Notre Dame Professor of Literature Margaret Doody explores the importance of names and locations in some of Jane Austen’s major works in supplying a rich cultural and historical backdrop for the stories, thus providing vital context for modern readers. Places and names are shown to indicate certain traits in her characters while nodding to important events of British history like the War of the Roses, Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries, and the 17th century Civil War, all testament to the idea that “we bear names and live on sites of this earth that have been settled and fought over…a world dense with anachronism.” Besides the texts themselves, Doody draws from Austen’s Juvenilia, marginalia, and correspondence to illustrate the author’s personal viewpoints on the major social and political issues of her time.
After a brief but effective outline of the aforementioned historical events spanning several centuries, Doody expounds upon traditions and backgrounds of common first names of the time and the usage of titles to denote social status before delving into specifics. Persuasion hero Frederick Wentworth is linked to Austen’s evident esteem for self-sacrificing patriot Thomas Wentworth, and his loyalty to Charles I and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice is associated with Thomas Darcy, famous for his part in “The Pilgrimage of Grace” rebellion against Henry VIII. This Darcy’s descendants were allied with Mary Queen of Scots, another Austen favorite. Frank Churchill, nee Weston, of Emma, is the possible namesake of Henry VIII courtier Sir Francis Weston, executed for adultery with Anne Boleyn, the Austen character exhibiting the latter’s same penchant for flirtation.
Of Austen’s heroines, it is noted with irony that Northanger Abbey‘s Catherine Morland owns no property (“More-Land”) and that the “Ward” sisters of Mansfield Park were parentless, under the charge of an uncle. Some amusing generalities are noted as Austen seems to have quite definitive connotations for certain names, such as all “Johns” exhibiting some degree of “inconsiderate self-centeredness”and “Mary” being Austen’s choice for “cold, selfish, and irritating females” while “Annes” are meek and “pushed around by siblings.”
The names of places chosen by Austen are esteemed equally as important to those of human characters for their ability to “carry the poetry of England and the story of a relationship with the land.” Northanger Abbey was a place of worship before its seizure by Henry VIII, now occupied by the self-serving Tilneys, a blatant comment on the potential ill-effects of private property. This is a trend in Austen’s writing, picked up again in Sense & Sensibility with John Dashwood’s enclosure of the formerly common area of Norland Park and the “stagnant ornament” that is Mansfield Park, surviving on income from colonial exploitation. The name “Mansfield” evokes the German town of Martin Luther’s birth as well as Lord Chief Justice William Murray, given the title Baron Mansfield, famed for his decision in the Somersett case declaring all slaves within England, free persons.
Real places have their own connotations from history as well as Austen’s personal life. Bath, a town Austen had visited and disliked, has its symbolism discussed at length as a site of invalid recuperation and quasi-illicit entertainment, appearing in both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as locations of “transition and metamorphosis.” London is treated in a similarly ambivalent manner, urban-dwellers are generally looked down upon by Austen’s “landed gentry” and Kent, Austen’s “ancestral county” with its raucous history of rebellion is the setting for Darcy and Elizabeth’s open quarreling. Huntingdon was home to Robin Hood and Oliver Cromwell before Austen designated it the birthplace of Maria and Elizabeth Ward of Mansfield Park, an inauspicious beginning they would just as soon forget. Antigua, the locus of Thomas Bertram’s wealth is the “sour sweet spot in the invisible center” of the book and the opportunity for Austen to express her abolitionist sentiments.
People are shown to be “visibly the products of their place,” Catherine Morland hails from rural Wiltshire, and her naivety is frequently on display whereas the Dashwoods from Sussex are decidedly more cosmopolitan. These cultural differences provide roadblocks and opportunities for growth for Austen’s frequently transitory characters.
Doody also draws parallels to some of Austen’s influences, Shakespeare in particular with the “world of folly and courtship” of Emma aptly compared to The Merry Wives of Windsor. Others include the artist Charles Hayter for whom she named a character in Persuasion, poet and novelist Charlotte Smith, and Elizabethan writer and statesman Sir Philip Sidney. The 16th-century topographical work of William Camden, notably updated and popularized by Richard Gough in 1789, is cited as a near-certain reference for Austen when constructing her imagined place names.
Doody’s well-articulated conclusion is difficult to argue with: “Names create a poetic fabric of connections and relationships, parallels, parodies, and memories” and while there are a few instances of tenuous presumptions, overall this is an excellent piece of scholarship. The concise account of centuries of British history and research into Austen’s Juvenilia are particularly noteworthy. Fans of the iconic author will appreciate Doody’s thorough analysis and the additional layers of meaning provided for some of literature’s most beloved characters.
A freelance writer residing in Cincinnati, OH.