Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (2016)
* Chapter 11 *
Real and Imaginary Places in the “Chawton” Novels
Names and Places in Mansfield Park: Huntingdonshire, Hampshire (Portsmouth), and Northamptonshire
Real Places in Mansfield Park
In Pride and Prejudice we see a heroine from a small agricultural southern county unite her life with that of a superior gentleman from a more impressive county where he has a large estate. This scenario—a gentleman from a large flourishing county somewhat remote from London takes in marriage a woman from a small agricultural county—is played out like a variation on a theme at the very beginning of the next novel, Mansfield Park. This novel exhibits a more complex use of place than Austen’s previous works. Although the novel is named for one massively immoveable center, place references are wide ranging. The wars in the Mediterranean in which William Price is engaged bring in Gibraltar, Malta, and Sicily. William buys the amber cross in Sicily, although the amber is in origin a Baltic product. Fanny in her reading of Lord Macartney and his (failed) embassy can travel in imagination outside of the modern West by going to China. The desire to reach through space is felt in this novel, curiously intertwined with a counteractive desire to stay put or to fence others in. The story combines the maximum of movement with the maximum of restriction.
Reaching through Spaces: Vessels, Geography, Stars
The names of the naval vessels scattered through the narrative are both imaginary and “real.” Ship names display the glorious arbitrariness of all naming, offering a wild poetry scrambling geography and mythology. William’s first ship was the “H.M.S. Antwerp,” sketched by young William and labeled “in letters as tall as the main-mast” (I, ch. 16). The ship named after a Flemish town is a place within a place, attached to the wall in Fanny’s room. Ships’ names are not representations of towns or anything else, but transmutations of ideas projected upon movable places. Austen borrowed the names of vessels associated with her sailor brothers. Frank Austen was captain of the HMS Elephant, and had served on the Canopus in 1805-6, in the Battle of Saint Domingo. The Thrush may lie at Spithead “Near the Canopus.” The Canopus is named after an Egyptian town, an ancient port on the Nile Delta. Reference to the Canopus and the Cleopatra would remind Austen’s first readers of the battle for Egypt—the Battle of the Nile, or Battle of Aboukir, fought 1-3 August 1798. General Napoleon Bonaparte intended to take over Egypt and the eastern regions of the Mediterranean, designing to cut Britain off from India. In the Battle of the Pyramids (21 July), Bonaparte had defeated the Egyptian Mamluk forces in a land battle. Nelson and his fleet sped down to grapple with the French fleet by the Delta. The Battle of the Nile was a decisive naval victory for Nelson; almost all of the French fleet’s seventeen ships were captured or destroyed. “Canopus” may be the original name of the French ship or a refitted capture renamed. The ship’s name commemorates an ancient town and a potential new territory in Egypt. Unlike a topographical spot on land, this Canopus is a highly mobile “place.”
The Thrush, humbly named after a common English bird, gains new associations. Mr. Price tells William of his ship: “She lays just astern of the Endymion with the Cleopatra to larboard.” The name of the famed Egyptian queen is abruptly connected with the Greek hero who fell in love with the Moon (and was to supply John Keats with the title of an early poem). Austen’s brother Charles served on the Endymion as midshipman and then on the Cleopatra, taking command in 1810. How could Austen resist the fantastical and poetic resonance of such names! Genders are interestingly mixed. A ship is a “she” though her crew are all males. To lie between Cleopatra and Endymion is to share male and female passion—and beauty. You cannot put the map of the world together, for the world is in an energetic kind of chaos. Metamorphosis is everywhere.
In Fanny’s cold East room at Mansfield, the Antwerp appears as William drew it, disproportionate, reduced to two dimensions. Dislocated visual allusions to places appear in the “transparencies” “where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy, and a moonlight lake in Cumberland” (I, ch. 16). The images on Fanny’s walls are all failures, stressing hunger for representation and its impossibility. In Fanny’s East room, her almost-private space, we find images of the mind longing for change of place, playing upon transparent or imperfect images of elsewhere. There are other “places” too, beyond the terrestrial globe. Edmund refers to Arcturus; Fanny adds “I wish I could see Cassiopeia” (I, ch. 11). Arcturus and Cassiopeia are among the lofty names that humans in a particular culture have given to configurations of stars. Cassiopeia, arrogant queen of Ethiopia, boasted that she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than the Nereids, daughters of Ocean. The queen was punished by Poseidon, who placed her in her chair in the sky. This star myth might be a comic reflection upon Lady Bertram and her most beautiful daughter Maria—certainly all that Lady Bertram does is sit. The myths entertain us, but the names we give to stars and our fantasies of what we see in constellations offer consummate examples of arrogant naming. Austen in 1799 jokes, “I have nothing to do, but to invent a few hard names for the Stars” (9 January 1799; Letters, 34). In naming stars (whether as mythographers or astronomers) we cannot even pretend to consult the natives. Planets, stars, and constellations are not (in 1800) objectives for tourism or active colonization, but playthings of mental geography—a game honoring colonialism by expanding it, claiming metaphysical power over distant reality. Naming stars fosters a sense of “being in place” in the universe as well as in the world. Those who most enjoy escaping to these grand imaginary entities may be the very persons who have least power over their own lives—like Fanny, who cannot even be permitted to go out on the lawn by herself for stargazing.
Counties and Colonies
In Mansfield Park, Austen also deals most emphatically with the differences between English places. The obvious contrast is between Portsmouth on the coast of Hampshire, England’s busiest naval port—full of males and masculine endeavor, a bit brutal, quite dirty, and boisterous—and Mansfield Park itself, inland, peaceful, enclosed within Northamptonshire, an epitome of determined and calm gentility. Both places provide major settings for the novel’s action. There are, however, two invisible centers of production: the first delivering persons, and the second wealth—and both anxiety. These are Huntingdonshire and Antigua. The distant Caribbean island is the source of much of Sir Thomas’s wealth and importance, while from little Huntingdon come the three Ward sisters. From the matrix of generative Huntingdon most of the characters spring—not only Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and Frances Price, but also Tom, Maria, Edmund and Julia Bertram, as well as Fanny and William Price and all their siblings.
The Invisible Influence of Huntingdonshire
The novel begins with a contrast between Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire.
About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed at the greatness of the match. (I, ch. 1)
Huntingdon, meaning “hunter on a hill,” is the county town of the shire named after it. Huntingdonshire is—or was—a very small county just west of Cambridgeshire, in the flat eastern area of England. The name suggests “hunting,” a subtheme of the novel. In some versions of the story of Robin Hood, the celebrated outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor was Robin, Earl of Huntingdon. Mythical Robin is customarily a man of the North. Yet the issue of the redistribution of wealth hangs over Austen’s story. Huntingdonshire was always small—Camden calls it “This little Shire.”1 The population in the 1821 census was 48,771. Quiet and unprepossessing, this county is now extinct, having been swallowed up in the late twentieth century by Cambridgeshire, of which it has become a mere district. Even in an earlier era, it shared administration with Cambridgeshire, the two having one High Sheriff.
Huntingdon the town, some sixty miles from London, was a small market town on the River Great Ouse. It was once given by King Stephen to King David of Scotland, but Henry II rescinded the donation and perhaps David didn’t miss it. Huntingdon received its original charter from King John, traditional archenemy of Robin Hood. Before the Black Death, the region was well populated, with enough engineering skill to build a famous bridge across the Ouse. There was some valuable timber on well-forested hills. Camden says, “It is a very good Corn Country.”2 (The word “corn” in British English always means wheat or barley—until the late twentieth century the term never refers to maize.) Huntingdonshire, flat and well watered, suited grass and cattle raising, though water meadows could turn into marsh. The Abbey of Ramsey stood “where the rivers stagnate in a spungy kind of ground.”3 The settlement of Elton, or “eel-town,” was nearby; spongy land and river provided a nourishing environment for eels. Muddier lands unsuited to wheat or sheep were good for vegetables.
As for famous inhabitants, Huntingdon’s one claim to greatness is that it is the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, who was born there in 1599—as Jane Austen knew; her marginal comment on Goldsmith’s page declares that Oliver’s father’s patrimony was more than he deserved. Cromwell was actually born in the village of Hinchingbrooke, one-half mile from Huntingdon. Dryden mocks a “dire Usurper”:“his birth, perhaps, some petty Village hides.”4 In 1628 Cromwell represented Huntingdon as MP. Cromwell, however, was to part with his Huntingdon land; his later life was more closely associated with property inherited from his mother in Ely. His religious conversion seems to have postdated his departure from Huntingdon. He was later elected as MP for Cambridge, intellectual powerhouse of seventeenth-century Puritanism.
Travelers to little Huntingdon in the eighteenth century speak of it as a place whose day, if it had one, is past. “This Town has nothing remarkable in it,” declares the author of A Pocket Companion of Roads of the South Part of Great Britain (1724). He adds, “’tis a long continued Street, pretty well built, has three Parish churches, and a pretty good Market-Place.”5 Camden seems to have been struck by the robustness of its working people: “Nor is there a Town in the Kingdom that has a greater number of lusty stout Husbandmen.”6 This sounds like a rural population in an overgrown village. Defoe dwells on the terrifying pleasures of local Stilton cheese, which “is brought to Table with the Mites, or Maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a Spoon with them for you to eat the Mites with, as you do the Cheese.” Defoe compliments Huntington’s “beautiful Meadows,” but, save for the old bridge, finds little otherwise of interest: “This Town has nothing remarkable in it; ’tis a long continued Street, pretty well built.”7 After Defoe’s death, Samuel Richardson revised and expanded his Tour. Richardson dramatically caps the account of Huntingdon with a gruesome local story that has “made so much Noise.” A family in nearby Warboys (or Warbois) was executed for practicing witchcraft to the injury of a rich family’s child: “And thus three unhappy Persons were sacrificed to Ignorance and Superstition.”8 One of the accusers was Lady Cromwell, grandmother of Oliver Cromwell.
The Witches of Warboys had become legendary; there is an illustration in Richard Boulton’s A Compleat History of Magick, 1715 (fig. 21). The village of Warboys, extant on the lands of Ramsey Abbey since before the Domesday Book, was only seven miles from Huntingdon. After the execution in 1593, the Throckmorton family, not content with hanging poor aged Alice Samuels as well as her unlucky husband and daughter, asserted its role as righteous victim in perpetuity. The wealthy Throckmortons endowed a memorial: a fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford, was to preach a sermon against “Witchcraft” annually on the celebration of the Annunciation (Lady Day, 25 March) at the church in Huntingdon. This practice continued until 1812. Well before that date, Queen’s College speakers had deliberately lost the plot. Contradicting a Throckmorton descendant, Martin Joseph Naylor of Queens insists that “the Society of Queen’s were not such slaves of odious superstition as he ungenerously imagines. The sin of witchcraft has long since ceased to be the theme of their annual discourses, nor has the subject ever been mentioned, except to explode, and deprecate the lamentable effects of, such miserable delusions.”9 Naylor, who published the four endowed sermons he preached from 1792 to 1795 against “vulgar superstitions,” holds up the executed Samuels family as a painful example of “the odious and mischievous powers of bigotry and ignorance.”10 Austen’s Oxford-educated brothers presumably knew about this by now rather embarrassing endowed sermon on the Witches of Warboys. Warboys occasionally surfaced in the news in relation to draining fenland for agricultural use.
21. Richard Boulton, The Witches of Warboyse (1715). From A Complete History of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft. Photograph: © The British Library Board.
Huntingdon comes off in all accounts as a backwater, a small market town, essentially a town of one street, with a population (on market days) of stout farmers and laborers. The portion of population with any claim to any degree of gentility must be small indeed. On the occasion of Sir Thomas’s proposal for the hand of Maria Ward, if “all Huntingdon exclaimed at the greatness of the match” multitudes were not involved (MP, I, ch. 1). In a one-horse—or one-street—town a few people were surprised. The Wards’ money would have been made in cattle or agriculture, but they are wealthy only in relation to other denizens of their area. Maria’s dowry (seven thousand pounds) is not commensurate with what a Northamptonshire estate owner like Sir Thomas Bertram might command on the marriage market. But the girl is healthy and handsome—and, moreover, unlikely to feel entitled to criticize or disobey.
The Wards lived in no great style. Maria’s uncle is a mere “lawyer,” that is an attorney (like Mr. Philips in Pride and Prejudice). None of the three Ward sisters (the novel’s older generation of females) is at all well educated. The three girls are credible descendants of the “lusty Husbandmen” of this muddy region. Their rise in class is not something well understood or managed by them. It seems, however, that on her rise Maria and her elder sister Elizabeth prudently threw off ties with Huntingdon: the only relationship they sustain (if intermittently) is with sister Frances. Nobody in the story ever refers to any relation or friend in Huntingdonshire or makes any move to visit this ancestral home.
Northamptonshire, just west of humble Huntingdonshire, is a contrast in size, importance, and wealth. Its population in the 1801 census is given as 131,757; by 1821 it had risen to 141,353. In literature, Northamptonshire is the abode of Harriet Byron, the English heroine of Sir Charles Grandison. Two manor houses in Northamptonshire provide settings for important scenes of that novel, especially in the “cedar parlor,” the paneled room with its wide window seats. Austen-Leigh tells us, “Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was ever said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her [Jane Austen]” (Memoir, ch. 5, 71). On her marriage, Harriet moves south from Northamptonshire, away from the provinces toward the center, uniting with Grandison who owns a large estate in the South and has London connections.
Northamptonshire, still highly rural, was on the north-south axis. New efforts were under way to create a much better communications network. “Stoke,” market town nearest to Mansfield, is Stoke Bruerne, a village gaining importance with the advance of the Grand Union Canal. This project, for which Parliament voted funding in 1793, linked waterways (natural and man-made) in the South and the Midlands, making for speedier transportation. The canal was declared completed and the last tunnel opened by Telford in a ceremony at Stoke on March 25, 1805, attended by five thousand spectators.11 So Mary Crawford’s harp could come from London by water transport—not possible a few years before.
Prosperity long marked Northamptonshire. The wealthy had gone in vigorously for enclosures; the region distinguished itself in the creation of parks. The English “park” is a proclamation of rights over land. Land so “enclosed,” taken over and set off with a formal boundary, is required to offer nothing to anyone but the owner (and immediate dependents). The common people bitterly resented enclosure, which took common land away from the poor and gave it to a wealthy private family. The prized right to hunt or shoot on a manor belonged to the landowner. The poor were punished if they attempted to hunt, fish, or shoot. Austen is highly alert to manorial rights to game—those remnants of Norman forest law. Mr. Bingley in leasing Netherfield gains the right to shoot there. Sir Walter Elliot grudges giving Admiral Croft such rights at Kellynch, but Mr. Shepherd knows that this must be included in the rental agreement. Mrs. Bennet offers Mr. Bennet’s grounds at Longbourn for the young men to shoot over, and Mr. Darcy offers Mr. Gardiner the right to fish in his stream. Almost the only energetic attribute of Mr. Rushworth is his zeal in pursuing poachers. Tom and Edmund Bertram are both shooters of birds on Mansfield grounds.
Great “parks,” true stately homes with extensive lands, result from a series of expansions. “Apthorpe Park in Northamptonshire was enlarged in the time of James I after the king had been a guest there.” Finding the deer park “neither large enough nor sufficiently stored with covert,” King James directed the earl of Westmoreland “to take in and impale another 314 acres.” “At Althorp and Deene, in the same county, the Spencers and Brudenells were constantly adding to their deer parks by purchases and exchanges of land in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Many expanding parks began swallowing up good cornland in this period there are frequent complaints about this development.”12 “Good cornland” of course means land capable of bearing abundant wheat and barley. Great landowners might demote farming to enhance the Norman and ruling-class pleasures of the chase.
Mansfield Park is a later version of the homes of Norman hunt lovers. It is what Bernard Shaw called “Horseback Hall.” The Bertram girls ride well, and Mary is taught to ride by Edmund, who keeps horses suited to hunting; Edmund and Tom are both foxhunters. Henry Crawford and Edmund have been enjoying a fox chase when Henry’s horse loses a shoe, forcing Henry to walk the horse quietly back. He thus accidentally explores Thornton Lacey.
Northamptonshire in the central southern Midlands is a very good locale for a novelist looking for a wealthy region somewhat remote from London, hospitable to great houses and the privileges of “parks.” The county was famous for “stately homes,” like the estate of the Spencers at Althorp, where Princess Diana (née Spencer), was buried in 1997. The county was also a setting for conflict. Divided between Royalists and Puritans, it has major Civil War associations. Important battles were fought in Northamptonshire—above all the fatal Naseby in June 1645, when the defeat of the Royalist forces spelled doom for King Charles.
The imaginary estates Mansfield Park and Sotherton in Northamptonshire are prosperous—and yet a little out of the mainstream. Sir Thomas Bertram, we are told, has been an MP representing his region; we are not told of his affiliation to any party, but he seems much less Tory than Whig. Desire for protection of his colonial plantations would incline him in the Whig direction; Tories traditionally objected to yielding taxes to pay for naval dominance and colonial wars. Sir Thomas’s position as an MP has entailed prolonged absences in London, which Lady Bertram—surprisingly—prefers not to visit. In plays and novels from the Restoration through the Regency, a visit to London is notoriously the desideratum of country ladies with any claims to wealth, position, or fashion. Members of the Bertram family are encouraged to remain on the estate. Agriculture still provides income. Hay making, and consequent shortage of carts, is referred to. But, at the Mansfield we know, much of the land appears given to pleasure—the rural pleasures of gentlemen and ladies. Lady Bertram has her rose garden. The Norrises plant an apricot tree, and Mrs. Grant a shrubbery. Mrs. Grant’s new shrubbery—unlike an old hedgerow—performs no agricultural functions. In a famous instance of search for exact detail, Jane Austen wished to know “whether Northamptonshire is a Country of Hedgerows” (29 January 1813; Letters, 202) Evidently she rightly decided it was not. Hoskins remarks on “this comparative scarcity of trees in the East Midland hedgerows—in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire especially,” attributing this absence to foxhunting.13 There is a casual reference to a man “mending a hedge” in Henry’s description of Thornton Lacey (MP, II, ch. 7), but this was likely one of the coarser single-line hedges of the eighteenth century. Austen saves up the proper hedgerow, the medieval hedgerow, for a great scene in Persuasion. In Mansfield Park we get no beautiful landmarks or signs of the beneficial human labor working with nature. Sport is found within the landscape—by killing something. Bertram males both hunt and shoot. Tom Bertram knows that he can deflect his father’s scolding by turning the conversation to the pleasures of shooting:
“I have hardly taken out a gun since the 3d. Tolerable sport the first three days… . The first day I went over Mansfield Wood, and Edmund took the copses beyond Easton, and we brought home six brace between us, and might each have killed six times as many.” (MP, II, ch. 1)
Mansfield insists on the pleasures of shooting, not only in blood sports but also the erotic war—Henry Crawford desires to make a small hole in Fanny’s heart. Moral actions and thoughts are colored by shooting and being shot at. Edmund’s position (reflecting his namesake King Edmund) as the man who gets shot at suits the park with its perpetually lethal amusements. William Price also gets shot at—very literally—in warfare defending the outwardly placid England of Mansfield Park.
The sources of Sir Thomas Bertram’s income pose something of a puzzle. Mansfield has gently morphed into a kind of stagnant ornament and recreational space. Unlike Pemberley, it isn’t open to visitors—it is not grand enough to be a literal showplace. It benefits nobody outside its own denizens. There is no lively village or little town like Meryton, no reference to connection or community—work with a school, for example, as in Emma. The ladies (or at last Fanny) do sewing for the poor, though we don’t see these “poor”; rough calico lies ready at hand in the “poor-basket” (I, ch. 7). (Ladies’ labor at these rough garments takes work away from poor women and is of much less value than a cash donation.)
Activity at Mansfield is in uncertain relationship to the business activities in the Caribbean. Much of the wealth of the Bertrams for many years has evidently flowed in from plantations in Antigua. That distant center of productivity is becoming problematic at the time of the novel’s main action. The characters’ “wealth” depends on sea journeys. Sea battles protect the trade routes to the Caribbean and the colonies themselves. There is thus a real economic relation between the seafaring William Price (and his father, the former Marine) and the aloof and spiritually landlocked Sir Thomas with his landlocked immediate family.
