The State of the Union of Jane Austen, Fact and Fiction

By Devoney LooserJanuary 27, 2013

The State of the Union of Jane Austen, Fact and Fiction

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen by Janine Barchas
Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures by Claudia L. Johnson

JANE AUSTEN RUINED MY LIFE may someday find itself among the least forgettable of the spate of Austen-inspired books published in the past several years. In Beth Patillo’s 2009 novel, literature professor protagonist Emma Douglas is drawn into a secret society wherein she discovers that hundreds of previously unknown Austen letters survive, hidden by the society’s protective devotees. The novel describes Emma’s gradual discovery of the (fictionalized) real-life people and (fictionalized) real-life events that inspired Austen’s novels, as revealed in these squirreled-away letters. The good professor struggles with whether to divulge to a hungry public what she has learned. Of course, she also has her own happy ending to discover, as any reader would rightly expect of an Austen-themed story and particularly one published by Guideposts (best known for its inspirational Christian magazine of the same name). Having recently read Pattillo’s frothy entertainment as a break from weightier things, I am most struck by how this book anticipates some works of serious scholarship that have since followed it into print; Jane Austen Ruined My Life suggests that today’s groundbreaking literary criticism inadvertently imitates artful fan fiction.

The present-day Jane Austen seems shaken, not stirred into popular culture. Is it really all that surprising, then, that the interests of the best critics and the most uncritical consumers of her might converge? Although the literati may understandably be appalled by the recent proliferation of action figures, devotional verse, and plastic bandages, even the purists among us can’t deny that Austen’s inhabiting these forms must alter how we read her fiction. Marjorie Garber has declared that the first line of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — “It is a truth universally acknowledged” — has morphed into a cultural bromide, so oft-repeated as to be emptied of meaning. But the celebrity of Austen herself is anything but commonplace or unoriginal.

The permeable boundaries between the popular and sometimes absurd Austen and the scholarly Austen surely matter in ways that will be long in unraveling. Recent Austen scholarship has capitalized on this high-low traffic, mirroring the marketing of “I [Heart] Darcy” bumper stickers more than we might like to admit — and I don’t exempt myself from the charge of opportunism. I am an English professor who has the good fortune to teach Jane Austen by day. By night, I skate on the local roller derby team as my alter ego, Stone Cold Jane Austen. As a result, I regularly field such farcical questions as “What would Jane Austen think of tattoos?” and, from my son, “Mommy, who is Jane Austen? Are you Jane Austen?” So I do not speak here from on high. The shrines to Jane Austen in my life involve sweat-stained wrist guards, not 19th-century editions of her works. But even I find myself asking on occasion, “What is the point of our sifting through and documenting all of today’s Austen-infused dreck?” It is especially heartening, then, to find emerging work on Austen and popular culture that moves beyond recounting how she has been mashed up with zombies, vampires, or porn. The best new work asks not only the multivalent, unanswerable question, “Why Austen? Why Now?” It also carefully charts “How did we get here?”

Both Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures and Janine Barchas’s Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity are exemplars of this more sophisticated work on Austen and popular culture. Johnson’s book makes sense, directly and indirectly, of the factual-fiction impulse behind novels like Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life, telling the fascinating story of how the mystique of Austen was gradually created, maintained, and spun out in unpredictable ways in the years after her death in 1817. Johnson unearths both the many-sided truths and the wide-ranging implications of our false fantasies of Austen, drawing conclusions from evidence ranging from portraits and memorials to fairy tales and relics. By contrast, Barchas makes a compelling case for our acknowledging some of the real-life 18th- and 19th-century people who may stand behind Austen’s fictional characters, in order to reveal long occluded ways of seeing Austen’s relationship with history and celebrity culture.

