Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jane Austen's secret nod

Both Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen were famously, boringly, repetitive with the first names of characters in their novels. I think I have discovered a clue.

Pride and Prejudice has two Harriets, two Annes, and both a Caroline and a Catherine (euphonically similar). Sense and Sensibility, an Anna, an Anne, a Mary, a Maria, and a Marianne. Mansfield Park, two Marys and two Marias. Emma: Anne, Anna, Hannah; and two Janes. Persuasion has a Fanny, and four Marys. Northanger Abbey, two Annes and just one Maria. You can check my counting at the excellent Republic of Pemberley, which provides a "searchable database of all character names used by Jane Austen". (I'm not even going to start on her choices for the men and boys.) Now, some of these pairs indicate relationships within the novel -- mother-daughter, aunt-niece, and so on -- but others smack either of laziness or lack of imagination, take your pick. Nothing new here: scholars have criticised, and fans have complained,  for generations.

Who is the most contentious heroine in the Jane Austen canon? Who polarises readers' opinion the most? Who is morally certain, and yet modest withal? Who will not budge from her sense of what is right? Who has no hope of  a grand marriage, no money to call her own? Call her intransigent, call her honest. Call her...Fanny Price. Fanny, nickname for Frances -- as in Frances Blood, Mary's dearest friend, her first deep and life-shaping love. Price -- as in Richard Price, Mary's father-figure, whom she called "a member of the community whose talents and modest virtues place him high in the scale of moral excellence". Could Jane Austen's choice of the name Fanny Price be a coded reference to two of the most formative people in Mary Wollstonecraft's life? Drumroll: conspiracy music! (Even better -- Fanny's younger brother is named Richard Price.)

Image based on one drawn by Jane Austen's sister Cassandra [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. You are barking up exactly the right tree! My own research has shown that Jane Austen did indeed hide a complex allusion to Mary Wollstonecraft in not one but several of her novels, including Mansfield Park, and you have correctly identified some of the "bread crumbs" which lead to identifying that allusion in Mansfield Park.

    Let me add one aspect of the allusion which makes it even more interesting---in Godwin's Memoir of his deceased wife, we read that Mary’s feelings for Fanny “for years” “constituted the ruling passion of her mind”.

    Several scholars have speculated as to whether Mary Wollstonecraft and Fanny Blood had lesbian feelings for each other, regardless of whether they ever acted on them physically. Similarly, Austen scholars have speculated endlessly as to whether Mary Crawford and Fanny Price felt similarly. This is NOT a coincidence!

    Anyway, I thought you would like to hear the above, and am curious to hear your response!


  2. I am delighted to hear from a paid-up Janeite! Lyndall Gordon deals with the Austen canon in her biography, detailing the characters who draw on the legacy of Wollstonecraft. I'll be dealing with that in a week or two.

    You may or may not know that Wollstonecraft prescribed the reading of novels as an excellent way to develop insight into other people's states of mind. This at a time when many educators proscribed them!

    As for Mary's girlhood passions (Frances, and before her, Ardent Jane): well, it all hangs on one's definition of lesbian, doesn't it? And again, I will be writing about this in future posts.Please come back!

  3. Roberta, yes I am very much aware that Mary W. held Darcy's view that extensive reading was necessary for any accomplished woman!

    As for Gordon's bio, she misses the most important surrogate for Mary W in all of Jane Austen's fiction, none other than Mary Bennet! (yes, I mean that!)

    Check this out for what i mean:

    Cheers, ARNIE