Fanny Price, born at the outer edge of Hampshire, is the one Austen heroine who is her author’s compatriot. Fanny, however, comes from the lively coast, not the inland peace of a Steventon. Camden describes “Hantshire” (or “Hamshire”) as “a small county, abounding with corn, pleasantly interspersed with thick woods and rich pastures, and happy in its communication with the sea by its many creeks and harbours convenient for trade.”14 Portsmouth, flourishing trading port in the Middle Ages, was in 1194 turned by Richard Coeur de Lion into a military and naval center. It was frequently sacked by the French, taken four times between 1338 and 1380. Henry V seriously fortified it, and Henry VIII made it the heart of the Royal Navy. In Portsmouth the King Henry and his courtiers watched the launching of his great battleship Mary Rose and looked on with horror as it sank. Camden admired the Portsmouth of Elizabeth: “Queen Elizabeth at great expense fortified it so strongly with new works that nothing is wanting to make a place of the greatest strength.”15
Portsmouth was worth fortifying; it offered protection to Southampton, a port at the end of a protecting channel well suited to mercantile traffic. Portsmouth made a perfect dry dock and was suited to large naval operations. Many ships at once could be berthed there: “The safe and spacious road of Spithead between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight is 20 miles long and in some places three broad.”16 From Portsmouth Nelson set out in the Victory to fight and die in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. Portsmouth was the headquarters of the small fleet that after 1808 was to police the coast of Africa, pursuing slave ships in support of the new ban on the slave trade—an activity in which Francis Austen was an active participant. From 1807 to 1809 Jane Austen had lived with her sailor brother Francis and his family in Southampton. Thus she had come to know the region much better than she could have known it in 1783 when the ill-fated relocation of Mrs. Cawley’s “school” to Southampton led to serious illness. “Beware of the stinking fish of Southampton,” warns Isabel in “Love and Freindship” (Juvenilia, 105); young Jane may have been told that Southampton’s malodorous air caused her terrifying fever. Typhus, however, results from infection by a louse; Ann Cawley took the children into unclean quarters, in a town inundated with returning servicemen who had been living in unhygienic close quarters. Typhus killed Jane Cooper’s mother and nearly killed young Jane Austen. Indirectly, these females are victims of war.
Portsmouth in Fanny Price’s era (and even ours) is an interesting island fort, with a varied accumulation of defenses and impressive buildings. “God’s House” or “Domus Dei” was a name for the Hospital of Saint Nicholas established in 1212. It was the scene of a scandalous murder in 1450 when a group of sailors killed an unpopular bishop. The town was put under excommunication. In expiation, a chapel was built. Taken over by Henry VIII in 1540, the former religious foundation hospital became an armory, then a governor’s house. The chapel remained in constant use; in 1662 it was the site of the wedding of King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. That chapel, restored in 1767, became known as the “Garrison Church.” Here, perhaps more for patriotism than for piety, the Price family goes every week—and here Henry Crawford joins them one bright spring Sunday. (This chapel is still visible, though in a new state of ruin, as it was bombed in January 1941.) Unlike her author, Fanny is connected with the sea. Fanny is also urban in her birth, in that respect resembling the London-bred Crawfords rather than the rural Bertrams. Urban characters in novels tend to have a large acquaintance. Though we don’t think of Fanny as urban, she actually has the largest circle of acquaintance of any central character in Mansfield Park, with the exception of (secondary) Tom, whose references to numerous friends exhibit his restless desire to escape from enclosure and social limitation.
Fanny, the city child, threatens to bring the vulgar taint of town air, of streets and crowding, to Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas warns of signs of class inferiority in the child they are about to take in: “We … must prepare ourselves for gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner” (MP, I, ch. 1). Mansfield Park is in the most literal sense exclusive—guarding its doors, it keeps others out. Unlike Bennets, Woodhouses, Musgroves, or even Elliots, the Bertrams do not refer to friends and acquaintances and dining out. (They seem to dine only with their own dependent and protégé, the parish clergyman.) How surprising we find it that the Bertrams know a sufficient number of people to give a ball—and that somebody would come! Although Sir Thomas Bertram travels, he never mentions any other men as associates in politics or plantations or in clubs. Superlatively “unclubbable,” this unsociable patriarch is more self-enclosed and narcissistic than General Tilney or Sir Walter Elliot. Fanny threatens the taint not only of plebeian streets, but of other people.
The woman hiding behind the title “Lady Bertram” was once Maria Ward. Maria Ward’s marriage forced the passive girl to enter a world to which she is not at all accustomed. Maria Ward is capable of bearing healthy, good-looking children—probably a prime motive for Sir Thomas’s choice in marriage. Once she has given him the four children she has no further use or any heavy duties. Sir Thomas does not demand intelligence, so she is all right there. Her “upward mobility” has really meant “upward stasis.” Lady Bertram has been training herself for years to desire nothing from the outer world—certainly not the company of persons of her husband’s social level. She keeps trying to “pass,” coping with her new class by taking Sir Thomas’s “advice.” Her efforts are largely successful, though a little of the old background seeps out, as in her repeated “I will tell you what, Fanny” (III, ch. 2). Waiting to be told what to do, Lady Bertram is fixed, splendidly sedentary, not daring any spontaneity that might give herself away. Frightened of putting a foot wrong, Maria the First, thus reshaped, sits eternally upon the sofa. Lady Bertram cannot possibly educate her children, as she is totally ignorant. Unacquainted with books or society, and unequipped with either the etiquette or principles suited to her station, she learns by mimicry, when necessary.
Lady Bertram’s behavior is more comprehensible—and her character more sympathetic—if we consider that this first young Maria was acutely aware of insufficiencies in her own background and felt compelled to conceal her “low” self. Her first weeks at Mansfield at age eighteen were probably uncomfortably similar to Fanny’s experience at age ten. Inertia is less a temperamental defect than a strategy. She needed to conceal from Sir Thomas any “gross ignorance” or “distressing vulgarity of manner.” Maria the First follows a policy of watchful waiting, of sitting tight. Panic and anxiety may have provoked her brain to seize up, so that even games of cards are beyond her—but she may not always have been so stupid.
In her act as “Lady Bertram” Maria can just about manage be taken for an incorrigibly indolent fine lady. Hence her extraordinary reluctance to go to London. Social ordeals demanding complex behavior—meeting the wives of other MPs, attending parties in the Season—threaten her imitation of breeding. Mrs. Norris is less exact in masquerading as a clergyman’s wife, and her veneer of breeding often slips. Like practically every inhabitant of Mansfield Park, Maria Ward as Lady Bertram has been acting—acting so successfully that the restraint became second nature. In fact, Mansfield Park seems so full of daily acting that it really cannot take any more theater. The advent of actual theatricals tips the balance over into emotional reality. The passions claim their rights. Maria Ward’s experience long before we know her—smothered, even drugged, though she may appear by prosperity and worldly success—prefigures Fanny’s in important respects. Both are transplants who must try to act in accordance with new proprieties. Fanny is also caught up in the cruel domestic theater, forced perpetually to enact gratitude and suppress any sense of grievance—or of self. Her statement “I cannot act” is necessarily false. She is always trying to act as the superlatively grateful child the family would have her be—masking self-pity, resentment, and her feelings toward Edmund. As she grows older it is harder to dissemble her love for Edmund—a guilty horrifying incestuous love that she covers, acting sufficiently effectively to deceive Sir Thomas when he asks if she rejects Henry Crawford because there is somebody else.17
What we begin to see—once we focus on the fact of little Huntingdonshire and its cultural deprivation—is the absence of mental forces beyond the peasant level in all three of the Ward sisters. If they dwell in a town—the tiny town of Huntingdon—when Sir Thomas first encounters them, not many generations back their family must have been purely of the shire, offspring of the “stout Husbandmen.” Mrs. Norris consistently gives the game away. Boosted—and constrained—by her sister Maria’s rise, Elizabeth Ward, the eldest sister, was “obliged” to be content with the clergyman to whom her patron Sir Thomas could give a living. But Mrs. Norris is not fit to be the wife of a clergyman of the Church of England. At Sotherton, in a moment of tell-tale revelation, we hear her peasant voice and outlook as she offers the gardener a mode of treatment for his grandchild: “She had set him right as to his grandson’s illness, convinced him it was an ague, and promised him a charm for it” (MP, I, ch. 10).
Offering charms for sickness belongs to a country world already archaic. Elizabeth Norris’s diagnosis could even be harmful. She is getting dangerously close to a Witch of Warboys. (The Ward sisters might even have come from Warboys, that little village near Huntingdon.) Mrs. Norris displays the “Ignorance and Superstition” associated with Huntingdon. Mrs. Norris’s clerical husband, who would have taken a BA degree at Oxford or Cambridge to qualify for ordination, was to some minimal extent a man of letters. Mr. Norris certainly ought to have educated his wife out of such superstitious notions—but apparently didn’t bother. Probably he paid as little attention as he could to this lowborn spouse (illiterate, bad-tempered but well connected), refraining from conflict to avoid complaints to his patron.
Mrs. Norris has been left to go her own way. She has not truly been successful in learning to join the class—or, rather, the rank—to which she has become artificially attached through her sister’s marriage. That renders all the more amusing her assumed superiority when she puts on an act by asserting the sacredness of the hierarchy: “People are never respected when they step out of their proper sphere. Remember that, Fanny… . The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves, makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny” (MP, II, ch. 5). Mrs. Norris, having stepped out of her rank, is with indifferent success trying to “appear above herself.” Like her predecessor Cromwell, she is a “Usurper” from Huntingdon, or from a nearby “petty Village.” Mrs. Norris is not unique in adopting a false self. In this novel almost every character—including Fanny—is in moral or social masquerade and can be placed under the label of Parasite, Pretender, or Usurper.
Of all Jane Austen’s characters, Mrs. Norris is most in the manner of Balzac, who deals with the dangers posed by “Les parents pauvres,” poor relations. True, unlike la cousine Bette, Elizabeth Norris is not likely to foster a handsome young Polish sculptor or spend years in devious revenge. But the peasant’s hidden suspicions and sense of resentment—these are present. Aunt Norris also bears some resemblance to George Eliot’s Aunt Glegg in The Mill on the Floss. All three novelists are dealing with characters who have to adjust from an old way of life to another. Change distorts them, evoking deep defensiveness. Mrs. Glegg, out of date in an expanding industrialized town, supports herself on an ideological inheritance of Puritanism, signaled in passive-aggressive reading of Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest.
Mrs. Norris has no ideology that could be accounted for by—or related to—books of any sort. The logos is as nothing in her sight. Elizabeth Norris is not interested in religion, not even formally. She has two copies of the Book of Common Prayer in her house but never looked into them—until she decides to not to send either to her goddaughter. She hypocritically sounds a slightly religious note while trying to impress Sir Thomas in the first conversation, but this style is not congenial to her and we never hear her repeat it. (Was this a slightly false start by Austen?) Mrs. Norris’s archaic “charm” against ague represents the genuine unreconstructed peasant woman. She shrewdly keeps away from any tasks requiring reading or knowledge. She may abet her nieces’ ridicule of Fanny’s incapacity—but prudently does so only in general terms. Like Fanny, Mrs. Norris could not “put the map of Europe together.” (At a higher range of jest, this difficult task is what the deputies of the Allies are endeavoring to do—with great difficulty—in 1814.)
Mrs. Norris’s real religion is luck. “Fortune” and “luck” run though the novel from the first paragraph. That the proposal from Sir Thomas is a stroke of “good luck” for Maria Ward is an idea that affects all her family (I, ch. 1). Mrs. Norris is deeply aware that luck can run out, so she safeguards herself by hoarding, saving money, and patching things together. Outsiders are to be regarded with suspicion, potential rivals for a slim maintenance. The harder we look at Mrs. Norris the more clearly she proclaims her true background. Her proposed arrangements for bringing Fanny from Portsmouth entail putting her own servant “Nanny” up at the London dwelling of Nanny’s cousin the saddler and having the child Fanny come by herself all the way from Portsmouth, to meet Nanny at the saddler’s and get a bed there. Certainly, this is not the plan Sir Thomas would adopt. But such arrangements would have been the way in which former Wards made journeys; it hasn’t been long since they were putting up at the homes of relatives who were saddlers or something similar. Such arrangements not only answer the demand for frugality, but also keep the traveler safely within familiar relationships of reciprocal obligation and control. Dealing with strangers should be avoided. That is an axiom. Another axiom is that one must seize any small good that is going. Mrs. Norris is genuinely proud of her ability to seize small chances of good fortune—to take her meals at the Great House, to get a free baize curtain. Aware at some level of her resemblance to Fanny (both hangers-on of the Bertrams, and competitors for their bounty), she needs to keep Fanny down.
Mrs. Norris’s life is based on an intuition that survival is a competition. With superiors she guards herself by rapid talk and flattery. While she has a kind of intimacy with her own servant, she is unused to formal service and is uneasy at “the passing of the servants behind her chair” (II, ch. 7). Perhaps she suspects that servants at Mansfield or Mansfield Parsonage make fun of her or at least (rightly) identify her as close to themselves in original station. Yet, when talking to Mrs. Whitaker, the housekeeper at Sotherton, Mrs. Norris treats her as an equal. When she is “spunging” (as her niece Maria says) cream cheese, heath, and pheasants’ eggs, she is functioning at her own true level. Spunging Mrs. Norris has come from her spongy ground to take what she can. At Sotherton she is about as relaxed and happy as she ever gets. Her little riff of pleasure at the idea of nurturing the pheasants is not entire affectation:
I shall get the dairy maid to set them under the first spare hen, and if they come to good I can have them moved to my own house and borrow a coop; and it will be a great delight to me in my lonely hours to attend to them.” (I, ch. 10)
She rejoices at returning to the familiar poultry yard.
Mrs. Norris’s sense that life is a zero-sum game is unnervingly justified by the end of the novel. The losses of the Bertrams are the gain of the Price family. The loss experienced by both Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram is a gain to Fanny Price. Sir Thomas is certainly obtuse—his obtuseness enhanced by the Puritan legalism in his makeup. He never spotted the prosperous peasant in his wife’s elder sister and for years foolishly trusted Mrs. Norris, his flatterer, as coadjutor. Nothing in her peasant mentality guides her regarding proprieties or moral scruples—she is not at all accustomed to thinking about moral matters. She is strict in the sense of putting down people who seem to challenge her worth, but she has no “moral sense” of the kind that either a philosopher or a curate could recognize.
Mrs. Norris belongs to a class that does not think abstractly about morality at all. This fact—or this absence—makes her appear more liberal, more “modern” on sexual matters. Historians tell us that among English peasantry heterosexual couples’ coming together before marriage and a certain level of sexual experiment were tolerated—sometimes even encouraged. Certain forms of misbehavior might be seen as topics for rude jokes rather than for exclusion on moral-religious grounds. (What was not readily countenanced was leaving a brat for the parish to support, but Maria Rushworth [née Bertram] will make no demand on taxpayers.) Puritanism modified these attitudes to a considerable extent, but Puritanism did not “take” with the Ward family. Mrs. Norris airily advises Edmund regarding the play, “If there is anything a little too warm (and it is so with most of them) it can be easily left out,” and she adds, “We must not be over precise, Edmund.” She uses the old negative word for Puritanical morality. No “precisian,” she disclaims all Puritanism. Mrs. Norris is most willing to stick to the adulterous Maria.
Sir Thomas, in contrast, may well have some genuine Puritan ancestry. Despite the use he makes of the conveniences of the Church of England, he seems a true and natural Roundhead, if secularized. He forbids and censors. On his return to Mansfield he tears down the young peoples’ theater and destroys the playbooks—repeating notorious acts of the 1640s. He will not explain, argue, or even converse about the issue. Sir Thomas Bertram’s destructive censorship should suffice to set everyone right. His house bears the name of Luther’s birthplace, but his attitudes smack more of Calvinism. Lutheran “Justification by (unearned) Grace” is never available in his house. As a dictator he has a true Cromwellian flavor. Unfortunately for him, his two sons in their very different ways seem natural Cavaliers, while his wife and her sister are unaffected by religion or philosophy—or indeed by any coherent morality or ideology. Mrs. Norris is tolerant where we would expect intolerance, for we—like Sir Thomas—have read her incorrectly. She chooses to live with the adulterous and fallen niece. The vision of their tormenting one another is one of the few false notes that enter into the ending. Jane Austen sins against her own lights in making Lady Bertram comprehend the terrific wrong of which her adulterous daughter has been guilty. Lady Bertram has never exhibited understanding of any principles behind the strange rules to which she must adhere in her new place. The concept of “principle” is not available to her. Maria the First has performed obedience with the best mimicry she can supply. Lady Bertram never refers to religion, and she presumably shares the beliefs—or, rather, lack of them—shown more clearly if accidentally in Mrs. Norris. Lady Bertram will, perforce, acquiesce in Sir Thomas’s dictates and assent to his strictures, shedding occasional puzzled tears on her own,. wondering why she can never see her elder daughter.
Sexuality doesn’t particularly interest Mrs. Norris. She is a pre-Puritan, no “precisian.” Sir Thomas satisfies his Puritan conscience by getting rid of contamination, shaking Maria off. He will send her money at a distance but refuse to see her or take her back into his home: “He would not by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, be affording his sanction to vice” (III, ch. 17). Denied reunion with her family, the fallen Maria, young and healthy, will undoubtedly be found by some future suitor attracted by her charms. In “Lesley Castle” Austen had adumbrated a twenty-first-century kind of resolution to marital bust-up. In Mansfield Park Austen feels constrained to say that Maria must withdraw “to a retirement and reproach, which could allow no second spring of hope or character” (III, ch. 17). But second springs do come—something Austen explores in her last completed novel.
Putting Maria into perpetual wardship is faintly ridiculous—she will cross that ha-ha, she will get through the gate. The possibility of marriage to Henry is denied, but the possibility of marriage to someone is not closed to a divorcée. Austen was an acquaintance of Elizabeth, Countess of Craven, later the merry Margravaine of Anspach. Comebacks, pleasures, and second springs are available. If a second spring in Anne Elliot’s style is not possible, a recrudescence like that of Mrs. Clay is quite achievable. Maria’s life is not over—we collude with Sir Thomas in supposing it must be. If Maria takes up with a man able to soothe her financially, Mrs. Norris as the girl’s companion will quietly go along with the arrangement, even at the risk of alienating further an already estranged Sir Thomas, whom Elizabeth Norris does not understand and has never cared for. He has been a source of goods, not a revered moral authority. He thought she bought his notions, but she never did. Elizabeth, eldest and least flexible of the Ward sisters, might have been much happier if she had never left Huntingdon.
Frances, the youngest Ward sister, will have none of the Bertram way of life and chooses a man whose sexuality and energy are what she wants. Of the three sisters she is the most true to her own feelings and inheritance. At the outset we see her marriage from the Bertram point of view: Frances “married … to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connections, did it very thoroughly” (I, ch. 1). But these deficiencies are natural to the Wards. Frances Ward has baulked at taking advantage of her sister’s rise to rise in rank. Sir Thomas rebukes Fanny for throwing away a chance closely similar to what he offered Maria Ward:
You think only of yourself… . And are, in a wild fit of folly, throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honourably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again. (III, ch. 1)
Fanny Price’s rebellion against such pressure and such standards of value is, in its way, heroic. It will not occur to her—and probably not to the reader—that her rebellion is a repetition of Frances Ward’s rebellion, a generation ago, against the Bertrams and their way of life. The older Frances, rejecting the opportunity to be sublimed into an imitation Bertram, had also not repressed “every tendency to that independence of spirit” which Sir Thomas finds “prevails so much in modern days … and which in young women is offensive and disgusting” (III, ch. 1).
