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"Wentworth, a barber at Oxford": adapting Columella for Persuasion.

IN HIS "BIOGRAPHICAL NOTICE" OF 1818, her brother Henry refers to Jane Austen's "extensive reading and "extremely tenacious" memory. Before defining her as "gratified" by Richardson and "recoil[ing]" from Fielding, he presents her as a novel reader driven by her critical faculties: "It is difficult to say at what age she was not intimately acquainted with the merits and defects of the best essays and novels in the English language" (141). Jane Austen herself describes her pleasures in less guarded terms as part of a family "who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so" (18-19 December 1798). These two ways of reading are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Austen's letters provide plenty of (though certainly not enough) documentation of both her judgment of and pleasure in the novels she read.

The uses to which she put her reading--what Jocelyn Harris has called her "abundant intertextualities" (188)--invite endless investigation. A quarter of a century ago, Margaret Anne Doody observed, "Novels were her most important reading; we may never know all she read or find all the reworkings, momentary parodies, rethinkings, that crowd her work" (362). Two recent essays have demonstrated the depth and the playfulness of Austen's engagement with a novel that has all but vanished from the shelves of readers, Richard Graves's Columella; or, The Distressed Anchoret (see Beard; Ford). Austen uses Columella, which appeared in only one edition, not merely in Sense and Sensibility; this little-read novel reaches across her career as she incorporates it even into Persuasion. Columella seems to have provided Jane Austen with a playful gloss on Wentworth's name as well as an inset tale that might have suggested some of the major elements of the narrative.

The opening line of Persuasion, an accretion of proper nouns--"Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire" (3)--announces the importance of names as they signify status, family, country. As if to underscore the point, while the grammatical subject of this sentence is Sir Walter Elliot, the direct object is the Baronetage, repository of names and their histories. Throughout the novel, names possess a fetishistic power for characters. Sir Walter's "favourite volume always open[s]" to "ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL" (3). Expecting marriage, Elizabeth surveys baronets "from A to Z" (9). Her father reproves his agent, Mr. Shepherd, for defining the former curate of Monkford, a Mr. Wentworth, as a "'gentleman,'" adding, "'One wonders how the names of many of our nobility become so common'" (26); at the novel's conclusion, Frederick Wentworth's "well-sounding name" assists in reconciling Sir Walter to the marriage with his daughter (271). When the Bath paper announces "the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Carteret," the magic names "'our cousins Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret;' 'our cousins, the Dalrymples,' sounded in [Anne's] ears all day long" (160-61).

Disdain of persons easily transforms itself to disgust with their names. The young Mr. Elliot writes to his friend Charles Smith, Esq. (one of five Charleses in the novel), "'I wish I had any name but Elliot. I am sick of it. The name of Walter I can drop, thank God! and I desire you will never insult me with my second W. again'" (220). Anne's immunity to the allure of the Dalrymple name is countered by her father's severity over the name competing for her attention:

"A Mrs. Smith. A widow Mrs. Smith,--and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr. Smiths whose names are to be met with every where.... A widow Mrs. Smith, lodging in Westgate-buildings! ...--a mere Mrs. Smith, an every day Mrs. Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her, to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs. Smith, such a name!" (170-71)

Names have the power almost to trump physical presence. Even Anne can succumb, however briefly, to the magical lure of a name. Despite her constant love for Captain Wentworth, she is momentarily "bewitched" by the "idea of becoming what her mother had been; of having the precious name of 'Lady Elliot' first revived in herself": the power of the name is "a charm which she could not immediately resist" (173-74). (1)

Given the novel's fascination with naming, Jane Austen's choices have attracted some critical attention, much of it to the name of her hero. Maggie Lane points to the medieval and aristocratic associations of Frederick and Wentworth (41, 42), suggesting that Austen "allowed herself a little more leeway to be romantic with her heroes' than with her heroines' names" (43). In A Revolution Almost beyond Expression, Jocelyn Harris observes that Debrett's Baronetage "actually singles out the name of Wentworth as one of the 'exalted persons ... of blood and character, equally ancient proud, and pure,' who first justified the institution of the baronetcy" (67). She also looks specifically at the Romantic historical resonance of Wentworth's name, in particular its association with the Duke of Monmouth's doomed 1689 rebellion, which began with his landing at Lyme Regis (146). Monmouth's mistress was Lady Henrietta Maria Wentworth, who "funded his invasion with her jewels" (154). Austen, Harris suggests, calls attention to the connection as Mary Musgrove imagines Henrietta might become "'Lady Wentworth'" (P 81), evoking not only Lyme's "strikingly romantic history" but also "women's participation in the public sphere" (154). More recently, in Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, Janine Barchas submits that Austen "winks knowingly at her reader" as she "names her landless sailor for one of the nation's most prominent landholding families" (27). That tactic, combined with culling from the Navy List the names of her decadent aristocrats, Barchas proposes, "complicates the novel's opposition between old and new, land and sea" (206).

