Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places

Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places

by Margaret Doody


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Jane Austen took a particular delight in the resonance of names, and in her novels she used the names of people and places as a potential source of meaning, satirical or historical. Margaret Doody’s book is a learned and enjoyable investigation of this aspect of Austen’s art. Doody tells us that Austen preferred first names in common and traditional English use, though these sometimes acquire a subtly new flavor in her works. Austen also favored the names of saints and of royalty, but she did use some classically derived “pagan” names, always with a purpose. And Austen would signal political loyalties and allegiances in her novels through the use of names, both first names and last names, as well as place names. In exploring Austen’s names and their connotations, Doody has a larger point to make. By uncovering the riddling and punning in Austen’s names, as well as Austen’s interest in history, Doody casts Austen as a “decidedly earthy” writer steeped in the particulars of place and time, rather than a timeless novelist writing in an abstemious style. From this attention to names in her work emerges a picture of Austen that is both fuller than we’ve had before, and controversial.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226419107
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/26/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 440
Sales rank: 404,091
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Margaret Doody is the John and Barbara Glynn Family Professor of Literature at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of many books, including the Aristotle Detective series, the first three of which are available from the University of Chicago Press.

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Jane Austen's Names

Riddles, Persons, Places

By Margaret Doody

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19602-2


Words, Names, Persons, and Places

Fiction, Names, and Riddles

"The name of Newton-Priors is really invaluable!—I never met with anything superior to it.—It is delightful.—One could live upon the name of Newton-Priors for a twelvemonth" (30 November 1814; Letters, 284).

So Jane Austen wrote in the autumn of 1814 to her niece Anna (daughter of Jane's brother James). Before her wedding to Benjamin Lefroy three weeks earlier Anna had been writing a novel; now Jane Austen encourages her niece, even after marriage, to continue. Anna's aunt has read a new chunk of manuscript. As a mark of Anna's promise she singles out her invention of a name. "Newton Priors" strikes Jane Austen as a particularly happy name for an imaginary place.

Presumably Austen appreciates Anna's wit in playing with the real place name "Newton Abbot(s)," combining the common "Newton" (i.e., "new" + tun, settlement or town) with the ecclesiastical, medieval, and important "Priors." A "Prior" is a cut below an "Abbot." Perhaps Anna Austen's characters have been living on the site of a priory but behaving in a manner not consonant with the priory's origins. Austen is always interested in cultural layers of the past and especially in ecclesiastical foundations. Her own novels display an acute attention to the shimmer of historical significance within names. Austen achieves meaning that goes down deep into layers of English history and relationship to the land.

Would Austen be bothered with such details? An artist cannot do anything slovenly. Jo Modert's groundbreaking essay "Chronology within the Novels" made us aware of the kind of care that Austen could put into apparently casual details. Building on work by R. W. Chapman, Mary Lascelles, and Vladimir Nabokov, Modert taught us to appreciate Austen's subtle evocation of human time, the "hidden calendar game for the reader" in Emma. Jane's pianoforte arrives on Saint Valentine's Day; Frank almost confesses the true state of affairs to Emma on Shrove Tuesday (22 February), a proper time for confessions. The Box Hill expedition takes place on Midsummer Day (New Style). Midsummer madness briefly reigns. Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma on Old Midsummer Day.

