Places in Jane Austen
Location is crucial to Jane Austen’s novels. As Moira Rudolf explained in her interview with the Jane Austen Detectives, the attractions and peculiarities of Bath are central both to important sections of Jane Austen’s life and to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, in which the geography and the social life of the town inform the plot to such an extent that it is difficult to imagine they could be set anywhere else.
The fictional settings of the novels, too, are of fundamental importance. Houses such as Norland Park, Longbourn and Hartfield, their relative location to particular (sometimes also fictional) towns and to each other, form the network of acquaintances who are the characters of our favourite stories – a network varied predominantly through visits, marriage, and the occasional house move: hence the importance of the letting of Netherfield Park or the arrival of Frank Churchill.
This keeps the circle of characters small for the reader’s convenience, but also reflects the real possibilities for young girls brought out onto the ‘Marriage Market’, and illustrates the importance to young women like Jane Austen and her heroines of their own visits to relatives and to places such as London or Bath.
As Raymond Williams points out in The Country and the City , the term ‘neighbour’ in Jane Austen refers to someone who lives (relatively) nearby who ‘can be visited’ – that is to say, who belongs to the same social class. As he puts it, ‘To be face-to-face in this world is already to belong to a class’ (1975: 166). This explains why the events that rocked society, impacting in different ways, but undeniably noticeably, on Jane Austen, her family and her characters, are invisible in her novels: the industrial revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars are never directly referred to, and appear only in a matter-of-fact acceptance of the constraints they place on the characters’ movement – and their movement across the small ‘England’ that is theirs is so constant that the lack of international travel is hardly noticeable.
Although Jane Austen’s strength lies undeniably in her ability to analyse and depict the particulars of such small provincial communities as these social and historical restrictions helped form, the underlying sense of perpetual motion within and between these communities is reflective, to a large extent, of the heroine’s progress.
As Franco Moretti makes clear in his Atlas of the European novel, 1800-1900, the beginnings and endings of Jane Austen’s novels are always closely linked to a sense of place: the heroine’s journey throughout the novel, no matter how stationary she may objectively seem, reflects her transition to womanhood in its progress from the place in which she has spent her youth to the place where she will eventually settle with her husband. Moretti further points out that this is primarily why the ‘Marriage Market’ in its most explicit form tends to take place in larger towns and cities – London, Bath, various seaside towns. He explains,
‘Here people meet to complete their transactions, and here is also where all the trouble of Austen’s universe occurs: infatuations, scandals, slanders, seductions, elopements – disgrace. And all of this happens because the marriage market (again, like every other market), has produced its own brand of swindlers…’ (1999: 18)
These ‘swindlers’ – characters such as Wickham, Willoughby, William Eliot – travel to these ‘market’ centres on purpose because this is where they can ‘shop’, as it were; and this contributes to the effectiveness of the sense of safety and settling in the provincial places where the heroines start and finish the novels.
The Jane Austen Detectives recognise the importance of this sense of place in Jane Austen as fundamental to our detective project. This is why we make a point of visiting and reporting on these places for you to give you a sense of them to help you understand the backbone of Jane Austen’s life and work – until you are able to see them for yourself, or to encourage you to visit them again with new understanding.
The Etiquette of Visiting in Georgian societyNext Article
Tracing Jane Austen’s steps through Bath
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