Jane Austen scholars and fans have always known that there’s so much more to her novels than the mere surface description of a romantic tale. Janine Barchas, author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, points out that in addition to Jane’s wit, intelligence , humor, and creativity in penning her novels, she associated her fictional characters with famous British families. For the contemporary Regency reader, the Woodhouses, Fitzwilliams, Wentworths, and Dashwoods were the celebrities of their day. In choosing famous names, Jane Austen ramped up her readers’ interest in her fictional characters by associating them with notable names, places, and events.
In her book, Barchas examines genealogy, history, and geography and comes up with some fascinating information that has recently surfaced via online documents and texts. I had always assumed that Jane pulled names out of a hat, or picked them for how well they fit the character. (Mr. Wickham for the charming villain, Mr. Knightley, who is kind and good and a bit of a knight in shining armor.) According to Barchas, that is not necessarily the case. Take Northanger Abbey, for instance. Among Bath’s wealthiest residents n the 18th century were the Allens from Prior Park, a grand and beautiful Palladian mansion that was visible from #4 Sydney Place, the house in which the Austens resided before Rev. Austen’s death.
The Dashwood family gained a notorious reputation, with one of its members, Sir Francis Dashwood, becoming a prominent libertine in the Hell-Fire Club. The garden in his mansion, West Wycombe Park, featured risqué statues and Hell Fire caves. In contrast, the Ferrars (Ferrers) lived staunch Catholic lives in their medieval manor, Baddesley Clinton. Interestingly, Stoneleigh Abbey, where Jane stayed with her mother, whose family were the Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey, is only a half day’s ride from Baddesley Clinton.
And then there are the Wentworths, the grandest family of them all. Names seen on the Wentworth genealogy tree include Woodhouse, D’arcy, Bertram, Watson, and Fitzwilliam. Wentworth House in Yorkshire is quite grand, with vast grounds and public paths. After the “real” Frederick Wentworth died in 1799, his estate was passed on to the Vernons. (Shades of Lady Susan!) The contemporary Regency reader would have known that the Whig Wentworths resided in Wentworth House, while the Tory Wentworths lived in Wentworth Castle.
At the books beginning, Barchas mentions Jane Austen’s love for word play, riddles, and puzzles. The History of England, written when Austen was 15, was illustrated with 12 small watercolor portraits by Cassandra, Jane’s older sister.
According to Annette Upfal and Christine Alexander: ”the portraits which Cassandra drew into her sisters’ historical satire are encoded with veiled meaning.”
They argue that Austen’s summary discussion of kings and queens was comically interpolated with recognizable portraits of namesakes: brothers Edward, Henry, and James Austen, for example, stand in for Edward VI, Henry V, and James I, respectively. Similarly, cousins Mary Lloyd and Edward Cooper may have served Cassandra as models for Mary I and Edward IV. “
Upfal and Alexander also matched the profiles and portraits of Jane and her mother to those of Mary, Queen of Scots (Jane) and that of Elizabeth I (Mrs Austen). Barchas devotes scarcely a full page to this information and yet, as you can see, one can spend many minutes trying to decide how Jane and Cassandra used their family members and friends as models for the historical characters.
Matters of Fact in Jane Austen is not an easy read, for the book is crammed with facts, information, and new insights. One simply cannot skim over its pages, but should read each new chapter closely in order to learn what Jane’s contemporaries knew readily and well. Imagine an author writing a satirical novel today about a family going bankrupt and the daughters having to work for a living, using the Kardashian/Jenner family names and Los Angeles as a setting, and throwing in a crooked politician, lobbyist, Wall Street banker, and well-known radio talk show host. We would laugh and guffaw and understand the associations and jokes, but two hundred years from now, readers would be left clueless. In this book Barchas acts as our Regency guide, pointing out to us what was once obvious.
This is a serious, scholarly work, one that I highly recommend to readers who enjoy new and illuminating perspectives about Austen’s novels and life.
Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel.
- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1421406403
- ISBN-13: 978-1421406404
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