lies in combining the sound value of the sound of the groom’s name as “Fill-it” with the “dirty” connotation of “Lady Fanny.” In contemporary British slang, “Fan” and “Fanny” both refer to the female genitals—as we see in Fielding’s Shamela, in which Shamela’s prostitute mother resides at “the Fan & Pepper Box.”9 This slang meaning is reflected in the name of the heroine of John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Lady of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill. But every female, good or bad, possesses a “Lady Fanny” (“Lady Frances”). Austen’s joke here raises a question as to why she names her apparently most modest heroine “Fanny.”
Nobody is likely to be more conscious of the poetry of names than a novelist trying to shape characters. It is vital to the success of a story to find the right, the significant, name for a character (who is, at bottom, all signifier). Some novelists are more successful at name invention than others. Henry James’s characters are easy to remember by their names, and Trollope at his best can be superb—by which I mean “Archdeacon Grantly” and “Glencora Palliser,” not the “Sir Omicron Pie” sort of caper. The task becomes the more challenging if the writer cannot choose the pointedly generic, calling a schoolmaster “Thwackum,” or allegorical, as in “Allworthy.” Austen is not as fond of open allegory as Fielding or Richardson and offers us less of overt Eden. To be sure, Uncle “Gardiner” in Pride and Prejudice takes us gently back to Adam, and in Emma even the most delicate of beautiful maidens (to whom the author has given her own first name) retains Eve’s taste for the apple—if only baked apples. Jane Austen, while producing multiple meanings, avoids obtrusive allegory—but not all allegory.
Persons and Places
The design of the present work is to concentrate on the meaning of names occurring within the separate major novels, taken in order. (Northanger Abbey is made to stand for the first of Austen’s mature novels.) Comments on the intermediate works Catharine, Lady Susan, and The Watsons are interspersed with discussions of the major novels, and their titles given in italics to distinguish these novelistic works, even if unfinished, from short pieces. The personal names of characters—including allusions and implications both historical and literary—are treated first. The discussion of place names, real and imaginary, follows. We look first at who the characters are (according to their names) and then at where they come from and where they find themselves.
We don’t see Jane Austen in the creative kitchen. But we do get some little glimpses of her ideas about naming characters when she converses by letter with nieces who are trying to write fiction. The experienced novelist enjoys Anna Austen’s introduction of a striking comic surname, even though Anna’s husband Ben does not care for it: “We have no great right to wonder at his not valueing [sic] the name of Progillian. That is a source of delight which he hardly ever can be quite competent to” (28 September 1814; Letters, 277). Writing to her much younger niece Caroline about the story that Caroline sent her, Austen says she approves of Caroline’s authorial treatment of the heroine Olivia, “but the good for nothing Father, who was the real author of all her Faults & Sufferings, should not escape unpunished.—I hope he hung himself, or took the sur-name of Bone or underwent some direful penance or other.—” (6 December 1814; Letters, 288).
Austen’s names for characters and their acquaintances not only form part of the connective tissue of her narrative but are also expressions of her poetic power. She appreciates the weight of history borne by names. For we are not original in our names; they come from somewhere else. And that “somewhere else” is a hinterland of tribes and histories, political arrangements, loyalties and battlefields. Surnames are not only remnants but conductors of history, exhibiting Anglo-Saxon origin, or Norman—or perhaps Danish or Celtic. Ethnicity and political division are caught in names. First names, too, have reference to saints and monarchs, heroes and eras. Names refer us to violence, to wear and tear and conflict. The past recurs in the present. Like it or not, we bump into it.