Harris and Barchas convincingly track "the persistent historicist impulse behind [Austen's] choices of names and settings" (Barchas 257), particularly in regard to Wentworth's name. Indeed, Matters of Fact demonstrates that throughout her career "Austen actively nurtured and embellished her childhood fascination with the Wentworth family [Vernons, Fitzwilliams, Darcys, Woodhouses, etc.], plucking name after name from its venerable ancestral tree" (33). Jane Austen, Barchas shows, was "keen to prove her skill in terms of recognizable plays on the social field of her time" (5). (2)

But although the historicist argument is a convincing one, Jane Austen's creative imagination is almost impossibly synthetic. Columella surely makes a part of the "abundant intertextualities" of which Harris speaks.

Columella; or, The Distressed Anchoret is a satiric novel of sensibility, the story of Cornelius Milward, nicknamed Columella, who retires "to the solitude and inactivity of country life" in the West of England (1:8). The novel, described on the title page as "a colloquial tale," is dominated by speakers narrating, arguing, moralizing--including two school friends who visit Columella in his rural retreat: Atkins (Atticus), now head of a college at Oxford, and Horton (Hortensius), a successful lawyer in London. They discover that Columella's retirement doesn't provide the anticipated serenity: his indolent pursuit of anything but landscape improvement prevents him from succeeding in farming; proud of his own refined intellect and feelings, he shuns his social duties and is the butt of neighborhood pranks; he has entered into a compromising relationship with his housekeeper, Mrs. Betty.

Austen's allusion to Columella operates within this context. While Atticus and Hortensius are advising Columella on his improper "amour," they are interrupted by the sight of a post-chaise carrying two ladies. The lozenge on the door indicates to Atticus that it conveys the Duchess Dowager of Beaufort, but the picturesque tourists instead turn out to be "a taylor's wife and daughter from Bath ... on a jaunt of pleasure" (2:83-84). Atticus, "scandalized at the modern prostitution of those ensigns of honour," begins what the narrator terms a "harangue" (2:89) on the misuse of family arms, with a digression on the degeneration of family names:
   No one ... has a greater contempt for family pride, unsupported by
   personal merit, than I have; as the splendor of his ancestors
   undoubtedly sets a worthless peer in the most contemptible light.
   Yet I cannot but look upon the families of our ancient nobility,
   our Howard's and our Seymour's, our Percy's and our Talbot's
   (occasionally illustrated from time to time, by statesmen or
   heroes, by learned or valiant individuals) I cannot but behold
   them, I say, with a veneration similar to that which I view an
   ancient castle, or Gothic cathedral, adorned with trophies and
   monuments of different ages from the remotest period of our

   For which reason, as I am rather disagreeably affected whenever I
   meet with those names to which I have affixed such venerable ideas,
   polluted, as it were, by plebeians of the meaner trades and
   occupations (such as *barbers, taylors, and +chimneysweepers); so I
   cannot but be much more disgusted to see those antique ensigns of
   honour (which have been granted from the crown as the reward of
   some great achievement in arms or arts) so vilely prostituted as
   they now are: and I am angry with the Heralds-Office for not
   interfering, and putting a stop to our hackney-coach-men from
   bearing coronets and supporters on their twelve-penny conveyances,
   as they constantly have done for some years. (2:85-87).

The notes at the bottom of the page provide examples, notably the bathetic "Wentworth, a barber at Oxford" (2:86). Atticus goes on to suggest, in this "commercial state," recognition for "'merit of every kind," including in the navy (2: 88-89).

