- Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places by Margaret Doody
Doody’s most recent book, Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (2015), brings to Austen two distinguished models of scholarship from the past. Instead of offering a narrow, closely-argued thesis, this book is more like those rich and expansive explanatory notes in the great variorum editions of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Long notes in such tomes indefatigably traced poets’ intertextuality; the implicit message of such scholarship was that these four writers inherited all historical and literary traditions; they were fully-acknowledged citizens of the world. In Jane Austen’s Names, Doody has achieved a milestone, applying this encyclopedic technique to fiction and to a female.
At the same time, Jane Austen’s Names recalls John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu (1927), a largely forgotten but once-popular account of the literary and psychological genesis of “Kubla Khan” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: Lowes practiced cultural archeology. Doody does similar digging, taking readers into the mind of Austen herself, a rich place where English history and geography perpetually “shimmer” (3). In Jane Austen’s Names, readers become aware of the “long reach of Jane Austen’s historical memory and her creative play with history” (13–14). We see that Austen’s mind is a portable and compendious ocean, that from Austen’s perspective, England is a place where multiple eras are “simultaneously visible,” “different times pressing against each other” (18). We often assume that Austen’s art is realistic, spare in its use of detail. But Doody expands the range of interpretable detail in Austen’s fiction to include given names, family names, and all place names, both real and feigned. Doody convinces us that “Austen’s poetics is complex, multiplex under its simplicity, evocative rather than (as it pretends) totally naturalistic” (18). This volume will convince readers that an “uneasy awareness...of former things” (228) saturates Austen, that her novels are haunted by the traumatic breaks in English history: the Norman Conquest, the Wars of the Roses, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the Civil Wars.
Doody’s volume has something for readers on every level. It has much to offer the beginning student. I know of no better introduction to the Middle Ages and Renaissance than chapter 2, “Names as History: Invasion, Migration, War, and Conflict” (20–33). Doody provides a comparable survey of the geography of England, “Placing the Places” (234–41). The volume includes a learned digression about trends in English given names and about names as signifiers of status (54–59). Doody deftly defines geographical terms like hangar, spinney, and shaw. I promise that, after you have read this book, even familiar words like “park” will take on new meaning (313).
Predictably, some of Doody’s speculations about names and places will not convince all readers, as when she associates Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility with the Sarah Jenyns who became the Duchess of Marlborough or when she argues that Willoughby’s name derives from the Norman Norse wilgebi, “a settlement in a place of willows” (97). When the historical associations or etymologies are not appropriate, Doody can always conveniently argue that they are ironic.
But readers will experience more a-ha moments than fits of skepticism. Why in Pride and Prejudice do inheritance laws differ in Hertfordshire and Kent? Because the Anglo-Saxon Gavelkind—which did not insist on primogeniture—had been allowed to remain in Kent. Why did Austen make the clueless Catherine Morland a native of Wiltshire? Because natives of that county were notorious for being a bit thick. Why [End Page 132] did Austen present the county of Kent so unflatteringly? Because the author had been treated condescendingly by her brother Edward’s wife and her snooty relations. Why did the Bingley parents christen two of their children Charles and Caroline, forms of the same Stuart name? Because they wanted their nouveau riche family to “seem old and conservative” (118). The name Lydia suggests hedonism: recall Milton...