Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (2016)
* Chapter 2 *
Names as History
Invasion, Migration, War, and Conflict
Jane Austen is very conscious of English history, its strata of significance, its detritus—and both its comedy and its pain. On Saturday 26 November 1791 she completed her “History of England.” The author who wrote this satire at age sixteen, a constant reader of history books, shrewdly observes historians’ pride and prejudice. She is sharply aware of past divisions and discords and the traces they leave. Whether the advent of the Normans was a great civilizing event or represented loss of freedom was freshly debated in Austen’s time, under the pressure of the war against Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France. Ann Radcliffe in a travel book of the mid-1790s could assume that England should be proud of having a language still essentially Germanic, resisting takeover by Latinate French. Commenting on the ease with which one can read a sentence in German, Radcliffe remarks,
So permanent has been the influence of our language which the Saxons acquired by their establishment of more than five centuries amongst us; exiling the antient British tongue to the mountains of Scotland and Wales; and afterwards … resisting the persecution of the Normans; rather improving than yielding under their endeavours to extirpate it.1
Radcliffe’s linguistic comments reflect a version of the “Norman yoke” theory. The English had sturdily resisted. Not having a French-derived name could be a source of patriotic pride. The author (whose married surname is Anglo-Saxon “red cliff”) seems happy enough regarding the Saxon conquest of “the antient British tongue.” Linguistic takeover is “persecution,” a threat to meaning. Something of this point of view—or John Bull prejudice—can be felt in Mr. Knightley’s critique of Frank Churchill: “No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English. He may be very ‘aimable,’ have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people” (Emma, I, ch. 18). George Knightley makes this decided critique before he has even met Frank.
The invocation of history has emotional value. In asking the reader to take on the English history known to Austen and her English contemporaries, I am using their vocabulary, with full use of capital letters marking the significance and importance of persons (Prime Minister, Lord Chief Justice) and events (Black Death, Bloody Assizes, Black Act). Not “the conquest” but the Conquest, not a “civil war” but the Civil War. There is a frisson of memory and anxiety attached to such phrases, which should not be comfortably homogenized and modernized out of recognition. History summons fear, excitement, sorrow. Major conflicts leave permanent scars. History’s rise into narrative consciousness is accompanied by rising tensions. Names carry with them records of population movements and the wounding effects of historical events. In eighteenth-century England there was rising interest in the Anglo-Saxon background, an interest partly defensive and certainly increasing as the French threat became more real. Information was lavishly offered to the reading public so that the meaning and origins of old personal and place names could be readily understood. The reader of Edmund Gibson’s and then of Gough’s editions of Camden’s Britannia, for example, can find out that “BERT is the same with our bright; in the latin [sic] illustris and clarus.” “EAD in the compound … denotes happiness, or blessedness. Thus Eadward is a happy preserver.” “MUND. is peace: from whence our Lawyers call a breach of the peace, Mundbrech. So, Eadmund, is happy peace.”2
The strongest punctuation marks in English history are invasions and civil wars. The earliest inhabitants of the islands (according to the history known in Austen’s time) were of the tribal groups collectively called “Celts” like their relatives in Brittany. From these Celts we get the terms “Britons” and “Britain” (Latin Britannia). The first major invasion tracked in written history was the incursion of the Romans in 55/54 BC under Julius Caesar. Serious attempts were made to attach Britain under the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Efforts to subdue Caledonia (Scotland) never succeeded. Britons fought back, most notably the heroic if unsuccessful revolt led by Queen Boadicea, head of the Iceni tribe, in 61-63 AD. At the death of Septimius Severus in 211 AD expansionist plans ceased. Eventually a Rome pressed by barbarian invasions at home took back its troops.
The Romans, who valued the British Isles chiefly as a fortifiable redoubt protecting territory in Gaul, left roads and settled encampments. The names of some cities bear the Roman suffix -caster or -ceaster meaning fortified camp—hence “Doncaster,” “Chester.” The cathedral city of Winchester where Jane Austen died was once a Roman fortified town, though its name also refers to pre-Celtic Venta—a name figuring in Jane Austen’s last literary work, her deathbed verses on Winchester and Saint Swithin.
Fresh invasions came from northern Europe, incursion of Frisians and Jutes (from Jutland). The largest groups of newcomers were the Saxons and the Angles; according to Bede, emigrating Angles emptied their region of Germany. These Germanic tribes came intending to settle. The Saxon influx, widespread and continuous, permanently changed the face of the country, its culture and its language. The Britons were largely driven to marginal regions (Wales, Cornwall, Scotland). In the twentieth century these areas became called the “Celtic fringe,” although, as Linda Colley points out in Britons (1992), this term is too simple; other peoples exist in these margins, while the Welsh and Scots did not “see themselves as fellow Celts.”3 This mysterious margin of otherness explains why, even after her shaky conversion through Henry’s rebuke, Catherine Morland cannot quite believe that the temperate human nature of the practical “midland counties of England” extends throughout the island: “Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities” (NA, II, ch. 10). Celtic British names tended to fade from a landscape increasingly English in possession. Settlements and landmarks were given Saxon names; the dominant tongue becomes “Anglo-Saxon,” the new English.
The Saxons divided into little kingdoms or territories ruled by what we should call “warlords.” A Renaissance term for the political arrangement of the period from circa 500 to 850 AD is the “Heptarchy” or “seven kingdoms.” The regional differences of these small states leave their traces. Egbert of Wessex (ca. 769-839 AD), who united Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Wessex, was called “Wide Ruler,” the first declared ruler of a greater whole. Life was severely disrupted by prolonged and energetic attempts by the Danes to invade and colonize. Their warriors came by sea; these are the “Vikings,” fighting “Spear Danes,” celebrated and described in Beowulf. Indeed, that Anglo-Saxon poem, sometimes described as “the first English epic,” is in subject matter entirely Scandinavian. The Danes came as settlers, not mere pirates. By 870 AD the Danes dominated; of the seven Saxon kingdoms only Wessex was free. Alfred the Great, son of the king of Wessex and eventually king of the West Saxons, fought a determined war, driving the Danes back. In 886 he retook London, the capital henceforward. King Alfred the Great is customarily acclaimed (if a trifle sentimentally and without perfect accuracy) as the first unifying ruler of the English.
Throughout, the work of colonizing continued: the labor of clearing the forest, creating areas fit for tillage and livestock, and making Saxon (or Danish) settlements. Settlement was largely the operation of the common people. New “pioneer” inhabitants set to work, systematically hewing down the forests and establishing small fortified farms or clusters of dwellings amid modest fields of cleared arable land. This tremendous effort is strongly similar to the efforts made in North America by English migrants from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. By the eleventh century the Saxon settled land was in a flourishing state, with life-sustaining agriculture, fine pasturelands, and wildlife supporting good hunting. Well-watered, fertile, cultivated, and settled, this land was likely to be coveted by neighbors.
The Normans—originally “Norsemen” (Scandinavians, Vikings)—had taken a portion of western France close to England (“Normandy”). By the eleventh century they were French speaking, with French customs. They noted the attractions of the green nearby island, so similar to Normandy. The English fighting force was overtasked in combating the Danes. In January 1066 Harold Godwinson (son of a Saxon father and a Danish mother) was king, but his succession was challenged by his own brother Tostig and by Harold Hardrada of Norway. Hardrada and Tostig won a battle near York, but a few days later were surprised and defeated by King Harold and his army. Harold had managed—amazingly—to march his army from London to Yorkshire in four days. But immediately after the battle the army had to hurry southward, more than two hundred and forty miles, to meet the challenge of the Norman invasion led by William of Normandy. King Harold’s men, weakened and fatigued, met the invading army on the south coast. The English failed to repel the invader. On 14 October 1066, Harold, King of England, was killed in the combat. The Battle of Hastings was a total victory for the Normans—the only English defeat on English home territory.
In Austen’s day this invasion story was more than mere schoolroom reading. There was a most realistic fear that Napoleon could succeed as William of Normandy had done, crossing the English Channel with a sufficient number of ships to carry armies and taking possession of the coast. Naval captains and army officer as well as historians thought hard about the Battle of Hastings and the effectiveness of William’s purpose-built invasion flotilla of seven hundred ships. Napoleon was preparing a similar invasion fleet.
The Norman Conquest is the most important single event in English history. The coming of the Angles and Saxons had extended over centuries. The action of one October day was final and defining. The immigration of the Angles and Saxons had made the country “England”; the coming of the Normans changed what “England” was to mean. Normans took over and administered the conquered country. The new King William demanded that a record be made of all lands and who held them (primarily for tax purposes). This record came to be known as the “Domesday Boke” (Doomsday Book). Completed with amazing efficiency by 1086, the Doomsday Book is an invaluable source of information as to the names and ethnicities of landholders as well as recording cultivation, settlements, and productivity.
The Normans not only took note of the settlements—they changed the landscape. In their ardent desire for deer-hunting grounds—for the chase—the Normans enclosed a great deal of woodland, sending settlers and villagers packing. For centuries to come, hunting on horseback is the mark of the aristocracy. The Normans and their descendants hunted the wild deer so vigorously that eventually there were no more deer in the south. The wildwood also receded under pressure of agriculture and growing population. There had been other changes. Astonishingly, in 1066 there were no rabbits in England. The Normans imported rabbits. This new species belonged to the rich Norman landowners; rabbits’ warrens, or burrows, were watched over by “warreners.” (Hence come new surnames: “Warren,” “Warrender”). The poor were forbidden to kill and eat not only deer but also rabbits, despite damage to their gardens and crops.
The stories of Robin Hood in the free greenwood express resentful resistance to the Norman authority over food and land. The “forest laws” against “poaching” and related “crimes” were a constant source of bitter discontent. Working-class men were likely to defy the landowners’ claim to absolute possession of all that hopped or ran or swam or flew and to become “poachers.” Unlicensed persons taking game to which their position gave them no recognized right were treated as thieves, subject to severe punishment. (For a poor man to kill a deer merited death.) The advance of settlements diminished the noble deer chase, save in Scotland. Foxhunting was the substitute.4 But struggles regarding field, forest, and stream continued. New specific laws, such as the “Black Act” of 1723, aroused great hostility.5 The engrossing of rights to all game among the ruling classes was one of the outstanding—and enduring—instances of the “Norman yoke.”
With the Doomsday Book the use of surnames became regularized in England. Throughout the world, one single name per person has been customary. Identification by surname arises first among the noble and the landed. Surnames are also convenient for governments concerned with taxation. The power of “lords” (or warlords) rested on bloodlines and complex genealogies which long made surnames essential. Common people, with less use for an official last name, were often defined by occupation: “Carpenter,” “Wright,” “Fletcher” (maker of arrows). (This tendency never quite dies out; the electrician in my village in Canada was popularly called “Johnny Kilowatt.”) A poor man might be defined as the son of a man identified by a first name: “Robin’s-son.” A person could also be defined by location: “John who lives by the brook,” “Martin from the grove.” Men might also be called by the name of the town or region whence they—or their forebears—came: “Lincoln,” “Cornwall.” Locative descriptions crystallize into surnames.
William did not relinquish his claim to the west of France, and this dual territory provided a cause for war and an excuse for invasions of France by the English for centuries. (The claim of the English king to rule France was maintained until 1688.) Relations between England and France have had a peculiar kind of intimacy mixed with constant hostility as the two nations competed for territory and colonies, influence and trade. British historians and philosophers of the eighteenth century often presented the Norman Conquest as advantageous, linking England with the Continent and European civilization. Opposition to this optimistic history proposed that England had suffered under “the Norman yoke” and that Anglo-Saxon laws and customs had been more inclined to favor justice, equality, and the rights of the common people. Among historians opposing Norman rule is David Hume, whose work Austen knew. (Jane Austen’s uncle James Leigh-Perrot gave her a copy of Hume’s History.) Hume takes the view that Norman invasion introduced dominance by a proud aristocracy and monarchy, as well as too much power given to the Church—all depriving the English of their liberties. Hume disapprovingly remarks that the loss in October 1066 and subsequent submission arose from temporary weakness in the English:
But tho’ the loss … was considerable, it might easily have been repaired by a great nation… . The people had in a great measure lost all national pride and spirit, by their recent and long subjection to the Danes; and as Canute had … much abated the rigors of conquest … they regarded with the less terror the ignominy of a foreign yoke.6
The Battle of Hastings loomed large in the English imagination at the turn into the nineteenth century. This time they were determined to resist the French yoke. In 1804 the great theatrical scene-maker Philip de Loutherbourg drew a historical picture for a patriotic new series and new edition of Hume’s History. That picture, the frontispiece, is The Battle of Hastings (fig. 1).7
After 1066, language and customs changed. All important political or legal discourse was conducted in Norman French. The aristocracy became almost entirely Norman, although there was intermarriage. The names of titles vary from the antique “Duke” or Anglo-Saxon “Earl” to specifically French versions of a name of rank, such as “Viscount.” We can notice in Austen’s novels a clear (if sometimes unobtrusive) line separating Norman names from names of common English (Anglo-Saxon) origin. Locative names (“Hill”), filial names (“Jenkinson”), and work names (“Chapman”) indicate the commonest Englishness. (All of the above appear as servants’ names.) References to places include various terms for settlement or village such as -wick (a settlement on the site of a vicus, or Romano-Briton settlement) or a Danish -by.
The Conquest was followed by a sequence of civil or internecine conflicts, tribal wars, and struggles for power. Some aristocrats held large territories, very like the old kingdoms, and commanded fighting men. European nobles all have their roots in “warlords” who could control regions and command armed men.8 The true power of medieval lords was unignorable. Hence the thirteenth-century invention of Parliament placed the House of Lords above the House of Commons. Parliament represents a great advance; the nobles should come and talk with each other and argue things out instead of resorting first to the sword. Creating a centralized government under one king took a long while. Inevitably, the monarchy was weak and the nobles strong.
The Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century center upon the struggle for dominance between two strong dynasties, each with an attractive emblem—and control of very large regions: Lancashire (Red Rose) and Yorkshire (White Rose). The progress of events was dramatized by William Shakespeare in plays that offer a vivid—if not strictly accurate—account of events and personalities. Shakespeare shows us conflict brought on by the weak King Richard II, soon overthrown by the aggressive Lancastrian Bolingbroke who becomes King Henry IV. After a brilliant (but ultimately meaningless) retaking of some of France under the dashing Henry V, England succumbed to divisions; the weakness of the pious Lancastrian King Henry VI led to defeat by the determination of the York dynasts.
1. W. Bromley, Battle of Hastings (1804). Engraving after a painting by Philip James de Loutherbourg. Photograph: © Trustees of the British Museum.
The Yorkists, proud of success, put their own man on the throne, King Edward IV. He died, leaving two young sons under the care of their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, as Protector. Richard of Gloucester took the throne for himself; his enemies claimed he had murdered the little princes in the Tower. This last Yorkist king, Richard III, was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by a new force, Henry Tudor. Technically, Lancaster won the Wars of the Roses, and the Red Rose was supreme, but Henry Tudor founded a new dynasty, shoring up his connection with the Yorkist cause through marriage.
Shakespeare’s “History Plays” offer us a factually elastic, action-driven but complex version of the Wars of the Roses, with a built-in Tudor bias. Shakespeare’s dramatic story constitutes the version of that civil war most familiar to readers of Austen’s time, although they could rely for “real solemn history” on David Hume and Oliver Goldsmith, whose texts were standard in the schoolroom. Jane Austen was familiar with such histories, as well as with Shakespeare’s plays, when she inscribed in Volume the Second her satiric work “The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st.” As Devoney Looser says, “Her History deconstructs historical material and then reconstructs it in a fictional mold, claiming with tongue in cheek that truth ‘is very excusable in an Historian.’ Austen’s truths … are present-day truths. Her history is self-conscious about contemporary use and apprehensions of the past.”9 Austen is always conscious of appropriation of the past. She sees through self-interested defenses of material appropriations. Historians offer current alibis to the powerful. Under the title of her “History” she adds, “By a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian” (176). In this playful work with a serious point, the “Historian” is openly coat-trailing, defending the Stuart cause throughout and taking the “wrong” side in the Wars of the Roses. Under “Henry the 6th” she writes,
I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense—Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him and the Duke of York who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History, for I shall not be very diffuse in this, meaning by it only to vent my Spleen against, and shew my Hatred to all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, and not to give information. (“The History of England,” Juvenilia, 178)
She roots for the underdog, including Richard III. (How pleased and amused she would be at the recent discovery of Richard’s skeleton beneath a car park—and his sudden surge in popularity.) A developed satirist, Jane Austen is already aware that written histories are political stories, myths fostered by the winners and uttered for the benefit of the historian’s contemporaries. All historians reflect “prejudices.” The past cannot come to us uncolored by old or new preferred beliefs and allegiances. Austen’s own “prejudiced and ignorant Historian” goes against the stream in preferring the losing side in all major struggles. She is attracted to protests and resistances.
The Tudor King Henry VII did not assume kingship without protest. Perkin Warbeck (1474-99), claiming to be the younger of the two Princes in the Tower, made an attempt to take the crown. Warbeck was cordially entertained by the house of Burgundy and welcomed in Scotland; support for this new “Edward V” in Cornwall and the southwest aroused the new Tudor government to action. The new claimant was welcomed in Taunton in Dorset—an area strongly associated with rebellion and refusal to knuckle under to authority. Such West Country rebellions are customarily unsuccessful. Warbeck’s forces were defeated; he was captured and made to confess himself a Flemish impostor. Doubts in his favor, however, survived. Mary Shelley was to write a novel, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830). Jane Austen supports Warbeck, and the other “pretender” Lambert Simnel, in a sexual extravaganza that dissolves heterosexual marital and familial dynastic claims: “For if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard” (“History,” Juvenilia, 179).
Dynastic claims did not cease, even after the squashing of Warbeck and Simnel. Alternative claims arose, like that made by Lady Jane Grey after the death of the Catholic Mary I. The Tudors had forcefully unified England (and were trying to pull in Scotland) but were faced from the outset with fresh ideological splits. Before the Tudor era, some forms of Protestantism were already on the march, and there was considerable discontent with Rome. Henry VIII did not invent English Protestantism, but he took the Reformation movement in particular directions. Having been Defensor Fidei, Defender of the Faith, in his youth, Henry VIII withdrew his allegiance to the papacy over the issue of annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (often termed “a divorce”). Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, a dynastic matter, could have been countenanced, but the embattled Pope Clement VII was unwilling to conciliate the King of England at the price of alienating Katherine’s nephew, the powerful Emperor Charles V.
The Tudor period, not least the reign of Henry VIII, fascinates, with its extravagance, its jousts and witty poetic courtiers, its court of discarded queens and multiple beheadings. Austen shares this fascination in her “History of England.” She defends “Anna Bullen”:
This amiable Woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character. (Juvenilia, 181)
The treasonable “Crimes” of which Anne Boleyn was accused were (as Austen knew) adultery with four men of the court and incest with her brother. (Both Hume and Goldsmith—like Austen—deny any basis for the charges.) Anne’s long “letter to the King … dated on the 6th of May” (181) to which Austen refers is reprinted in a numerous standard histories. Not only was Anne beheaded in 1536, but her brother and all the accused men were likewise executed.
King Henry’s boldest move—guided by Thomas Cromwell—was the seizure of Church lands in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, beginning in 1536 when the smaller foundations were dissolved. These Church lands—to which the Crown had no legal right—were forcibly taken and privatized; Henry VIII used the treasures and rich demesnes to obtain much-needed funds or to reward certain followers. Protest and backlash ensued. In the northeast, particularly in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, there was an effort to defend the Church and keep the monasteries, popular with the people as they provided social services and education, as well as some assurance of food and protection in difficult times. This protest movement was called “The Pilgrimage of Grace.” It briefly rose to armed rebellion, taking some territory including the port city of Hull. Henry VIII ruthlessly put down the Pilgrimage of Grace, executing the ringleaders in 1537.
In Austen’s mature fiction we shall keep bumping into characters from Henry VIII’s time, and issues unresolved. Questions regarding the seizure of church lands were current in Austen’s era. The issue was contemporary, not archaic. In France, the “Jacobins,” revolutionaries who had seized the controls from the moderate constitutionalists, demanded the subjugation of the Catholic Church to the French state and the dissolution of all monasteries and convents. (Arguments pro and con are succinctly presented in letter 8 of Charlotte Smith’s pro-Revolution novel Desmond, 1792).10 The new government seized Church property. Monks and nuns were thrown into the roads, penniless and homeless, to survive as best they could. Some of the multitude of priests ejected for not conforming to new rules and oaths made their way to England. Among those who spoke up in their favor was the novelist Frances Burney, now Madame D’Arblay, wife of an émigré. Burney’s pamphlet Brief Reflections Relative to the Emigrant French Clergy (1793) both promoted charitable support of these exiles and pointed out the illegality of the arbitrary measures taken against them. It was embarrassing for English conservatives to contemplate such predatory attacks upon property and usurpations of Catholic Church lands by an arbitrary revolutionary government that the English upper classes hated—for there was an uncomfortably clear parallel to what had happened in England in the sixteenth century. Consideration prompted renewed complaint regarding the sixteenth-century depredation, which had deprived the English people of lands that ought to have been used for the public good. Jane Austen seems always to have been antipathetic to the Dissolution and what it meant. Her “prejudiced Historian” in 1791 makes a mock defense of Henry VIII:
The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince, were too numerous to be mentioned, (as this history I trust has fully shewn;) and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for Ages been established in the Kingdom. (“History,” Juvenilia, 181)
This ironic comment seems a direct riposte to William Gilpin, the travel writer. Austen (like some of her characters, such as Henry Tilney) knew his picturesque Observations very well. “At a very early age she was enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque,” says her brother Henry in 1817, without taking note of her critiques of Gilpin (“Biographical Notice,” in Memoir, 140-41). William Gilpin, as can be seen in his Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1786), is always happy when contemplating the ruins of abbeys and their “picturesque” properties. To Gilpin, contemplating the ruins of abbeys is a delightfully English visual treat:
To these natural features, which are, in a great degree peculiar to the landscape of England, we may lastly add another, of the artificial kind—the ruins of abbeys; which, being naturalized to the soil, might indeed, without much impropriety, be classed among it’s [sic] natural beauties.11
Austen’s remark that Henry VIII “was of infinite use to the landscape of England” by ruining the abbeys is a satiric reflection—not a distortion—of Gilpin’s complacent view.
