Date of this Version
Journal of British Studies / Volume 52 / Issue 03 / July 2013, pp 786 - 787 DOI: 10.1017/jbr.2013.89
Janine Barchas’s thought-provoking study of Austen’s naming practices unearths a wealth of historical antecedents for Austen’s characters and posits an Austen whose gamesmanship with the names of persons and places rivals the knowingness and playfulness of James Joyce. In earlier decades, such a highly ambitious and wide-reaching work could not have been accomplished except through protracted antiquarian research. Web scholarship, however, has made it possible for Barchas to uncover in a relatively short time a remarkable array of the many interconnected historical figures bearing such names as Wentworth, Darcy, Vernon, Ferrars, Allen, and Dashwood whose heroic exploits, political machinations, tragic romances, inheritances, bankruptcies, and (in one noteworthy case) obscene horticulture all point to Austen’s intensity of naming with a purpose. Donald Greene’s essay “Jane Austen and the Peerage” (PMLA 68 : 1017–31) broke the ground for such a study by demonstrating Austen’s interest in the great Whig peers from the Wentworth family (including William Wentworth Fitzwilliam [1748–1833], Robert D’Arcy [1718–78], and Charles Watson Wentworth, Lord Rockingham [1730–1882; prime minister, 1765–66 and 1782]— note the names of the heroes of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion). However, as Barchas explains, for many reasons Austen scholarship has been slow to follow Greene’s lead, especially in any systematic way. And even Barchas’s study does not fully account for what might be uncovered. As she is the first to note, she has so much to say about the historical substrates of names and places in the juvenilia (particularly Evelyn and Lady Susan) and in three of the novels, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, that Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Sanditon enter into her analysis only here and there. Barchas leaves for her afterword the tempting possibility that all of Austen’s work may be undergirded by a sagalike tapestry of ironic parallels and inversions of British history, in which the real Wentworths, Dashwoods, and Darcys intermingle in a dance of echoes.