Austen’s Names and Romantic Espionage

I was very excited to hear about Margaret Doody’s new book, Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (University of Chicago Press, April 2015). In this text, Doody traces the etymological contexts for the nomenclature of each of Austen’s characters, while exposing curious patterns of naming throughout her corpus. Who knew that Austen’s Marys were uniformly negative, or that, with the name “Fitzwilliam,” Mr Darcy naturally followed as the inheritor of William Collins’s suit for Elizabeth’s hand?

Margaret Doody, "Austen's Names" (2015)
Margaret Doody, “Austen’s Names” (2015)

When I peeked into the book itself, I was impressed with the etymological research, and I was inspired to think about how the names could be explained further with historical correlatives. The Romantic-era histories behind the names give the characters even more flair, while showing Austen’s awareness of some of the most fraught and intriguing  elements of English public life — including espionage.  

Some of the characters have clear historical precedents: for instance, as Doody remarks, the Dashwoods of Sense and Sensibility acquire a “spicy” air through their associations with the sinister 18th-century Sir Francis Dashwood (the founder of the Hellfire Club), whose wife “Mary King” also makes an appearance in Austen’s work. Adding to Doody’s book, I find that the surnames of other characters are likewise historically intriguing — particularly the names of the male love interests. My two case studies — Captain Wentworth and George Wickham — reveal Austen’s implicit historical commentary through the use of names.

In Persuasion, Austen makes a point of denying that Captain Wentworth is related to “the Strafford family” of that name, with Sir Walter Elliot commenting, “One wonders how the names of so many of our nobility become so common.”

Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron) -- the future Baroness Wentworth
Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron) — the future Baroness Wentworth

Who are the noble Wentworths, and does the Captain really want to be associated with them? A canny reader of the 1817 text realizes that the family Sir Walter is idealizing is that of Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron), who later become Baroness Wentworth in her own right. In a novel so concerned with admiring Byron (his poetry plays a major part in some of the courtships, and even the sensible Anne Elliot admits to loving his work), the appealing characters’ denouncing of the Wentworth family takes on an entirely new resonance in the year immediately following the Byrons’ 1816 separation. In naming her character Wentworth, but taking him out of the antiquated sphere of Sir Walter Elliot and Annabella Milbanke, Austen is implicitly taking sides in a domestic dispute played out in the world of print — while perhaps commenting on her protagonists’ mistake in separating eight years before the novel is set.

A similarly loaded nomenclature occurs for our old friend George Wickham, notorious seducer of Pride and Prejudice, who has one of the most interesting, politically-laden names in all of Austen’s work. As Doody comments, Wickham comes from the “Old English wick (from Latin vicus, Romano-British settlement) + ham (habitation or home),” a “doubly locational term,” and, with its associations with “wicked,” the name had already been used as the pseudonym for a rake in Mary Robinson’s A Natural Daughter (1799). But — and this is where it gets interesting — Wickham was also the name of England’s greatest counter-Revolutionary spymaster, William Wickham (1761-1840).

William Wickham (1761-1840)
William Wickham (1761-1840)

A little history of William Wickham: he arose to his prominent position in British espionage after an educational career at Harrow School, Oxford, and law studies in Switzerland. When Wickham returned to England in 1790, he became a magistrate, but then undertook secret work for Lord Grenville (the Foreign Secretary) in 1793, as Britain strove to challenge the Jacobins’ increasing stronghold on French Revolutionary politics. Having been made “superintendent of aliens” in Britain in 1794, Wickham was sent to Switzerland, a country he knew very well, to quash Jacobinical activities and to support French Royalists. His initiatives included supporting the rising in la Vendée and an attempt to turn the French Revolutionary general Charles Pichegru to the royalist cause. When Wickham’s cover was blown by French spies, he resigned and returned to England in 1798, taking on his old role as the “superintendent of aliens” and becoming the “effective head of the secret service,” until he very publicly resigned in 1801. From 1802 to 1804, he held a Privy Council post as the Chief Secretary for Ireland, a position that was intended to quash the fomenting rebellious impulse in that country after the Rising of 1798. Taking into consideration his counter-Revolutionary activities in the continent and his French-speaking wife, Wickham may well be the inspiration for that archetypal Romantic spy, Baroness Orczy’s Percy Blakeney, alias the Scarlet Pimpernel, whose greatest enemy, Citizen Chauvelin, is also a historical figure. In fact, Wickham continues to appear in the fiction of the Pimpernel’s flower-spy followers; most recently, in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, a fictionalized Wickham is the director of the English War Office.

Anthony Andrews as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982 film)
Anthony Andrews as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982 film)

As a public servant, William Wickham’s doings were well known by the time he retired in 1804 (and, for the digital / archival humanists among us, his letters from his time as a spy are available here and are ripe for some scholarly investigation!).  Austen would likely have been familiar with Wickham’s career, since her earliest novel reveals her interest in the espionage practices of her time: Henry Tilney comments in Northanger Abbey‘s critical moment that “every family is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies,” and General Tilney is a spymaster par excellence (he might even be a little too good — his double-agency is suggested by his appetite for French bread).

In Pride and Prejudice, reading George Wickham through the history of Romantic espionage casts an entirely new shade on his character, one that, I think, makes him more powerful, more menacing, and perhaps even more sympathetic. Wickham’s seamless but mysterious self-insertion into Hartfordshire, his participation in the militia against the French, and his secret double-life revealed only after his sudden decampment, gain new resonance though his nominal relationship to Britain’s leading Romantic-era spy. But do we read Austen’s use of the name Wickham for her villain as an implicit critique of the historical spy — or do we see her admiration for the spy color her representation of George Wickham as a rather dashing and seductive figure in an otherwise sleepy landscape? I’m not sure, and I’d be glad to hear what you think in the comments.

What is certain is that, in both Wentworth and Wickham’s cases, Austen introduces into her novel a real-life conflict between public and private social spheres. Secret and sociopolitical worlds collide when Wickham has his cover blown, or when the Byron-Wentworths separate with great fanfare and messiness. Likewise, for Austen, a name can simply refer to a fictional character — or to the real historical world in which the novels were imagined.