Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, by Margaret Doody – A Review

Jane Austens Names Margaret Doody 2015 x 200From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Historical allusions abound in [Austen’s] fiction–they are part of the consciousness of each novel in itself. Combinations of place names and personal names point both back and forward. Or rather, references and images are more than just allusions; we find we are within history all the time. The writing is dense with allusion, thick with multiple sensations and meanings.” (389)

If I could, I’d drop everything to go study at the feet of the great Canadian, Margaret Doody, professor of literature at Notre Dame University. In her latest book, Jane Austen’s Names, Doody offers readers insights into the history that saturates each of Austen’s novels. In this way, the text resembles Janine Barchas’s excellent work Matters of Fact in Jane Austen (2013); but Doody’s work is both more minute and more expansive than Barchas’s in how it incorporates etymological origins for names and places, both real and imaginary, and cross references many of the historical events and literary texts that influenced Austen. Of course, when Doody adds her own analysis of Austen’s novels, the effect is bewilderingly fascinating, like the publication of any gifted professor’s notes after a long tenure of research and teaching.

In Part I of the book, Doody introduces the fine line that Austen walks between allegory and allusion on the one hand and restraint and originality on the other. Doody reminds us that Austen’s Britain is a complex etymological canvas thanks to the presence of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and others; she further reasons that “No set or string of events is ever entirely over. Austen’s England is a place of strains and tension, of disharmonies potentially revived or momentarily perhaps forgotten.” (14). To lay the foundation for the other two parts of the book, Doody gives a quick overview of major topics of British history, such as the Norman Conquest, the Tory/Whig divide, and the Tudor/Stuart tug of war for the throne. These topics are important, because they underlay Austen’s word choices, thereby exposing her political and religious sympathies.

Part II of the book is dedicated to examining the names Austen gives to her characters, along with titles and rank. Doody notes the way in which Austen’s name choices signal class, nationality, politics, and religion, sometimes all at once. The surname “Darcy,” for example, is of Norman origin, and “A Norman name is likely to indicate influence, power, inherited status, or high rank.” (72) But “Darcy” can also be an allusion to Thomas Lord Darcy who rebelled against Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries during the English Reformation. So while “Darcy” points to wealth and power, it also predicts that fierce loyalty that characterizes the hero of Pride and Prejudice—a subtle homage to the real, pro-Catholic hero who also bore the name. (81)

The section on personal names in Mansfield Park I especially loved, specifically the way Doody highlights the Scottishness of the Crawfords. She writes, “Henry Crawford, the hidden Scot, is…a kind of displaced person trying to fit in…Henry’s situation fosters uncertain loyalties, uncertainties even in impersonation of Englishness.” (131) Doody blames “Scottish bluntness” for Mary Crawford’s forthright articulation of her opinions “about human arrangements and behavior.” (136) In this way, what many have viewed as Mary’s metropolitan cynicism now is understood as her national character! In this way, knowing the origin of surnames helps readers appreciate nuances to Austen’s characterization. The Crawfords have a national “otherness” that explains if not excuses their failures to perfectly follow the rules represented, but not upheld, by the Bertrams of Mansfield Park.

No doubt, readers will enjoy Doody’s comments on first name patterns. “Catherines,” she notes are clueless (120), while “Charlottes” are good-natured and calculating (208); “Annes” are pushed around while “Elizabeths” are assertive (120-121); “Margarets” are pushy, too, and self-interested, while “Marys” are “cold, selfish, and irritating females” (108).  Doody comments on male names, also: John, for example, “has a core of inconsiderate self-centeredness.” (107) The point being that sometimes all it takes to predict a character’s success or failure is to know Austen’s personal bias with a name.

In Part III of the book, Doody turns her attention to the real counties and cities referenced in the novels, along with the names given to fictional estates, villages, and towns. She starts with an etymology lesson, and then moves through each of the novels illuminating their settings—like how his Derbyshire upbringing predicts Mr. Darcy’s “cloudy motives” (303), or how living in Kent explains Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s dismissal of primogeniture (266). One of Doody’s more brilliant connections was for Sense and Sensibility: “Sussex at the beginning of the nineteenth century was suffering from agricultural depression and popular resentment at low wages (conditions that John and Fanny Dashwood will certainly do nothing to ameliorate).” (265) Juxtaposing the real depression of a place with the prodigal spending of the fictional Dashwoods suddenly heightens Austen’s social commentary. Sussex suddenly becomes as relevant a politicalized setting as Ferguson, Missouri would be for a contemporary novel.

In writing the above, I have barely commented on the virtues of this text. Doody has an astounding knowledge of British history, etymology of English words, and Austen’s works. She dives into each novel deeply, happy to blur the lines between historical figures with fictional characters. She speculates about plots in original ways and challenges standard readings of characters, as when she calls Mr. Parker from Sanditon, whom I love, an antihero. (199) And her tone is everywhere scholarly, but equally personal—as when she so eloquently writes, “Sir Walter’s fascination with his meager personal entry in the big book is contemptible but not without pathos. We all yearn to be registered in the Book of Life.” (391) True, this book may not appeal to everyone, but readers interested in specific novels or characters can easily choose to read the sections on them without getting lost in other details. Altogether, the work is an invaluable reference tool for Austen scholars, and should be essential reading for all diehard aficionados. Thus, I award this book the brightest five Regency Stars possible.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, by Margaret Doody
University of Chicago Press (2015)
Hardcover & eBook (440) pages
ISBN: 978-0226157832

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Cover image courtesy of University of Chicago Press © 2015; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2015, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

6 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, by Margaret Doody – A Review

  1. This sounds like an absolutely fascinating read. I love a good peek behind the curtains, and knowing the history behind some of Austen’s choices makes for fine reading. The fact the reviewer is so enthusiastic only makes me more excited to track down this book.

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  2. This really does sound fascinating! It made me think about how far removed we are from the culture in which these books were written. It is impossible for us to read Austen’s (or anyone’s) books with the same eyes as those who lived at that time! I wonder what else we don’t quite understand or “misinterpret” from books simply because we come from such different backgrounds?

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