Now I know why…

…in Jane Austen’s clever Northanger Abbey, the heroine, Catherine Morland, is believed, by dodgy suitor John Thorpe,  to be the heiress of the family friends she has travelled to Bath with, a couple called Mr & Mrs Allen.  I understood why the mistake about her being an heiress was made but not why it was of such import to the story – beyond being a witty, finely observed sideways swipe by Austen at the ‘heiress/heroine-in-trouble + mistaken-identity + course-of-true-love-never-runs-smooth’ plots of the contemporary gothic novels that Catherine is so fond of.

I had never understood why Catherine’s friends were thought to be so very wealthy, why John Thorpe and then General Tilney, the father of her love interest Henry, are quite so excited at the huge amount of money they scheme to get access to. Now I do, and very satisfying it is too.

Last night I read Janine Barchas’ book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity from John Hopkins University Press, and discovered interesting things: did you know, that there actually was a Ralph Allen Esq, who amassed great riches and several properties in Bath. This Ralph Allen was well-known in Bath, he was a foundational figure of the genteel watering hole, when he and his wife died without direct heirs they left everything to their favourite niece, who also died without direct heirs, so that for some years the disposal of the huge Allen fortune was quite the talk of fashionable Bath society as speculation and gossip hummed about who would inherit what. Jane Austen would have known all about him, and her early readers probably would have recognised the connection too – it certainly explains why Thorpe and the General were rubbing their hands with glee, jumping to greed-fed conclusions about Catherine’s Mr & Mrs Allen – and for those readers in the know, it adds a rich layer of background to the parody. I can feel a re-reading of Northanger Abbey coming on…

Barchas is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, and 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. The names Austen plucks 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.

I really enjoyed this book as I like Austen and particularly enjoy her literary and film afterlife (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies anyone?) which seems to me, despite the horrors of purists, to indicate the affection with which her very human characters and stories are regarded. It was really interesting to find out more about the Regency world behind the stories, and to regard Austen, not as a cloistered lady mouse writing in her parlour but as a knowing magpie in that world, aware of exactly what she was doing, what echoes she wanted to redound as she considered and chose what glittering names to use and whom to bestow them on. Barchas writes amusingly and clearly, and yes, it is academic but with a refreshingly light touch. And I have to say I LOVE the cover, it is so, so beautiful:One of the great stories about Austen as a writer, a story very much created and maintained by her family after her death, is that she was an inventor, a creative writer, not a historian or recorder of real life particularly. Today it seems a strange distinction to make – the characters Austen gives the names of real well-known regency personalities are not biographic sketches of such persons, but the names come freighted with fascinating, sometimes scandalous, baggage that would have added greatly to the original readers’ experience and understanding of the novels. Now we can have a riffle through that baggage as well!

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