Fanny Price in adulthood learns to look down upon her mother and has always disliked her father, so she cannot comprehend the good side of their lives. Yet in many important respects Frances Ward experiences the most productive outcome of the three Ward sisters. Fanny judges her mother (who has borne ten or more children) harshly as “a dawdle, a slattern” (III, ch. 8)—though she has never thought to judge her aunt Bertram as a lazy imbecile. Fanny, taking mental revenge for love denied, has no inducement to enter into the hardships of her mother’s life. On an income of about four hundred pounds a year the Prices are clinging precariously to the middle class. Unsentimental Frances Price has survived giving birth to and rearing so many children in fairly good shape. Although her husband’s disability and drunkenness have posed unexpected setbacks, Frances’s life is probably not very different from the life she envisioned. Unlike the denizens of Mansfield Park, Mrs. Price does not have to expend time and psychic energies in acting or adjusting her Huntingdonshire habits to the burdens of that “handsome house and large income.” The terror behind the glazing of Maria Ward (remolded into Lady Bertram), the tension and disjunctions in her angry sister Elizabeth, may evoke sympathy for both these warped characters—even the Mrs. Norris whom we all love to hate.
Beyond little Huntingdon with its poverty of knowledge and judgment, beyond even the enclosed, stagnant, and repetitive Mansfield, there is a much wider world. No other novel among Austen’s works so abounds in references to places on the geopolitical globe. Allusions to various places in England include Midland towns like Huntingdon, Northampton, and Peterborough but also new emphasis on ports such as Brighton, Deal, and Liverpool. The Crawfords, as often noted, introduce the urban world of money and sophistication, with a thorough comprehension of London’s social geography. Mary thinks Fanny and Henry should get married in Saint George’s Hanover Square—a most fashionable church. A friend lived in “one of the best houses in Wimpole Street,” which Mary approves as a residence for the newly married Rushworths in their foray into the Season. Maria will have “got her pennyworth for her penny. Henry could not have afforded her such a house” (III, ch. 9). Yet Wimpole Street, not quite Mayfair, is mere Marylebone.
Admiral Crawford must be more than merely well-to-do; his London home is in Hill Street in Mayfair (between Shepherd’s Market and Berkeley Square). He is able to procure “a cottage at Twickenham for us all to spend our summers in”; it was “excessively pretty,” but he disrupts it by improvements (I, ch. 6). Twickenham, a riverside suburb, former site of Pope’s home and grotto and then of Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, was only a little less fashionable than ultraexpensive Richmond, whither in Smith’s Emmeline Lady Frances Crofts repaired to engage in adultery. Henry goes to Richmond to pursue his brief affair with Maria, visiting in nearby Twickenham (MP, III, ch. 14). One of the subthemes of Mansfield Park is Admiral Crawford’s unkindness and unfaithfulness to his wife, evoking Mary’s resentment and suspicion of marriage, not allayed by a close view of the Grants’ domestic life. Admiral Crawford presumably had private reasons for finding a “cottage” in this riverside environment; we have deduced that he was assisted by his useful aides the Aylmers, who also assist the illicit conjunction of Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford. Admiral Crawford in Twickenham diverted his females’ attention unpleasantly by inflicting the mess of improvements, “all dirt and confusion” (I, ch. 6)—the only injury that Mary can openly mention. For this mild criticism she is censured by Edmund and Fanny, nervous of any assault upon the patriarch. But Mary is complaining (if in code) of female oppression, silent hiding and enduring sexual dirt, and resultant emotional confusion.
Mary Crawford is not simply a Londoner nor (despite generations of critics) does she represent only or even primarily modern London town life. As we have seen, Mary, her sister and her brother-in-law Mr. Grant, her brother Henry and her uncle Admiral Crawford are all of Scottish extraction, an identity registered in their names and the names of Mary’s chosen friends. Both Henry and Mary have lost an original region or nation. They are in the process of becoming English, rather as the Ward sisters (and their children) are in the process of becoming Northamptonshire gentry. Most of the major characters—with Fanny at the center—are in a state of flux and immigration.
Antigua: The Invisible Source
Sir Thomas carries about with him invisibly the West Indies of his wealth. His journey to the actual place divides the novel. Maaja Stewart points out that Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story (1791) also is bisected by the journey of stern Lord Elmwood, ex-priest, to the West Indies: “The patriarch’s authority is weakened by his absence,” and sexual transgression and rebellion ensue.18 Sir Thomas is always an absentee from one of his estates, even though he stresses that his son should live in his parish.19
Antigua is not contiguous with Mansfield, but is yet an invisible center, as well as a distant place on the globe. Jane Austen could have known something of the West Indies. The sons of George Austen’s half-brother William had settled in Jamaica. Tom Fowle, Cassandra’s fiancé, went with Lord Craven on the West Indies campaign as chaplain and died of yellow fever in San Domingo in 1797. The Willoughby family figured prominently in Antigua history. George Austen at Oxford had tutored James Nibbs, whose family owned sugar plantations in Antigua. George Austen later asked this wealthy young man to be godfather to his son. Rich James Nibbs sent his own son to Mr. Austen to educate and named George Austen potential trustee for his Antigua estate.20 If Nibbs had died when his heir was a minor, Jane’s father would have had the charge of several plantations in Antigua—which might well have stimulated research into the island on the part of Austens. Nibbs later “took his spendthrift son on a voyage to Antigua” and eventually disinherited him.21
The name “Antigua” or “Ancient” derives from the antique image of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in Seville Cathedral; on his second voyage Christopher Columbus named the island “Santa Maria de la Antigua.” In 1632 English settlers from Saint Kitts (Saint Christopher) on moving in used the short name “Antigua.” In 1683 Christopher Codrington, a brutally efficient entrepreneur, introduced plantation-style sugar cultivation, beginning the importation of large numbers of slaves. “Plantation” is to us inevitably fraught with evil memory. The term has—or had—an innocent primary meaning, referring to any extended area of new plantings of trees, bushes or large vegetation, like Sir John Middleton’s new “plantations” at Barton Cross. That familiar and even virtuous word at first supplied a kind of green-world cover for an evil system. The term, however, had a long association with the “planting” of colonies. Slavery supported the development of capitalism in England and North America. An impression of the backbreaking work on the plantations can be found in William Clark’s 1823 depiction of cane cutting in Antigua (fig. 22).22 The modern visitor to the island is struck by the energy and early technology insanely dedicated to torturing fellow beings in quest of sweet stuff.
Antigua was a turbulent source of riches. Rebellion was feared, and not all governors were able. While Austen was designing the novel, the governor was the failed diplomat Hugh Elliot, made Governor of the Leeward Islands from 1809 to 1813 thanks to the operation of his brother Gilbert Elliot, Baron Minto (see above, chapter 7). In 1710 Governor Daniel Parke had been murdered—dismembered in the streets of St John’s—by a riotous mob of whites (chiefly Assemblymen). In 1701 slaves rebelled when the plantation owner refused to give them Christmas Day off. They cut off his head and soused it with rum.23 (Presumably, they were turning him into a Christmas pudding.) In 1736 a great ball was planned for 11 October, in belated celebration of the coronation of George II. The slaves were prepared with different tasks and signals. “Tomboy” the carpenter was to build the platform and seats, affording opportunity for strategic placement of gunpowder. In Mansfield Park, too, theatrical carpentering threatens proper order. Unfortunately for Antiguan freedom fighters, the ball was postponed to 30 October; in the interval, the plot leaked out. Panicked hearings were followed by draconian punishments, included breaking five men on the wheel and burning over seventy at the stake.24 In this display of “civilization” the whites could triumph but were forced toward the recognition (if partially suppressed) that the workers necessary for the gain for which they came were permanently desirous of their overthrow and death. The ball that did not take place in October 1736 is the most famous of the “balls of Antigua.”
22. William Clark, The Cutting of the Cane (1823). From Ten Views in the Island of Antigua. Photograph: © The British Library Board.
Sir Ralph Payne, Governor of the Leeward Islands from 1771 to 1775, kept the peace and was highly popular with sugar planters; Sir Thomas Bertram can be imagined as having known Payne when both were MPs. Payne, now an Irish baron, Lord Lavington, made a comeback as governor in 1799. Lavington died in 1807, an event that probably stimulated Sir Thomas’s decision to look after his own interests now that the planters’ friend was gone.
Antigua (only 108 square miles) is an important Atlantic gateway to the Caribbean. From its highest point “French” islands like Guadeloupe and Montserrat are visible.25 Saint John, the central port, was the administrative capital of the Leeward Islands. A number of free persons of color worked in the towns, especially Saint John (they were forbidden to own land). Their semi-independent presence might have disconcerted a newly arrived plantation owner.26The official enquiry into the alleged great conspiracy of 1736 argued that inequality of numbers of white and black inhabitants was a menace. Planters should reside on their estates. Other recommendations were that slaves should not become craftsmen or tradesmen and that more servants should be white. Such advice proved too difficult to follow, but the sight of a free black craftsman might cause twinges of unease in a proprietor. Such an aficionado of nice gradations of inequality as Sir Thomas would have found this mix offensive and confusing. Even the unfree engaged publicly in some trade. Janet Schaw remarks on their sale of produce: “The Negroes are the only market people. No body else dreams of selling provisions. Sunday … they are all at liberty to work for themselves.”27 Black enslaved persons thronged the markets of Saint John, along with free blacks and “mulattoes” and white men at a loose end. Bustle, trade, drinking, and sexual activity must have increased upon the burgeoning of English Harbour and the addition to the island population of multitudes of sailors in rich variety, from Britain, the Americas, and the Indian subcontinent.
In 1784, Horatio Nelson (not yet a national hero), heading the Squadron of the Leeward Islands, was sent to develop a naval dockyard. The Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) served under Nelson as captain of the Pegasus; Clarence House, Antigua, was built as his residence. It still exists, as does the naval yard now called “Nelson’s Dockyard,” restored as a touristic site and museum. This well-planned dockyard, which made English Harbour a center of industry, permitted ships to have their hulls scraped and repaired and to be refitted with masts. Dockyard workers included not only sailors but multiple skilled workers such as carpenters, many of these free black laborers. Austen would have known, if only from Southey’s Life, about Nelson’s use of dancing and theatricals to keep his men’s spirits up in Antigua:
When the hurricane months confined him to English Harbour, he encouraged all kinds of useful amusements—music, dancing, and cudgelling among the men; theatricals among the officers; anything which could employ their attention, and keep their spirits cheerful.28
Nelson’s theatricals must have entailed multiple gender impersonations and a certain racial and class mingling. Did they continue—and disgust Sir Thomas? Sir Thomas did take note of “the balls of Antigua,” describing them to the Grants’ dinner party and listening to William Price on “the different modes of dancing” in foreign places (MP, II, ch. 7). Did Sir Thomas refer to the hospitality of Lord Lavington? The departed governor was famous for dance parties, if a trifle eccentric on some points:
His lordship … was a very hospitable man … his Christmas balls and routs were upon the highest scale of magnificence; but he was a great stickler for etiquette and a firm upholder of differences of rank and colour. It is asserted, he would not … receive a letter or parcel from the fingers of a black or coloured man, and in order to guard against such horrible defilement, he had a golden instrument wrought something like a pair of sugar tongs.29
In his Parsonage chat or travelogue Sir Thomas would have described with amusement and some contempt the dances of the mixed social levels of whites. Did he stress the low Scots shop boys and former servant girls, along with the “Houris” with “dark brilliant eyes”?30 He might discourse on the enthusiasm of the “negroes” at their own dance parties, dancing country dances, or choosing “native dance, and their music of the Bangoe and Tum-tum,” in a “ball-room … decorated with branches of the cocoa-nut … while boughs of the Pimento … and the orange tree … impart a pleasing fragrance.”31 The “favourite colours” of “the fair sex” are “pink, blue, and bright yellow … but the manner in which these several shades are arranged defies all description.”32 Holding a proper English ball at Mansfield, with properly dressed modest young white ladies (in white), would reassert true English properties, counteracting grotesque foreign recollections.
Englishmen traveling on ship to or from the island could expect French assaults—although Lady Bertram does not worry about this possibility. In danger of imminent attack by “a French privateer,” Sir Thomas on his way home almost gets shot at (II, ch. 1). William Price in his naval service goes to the West Indies and may well find himself in Nelson’s Dockyard. Antigua links Nelson with a William Price, hard-worked midshipman (later lieutenant), and also with the English baronet holding onto his sugar plantations.
R. W. Chapman’s argument that Mansfield Park follows the calendar of 1808-9, with Fanny’s ball taking place on Thursday, 22 December, seems sound.33 That is, the novel is set in the fraught period after the Act against the Slave Trade, passed in 1807, had begun to be enforced in 1808. The Allies’ blockade of European coasts added to the difficulties of selling sugar, while the ending of the slave trade—though not yet of slavery itself—posed labor problems. Current financial uncertainties suggest good reasons why Sir Thomas feels he must visit Antigua at this particular juncture, although he always exaggerates his own efficacy. An ongoing problem was the rapacity of middlemen, estate managers, and agents. John Luffman, in A Brief Account of the Island of Antigua (1789), describes the freedom with which the managers for absentees used their employers’ income and the slave labor for their own purposes:
To be the manager of an estate of an absentee, in this isle, I am well satisfied is one of the best situations in it, altho’ their stipends amount to no more than from eighty to one hundred pounds sterling, per ann… . This discription [sic] of men sport several dishes at their tables, drink claret, keep mulatto mistresses… . These people, Sir, raise on the grounds of their employers, stock of every kind … which they feed principally with the grain, &c. belonging to the estate on which they live… . There are of these men, or at least their wives who occupy the time of from twelve to twenty negroes daily on this business to the manifest injury of their masters.34
An estate’s “Attorney” would receive “from half a guinea, to a guinea, for every hogshead of Sugar he ships.” No doubt Sir Thomas found the first thing he had to do was to fire his manager. But getting an efficient and honest replacement would be no easy matter. Luffman describes a more peaceable time in the 1780s, whereas by the time of Sir Thomas’s voyage the war was raging through the Caribbean. War entailed a varied influx of newcomers and transients, while the old settled plantations looked less secure of profit. As well as new problems in securing labor, there was a steep decline in sugar’s profitability. Britain’s own blockade of the Continent separated consumers from product. Napoleon, cut off from French islands in the Caribbean by the British blockade, in 1813 banned the import of cane sugar altogether in the lands he controlled. European production of sugar from beets was amplified and improved. A glut of cane sugar caused prices to drop—and they were to drop again after Waterloo.35
In the eighteenth century, demand for sugar had risen enormously. The availability and relative cheapness of sugar in the early nineteenth century stimulated interest in what we call “candy” and more cakes. In Austen’s novels the youngest generation manifests a keen desire for sugar. Spoiled little Annamaria Middleton is pacified with “sugar plums” and “apricot marmalade” (S&S, I, ch. 21). Mary Musgrove’s boys require to be pacified by their grandmother with “trash and sweet things” (Persuasion, I, ch. 6). Sugar consumption had rendered the sugar boycott, an antislavery protest first mounted in 1791, of some effect. Consumers, in the first use of a new democratic political instrument, refused to use products of the sugarcane—sugar and also molasses and rum. (Mr. Price, we note, perseveringly drinks rum.) In this political action, women played an important part. King George III and Queen Charlotte joined in the boycott—inviting ridicule of the “Anti-Saccharrites” by plantation owners’ supporters (fig. 23). Austen’s favorite poet William Cowper was an important propagandist for the abolition of slavery. In Cowper’s satiric poem “Pity for Poor Africans” (1788), the worldly speaker politely laments slavery but argues that it is unrealistic and peculiar not to trade in or use sugar.
The adjective “sweet” is noticeably used negatively or very skeptically by Austen throughout her works.36 The desire for female “sweetness” expressed in Mansfield Park seems ironically appropriate to an establishment basing its wealth on the cruel production and commercial sale of sugar. The first edible mentioned here is the sour-sweet “gooseberry tart” which fails to comfort the homesick little girl on her first arrival at Mansfield (I, ch. 2). The strongest contemporary example of sweet-sour in literature is William Cowper’s abolitionist poem “Sweet Meat Has Sour Sauce” (1788).37 Abolitionist writings tend to try to turn the reader off sweetness with unpleasant associations; in Mansfield Park Austen appears to follow (with some subtlety) the abolitionist lead. Throughout the novel we have dashes of great sourness along with too much bland sweetness—found even in the “biscuits and buns” that Fanny sends for when unable to bear the family meals at Portsmouth. (III, ch. 11). Antigua remains a sour sweet spot in the invisible center of Mansfield Park, a location of slavery, anxiety, and sugar. It is paralleled in the main narrative by the flower garden where Fanny endures a parodic slavery in the heat gathering summer roses for potpourri (a source of “sweet” domestic fragrance composed of dead things) (I, ch. 7). Antigua’s name means “old,” “ancient”—and much that is unwholesomely “old” peers out at us in Mansfield Park. Sotherton, peasant values (like those of Mrs. Norris), potpourri, and slavery are all old.
23. James Gillray, The Anti-Saccharrites; or, John Bull and his family leaving off the use of sugar (1792). Photograph: © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Imaginary Places in Mansfield Park
Stones and Ravens—and Rushes
Some lesser imaginary places add to the poetic effect. Stanwix Lodge is the name of a place near Mansfield Park that Henry Crawford thinks of renting. The name is from Saxon stan-wic, that is, “stone place.” (There is a real Stanwick near Northampton.) “Everingham” is the name of Henry Crawford’s estate in Norfolk, where (according to himself) he made great aesthetic improvements in his first youth. We don’t know how this young man with the Scottish name came to inherit a Norfolk estate with a Saxon name, presumably from ebur or efer (a boar) + ing(as) + ham. The name would then mean “the settlement of the followers of the man with the boar’s head helm,” or “of the man as strong as a boar” (as in “Ever-hard” or “Everard”). The “boar’s head helm” would match with the “bright helm” of the Bertrams; it reflects on a man who is stubborn and greedy. The open irony in this case comes from the dominant first syllable “ever” in the supposed home of a man who cannot be faithful or keep at anything consistently.
Rushworth mentions his friend Smith’s Compton, a small estate improved by Repton. “Compton” suggests computation, though it means “farmstead or village in a valley” (Mills). “Ecclesford” in Cornwall is the home of Lord Ravenshaw, where young Mr. Yates was going to perform Lover’s Vows. “Eccles” (from “Ekklesia” meaning “church”) might mean a ford or water crossing by a church—or away from the church. Alternatively, the root might be aigles, “eagles” (as in Eccles in Kent)—a place where eagles cross. The more striking locative is undoubtedly in Lord Ravenshaw’s name, “the stand of trees full of ravens.”
Sotherton—so ripe for “improvement”—has a rather dull name for a great estate with an Elizabethan house. The merely locative term means merely “south-place,” “south settlement.” Once it was south of something more important—perhaps a priory? Maria’s remarks as she approaches Sotherton are quite in keeping with landscape designer Humphry Repton’s disdainful views of any rural community: “Those cottages are really a disgrace. I am glad the church is not so close to the Great House as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible” (I, ch. 8). Alistair Duckworth in The Improvement of the Estate points out that Maria’s tastes and Rushworth’s vague plans exhibit an owner aestheticizing his duties out of existence. Silly Mr. Rushworth and Maria are alike devoid of any religious senses of stewardship: “The displacement of their concern from the function to the appearance of Sotherton will neglect the traditional emphasis on ‘use’ as the basis of landed existence.”38
The hot day of wandering about the grounds and coming upon yet more boundaries and pales is frustrating. Sotherton feels like an extension of Mansfield Park. Yet Sotherton has some things Mansfield does not. Its owners in the distant past had the privilege of holding their own courts. And Sotherton has its own chapel—“fitted up as you see it, in James the Second’s time” (I, ch. 9). This interesting tidbit dropped by the incurious Mrs. Rushworth raises the possibility that the Rushworth family were at one time secret Catholics, emboldened by accession of the Catholic King James II to create their own place of worship in their home (not the parish church). In the same period the first Duke of Devonshire built Chatsworth and created a very fancy baroque chapel in the European Catholic style. The Sotherton chapel as we see it is very plain, denuded of the romance that Fanny hopes for. It is certainly nothing like Scott’s Melrose Abbey in The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) to which Fanny alludes, not altogether inappropriately, as Scott’s poem deals obliquely with the transition from Catholicism and feudalism.39 Sotherton’s chapel is one of the riddles or paradoxes secreted in this novel. History produces strong Puritan Rushworths and some Catholic Rushworths. One possible historical backstory to this imaginary Sotherton is that at the Restoration the estate passed from a Puritan family to a Catholic branch. But the Rushworths are wavering reeds shaken in every wind. This is the only occasion on which this narrative enters a church, and this scene deepens an impression that religion has been abandoned. The chapel is an empty space. Sotherton, the emptiness at the heart of the novel, signals a world of the absence of God and grace. All the references to piety and morality in all that follows—including ordination—can simply reinforce the view of social order dominant, spiritual reality abandoned. Patriarchal power and lectures of morality do not replace religion. In fact, they degrade it beyond recognition.