Whereas Johnson’s book seeks primarily to reveal false things about Austen that have taken on the status of truths or at least truisms, Barchas’s book sets out to reveal hidden-in-plain-sight truths. Barchas describes the previously unrecognized historical people that Austen may have meant for readers to associate with her fictional characters. (Hint: they often share surnames.) In the process, Barchas argues that Austen’s characters, from Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth to Northanger Abbey’s John Thorpe, were not only drawn from but were meant to echo once-well-known people, such as Frederick Wentworth, the third Earl of Strafford (1732–1799) and Thomas Thorpe, 18th-century mapmaker of Bath. Her goal is to show that Austen’s name-dropping method was chosen for specific artistic purposes. Barchas’s book, we might say, deals in factual fictions, whereas Johnson’s book tackles fictional facts.

Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures takes as its focus Austen’s “afterlives.” Despite previous work on this subject by gifted critics like Rachel Brownstein, Katie Halsey, Claire Harman, Anthony Mandal, and Kathryn Sutherland, much remains to be said on the subject. Johnson’s book has been years in the making, and it more than paves our way forward. The influential essay that served as the origin of her work on Austen in World War I (focusing on “The Janeites,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling) was published in 1996 as “The Divine Miss Jane: Jane Austen, Janeites, and the Discipline of Novel Studies.” This essay was a revelation to me, a stunning model of how to make new sense of Austen’s reception. Austen, Johnson showed, had a century ago been thought the rightful property of elite men, not an author relegated to “chick lit.” I eagerly awaited the extended, evolving version of Johnson’s argument, but what I did not anticipate was that Johnson would begin by confessing that she’d had an encounter with Austen’s ghost.

Johnson describes joining a long line of critics who have grappled with the ghostly Austen. Critic Sheila Kaye-Smith in More Talk of Jane Austen (1950) describes “a spectral visit” to her parlor from Austen, wondering if the dead author “had come to help me, or even stop me” from writing a book about her. Johnson also describes how Sir Francis Darwin (Charles Darwin’s third son) “recommends the game of asking children and adults alike what questions they ‘would put to the ghost of Jane Austen.’” Joining this catalog of spectral Austens is Johnson’s own supernatural experience:

It was not a dark and stormy night. It was a brilliant summer morning, and the sun was gleaming through the leaded gothic windows in my office at Princeton University. At the time, quite a while ago now, I was working on the text of Mansfield Park, to be published later as a Norton Critical Edition. […] So: there I sat, in that fateful summer morning in my office, wrapped in silent concentration, pondering small discrepancies between the two editions of Mansfield Park […] Again and again, I read the two sentences aloud quietly to myself to settle this question until, finally, under these inauspiciously pedantic circumstances, a startling thing happened: I heard Jane Austen breathe. As I read and reread those passages, I heard a clear intake of breath, and I reeled around in my chair to see if anyone had quietly slipped into my office. […] [H]ad I inadvertently invoked Austen’s ghost by murmuring some abracadabra constructed out of the charm of her own words, and was breath telling me where to place the comma?

She describes this story as sounding “a bit loony” and “inconsistent with the cool rationality we associate with academic scholars or, for that matter, with Jane Austen,” but Johnson seems perfectly serious about it. Of course, her ghost story is highlighted in a section of her book that describes writers who claim to have seen or have merely invoked Austen’s ghost.

Furthermore, as Johnson knows perfectly well, she follows in the footsteps not only of previous Austen scholars but echoes the likes of Virginia Woolf, herself a kind of clever literary medium famed for representing undead female authors. Woolf described Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) as alive and active, suggesting that “she argues and experiments” and that “we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” There is a much longer story to be told about the history of imagining authors as ghosts; this story would no doubt feature prominently both William Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. But Claudia Johnson’s encounter with Austen’s ghost, whether serious, opportunistic, or tongue-in-cheek, is indeed fortuitous from a critical perspective. It adds one more piece of evidence to her claim that Austen “is not and has never been any old great author, whom we might discuss more or less rationally, but a fabulous figure and the paragon of popular and elite audiences alike.” Johnson’s supernatural experience does its part to highlight Austen’s fabulousness (both marvelous and imaginary) and to gesture beyond the rational. Her poltergeist Austen might be said to show that even if we intellectuals would like to pretend that we don’t resemble the most credulous followers of The Great Jane, we are not entirely unlike them either.