Jane Austen has also paid maximum attention to her choice and description of places. Heroines belong to or come from a particular place that defines them. Yet they hardly ever stay put. Austen’s heroines—and some of her leading men, too—are caught in a state of displacement. Darcy, with all of Pemberley behind him, is out of place when we first meet him. Austen’s most interesting characters (“good” and “bad”) are in motion. We take our “being” with us from one place to another, and “being” has to adjust. The cultural forces that shape an English person include not only the social and financial status of the birth family, but also the place of birth—of which the most important single unit in England is the county. Austen carefully tells us (with the one exception of Lady Susan) what county each of her heroines was born in. There are important differences between Wiltshire, native county of Catherine Morland, and Hertfordshire, home of Elizabeth Bennet. Colonel Brandon is from Dorset—very different from Mr. Darcy’s Derbyshire. In her choice of real places as settings, and in her invention of imaginary towns and estates, Jane Austen is acutely aware of whether a place name is Saxon, Danish, or Norman French. Personal names become place names and vice versa; a name can be a kind of place. Mr. Bingley’s surname, for instance, name of a Yorkshire town, is of mixed Danish and Saxon origin, harking back to the Danish invasions and settlements of the eighth to the eleventh century. Charles Bingley and his sisters are “of a respectable family in the north of England,” and their fortune is “acquired by trade” (P&P, I, ch. 4). That the Bingleys’ ultimate “north” is Yorkshire is substantiated by the fact that the seaside resort the Bingleys go to is Scarborough (P&P, III, ch. 12). Beneath their aspirations, their pretensions to London polish and southern gentility, this family retains attachment to its ancestral region.
We don’t usually think of Austen as concerned with what we call “ethnicity”—not, at least, until she is about to produce her first black character in Sanditon. The Enlightenment had inherited from antiquity forms of what might be called “disdainful ethnography.” Foreigners and their behavior can be dealt with as amusingly grotesque—especially if they are dark or of mixed race. Such an ethnography is hinted at in a discussion of foreign dancing engaged in by William Price and Sir Thomas with his knowledge of “the balls of Antigua” (MP, II, ch. 7). (See below, ch. 11.) These male travelers’ recollections, expurgated for female consumption, would offer, like accounts of other travelers, vignettes of dances (picturesque, absurd, slightly distasteful) in Sicily, the Iberian Peninsula, and the West Indies.
Racial thinking at home in England extends beyond attitudes to black Africans to deprecation of Celtic characteristics. Henry Crawford, as Mr. Rushworth points out, is short (nowhere near six feet). He is initially considered “black and plain”—not because of his skin color but because his hair and eyebrows are black and his eyes dark (MP, I, ch. 5). He looks like one of the dark Celts, and his small, wiry, and dark-haired sister likewise; Mary is a complement and no threat to the tall blonde Bertram girls. Austen occasionally refers to skin color. Of Emma Watson, “well made & plump,” we are told, “Her skin was very brown, but clear, smooth and glowing” (Watsons, Later Manuscripts, 293). Elizabeth Bennet, according to Miss Bingley, in her summer travels “is grown so brown and coarse!” (P&P, III, ch. 3). Such descriptions touch upon the issue of race. Elizabeth is not a blonde like her mother and elder sister; she has “dark eyes” as Darcy notes, and her figure is “light and pleasing” (I, ch. 6)—more like Mary Crawford than female Gardiners or Bertrams. Does Austen have some slight preference for the dark people, whose skin browns in the sun? If Mr. Rushworth and Maria Bertram are Saxon standard-bearers, they do not come off very well in morals and intellect.
Austen is consistently sensitive to ethnic differences within the British Isles. Who descends from Normans?—or Danes? Who is Scots or Welsh? Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s married surname is that of one of William the Conqueror’s trusted aides who immediately took over one of the most important coastal fortifications. Lady Catherine, by birth a Norman Fitzwilliam, is still manning the defenses against vulgar Saxons. In contrast, Celtic backgrounds are more than hinted at in names like Wynne, Price, Campbell, Griffiths, Hamilton.
History, uncomfortable history, is everywhere in the Austen novels. In Emma, an accumulation of Saxon references is interrupted by a recollection of violent Tudor politics. We cannot elude history. Each of us carries it with us—in our first name, last name, birthplace. Austen’s central characters seem to have a fair amount of freedom. Yet they are imprisoned by genealogy, dwelling place, customs. They make mistakes, bumping into their own presuppositions and conventions, often without noticing such collisions. Biases and assumptions abound. Not only Elizabeth Bennett possesses “prejudice.” Austen takes exploration of this condition to an unusual depth, without offering simple moral solutions as if all we are faced with were merely a “problem.” In the poetics of her novels she scores the background and the influences with complex counterpointing of reference. Historical events and historical personages repeatedly intrude—including Queen Elizabeth, a bone of contention from Catharine onward. When Mrs. Percival wishes “to see the Manners of the People in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, restor’d again,” her niece protests. “I hope you do not mean . . . to restore Queen Elizabeth herself . . . for if she were to come again. . . . She might do as much Mischeif [sic] and last as long as she did before” (Catharine, Juvenilia, 251). Personages domineering and scandalous—too irritating to be merely allegorical—lurch into the worlds of their successors. Even the most minor character carries old history in the inevitable label—first name + surname. Austen also puts a lot of thought into references to offstage persons mentioned by characters proper. Such supernumerary personages do not truly dwell within the story, but are contributors to it. The halo of references to persons outside the immediate story (which I have termed “the penumbra”) grows more complex and more effective in the later novels. Within the names of onstage contemporary characters old conflicts are revived; religious and political allegiances freshly reanimated. Old scandals are resurrected with the use of names like “Palmer,” “Weston,” “Dashwood.”