The Weight of “Mansfield”
“Mansfield” is a complex, rich, and resonant name. The name (originally Germanic) matches well with the beorht helm of the Germanic “Bertram.” Mansfield is the German town where Luther was born—suiting the most Protestant of Austen’s novels. Mansfield is the real name of a small town in Nottinghamshire: “A market town of good resort, whose name some bring in to confirm the claim of the German family, Mansfield, to antiquity… . Kings used to repair hither for the pleasures of the chace.”40 Britannia comments that this town is on the edge of Sherwood Forest, with a remnant population of deer; so Mansfield—like Huntingdon—carries associations with Robin Hood, as well as with deer hunting. In Sir Charles Grandison, Miss Mansfield, an old maid in her thirties, is persuaded to benefit her slumping gentry family by marrying the wealthy and cantankerous Lord W. Like “Hart-field” and other names in Austen, the word can be read as a kind of riddle depending on a pun—or puns. It’s a “Manse-field,” place of a mansion, or a parsonage—and this estate has both. Read as “Man’s Field,” it is the field of this world in which we are all placed, a field full of folk. But it is “Man’s field,” a male preserve with very masculine controls.
The most important English historical association with “Mansfield” is its connection with William Murray (a Scot), who became Lord Chief Justice in 1756, when he was created Baron Mansfield (later first Earl of Mansfield). The most famous decision of this Lord Chief Justice, highest appeals judge, concerns the Somersett case. James Somersett, a slave in Boston, escaped when his American master brought him to England. The master claimed him back as property. When the case was heard in 1772, Lord Mansfield in his judgment said, “The state of slavery … is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law” (ODNB). Once Mansfield determined that the law of England did not support slavery, his decision implied that all slaves within England and Wales (although not in the British Empire at large) were free. This led to the freedom of some fourteen or fifteen thousand persons and to the saying that any man or woman who set foot on English soil is a free person.
The irony of the name of “Mansfield” being attached to a place whose owner is connected with slavery appears too pointed to be accidental. This connection, emphasized by Margaret Kirkham in 1983, is denied by John Wiltshire, in favor of connotations of “general Englishness.”41 Having caught the significance of “Pratt” in Sense and Sensibility, I am even more inclined than before to think the reference to Lord Mansfield is intended. The connection of the title of Mansfield Park with Lord Mansfield’s decision is strongly supported by Paula Byrne, among others.42
Byrne points out that Mansfield was known to support black equality in more than legal judgments; he effectually adopted his nephew’s illegitimate daughter by a black enslaved person named Maria Belle. The child, Dido Belle (ca. 1761-1804), was brought up by Lord Mansfield (her great-uncle) as a companion to Lady Elizabeth, his niece and heir, whom Austen met in 1805 but thought had “astonishingly little to say for herself” (24 August 1805; Letters, 107). Belle served her great-uncle as a secretary; it is a question whether her presence in his life influenced Mansfield’s most famous decision. Left a small legacy, Belle married an Englishman, John Davinier, in Saint George’s Hanover Square; they had three sons.43 Her story is the basis of the British film Belle (2013), directed by Amma Asante. Austen will move closer to such a young woman in Sanditon.
That Jane Austen thought about slavery we cannot deny. Austen proclaimed herself “in love with” the writing of Thomas Clarkson, the leading historical and moral exponent of abolition (24 January 1813; Letters, 198). Cowper, Austen’s favorite poet, was a strong voice for the abolitionist cause. There is ample evidence that Jane’s siblings supported the abolition of slavery, from an early article by James in The Loiterer to the more active expression of her brother Frank, whose naval duties entailed chasing slave traders. Frank said that England, “jealous … of her own liberty[,] … should pay equal attention to the inalienable rights of all the nations, of what colour so ever they may be.”44
Mansfield Park focuses upon unease regarding the conduct and self-excuse of the ruling and wealthy classes. Austen’s doubts about her own gentry class and the assumptions of her culture go very deep—she is always looking into whatever original rapacity created the comfortable cushion of wealth that lends itself so nicely to respectability and secret oppression. Oppression and acquiescence are central to the action of Mansfield Park, most troubling of her novels. In this version of “Cinderella” there is no perfectly happy ending. A twisted economy has its way with the characters. “I wish he [William Price] may go to the East Indies, that I may have my shawl. I think I will have two shawls, Fanny,” says Lady Bertram, dreaming of cashmere, careless of East Indies or West (II, ch. 13). Her nephew should risk his life on a long and dangerous voyage to get her a shawl. This is one of the most stupidly cruel and exploitative statements in the novel—a work in which such statements abound.
There is a second element in the estate’s name: it is “Mansfield Park.” The term “park” denotes a large enclosure in which game could be held for private hunting. Samuel Johnson gives the word extensive treatment in his Dictionary:
A place of ground inclosed and stored with wild beasts of chace, which a man may have by prescription or the king’s grant. Manwood, in his forest-law, defines it thus: a park is a place for privilege for wild beasts of venery, and also for other wild beasts that are beasts of the forest and of the chace: and those wild beasts are to have a firm peace and protection there, so that no man may hurt or chase them within the park, without license of the owner: a park is of another nature, than either a chase or a warren; for a park must be inclosed, and may not lie open; if it does, it is good cause of seizure into the king’s hands: and the owner cannot have an action against such a hunt in his park, if it lie open.
The next quotation Johnson offers is from Bacon:
We have parks and inclosures of all sorts of beasts and birds, which we use not only for view or rareness, but likewise for dissections and trials.
For the verb “to park”—which does not bear our modern sense—Johnson gives the definition “to inclose as in a park” and offers the quotation from Shakespeare:
How are we park’d, and bounded in a pale?
A little herd of England’s tim’rous deer,
Maz’d with a yelping kennel of French curs.
Johnson’s definition repeatedly emphasizes the enclosure of animals behind a fence (or “pale”) for the purpose of human (male) pleasure. The Bacon quotation oddly modernizes the idea to include a place of experimentation on animals. In a bounded park the animals are the property of the owner. Only those given permission can hunt or chase them—or conduct experiments upon them. We have noted the novel’s constant allusions to hunting and shooting. Sir Thomas, owner of this park, can offer Henry Crawford the metaphorical license to “hurt or chase” his Fanny. Subsequently, in a Baconian manner he commits a little experiment upon Fanny, “a medicinal project upon his niece’s understanding, which he must consider as at present diseased” (III, ch. 6). Sir Thomas is not aware that Tom, his Regent, has earlier given Henry implicit license in Sir Thomas’s absence to play at hunting Maria and Julia. All three of these women suffer from enclosure, limitation, and inspection. No wonder Maria is revolted by the iron gate and the boundaries confronting her on the grounds of Sotherton. Her allusion to Sterne’s starling who cannot get out applies not only to Sotherton but to the enclosed world of the home in which she, like Fanny and Julia, is “park’d and bounded in a pale.”
Falling among Thorns: Thornton Lacey
Thornton Lacey is the site of Edmund’s future parsonage. “Thornton” is Old English (“thorn” + tun), an enclosed settlement with thorn trees marking its boundaries. Again we find boundaries, enclosure. “Lacey” indicates that this settlement was once part of the properties of the De Lacy family, like Kingston Lacy in Dorset. Thornton Lacey, an Anglo-Saxon homestead taken over by Normans, may well be superior in age to Mansfield Park.
Henry Crawford, who comes centuries too late actually to dissolve English religious houses, makes no open ideological claim in his enthusiastic plans to revise the parsonage. It has, he pleads, “so much the air of a gentleman’s residence, so much the look of a something above a mere Parsonage House… . You may raise it into a place” (II, ch. 7). A place evidently offers a higher way of being, transcending low matter such as the farmyard, the blacksmith’s shop—and religious services. Henry may unconsciously be affected by Sotherton and its cold inane chapel. Making Thornton Lacey parsonage into a gentleman’s residence would be a kind of parallel cover-up, tactfully privatizing, secularizing while upgrading. It is another form of Dissolution.
What Henry Crawford only proposes doing to Edmund’s future parsonage uncomfortably resembles what Jane Austen’s mother’s cousin, the clergyman Thomas Leigh, had actually done in 1799 to his rectory in Adlestrop. He called in the landscaper Humphry Repton (admired by Rushworth and Mrs. Norris for his costly consultancy) to combine the rectory grounds with the estate. The new design meant that the village green was planted over, the village cottages having been removed. Repton’s secularizing “improvements” could be seen by Cassandra Austen and her daughters when they visited in 1806. As Duckworth says of Henry Crawford, such “plans to ‘clear away,’ ‘plant up,’ and ‘shut out’ features of the landscape are to be read as a rejection of the traditional shape of reality.”45 There is no stronger example of Austen criticizing her own family as rulers than Henry’s proposed revision of Thornton Lacey in exactly the manner of Thomas Leigh.
When he is to be ordained, Edmund leaves Mansfield to stay with a friend of his own age surnamed Owen. (The family includes young ladies, which makes Mary Crawford uneasy.) The Owens reside in a village or estate called “Lessingby.” The name seems largely inspired by Lessingham in Norfolk, a Saxon “settlement of the ingas of Leofisige” (Mills). But the suffix -by indicates an area formerly settled by Danes. The strange name was perhaps partly suggested by Leasowes, the poet Shenstone’s little estate near the town of Halesowen in Shropshire.46 Edmund is ordained in Peterborough, now under the dominion of Cambridgeshire, a settlement in the fen country from Roman times. This “burgh of St. Peter,” a reference to its former abbey of Saint Peter, enjoyed considerable independence, and a famous cathedral. It seems odd to us that nobody in Edmund’s family suggests seeing him ordained; evidently, unlike Anglican practice in the twentieth or twenty-first century, this ceremony was not considered a sight for families. A sense of estrangement accompanies the ordination. Something peculiar has happened to Edmund in a place far away—rather like Tom’s fall. The name “Lessingby,” a comical invented word, sticks close to this offstage event. “Lessingby” sounds like a place where one becomes lesser—odd in a story that is officially on the side of ordination. At the end of the story Edmund, defeated in love, wears out his attachment to Mary and is content to settle for Fanny, pushed by others and soothed by Fanny’s care. Fanny’s unyielding devotion is instinctive and ruthless, like Helena’s in All’s Well—the young man stands little chance. Edmund has “lessened.” He never developed spiritual strength. His ordination is in complacent obedience to a very worldly father. And we may uncomfortably suspect (as Maaja Stewart suggests) that, despite Sir Thomas’s strictures against absentee clergy, Edmund will not yield Thornton Lacey upon moving into Mansfield parsonage and the Mansfield living.
Jane Austen’s clergymen are unsatisfactory—obedient to rich fathers like Henry Tilney and Edmund Bertram, or limply lacking any vocation like Edward Ferrars, whom Elinor pushes into a home and an income and a job. Edmund will go dutifully through the services; his sermons will be no duller than the next man’s (if not as good as Blair’s, as Mary suggests). But spiritual calling and energy of soul are lacking. A man conditioned by terror of being shot down has limitations. Edmund’s letters and conversations reveal him as self-centered, anxious, and indecisive. There is no sign that he has ever associated with or cared for the poor. He is willing to let London go to the dogs. He is caught among the thorns of his destined settlement. (Did his Thornton influence Brontë’s Thornfield Hall?) “Thorns” evoke uncomfortable recollections of Christ’s “Parable of the Sower,” in which the seeds (of spiritual truth) variously are eaten by fowls or fall “upon stony places.” (Stones and fowls appeared already: “Stanwix,” the stones of Sotherton, and ravens and crows.) “And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them” (Matthew 13:4-7). Readers are all alert to Henry’s flaw in redesigning the parsonage but deaf to what has already gone wrong, the ignoring of spiritual life; the Word gets choked by other concerns. Without assistance from Crawfords, deep within the moral narrative, the parsonage and church at Thornton Lacey are choked by thorns.
Edmund’s description of his rural presence as a clergyman omits both sacramental and pastoral functions. Edmund will operate chiefly, if not quite as a constable of manners in his father’s fashion, as a kind of self-identified model. Parishioners will have the benefit of “observing his general conduct.” This comic and painful “line” sounds as if it comes straight from Sir Thomas (I, ch. 9). Edmund’s advice will be feeble and self-conscious. I would pay money to keep him away from my deathbed.
Why Edmund is as he is we understand through our knowledge of the warped environment of Mansfield Park. Save for the Portsmouth episodes and the excursion to desiccated Sotherton, the central action takes place within Mansfield’s strict bounds. It ceases to imprison only to eject. The Woman taken in Adultery (see John 8:3-11) turns into a hopeless castaway, all grace forbidden her. This is morality of a sort—but has little to do with Christianity. The religion that Edmund has been truly ordained into is the religion of Mansfield Park—ultimately the emptiness of Sotherton’s chapel.
Mansfield Park is far from a happy story. The ending has many ironic touches, even if we detect some desperate efforts on the author’s part to turn back from what she knows. We can make it happy if we must. Edmund will have to take on the job of permanent acting. As Claudia Johnson points out, Edmund has never shown any sexual interest in Fanny.47 Under benevolent paternal pressure, Edmund—who never comes first with his father in any matter—must pretend to be sufficiently in love with Fanny, even though he has said farewell to Eros. The characters’ acting entangles them. Products of history and perverse training, they cannot tell the true from the false. Efforts to reach beyond the pale, to touch the genuine, are felt as threats; all acceptable persons must stay within the park. This is a wonderfully effective, ironic, and deeply compassionate story about damaged people.
Names and Places in Emma: The Royal County of Surrey
Real Places in Emma
Emma is set in only one location and never leaves its own county. True, Highbury is only sixteen miles from London. Tara Ghoshal Wallace rightly calls London “a constant stage-sharing presence” in Emma. Goods can be easily obtained and moved; Wallace points out the difference from rural Northamptonshire where transporting Mary’s harp would interfere with hay making.48 Frank Churchill goes to London to get his hair cut (really to order a piano from Broadwood). Mr. Elton carries Emma’s portrait of Harriet to be framed in Bond Street. John and Isabella Knightley and their children live in Brunswick Square, in the region of London we now call “Bloomsbury.” Brunswick Square, developed in the latter eighteenth century, was named in honor of Caroline of Brunswick, the unfortunate woman whom the Prince Regent was forced to marry; it was the site of England’s first orphan asylum.49 Indirect embedded references to the queen, Caroline of Brunswick, and to the Royal House of Brunswick-Lüneberg perpetuate the theme of kingship and the game of claimants so comically conducted throughout Emma.
Brunswick Square takes up part of the grounds of the Foundling Hospital. Established by Captain Coram, the Hospital admitted the first infants in 1741; the orphanage building was finally constructed on part of the Earl of Salisbury’s estate, in Bloomsbury Fields.50 In the eighteenth century the Brunswick Square area, neither too populous nor industrial, was known for green fields and clean air, explaining Isabella’s boast. She probably has never bothered to tell her father about the neighboring Foundling Hospital, and as he never goes to London (and apparently doesn’t read) he cannot be alarmed. Isabella’s square offered a large garden for residents in its center. The John Knightleys have a very good address but not a great one—well suited to the rising barrister. Harriet (illegitimate quasi-orphan) visits the Knightleys of Brunswick Square and accompanies the family, including their children, to Astley’s Circus. There she falls in again with Robert Martin and completes her own circuit in the comical Circus of Love. Despite these London touches, no direct dramatic scene really takes place in Town. We remain fixed with Emma in Highbury, in Surrey.
A quiet theme regarding the care of the poor circles in the background of Austen’s fourth published novel. The condition of the poor in the rural areas and provincial towns was a concern of the times. Frederick Morton Eden in 1797 notices the poor men’s Friendly Societies and the management of poorhouses and workhouses in different parts of the country, including detailed descriptions of the typical diets—in which gruel figures prominently. During the Napoleonic Wars, hardship was greater than in 1797; matters worsened after Waterloo, under pressure of food scarcity, with too few jobs for returning veterans. In Emma Mr. Woodhouse (with a little help from Isabella) consumes gruel, treating himself like a charity. Paradoxically, his anorexia entails consuming food meant for the poor. There was fear of unrest even in Austen’s Hampshire.
Unlike Gilpin, Eden regrets the loss of the medieval institutions:
Grateful as I am for the blessings of the Reformation, the transfer of tithes from the clergy to lay-contractors is not that part of it which I contemplate with the most satisfaction.51
Highbury’s post-Reformation church and abbey must keep up to the mark and fulfill their original functions. The rulers of Highbury must look outside themselves.
“Surrey” (from south-rie or “south of the river”) is a fertile region, sheltered but central, with good river communications. The county’s history from Saxon times is studded by coronations and the claims of kings. Camden gives the tribal name as “Regni” indicating different rulers of various tribes. There was some dispute about the term, but John Aubrey in The Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey is clear. “It [Surrey] was under the Romans, with Sussex, stiled REGNI, as some say, because their generous Conquerors granted them their former Priviledge [sic] of living under a Regal or Kingly Government.”52 Surrey kept its own kings.
This past, if partly imaginary, is perfectly suited to the world of Emma. Highbury, both commonplace and magnificent, is a center of pretensions and clashing royalties. Everyone who comes to Highbury either sets out to be a king/queen or has the privilege of living under “a Regal or Kingly Government.” (This makes it all the more comical that when completing Emma Austen really did run into the “Kingly Government” of the Prince Regent.) Rival queens include Queen Emma Woodhouse, Queen Jane Fairfax, and would-be Empress Augusta Elton. The invisible but powerful Mrs. Churchill, named after a woman who claimed equality with Queen Anne, also sets herself up as a ruler. King George (Knightley) rules the largest piece of land, while old King Cole, who looked harmless before, is rising into power. A new and “aimable” Prince Francis may bring in a French element. Historical allusions in Emma tend to be royalist. As we have seen, however, “Weston” is a perfect—and perfectly dangerous—courtier’s name, introducing the sexual intrigue and cruelty of the hazardous court of Henry VIII.
Emma offers multiple place names suggesting both pre-Conquest Saxon history and Norman rule, a subtle web of references to royalty of various eras. Many of the places mentioned have an honorably old history. Cobham, a market town twenty-one miles southwest of central London, is not exactly royal, but it is proud and ancient. Settled in the Iron Age, Cobham (“Cobb’s” or “Cofa’s” ham) prospered in the Saxon period; it was held by Chertsey Abbey at the time of the Conquest. “Cobham gives both name and title to its barons,” including Alexander Pope’s friend Richard Granville Temple, Baron Cobham.53 Pope’s Epistle to Cobham deals with the variability and unaccountability of the human mind and character—a theme most appropriate to Emma.
Mr. Knightley rides to Kingston (King’s-tun/ton), and others have business dealings there. Kingston-upon-Thames (as it is now called) is a market town near Cobham, ten miles southwest of London. Prosperous in Saxon times, the town bore this name before the Conquest. Kingston was the site of coronations of early monarchs and also of their funerals; seven Saxon kings are buried there. Camden discusses the buried Saxon kings; Gough adds that their portraits used to be shown in Saint Mary’s chapel until taken down in 1730 and notes that urns and old coins have often been found in Kingston.54
“Guilford” or “gold-ford” (gylde + ford; nowadays “Guildford”), mentioned in that other Surrey novel The Watsons, also has strong royal associations. The golden name fits in well with its former existence as the site of the Anglo-Saxon Royal Mint, center of the treasury in the late tenth century. William the Conqueror took it over and built a defensive castle, which later became a hunting lodge. “I think most highly of the situation of Guildford” Jane wrote to Cassandra in May 1813, having admired its views en route to London. (20 May 1813; Letters, 209).
