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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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Art critic Jed Perl’s "Magicians and Charlatans"

Cover of "Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture" by Jed Perl.
Cover of "Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture" by Jed Perl.

The Harry Ransom Center welcomes Jed Perl, art critic for The New Republic, and Peter Kayafas, Director of the Eakins Press Foundation, to discuss their work on Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture and the way that artists, writers, and publishers have responded to the digital age. The discussion takes place Thursday, February 7, at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. A book signing will follow.

In Magicians and Charlatans, Perl distinguishes between artists he considers magicians—people who seek to create great art—and charlatans—who are merely seeking fame or profit. Perl does not shy away from making controversial assertions. In his reprinted 2002 essay on Gerhard Richter, he dismisses Richter’s retrospective as “a hymn to deracination, a visual moan.” He laments the commercialization of art, the age of Warholism, and the new “market-driven art world.” Perl offers praise for Meyer Schapiro, Lincoln Kirstein, and the eighteenth-century French painter, Jean-Siméon Chardin.

Perl’s book, published in October by the Eakins Press Foundation, has received praise from The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. Perl has been an art critic at The New Republic for two decades, and has written for Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. He is currently working on the first full-length biography of Alexander Calder.

Writer Jim Crace gives writing advice and discusses why T. H. White’s archive at the Ransom Center brought tears to his eyes

English writer Jim Crace, currently a visiting professor at The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers, gives a reading tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. Crace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, and on a previous visit to Austin he spoke with Ransom Center staff about his interests and work.

In these two videos, Crace reflects on writing advice he took to heart early in his career and how one of his favorite authors, T. H. White, adopted a life of learning to deal with depression. These videos exemplify Crace’s understanding of the emotional value of the physical and how he uses this connection in his writing.

Jim Crace’s Writing Advice

“I found myself writing more directly and more convincingly about my mum through scissors than I would’ve done if I’d written about her emotionally…”

Jim Crace on T. H. White’s Materials at the Ransom Center

“…Once you’ve learned to parse medieval German verbs, you can learn to plow. And once you’ve mastered plowing, you can set your attentions towards knitting. And once you’ve learned to knit, you can discover how to make dough rise. And that was basically his [T. H. White’s] method of dealing with this deep depression he had all of his life…”

Writer Jim Crace discusses creative process in two videos

English writer Jim Crace, currently a visiting professor at The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers, will give a reading this Thursday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. Crace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, and on a previous visit to Austin he spoke with the Ransom Center about his interests and work.

In these two videos, Crace discusses how painting coastal watercolors sparks his imagination, and shares several original drawings of imaginary places. These videos illuminate the inspiration Crace draws from places he created as a child, both real and fictional.

Jim Crace on Painting

“All of my novels, without exception, I think, are landscape novels… and I think that landscape is almost a character in all of my novels. So these things are important to me.”

Jim Crace’s Childhood Maps and the Narrative of Travel

“I used to love looking at atlases. It seemed to me that implicit in every map I looked at on every page was a narrative of travel, an armchair story that you could imagine yourself going around this coastline or traveling up that river or crossing those mountains.”

Enter to win a signed copy of a T. C. Boyle book

Cover of "San Miguel" by T. C. Boyle.
Cover of "San Miguel" by T. C. Boyle.

Novelist and short story writer T. C. Boyle, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has a new novel out today.

San Miguel (Viking, 2012) is a historical novel about three women’s lives on a windswept island off the California coast. Boyle is the author of 23 books of fiction, and his short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, EsquireHarper’sMcSweeney’s, and The New Yorker.

The Ransom Center acquired Boyle’s papers in 2012, and Boyle wrote about packing up his archive for The New Yorker.

On the Ransom Center’s Facebook page, share which of these three T. C. Boyle books you like most: The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, or Stories. By doing so, you will be entered into our drawing for a signed copy of your selection.

Iain Sinclair’s "Ghost Milk" includes visit to Austin

Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), the latest work by British writer-filmmaker Iain Sinclair, explores the changes in East London as the city prepared for the 2012 Olympics and concludes with his visit to the United States, including his April 2010 trip to the Ransom Center.

Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, delivered a public talk, met with students, and worked with archivists cataloging his papers. Long walks in urban areas are a frequent topic of Sinclair’s writing, and Sinclair agreed to tour the campus, including the 307-foot-tall Tower, and offer his insights.

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Authors’ door reflects breadth of collections

In 1973, visiting authors and authors began signing one of the Harry Ransom Center’s doors between two manuscript stack rooms on the fifth floor. At the suggestion of a staffer, the authors’ door was inspired by the signed Greenwich Village Bookshop door in the Center’s collection. When one side of the Ransom Center’s door filled up a few years ago, the other side was sanded down so that it could be used as well. To date, more than 150 visitors have signed the door, from American writer Alice Adams to Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

ESPN’s Longhorn Network recently explored the history of the door with the Ransom Center’s Danielle Brune Sigler, assistant director and curator for academic programs.