Janine Barchas in Matters of Fact in Jane Austen (2012) has done a magnificent job of tracing the contemporary presence in Austen’s England of important families bearing the surnames given to some of the novelist’s most important characters. Barchas is most interested in the currency and immediacy of such reference. I am more interested in Austen’s figurative use of language (including names), as well as in the long reach of Jane Austen’s historical memory and her creative play with history. References target old enmities and regional tensions. Her play with British memory extends back to the coming of the Saxons, the conflicts with Danes. She turns repeatedly to particular “trouble spots” of history: the Conquest of 1066; the reign of Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries; the reign of Elizabeth; and the late Restoration, particularly the time of Monmouth and James II. We find consistent recognition of civil wars, including the Wars of the Roses as well as the great Civil War of the 1640s. Painful events, civil wars, dissensions, successes, and failures leave their mark and are recognizable in surnames—and in place names.
Jane Austen possesses a strong sense of place. Various commentators including Deirdre Le Faye and Maggie Lane have noted her acute comprehension of the social geography of London and of Bath. But she is most at home in the countryside and the network of small towns. Austen uses the names of real places to great effect, creating concealed harmonies or interesting dissonances between place name and person. In Persuasion, for instance, the casual reference to “Taunton” as the market town and legal center can stir memories of the Bloody Assizes, particularly in conjunction with the constant reference to “Wentworth,” the name of Charles I’s supporter Lord Strafford, condemned to death by Parliament. The beheading of Strafford is intricately related to the attempted rebellion led by Charles II’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth and the subsequent Bloody Assizes at Taunton and elsewhere. No set or string of events is ever entirely over. Austen’s England is a place of strains and tension, of disharmonies potentially revived or momentarily perhaps foregone. In her imaginary place names Jane Austen’s poetic invention is at its happiest; her linguistic understanding gets full admission to the historical games she is playing. “Mansfield Park” is a name that greatly repays unpacking, but so too is “Combe Magna,” or “Highbury”—or “Pemberley.”
The employment of so many significant names from mixed eras emphasizes the central importance of anachronism. This may seem a strange thing to allege of an author who is as scrupulous as to details of time, place, and distance. In 1816 Austen writes a somewhat apologetic “Advertisement” to the novel that she thinks she is going to publish soon, fretting over the fact that this work was written some years before:
This little work was finished in the year 1803 . . . some observation is necessary upon those parts of the work which thirteen years have made comparatively obsolete. The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes. (“Advertisement,” Northanger Abbey)
The author is acutely aware of complex change between 1803 and 1816. Austen’s scrupulous sensitivity to the contemporary is an aspect of her deep allegiance to history and respect for changes in places, manners, fashions, books, and opinions. But her respect for the impact and complexity of historical life urges her toward a subtle probing of conflicts and oppositions, unsettled and sliding layers of difference. Austen mischievously if often quietly brings to the feast apples (not baked) of discord. One of her prime techniques is to throw carefully into her mix references to different periods and occasions of open and painful conflict. These can make their subtle but prickly appearance simultaneously: the long discord between Norman and Saxon; the Dissolution; the Civil War, coloring the Cavalier gentlemen’s hatred and distrust of the Puritans and all mere traders—all of which are summoned into Pride and Prejudice, for example. Because we bear names and live on sites of this earth that have been settled and fought over, we are living in a world dense with anachronism. Influences emanating from different moments of time strike simultaneously upon us during our own moment in the sun. Past lives matter to us—are in some sense already in us. Anachronism is the deep truth about history. The only way in which we can write history is to be more or less unconsciously anachronistic. Miss Tilney tastefully approves of the contemporary historians who write fine modern speeches for persons we might not really like to hear from—like Caractacus (NA, I, ch. 14).10 Eleanor doesn’t realize that her taste—like that of her approved historians—is colored by prejudices. Historians enchant readers into unconscious excursions into anachronism. The publications of history writers constitute only a tiny—even largely unimportant—portion of what we feel and obscurely know as history in the life into which we get plunged at the time we are born and named.
