Austen scholars may have spent a few minutes—or hours—exploring the “What Jane Saw” website (http://www.whatjanesaw.org) over its launch weekend in May of 2013. Two hundred years after Jane Austen attended an art exhibit at the British Institution in London on May 23, 1813, an e-gallery became accessible, recreating the first retrospective of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The site is notable for its emphasis on how the works in the show, as well as the individuals they depict, might have influenced Austen’s writings. The site is equally notable for its incredibly meticulous research, led by principal investigator and author Janine Barchas.
“Meticulous” will also inevitably be the word most often used to describe Janine Barchas’s latest book. The research that has informed Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity is abundant and careful, making this a fascinating and fresh take on Austen studies. Much like the “What Jane Saw” website, the book starts from the contention that Austen was well aware of and sensitive to the news and newsmakers of her day, and that the realities of her specific historical moment influence aspects of her novels. The book opens by pitching Austen’s “long-standing reputation for timelessness and transparency” against more recent work that seeks to elucidate the historical specificity of her work (1). Problematizing that long-held idea of Austen’s timelessness, Barchas explains how the pull of celebrity culture combines with Austen’s tendency, noted by several other scholars, to bestow her characters with names of families notable for politics. This allows Austen to exercise a playfulness in her cheeky reappropriation of those names. For instance, in her sixth chapter, “Persuasion’s Battle of the Books: Baronetage versus Navy List,” Barchas discusses the inversion of names in Persuasion by which Austen gives names of baronets to her naval characters and names of naval heroes to her landowners. Rather than label this merely as a joke, Barchas interprets this name play as suggestive of “a stalemate between hostilities in the novel: land versus sea; baronetage versus navy list; old versus new” (253). These kinds of insights make Barchas’s scrupulously researched book an engaging, intriguing read, and bring Austen’s cleverness more sharply into focus.
In addition to discussing the implications of names in Persuasion, Barchas explores issues ranging from Austen’s “promiscuity” in her borrowings across the political spectrum to ironies of geography in Northanger Abbey to the Hell-Fire Club resonance of the name “Dashwood.” In each of her explorations, she provides a wealth of painstakingly researched detail. The implications of these details are sure to provide Austen scholars with more texture to their arguments. Chapter two, “Mapping Northanger Abbey to Find ‘Old Allen’ of Prior Park,” provides an example of the fruits of Barchas’s research. In this chapter, Barchas provides background for the surname “Allen,” arguing that in Austen’s day it would have conjured associations with low-born entrepreneur Ralph Allen. Ralph Allen’s enormous wealth could be seen in his mansion at Prior Park, of interest because of the Allens that appear in Northanger Abbey. In this novel, John Thorpe talks to Catherine Morland about the Mr. Allen with whom she stays in Bath, and their conversation transpires in a carriage slowly making its way around the perimeter of Prior Park. In other words, Thorpe is eying what he thinks will be his future home if he marries Catherine, whom he assumes will inherit the Allens’ wealth. This of course makes Thorpe’s acquisitive intentions even clearer—and his wooing even more ham-handed—to the reader who understands the Allen-Allen link suggested by the locale. Barchas arrives at these kinds of insights through painstaking study of maps and careful calculations of distance, comparing Austen’s mentions of distances to actual sites in England.
Barchas’s discussion of celebrity references in Sense and Sensibility moves beyond humorous coincidence into the almost risqué, pointing out Austen’s use of celebrity names to impart specific traits to her own characters. Francis Dashwood, the leader of the notorious rake’s group called the Hellfire Club, would have likely been called to mind...