The “new” side (left) and “old” side (right) of the authors’ door at the Ransom Center. Photos by Pete Smith.
The “new” side (left) and “old” side (right) of the authors’ door at the Ransom Center. Photos by Pete Smith.

Driftwood in an archive

Writer Jim Crace, author of Continent (1986), Arcadia (1992), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Pesthouse (2007), speaks about ephermera in archives and the narratives and stories they provide.

Crace elaborates about a piece of driftwood found in his archive that contains a note that was later incorporated into his novel Signals of Distress (1996).

Enter by July 13 for a chance to win a signed copy of Crace’s Continent by visiting the Ransom Center’s Facebook page.

Crace will be in residence this fall at the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. He will give a public reading on December 6.

Piece of driftwood in Jim Crace’s archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Piece of driftwood in Jim Crace’s archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Letters in Knopf archive show challenges Ray Bradbury faced early in his career

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Legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, author of the classics Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, died last Wednesday at the age of 91. In his long writing career, Bradbury published hundreds of novels and short stories, becoming an icon in the world of literature that describes aliens, space ships, faraway planets—and the future of books.

Like the 13-year-old characters in his Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury spent much of his boyhood visiting the public libraries of his Midwest hometown, where he was inspired by the works of such writes as Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. Throughout his life he was an enormous supporter of libraries, advocating them as some of the most important institutions in American life and culture. The son of an electrician father and a Swedish immigrant mother, Bradbury lacked the means for a formal college education and prided himself on being largely self-taught. In 1971, in aid of a fundraising effort for public libraries in southern California, he published the essay “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.” Like the characters in his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury feared a future wherein books would become obsolete.

Bradbury faced an arduous challenge in making his own futuristic novels part of the libraries he so dearly loved. Early in his career, he had difficulty garnering interest for his science fiction stories from mainstream publishing houses. He was famously “discovered” by a young Truman Capote, then a staff member at Mademoiselle, who picked Bradbury’s 1947 short story “Homecoming” out of the slush pile of submissions to the magazine and encouraged its publication. The Alfred A. Knopf archive at the Harry Ransom Center, however, reveals that despite Capote’s early advocacy, Bradbury continued to meet with difficulties when seeking a home for his work. In a rejection letter from 1948, a reader at the publishing house professes hesitation toward Bradbury’s first novel, Dark Carnival. The evaluator states that though there is “much talk about town” of Bradbury’s “weird, unusual, and tricky” stories, “the style, while adequate, lacks distinction.”

Three decades later Bradbury, by then a seasoned author with dozens of publications to his credit, became a highly valued writer at the Knopf firm. During the 1970s he worked closely with editors Robert Gottlieb and Nancy Nicholas, who published his Where Robot Mice and Robot Men Run Round in Robot Towns, Dandelion Wine, and When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, among others. In a letter to Nicholas (shown in the slideshow above), Bradbury, who often wrote nostalgically of childhood, included a picture of himself at the age of three. He jocularly describes the photograph as “beautifully serious, as if the young writer had just been disturbed in the midst of some creative activity.”

The Ransom Center also houses manuscripts and letters related to Ray Bradbury in its Lloyd W. Currey, Sanora Babb, Eliot Elisofon, Lillian Hellman, B. J. Simmons, and Tim O’Brien archives. Additionally, the Ransom Center’s Lewis Allen collection contains screenplay drafts, correspondence, casting notes, call sheets, and promotional materials for François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.

The book jacket for the first edition of Ray Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451."
The book jacket for the first edition of Ray Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451."

Win a signed copy of an Alan Furst book

Alan Furst. © Shonna Valeska
Alan Furst. © Shonna Valeska

Alan Furst, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, has added a new novel to his list of historical espionage tales set in pre-World War II Europe. Mission to Paris (Random House) follows the story of Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl who travels to Paris in 1938 to make a movie and participate in an informal spy service being run out of the American embassy in Paris.

To celebrate this publication, the Ransom Center is giving away a signed copy of a book by Furst. Visit the Center’s Facebook page to enter to win.

Read a Q&A with Furst about the new novel and his writing process in the Wall Street Journal.

Need more for your Furst fix? Cultural Compass has compiled a list of interviews, videos, recommended reading, and more.

-Watch videos of Furst discussing how he develops atmosphere, the importance of first drafts, his archive at the Ransom Center, and why he writes spy novels.

-Furst’s novel Spies of Warsaw is being turned into a miniseries starring David Tenant and Janet Montgomery by the BBC. Listen to Furst read from the novel.

-View a list of books recommended by Furst

-Read a Q&A with Furst

-Read “Interrogation of a Spy Novelist,” which originally appeared in The Alcalde magazine.