Names of places and persons in Austen's novels are chosen with equal care. The name of an estate or a village is never insignificant. First names and surnames always matter. The question of naming brings out a poetic complexity in Austen—as well as different kinds of comedy. Jane Austen's family was highly conscious of names. There is evidently a family joke regarding the first name "Richard," as we see early in Austen's extant letters: "Mr. Richard Harvey's match is put off, till he has got a Better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes" (16 September 1796; Letters, 10). The joke is echoed in the third sentence of Northanger Abbey ("Her father was ... a very respectable man, though his name was Richard"). Why is "Richard" so funny? The merriment evoked goes beyond an association of the name with Shakespeare's King Richard III or with Sir Richard Crofts, villain of Charlotte Smith's Emmeline: The Orphan of the Castle (1788), one of the young Jane's favorite novels. Current American slang would make "Dick" a word obscenely signifying hypermasculinity, but the evidence of slang dictionaries of Austen's day indicates that "Dick" is associated with effeminacy, male weakness, or failure—or with being a poor substitute for something else: "That happened in the reign of Queen Dick, i.e. never; said of any absurd old story. I am as queer as Dick's hatband; that is, out of spirits, or don't know what ails me." Another dictionary adds that "Dickey" is "A sham shirt," also "An ass. Roll your dickey: drive your ass. Also a seat for servants to sit behind a carriage." "Roll your dickey" seems to be getting close to the contemporary American meaning, but with an additional suggestion of imbecility or incapacity. In Pride and Prejudice the port-drinking attorney Mr. Philips is about to fire his servant—another unlucky "Richard" (P&P, I, ch. 14). Austen seems unable to contemplate the name "Richard" without associations of bumbling or failure, deficiency in masculinity—all emerging in the harsh reflections on poor Dick Musgrove in Persuasion. But "Dick" is funny even when submerged in another form; "Miss Dickins," that "excellent Governess" of the young Lady Williams (a "Kitty"), eloped with the butler ("Jack and Alice," Juvenilia, 18).

Names encountered in daily life provided amusement. The death of a farmer "Clarinbold" or "Claringbo[u]ld" stimulated Jane to a comic flight:

Everything quite in Stile, not to mention Mr. Claringbould's funeral which we saw go by on Sunday. I beleive [sic] I told you in a former Letter that Edward had some idea of taking the name of Claringbould; but that scheme is over, tho' it would be a very eligible as well as a very pleasant plan, would any one advance him Money enough to begin on. (15–16 September 1796; Letters, 9)

A name like other property is really not needed anymore by someone whose funeral has gone by. The departed farmer's surname might now be taken by somebody else as a commodity—if the purchaser could afford it. The joke about Edward becoming "Claringbould" has a slight edge. Austen has noted that her brother Edward is fond of gaining lands, and this brother is indeed going to change his surname. Adopted and made the heir of the Knight family early in life, Edward eventually left off being an "Austen" and became a "Knight."

Names might seem as unalterable and fated as a birthplace, cementing a lasting identity. Women's surnames are alterable, changing upon marriage, but a man's surname stands for his permanent identity and inheritance. That supposition is not always borne out by facts. The eighteenth century went in for dramatic changes of name. Power of will overrides the "natural" or "given." Voltaire, for one, invented his own name, as did the Italian poet Metastasio. The Czarina we know as "Catherine the Great" (1729–96) began as Prussian Sophie-Friederike Auguste. A number of men around Jane Austen altered their names. The father of the Harris Bigg-Wither who was to propose to Jane Austen (with a one-day success) had been, wonderfully, "Lovelace Bigg." On receipt of an inheritance, Lovelace Bigg changed his surname to Bigg-Wither, although only his male heirs used the double-barreled form. James Leigh, Jane's mother's brother, had changed his name to "Leigh-Perrot" in order to inherit the property of his great-uncle Thomas Perrot at Northleigh in Oxfordshire. If Great-Uncle Thomas imagined he was preserving his familial property as well as his family name, he would have been grievously disappointed. James Leigh-Perrot tore down the inherited house at Northleigh, selling the land to the Duke of Marlborough. Uncle James, with the proceeds of his inheritance, acquired property in a more prosperous area between Maidenhead and Reading. There he built a fine new house, calling the place "Scarlets." Throughout these decisive changes to his property and location, he remained "Mr. James Leigh-Perrot," solemnly honoring as heir the legacy of the surname although—against the true intention of the bequest—Thomas had cashed in the inherited estate and shaken off the ancestral region.

