MATTERS OF FACT IN JANE AUSTEN: HISTORY, LOCATION, AND CELEBRITY by Janine Barchas, Reviewed by Crystal B. Lake
 

MATTERS OF FACT IN JANE AUSTEN: HISTORY, LOCATION, AND CELEBRITY
By Janine Barchas
(Johns Hopkins, 2012) xviii + 317 pp.
Reviewed by Crystal B. Lake on 2015-08-22.

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This book prompts the reader to channel an incredulous Alicia Silverstone, the lead actress in Clueless (1995), Amy Heckerling's comedic remake of Emma: "As if!" Barchas's study opens a dizzying closet of previously unknown historical allusions in Austen's novels--enough to put even a Clueless shopping spree to shame. Surely, many of these allusions are coincidences: accidents of common names and common places that would have been, well, commonplace in the relatively small world of Regency literary culture. If these allusions were not coincidences, if there were in fact many "matters of fact" in Austen's novels, her readers-- of which there are so many more now than then -- would have tracked most of them down with paparazzi zeal.

Barchas takes her point of departure from Donald Greene's 1953 essay in PMLA, "Jane Austen and the Peerage," which links the character names found in Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion -- Darcy, Wodehouse, and Wentworth -- to certain families that conspicuously appear in both Arthur Collins's The Peerage of England (1756) and Austen's own family tree. According to Barchas, Greene found only the tip of the iceberg. In Austen's works, she contends, even the names of minor characters have their historical referents.

Take, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey: the childless couple that whisks Catherine Morland away on her ill-fated trip to Bath. Barchas argues that the Allen surname yokes the novel to the childless Ralph Allen (bap. 1693-1764), famed owner of Prior Park, just outside of Bath. When Ralph Allen died in 1764, his estate descended to a distant niece with a different surname. When she died childless as well in 1796, a more remote branch of the Allen family inherited the estate but never lived at Prior Park, whose ownership and fate stirred frenzied gossip in the environs of Bath until its sale in 1807. Austen's use of the Allen surname, Barchas claims, is a deliberate and clever nod to the real-life Allens, and recognizing it as such, she contends, sheds light on a number of questions: why John Thorpe and General Tilney could be so mistaken about Catherine Morland's financial situation; how aesthetically innovative were Austen's use of history, gossip, and region; when the novel was composed and revised; and even where readers could imagine characters to stand and travel and, as a result, catch subtle clues to their virtues or vices and the arc of the plot. As if!

After all, Allen is a common-enough name in the period's fiction, appearing in Clara Reeve's The Two Mentors (1783), Charlotte Lennox's Euphemia (1790), Jane Purbeck's Raynsford Park (1790), Hannah Moore's The Wife Reformed (1795), and Elizabeth Sandham's Juliana (1800). A Mr. and Mrs. Allen play prominent parts in the anonymous The Weird Sisters (1794). Comfortable but not wealthy (Mrs. Allen is a clothes hog, Mr. Allen a well-meaning but ineffective father-figure), they resemble Morland's guardians in many ways. Although they have children (unlike the Allens in Northanger Abbey), they believe that they will probably never again see their sons, who are in the East and West Indies, so they become protectors to a young damsel in distress beset by a rake. There is also a Mr. Allen in Agnes de-Courci (1789), written by none other than the propitiously named "Mrs. Bennett" and also published in Bath. Ann Thicknesse's The School for Fashion (1800) uses the name Allen too, but unlike Austen, Thicknesse clearly refers to the real life Mr. Allen of Prior Park. Is it not likely that Austen simply plucked a name out of this literary milieu, as did her novel-writing contemporaries? Or if she didn't, and if she meant her readers to recognize the reference, mightn't she have felt the need, like Thicknesse, to make it explicit?

Even if not, history supplies as many Allens as fiction does. Besides the aforementioned Ralph Allen, they include Thomas Allen (1681-1755), clergyman and author of a number of published sermons and religious tracts; James Allen (1734-1810), piper and convicted horse thief, one of the first individuals reportedly pardoned by the Prince Regent but too late to stay his execution; and a lesser known "Mr. Allen," circus horseman. Several additional Allens invite us to link them to Austen. Could the surname of Austen's best known fictional family, for instance, have come from Bennet Allen (1736-1819), journalist, panegyrist, and satirist with a penchant for dueling? Since two of Austen's brothers served with distinction in the British navy, she might also have known about Ethan Allen (1738-1798), the American colonel whom the British captured and who ever after symbolized a revolutionary cri de coeur. And at last there is the antiquary and collector George Allan (1736-1800), printing copies of medieval manuscripts alongside a peerage and thus sharing in his way Austen's interest in history and the aristocracy. "A lady's imagination is very rapid," as Austen might say (Pride and Prejudice 1.6), when there are so many Allens on offer. Or, "how quick come the reasons for approving what we like" (Persuasion 1.2), and how "seldom can it happen that something is not...a little mistaken" (Emma 3.13).

For all that, Barchas's scholarship and style are so thoroughly convincing that they may overcome the foregoing objections. To buttress her claim, for instance, that Northanger Abbey alludes not just to any Allen, but to the Ralph Allen, she uses the landmark Allen estate at Prior Park to map the movements of the novel's characters with unprecedented precision, accounting for where they do and, interestingly, where they do not. While today's readers blithely see and know only what the characters or narrator tell us they see and know, Barchas has found out what they could have seen and known, and what they likely did, in fact, see and know. By thus unearthing the novel's topographical network of real-world referents, Barchas shows how it experiments with and comments on "genre, history, and the Gothic." Austen's direct invocations of regional tourist sites and au courant celebrity culture, Barchas writes, mediate between the "real solemn history" that excluded women like Catherine Morland and the sensationalism of gothic novels that assuaged anxieties about gender by setting uncomfortable patriarchal plots in far flung places and times (90).

