- Jane Austens Names: Riddles, Persons, Places by Margaret Doody
Jane Austen’s references to the real world have determined her positions in popular culture, undergraduate curricula, and realist fiction. On one hand, Austen’s allusions to historical events are slim enough for many readers to find her accessible today. On the other hand, Austen’s confined focus on the largely internal worlds of a few characters has vexed accounts of her realist novels since Walter Scott’s early appraisal of her ‘“correct and striking representation’ of the world as it is” (385). The assumption that shapes much of Margaret Doody’s Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places is not that Austen’s novels refer to real people or places, but instead that Austen’s names for characters and locations work in varied and [End Page 757] complex ways to expose historical conflict and contemporary tensions. Austen’s subtle allusions create a “poetics of anachronism, of multiplicity” (17) that emerges not in allegory or coded one-to-one equivalences, but in webs of competing associations and layered temporalities.
This meticulous, expansive, and enjoyable book recreates the delight of Austen’s wordplay in detailed etymologies, anecdotes, and historical and literary references. Doody’s vast research will undoubtedly afford readers of Austen new angles on the novels’ familiar characters and significant places. There is great payoff in this book’s copious details. Doody identifies “Fitzwilliam Darcy,” for example, as a striking instance of the kinds of tension with which Austen invests characters’ names. The prefix of Mr Darcy’s “unchristian ‘Christian name’” denotes an illegitimate son of a Norman aristocrat (the prefix “fitz-” specifies illegitimacy); the historical Thomas, Lord Darcy, beheaded in 1537 for his role in challenging the Dissolution of the Monasteries, offers a surname that “redeems the crass acquisitiveness and self-satisfaction” of the hero’s first name (82). Pride and Prejudice’s resolution at Pemberley, which Doody explicates as “a clearing of a man who grows barley,” signals not only Elizabeth Bennet’s social rise but also a return to agricultural production. Irony lends tension to the names of secondary characters. Mr Collins, the uptight clergyman, shares the name of Anthony Collins, a controversial freethinker, and the surname of the novel’s rootless suitor—Wickham—combines Old English “wick” (settlement) and “ham” (habitation) to yield something akin to “place-place” (115). Historical associations also restructure character hierarchies. Doody explicates the knightly associations of “Martin” (Saint Martin, who slashed his cloak in half to clothe a beggar), which lend balance and equality to Emma, whose mere “Mr” Knightley, in Doody’s reading, has more in common with the lowly Robert Martin than their status and names would, at first glance, seem to suggest (162-64).
Doody’s discussion of Mansfield Park, the novel with more geographical references than Austen’s other works, is especially illuminating for the ways in which it positions the novel’s much-discussed allusions to slavery within an extensive web of references that includes the names of ships, stars, and constellations. Mobility is especially pronounced in this novel, in which Doody finds, based in part on the “hidden Scottishness” of the Crawfords and the Welsh origins of “Price,” that acclimating to an unfamiliar culture is a persistent challenge for most of the novel’s characters (132). Also remarkable is the reading of Persuasion, in which Austen’s complex negotiations of multiple temporalities appear in particularly resonant names and, as Doody puts it, “Place becomes Time” (374). The surname of this novel’s hero, Wentworth, is the centre of Austen’s “Great Name Matrix,” a group of surnames derived from historical figures that spreads across all her novels and includes Fitzwilliam and D’Arcy. Austen [End Page 758] is said to value Wentworth for the pun it contains: “Frederick went, but he was worth something” (175). Indeed, Doody observes, “Time is very odd—in a novel in which the hero’s name contains a verb in the past tense” (188).
Value of a different sort is...