I have long been fascinated by Jane Austen’s choice of first names for her characters, and today I’m looking at how the early 19th naming system worked. The 1800 name pool was, by modern standards, surprisingly small, and this is echoed in Jane Austen’s constant reuse of the same names. Take the name Mary; there are two Marys in Pride & Prejudice (Mary Bennet and the heiress Mary King, pursued by Wickham); a Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park; and Mary Musgrove in Persuasion. According to research done by The Names Society, Mary was the most common girl’s name in 1800, closely followed by Anne and Elizabeth, so perhaps we should not be surprised. Jane Austen even calls two major characters by her own Christian name, Jane, which comes in at number 5 in the 1800 list. There is Jane Bennet in Pride & Prejudice and Jane Fairfax in Emma.
I have been re-reading Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 in which she demonstrates very clearly how the Napoleonic Wars permeated every aspect of life for twenty-two long years and affected everybody – including Jane Austen’s characters – as the country faced the urgent need for men for the armed forces, military supplies, ships, a modern transport system, efficient banking, and so on.
Captured Napoleonic Eagle of the 105th by the Royal Dragoons at the Battle of Waterloo,1815, in the Household Cavalry Museum (copy)
This post is a refutation of those critics who assert that Jane Austen’s novels concentrate only on domestic everyday life as lived by the English upper-middle classes.Jane Austen, they say, ignores the wider picture and fails to mention the Napoleonic Wars. This, in my opinion, is simply not true. In fact, the war is a constant, and important, background to her novels; the problem is that most modern readers fail to recognize her references to it.
In every film or television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many) Mr Bennet comes across as a sympathetic character; a man we could like. We enjoy his irony with regard to the oleaginous Mr Collins: ‘It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?’
He finds Mr Collins ‘as absurd as he had hoped; and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance…’ And we laugh with him.
But there is a less admirable side to Mr Bennet, one which leads to a great deal of unhappiness for his elder daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, and near disaster for the flighty Lydia who runs off with the caddish (though handsome) Wickham.
The importance of precedence is a major theme in Jane Austen’s last novel Persuasion, and this post looks at the ramifications of this. Persuasion’s opening scene shows Sir Walter Elliot’s perusal of the Baronetage, the most important book in his library, which charts the lineage of the Elliot family from its first mention in Sir William Dugdale’s Baronetage of England (1675-6) to Sir Walter’s own entry in the 1790s.
In this post, I’m looking at how travel, for Jane Austen heroines, always indicates change of some sort. Take Northanger Abbey. Our heroine, the seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, is travelling to Bath with Mr and Mrs Allen. Catherine, who lives almost entirely inside her head with the Gothic romances she so loves, hopes for Adventure, with a capital A. But, as Jane Austen tells us, the journey ‘was performed with suitable quietness and uneventful safety. Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero.’
Three villains in horsemen’s greatcoats
There may not be a Gothic villain ready to abduct her, but the journey, nevertheless, signifies an important change. The Allens are not Catherine’s parents, and Mrs Allen proves to be a careless chaperone. She sees nothing wrong with Catherine becoming best friends with the flighty Isabella Thorpe, daughter of her old friend Mrs Thorpe, nor of Catherine driving out alone with that boastful rattle, John Thorpe.
General Tilney is surely one of the most unpleasant characters Jane Austen ever created. He’s greedy, hypocritical and a bully. But it is through him that Jane Austen’s naïve eighteen-year-old heroine, Catherine Morland, learns a number of important lessons about human nature.
When Catherine first sees him in the Assembly Rooms she is standing beside Henry Tilney – a man she has recently met and finds very attractive. She notices that she is being ‘earnestly regarded by a gentleman…immediately behind her. He was a very handsome man, of a commanding aspect, past the bloom, but not past the vigour, of life.’ He learns forward and whispers something to Mr Tilney.
Mary Crawford’s harp is more than just a fashionable early 19th century musical instrument, it has a number of important jobs to do in the unfolding of the Mansfield Park plot, not least in allowing the readers to see Mary’s character for themselves.
Young Lady Playing the Harp by James Northcote, 1816
In this post, I want to look at the curious fact that none of Jane Austen’s heroines (whose ages range between seventeen and twenty-seven) or her heroes (whose ages range from about twenty-four to thirty-seven) have living grandparents. Indeed, that older generation of, say, sixty plus, seems to be missing. Can this be true? And, if so, what difference does it make? To answer these questions, we need a bit of background information about life expectancy in the early 19th century. Edwin Chadwick’s ground-breaking 1842 survey on public health, tells us that the life expectancy of a member of the gentry or professional class in Rutland (chosen as a typical rural location) was fifty-two; and for an artisan or labourer, it was thirty-eight. There are, of course, a number of factors to be taken into account: infant mortality rates, for example, but for the purpose of this post, I’m staying with the basic facts, as near as we can get them.
The only young lady in Jane Austen’s novels with a living grandparent is Jane Fairfax in Emma who has the aged Mrs Bates, ‘a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille.’ I’ll be looking at how old Mrs Bates actually is later.