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Maggie Lane’s “Jane Austen and Names”

January 22, 2017


Sometimes, you read books in the wrong order.  I read Margaret Anne Doody’s hefty tome about Jane Austen and names a while ago and I’ve only just got around to reading Maggie Lane’s much much slimmer book on the same subject.

Two challenges to Maggie Lane’s book, to get out of the way.  Somehow, the editorial process failed to catch the strange assertion that Henry Fielding invented the name “Pamela”.  The name was invented by Sir Philip Sidney and then far more influentially revived by Samuel Richardson.  There is also the rather arch comment that “political correctness” was responsible for the British Burney Society dropping the name “Fanny”.  While I accept that Burney’s family and very close friends called her “Fanny”, she would not have approved of people who’d never met her assuming such a liberty.  And I never have.  Indeed, Burney’s diary records a meeting with society hostess Mrs Cholmondely, sister to the famous stage player, Peg Woffington.  Mrs Cholmondeley was one of those characters who insists on intimacy immediately.  Nowadays, she’d be the kind of person who fondles your knee by way of punctuation, as a way of separating clauses.  Mrs Cholmondely insisted on knowing Miss Burney’s first name and received the rather cold reply “My name, ma’am, is Frances”.  That’s good enough for me.

Got that out of the way.  Because the book is otherwise delightful and instructive.  What Lane is wonderful at, is hinting at the slight but suggestive resonances attached to the most commonplace of names.  Austen is as inventive with names as Fielding before her and Dickens after her, but in an utterly different fashion.  For Austen, names have to seem reasonable and commonplace, but their latent power and unconscious suggestions have a power to shape our expectations.  Sometimes, indeed (argue both Lane and Doody), the suggestive power of favoured and disfavoured names is used to misdirect, to help send the protagonist/and or the reader off on the wrong track – to flatter and then expose subtle prejudice.  This talent is all the more remarkable given that, as Lane notes, the pool of names available to genteel Regency society was remarkably restricted (assuming you did not want to seem excessively eccentric).

Reading Lane’s little book will make you enjoy reading Jane Austen more, and will enable you to enjoy things you’ve never enjoyed before.  Perhaps there can’t be higher praise than that.

But best of all, from entirely selfish point of view… Lane does not make the point that I want to make, the point that I’ve been working on for a while, and which will hopefully create an entirely new paradigm for understanding how and why Jane Austen addresses her readers.   And you, my readers, are far too smart to ever imagine I’d first reveal this theory in a mere blog.


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