Researching Austen in Austin: Archival research reveals connections between Jane Austen’s characters and real-life celebrities and politicians
Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Barchas used the Ransom Center’s collections as she conducted research for her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, published this past fall by John Hopkins University Press. She writes about working in the collections and how they guided her research.
Did I do a lot of research for my new book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen in the Harry Ransom Center? You bet!
True, many eighteenth-century books and newspapers can now be read online from the comfort of one’s home computer—and without having to attend to the time-consuming niceties of personal hygiene. As literary historians, we have books and documents at our fingertips (literally) that even five years ago demanded trips to far-flung scholarly libraries. E-tools are making historical research faster while also raising the bar of scholarship—since the skill is no longer in the mere finding.
In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, I argue that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. As the book’s jacket asserts, the “extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction” takes “full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.”
Digital archives—scholarly databases as well as open resources such as Google Books and even Google Maps—were indeed a great boon to my research. Still, new e-tools do not replace traditional archival spelunking. Nothing beats the targeted serendipity of researching in the collections of a truly great library. In the end, my proximity to the Ransom Center proved just as great an advantage as the e-revolution.
I’ve been asked to identify a few Ransom Center items that shaped, propelled, or redirected my research into Jane Austen. I picked three: one book, one map, and one manuscript.
1) A BOOK
Humphry Repton’s Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Including Some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture. London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. Taylor, 1803. [-Q- SB 471 R427 HRC WAU]
The celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton is mentioned by name in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), a novel slightly critical of the fashion for so-called “improvements” that would fell ancient trees just because they were planted in an unnaturally straight line. The Ransom Center owns Evelyn Waugh’s copy of Repton’s watershed Observations. It is a favorite show-and-tell piece among the Center’s curatorial staff, since the hand-colored illustrations have unique folding flaps that show the “before” and “after” views of the changes that Repton wrought at great estates and at great expense. The front of the book also boasts a list of the clients whose estates are mentioned as “examples” by Repton—his resume, as it were. Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop, appear among this client list. The complete list is a virtual who’s who of England’s wealthy and their landed estates. When, among Repton’s list of Britain’s most fashionable landowners, I recognized the telltale names of Austen’s leading men and women (including Dashwood and Wentworth), I began to wonder whether, long before James Joyce plucked names from city directories, she too had used works like Repton’s Observations as inspiration.
2) A MAP
“The N.W. Bank of Soundings by Captain F. W. Austin R.N. in 1808.” Published by the Hydrographic Office, 1816.
Slowly, I came to believe that Austen’s street names in, for example, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are not casual throwaways to mark the urban setting of Bath generally but compact interpretive clues that reward those with particular knowledge of such locations. At the Ransom Center, I pored over old maps and guidebooks—first of Bath, then Lyme Regis, and other locales mentioned in her stories. Hearing of my Austen research and my queries about old maps, librarian Richard Workman showed me a map of the island of St. Helena, published in 1816 by the Hydrographic Office, which is (in spite of the spelling variation) based upon the painstaking coastal measurements, or “soundings,” taken by Jane Austen’s seafaring brother Frank (Francis William Austen), a ship captain in the Royal Navy in 1808. The existence of Frank’s chart of St. Helena suddenly suggested the larger cartographic sensibility that surrounded Jane Austen. If Austen maps her fictional characters with uncanny precision, she may have gleaned this impulse from another cartographer in her family. While this map was not direct evidence, it offered a larger historical and family context for Austen’s own cartographic exactitude.
3) A MANUSCRIPT
Letter by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1788–1874) to Mr. Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.
Some years ago, in preparation for my first University of Texas class on Austen in 2005, I flipped through the manuscript card catalogue under “AUSTEN, J,” on the off-chance that the Ransom Center owned an actual letter by Jane Austen. It does not. Instead, I found a letter by Austen’s nephew and family biographer, James Austen-Leigh, who published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. When I read it, I was surprised and intrigued. On the face of it, the note is a rather obsequious thank-you for “a kind letter of approbation” about his memoir, received from the brother of a former schoolfellow. In 2009, Deirdre Le Faye identified the recipient as Edward Cheney (1803–1884), whose brother was Robert Henry Cheney (1799–1866). The short letter also asks Cheney whether the cancelled Persuasion chapters should be published in a future second edition of the Memoir. Most suggestively, Austen-Leigh’s letter alludes to the difficulties of finessing the biography of his aunt:
In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have been chiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my own family, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I care most for.
He hints at the polite need to “satisfy” family feeling and keep “private matters” out of the biography. Is this letter a smoking gun? Since Cassandra Austen burned the bulk of her sister Jane’s letters, we know precious little about the author’s private life. Did family members who lived well into the Victorian age help whitewash and starch Austen’s reputation into the prim spinster of record? What might she have seemed like to us now if such “private matters” had not been finessed, repressed, and burned? In sum, this stray letter first sparked my interest and led to questions about what may have been willfully lost in the critical reception of her work.
Finally, in addition to tracking specific research leads, my work in the Ransom Center included old-fashioned reading pleasures. I cherished being able to touch the Austen family copies of Jane’s own novels that miraculously made their way from Chawton to Texas. I carefully turned pages in worn copies of Steel’s Navy List, where I searched, like the Musgrove sisters in Persuasion, for the names of ships, including those of Austen’s sailor brothers. In old editions of the Baronetage, I deciphered the cramped marginalia of former owners who, like the fictional Sir Walter, annotated their copies with details of deaths, births, and notable events. Maps in old guidebooks unfolded to show me the tourist sites of Bath as Austen would have known them in 1801, when her family relocated there. I even turned pages in the same books that Austen borrowed from the library at her brother’s Godmersham estate! No mere screen experience provides this type of thrill.
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