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Chapter 17. Henry – Jane Austen’s Names and So On

Hello again.  It’s me, Henry. I don’t want to butt in but I’d just like a quick word, if you’ve time, that is. I am going to ride a couple of hobby horses of mine.  Miss this bit out if you like. I can’t stop you. I can’t hold you with a hypnotic stare like the Ancient Mariner.  Nor are you obliged to stay and listen out of politeness, as you would if you were sitting with me by a roaring fire in a pub in winter.  So do scroll on to the next chapter, if you prefer!  Scroll on!

I have been thinking about Somerset again. It is always there in the back of my mind even when I am in London.  In fact, especially when I am in London. I shut my eyes when I’m in the rattling tube between Gloucester Road and South Kensington, and I find I am back in Somerset.  I am next to the oak and the crab apple tree on that gentle hill in Berringford where we used to go sledging in the winter.  I am looking across the fields to West Town on the coast and then over the Bristol Channel to the hills of Wales. Jane Austen liked Somerset, you know.  Not Bath, of course.  She hated Bath. In fact, she fainted away when her father told the family that they would all would be moving to Bath when he retired.  But I don’t think she hated it all the time because she was the type to make the best of things.  An unmarried woman had to in those days.  Bath was a big city then, and she was a country girl at heart.  And talking of country, there is no finer country in England than in Somerset.

Churchill and Langford appear together in Jane Austen´s early novel ‘Lady Susan’.  The whole novel is in letters, you know. Just imagine that! Lady Susan lives in Langford and writes to her brother who lives in Churchill.  In the novel the villages are some way away from each other but if you take the time to go, you will find them both there in Somerset nestling together by the Mendip Hills. The two villages join up, you see.  Just walk down Ladymead Lane from Churchill Gate and you’re in Langford before you know it. So did these two villages give their names to Jane Austen for ‘Lady Susan’?

Fielding, by the way, was born in Somerset, in Sharpham near Glastonbury.  Fielding, the man who wrote ‘Tom Jones’. Tom Joes, the singer, took his name from Fielding´s novel. He even wore a ribbon on his hair at the back, 18th century style. The film Tom Jones had just been released and was very popular. It´s all from Fielding´s novel. You see. Yes, Glastonbury where the festival is, that’s the place.  It was a lovely little spot before the festival came.  Rather like life was before the computer.  Perhaps it still is a pleasant place.  I don’t know.   Jane Austen liked Fielding, I think.  He had robust and cheerful common sense, and she was a great one for common sense! He died in Lisbon.  You can visit his tomb there.  Quite impressive.  It’s a little trip to make in the afternoon before listening to fado in the evening.  Don’t be too hard on Lisbon.  I know it all needs a fresh coat of paint but it’s a lovely city. 

Back to Jane Austen. Have you ever noticed how many of her characters are named after places?  Well, perhaps not named after.  She didn’t pick up a map and say, ‘Well, let’s find some good names for the families in my next story!’ But the names of towns and villages were in her mind, and when one name had the right sort of music, she would beckon it forward and give it to a character. It makes a pleasant little job finding them out.  The aspiring academic would call it research, but really it’s just fun.  Like doing the crossword.  Just reading the newspaper seems to be called research nowadays!  And have you noticed how research is used flagrantly to back up any argument today? “Research has shown that…” or “Recent research is compelling…”  What research? Was it a student in a university library one afternoon? Or was it just checking a fact in Wikipedia? That all seems to count as research today. What work was actually done is never specified but whenever the word “research” is mentioned, that seems to seal the argument, and no discussion is allowed.

Back to Jane.  I had half an hour to spare last Thursday, (well I had the whole day to spare but it doesn’t do to admit that) and I jotted down some of the names of her characters which come from places.

Here are one or two.  You can make your own list.

Let’s start with Churchill, which appears in ‘Lady Susan’.  There it is in ‘Emma’ as Frank Churchill.  Marianne, who was the sensibility part of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ended up with the stolid, solid Colonel Brandon, and there is a Brandon in Suffolk.  For ‘Pride and Prejudice’, as far as I know there’s nowhere called Darcy but there is a Bingley up in Yorkshire.  And, for the villain of the piece, there is a Wickham Hill in Bristol and, more to the point, a Wickham in Jane Austen’s own county of Hampshire.

Let’s digress. Perhaps we already have, but never mind!  Let’s digress from the digression! I have nothing special to do and surely you can make a little time as well. Bennet was the family name of Elizabeth in ‘Pride and Prejudice’.  So let’s move over to Johnson’s friend, Bennet Langton.  What wonderful first names they had in the 18th century!  Bennet!   And his friend was Topham Beauclerk.  Topham! Well, these two young men woke up Johnson at 2 o’clock in the morning, and he was in his 70s then.  As they hammered on his door in the street, he shouted down from his upstairs window ‘What is it you, you dogs! I’ll have a frisk with you’, and the three of them set off on a spree in the inns of London and kept going till morning.  Anyway, to get back to Bennet Langton.  He lived in the village of Langton in Lincolnshire.  The squire had the same name as the place where he lived. That was style!

And Oscar Wilde?  Look at Jack Worthing.  He was clearly named after a place, there was no hiding that.  It’s part of the plot. That was because a certain Mr Thomas Cardew had a first-class ticket to Worthing in his pocket when he happened to find a baby at a railway station.  So he called the baby Worthing. As Jack explains later, ‘Worthing is a place in Sussex.  It is a seaside resort.’   

Conan Doyle was a master of original names.   Wonderful names.  Think of Charles Augustus Milverton, and he was a villain if ever there was one.  Strange that W. W Jacobs has a Charles Augustus as well.  It’s the baby in ‘Forced Labour’, which is one of his short stories in ‘Light Freights’. W. W. Jacobs is rather forgotten today but his short stories are marvellous. Try those in ‘Many Cargoes’. ‘It has made me laugh much and often ’, wrote one reviewer when it was published . Sir Henry Baskerville was another of Doyle’s great names.   Umberto Eco was so impressed with it that he made use of it himself.  Sean Connery’s Franciscan monk was William of Baskerville, wasn’t he? And then there is Sherlock Holmes himself.  There’s a name for you. But we know Holmes so well we don’t notice how unusual his own name is. How many Sherlocks do you know? In England, Holmes is part of every family. Along with Robinson Crusoe he is always around, rather like a second cousin. We get used to the unusual names. This happens when our nieces and nephews choose strange names for their children.  At first we look askance and try to be polite, and we say ‘How nice!’ and we think ‘How odd!’ but after a month we are using the name as naturally as anyone else. They’re part of the family, you see, like Sherlock Holmes.

And now to change saddles and on to my second hobby horse.  But I don’t want to bore you.  I really don’t and so I will leave that for another time.  In a week’s time perhaps. We’ll see.