Surnames announce a place in the power structure; they represent tribal membership, property, activity, location, and continuance. According to Christian tradition, in Heaven (or presumably Hell) we shall wear only our first names; just like a title ("Mr.," "Duke," "Dr."), a surname is a social tag of which we shall have no need once we take leave of society. Yet "owners" of names, fancying them as a kind of property, are reluctant to let their existence and strength fade from the world. They may attempt to fasten their names to survivors, often with mixed results. Both the fixedness and the mutability of personal names stimulated Jane Austen's curiosity and comic sense. Surnames are such awkward describers. Are they nouns—objects in themselves? Or perhaps they are but transient adjectives that can be sold as goods in Vanity Fair. The most notable case of name change within Jane Austen's novels is the case of the half-orphan Francis Churchill Weston, transmogrified into Francis ("Frank") Churchill, when after his mother's death the infant is taken in by a maternal uncle and his wife. "Churchill," once given as a middle name in compliment to the maternal surname, later becomes Frank's surname as well. Status and financial expectations depend on those whose name he carries about with him, not on his flourishing biological father. In the same novel, Harriet Smith bears what is obviously a made-up surname to conceal her illegitimacy; the very anonymity of that surname draws attention to it as artifact and mask.

Jane Austen consistently responds to the sound and meaning of names, even those encountered by chance in newspapers. In April 1805 she expresses comic dismay on reading in the papers of a marriage "of the Rev. Edward Bather, Rector of some place in Shropshire, to a Miss Emma Halifax—a Wretch!—he does not deserve an Emma Halifax's maid Betty" (21–23 April 1805; Letters, 104–5). The clergyman with the absurd surname (reminiscent of someone in a bathing machine) has comically offended against taste in uniting himself with a woman of such an elegant and novel-worthy a name as "Emma Halifax"—a woman with the first name that Austen had given her new heroine, Emma Watson, combined with an aristocratic surname (employed in Catharine). The novelist in mock distress contemplates an elegant "Emma Halifax" doomed to become "Emma Bather"; a low-class "Betty Bather" would have been more appropriate.

Jane Austen's sensitivity to names is closely related to her penchant for riddles and wordplay. She feels the attraction of puns. Lord Chesterfield preferred to believe that such forms of "false wit" (along with old sayings and proverbs) had happily disappeared: "The reign of King Charles II. (meritorious in no other respect) banished false taste out of England, and proscribed Puns, Quibbles, Acrostics, &c." During the eighteenth century it had become officially established among the educated and well-bred that puns are grossly old-fashioned and "low." They are, however, a favorite English form of wit; Shakespeare is full of them. In Northanger Abbey, we are told that the heroine's parents "seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun, and her mother with a proverb" (NA, I, ch. 9). Reverend Mr. Morland appears unaware that proverbs and puns have been banished since the reign of Charles II. Actually, eighteenth-century literature is very hospitable to wordplay. A favorite device in poetry and prose is "periphrasis," a talking around a noun (concrete or abstract) without employing the normal word. (A famous example is "While China's earth receives the smoking Tyde" in Pope's The Rape of the Lock.) Such roundabout description offers new angles of vision within a sort of riddle. Riddles combine immediate mental activity with philosophic perception that any words are odd. The strangeness of the notion that words can stand in for things, or reality, exercised John Locke and others. A riddle makes us look afresh at the strangeness, the arbitrary weirdness, of language. We shall not understand Austen if we do not love riddles.

In Jane Austen's lifetime there was a decided taste for works of riddles and "charades." Every reader of Emma remembers Harriet's manuscript "riddle book." Such collections are no new thing. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, young Slender asks Simple, "You have not the book of riddles about you, have you?" to which Simple replies, "Book of riddles! why, did you not lend it to Alice Shortcake upon Allhallowmas last, a fortnight afore Michaelmas?" (Merry Wives, act 1, sc. 2; Shakespeare Plays, 2:459). Master Slender apparently hopes for aid from his "book of riddles" to support him in courtship. So too Mr. Elton in his (hopeless) courtship of Emma has apparently eked out his slender wits in consulting one of many published books of enigmas. Both the riddle of "Woe-man" recollected by Mr. Woodhouse (but already collected by Harriet) and the gallant riddle attributed to the Reverend Mr. Elton in the ninth chapter of Emma appear in at least one of the published "riddle books." Mr. Elton's elaborate charade on "Courtship" is not his invention—nor Austen's. It can be found in the second volume of A New Collection of Enigmas, Charades, Transpositions, &c. (1791). This set of verses is treated as if Mr. Elton were the ingenious original author—but that is Austen's joke. the smiling Mr. Elton simply plagiarized his text, adding a couple of pointed lines of compliment (aimed at Emma, but misread as directed to Harriet).

