Austen's Allusions to Cultural HistoryEighteenth-Century Life

About

Authors
K. Wheatley
Year
2014
DOI
10.1215/000982601-2774073
Subject
History / Cultural Studies / Literature and Literary Theory / Visual Arts and Performing Arts

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A usten’s A llusions to Cultural H istory

Kim Wheatley

College of W illiam ScM ary

Janine Barchas. Matters o f Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ., 2012). Pp. xiii + 317. $45

A reader of Jane Austen might be forgiven for thinking that she took no inter­ est in names. After all, she gave her own Christian name not only to the angelic Jane Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, but also to the heroine’s unpleasant sister-in-law in her unfinished novel The Watsons. Perhaps more disconcert­ ingly, the first name of the beloved heroine of Pride and Prejudice reappears in

Persuasion, where it is given to the unlovable Elizabeth Elliot. And speaking of Persuasion, one might note that this novel includes at least four and probably five characters named Charles (if we include the elder Mr. Musgrove), suggest­ ing that names in Austen’s fiction are arbitrary badges of ultrarealism rather than sources of interpretive potential. Nevertheless, a few critics have probed

Austen’s choice of first and last names, but Janine Barchas, in Matters o f Fact in Jane Austen, goes much further in exposing the significance not just of char­ acter names in Austen, but also of place names and even mentions of distances between places. In this absorbing study, Barchas unearths real people, events, and locations that she claims are alluded to in Austen’s fiction. Challenging formalist readings that perceive Austen’s work as timeless or at least ahistorical, Barchas examines the novels in the context of Regency celebrity culture that has been brought alive in recent years by Romanticists such as Tom Mole

Eighteenth-Century Life

Volume 38, Number 3, Fall 2014 doi 10.1215/000982601-2774073

Copyright 2014 by Duke University Press 126 72 6 Eighteenth-Century Life and Jerome Christensen, and Austen scholars such as Roger Sales and Jocelyn

Harris. Barchas also tracks possible allusions to historical figures from the eighteenth century and earlier, showing the value of approaching Austen via eighteenth-century studies, as well as by way of her Romantic-era affiliations.

At times a little heavy-handed, but more often deft in its touch, Matters o f Fact in Jane Austen offers a wealth of fascinating historical detail to enrich our read­ ing of Austen’s work.

Barchas organizes her study around specific Austen texts but does not follow the traditional format of devoting a chapter to each of the completed novels. Instead, she gives us a chapter on Lady Susan, two on Northanger Abbey, one on Austen’s juvenile work Evelyn, another on Sense and Sensibility, and a final chapter on Persuasion. She thus leaves room for other critics to apply her approach to Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park, Sanditon, and the rest of the juvenilia. Barchas’s underlying assumption is that Austen knew much more about Regency-era scandals and historical figures than some crit­ ics believe. Barchas draws on a newly available source, the Godmersham Park

Library Catalogue, for evidence of Austen’s wide reading of nonfiction, includ­ ing, for example, a 1776 edition of John Evelyn’s 1664 book on tree planting,

Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees, that Barchas sees as informing both Evelyn and Sense and Sensibility. Finding in Austen a “profound historicism and geo­ graphical specificity” (3), Barchas sees Austen’s novels as closer to Sir Walter

Scott’s historical fiction than has hitherto been acknowledged, even though

Scott, in the most famous early review of Austen—the Quarterly % article on

Emma—marveled at how Austen managed to make mere domesticity interest­ ing. Barchas also invokes James Joyce’s Ulysses as a later example of the kind of fiction that rewards accurate knowledge of real-world settings. She does not entirely eschew a biographical approach, drawing at times on Austen’s personal knowledge of places such as Bath and Lyme Regis. In some cases, Barchas’s book offers less interpretive payoff than one might expect, but when she lingers over moments in Austen’s texts, her readings are nearly always illuminating.

And the book is also full of enlightening illustrations.

Matters o f Fact in Jane Austen begins and ends with Persuasion, as the first chapter focuses on Austen’s choice of the name Wentworth and uncovers a link with her use of the name Vernon in Lady Susan. Barchas mentions that Donald

Greene, in a 1953 PM LA article, “Jane Austen and the Peerage,” had discussed how the name Wentworth evokes a prominent landed family, which Sir Wal­ ter Elliot, in the novel, brings up, claiming, however, that our hero is “uncon­ nected” with it. Greene had also pointed out that the names associated with a

Yorkshire estate called Wentworth Woodhouse included Watson, Fitzwilliam, and Darcy. Barchas suggests that by stressing the W hig side of this landed family, Greene overlooked competing associations with the Tory side, occuAusten’s Allusions to Cultural History 7 2 7 pants of nearby Wentworth Castle. After decades of “landscape rivalry” (42), the late eighteenth-century inheritors of the latter estate included a Freder­ ick Wentworth and a Frederick Vernon, a circumstance that may reveal reallife public tensions behind the family rivalries depicted in Austen’s relatively neglected novella.

The second and third chapters of Barchas’s book dwell on public con­ texts that shed light on Northanger Abbey, figures, buildings, and events asso­ ciated with Bath, including the eighteenth-century postal entrepreneur Ralph

Allen, whose name may have inspired Austen’s choice of the name Allen for the heroine’s protectors in Bath. Other critics have commented on how Aus­ ten takes for granted her readers’ knowledge of Bath’s streets and well-known public buildings, but Barchas contends that Austen also assumes readers’ awareness of the real-world sights presumably seen by the fictional Catherine during her carriage rides with the obnoxious John Thorpe, sights such as the late Ralph Allen’s mansion, Prior Park, and his imposing folly, Sham Castle.