Anachronism is inevitable—it is entailed upon living within the product (material and immaterial) of multiple times. What is General Tilney’s “Northanger Abbey” but an anachronism several times over? Austen is very good on private memory and its interpretation and misinterpretation of the immediate past that we call “the present,” as well as of the longer past. Although “Eight years and a half is a period!” as Wentworth says (Persuasion, II, ch. 10), eight years may seem nothing to the emotional consciousness. But the past of long-gone history keeps poking through too. The past shapes and colors the present. Lady Catherine De Bourgh cannot get out of her Norman-ness or her Kentish assumptions of superiority.
D. W. Harding claims Austen divides personages into characters and caricatures.11 Harding elaborates on E. M. Forster’s distinction (in Aspects of the Novel) between “flat” and “round” characters; Forster stresses the difference between those personages with serious interior lives and those whose actions and reactions are not only exaggerated but unvarying. Harding admits that there are moments when a “caricature” develops more human propensities. Actually, it is hard truly to exaggerate or caricature. There is no action or speech so outrageously foolish or absurd—invented by any comic or satiric dramatist, poet, novelist, or standup comic whatsoever—that it has not been equaled and surpassed in what we term “real life.” What Austen captures is really the way that we, dear readers, think of ourselves. Each of us imagines Self as three-dimensional, serious, and possessing potential for change. We feel entitled to look upon Others (outside our immediate circle and affectionate concern) as predictable, unvarying—in Forster’s term, “flat.” Austen altered narrative when, as John Mullan succinctly puts it, she “introduced free indirect style to English fiction, filtering her plots through the consciousness of her characters.”12 In reading, we are always in or near to a characteristic consciousness, but that consciousness makes itself known as “real” by being partly wrong—even deluded. If we got out of that center, the “flat” character, if freshly taken on as eyes to see through, would become “round” and an Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy would become “flat”—as indeed Darcy is “flat” to Mrs. Bennet. And Mr. Bennet is “flat” to Charles Bingley—we find out near the very end that Bingley always considered Mr. Bennet “eccentric” (P&P, III, ch. 13). A number of Austen’s characters, as Mullan notes, do not even speak—Captain Benwick is a prime example.13 Yet we are persuaded of their reality, their consciousness being eked out by that of highly verbal observers.
The mirthfulness of her “caricature” is an aspect of Austen’s mercy—the sense that we are all not above limitation. The Lockean consciousness is an ironic assemblage of blunders, and being conscious is full of pitfalls. Elinor Dashwood draws an ardently unreasonable picture of the moral virtue of the timid and dishonest Edward Ferrars. But we get so caught up in Marianne’s more blatant error that we don’t see Elinor’s, because we are persuaded that she is a character fully “round,” with a developed consciousness—so we are more likely to believe her. Austen’s brilliant use of style indirect libre, one of her greatest contributions to the Novel, induces the all-too-human reader to participate in human falsehood, prejudice, and error—to know mortal fallibility from within. “We are conscious of many frailties,” Jane Austen says in her written prayers; “Be thou merciful, Oh Heavenly Father! to Creatures so formed & situated” (Later Manuscripts, 574). The further the device moves us (comically) to humility, the more we take in of how Austen’s characters are “formed & situated” in tribe, time, and place. Style indirect libre can leave us claustrophobic, imprisoned in one mind. Contact with the natural world, if never unmediated, yet comes as refreshment to the reader as well as to the character. Austen allows us little breaks, moments to enjoy what is “not-mind” like baked apples, weather, a hedgerow.
Austen is fully aware that human beings are produced—by culture and circumstances not designed by them—before arriving (if they ever do) at judgments and choices. In Mansfield Park she examines ruthlessly the circumstances of personality production, exhibiting constraints and pressures inflicting permanent damage. No one in the novel is left off the hook. Austen is truly a moralist, and asks for accountability. But accountability must allow some mercy, as we are inevitably conditioned by so much, including the acts and words of generations passed away before we came to be. The ingenious tangle of national histories represented in her fiction through the medium of names speaks of the problematic nature of being in time and in history. Even a consciousness is not a freehold possession.