A number of printed collections like the one Mr. Elton got hold of (perhaps already possessed) appear throughout the eighteenth century. As in Slender's case (and Mr. Elton's) such riddle collections are advertised as aids to courtship. They have titles like Delights for Young Men and Maids: Containing Near an Hundred Riddles with Pictures, and a Key to Each; this seems to have been reprinted at regular intervals between circa 1725 and circa 1755. Riddles evidently suggest sex—and/or marriage—disjunction, conjunction, the bringing of unlikely elements together. We find Women's Wit; or, A New and Elegant Amusement for the Fair Sex (offering "Puzzling Enigmas, Rebusses & Riddles") published "By a Lady" (ca. 1780).

Like Harriet Smith—or Miss Nash of Mrs. Goddard's school—the Austen family compiled a manuscript collection of riddles, eventually published in 1895, as Charades &c. Written a Hundred years ago By Jane Austen and Her Family. This collection is innocuous enough but does testify to the family fondness for puns. One of the three riddles ascribed to Jane Austen, however, has a darker tone than one might expect:

When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,
And my second confines her to finish the piece,
How hard is her fate! but how great is her merit,
If by taking my whole she effects her release!

The answer to Riddle No. XVIII is "HEMLOCK." Certainly this excessive revolt against sewing may record hyperbolically the author's occasional genuine revulsion at the constant feminine task. Austen hyperbolically urges a classical suicidal escape from the imposed dullness of female life, equating a reluctant young seamstress with Socrates.

We do not truly know Jane Austen if we do not recognize that she is very fond of puns and plays on words. "Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat," cries MaryCrawford—her disclaimer ensuring that we shall all indeed think of an obscene pun related to homosexuality in the Navy (MP, I, ch. 6). This is denied by some; John Wiltshire's annotation asserts Jane's innocence. But the young author of the "History of England" shows that she already knew about homosexuality:

His majesty [King James I] was of that amiable disposition which inclines to Freindship [sic], and in such points was possessed of keener penetration in Discovering Merit than many other people. I once heard an excellent Sharade on a Carpet, of which the subject I am now on reminds me ...


My first is what my second was to King James the 1st, and you tread on my whole. ("History of England," Juvenilia, 187)

Austen knows that Robert Carr was the king's "pet"—and what the term means ("keener penetration"). Miss Fanny Carr (a doubly suspicious name) in The Watsons is the best friend of Miss Osborne. Tom Musgrove, airing his French, calls her "a most interesting little creature. You can imagine nothing more naive or piquante" (Later Manuscripts, 323). This description serves rather to confirm than deny a sexual connection between Miss Osborne ("not critically handsome") and Fanny Carr, so often referred to together.


Excerpted from Jane Austen's Names by Margaret Doody. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
A Note on Texts

Part I. England

Chapter 1. Words, Names, Persons, and Places
Chapter 2. Names as History: Invasion, Migration, War, and Conflict
Chapter 3. Civil War, Ruins, and the Conscience of the Rich

Part II. Names

Chapter 4. Naming People: First Names, Nicknames, Titles, and Rank
Chapter 5. Titles, Status, and Surnames: Austen’s Great Surname Matrix
Chapter 6. Personal Names (First Names and Surnames) in the “Steventon” Novels
Chapter 7. Personal Names in the “Chawton” Novels

Part III. Places

Chapter 8. Humans Making and Naming a Landscape
Chapter 9. Placing the Places
Chapter 10. Counties, Towns, Villages, Estates: Real and Imaginary Places in the “Steventon” Novels
Chapter 11. Real and Imaginary Places in the “Chawton” Novels

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