Margaret A. Doody has written, among other things, authoritative studies of Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney, along with The True Story of the Novel (1996) and The Daring Muse (1985), which is still one of the very best books on 18th century poetry and indeed one of the best introductions to 18th-century literature in general. In short, this new book on Jane Austen has a lot to live up to, and it does not disappoint. No one, with the possible exception of Jane Austen herself, knows the fiction of Jane Austen and her time more intimately than Margaret Doody, and the depth and breadth of this knowledge is richly deployed here. To show how carefully Austen layers the intertextual resonances of names and places into her novelistic practice, Doody marshals a dazzling array of material regarding history, names, places, and plotting culled from an expansive reading of 18th- and early nineteenth-century novels, along with books on aesthetics, local history, and the English countryside. The result is a uniquely illuminating as well as enjoyable book that teaches us to think about Austen's artistry in fundamentally new ways.
Weighing in at over 400 pages, this book is both dense with minute, local information and fast moving in its sweep. Rather than proceeding more or less chronologically through extended readings of each novel, it is divided into three large sections -- the first on history (Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Tudor, Stuart, Georgian), the second on names and naming, and the third on places -- and each section ranges from Austen's earliest sketches through the Steventon novels, the Chawton novels, and Sanditon.
Although each section is deeply informative, I find Doody's discussion of places, real and imagined, the most suggestive. For example, Doody persuasively shows that Huntingdon is an invisible but pervasively important place in Mansfield Park, a place every bit as important and haunting as, say, Portsmouth on one hand and Antigua on the other. By magisterially parsing the status of Huntingdon as a small market town, its association with Oliver Cromwell, witchcraft, and its lack of wealth and stature relative to neighboring Northampton, where Sir Thomas is from, Doody demonstrates what no one has ever noticed before or can fail to notice again: Austen's deliberateness in her choice of places. Hailing as they do from the backwater of Huntingdon, the Ward sisters carry the odor of Podunk with them throughout the entire novel. It is not some grand otiosity (as Trilling, for example, had it) but the shadowed presence of this particular place, and the social anxiety it produces, that accounts for Lady Bertram's wordless station upon the sofa. Likewise, it is not some grand preternatural evil but the presence of Huntingdon that accounts for Mrs. Norris's compulsive frugality, her knowledge of "charms," and her hostility to Fanny as the same sort of social climber that she herself is. The presence of Huntingdon also makes us see Mrs. Price not as someone who fell from her station but stayed within it rather than putting on airs, as her sisters did. No one has ever shown this or anything like this before. The insight and knowledge that Doody supplies here are game-changers for future readings of Mansfield Park.
As a further example from Northanger Abbey, take Catherine Morland's home county of Wiltshire, whose natives, Doody shows us, were popularly considered so clueless that they believed they could rake in the moon's watery reflection yet so crafty as to wish to conceal this illegal activity. Calling our attention to the multiple meanings circulating around the denizens of Wiltshire, Doody again suggests Austen's deliberation in setting up systems of signification we have overlooked. Either take on Wiltshire's moonrakers sheds light on Catherine Morland's complex mixture of simplicity and depth. Equally suggestive for the Wiltshire context are the monumental presences of Salisbury Cathedral on one hand and Stonehenge on the other, for they place Catherine in a more transcendently haunting Gothic context than she -- characteristically -- seems aware of. This point is almost as much of a game-changer as the material on Huntingdon, and once again Doody's attention to named, local particulars has the powerful effect of showing Northanger Abbey (like all of Austen's novels) to be denser and more fleshed out than we have ever been accustomed to imagine.