Johnson’s book takes us both broadly and deeply into the subject of Austen’s afterlives. It proceeds chronologically, with chapters on Austen’s body, particularly on portraits and images from her own day and the later 19th century; on her magic, drawing on her relationship and her descendants’ interest in fairytales; on Austen in the context of World Wars I and II; and, finally, on the history of Austen’s home at Chawton and its eventual repurposing into a museum, first opened to the public in 1949. As Johnson makes clear, these chapters cannot offer an exhaustive treatment of Austen’s cults and cultures. The book’s purpose is rather to

ponder what loving her has meant to readers from the nineteenth century to the present, charting how the contingencies of their historical moments mingle productively with their literary appreciations, so that Austen in some sense both produces them […] while they in turn are also producing her for us.

In this aim, the book proceeds stunningly well. The sections most likely to have a profound impression on readers are those on Austen’s body, particularly on the misleading but oft-repeated 19th-century idea that no likenesses of her were taken in her lifetime, and on the history and contents of the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton. In her work on Austen’s body, Johnson fruitfully discusses the dozens of images of the author that have circulated over the years, mostly imaginary, having been spun out as 19th- and early 20th-century copies of copies. As Johnson points out, Austen’s having published anonymously during her lifetime, first as “a lady” and then as the author of her previous novels, meant that there was no early opportunity for a frontispiece author portrait. After her name was affixed to books in 1818 her novels enjoyed moderate success, but her popularity would not skyrocket until much later in the 19th century. By the time readers began to care what Austen looked like, she was long gone. Authenticated sketches by her sister Cassandra — just one of which captures Jane’s face — were used as the basis for new, improved images that softened the author’s features and added many flourishes.

The chapter provides amusing descriptions and splendid contextualization of these false and graven images. It is difficult not to laugh at the portrait of Jane Austen featured in a work from 1900, which turns out actually to be the portrait of editor and translator Sarah Austin (1793–1867). But nothing is perhaps more comical than the so-called “Betrothal Portrait” from 1873, featuring the never-married Austen languishing in a chair, looking wistfully off into the distance while prominently sporting a wedding ring. Johnson catalogues these and many other representations, including the odd bust of Austen put up overlooking the Cobb at Lyme Regis that remains there still, unrecognizable after decimation by decades of sea air.

The era of fantasizing versions of Austen’s body and presenting them as fact would seem to be behind us, because, as Johnson notes, “Getting Jane right is now a public concern.” In this era of increasing emphasis on determining legitimacy, Johnson herself has long been an essential voice on the issue of Austen and portraiture, taking strong positions on debated images. Johnson has, for the past decade, been a proponent of the authenticity of the Rice Portrait, a painting that some believe is the likeness of a young Jane Austen. Featuring a girl in a loose-fitting white gown, holding a parasol, the portrait has been identified as the work of Ozias Humphry (1742–1810) and remains today in a private collection. Johnson’s caption for the image, reprinted in her book, reads: “There is strong evidence in family testimony and provenance to believe that the ‘Rice Portrait’ represents Jane Austen in her early teens, and it was commonly reprinted as such up until the 1930s.” Of course, we may never know with certainty if this image is really Austen’s; experts continue to argue about the girl’s dress, the portrait’s date, and the likely birth date of the girl it depicts. What Johnson adds to the conversation is a more detailed history of the provenance of and critical conversation on this portrait, dating back to the 19th century.

Johnson is willing to call a spade a spade, but she is also more sanguine than fellow Austen scholars on the authenticity of this and other images. For instance, Johnson declares that the newly surfaced, so-called memorial sketch “deserves the sustained study that it is now beginning to receive.” This is the image opportunistically featured as “The Unseen Portrait?” by its new owner, Austen scholar Paula Byrne, in a program that aired last year on the BBC. To my mind, the memorial sketch — depicting a woman, pen poised, alongside a curled-up cat against the view of a towering cathedral through a window — seems deserving of study alongside the Betrothal Portrait. Both images strike me as ridiculously wishful thinking. The Betrothal Portrait’s absurdities perhaps speak for themselves; Austen’s only known engagement lasted one day, and she never married. Why imagine her wearing a wedding ring? The “Kitty Cathedral Portrait,” if authentic, would be among the most abnormally busy portraits of a woman writer holding a pen we have from this period. But I am no art historian so will merely register my gut-level doubts and await further debate.