Cobham, Kingston, Guildford—old Saxon towns, associated with Mr. Knightley. Highbury seems ringed about and guarded by enduring Saxon settlements. “Richmond” we associate with Frank. It is on the Richmond Road out of Highbury that Harriet encounters the gypsies. Modern Richmond is expensive; idiotic Isabella Thorpe imagined living with James in a “charming little villa” in Richmond (NA, I, ch. 15). Unlike “Cobham” or “Kingston” its name is Norman French, meaning “rich” or “strong” hill (riche + mont). This name was bestowed by the victorious Henry VII, winner of the Wars of the Roses and founder of the Tudor dynasty, when he took over this pleasant place on the Thames, renaming it “from the county from where he took the title of earl before his accession to the crown”55 The tide comes up the Thames as far as Richmond, making it useful to medieval (and later) shipping. Its earlier medieval name was Shene—or “Sheen”—on account of its shining beauty. In this town Queen Elizabeth died. Here too passes away the (presumably) disagreeable Mrs. Churchill, imperious ruler of her own family and of Frank’s fortune. Perhaps Mrs. Churchill ought to be buried at Kingston, with other English monarchs, as she has been such a strong queen—at least in the eyes of her husband and adopted son.
Windsor, not strictly in Surrey but not far from Highbury, is also associated with Frank. In Austen’s time, as now, the Royal Borough of Windsor could supply luxurious accommodations and good shops. Mr. Churchill and Frank betake themselves here to wear out the first shock of Mrs. Churchill’s death. Escaping from the Surrey rulers, Frank becomes king of himself in this royal demesne. Camden notes that its old name is “Windleshora,” “perhaps from the windings of the bank.”56 Eton School is just across the river from Windsor.
Monastic property at the time of the conquest, Windsor was taken over personally by the Norman king, appearing “proper and convenient for a royal retirement on account of the river and its nearness to the forest for hunting,” according to the charter.57 The right to hunt in Windsor was through many centuries reserved to blue bloods. Site of Windsor Castle and Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor is associated with chivalry and the founding of the Order of the Garter, with its sexy backstory and motto honi soit qui mal y pense (evil be to him who thinks evil of this). Once upon a time Windsor was the abode of Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn. Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor seems to have stimulated Austen’s imagination in creating Emma. False matchmaking, disguise, riddles, pretensions, and food all figure in Shakespeare’s play, as well as a character named “Frank Ford.” (See discussion above, chapter 7). Isabella Knightley, Anne Weston, Emma Knightley, Harriet Martin, and even perhaps Augusta Elton either are—or will be—more or less “merry wives.”
Looking down from Box Hill on the Surrey landscape spread below them, Frank Churchill says, “Let my accents swell to Mickleham on one side, and Dorking on the other” (III, ch. 7). Dorking introduces the comic motif of poultry; readers might imagine the sound of cackling of “some milk-white Hens of Dorking” at the mere mention of the name.58 In The Watsons, set in and near Dorking, the family was most appropriately served “a Turkey” for dinner. Turkeys figure too in Highbury; Mrs. Weston has a poultry house and is robbed of “all of her turkies” (III, ch. 19). Other poultry houses are robbed too, so frightening Mr. Woodhouse that (desiring a male protector in his house) he is willing to consent to his daughter’s marriage.
Mickleham, “large settlement” (Old English micel [great] + ham) near the old Roman road, is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Mickleham’s recent associations, however, were with the French Revolution; in 1792-93 Juniper Hall was leased to a group of distinguished émigrés including Mme de Staël and General Alexandre D’Arblay. Austen must have known that Frances Burney the novelist and her future husband D’Arblay met there; Mickleham was the scene of their courtship. The D’Arblays married in the local church and knew Jane’s godfather, rector of Great Bookham. Jane herself would have had opportunities for sightseeing in Surrey when visiting Samuel and Cassandra Cooke only four miles from Box Hill.
The important scene on Box Hill in Emma represents an unusual use by Austen of a real and specific outdoor site. In a most interesting departure the action moves away from the settlements (Saxon and Norman) so strongly insisted on elsewhere in the novel. We enter a kind of no-man’s-land, not quite civilization. The expedition transports everyone to a pocket of time as well as an alternative space. Donwell Abbey’s strawberry party took place on Midsummer Eve, 23 June (also Harriet’s birthday; her power waxes). The Box Hill fiasco takes place on Midsummer Day; this festival of emotions is a daytime evocation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a wild and unpossessed territory, Midsummer madness reigns. The wooded hill on the North Downs of Surrey is named after the wild box trees growing there. The hill affords a beautiful view or “prospect.” William Gilpin spends some pages in admiring description of Box Hill:
That boast of Surrey, the celebrated Box-Hill, so called from the profusion of box which flourishes spontaneously upon it. This hill, from its downy back and precipitous sides, exhibits great variety of pleasing views into the lower parts of Surrey; and the higher parts of neighbouring counties. But we have here only to do with it, as itself an object in a retiring scene; in which it fills its station with great beauty; discovering its shivering precipices and downy hillocks.59
Gilpin, though noting that cultivation has removed much of the indigenous box, comments on the happy view “towards Box-hill; which presents its flanks in these partial views, with a very mountain-like appearance. The whole scene makes a good Alpine picture.”60 It thus resembles the newly fashionable tourist objective “Swisserland” that Frank Churchill—and perhaps Austen’s brother—yearned for (Emma, III, ch. 6).61
There is more to be said of Box Hill—a curiously indecent history, elided by Gilpin. Douglas Murray was the first to open the Pandora’s Box of Box Hill’s interestingly disreputable history.62 John Aubrey discusses it briefly in the fourth volume of his Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey:
The great Quantity and Thickness of the Box Wood yielded a convenient Privacy for Lovers, who frequently meet there, so that it is an English Daphne. The Gentry often resorted hither from Ebbisham [Epsom] but the Wood is much decayed now.63
The reference to “Daphne” is an elegant periphrasis; as Douglas Murray explains, “Daphne” refers to an erotic site outside ancient Antioch. Box Hill was closely associated with the pleasures of nearby Epsom, famous for horse racing and a resort useful to what we call “weekends” for middle-class businessmen from London and environs. (It was only an hour’s journey from Croydon.) John Macky in A Journey through England (1714) speaks of Epsom as “the Place in the world the freest from Censure and Observation; for Mankind seems to be here Incognito all the Week.”64 (Wickham, characteristically, is familiar with Epsom.) The pleasures on offer are various, including racing, dancing, card playing and raffling: “From this Account, it is plain we are not quite in Heaven here, though we may justly be said to be in Paradise.”65 Box Hill is a central topos of this earthly “Paradise”:
On Sundays in the Afternoon, the Company generally go to a Charming place called Box-hill, about Six Miles off … and it’s very easy for Gentlemen and Ladies insensibly to lose their Company in these pretty Labyrinths of Box-Wood, and divert themselves unperceived. From hence one hath a most delicious commanding Prospect of a fine Country, and it may be justly called the Palace of VENUS.66
Defoe’s Tour offers a detailed account of Box Hill, a place of opportunity for “abundance of Gentlemen and Ladies from Epsome, to take the Air, and walk in the Box-Woods; and, in a word, Divert, or Debauch, or perhaps both, as they thought fit.” A vintner of Dorking, “taking notice of the constant and unusual flux of Company thither,” established a little pub on the hill, but this got a bad reputation as a sort of brothel.67 That era is remembered in Edward Beavan’s awkward “Box Hill. A Descriptive Poem” (1777): “There late arose so gay, / A crowded pile,* incontinence’s delight; / That Virtue, lovely maid, at length suppresst”68 (8). The asterisk points to a footnote: “A house of ill fame, now abolished.” Not “Virtue” but some young men of Dorking blew the pub or “Vault” up with gunpowder one Saturday night. Various writers allude to the open—or almost open—sexual congress associated with this site. Yet, after a censorious account, Defoe immediately refers favorably to the vale below Box Hill as a center of strawberry cultivation, “the Country People gathering such great quantities of Strawberries, as they carry them to Market by Horse-Loads.”69 We find in Defoe the association of strawberries and Box Hill that we find in Emma: a scene of near fulfillment and frustration among the red berries brings on the storm of sexual frustration and anger on Box Hill.
Strawberries are traditionally the fruit of Venus. Mrs. Elton’s desire for a strawberry party intimates sexual desire. But it is Mr. Knightley who says suggestively, “Come, and eat my strawberries. They are ripening fast” (III, ch. 6). He is ripening fast and needs to make more haste in the service of Venus—though it is not with Mrs. Elton that he wishes to enjoy strawberries. (Mrs. Elton’s lack of staying power in berry gathering perhaps points to a deficiency in sexual stamina.) Mrs. Elton commands the excursion to Box Hill, although Emma had tried to make Mr. Weston conduct a more elegant party to the scene. In the novel’s opening we are tightly supported and girdled by royal towns—and so again near the end with references to Richmond and Windsor. The series of royal centers offers a sense of security and rules—a sense mocked by the feelings coming unglued in the combination of the strawberry party and the Box Hill scene. Command and control, “Government,” give way to unsatisfied sexuality and feelings that won’t be ignored.
If the newly married Mrs. Elton wishes to “explore” Box Hill, she may be unconsciously wishing to explore further sexuality or to induce her husband to do so. The very name of the place is mildly obscene. (“Box” and “Hill” are slang names for sexual parts of the female body.) The party brings its own refreshments, presumably the “pigeon-pies and cold-lamb” envisaged by Mrs. Elton—refections that comically suggest victims and dupes, lambs and pigeons (III, ch. 6). There is one sole reference to the presence of another party of “explorers,” a group in an Irish jaunting car. On a fine summer day numerous parties would most probably have shown up—some in definite search of decidedly intimate rendezvous in the green world. Austen’s Box Hill is homely and yet seems distant and wild, a theater for libidinous passions barely kept in check. This day—or two days—of midsummer madness can teach Emma that after all the course of true love never did run smooth. The thick, resistant dry box groves are a contrast to the warm, juicy strawberries of the day before. There are various flickering feelings. Mr. Elton is not yet quite “over” Emma, which pushes him to be more disagreeable than necessary to her and to the despised Harriet. Mrs. Elton’s jealousy at hearing Mr. Weston’s and Frank’s adulation of Emma is ungracious, but not causeless. Augusta Elton tries to take charge of Jane, who, sidelined, is constrained to conduct in code a breaking of her engagement. Frank, secretly hurt, is sulkily angry and wants reassurance of his manhood. Emma, unconsciously aware that Frank means nothing and is not really talking to her, savages the old maid whom she fears she may yet resemble, guardian of Emma’s unacknowledged rival. Even Mr. Knightley is jealous, misreading the scene as Frank’s success with Emma. Erotic desires are aroused and rebuffed. Hurt feelings and anger—not sexual delight—result. Moral rule gets pushed aside, and the endurance and kingly rule of the old Saxon towns is far below this brief height of uncanny exaltation.
Flirtation, insult, rejection, and momentary heartbreak are offered in this Temple of Venus. Like Puck, Venus has set the characters by the ears when they stray into her woods. The ambiguities of this Mount of Venus are felt throughout, if no direct allusion is made to its impolite and decidedly impure history. Even in Gilpin’s genteel aesthetic description, the language seems sensuously tactile and curiously sexual with its “shivering precipices” and “downy hillocks.”
As Frank and Jane Fairfax conduct their coded breakup on the summit of Box Hill, Frank remarks—overtly in reference to the Eltons who met at Bath—that it is ridiculous to marry “upon an acquaintance formed only in a public place!” (III, ch. 7). As Frank is well aware, he and Jane became engaged after a brief acquaintance at the seaside resort of Weymouth in Dorset at the mouth of the River Wey. (There is a delicate hint in Sense and Sensibility that Charlotte Palmer caught her husband when Mrs. Jennings took her to Weymouth, perhaps in the same journey that took the mother-daughter pair on their one visit to Brandon’s Dorsetshire estate, where they tacitly decided they might do better.) Weymouth in Emma is an invisible center of offstage action in the immediate past. It too has royal associations. In 1789 King George III came to Weymouth (where the duke of Gloucester had built a lodge) to celebrate and further his recovery from his illness—his first serious bout with the menacing porphyria. George III visited fourteen times between 1789 and 1805, greatly enhancing Weymouth’s reputation. Feltham calls it “the most fashionable of all the sea-bathing places,” reverently remarking: “The sea here is remarkably tranquil… . at all times of day, immersion in the briny flood is safe and delightful. The sands are as smooth as carpet.”70 In 1804, when Cassandra was at Weymouth, Jane joked about her sister’s impressions of the place:
Your account of Weymouth contains nothing which strikes me so forcibly as there being no Ice in the Town … Weymouth is altogether a shocking place I perceive, without recommendation of any kind, & worthy only of being frequented by the inhabitants of Gloucester. (14 September 1804; Letters, 92)71
In Emma, Mrs. Elton objects to the “shocking” lack of ice: “She was a little shocked … at the poor attempt at rout-cakes, and there being no ice in the Highbury card parties” (II, ch. 16). Mrs. Elton misses ice cream. The only reference to use of ice in the 1791 edition of Hannah Glasse’s popular The Art of Cookery is in the recipe “To make ice cream.”72 Ice cream is on Jane Austen’s mind as she looks forward to a dinner party: “I shall eat Ice & drink French wine” (30 June-1 July 1808; Letters, 139).
Frank Churchill was able to visit Weymouth where he met and courted Jane because his invalid aunt, the imperious Mrs. Churchill, fancied the resort would do her good. Mr. Dixon on a Weymouth sailing party saved Jane from unwanted “immersion in the briny flood,” stimulating Emma to imagine a love between these two. A girl’s falling in love with a man who saves her from the water in a sailing accident recalls Sheridan’s Julia Melville whom Faulkland rescued; the romance of the situation is counteracted by Lydia’s sensible comment when Julia remarks on the “obligation”: “Obligation!—Why a water-spaniel would have done as much! Well, I should never think of giving my heart to a man because he could swim!” (The Rivals, act 1, sc. 2).73 The light—but consistent—motif of “madness” in Emma is not lessened by the allusions to Weymouth, the very name of which carries a delicate reminiscent allusion to the madness of a king. That illness, no longer able to be hidden, brought on the Regency in 1811. All the contending monarchs in Emma are a little mad.
There are no waves or cooling waters anywhere in the Box Hill scene; all is desiccated. By contrast, the novel constantly refers to the sea. John Knightley took his family to “Southend on Sea,” a modest seaside resort, thriving on proximity to London. (Jane Austen’s brother Charles had taken his family there for a holiday.) Cromer (“lake of crows”), unreasonably recommended by Mr. Woodhouse, is a resort far to the east on the chilly eastern coast of Norfolk. We may feel required to look down on this new rage for visiting the seaside—and yet we share the longing. Emma says “I must beg you not to talk of the sea. It makes me envious and miserable;—I who have never seen it!” (I, ch. 12). Emma is tactfully trying to close down the dispute about resorts and make peace by mock enactment of frustration—but her art conceals some real wistfulness. Emma lives on a very short tether. For all her energy, she is allowed very little movement in space.
There is something sad about Emma’s never having seen the sea. We think better of Mr. Knightley as erotic partner rather than as mere mentor because on their honeymoon he gives Emma “a fortnight’s absence” from Hartfield, “in a tour to the sea-side” (III, ch. 19). Nobody else has offered her relief from looking after her father (except perhaps Mr. Perry), but Mr. Knightley appears to have noticed at last that she needs a respite. The imminent prospect of being himself shut in with Mr. Woodhouse has sharpened his perception, perhaps. It is hard on Mr. Knightley to leave Donwell; his going on honeymoon is a gift to Emma of himself. And both will benefit from the sea.
In these later Austen novels, the human relation to the ocean is treated in many complex ways—including its uses in trade and war. In personal encounters the sea offers a source of renewed energy. The walk of Henry and Fanny on the Portsmouth ramparts on a March day with the view of the ocean is salutary and beautiful: “The ever-varying hues of the sea now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound” (MP, III, ch. 11). The reader catches the erotic energy and momentarily begins to pull for Henry as the better partner for Fanny. But Fanny soon becomes tired—too readily tired for her age. In Persuasion and Sanditon major scenes take place by the sea. In Emma it becomes a separate place, not mere individual resorts but an idea—“the sea.” Something that must be experienced rather than discussed, “the sea” is an earthly “place” not exactly locatable. It is a place that becomes both energy and a feeling.
Imaginary Places in Emma
There is a real Highbury, beyond Islington, long swallowed up by Greater London. The geographical information given about Emma’s Highbury, “the large and populous village almost amounting to a town,” does not fit that real Highbury—or any other place. We are told it is sixteen miles from Brunswick Square in London, and near Cobham, Kingston, and Windsor. The suffix “bury” (like -burg) meaning a fortified place is common Saxon for a settlement. Like so many terms in Emma dividing easily into syllables—including, as Mr. Weston illustrates, the heroine’s first name—“High” + “bury” lends itself to wordplay, to “charade.” It is “high” in its pretensions, but also a place where one can feel buried. It might have been suggested by the childhood home of Burney’s Evelina; “Berry Hill” is also a place where the heroine is buried, unseen or stifled. In A Gossip’s Story Jane West anticipates Gaskell’s Cranford in the invention of her old-maid narrator “Prudentia Homespun” and the gossipy small town of Danbury. Her Danbury, where single women play important roles, seems an influence upon Highbury.
Highbury is the essence of the small town; “high” can be used both as “elevated” and “main” (“High Street” is England’s “Main Street”). Large enough to support a prosperous apothecary and lawyer, the settlement grows around Donwell Abbey as it has done from the Middle Ages. Highbury in Emma’s time is in danger of becoming almost a dormitory town. It isn’t quite rural and if it does not—to some extent—become “Suburbia,” it would remain dull and third rate. Standing outside Ford’s shop Emma can look at what activity the place affords:
Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;—Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole’s carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain. (II, ch. 9)
The view here gives Emma at least some glimpse of those so far below her on the social scale that she does not know their names but has to recognize their activities, just as they can see her dawdling outside Ford’s awaiting Harriet. The “high” in Highbury jokes with the propensity of some of its inhabitants to look vertically, not horizontally. Looking down on others provides a comic motif of Emma. That Box Hill offers a view from a height (fairly rare in pre-airplane days) connects the expedition with the theme of looking down; the experience makes some giddy and reckless.
In Juvenile Indiscretions (1786) Agnes Maria Bennett sets the action in East Sheen and Esher, presented as middle-class to lower-middle-class Surrey localities. Initial attention is largely focused on the practices and defects of boarding schools for both boys and girls. Dickens must surely have read this novel before writing Nicholas Nickleby.74 We first see the heroine, Clara Elton, at age fourteen residing at Mrs. Napper’s school (pretentious and poorly run). Clara is the soon-to-be-orphaned daughter of the reserved Mr. Elton, a merchant whose dealings with America have led to bankruptcy after the American Revolution. Clara Elton resembles both Harriet Smith (resident at a school) and Jane Fairfax (orphan facing destitution)—but in Emma the name “Elton” is used for a character the reverse of heroic. Fictional associations with Surrey, combined with Austen’ own brief experience of the Abbey School in Reading, may have prompted the centrality of Mrs. Goddard’s school—a contrast to Mrs. Napper’s school in being unpretentious, financially sound, and comfortable, if almost equally unglamorous.
We hear about a couple of estates that are not in or near Highbury—not in Surrey at all. “Balycraig,” family seat of Mr. Dixon in Ireland, is the new home of the former Miss Campbell. Miss Campbell’s Scottish identity might have made attaching to an English landed proprietor seem too difficult, although she had a dowry of twelve thousand pounds. “Baly”—more customarily nowadays “bally”—is a version of baille, a common English component of place names, meaning “homestead.” But in Ireland “bally” is more likely to be anglicized Irish, from bealach, a pass or passage, here combined with “craig” meaning “crag” or “rocky outcrop.” “Balycraig” would indicate a pass through the rocky rise or even a homestead on the rocks. In neither case does the name promise rich arable land. Mr. Dixon, we are told, is “rich and agreeable” if “certainly plain” in appearance (II, ch. 2, ch. 3). Who is the guarantor of his riches? The estate’s name does not promise wealth—though craggy Balycraig may indeed be picturesque. (Mr. Dixon has made attractive drawings of it, perhaps to advertise himself.) If Mr. Dixon were not rich—or not as rich as painted—then Miss Campbell’s twelve thousand pound dowry would indeed be welcome. (Compare Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent.) Irish bachelors—see O’Brien in The Watsons—have a reputation as fortune hunters.