It's difficult not to imagine a pleased chuckle from an author having settled--or even just settling--on the name of Wentworth for her hero and then forging, in memory of a much loved novel, an economical link between the name Wentworth and aristocratic decay:

"Wentworth? ... You misled me by the term gentleman. I thought you were speaking of some man of property: Mr. Wentworth was nobody, I remember; quite unconnected; nothing to do with the Strafford family. One wonders how the names of many of our nobility become so common." (26)

Sir Walter's languid "One wonders" avoids the force of Atticus's "polluted," but his damning "nobody" and "nothing" provide all the gloss necessary for "common." If Atticus's Burkean respect for lineage is mirrored in Lady Russell's "prejudices on the side of ancestry," her "value for rank and consequence" (12), that respect is magnified in the character of Sir Walter Elliot, who objects to the navy partly as "'the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of'" (21), and whose definition of naval "'danger'" is "'being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to'" (22). Also like Atticus, Sir Walter remarks the arms emblazoned on carriages: even while rebuking Anne for her attentions to Mrs. Smith, he mentions that on Lady Russell's "'handsome equipage'" there are "'no honours to distinguish her arms'" since Sir Henry Russell was only a knight (171).

Jane Austen's allusion to Columella is not as random--or as localized--as it might seem. The novel praises those who fulfill their duties (in public service, farming, the church, the law, business). More to the point, the inset story "The Generous Contest; or, the Story of Miss Julia Arundel," narrated by Columella and Miss Leonora Nonsuch, who later marries Atticus, provides an interesting point of departure for Jane Austen's novel. (3)

This "fine romantic tale" (1:141) is the story of Julia Arundel and young Barty, who, spending much time together while their parents are engaged at whist, become mutually attached. Julia's father, Mr. Arundel, is "a distant branch ... of the noble family of that name" (1:151). When Mrs. Arundel imagines the possibility of marriage between the two young people, she considers that Mr. Barty, "a London merchant, of an extensive trade; very attentive to business" (1:153), "would be proud of the alliance" to the Arundel family, compensating for any difference in fortune. Mr. Arundel is skeptical:

"Family!" cries Mr. Arundel, "who regards family now-a-days ? what would a pedigree sell for at Jonathan's or the exchange? Besides, though Barty cannot spell his own name, as many an honest man cannot, yet he is probably of as good a family as I am; and perhaps is as nearly related to the Ancaster or Abingdon families as I am to the Arundels" (1:158).

When Barty rebuffs the Arundels, hoping to marry his son to a woman of more financial substance, "the young people [are] strictly forbidden by their respective parents to have any kind of private intercourse, ... and of course admonished of the impropriety of such a connection for the future" (1:160-61). Though young Barty "vow[s] eternal constancy," saying that "he would wait in hopes of some favourable event" (1:162), Miss Arundel tells him that "she hoped, if he valued her esteem, he would never act contrary to that filial duty, which ... every young person owed to his parents" (1:163).

But Miss Arundel, after the death of her two brothers, is left the heiress to 2,000 [pounds sterling] per year. For Mrs. Arundel, family lineage now defines duty. She tells her daughter that she "was no longer to consider herself as one of the younger branches; but as the principal stem and representative of the family: that it was in some measure a duty incumbent on her to support its dignity, by marrying suitably to her rank and fortune" (1:168): a "title of some kind was the least she now expected for Miss Arundel; though, as no one of higher rank applied, she at length vouchsafed to think of a neighboring Baronet, of considerable fortune, but of no other merit than the inherent privilege of making his wife a lady, and giving her a small degree of rank and precedence in publick places" (1:185).

This story about the false value placed on family lineage--with its own nod toward the dispersal (or degradation) of ancient names--is also a narrative about merit, risk, and constancy in love. Young Barty, in a letter, announces his plan to embark for India, undertaking with a generous spirit what Wentworth achieves in pride and resentment: "If fortune should so far smile upon my undertaking, as she has upon those of many other adventurers, and raise me in a few years to a level with the expectations of your friends, ... I should return with rapture, and throw myself at your feet" (182-83). (4) Five years elapse, during which Barty makes a large fortune, and the lovers communicate annually by letter. After an interruption to their correspondence, however, Miss Arundel hears that Barty is engaged to the Governor of--'s daughter, "sole presumptive heiress to above an hundred thousand pounds" (1:200). Her father convinces her to consider marriage to someone else, but she stipulates that she'll wait until Barty reaches England so "that she might not give her lover any plea for his inconstancy by her own example" (1:203). When Barty's ship vanishes, "Miss Arundel griev[es] more for his death than for his supposed infidelity," but after a year she agrees to marry "Lord A--B--, a nobleman of very amiable character, as well as the presumptive heir to an Earldom" (1:204, 206). In contrast, Austen celebrates but also ironizes Anne Elliot's "musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy," which are "almost enough to spread purification and perfume" through the streets of Bath (208). By the time a very much alive and very constant Barty reaches England, Miss Arundel is ill and her wedding postponed. Barty presents himself and also a sapphire given him by "the Raijah of T--... as a pledge that she was never out of his thoughts" (1:229).

