Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Janine Barchas's "Matters of Fact in Jane Austen"

Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, and reported the following:
Although I was skeptical, page 99 proved a perfect synecdoche of my book’s larger approach, which argues that Jane Austen peppers her realist fictions with historical fact when she slyly references genuine locations, historical events, and even national celebrities. My argument follows the crumb trail of Austen’s geographical clues and leading names (many of which seem as if plucked straight out of Britain’s history books).

At page 99, my book falls open in the middle of a chapter on Farleigh Hungerford Castle, a medieval ruin just outside of Bath that, I argue, provided Austen with a historical model for Northanger Abbey. Austen’s novel, which spoofs the Gothic tropes of her popular contemporary Ann Radcliffe, has not been investigated with an eye to additional and non-literary sources of inspiration. Yet “the story of Farleigh Hungerford Castle and the family who resided there for so long rivals any Radcliffe plot in bodice-ripping drama and murderous intrigue.” Her references to bizarre real-world events from Bath’s local history may allow Austen to trump the Gothic novel with the stranger truths of her own realist approach.

Page 99 tells of “the colorful Hungerford family” that lived at the castle for three centuries. Their lurid reputation for domestic and political intrigue includes the story of an inconvenient husband whose body was burned in the castle’s kitchen ovens as well as a notorious local Bluebeard who, during the reign of Henry VIII, kept his third wife locked up in a castle tower in an attempt to kill her by poison (forced to drink her own urine, she secretly received supplies from local villagers and lived to tell the tale).

Would Austen have known this vivid local history or even have visited the castle herself? I think so. During the years the Austens lived in Bath, they owned a popular guidebook that recommended a visit to Farleigh Hungerford Castle. By 1801 the castle was considered an ideal picturesque destination for day-trippers from Bath because by then the dilapidated ruin was partially restored to showcase medieval relics and “fanciful furnishings of a prior age.” These relics also match scenes in Austen’s novel. Page 99 considers the inanity of John Thorpe’s decision to set out with the castle-hungry Catherine Morland for far-flung Blaise Castle, which the oafish Thorpe never even reaches after riding north, Austen tells us, for “seven miles.” Thorpe’s decision proves a double folly since Blaise was an eighteenth-century fake, or garden folly. The comedy of Austen’s story may reside in the fact that whereas Thorpe travels “seven miles” north towards a fake, that exact distance (if travelled in the opposite direction) would have brought his touring party to a genuine castle that might have fulfilled Catherine’s every expectation of gothic gore.

Like much of the book, page 99 includes an illustration—here of an old Bath map showing the route to “Farley Castle.” This 1773 map was drawn by the city’s most influential cartographer, a Mr. Thorpe. Such historical coincidence allows that Austen may have chosen this surname to alert her readers to her story’s geographical precision, which even cites rates of speed and exact distances traveled by the carriages that take her characters around Bath.

Since the page 99 test was so successful, I’ve made a note to myself to add some Ford Madox Ford to my daily study.
Learn more about Matters of Fact in Jane Austen at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue