Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (2016)

Part III

Places

* Chapter 9 *

Placing the Places

Regions and Locations

Place is central to Jane Austen’s fiction. Many of her works open with a reference to a place—county or estate. To name the place is to set the tone of the novel. Description of place in a work of fiction strongly shapes or modifies a reader’s vision of what we call a “character.” The name of a real place evokes strong and complex elements of human history as well as of what we traditionally term “Nature”—rocks, soils, trees, waters. “Place” has a kind of sacredness. Whatever humans may do to the earth—including plastering a name upon some piece of it—is temporary. Austen is acutely aware of landscape and a great respecter of place. She will not invoke or invent a place name without meaning. As we will see, she weaves together the names of her characters with the names of places (real and imaginary) to create a complex web of significance.

Readers not living in the British Isles may not be aware of the implications of references to regions or features of landscape. Residents of the United Kingdom still know terms widely used in Austen’s time, though this knowledge is eroding. In the eighteenth century most people would have known the difference between a forest, a coppice, a spinney, a shaw, or hay. The word “hangar” was neither archaic nor strictly regional for a “hanging wood,” a wood on a steep slope. Every one of Austen’s important settings has a realized landscape, although she usually sketches these firmly and quickly. (The long description of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice and the walk to Winthrop in Persuasion are notable exceptions.) Jane Austen draws us into an unfolding history of human relations with an area of the earth.

Places are often mediated through descriptions and reactions offered by the characters. These may not be easy to interpret. In an important passage of Sense and Sensibility Marianne calls attention to the beauty of Barton valley. Edward Ferrars quells her enthusiasm with prosaic remarks: “These bottoms must be dirty in winter . . . among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane” (S&S, I, ch. 16). (Note: Edward is riding a horse while the young women are on foot. Who has more right to complain of the dirt?) A short while later, Edward turns against Marianne’s enthusiasm for the picturesque, announcing an utilitarian credo. “I call it a very fine country . . . the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug . . . it unites beauty with utility” (I, ch. 18). We think we are supposed to take Edward’s “rational” side. But the context renders everyone’s remarks suspect. Nobody here is objective. Marianne is trying to console herself for the loss of Norland (which Edward has recently seen) by enacting delight in her new area of Devonshire. Elinor, also unhappily reminded of Norland, speaks repressively to her sister, mocking her memories of the past: “It is not every one who has your passion for dead leaves” (I, ch. 16). Elinor is harsh because she senses something different about this Edward who has just come from “friends near Plymouth.” Edward in his implicit rebuke deliberately pushes against Marianne’s sensibility in striking a pose as a practical man, a man of sense who sees in nature only what is fit to exploit.

We have no indication that Edward ever enjoyed prolonged experience of country life. He certainly possesses no estate—though he might get one in Norfolk if he obeys his mother, Charles Musgrove pronouncing on the potential productivity of a landscape would be worth hearing. But Edward amid the hills of Devon is putting on an act, impersonating a pragmatic male proprietor. In doing so he carelessly injures Marianne’s endeavor to make herself in exile appreciate her new environment. In Marianne’s own fashion, she is practicing patience. Impatience at his own situation colors Edward’s view and his conversation. Everything is dirty, spoiled, demeaned. Nothing exalts the spirit. His mother and his sister are partly speaking through him. But his bleak mood, in which beauty is hardly to be found and materialism is all that counts, results from too much contact with Lucy and pessimism about his own future. No character present can give a just idea of the “objects before them.” The reader is pulled about from view to view, through various uneasy interpretations, including memories—Marianne’s, which are transparent to us, and Edward’s, which are opaque. The more the place is conjured up for us, the less we know precisely how we are to react to it.

This sequence reminds us that we do not just “see”—we always interpret. We bring what we term “meaning” to our consciousness of the world. Yet we do not make that world. Contours of land, water, vegetation—these things, deeply important to individual and communal survival, are outside of the individual’s absolute will. Austen’s novels at their core deal with the difficulty of survival. We are not able to be at one with the phenomena that constitute “place.” Yet we are always making demands of a “place” which not only nourishes but identifies us.

English regions offer important information and identification. A most important geographical division is between North and South. The South has been the wealthiest region with the most arable land. During the Industrial Revolution (from the mid-eighteenth century) the North and the northern Midlands began to find a new prosperity. Some great aristocratic families had been headquartered in the northern region, but the chief settlements of the gentry and most prosperous traders were to be found in areas that in the twentieth century became called the “Home Counties.” Near London and the south coast, these counties have continually been among the richest and most populous: Hertfordshire, Kent, Hampshire, and Surrey. Jane Austen herself was born in Hampshire and lived much of her life—especially of her creative life—in the same county, despite residence in Bath (Somersetshire) and visits to Kent, her father’s county. Upon the death of Thomas Knight in 1794 the use of his house was left to his widow, but Mrs. Knight in 1798 decided to move to Canterbury and allow Edward Knight (né Austen) to take over Godmersham in Kent as sole proprietor as well as heir.1 Henceforward, Jane and Cassandra made regular alternate visits to Godmersham. Edward had married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Brook Bridges (or “Brydges”) of Goodnestone Park in Kent (an estate that also found its way into Britannia). For the first years of their marriage Edward and Elizabeth lived on an estate called Rowling, near Goodnestone. Jane visited Rowling and Goodnestone in the 1790s; she visited Goodnestone again in 1805, also attending balls in Canterbury.

Austen’s stories are often set—or seem to be set—in familiar southern counties at the center of England’s prosperity. The normal move of the prosperous is from north to south and from west or east toward the center. Characteristic families of different eras (the Elliots, the Bingleys) move from north to south. It is customarily desirable to move from the periphery, from areas at or near the “Celtic fringe.” The reverse move is seen as a socioeconomic fall. Austen can surprise us with changes in setting. The Dashwood women from Sussex must move to Devon—from the old center to a periphery. Fanny Price, born in a dynamic if rowdy economic center in Portsmouth on the south coast, is removed to Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire, in the north Midlands, of England, a long distance from Portsmouth and a considerable journey from London. The elder Ward sisters, however, moved from the east westward toward the central axis when Maria Ward married Sir Thomas Bertram.

Differences between east and west are important. Generally, the West County is rural and unprogressive, with fertile lands, decided hills, and green valleys, in counties such as Dorset, Somerset, and Devon. The two major western cities, Bristol and Bath, in the west—but not in the extreme west—are relatively easy of access from London. Bristol, a major seaport first chartered in 1155, was until the Industrial Revolution one of the top three cities in England for population and industry. Bristol’s port gives access to the Severn estuary, where the longest English river meets the sea in the narrow and calm Bristol Channel. Bristol was famous—or notorious—as a center of the trade in sugar and slaves until the slave trade (not slavery itself) was stopped in 1807. Coastal development in the southern counties was held back in the medieval period by justified fear of French incursions, but from the sixteenth century southern coastal areas gained strength and activity through ports like Southampton. Southern coasts became again vulnerable to the threat of French invasion in Austen’s time.

Eastern England was more flourishing in the Middle Ages than it became later. In the Civil War southeastern counties tended to be pro-Puritan. This area is the homeland of Oliver Cromwell (born in Huntingdonshire, MP for Cambridgeshire) and John Bunyan (Bedfordshire). The University of Cambridge became a powerhouse of Puritan theory. The flat eastern region, less beautiful than the West Country, is good for agriculture, cattle raising, and horse breeding. Charles II made Newmarket (near Cambridge) the center for horse racing, the kind of place that attracts the bachelor Tom Bertram. In the eighteenth century the eastern counties became a leading region for agricultural experiments and development, carried out by landowners like Thomas William Coke of Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Influenced by his neighbor “Turnip Townshend,” Coke went in for crop rotation, importing and cultivating new grasses and breeds of sheep. In the Midlands and the North, new industries were beginning to emerge in Austen’s time: pottery-making in the Midlands (in Staffordshire in particular, with Wedgwood in the lead) and cotton-spinning, especially in Lancashire. (Raw cotton from American colonies was made into fabric in the homeland.) Coal was mined ever more eagerly, though miners never benefited from the mine owners’ riches.

During and right after the Napoleonic wars efforts were made to unite various regions of the country with better communications and routes for traffic and commerce.2 Austen’s contemporary Thomas Telford (1757–1834) in effect invented modern civil engineering, after starting as a stonemason and then working in the 1780s in Portsmouth dockyards. Nicknamed by Robert Southey “the Colossus of Roads,” he was a brilliant innovator in roads, canals and bridges, creating the world’s first suspension bridge. Telford answered England’s felt need for connection. Tourists had sought carriage roads in order to enjoy Gilpin’s style of aesthetic tourism, and scenic areas were opening to new industry; Arkwright put his early factory in Bakewell in Derbyshire.

Liverpool, northwestern port near the Lake District (but neither fashionable nor scenic), was central to the slave trade and to cotton import and export. Manchester was to be dominant by the mid-nineteenth century, but long-settled Birmingham (“home of the ingas of Beorma”: Mills) was already associated with commerce, scientific development, and the new manufacturing classes—and was looked down upon on that account. “They came from Birmingham, which is not a place to promise much, you know. . . . One has not great hopes from Birmingham,” says disdainful Mrs. Elton (herself the product of trade and commerce), looking down on the manufacturers, latest class to arrive (Emma, II, ch. 18). Mrs. Elton of the Bristol area is a trifle sensitive regarding slavery, asserting that her brother-in-law “was always rather a friend to the abolition” (II, ch. 17).

Counties

Jane Austen of Hampshire in her mature works tells us—with the one notable exception of Lady Susan—the native county of her heroes and heroines. She knows where they come from. Although English spatial divisions are small compared to those of North America, differences can run deep, even now. English counties are as meaningful to the English of Austen’s time as the states of the United States are to contemporary Americans. Most of these counties were once separate kingdoms, with their own histories. They were on different sides during wars. Counties constituted the state’s main political and administrative divisions (a fact changed only since the 1970s). Each county had its own particular county seat, or small capital. Census information was collected county by county. It makes sense to refer to the counties as the first of the place names that give meaning and color to Austen’s fiction. We notice how careful the author is to produce the information at or near the very outset of a novel.

House and Class

Houses give much away regarding a family’s or an individual’s history, pretensions, expectations. Like it or not, our dwellings locate us in history, economics, and gradations of class. Since houses, furnishings, ornamental trees, and so on, can be bought with money, dwellings represent “class” rather than pure “rank.” For many centuries British people have upgraded and improved their homes, intending to gain not only in comfort but also in position. The big push in Austen’s time among the top classes was to remodel not just houses but grounds also for ornament, pleasure, and display, a process delineated in Alistair Duckworth’s The Improvement of the Estate (1971). Strictly speaking, an “estate” is a large landholding capable of supporting sustained farming. The true estate owner rents out his agricultural acreage to farmers and lives on his rents. A dwelling with nicely landscaped grounds around it (like Mr. Palmer’s Cleveland) is not at all the same thing. The claim to gentility as power is expressed through possession of an agricultural “estate,” while “taste,” reflected in decor and landscaping, becomes acutely important in establishment of nuanced social claims. Yet in theory productions of “taste” exist only to serve the higher interest of the estate itself, a durable sign of English culture as well as a means of production.

That the ideology of the estate is not dead at the outset of the twenty-first century can be seen in the success of the British TV series Downton Abbey (first series 2010). The “abbey” on film is a nineteenth-century architectural invention. (General Tilney might perhaps have liked it; Gilpin would have hated it.)3 Who will inherit the estate? This Trollopean question, pertinent even now (judging by that TV series’ success), is at or near the heart of the plot of most English novels of Austen’s lifetime (sentimental, radical, or “Gothic”). The question is repeatedly raised in her fiction as well as in her own relatives’ lives. The fictional estate to be inherited for good or ill is always to some extent a stand-in for England itself.

Remodeling of grand—and less grand—houses reflects self-announced identity and aspirations. Not everybody changed at once. Many gentry families in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and even in the early twentieth century—lived in uncompromisingly uncomfortable houses like Nancy Mitford’s “Alconleigh,” a fictional deliberatly unglamorous representation of her childhood home:

Alconleigh was a large, ugly, northfacing, Georgian house, built with only one intention, that of sheltering, when the weather was too bad to be out of doors, a succession of bucolic squires, their wives, their enormous families, their dogs, their horses, their father’s relict, and their unmarried sisters. There was no attempt at decoration . . . it was all as grim and as bare as a barracks, stuck up on the high hillside. Within, the keynote, the theme, was death . . . the death of warriors and of animals, stark, real. On the walls halberds and pikes and ancient muskets were arranged in crude patterns with the heads of beasts slaughtered in many lands.4

The gentry’s ethos of possession, war and shooting was not necessarily always remodeled into charm.

To render family dwellings a statement of culture was the objective of many among the Georgian upper classes. But refashioning had its dangers. Owners of new habitations give themselves away, even contradicting their fresh claim to established privileged status by overeager stylishness. E. M. Forster in Howards End represented his horror at “Suburbia” –a negative force menacing the real England. “Into which country will it lead, England or Suburbia?”5 In Austen’s novels we can feel the coming threat of “Suburbia.” “Place” as authenticity is menaced by a descent into trite reduplication allowing the “gentry” (old and new, landed or pretending to be so) and the newly rich commercial classes together to reinvent domestic style. Pretenders dwell amid pretentious nominal signs evoking an older world that has just vanished and a relation to nature no longer extant. The American poet Billy Collins succinctly presents this irony:

All I do these drawn-out days

Is sit in my kitchen at Pheasant Ridge

Where there are no pheasant to be seen

And last time I looked, no ridge.

. . . . . . . . . . .

I could drive over to Quail Falls

And spend the day there playing bridge,

But the lack of a falls and the absence of quail

Would just remind me of Pheasant Ridge.6

Developers’ names are inane phrases honoring contours of earth that have been flattened out and a life amid wild creatures (e.g., pheasants) suited to gentry pursuits, where neither the game nor the landmarks exist any longer (if they were ever there to begin with). The comical melancholy evoked by Collins is a reflection of the suppressed but efficient wish of modernity that natural landmarks and actual creatures would disappear. Consciousness of Suburbia, omnipresent in E. M. Forster’s Howards End in 1910, is already present—if not treated with such fear and loathing—in Austen’s novels a century earlier.