The Churchills’ Enscombe is far off in Yorkshire. Combe is Old English, ultimately Celtic, a valley between hills running from the sea. “Enscombe” presumably means a place in such a valley. Either Austen nodded when she put such a place name in Yorkshire—for combe is rather a West Country term—or she indicates that the original owners of this estate (where Frank’s mother was born) had lived elsewhere and gave their northern home a reminiscent name. Frank’s fearsome aunt, Mrs. Churchill, is married to Frank’s uncle, “of a great Yorkshire family” (I, ch. 2), but that does not mean she was born or bred in the northern region. “She has taken it into her head that Enscombe is too cold for her,” Mr. Weston says contemptuously (II, ch. 18). Some people named “Braithwaite” (a Yorkshire name) are expected to visit Enscombe, but Mrs. Churchill doesn’t like them. She may never have liked Yorkshire or its people. Perhaps Mrs. Churchill married the wrong man and lived in the wrong place, with Frank the one bright spot in her life. Quite likely she did not realize that Frank saw her as a domineering and disagreeable, a tyrant like another “Mrs. Churchill,” Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. She thought he adored her as a mother. Mrs. Churchill escapes, coming south to die. A backstory that we will never hear: the mistaken marriage of Mrs. Churchill. Mr. Weston enjoys abusing Mrs. Churchill; Frank tries to defend her a little but won’t openly contradict his father. (Blaming situations on Mrs. Churchill is useful to both.) In Emma, Austen consistently makes us question assumptions and perspectives. Possibly Mrs. Churchill’s story may be read altogether differently—we have been charmed into accepting Mr. Weston’s interpretation. In a novel that plays so intelligently with perceptions, illusions, and blunders we cannot achieve absolute certainty.
Within Highbury, we know of “Randalls,” purchased by Mr. Weston; an old farm once belonging to a man named Randall, it may well be older than Hartfield. Its unpretentious name is realistic.75 Mr. Weston has enough money not only to purchase but to renovate the farmhouse. “Randalls” is now a consumer’s, not a producer’s, establishment—no longer a source of income, not a farm nor properly an “estate” at all, but a place where Mr. Francis Weston and his wife can live on the income he has gained through trade. Mr. Weston, working in a business in London and residing in Highbury, has lived the life of a modern suburban commuter.
“Hartfield,” home of Emma and Mr. Woodhouse, is a “charade” in Harriet Smith’s sense. The word divides easily into “hart” (stag) + “field,” an open space where deer are found. The name also puns on the other “heart”—“hearts” can play in this “field.” The White Hart, traditional emblem of Richard II, is a sign of innocence, peace, and purity; in Arthurian legends it symbolizes the start of quest. Jane Austen would have known the famous old White Hart pub on the main road outside Sevenoaks, Kent. In The Watsons, the White Hart inn is the scene of the ball. The legend of the White Hart is also intermixed with the story of Herne the Hunter, used in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. “Hartfield” has a made-up sound. Austen is recycling a fictional name. In Charlotte Smith’s Desmond (1792), “Hartfield” is the name of Desmond’s guardian’s small country estate; Mr. Bethel goes there to withdraw from a world that has been too much for him. Mr. Woodhouse’s Hartfield is a place of cozy retirement, but it is not rural. There are no fields, no deer. It is like a memory of the country. Not a traditional estate like Longbourn or Mansfield Park, Hartfield is a modern residence with some grounds, part of the almost-town: “Highbury … to which Hartfield, in spite of its separate lawn and shrubbery and name, really did belong” (I, ch. 1).
How can this be said to differ from the abode of Mr. Tomlinson “the Banker” in The Watsons, with his “newly erected House at the end of the Town with a Shrubbery & sweep” (The Watsons, Later Manuscripts, 276)? Mr. Tomlinson wants to consider his house “in the Country,” while Emma has to admit that hers is really in the village. We are told through Emma’s defensive inner process that Mr. Elton should have realized “that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family.” Yet even Emma has to admit that their lands are nothing much: “The landed property of Hartfield certainly was inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all the rest of Highbury belonged; but their fortune, from other sources, was such as to make them scarcely secondary to Donwell Abbey itself” (I, ch. 16). Hartfield allows Mr. Woodhouse sufficient space in which to take his daily walk outdoors for a quarter of an hour, but the grounds do not supply enough space for young and energetic Emma. There is a reference to Hartfield pork. Most people, not just the poor, seem to have been accustomed to raising pigs in a pen on their premises and did not mind the smell. (We remember Charles’s pigsty in “Jack and Alice”; Mr. and Mrs. Collins keep pigs, as did the Austens.) There is no other reference to produce from the land. The Woodhouse money is in stocks (“other sources”), the proceeds of trade. The Woodhouses are new capitalists, not antique gentry.
Mrs. Elton, once arrived in Highbury, boasts incessantly of her brother-in-law’s establishment, “Maple Grove” near Bristol. We never see Maple Grove, but we hear Mrs. Elton’s tireless references as she endeavors to advance her own status. Maple Grove is very modern. The house, freshly built with its grounds laid out with the modern desirable “shrubbery” and other ornaments, would hardly constitute an “estate” in the older acceptation of the word. But Mrs. Elton cannot be entirely wrong when she irritatingly and insistently compares Maple Grove to Hartfield. (Even Austen’s fools and knaves always speak some sense.) And the narrator seems in this instance to support Augusta Elton:
The very first subject after being seated was Maple Grove …—a comparison of Hartfield to Maple Grove. The grounds of Hartfield were small, but neat and pretty; and the house was modern and well-built. Mrs. Elton seemed most favourably impressed by the size of the room, the entrance … “Very like Maple Grove indeed!… . And it is not merely the house—the grounds, I assure you, as far as I could observe, are strikingly like. The laurels at Maple Grove are in the same profusion as here … just across the lawn; and I had a glimpse of a fine large tree, with a bench around it, which put me so exactly in mind!” (II, ch. 14)
This is almost Proustian in the way it captures a certain high bourgeois style and mode, as Marcel does in describing Elstir’s seaside villa.76 Mrs. Elton, trying to aggrandize her own position, does not see how greatly she irritates Emma. Emma Woodhouse harbors unconscious pretensions about her family and her home—including her grounds. (Hartsfield’s are only “neat and pretty”—how damning!) Augusta Elton challenges Emma’s pretensions, although all that Mrs. Elton is doing is to try to establish her own credentials. But Mrs. Elton is correct. Hartfield is like Maple Grove. Both are the establishments of members of the bourgeoisie who can afford them. Each offers a modern convenient house and pleasant, nonproductive ornamental grounds. Suburbia is arriving. There is some similarity even in the names “Hartfield” and “Maple Grove”—so like the inventions of developers and realtors.“Hartfield” begins to sound like the kind of name given by to houses with grounds when the wild creatures have long gone from the area. (Compare Billy Collins’s “Pheasant Ridge”).
This tame place belongs to Mr. Woodhouse. But there is the wilder “Hartfield,” in which an Emma, the picture of health like Emma Hart (Lady Hamilton) holds all the wildness of her beauty and energy and where she postures in her attitudes. This “hart-field” is more at home with Herne the Hunter; it is a place where the wild things are.
Donwell Abbey, like Northanger Abbey, is an (imagined) religious foundation taken over by Henry VIII during the Dissolution and given to private owners. This abbey had a large demesne, including many arable acres, a mill, and fish ponds. Members of the strawberry-gathering party after luncheon go to look at “the old Abbey fish-ponds” (III, ch. 6). The most famous abbey in Surrey was Chertsey Abbey, a Cistercian abbey whose church was also the burial place of kings—more kings! Donwell seems to be partly based on Chertsey. One of the remarkable things about Chertsey was that it had an engineered river, its course designed during the Middle Ages to power the water mill. In Austen’s novel, Abbey-Mill Farm is named after the abbey’s water mill, a strong medieval survivor, still working. The “river making a close and handsome curve around it” could have been designed in medieval times for that purpose (III, ch. 6). Emma in a little rhapsody of patriotism (which we should partly discount) rejoices in language borrowed partly from Gilpin: “It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive” (III, ch. 6). The repetition of “sweet” is one element making the rhapsody suspect. Emma has seen nothing but England, and but little of that.
One notable element of the green English scene that Gilpin highly prizes is not to be found here—a ruined abbey. Donwell Abbey and its mill are still functional. They do not adorn the landscape with picturesque broken stones. The disapproval of the whole project of transforming a monastery into a self-serving showcase of comfort and display—disapproval so notable in Northanger Abbey—is absent in the presentation of Donwell Abbey. The name seems almost as overtly allegorical as names in Piers Plowman. Mr. Knightley has “done well” not only in a material but also in a moral sense. Langham, “long settlement”—“long home” is a hamlet near Donwell, evidently within the Abbey lands. Mr. Knightley speaks of “moving the path to Langham, of turning it more to the right that it may not cut through the home meadows” (I, ch. 12). He would have the power to change the paths of the laborers who live in this Saxon named settlement (which probably predates the abbey itself), but he would not break ancient rights of passage and has no will to cause “inconvenience to the Highbury people.” Donwell, a product of the dispossession, exists in a continuum with the past.
This most important estate in the area, source of jobs and crops, Donwell Abbey is, strictly speaking, not in Highbury (we are told), but in the adjoining parish. The two parishes must be amalgamated, however, for Mr. Knightley has a great deal to do in parish meetings—he appears to be a warden—and Mrs. Elton boasts of her husband’s working with him, though she says this is “the most troublesome parish that ever was,” adding, “We never heard of such things at Maple Grove.”
“Your parish there was small,” said Jane.
“Upon my word, my dear, I do not know, for I never heard the subject talked of.”
“But it is proved by the smallness of the school, which I have heard you speak of, as under the patronage of your sister and Mrs. Bragge; the only school, and not more than five-and-twenty children.” (III, ch. 16)
This exchange demonstrates that Jane Fairfax no longer feels obliged to be perfectly meek to Mrs. Elton. Her display of logic amazes that lady: “What a thinking brain you have!” Pursuing Jane’s capacity for deduction, we recognize that Highbury has a number of children and that the population and the church congregation show no signs of dwindling—a fact that would be pleasing to Miss Bates but not to the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus. Highbury, in defiance of Malthusianism, is truly a “large and populous village” (I, ch. 1, italics added). This prosperous area will produce more laborers, and more poor people, and there will be real work for any clergyman worth his salt.
Even if it still represents the takeover, Donwell Abbey has not wholly yielded to privatization. There is a sense of community obligation. Food production is immensely important. Indeed, from one angle Emma can be seen as a sustained riposte to Malthus, who had so alarmed Britain and the world with his gloomy predictions in his Essay concerning Population. Thomas Malthus was born in Surrey in 1766 and later served as a curate near Albury—which might have affected Austen’s “Highbury.” Malthus was still in the news, revising his influential Essay and publishing pamphlets such as The Present High Price of Provisions (1800). His most recent pamphlets (1814; 1815) defended the “Corn Laws” banning importation of grain into England. Ostensibly Christian, Malthus advocated the sad necessity of denying food to the poor. Charity extended to keep people from dying constituted a danger to the economy. Malthusian ideas stimulated Darwin to think of natural selection, supported Herbert Spencer’s speculations on the survival of the fittest, and drove Engels and Karl Marx to antagonistic analytical response.
Austen engages in no overt philosophical commentary or argument as to whether it is right or inevitable to let the poor starve and die. But her Surrey novel is a quiet sustained retort to the Surrey theorist. A child is conceived and born during the course of the narrative—sex and procreation. Food abounds in this novel—pork, boiled eggs, Stilton and Wiltshire cheese, baked apples, sweetbreads and asparagus, apple tart, arrowroot, cake, wine. In Highbury people are constantly engaged in feeding each other. Not only do Highbury people give dinner parties, but they also feed those who are below them in status or income. Even Emma’s slightly ridiculous act as Lady Bountiful visiting a poor family and ordering soup for them has its good side. The poor get food and are taught to read in the church school. If people don’t get food, they will steal it—as somebody steals Mrs. Weston’s “turkies.” “Other poultry-yards in the neighbourhood also suffered.—Pilfering was housebreaking to Mr. Woodhouse’s fears” (Emma, III, ch. 19). The narrative ridicules Mr. Woodhouse’s definition, even though the thieves indeed broke into an enclosure. Austen here indirectly casts ridicule on the “Alton Association,” wealthy landowners offering a reward of two guineas for information regarding stealing of poultry from enclosed ground—precisely what has occurred in the “poultry-yards” of Highbury. The Association zealously seeks to punish hungry persons who take turnips from the fields. Early in Persuasion we meet a similar implicit critique of the principles of the Alton Association. Mr. Shepherd recalls Wentworth’s brother, the curate, as settling amicably, without legal remedy or reprisal for the offense, a theft of apples from his walled orchard. “Very odd indeed!” (Persuasion, I, ch. 3).
Food in Emma moves down the social scale—the Perry children get Mrs. Weston’s wedding cake, Mr. Knightley’s apples feed the Bates family. But people “lower” on the scale can also be charitable to those technically “above” them, as the wife of the baker kindly attends to the needs of the Bates family. The conversation between Miss Bates and Mr. Elton regarding the former clerk who now needs parish care is not at all faultfinding or tax defensive regarding either the old man requiring parish relief or his son, hostler at the inn. The sympathetic tone emanates from Miss Bates: “Poor old man, he is bed-ridden, and very poorly with the rheumatic gout in his joints—I must go and see him to-day” (Emma, III, ch. 8). Mr. Elton has been good to the family of his predecessor, allowing deaf old Mrs. Bates and her daughter to occupy the Vicarage pew. He is rewarded in acquiring Miss Bates as a sort of unpaid curate. She knows all about what goes on in the parish. We are accustomed to despising or ridiculing Mr. Elton, because he is conceited and made a great blunder. But as a working vicar Elton is the best of Austen’s clergyman—and he has not been shooed into position by his kinship to the landowner.77
The best response to the problem proposed by Malthus is to raise food for England. This solution is quietly endorsed throughout the novel. Donwell is a working estate, with an unknown number of farmer tenants. Robert Martin is one of these tenants, and the flourishing condition of Abbey-Mill Farm speaks well for Mr. Martin’s work and for Donwell Abbey’s general health and productivity. Robert Martin is the other knight and noble soul upholding Highbury in balance with George Knightley. Mr. Knightley, unlike John Dashwood and Mr. Rushworth (or Mr. Bennet), is fully engaged in food production. No gentleman of leisure, not given to the sports of chasing or killing things, he is deeply concerned in “the plan of a drain, the change of a fence, the felling of a tree, and the destination of every acre for wheat, turnips, or spring corn” (I, ch. 12). George Knightley is a farmer and dresses like one, walking in “thick leather gaiters” (II, ch. 15). Generous to those around him, giving his last apples to the Bateses, this “Farmer George” spends little on himself. He turns his profits largely back into the land and into new, improved farming methods. Emma teases him about his interest in “shows of cattle, or new drills” or “the dimensions of some famous ox” (III, ch. 18). Emma’s money, both dowry and inheritance—almost entirely liquid capital—is going to be plowed back into the Donwell Abbey estate.
The work on the land is the battle of life against death. And death is always waiting. Death plays a greater role in Austen’s novels than we are commonly aware of. Emma’s mother has died; Frank’s mother died. Both of Jane Fairfax’s parents died—one from warfare, the other from what is obviously tuberculosis. Jane has inherited the consumptive disease her closest relatives fear, hence the fuss (ridiculous to readers since antibiotics arrived) over Jane’s colds or wet feet. Mr. Woodhouse is slowly dying. Emma has suppressed her fears of the future and allows herself to face the prospect fully only after Mr. Knightley has proposed: “Such a partner in all those duties and cares to which time must be giving an increase of melancholy!” (III, ch. 15). Austen told some of her relatives that Mr. Woodhouse died two years after Emma’s marriage and that Jane Fairfax “survived her elevation only nine or ten years.” The Austen-Leighs add, “Whether the John Knightleys afterwards settled at Hartfield, and whether Frank Churchill married again, may be legitimate subjects of speculation.”78 It is hard to believe that having spent all those years and much energy on a career as a barrister, John would care to be mewed up in Hartfield. As for Frank—who cares? The striking thing is that Jane Fairfax, like Mr. Woodhouse, is slowly dying, all the time, though we don’t know it. We refuse to know it—like Frank, who sees in his beloved’s pallor only the refinement of a beautiful and valuable object. But there is much to be done before we die. Everybody is a bit mad and yet quite sane. Against the shadow of death we fight back with communal feeling. There are supplies of food and care—against the Malthusian grain (or Malthusian meanness with grain). Emma herself joins—as it were—the Malthus party only once: her vicious attack upon Miss Bates tacitly proclaiming that the rich and powerful need not support the poor and powerless and that some people should not exist. But that is only for a moment. At the end the game of thrones turns at least partly into a generous exchange. Eros is not frustrated. Queen Emma rules—if not as she had thought. The old Saxon wars and Tudor dangers are comically thwarted. We can hope. Everyone is saved, England is saved, and Malthus is wrong.
Names and Places in Persuasion: Somerset, Dorset, and the Rebellious Trail of the West Country
Real Places in Persuasion
Persuasion, like Emma, uses one main county—Somersetshire—as its central location. Anne Elliot is another West Country heroine, native, like Catharine Percival and Catherine Morland. Unlike Emma, this heroine constantly moves about. Yet, in going from her father’s Kellynch Hall to her sister’s home at Uppercross (three miles away) and then to Bath, she remains in her native county. The visit to Lyme takes her into Dorset—somewhere new, excitingly close to the sea.
Taunton (“settlement on the River Tone”), Somerset’s county seat, is the most important town near Kellynch and Uppercross. Since the fourteenth century, law courts met in county seats to choose administrative committees and to conduct trials. Capital cases were saved for the Assizes or periodic “sittings” of visiting judges. Against this background of law, Kellynch is let. Mr. Shepherd, Sir Walter’s lawyer and agent, is “attending the quarter session at Taunton” when he meets with Admiral Croft to negotiate the rental of Kellynch (I, ch. 3). This must be the Midsummer session, as the Crofts take possession at Michaelmas. Croft says, “I thought we should come to a deal my dear, in spite of what they told us at Taunton”; opinions of Sir Walter have reached that far.
Prosperous Taunton, a center of the wool trade, had a turbulent history. Site of important battles in the Wars of the Roses, it also participated in the “Cornish uprising” of 1497, supporting the claim of Perkin Warbeck. During the Civil War, Taunton was a Parliament stronghold, successful against fierce Royalist attack owing to the leadership of the Puritan defender Robert Blake, who later became chief admiral and reorganized the navy. Admiral Blake (whose surname is given to the amiable ten-year-old Charles Blake encountered at the ball in The Watsons) is a model of organization and courage. Nelson said he didn’t reckon himself the equal of Blake. Taunton supported Monmouth, illegitimate son of Charles II who tried to take the throne from James II. For its “treason” Taunton was the scene of some of the worst retributive sentences against the common people during the Bloody Assizes. Judge Jeffreys’s mockery of those he sentenced adds a dark pun to the “taunt” in Taunton.
Taunton had ugly associations for Austens and Leighs. Jane’s aunt, Mrs. James Leigh-Perrot, had been tried at the Assizes in March 1800 for felony. Her alleged crime: theft of valuable lace from a Bath shop. Had Jane Leigh-Perrot been convicted of this capital charge, she would have been transported to Australia. Her long imprisonment awaiting trial meant months of anxiety, and the trial itself surely left scarring memories. That trial attracted some two thousand spectators; “the fashionable Lady’s Magazine had a reporter and an artist on hand.”79 Jane Leigh-Perrot’s very public ordeal ended in deliverance, and so ultimately does the ordeal of Austen’s inwardly stressed heroine.