Regardless of one’s level of skepticism, Johnson’s insights and discoveries are thought provoking. The most tantalizing new image she considers is a family portrait, circa 1780, sold at a 1983 Christie’s auction. This painting of two adults and four children gathered around a table may have once had a home at Austen’s brother’s estate at Godmersham. “All of these as yet uncanonical images deserve close study,” writes Johnson, positing that they could shatter the long-held and oft-repeated claim that Cassandra’s sketch “is the only true image” of Jane Austen. Even if Johnson does not hold the majority view of these presumably apocryphal images, she offers invaluable ways to understand them on their own and in aggregate.

From its investigation of grave markers, memorial windows, and tablets, to its examination of spurious silhouettes, Johnson’s book compels us to see how we have used and misused images of Austen. More importantly, she speculates as to why. What does it mean, Johnson asks, that Austen’s body has been so difficult to imagine (including our imagining her writings as avoiding talking about the body) and yet so frequently fabricated? It is much to Johnson’s credit that she resists pat answers. But, as she writes, “posterity’s insistence on Austen’s ignorance of the body has its origins in our discomfort with her body, not in her discomfort with it”:

Even though we of the twenty-first century want to see Jane Austen everywhere, we are also ill at ease looking at her, and I have heard Janeites denounce various images discussed here as though they were outrages offered to the queen. The vehemence that images of Jane Austen can arouse shows that more is at stake than academic questions of authenticity.

The upshot for Johnson has to do with our levels and types of reverence for the author. The chapter concludes, “No wonder Austen inspires a certain amount of discomfiture in those who wish to behold her. How could any image be commensurate to what we think and feel about her?”

Johnson’s chapter on the Jane Austen House Museum, commonly referred to as Chawton Cottage, proves an equally memorable and dazzling read. No previous scholar has considered the Jane Austen House Museum in this scope or detail. Chawton Cottage is sometimes described as quaint, but Johnson rightly uses a different, more apt phrase: “strikingly charmless.” The house is, as she puts it, “a functional edifice, not a cozy one.” At various points from the mid-19th until the mid-20th century, it housed “many people — many very poor people” in laborer’s apartments, as Johnson discovers. The cottage, she tells us, was once called “Petty Johns” and, even prior to becoming Jane Austen’s home, was the site of two murders. Seen in this light, and in the context of Austen’s slow-growing posthumous fame, the cottage’s lack of charm resonates more compellingly. In the early 20th century, Chawton Cottage was “more remarkable as a workman’s club rather than the home of England’s great novelist.”

Turning to the House Museum’s contents, Johnson describes the strange Janeite doodads sent to Chawton by well-meaning people in the mid-20th century. Examining Chawton’s actual and fake relics, Johnson is clear that she is not working to set the record straight about what is or is not Austen’s — or even what is or is not Austen-like. For instance, a creepy effigy doll dating from 1948 leads Johnson to ask if its elderly creator (and the Austen-Leigh descendant who donated it) really imagined that the museum “was so hard up for relics that it required proxies this remote to fill the gaps?” Johnson also tells the tremendous story of the mid-20th-century purchase of Austen’s hair at auction. The lock was bought by a wealthy American collector of Austeniana, Alberta Burke. After Janeite protest that the object was let out of the country, and after criticism of Burke herself as “a grasping American,” she ended up returning the hair to Britain. The lock now rests in the House Museum, “preeminent” among its relics.

In her afterword Johnson notes that the mid-20th century‘s general “sense of lack and loss” served to animate “a particular stage of Janeism, making us long not merely to memorialize her but to recover her by gathering her things.” Today, by contrast, Austen seems “a bonanza of presence, to all appearances the answer to every Janeite’s dream for more and more.” We’ve reached a point that might prompt even stalwarts to ask, “Is there such a thing as having too much Jane Austen?” Johnson’s book does more than any previous work to demonstrate that these are hardly brand-new questions, while predicting that Janeism, in the wake of our current visual-cultural Austen-saturation, must take a different shape in the future. Her book ends with a devotional fragmented sentence describing Austen’s likely future: “World without end.” It is difficult to know whether Johnson means this sentence to be read ironically or straight, but for this reader of Jane Austen, such interpretive tension is a welcome delight.