As Doody herself is aware, this book shares some territory with Janine Barchas's Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Both studies uncover patterns of reference and allusion lost upon 21st-century readers. But in impetus and aim these two studies widely diverge. As her title suggests, Barchas gathers "facts" that are then applied to Austen's fictive world. For Doody, historical as well as contemporary names and places are imaginative material for Austen. The payoffs in Jane Austen's Names are sometimes suggestive rather than factual, strictly speaking, and this is a good thing. We're reminded several times that the young Austen deplored Queen Elizabeth and warmly took the part of Mary Queen of Scots, but this doesn't always add up in a clear way: though many Elizabeths in the novels are cold and selfish, Elizabeth Bennet certainly is not, and Mary (Doody observes) is a name reserved for unpleasant characters. Likewise, in calling attention to the historical origins of abbeys -- religious establishments seized by the crown and given to political favorites -- Doody underscores the greed, illegitimacy, and violence lurking behind General Tilney's place, Northanger Abbey. But does this same history apply to George Knightley's Donwell Abbey, which readers (following Emma herself) tend to idealize? While Doody shows how Emma works to counterbalance this history of violence with other, legitimizing names and contexts, she does not furnish a definitive answer -- a fact -- and this is a strength, for she thereby shows how Austen's imagination enriches and complicates her material.
What's important here, in other words, is not simply the countless instances of allusion that Doody reveals, but the entire compositional habit of specification that produces them. Not too long ago, Austen was considered a neoclassical novelist bent on generalizing. Ostensibly, her subject was human nature purified of the dross of particular times and places. Tony Tanner appealed to something like this when he explained why Jane Austen's novels required so few footnotes (remember back then?), and D.A. Miller's divinely disembodied Jane Austen belongs to this same tradition, where immaculate style trumps substance. By contrast, attuned to the specificity of places and names along with the ethnic and historical resonances, implications, and histories they carry, Doody gives us an abundant Austen, a punning and playful writer who is rooted, bodied, particularized and particularizing, who uses every title, every name (first name, surname, nickname), every shire, town, village, park, hedgerow, abbey, and castle to weave full, multi-layered, and densely textured novels. In insisting that words, names, places, and history itself are concretely felt and understood by Austen, Jane Austen's Names is truly original and transformative.
It provokes and illuminates in other ways as well. Its opening section, "England," helpfully provides a background in English history that all of our students so sorely lack. But the history Doody regards as the most crucial for Austen is not that of the time in which she lived-- that is, the French Revolution and its aftermaths. Though we have historicized and particularized Austen in this way ever since Marilyn Butler's pathbreaking Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), Doody stresses the broader sweep of English history that is still encoded in personal and place names: the Norman Invasion, the reformation in England, the dissolution of monasteries and the abjection of Catholicism, the English Civil War and its 17th- and 18th-century reverberations, the histories written everywhere across the British countryside. She reminds us of the different valences of Norman (Darcy) vs. English names (Wentworth); she patiently maps out the matrix of names referring to actual personages (e.g., Dashwoods) or fictional personages (e.g., Charles Bingley, from Roche's Children of the Abbey); and, parsing their names and appearances, she uncovers the Scottish background of the Crawfords and relates it to the uneasiness of their social and moral identities. Along the way, Doody shows Austen far more attentive to differences, ethnicities, inclusions, and exclusions within the British Isles than we tend to notice. Further, Doody's Austen is always rooting for the underdog, and the underdogs are generally Catholic, people dispossessed, discredited, and swept aside as the victors now pose as the guardians of tradition and stability. Drawing on Austen's own accomplishment as an historian, on her marginalia in Goldsmith's History of England, and on a vast tapestry of other inter-textual allusions from 18th- and early 19th-century novels, Doody presents Austen as a mildly Jacobite contrarian, distrustful of self-serving Whig cover stories about progress and enlightened authority, especially as exemplified by showy places such as Mansfield Park, Sotherton, Northanger Abbey, places an earlier generation of critics earmarked as Tory and held forth as bastions of order and civility. This book makes us rethink not only the basic nature of Austen's art, but also the basic valences of her world.
Jane Austen's Names is an erudite, provocative, and original book. It is the fruit of decades of reading, teaching, and writing about Austen and her predecessors, and it is written with the same energy and expansiveness that we are invited to appreciate in Austen herself. There is much to be learned from this book, and some to be quarreled with as well, but it will certainly have a profound impact on the future of Austen studies for years to come.
Claudia L. Johnson is
Murray Professor of English Literature at Princeton University.