Sifting Through Austen’s Elusive Allusions

Excellent researchers have divined many, many references and allusions that Jane Austen makes in her novels and letters. In his various editions of her works, R. W. Chapman lists literary mentions along with real people and places. Deirdre Le Faye’s editions of Austen’s letters include actors, artists, writers, books, poems, medical professionals, and others. Jocelyn Harris, Janine Barchas, and Margaret Doody have written extensively about people, places and things on which Austen may have based situations or characters. Some of Jane’s references are clear, some artfully concealed.

Yet we should be cautious about the great number of literary or historical finds uncovered by modern scholarship, because we often don’t know how many of these Austen knew herself. When a modern researcher cites an historical person from a couple of hundred years Before Jane, the marginal query must always be, “Did JA know this?” Many, she likely did. But probably not all. Maybe not even most.

Also, we don’t know how many references and allusions are tactical rather than strategic. Many authors include passing topical references with no other goal than to place the events of a novel in a particular time and place. A writer in 1960s America might show anti-war footage playing on a television. A current writer might mention a controversial American president or British prime minister. But unless a common theme directly connects the background references with the main storyline, these references are likely tactical rather than strategic.

Here, “tactical” means the reference has no profound meaning beyond the text. “Strategic” means an effort by the writer to establish a more general social, political, or historical context. A reference to a Rumford stove in Northanger Abbey, for example, is tactical, playing a newly invented appliance off the heroine’s expectations of dank passages and cobwebbed rooms. The naval subplot in Persuasion, on the other hand, is strategic. It incorporates not only the overall historical context but also the moral and intellectual contrast between the military men who have earned their wealth versus the wealthy civilians who are squandering theirs.

For many other items, it is difficult to determine the precise source. Education and literature in Great Britain then involved a small, fairly closed set of people. Limited common sources included the Bible, Shakespeare, and authors from the classical tradition. A common set of teachers came from the same small number of colleges using those limited sources. Everyone who admitted to reading novels drew on the same small pool of books.

It is conventional wisdom, for instance, that Austen took the phrase “pride and prejudice” from Francis Burney’s book Cecilia, where the capitalized phrase appears three times at the end. However, the literary pairing of “pride and prejudice” occurs elsewhere, including the writings of Samuel Johnson and William Cowper, two of Austen’s other favorite writers.

Even First Impressions, the original name for this novel, may have come from a common vocabulary. First impressions, and not being fooled by them, was a literary trope. In Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, the heroine, Emily, and the secondary heroine, Lady Blanche, are warned not to rely on first impressions. This novel, shown above by the headline, is mentioned so often in Northanger Abbey that it is almost a character. The concept also arises in the works of Samuel Richardson. Austen may have borrowed from one of these specific authors. Or all the authors may have used a common literary vocabulary. Indeed, it was the recent publication of two other works with the title First Impressions that led Austen to change her title.

Another question is whether Austen knew the many layers of references that academics often point out. She apparently had free run of her father’s 500-book library, but we don’t know what it contained. As an adult, she had occasional access to the large libraries at her brother Edward’s estates at Chawton and Godmersham. How much she read of the classical material there, we don’t know.

Jane knew Shakespeare and the Bible well. She knew many poets, but would she have read a still earlier classical writer referenced by those poets? Did Austen know Shakespeare’s sources, which were often obscure Italian plays? We might be able to trace many connections back to the Renaissance or before, but she may have known only the immediate one before her.

Harris, Barchas, Doody, and others have given us multiple possible historical references to the name Wentworth in Persuasion. Austen might use the name to tie into this network of families and English history going back hundreds of years (strategic). Or she might use the name because of its fame in her day (tactical). The direct novelistic use is to contrast Sir Walter, who measures family names in terms of social status, with the Captain, who fills his commoner’s name with value through meritorious service. Sir Walter finally accepts Wentworth because of his wealth and reputation. He was “no longer nobody.” Yet the baronet can’t help but think the officer is still “assisted by his well-sounding name.”

Barring a letter or other source in which Austen states her purpose, we have no way of knowing whether Austen intended a broader meaning to “Wentworth” than its general fame. To some, the name in and of itself establishes the broad historical context. To others, it would take more than the three or so brief references to Wentworth, as a name, to show that Austen means to establish a meaningful beyond-the-book purpose.

Another consideration is that, cumulatively, commentators have found an enormous number of supposed references and allusions in Austen. Could a fiction writer, with all the work required in creating, writing, and revising a novel, have the time and energy to find and insert a myriad of outside references and allusions? Could a writer insert many references without bogging down the work?

Every writer who has tried her hand at historical fiction, for example, knows that too much history can overwhelm the novel’s story, leaving characters standing on the sideline to watch events pass by. Every external reference creates extra exposition that creates the danger of gumming up the plotline. It might also create a new emotional tone at odds with the characters’ situation or other complexities that must be resolved. We can’t underestimate the extra work for an author who already has her head full of practical book-writing issues—plot and character development—that need to be kept straight.

Finally, writers often plant things for no other reason than fun. In Northanger Abbey, John Thorpe takes Catherine Morland for a carriage ride early in the story. Barchas points out that he asks her about her relationship with her friends, named Allen, at just the point where their carriage would be driving past Prior Park, the home of Ralph Allen. This was the stone mogul who helped build Bath.

Austen does not explicitly call out the family home. Readers who know Bath’s geography and make the connection to the wealthy masonry clan get an extra chuckle. Readers unfamiliar with the geography, or with the wealthy Allen descendants, would not suffer from a lack of understanding.

All a reader needs to know is that Thorpe thinks the Morlands are connected to a very wealthy family, when in fact their friends named Allen are only modestly well-to-do. Thorpe’s misunderstanding drives the book’s plot. Very likely, all Austen wanted with the Prior Park allusion was to give a wink to the bright elves reading her book.

Thus the author may mean one thing, while later analysts might find something beyond what the writer ever intended. In Mansfield Park, for instance, Henry Crawford reads Henry VIII aloud. A broad interpretation might connect the attitude of the rogue Henry Crawford with the attitude of the rogue Henry VIII: Women and wives are interchangeable, expendable, to be taken at whim and tossed away at whim. Or perhaps the name Henry is nothing more than a tip of the hat to Jane’s favorite brother, Henry.

Austen may well have intended multiple levels of interpretation. But note that she has Henry Crawford himself say that Shakespeare is “part of an Englishman’s constitution … one is intimate with him by instinct.” Edmund Bertram agrees: “We all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.”

Others may feel that Austen deliberately weaves in as many references as she can. One must imagine her writing with a variety of concordances stacked to the ceiling. But she indirectly tells us of a different approach. One is “intimate” with Shakespeare by “instinct.” She knew the Bard and other writers in depth, and the references come out organically. Much more than by design, this fine writer pulls what she needs from history by “instinct.”

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

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