Janine Barchas’s Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, is, like Johnson’s book, a thoroughly researched study that invites intense consideration. Yet Barchas makes more forceful arguments, hardly leaving any matter, it would seem, to be settled by whomsoever it may concern. She maintains that Austen, in giving names to her characters and places, was drawing on actual people and events, not only to add to their verisimilitude or to craft “local color” but also to indicate to her readers the ways in which her fiction is imbued with history. Barchas sees this technique as Austen’s clever commentary on what we might now call the birth of celebrity culture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Austen’s fictional method, according to Barchas, was far more public and historical (as opposed to private or biographical) than we have heretofore recognized. Because Austen’s fiction was not widely read until many years after her death — Jane Austen didn’t become Jane Austen until the mid- to late 19th century — Barchas argues that we have lost sight of the popular, celebrity context that she so playfully exploits and that her first readers would easily have recognized as an additional interpretive layer in her novels. For Barchas, it is not so much that Austen was drawing from life in selecting real names for her characters, many from the famous (and infamous) Wentworth family of Yorkshire, but that Austen’s good-humored uses of these actual families’ names indicate that she was crafting what Barchas describes as “puzzles” akin to James Joyce’s use of the realities of Dublin to create the fictional world of Ulysses.

Barchas seeks to convince us further that her findings resituate Austen’s fiction “nearer to the stout historical novels of her contemporary Sir Walter Scott.” Once we begin to recognize this long-lost celebrity historical context, in Barchas’s view, we will no longer “read Austen out of time” and we will better understand her as an innovator of a now little-recognized kind of historical fiction. Barchas would have us see Austen as “in her own unique manner” having “pioneered a prototype” of the historical novel, but does not suggest that Austen was working in the vein of the roman à clef. For Barchas, this genre of celebrity culture was not at all what Austen — neither a copyist nor a gossipmonger — was up to. The lives of the real people and the places that Barchas has unearthed do not so closely hew to Austen’s fictional characters and settings.

Matters of Fact in Jane Austen is unlike any previous work of Austen criticism, both in its attention to minute historical detail and in its pioneering claims. Much to her credit, Barchas modestly admits that she follows an oblique line of scholarly inquiry, extending from the 1950s to the present, that takes seriously the subject of Austen and history. Even so, Barchas is clearly setting out on her own course. Where previous critics (with some notable exceptions) found little deployment of the historical record in Austen’s fiction, preferring instead to see her artistic choices as “universal” or as “domestic,” Barchas shows us that Austen’s use of the names of real people and places means far more than we have understood. Austen created what Barchas calls a “history-infused fiction,” one that has long gone unrecognized because of the delay of Austen’s widespread popularity. Readers who encountered Austen half a century or more after she died simply wouldn’t have recognized her names and places as history. By then, they had vanished from the collective memory as popular cultural references.

Barchas acknowledges that her book is but a partial foray into the field she sets out to consider. “I leave several of Austen’s major novels relatively unexplored,” she writes; this includes Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park. She also concedes that “a single study cannot exhaust all of the historical references and topographical clues found in Austen’s oeuvre.” Focusing on the real-life people and places behind the characters of Lady Susan, Northanger Abbey, Evelyn, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, Barchas hopes that her concentration of “case studies and clusters” will “deepen an appreciation of Austen as a local and national historian, leading to additional explorations by others.” The bulk of the book is devoted to telling the stories of the colorful Whig and Tory branches of the 17th- and 18th-century Wentworth family, including its unlikely scion Frederick Wentworth (1732–99), and the colorful places of Bath, particularly Farleigh Hungerford Castle. Barchas argues that “the similarities between Farley fact and Northanger fiction should not be dismissed as mere coincidence” and that Austen is “no innocent” of “the Wentworth names” and their “larger celebrity.”

