Saturday, October 20, 2012

New Book Examines Names Austen Gives Her Characters and Locations

If you’re anything like me, I’ll bet you have wondered how Jane Austen settled on the names for the characters and places in her novels.  Among others, these questions have crossed my mind :  Was “Lizzy” a popular nickname for headstrong girls at the time?  Did Austen have a natural antipathy toward the name Willoughby because she had a distasteful neighbor with that moniker? Did a young Jane Austen read about a Mr. Darcy in a newspaper article on a bright blue day when she was particularly happy?  I’m not a fiction writer myself, but I feel certain that as careful a novelist as she was, Jane Austen thought long and hard before finally selecting each character’s name in every one of her novels.  

Author Janine Barchas has carefully delved into the issue of the names of people and places that populate Austen’s novels in her newly published scholarly book from The John Hopkins University Press, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity.  Matter of Fact’s  book jacket states, “Barchas is the first scholar to conduct extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction by taking full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.   According to Barchas, Austen plays confidently with the tension between truth and invention that characterizes the realist novel.  Of course, the argument that Austen deployed famous names presupposes an active celebrity culture during the Regency, a phenomenon recently accepted by scholars.  The names Austen pluck from history for her protagonists (Dashwood, Wentworth, Woodhouse, Tilney, Fitzwilliam and many more) were immensely famous in her day.  She seems to bank upon this familiarity for interpretive effect, often upending associations with comic intent.”

This is the same book that Susie Russenberger recommended to those present at the October meeting of the Middle TN JASNA regional group.  Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity promises to be a scholarly book which may cross over to the popular non-fiction category for Austen lovers.  --Mildred Tilley

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