In contrast to the royalist references in Emma, which evoke grandeur and rightful rule, geographical and historical references in Persuasion are reminders of insurgency and upheaval. Rebellion runs under this text. Settings recall protest and fighting, war and execution. As noted earlier, Monmouth’s mistress, Henrietta Wentworth, is recalled within Austen’s text in the presence of a “Henrietta” and a Wentworth. Henrietta Wentworth (1660-86), daughter of the fifth Baron Wentworth, in her teens became mistress of the young James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, despite her family’s efforts to separate them. Monmouth, who had been forcibly married off at age fourteen, protested he had no real marriage; he and Henrietta thought of themselves as husband and wife. Henrietta followed him into exile in Holland and was instrumental in raising money for his invasion through sale of her jewels and the credit for personal wealth. Matters went very badly; the duke was defeated, swiftly tried, and beheaded in 1685. “On the scaffold after the rebellion’s defeat Monmouth renewed his pledges of devotion to Henrietta” (ODNB). She did not long survive him, dying the following year. The ill-fated young duke, whose program promised freedom of religion to Catholics and Protestants, is the Stuart claimant whom the young Jane Austen in her annotation of Goldsmith’s History called “Sweet Man!”
The novel’s surrounding atmosphere, a sort of spiritual setting, is war—as Mary Favret pointed out. Naval warfare is the center of Austen’s war. Names of ports abound; in Plymouth, Wentworth found timely refuge for the battered Asp and his prize, and from Plymouth in a later year he sped to Portsmouth to break the news of Fanny Harville’s death to Benwick “and never left the poor fellow for a week” (Persuasion, ch. 8, ch. 12). Recent times brought on death, battles, and the chance of Captain Wentworth going to the bottom without Anne’s even knowing of it. The opportunity of peacetime (which may threaten wartime’s social bonds) is tinged with anxiety. Unprecedented physical injury enters Austen’s narrative. What now? Change is certain—but what sort of change? Letting Kellynch (a break with the past) is possible because of the new treacherous peace of 1814.
Many characters still live mentally in the war, insensibly separated from nonparticipants like the Elliot males who (unlike Musgroves) are untouched by danger or loss. But the naval officers are bound by positive emotional bonds. In this novel Austen deals most fully with love—not just erotic love, but a variety of loves. Among these, men’s love for men rates very high. Counteracting war’s destruction, the men inhabit an invisible moving tent of affections. They move rapidly toward each other, reaching through space in comfort and support. The entire novel endorses the male capacity to love, underwriting Harville’s memorable claims in the important dialogue with Anne at the White Hart and supporting our idea of Wentworth’s capacity to love Anne Elliot, since he loves Benwick and Harville with such practical and unwavering loyalty. In Mansfield Park Fanny loathed the poverty of the house at Portsmouth. Here the Harville’s poor little rented house with its battered furniture is seen longingly by Anne as a haven of the affections, an enviable capital of the good community. “‘These would have been all my friends,’ was her thought; and she had to struggle against a great tendency to lowness” (Persuasion, I, ch. 11).
Names of ships no longer have the dreamy poetry of ship names in Mansfield Park, suited to Fanny’s dreams and William’s hopes. The names of vessels in Persuasion are hard and dangerous: Asp, Grappler, Laconia (I, ch. 8; ch. 12). That Wentworth captained the Laconia (true Greek name for “Sparta”) indicates the Spartan hardiness beneath his geniality. As well as love, there is in this novel an undercurrent of rage on many sides—in Anne and Wentworth not least. Each resents the others’ stance. Land workers are still remembered in this story, but concern for them is subordinated to—or merged with—awareness of the Government’s callousness toward its fighting men. Wentworth in a brief satiric outburst articulates his resentment:
“The admiralty … entertain themselves now and then, with sending a few hundred men to sea, in a ship not fit to be employed. But … among the thousand that may just as well go to the bottom as not, it is impossible for them to distinguish the very set who may be least missed.” (ch. 8)
In the eyes of the Admiralty, sailors (including those of Wentworth’s socioeconomic class) are but poor working men, interchangeable, even disposable. A serene ruling-class callousness regarding “the thousand that may just as well go to the bottom as not” becomes familiar to us in the pronouncements of sedentary Sir Walter Elliot, so unlike Sir Walter Raleigh. Anne is sharing that callousness in her view of Dick Musgrove. Elliotishness infects the nation.
Bath, a peacetime center, is the novel’s setting through the second volume. Anne never liked this city, associating it with her mother’s death, school, and the loss of Wentworth. It rains in Catherine Morland’s Bath—but soon clears up. The rain falls more steadily on Anne Elliot’s Bath. When the sun shines, the buildings of white stone hurt the eyes—“the white glare of Bath.” Jocelyn Harris has described in detail the Bath of Anne’s time—and the time of Austen’s residency in the first years of the new century.80 The town was increasingly smoggy and crowded, its population swollen (so we feel in the novel) by the advent of pensioned veterans and the war wounded. Previous overbuilding combined with depression and wartime uncertainty meant empty buildings, or low-rent housing often jerry-built, suggesting recollections of infectious fevers. The democratic projects that had looked so promising in the earlier period had been largely forgotten or overturned by the fashionable, who now set their own rules and did not attend mixed assemblies, of the kind so useful to Catherine Morland. Anne resents the stupidity of private parties to which she is confined.
Austen lets us know in exactly what part of the city everyone—or nearly everyone—has lodgings. As Harris emphasizes, the city is hierarchical. The best people live at the top of the hills, and the poorer sort down in the flat, near the inns and the stables. Unlike Catherine Morland, who has no contact with anyone in ill health (Mr. Allen’s ailment being but a happy excuse), Anne has to visit an old friend who is poor and crippled, temporarily bedridden. Mrs. Smith has lodgings in Westgate Buildings, in the bottom of the town, noisy from the traffic of the Old Bridge. This lodging was suggested to the Austens: “Miss Lyford … gave my mother such an account of the houses in Westgate Buildings, where Mrs. Lyford lodged four years ago, as made her think of a situation there with great pleasure.” Jane knows that Cassandra would oppose this idea, but happily their father “has now ceased to think of it entirely” (14-16 January 1801; Letters, 73). Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret take a house in Laura Place, on the other side of the Avon, away from the worst nuisances of horses, manure, garbage, barges, prostitutes, and street sellers—a total contrast to Mrs. Smith’s humble pair of rooms. Laura Place, named after Sir William Pultney’s daughter, was a high-class development of the 1790s. Mr. Austen (a little unrealistically) wished to live there: “At present the Environs of Laura-place seem to be his choice … he grows quite ambitious” (14-16 January 1801; Letters, 73). On first arrival the Austen family stayed with Aunt and Uncle Perrot in Paragon Buildings, which looked up toward Camden Place.
Bath has its own Bond Street, where Sir Walter “counted eighty-seven women go by … without there being a tolerable face among them.” He does not spare his own sex: “As for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of!” (Persuasion, II, ch. 3). Feltham finds the sight of sick people as troubling as the tombs: “Amidst all the gaiety of Bath,” he is distressed by “the sight of so many miserable victims of disease as here present themselves.”81 Sir Walter doesn’t admit—or care—whether people he sees are pitiably sick or wounded; they are just inferior. He does not care if they avoid death as long as he does. Sir Walter can look down on them—literally, for he lives in Camden Place, on Beacon Hill, at or near the very top of Bath. Philip Thicknesse (obsessed with “Putrefaction”) recommends the heights of Bath: “It is said … that old Age itself is nothing more than a tendency to Putrefaction; if this be true, Men in Years should prefer a high situation for their Dwelling.”82 Sir Walter’s “lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence” would suit not only the baronet’s inordinate sense of superiority but also his lust for self-preservation—his immortality project (II, ch. 3). Lady Russell resides only somewhat below him, on Rivers Street, and the Crofts are further down, at a respectable address in Gay Street. Mr. Elliot’s Bath address remains curiously unascertained. (Was he lodging with a mistress?)
As Jocelyn Harris points out, Camden Place, purpose-built terrace overlooking the Avon, could not be completed owing to landslips. Sir Walter’s haughty new home on unstable ground suits him “as an isolated and crumbling relic of the aristocracy.”83 It is, however, a good address. Ironically, it reiterates the name of the author of Britannia whose patriotism opposes Sir Walter’s attitudes in every respect. The connection is not accidental. Camden Place, Bath, is named after the estate of the first Earl Camden, Lord Chancellor, whose “Camden Place” in Kent near Bromley occupied land formerly owned by the Elizabethan historian. Here we connect with someone encountered before. Charles Pratt—successful prosecutor of Earl Ferrers, the jurist who turned every Englishman’s home into his castle—became Lord Chancellor and the first Earl Camden. Charles Pratt as Baron Camden and then Earl Camden remained a staunch supporter of liberty, equality, and rights; he argued against imprisoning Wilkes and spoke favorably of Americans in their argument against the Crown (ODNB). London’s Camden Town, of which he was one of the developers, is named after him. For different reasons every town called “Camden” in North America is named for Pratt’s sake, ultimately in acknowledgment of his principles. A grandiose project at the top of Bath celebrates a champion of the underdog; a lurking Pratt challenges the upper reaches of snobbish Bath. Patriotism and liberty strain against Elliot snobberies. Modest rebellion or independence slides in even under the posh address of the stagnant father. The name of the first Camden, defender of the vanished monasteries, the name borrowed by the defender of liberty, presides over Bath from a height.
This novel presents an unusually effective setting antipathetic to the heroine; the heroine becomes happier in a place with which she is not at all in harmony. There are no green, growing things around; everything is man-made. Vegetation returns only when Wentworth and Anne have been reunited; they exchange confidences at Elizabeth’s party while pretending to admire “a fine display of green-house plants” forced and partly artificial (II, ch. 11). Whatever its shortcomings of deception, dirt, and artificiality—and its barely concealed intimacy with death and physical disaster—Bath allows meeting and crossing of paths, reunions and unions.
Aside from dislikable Bath, Persuasion’s most important scenes in a real setting take place in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Originally named after the river Lim (a Celtic word for stream), Lyme, a port long before the Normans arrived, was transformed into “Lyme Regis” (“of the King”) when given a charter by King Edward I in 1284. The often restored “Cobb,” the long breakwater, predates the fourteenth century.84 It provides an attractive, even somewhat romantic, vista (fig. 24). Here in this little bay on 11 June 1685 the Duke of Monmouth arrived with a small number of ships for his ill-fated attempt on the crown. He received strong support in the immediate area during his brief disastrous bid for power. Lyme Regis, watery site of the failed invasion, remains an attractive—and small—seaside town. One can still see the landscape and buildings that Austen describes. Every visitor walks on the Cobb. The coasts and cliffs and rock falls that Anne Elliot and her author enjoy are still present, but science has transformed our vision of the coast, now known as “the Jurassic Coast.” In Austen’s own day, a girl named Mary Anning (1799-1847) was working with her brother finding fossils to sell to tourists. Mary’s father the cabinetmaker is mentioned by Jane Austen, who did not agree with his estimate for replacement of a lid (14 September 1804; Letters, 94). Austen would have seen the fossils that Richard Anning exhibited outside his premises. Mary Anning, who has steadily gained respect as a scientific predecessor of Darwin, is credited with finding the first Ichthyosaurus (which got its name in 1817).85 The museum at Lyme Regis is currently divided between two women: Jane Austen and Mary Anning (fig. 25).
24. Copplestone Warre Bampfylde, The Harbor and the Cobb, Lyme Regis, Dorset, by Moonlight (before 1791). Photograph: Bridgeman Art Library.
Geological observation enters Austen’s descriptions of Lyme: “Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks … many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state.” (I, ch. 11). Part of the attraction of that coast is its changeability, a creative instability beyond the rhythmic temporal passing of crops and seasons. Austen in Persuasion begins to exhibit a surprising sense of geological time, characteristic of Victorian poets and novelists in the future. In Persuasion Austen offers different processes happening at different rates at the same time: the tempo of reverie and human memory, the human memory that includes history over several hundred years, the personal memory of eight years ago, the ineluctable aging, the pain or inspiration of the hour, the shock of a minute, the slow rhythms of the earth and those who work the land, the cycles and cataclysms of the earth apart from man’s designs… . Here indeed is innovation. This represents a fresh departure in Austen’s lively cultivation of anachronism, whereby one “time” overlaps, shuffles into, or bleeds through others.
25. B. J. Donne, Painting of Mary Anning made after her death at the Geological Society (1847). Photograph: © Natural History Museum, London.
Louisa Musgrove’s fall happens in an instant on one particular bright morning. Monmouth set foot on this shore on one particular day, and his armies marched along the Cobb. Monmouth’s fall was rapid and distressing. Allusions to Taunton and Crewkerne as well as the announced distance (seventeen miles) from Uppercross to Lyme suffice to let us see that the armies of Monmouth and King James II must have moved near or even across the lands of Kellynch and Uppercross in 1685. This novel’s imaginary estates and settlements can scarcely be any great distance from the historical battlefield site of Sedgemoor. Gilpin’s description of the area connects fields and hedgerows with the site of Monmouth’s battle:
The whole country, I believe, is a scene of cultivation, and the woods little more, in fact, than hedge-rows. But one row succeeding another … the whole appears, in the distance, as one vast bed of foliage.
On the left we had the same kind of country… . Among the savannahs on this side, shoot the extensive plains of Sedgmore [sic], which stretch far and wide before the eye. Here the unfortunate Monmouth tried his cause with his uncle James; and all the country was afterwards the scene of those acts of brutality, which Kirk and Jefferies committed, and which are still remembered with horror and detestation.86
If we look at the map of the movements of Monmouth we can see that Anne’s routes follow his fairly closely—although she does not begin at Lyme. The novel itself seems to be about rebellion, about questioning hierarchy and finding a new way out, a new way to live. Its historical geography—marked by pain and failure—consistently supports this daunting endeavor.
Imaginary Places in Persuasion
Kellynch Hall, which plays a paradoxically important part in the story because it is abandoned, is obviously a grand estate. The name is not Norman and at first glance does not seem Saxon. Janine Barchas plausibly suggests that it was named with the real estate of “Redlynch” in mind. Redlynch in Somerset, three miles from the village of Charlton-Musgrove was the site of a grandiose property belonging to the great Whig family of Fox. This gigantic showplace was first put up for auction in 1797, and its household items were auctioned in 1801.87 “Redlynch” was once Redlisc (hreod [reed] + lisc), “reedy marsh.” Austen substitutes the harsh and unfamiliar first syllable “kell.” In Irish names, Kill or sometimes kell means “church” or “churches.” But Old English or Norman Kell comes from kelda, Old Norse for “spring,” found in many Irish and some English place names (e.g., Kellet, Lancashire). Camden explained these linguistic elements.88 “Kellynch” would be a marshy place with a spring or springs. (The word might add an extra pun to finding “a second spring”). The Old Norse element estranges the name; it sounds like “kill”—killing by inches. The name might have been brought here by a family originating further north than Cheshire, where the Elliots’ official story begins according to Sir Walter’s “favourite volume,” the Baronetage (I, ch. 1). The Elliot estate has been modernized, with the usual shrubbery and flower gardens; it has space for game birds and shooting. We know there are fields and pastures, as the Crofts later admire them, but the estate seems to be regarded by its owner as an ornamental and comfortable set of social signals, not as a center of production.
“Monkford” is apparently the name of the village where the clergyman or curate of Kellynch’s parish resided; Frederick Wentworth’s older brother Edward was curate of “Monkford” when Frederick visited him in 1806. The name tells us that there was once a monastery or abbey near Kellynch; the monks were presumably the original cultivators of the land. This imaginary name is modeled on real ones such as “Monkleigh” (Devon) and “Monksilver” (Somerset). At “Monk-ford” the monks (and other travelers) crossed a stream. Nobody mentions the ruins of an abbey, but there must have been one—yet another ghostly abbey, just the faintest whisper of ruins somewhere, perhaps lying under the heavy body of Kellynch.
Kellynch Lodge is the rented home of Lady Russell, the tenant of Sir Walter, her “attentive landlord.” A “lodge” is the home of a gatekeeper of a great house or manor, placed at the entrance. A lodge keeper is supposed to keep watch over comings and goings. Sir Walter has already been driven to economize on a lodge keeper. Lady Russell tries to make a good substitute, but she cannot supervise his affairs.
Uppercross realistically refers to a crossroads, and a boundary marker, a stone cross, or stone with a cross marked on it, dating to the Middle Ages. It is here that Anne begins her superior ordeal (“upper” + “cross”)—meaningful affliction that will lead to a happy issue. “Uppercross” seems a normal local term. That there is no separate grand name for the manor house is, paradoxically, a mark of its genuine antiquity. Uppercross village until recently was “completely in the old English style,” the only two gentry houses “the mansion of the ‘squire … substantial and unmodernized” and the parsonage “with a vine and a pear-tree trained round its casements.” Charles upon his marriage has embarked on the improvement of a farmhouse elevated into a “cottage.” Fashion impacts Uppercross Cottage with “its viranda [sic], French windows and other prettinesses” (I, ch. 5). The term “prettinesses” combines amusement with mild disparagement. Such adornments cannot compete in attractiveness with the twining vine and pear tree just mentioned. But allowance is made for change as well as continuity, even while we note the unpretentious original nature of the Great House. The old must be admitted into a novel that ultimately desires change in a changing world.
One of the outstanding natural descriptions in Austen’s work occurs in Persuasion, in the sequence of the November walk. The walk from Uppercross to Winthrop is undertaken for practical reasons; Louisa Musgrove designs it, determined that Henrietta shall make up with Charles Hayter of Winthrop and thus leave Captain Wentworth for Louisa herself—if she can get him. A pleasant pastime is actually a calculated move. The Nature we are in is not wild but deeply inhabited, signaling layers of human use. On their way back from Winthrop, the party walk up a long strip of meadowland—the shape of a medieval field. Charles Musgrove whacks with his stick at nettles—another symptom of long human occupation. On the walk, Charles chases a weasel (mustela), an enemy to mice, but itself traditionally fought as a threat to grain.
Mary Musgrove (née Elliot) with customary Elliot haughtiness looks down upon her husband’s family, disdaining their poorer and more rustic cousins. She wishes neither sister-in-law to connect her further to this inferior family, although Charles Musgrove sensibly argues for the value of cousin Charles Hayter:
“Please to remember, that he is the eldest son; whenever my uncle dies, he steps into a very pretty property. The estate at Winthrop is not less than two hundred and fifty acres, besides the farm near Taunton, which is some of the best land in the country … whenever Winthrop comes into his hands, he will make a different sort of place of it … and with that property, he will never be a contemptible man. Good, freehold property.” (I, ch. 9)
The path to Winthrop goes across the fields; the party seem to be walking on Musgrove lands and then on Winthrop property. Anne is walking not through “freehold property” but through a poetic landscape. She tries to escape into her own mind. The exchanges between Louisa and Wentworth pierce through and displace the “sweet scenes of autumn … unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with … the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory” (I, ch. 10). Charlotte Smith’s “tender sonnets” indeed describe youth, hope, love, and spring—all gone:
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring.
Ah! Why has happiness no second spring?89
Austen picks up Smith’s phrase. Not many weeks later Anne will begin to feel tugs of hope “that she was to be blessed with a second spring of youth and beauty” (II, ch. 2)
Yet the landscape through which the party walk to Winthrop, no blank but scene of hopeful work, counteracts “poetical despondence”:
After another half mile of gradual ascent through large enclosures, where the ploughs at work, and the fresh-made path spoke the farmer, counteracting the sweets of poetical despondence, and meaning to have spring again, they gained the summit of the most considerable hill, which parted Uppercross and Winthrop, and soon commanded a full view of the latter… . Winthrop, without beauty and without dignity, was stretched before them; an indifferent house, standing low, and hemmed in by the barns and buildings of a farm-yard. (Persuasion, I, ch. 10)
The food-bearing earth and the uncompromising thisness of the farm are reassuring, gifts of highest value. Both Anne and her sister are deflected from this truth, Anne by sorrow and Mary by pride. Mary haughtily refuses to enter the Hayters’ low dwelling; Anne finds her a seat “on a dry sunny bank, under the hedge-row.” Anne soon hears “Captain Wentworth and Louisa in the hedge-row, behind her, as if making their way back, along the rough, wild sort of channel, down the centre” (I, ch. 10).