As Barchas tells us, the real Frederick Wentworth took a rather surprising journey to inherited wealth, having grown up in reduced circumstances but coming into his fortune in the early 1790s. He became “Baron Raby of Raby Castle” despite the fact that “three of his ancestors preceding the late Earl had six-and-twenty children.” This historical fact leads Barchas to draw conclusions about Persuasion’s same-named hero: “The real Frederick Wentworth’s surprising elevation from humble beginnings occurred, like that of his fictional namesake, against all odds.” Barchas argues that Austen was making a comment on the real man with her fictional one — creating a kind of interpretive puzzle that added layers of possible meanings to the fictional Captain.

Barchas understands that such readings are likely to prove controversial. As she writes, “No reader of this book can be more resistant to my approach than I was at the start of my project.” But it was her repeated confrontation with “supposed historical coincidence” that ultimately turned her around. Within several generations of the Wentworth family, as Barchas describes in painstaking detail, are the following names from Austen’s fiction: Fitzwilliam, Vernon, Woodhouse, Bertram, and D’Arcy. This is a rather stunning list. But it is also a list of names drawn from a few centuries of aristocratic and gentry families. Given that during this period there were only about 300 families making up the English titled nobility and non-titled large estate owners (and that they frequently intermarried), the Wentworth-Austen names may strike us as a bit less stunning than on first blush. Barchas acknowledges this to some degree in her afterword, writing, “The close weave of the emerging social network among Austen’s names may simply be a historical consequence, given that many families in the stratus of society from which she pulls them (often to bestow them on fictional characters less grand and wealthy) are related to other families in the peerage.” Austen’s names may appear to be a closed circle because they are drawn from the English peerage, rather than from specific persons.

As Barchas has it, Austen’s recycled names are not a wink-wink, nudge-nudge type of punning; the author, she believes, “never sacrifices verisimilitude to a clever pun or historical allusion.” Rather, “a major part of her realism resides in the names and facts that she lifts from history.” Why would Austen make this choice? To “expand her gaze,” Barchas argues, “to a wider swathe of human experience now termed cultural history.” Austen’s “more expansive appreciation of history seems to have delighted in Wentworth celebrity well beyond parliamentary politics.” The thrust of Barchas’s book is not merely an argument for “more expansive appreciation” of things such as the Wentworth influence and the Hungerford Castle setting on Austen’s fiction but to ask us to decode the fiction through this lens. As she concludes, “Given Austen’s […] penchant for wordplay, historical accuracy, and cartographic precision, scholars may be […] behind schedule on solving her puzzles.”

This very tension between penchant and puzzle is where Barchas’s claims occasionally seem stretched thin. If Austen is not merely punning, not merely engaging in the light sport of name-riffing — and if her use of names is not meant to make us imagine that her characters stand in direct reference to real persons as mere copies — then what exactly are these reiterated appellations doing in the novels? For Barchas, Austen is crafting very sly social commentary using real names. For instance, in Persuasion, Austen is said to focus on “names that have risen, through merit and controversy, to high positions in both the Baronetage and the Navy List” to show that “both systems of rank allow for promotion and change.” Austen’s use of actual names is thus said simultaneously to demonstrate respect for tradition and to signal a forward-thinking glance toward liberal modernity. Such celebrity references with a twist were available for her immediate readers to decode but have since become puzzles obscured for her later readers.

Some of the “puzzles” Barchas uncovers are fascinating. For instance, she tells us that there really was a Catherine Tilney (or Tylney) Long (1789–1825), who came into a vast inheritance and made a high-profile marriage in the early 1800s. Her strange story as “the nation’s leading bachelorette” seems deserving of its own biography. The real-life Ralph Allen was also quite a character, and his exploits are well documented by Barchas. So are those of Drummonds, Dashwoods, and Dalrymples, among others. While the details do seem to add up to something, how much of this should we understand as deliberate on Austen’s part? And, even if it was deliberate, deliberate of what? Must Austen’s fictional surname Musgrove be understood as slyly referencing the real-life Musgraves? (Barchas: “Austen may have intended the name of Musgrove to veil but not conceal her reference to Musgrave in the Baronetage”). Must General Tilney’s interest in kitchens, referencing a Rumford fireplace, be a reference to a wife’s murder of her husband at Farleigh Hungerford Castle using a kitchen stove in 1518? Interpretations drawn from these kinds of connections are a stretch.