Austen’s poetics is a poetics of anachronism, of multiplicity. Persons reflect places, and places reflect times and individuals. Times collide with each other, one event or concept seeps into others, adding color and flavoring like wine in water. Austen’s fiction is at one level—and this is in itself a great achievement—a perfect mastery of all the techniques of “realism.” But in her earliest surviving works the teenage Austen gave naturalism and realism—and all formulas of rhetoric—good kicks in the backside. She engages a new kind of surreal comedy. It is foolish to believe that she was committed heart and soul to “realism”—which is merely another set of games with words. Her mature fiction (retooled to fit the tastes of circulating libraries) works so well—and never loses its capacity to startle and surprise—because of its odd density and because its assumed stabilities are counteracted by mercurial instability. Her apprehension of her England resembles Freud’s strange suggestive picture (presented early in Civilization and Its Discontents and then hastily withdrawn) of a Rome with all its different eras and constructions simultaneously visible. Names in any one novel reflect different phases of “England” converging. Austen refuses to accept history as one-way linear development. She is not writing historical novels, like her mother’s cousin Cassandra Cooke, author of Battleridge (1799)—though a published work by a novelist in the family may have been an encouragement. Austen is a historian of her immediate present, as many now realize—but she is more than that. Without having to use “Gothic” trappings, she has fully comprehended the tumult of the Gothic, its exploration of the pain of the past and the confusions of different times pressing against each other. Within Austen’s acutely observed present, there are the other times, interbraided in twining motion like streams of water down a cascade. We sense an unsubdued flux of old pains and human seasons. Austen seeks to capture the truly absurd simultaneity, the perfectly real anachronism of culture and of individual being. In her resonant references we do not have to choose between one historical allusion and another, or between literary or historical allusion, or between metaphor, wordplay, description, and recall. Austen’s poetics is complex, multiplex under its simplicity, evocative rather than (as it pretends) totally naturalistic. In an “Emma Woodhouse” of “Hart-field” we find reference to Emma Hart (Lady Hamilton) and to Queen Emma, to the rich family of Watson-Woodhouse and to a woodshed, to perfection and ego, to queenship and hardship. Puns, playfulness, history, comedy and tragedy, historical realities of grandeur and loss—these all at work at once. They are not driving us toward a simple one-to-one equivalence but toward a poetic rather than prosaic encounter with the complex contradictory texture of life.
Austen’s poetics is more than the laughter of the foam upon the waves of time. The persons she imagines always have a place upon the earth—the literal earth. She begins Catharine, her earliest surviving serious attempt at full-length fiction, with a handmade bower of greenery. “Kitty” and the Wynne sisters have created their “fine shady Bower” of fertile Devonshire’s green life, a tribute to affection, female sexuality, and the natural world (Juvenilia, 242). Of all these things Catharine’s aunt harbors great suspicion. For Mrs. Percival (first of Austen’s great hypochondriacs) feminine sexuality is to be repressed. The outdoor world is likewise dirty, inimical, a threat to health. Austen’s heroines like touching the earth, being on it and of it. The Watsons begins with splashing through the mud, which also soils Elizabeth Bennet’s skirts. We have not recognized Austen if we do not see and feel her deep affinity with the land itself, with the physical earth that we depend on so much and over which we make so many foolish claims. We carry about a deep deposit of our mundane earthiness. Personal names and place names bend back toward the land and our humble relations with it. Hurst—or ley or haigh or shaw—may meet us in the language of names, incorporating old languages, earlier generations’ contact with the real earth. Austen distrusts the “picturesque,” the “sublime”—and even the “beautiful”—as if the very categories are somewhat dishonest. Certainly she holds no brief for the “pretty.” In her fictions we are never away from mud and earth and air and season and changing light and rain and the generosity of the earth that we love to translate and spiritualize into self-pleasing aesthetics (sometimes very stupidly) and upon which we deeply rely every day for sustenance and life itself. Place names become personal names, and personal names can be attached to places. They belong to that fragile and deep poetic of the human to which Jane Austen responds. The spot of earth does not need us. Jane Austen knows this very well—though she also knows we like to behave as if it did. Earth does not name us nor desire our names. We need it.