Margaret Doody: Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places. Reviewed
In Margaret Doody’s long and careful study of Jane Austen’s art of naming, there’s not a person nor a place that isn’t, seemingly interrogated – or rather excavated – for its potential resonances.
This book begins, correctly, with the assumption that Jane Austen was a very careful and deliberate novelist and she thought hard both about what her characters were called and where they came from. Also where they were going. For Doody, Fictional names are never just plucked out of Austen’s head – they relate to the real world – they are drawn from sources which echo in history, in particular Tudor and Stuart history – the history which tore England (and Britain) apart – which divided regions and families by creeds theological and political.
This could read like a work of wilful obscurantist antiquarianism were it not for the passion for Austen’s craft which informs this very readable book. This is not, ultimately, about Jane Austen’s appreciation for William Camden, but rather a book about Jane Austen’s love of history and geography and how this love creates characters whose small domestic movements embody much “larger” or at least “louder” social and political changes. This does not make Austen’s work allegorical. Far from it. Indeed, some of the wittiest namings in Austen work turn out to be ironic commentaries on the expectations generated by names and their historical associations. Doody is especially admiring of the name “Wentworth” as a name that sits at the hub of a complex web of associated names – names which evoke longer and more violent loyalties and betrayals that have embroiled all England.
For a long book, Doody’s study of naming is remarkably crisp and economical. What she offers is not so much a theory of naming, as the materials with which readers can themselves construct deeper more appreciative readings of Austen’s sense of power and identity. Doody does not always join the dots of her intended implications. But then – neither does Austen. If you absorb yourself in the detail of Doody’s research, in the names of families, in the ways in which “Christian” names should (and should not) be fastened to surnames – and in the political, social and ecological suggestions of particular landscapes in particular counties – you are left with an Austen whose ability to create a version of national epic makes her the equal of Joyce. You are left with an Austen who creates a plausible world in which unselfconscious people (or rather people of varying degrees of unselfconsciousness) contribute to the paradoxes of the national narrative with every ethical and interpersonal consideration that they make.
In short, Doody’s book on Austen and naming makes the reading of Austen’s novels feel richer, more significant and more satisfying. Criticism (for this is criticism rather than just scholarship for scholarship’s sake) can do no better than this. For instance, the implications of Austen’s naming strategies help create one of the most convincing and detailed contributions to the debate on Austen and slavery in Mansfield Park – the debate so powerfully publicised by Edward Said. If the brooding on nomenclature did nothing more than inform the Antigua controversy – Doody’s work would have been well worth it. Wentworth it.
As Doody’s book continues, her prose becomes more relaxed and her sense of enjoyable becomes more palpable. As she meditates on the agricultural responsibilities of Mr Knightley and Robert Martin, she exclaims…
“Everyone is saved, England is saved, and Malthus is wrong.”
I had a great time reading this book. There is not a dull page in it and the prose is effortlessly engaging. Doody has absorbed enough of the spirit of Austen to refuse interpretative closure on a number of occasions. Like Austen, she is not using names to explain what the novels “mean” but rather to advertise the strategies of meaningfulness that the novels provide. As you reach the end of Doody’s book, the novels themselves seem more fertile than ever before.
But there is one extra specially wonderful thing about this book. I have my own theory about one particular act of naming in Jane Austen’s work, which Doody doesn’t touch on at all, and the critical act of its elucidation remains mine all mine. Wonderful indeed.