I wish Barchas had more often entertained the possibility that Austen used other kinds of techniques with her names and settings; surely there are Dickensian aspects to the names, too, not just with Wentworth (“Where went his worth?”), but Morland (“Will she attract more land?”), and Rushworth (“He was in a rush to share his worth.”). Are we to ignore the delicious interpretive possibilities of the evil Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park? That perfect name for a nasty auntie also invokes the 18th-century (now obsolete) word “nurry” (cognates “nourry” and “norry”), which meant a fosterer or someone who nourishes or brings up a child. That would be humorous irony in naming, no doubt. Or what about the wicked Wickham of Pride and Prejudice or the will-o-the-wispy Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility? These riffing aspects of Austen’s naming practices (some of which have been investigated by previous critics, including Maggie Lane, Barbara Benedict, and others) seem equally important to mull over alongside the “deliberate” puzzles of celebrity naming that Barchas identifies.

Finally, Barchas’s book might have considered the extent to which Austen’s contemporaries employed similar techniques. Surely it is important to a study of Austen, one that deals specifically with names and settings, to know about the publication of novels titled D’Arcy (1793) and Henry Willoughby (1798). We might make better sense of Austen’s fiction in light of the prominence of the names Dashwood, Vernon, and Elliott in Blenheim Lodge: A Novel (1787). Even Edward Bancroft’s The History of Charles Wentworth, Esq. in a Series of Letters (1770) is only one of several works of fiction from the period to use the name “Wentworth” in its title. Are these authors also playing with celebrity culture, suggesting a widely shared project in fiction writing in this period? Or is Austen instead echoing these names in order to mock the novelists who would echo celebrity culture? How many layers deep do the Austenian puzzles have to go before we conclude, along with countless skeptical undergraduate students, that we are “reading too much into it”?

There are copious contributions made in this book, illuminating Austen’s time and the aristocrats and wealthy individuals and places that may have prompted her fiction. The material Barchas has gathered can tell us much that is new, but her repeatedly invoking words like prove, decode, clues, expose, detective, and unearth can make her book begin to sound too much like A. S. Byatt’s Possession, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, or even Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life. Might this alone be reason to give us pause? As someone whose alter ego is an amalgam of Jane Austen and a professional wrestler, I may not be the best person to answer this question. Nevertheless, wherever Barchas goes in this book, I’m not sorry to have been taken there. Matters of Fact in Jane Austen is meticulously researched, beautifully written, highly original, and unquestionably timely. It ought to stimulate not just rousing arguments but provoke, too, further historically attuned Austen scholarship.

The modes of interpretation offered in both Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures and Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity suggest that, even if Austen has sometimes exhausted us, we have by no means exhausted her. Placing these books — both elegantly written studies by critics at the top of their game — alongside one another also highlights shared eccentricities. We might say that Janine Barchas’s book sets out to prove what cannot be proven about Austen, absent some undiscovered, squirreled-away letters, and that Claudia Johnson’s book expends a good deal of energy uncovering what Austen is not and what is not Austen’s, despite generations of readers’ intense wishes to the contrary, surely an endless task. In a sense, both works have readers chasing after Austen-phantoms, without apologies. Both end up tremendously enriching our sense of her, too — whether as an infinite cypher that we continually compel ourselves to rediscover, or as a masterful artist whose contributions to the history of the novel appear always just beyond our grasp.


LARB Contributor

Devoney Looser, professor of English at Arizona State University, is the author of British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670–1820 and Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850. She has edited Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism and directed a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on Austen and her contemporaries (2012). A life member (and former member of the board of directors) of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Looser has played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen since 2010. That academic oddity is featured in Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom (2013). It also prompted a theme song (award-winning poet Cornelius Eady’s “Stone Cold Jane”) and scored her a square on The New York Times’s Jane Austen board game.


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