Barchas's readings of other novels by Austen prove similarly compelling. She finds, for example, that Sense and Sensibility encodes the history of the Dashwood family at West Wycombe. The notorious Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) reportedly held orgies that satirized Catholicism at his lavish estate, which was decked out with objects designed to exemplify his erotic tastes, and reports on his proclivities were widespread enough to have caught Austen's attention. In addition, Barchas reports that the paternal grandfather of Austen's most famed suitor, Tom Lefroy, acted as none other than Dashwood's agent in Italy in 1741, procuring pictures and sculptures that would later be featured at West Wycombe. Austen's novel is, of course, hardly a tribute to Dashwood's licentiousness, but that's precisely the point. By alluding to him, Barchas contends, Austen reveals her taste not only for sense and irony but also for satire.

In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwoods are contraposed with a family whose name, Barchas writes, was likewise a matter of fact: Ferrars. According to Barchas, the Ferrars' Catholicism was just as well known as the Dashwood's anti-Catholicism. Taken together, then, Austen's allusions amount to a "tidy juxtaposition" that "contrast[s]" the Ferrars' piety with Dashwood's mockery of the same, revealing that the novel's religious investments ought to be more central in future readings. But by giving each fictional family at least one character who contradicts the course of history and the narratives established by the gossip tabloids of the day, Austen represents the fictional Dashwoods and Ferrars very differently from their real-life counterparts. In recognizing such differences, Barchas reassesses not only the content and themes of Austen's novels but also her artistic achievements.

This aspect of Barchas's study becomes clearest in her reading of Persuasion. According to Barchas, Austen's last completed novel hinges on two texts that often appear in it and form its spine: the Baronetage and the navy list. Drawing on her previous work, Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (2008), Barchas shows how the sheer physical states of these books as they existed in Jane Austen's world illuminate the central conflict in the novel between an "old and a new order" (207). While Austen cleverly prompts us to see that the two works are roughly the same height, they also make materially manifest the weighty difference between England's landholding elite and a class of rising professionals: where the Baronetage is a hefty monument to permanence, the navy list is more ephemeral and ever-changing (211). But ironically enough, as Barchas observes, the Baronetage of Austen's novel lists not the names of its most aristocratic families, but of its up and coming navy characters whose virtues depend on their industry: the Crofts and, most pointedly, Wentworth. Conversely, the names of the novel's landed gentry come almost entirely from the registers of the navy: Darlymple, Cateret, and Elliot.

This is not to say, however, that Austen's novel strictly inverts social order, as many of her critics claim. Rather, Barchas argues, she achieves in Persuasion a fictional "parity" at once "radical" and balanced, equally weighing the relative merits of two competing systems that press on Austen's own contemporary moment and, moreover, extend backwards in time (211). Thus, the names that the novel draws from the Baronetage and the navy list also gloss Austen's choice of the setting for Louisa Musgrove's fall: the Cobb at Lyme extends out into Monmouth Beach, so named because there the Duke of Monmouth began his failed attempt to dethrone James II. Jocelyn Harris has already noticed in the setting at Monmouth Beach a confluence between the Austen family's Tory sympathies and Austen's youthful preference for Stuart romance. Barchas, however, uncovers another important detail: Monmouth's mistress was named Henrietta Wentworth (1660-1686), a name implying a marriage-- between Frederick Wentworth and Henrietta Musgrove--which Persuasion steadfastly resists. For Barchas, therefore, Persuasion stages a contest between the old and the new in terms of its representation of books, money, and politics. Persuasion, she finds, reaches a "stalemate" that recognizes the relative merits of each system. As much as it tries to mitigate the social and political conflicts of the wider world outside Austen's inch of ivory, it also offers a timely balm to the Austens' own vexed financial state at the time of the novel's composition (253).

Elsewhere, this book marshals an astonishing number of further would-be coincidences to explain what the names of Austen's characters and her settings might reveal. Like a thrilling detective story, Barchas's study consistently and pleasurably overcomes the incredulity and skepticism it provokes. Besides inspiring serious and sustained reassessment of Austen's novels, Barchas's findings may also lead us to re-examine long settled conclusions regarding the dates of Austen's compositions and revisions.

In the end, Barchas aims to elevate Austen to the rank that Sir Walter Scott enjoys as a historical novelist and that James Joyce enjoys as an innovator of modern, "encyclopedic" fiction (1). I'm not sure that Austen needed her reputation to soar any higher, but I take Barchas's point: all too often, scholars and fans alike have assumed that Austen's artistic achievement was warmed by the fireside of a country cottage's front parlor, surrounded by a closed and close circle of family and neighbors. Austen has hitherto had the misfortune of knowing a lot of things that she concealed. Unquestionably, Barchas's study demonstrates that Austen was an avid reader of history and news and that she found inspiration in salacious gossip about celebrities both alive and dead. Scholars will continue to ask --and fruitfully so--how Austen exploited the cultural and political implications of history, news, and gossip, and how she wove such "matters of fact" into both the content and form of her fiction. In fact, one hopes that Barchas's method might be usefully applied to Austen's contemporaries in order to further evaluate the relationships between "matters of fact" and the period's fiction.

Crystal B. Lake is Associate Professor of English at Wright State University.


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