William Gilpin occasionally registers an uneasy consciousness of the original function of these charming remnants, but almost always hastens to encourage his English and Anglican readers into full enjoyment of the ruins as ruins. The charities of such places only encouraged laziness. So he indicates looking at Tintern Abbey, where there are beggars: “As if a place once devoted to indolence, could never again become the seat of industry.”12
Catholicism encourages beggary. Abbeys are homes of indolence. These are Whig axioms. In 1798 Gilpin returns to the issue in discussing the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Gilpin initially appears to be unusually fair to Glastonbury Abbey’s function:
Above four hundred children were not only educated in it, but entirely maintained. Strangers from all parts of Europe were liberally received… . While the poor from every side of the country waited the ringing of the alms-bell; when they flocked … to the gate of the monastery, where they received, every morning, a plentiful provision for themselves and their families; all this appears great and noble.
On the other hand, when we consider five hundred persons, bred up in indolence and lost to the commonwealth; when we consider that these houses were the great nurseries of superstition, bigotry and ignorance; the stews of sloth, stupidity, and perhaps intemperance; when we consider, that the education received in them had not the least tincture of useful learning, good manners or true religion, but tended rather to vilify and disgrace the human mind; when we consider that the pilgrims and strangers who resorted thither, were idle vagabonds … and when we consider, lastly, that indiscriminate alms-giving is not real charity, but an avocation from labour and industry … filling the mind with abject notions, we are led to acquiesce in the fate of these great foundations, and view their ruins, not only with a picturesque eye, but with moral and religious satisfaction.13
Monasteries, in short, must have been bad because they were Catholic, and anything Catholics do is an affront to Protestant ethics and industry. Gilpin makes no attempt to allow for different historical circumstances—for instance, the value in the Middle Ages of teaching local boys Latin and thus giving them access to the learning of the Western world or the importance of monastic labor in breaking new land and introducing better land management without immediate increase in the population. In reality, monks over the centuries had not been “lost to the commonwealth,” but their contribution must be erased. As for giving something to somebody, patently that is always wrong—according to Whig economics, soon to be powerfully backed by Malthus. The only purpose a great work of architecture and human endeavor such as Glastonbury Abbey can serve is in the picturesque loveliness of its ruins.
In her novels, Austen implicitly combats Gilpin’s biases. Two novels have at their center privatized abbeys, and there are other references to lost religious sites. Jane Austen distrusts the cult of the picturesque, suspecting it under its softness as a sharp mode of justifying destruction in the past (and hence in the present). The picturesque, mediating hedonistically between the beautiful and the sublime, offers consolation for the ruination of time and a soothing antidote to others’ pain and travail. Austen’s suspicion of the “Gothic” and the picturesque more generally seems to arise from a sense that a fondness for ruins masks not only a fondness for destruction, but also a political argument. Picturesque ideology might have been created to justify anti-Catholicism and disdain for common needy folk. Austen will not allow the connection to escape her. No wonder that Henry and Elinor Tilney, innocent beneficiaries of the partial destruction and wholesale theft of Northanger Abbey, register approval alike of Whig historians and of Gilpin’s picturesque theories.