The messages that we are getting from Jane Austen’s landscape are contradictions of Mary’s standards. What we are looking at—looking down on—is a very old settlement. Winthrop bears out what is said contemptuously in Sanditon by the modernizing Mr. Parker: “Our Ancestors, you know, always built in a hole” (ch. 4, Later Manuscripts, 427). In dignity of age, Winthrop can vie with any estate in Austen’s oeuvre. A humble messuage, it has been here since early Saxon times—possibly long before. The name is Anglo-Saxon, from Old English “Win-thorpe,” meaning “outlying farmstead of a man named Win” or Wina (Victory). “Winthrop” convincingly indicates a settlement and farm predating the Conquest; a series of houses and outbuildings will have occupied this space. This Anglo-Saxon farm has no trace of a chase or park devoted to killing game; all is planting and husbandry. The farmyard, the current assemblage of “barns and buildings,” low roofed and modest—contemptible in Mary Musgrove’s eyes—looks like a seventeenth-century farmstead on a medieval basis. The hedgerow marking a boundary is also old—very old. It is the thick medieval hedgerow with the path down the center, like the hedgerows near Steventon parsonage. Winthrop’s great hedgerow contains a variety of vegetation, including hazel trees, an excuse for Louisa to draw Captain Wentworth away “to try for a gleaning of nuts in an adjoining hedge-row.” The hazel trees are the material source of Wentworth’s parable of the nut. Anne is protected by “a bush of low rambling holly”—a plant encouraged as winter feed for cattle by farmers and husbandmen since medieval times.
The old boundary-marking stone that gives Uppercross its name likely arrived some centuries after the foundation of Winthrop. Unpretending Winthrop is no mere antique curio, or memorial, or poetic theme—and never a showplace. It has been “good freehold property” for a long while. Charles Musgrove is justifiably annoyed at his wife’s devaluing it—but what better could be expected from one reared in ostentatious Kellynch? The Hayter family of Winthrop is probably much older than the migrating Elliots, who are really Scots removed by some generations from their geographic origin. The name “Hayter” (“dweller by a hedge”) turns up in England from the thirteenth century onward. It is a most suitable name for the family connected with the novel’s important hedgerow, itself an installation of centuries’ endurance. Place becomes Time. Winthrop tells us that England has endured and will endure, will be victorious. If we look into Austen’s novels for a place that is the opposite of Winthrop, we have two choices, I think—Maple Grove (with no roots) and Mansfield Park (all “dignity,” caught in Norman dominance and ruthless imparking).
Place names real and imaginary in Persuasion combine to remind us of stress and conflict—even bloodshed—combined with hope for renewal through perseverance and the operation of natural forces. But despite reverence for deeply settled Winthrop, the ending frees Anne from settled establishment or stasis. Frederick’s new “fortune,” some twenty-five thousand pounds, is less than many dowries—only half of what Miss Grey brings Willoughby. With less than two thousand pounds a year, this couple may not purchase a house.90 Anne in the end has no home—but she has a carriage, the landaulet.91 Mobility and freedom are the prizes. Anne in finding her freedom traces paths taken before by people rising up in rebellion. She moves across spaces marked by others’ bloodshed and despair, even as she moves through time marked by her own quiet despair and loss. She turns toward the real and reunites with a man who has done real things. Mr. Knightley and Captain Wentworth differ from all the other “heroes” of Austen’s fiction as they effect changes in the world.
The tribute to the visual arts paid in the novel’s hidden joke of the reference to “Charles Hayter” is paralleled by the hidden tribute to the poetic and novelistic art in the novel’s use of “Mrs. Smith.” The poor friend, sick and enclosed and in some pain, is related by the magic craft of the artist—herself an artificer, a “smith”—to the author of the sonnets that consoled Anne and of the fiction that delighted and instructed the young Jane Austen. Here is a brilliant use of anachronism in a form of doubling. The heroine’s crippled friend connects with the dying writer—now dead, but as a novelist and poet still living beyond death, one whom Austen honors. The interval within Mrs. Smith’s confining sickroom and the moment of sadness, fresh air and poetic recollection in the fields near Winthrop become one time, one place.
In Persuasion, Time and Place are uniquely and strangely united. Place becomes Time, and Time becomes a Place of its own. In extrovert Emma, Time is marked by social time, religious festivals and celebrated seasons. In Persuasion, Time is multiple, currents flowing at different speeds and rhythms, interbraiding but never lost in total unity. Time is both interior and exterior, running through body, emotions, land, man-made entities and cliffs. Time moves the rocks on which everything appears to stand. Place is where Time crystallizes and becomes visible, seen (briefly) through the transparent plane of individual reality, language, and imagining.
Names and Places in Sanditon: Sussex—Inland and Coast
Real Places in Sanditon
This is the third novel in which Austen uses Sussex for a setting. In Lady Susan, the family of Charles Vernon lives in Sussex; in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret Dashwood, born in Sussex, must move to Devonshire. In both works, Sussex is presented as peaceful, prosperous, and inert. In Sanditon, on the contrary, the seacoast of Sussex is jittery, on the make, inflamed by building, advertising, and development fever. Further inland, the Heywood home seems inert, virtuously unalterable to a parodic degree. In the story, people come to Sanditon from as far away as the West Indies, while the Parker sisters scatter their whimsical charity far and wide, to Worcestershire or Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire. But Sussex remains central, if curiously unsatisfactory. The right man—if and when he appears—may take Charlotte away not only from hectic, unstable Sanditon but also from the stolid, unsociable rural Sussex in which she has been fixed for her first twenty-two years.
Charlotte visits Sanditon to enjoy herself and “with excellent health, to bathe & be better if she could” (ch. 2, Later Manuscripts). Sanditon is a mixed destination, like Bath sought by the restless, the sick, and the hypochondriac. Jane Austen herself had become a seeker after health; a sharp attack of an unidentified illness seems to have occurred in 1816, just as she was finishing Persuasion. This was probably the beginning of whatever killed her. It may not have been the beginning but a continuation, a dire sequel to an earlier story. The forced move to Southampton at age seven caused Austen’s worst juvenile illness. It also probably sowed the seeds of her early death. Linda Robertson Walker has pointed out that typhus can recur and proposes that Austen’s last illness was “recrudescent typhus,” demonstrating that Jane’s symptoms fit the profile.92 The childhood encounter with a louse in poor lodgings at a seaside town left the seeds of a lurking destruction beneath all the health and dances and long outdoor walks of Austen’s prime. It seems ironically fitting that in her last work she should inspect the seaside resort and the reckless, overoptimistic, or fanciful pursuit of perfect wellness. Jane Austen was in a mood to understand the enchantment of a universal panacea:
The Sea Air & Sea Bathing together were … a match for every Disorder, of the Stomach, the Lungs, or the Blood; They were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-sceptic [sic] anti-bilious & anti-rheumatic. Nobody could catch cold by the Sea, Nobody wanted appetite by the Sea. (Sanditon, ch. 2)
Sussex, land of the south Saxons, settled long before the Saxons got there, boasted commercial ports before Roman times. Its seacoast was important to its economy. Recently prepared for defense against a French invasion under Napoleon, that coast was dotted with lookout points (Martello towers); soldiers had been dispatched to defend ports and strongholds. Many places mentioned in this unfinished novel are associated with recent anxieties about invasion. After 1815, government defense funds dried up; ports and settlements along this seacoast were turning to what we call the “tourist industry.” In references within Sanditon to real towns and villages, Austen in effect offers us two categories (sometimes overlapping): first, a list of places connected with the Norman invasion and recent invasion threats; second, a subtle list of towns and villages undergoing fresh development as seaside pleasure places.
Mr. Parker insists that Sanditon is different, that it is comparable to “East Bourne” and one full mile closer to London. Eastbourne, abode of the comical “Mr. Gell” who married “Miss Gill,” was a port, its name indicating “bounded on the east by the stream.” Eastbourne would thrive as a resort in the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century—despite its pebbly beach. Brighton was Sussex’s pleasure resort par excellence. An old coastal settlement in West Sussex is also mentioned, Worthing (Weorth + ingas, “family or followers of a man called Weorth or “valiant”). Little Worthing pushed its way steadily into the top list, assisted by a visit from Princess Amelia in 1798. (The building of Worthing’s Park Crescent postdates Austen but is very much in the spirit of the developments in Sanditon.)93 Such newly fashionable resorts with abundant lady visitors might encourage Sir Edward Denham in his postwar plans for seduction.
The coast of Sussex is known for its historic vulnerability to invasion. According to the Parkers, “Two hours take us home, from Hailsham” (ch. 1). The village of Hailsham in East Sussex, an Anglo-Saxon settlement (“Haegel’s ham”) by now site of a livestock market, had recently been heavily defended against Napoleon. Hailsham Barracks was built to house soldiers who were to defend coastal fortifications, especially Pevensey Castle (some six miles from Hailsham and three from Eastbourne). Once the invasion threat had gone, Hailsham Barracks were closed, and Hailsham sank back into village life.
The second place name mentioned in Sanditon is “Hastings.” The Parkers are coming from Tunbridge, the inland spa town in Kent, by now a fading old-fashioned resort. They are traveling “towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings and E. Bourne” (ch. 1). Hastings, prosperous before Roman times, was of old known for iron mines. The Saxon name is Haestingas, “Haesta’s folk” (-ingas). Powerful Hastings remained a kingdom separate from that of the South Saxons, nominally at least, until the eleventh century. The fateful Battle of Hastings took place on 14 October 1066, when the English force encountered the invading Normans. William of Normandy and his men were victorious, killing Harold Godwinson, King of England, and began their rapid takeover of the whole country. As we have seen, Hastings was vividly remembered in Jane Austen’s time, a memory heightened by de Loutherbourg’s picture. The actual battle took place a few miles north of the little port, at a hill later called “Senlac Hill” (sangue-lac, “from the blood there shed”). The monument to victory followed shortly thereafter.
The Normans, exalted with this victory, erected an Abbey in memory of the Battle, and dedicated it to St. Martin (which he [William] call’d Battle-Abbey,) in that very place where Harold, after many wounds, died in the midst of his enemies; that it might be an eternal monument of the Norman victory.94
Battle Abbey—oddly dedicated to peaceable Saint Martin—was to suffer under the Dissolution, and its privilege of sanctuary was eradicated “by authority of Parliament.” After William’s victory, Hastings was fortified with a large Norman castle; amalgamated with Pevensey it become one of the Cinque Ports, the five ports most important to the first Norman kings. Later it underwent eclipse, battered by waves and tides and French incursions. Fishing and smuggling were Hastings’s chief industries until its refashioning as a seaside resort once the danger of Napoleonic invasion vanished. Hastings had a population a little over three thousand at the turn of the nineteenth century; the town built new crescents and squares and advertised itself with some success.
Charlotte Heywood lives in an imaginary Willingden, Sussex, near the real Willingden ((also referred to). Feltham calls Willingden “a very pleasant village, about two miles from East Bourne.”95 In Sanditon, Mr. Heywood tells the erring Parkers that the Willingden they seek, “Great Willingden, or Willingden Abbots,” is seven miles away, “on the other side of Battel.” This Willingden bears the term “Abbots” because it once belonged to Battle Abbey. “Battel” (Old French bataille) is the site of the now disused Battle Abbey, at or near the battlefield itself. The novel very decidedly reminds us of the Battle of Hastings throughout the first chapter; repeated references introduce us to conflict, danger, and defeat. Sanditon, the unfinished novel, refers us to the Norman invasion in ironic counterpoint to its story of the coming of a new age of commercial development—and exciting new possibilities of overthrow.
Camden rejects a popular etymology for the name “Hastings”: “Some there are who ridiculously derive it from Haste, in our tongue.”96 Austen uses the pun: “Hastings” does suggest “haste”—a leading characteristic of members of the Parker family and a quality of the modern world. The comedy of this meaning does not overrule a floating melancholy. Hastings bears the unhappy reminiscence of defeat. It is a negative interface where the English have to admit the foreign. Not accidentally did Agatha Christie name the original English sidekick for Belgian and French-speaking Hercule Poirot “Hastings,” as the site at which the powers of the foreigner make their way into English society. At Hastings for the first and only time the English were truly vanquished. They lost—seriously lost—to an invader. The fact that in the opening scene Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Parker are moving toward Hastings is one of the numerous indications of their future overthrow, which is also immediately enacted through the overturning of their carriage.
Imaginary Places in Sanditon
Willingden, home of the Heywoods, indicates Anglo-Saxon origin. Possible it merely signifies “well in a valley” (welle + dun), or “Willow-vale,”—or perhaps just “area of the ingas of a man called ‘Willa.’” Charlotte’s native village is one of two “Willingdens.” In following up the newspaper advertisement, Mr. Parker should have gone to the other one, the real Willingden by Battle Abbey, but Austen creates a double, the false Willingden, abode of the Heywoods. This saucy liberty comments on this novel’s willful reflection of reality in a kind of doubling. Everybody here is willful—including the stubbornly realistic but perhaps shortsighted Heywoods. The Heywoods’s private “Willingden” is insistently rural—literally pastoral, for Mr. Heywood has a shepherd. This self-willed lair of pastoralism and hay making seems to question the stable values of the Hayters and Winthrop introduced in the preceding novel. The punning name, “valley of willing,” points up a passive-resistant will embodied in the fifty-seven-year-old Mr. Heywood. Mr. Parker exhibits the urgency of a loose but active will believing in its easy power to transform.
The most important and ingenious invented name is “Sanditon” (“sandy” + tun/ton), a tun built on or by the sand. A sandy beach to boast of had recently become important. Sanditon is a new development, an artificial town whose prosperity is literally to be built on sand. It is an ominous name, if one recollects Christ’s parable:
Therefore whosesoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him
unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that
house; and it fell not for it was founded upon a rock.
And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened
unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that
house: and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
(King James Version, Matthew 7:24-27)
Sandy foundations can be swept away in a moment. Radical instability and ephemeral life are heralded in this name, as they are in Richardson’s “Sandoun” (or sand-dune), estate of Robert Lovelace (invoked in Sanditon as a model by Sir Edward). In Sanditon, the sand is literal. We may hope, however, for some partial escape from the crash predicted in the first few sentences of the work. The Parkers, “being induced by Business to quit the high road, & attempt a very rough Lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent half rock, half sand” (ch. 1). If half is rock, then half may endure.
Mr. Parker rushes into advertising language: “Excellent Bathing—fine hard Sand … no Mud—no Weeds—no slimey rocks—” (ch. 1). He is trying to counter the bad repute of the Sussex coast, long-standing since Camden in Britannia gave a decidedly negative picture of it. (Camden uses the word atrox—atrocious.) It lacks good ports and is bad for shipping: “The sea being very dangerous by reason of Shelves and Sands, which make it rough: and the shore also is full of Rocks.”97 Philémon Holland translated and elaborated: “It hath few harbours, by reason that the sea is dangerous for shelves, and therefore rough, and troublous, the shore also it selfe full of rocks, and the South-west wind doth tyrannize thereon, casting up beach infinitely.”98 Mr. Parker, like a good advertiser, counteracts negative propositions before they can be asserted. We are no longer to be concerned with shipping or fishing but with beach culture. In a magical reversal, shelving sands, dangerous to shipping, are now good. He emphatically contrasts the good “Sanditon” with the evil “Brinshore,” lying “between a stagnant marsh, a bleak Moor & the constant effluvia of a ridge of putrifying Sea weed” (ch. 1). “Brinshore” is a made-up locative, clearly intended to mean “briny-shore,” or “saltwater shore.”99 Clearly, Brinshore is to be repudiated, and Sanditon to be embraced. The rocks of the Sussex coast that Camden and his successors observe are a danger to shipping, but Sanditon as pleasure place must rise and fall on sand.
Arriving in Sanditon we find there are several parts to it. The Parkers’ own old homestead lies in a valley. “The Church & real village of [“original” crossed out] Sanditon” are at the foot of a hill (Later Manuscripts, ch. 4). New Sanditon is on the brow of the hill and the cliff, overlooking the sea. Below this new cliff-top development, on the seashore, there is the sandy bathing place with bathing machines. There is also a small fishing settlement, probably pre-Roman. The description of Sanditon is very close to Feltham’s account of Dawlish, which also combines objective description with boosterish delight. Austen seems to have composed her Sanditon not only from her own experience of seaside resorts, especially Dawlish, but also from the style of description in Feltham’s admiring Guide.
Lady Denham’s Sanditon House, inherited from the deceased Mr. Hollis, is halfway up the hill. We enter Lady Denham’s property in the last chapter, noting its misty enclosure and the paling’s intermittent elms and thorn trees, indicating a park of considerable age. Sir Edward and Clara are overseen in converse, although “Privacy was certainly their object” (ch. 12). Charlotte, an involuntary spy, thinks that as “secret Lovers” they are ill-used. The thick air and the thorns make the place the reverse of attractive as an erotic pleasaunce. The house itself, “large & handsome” with old and well-kept furniture, contrasts with the flimsiness of Mr. Parker’s abode but feels moribund, harboring images of dead husbands. Edward Denham is “running up a tasteful little Cottage Ornèe [sic], on a strip of waste Ground lady D[enham] has granted him” (ch. 3). That augments his silliness, but Lady Denham’s domain as a whole seems a kind of “waste Ground.” It would be fun if by some twist of plot the upshot of the financial story made Miss Lambe the beneficiary of Lady Denham’s callously acquired inane riches. Perhaps the girl does not need to marry—nor unromantic Charlotte either; a commentator at the end of The Woman of Colour remarks to the author “you have not rewarded Olivia even with the usual meed of virtue—a husband!” (The Woman of Colour, 189).
Sanditon’s new developments are budding into the bourgeois names fashionable among architects and urban developers. Charlotte sees “a Prospect House, a Bellevue Cottage, & a Denham Place” (ch. 4). A “view” or “prospect” has become a kind of property to be marketed. Lady Denham, however, insists on imposing her own name. Above all, there is Mr. Parker’s pride, the new “short row of smart-looking Houses, called the Terrace, with a broad walk in front, aspiring to be the Mall of the Place. In this row were the best Milliner’s shop & the Library… . the Hotel & Billiard room” (ch. 4). The Terrace serves as a social and entertainment center.
Mr. Parker’s new residence, we know before meeting it, is windy: he absurdly boasts, “the Wind meeting with nothing to oppose or confine it around our House, simply rages & passes on” (ch. 4). “Trafalgar House” is “a light elegant Building,” its trees too new for shade. It perches on the highest point, for its sea view, “not an hundred yards from the brow of the Cliff”—so Austen first wrote, then cut the “not” and substituted “about” (ch. 4, Later Manuscripts, 439). Did the “not,” foretelling danger, give too much away? This building so light and insubstantial, like Chaucer’s House of Rumour (in Pope’s version) is “Pervious to Winds, and opens ev’ry way.”100 This vain House of Rumour may blow down. Or the sandy cliff may crumble, following the landslip examples of Lyme. There is a strange revising reassurance that the cliff is “steep, but not very lofty,” a fact of importance if the house fell to the beach. The crash to come may be literal ruination. The view from the Venetian window enjoyed by Charlotte begins with “the miscellaneous foreground of unfinished Buildings.” Nothing is yet completed.
Mr. Parker comments on the name of his cliff mansion: “which by the bye, I almost wish I had not named Trafalgar—for Waterloo is more the thing now. However, Waterloo is in reserve—& if we have encouragement enough this year for a little Crescent to be ventured on … then, we shall be able to call it Waterloo Crescent” (ch. 4). In drawing the enthusiastic Mr. Parker, Austen picks up what we would term a virtual quality to his hobby, speculation and play. In some ways Mr. Parker is like a novelist himself. He lives in fantasy—love in excess. In Sanditon, fantasy plays in and through geographical “place” and through the body, itself becoming a fictionalized site. Health and sickness are objects of mental play, folding with uncanny ease into rumor, advertising, and romantic appetite for the immoderate, even to immolation. “Waterloo is in reserve”—yes, indeed. Mr. Parker will undoubtedly meet his Waterloo. England defeated the French in 1815, but the English are going to defeat themselves in an era of bubbles and speculations. The novel is waiting to spin about giddily. It builds up in the reader an appetite for the inevitable crash.