Besides the situation of constant lovers separated by a particular kind of family pride and an approximately seven-year overseas absence, Austen may have recalled other elements of the story of Miss Julia Arundel and young Barty.

The constancy of the lovers is rewarded not merely by their happiness and financial security but by their physical growth over the seven years of absence. The initial description of Barty (from Mr. Arundel's perspective) is not particularly romantic: "from being a very slender and fair youth, he was now become a very jolly, tho' rather a swarthy young man" (1:220). But a lover's eyes see differently: "Miss Arundel found Mr. Barty rather improved in his person, his complexion having received a rich bronze from the climate, and the vernal beauties of youth being grown to maturity, and heightened by a manly grace" (1:228). Austen is, characteristically, somewhat less specific and more suggestive. The young Wentworth is only "a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy" (28). His (supposed) bronzed reappearance is anticipated by Sir Walter's concerns about faces "'the colour of mahogany'" or that Admiral Croft's might be "'about as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery'" (22, 24): Anne responds to Wentworth's "glowing, manly, open look" (65). Lady Dalrymple and even Elizabeth mark, rather than "manly grace," Wentworth's "air" (204, 245); Sir Walter, seeing Wentworth "repeatedly by daylight and ey[ing] him well,' is at the novel's conclusion "very much struck by his personal claims, ... his superiority of appearance" (271).

Austen also plays with the problem of the aging heroine. In Graves's tale, beauty depends on the beholder. When Columella describes Miss Arundel as "very handsome," Leonora objects: "I am sure you cannot call her handsome; she has a good complexion, and is a good height" (1:150-51). But in Barty's eyes, time develops a mature beauty: "Barty was agreeably surprised to see Miss Arundel's charms so far from being diminished by a few years, or even by her late illness, that from a mere well-grown girl, she was now improved into a graceful person, and a fine woman" (1:228).

Austen develops and complicates Graves's play with point of view. From the first chapter, Anne's "vanished" bloom is emphasized; she is "faded and thin" (6). Although the context for this description is Sir Walter's lack of admiration for "her delicate features and mild dark eyes" (6), it has weight, particularly since references to her beauty are so firmly situated in the past: she had been "a very pretty girl" (6)--or, when she first meets Wentworth, "an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling" (28). And of course when Wentworth returns, he thinks her "wretchedly altered." That sentiment, however, is immediately explained: "He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill" (66). Other, later perspectives present Anne's beauty in more positive terms though still defined by the individual viewer: at Lyme, Mr. Elliot is attracted by "her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion"; Anne herself interprets Wentworth's glance as saying, "Even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again" (112). When Anne visits Mrs. Smith, the narrative, though recalling "the blooming, silent, unformed girl of fifteen," presents "the elegant little woman of seven and twenty, with every beauty excepting bloom, and with manners as consciously right as they were invariably gentle" (166). After the "revival of his warm attachment," Wentworth tells her that "'to my eye you could never alter'" (264)--a sentiment that draws a smile from Anne, and from the reader.

Even the method of Austen's conclusion might pay a silent homage to the story of Miss Arundel and Barty. At the tale's climax, Leonora pulls back: "An interview of this kind ... between two fond lovers, after seven years absence, is beyond my powers of description; and must be left to the imagination. And indeed, I have always thought it a kind of indelicacy, if not a profanation, to unveil the mysteries of so delicate a passion; at least I could never read, without blushing to myself, the many rapturous expressions which one meets with in romances on these occasions" (1:227). Austen's lovers exchange "words enough" to head to the gravel-walk, "where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed; and prepare it for all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow" (261).

In Persuasion, what seems a private allusion--a joke on Wentworth's name at Sir Walter's expense--opens not merely into a central pattern of the novel, its obsession with names and families, but also into a more systematic adaptation of "The Generous Contest." Columella's characters disagree whether the tale is about industry, constancy, or parental foolishness (1:232). Persuasion is about all of these, and more. Graves's story ends with a provocative detail: "they say ... young Barry is to purchase a Baronet's title, and make his wife a Lady" (1:231). Examining the cancelled chapters, Jocelyn Harris points out that as "a wicked, improbable afterthought" Austen revises Mary's competitive worry that Captain Wentworth might be "Knighted" to a hope that he might not be "made a baronet" (P 272), with the consequence that "one day

Sir Frederick might rank alongside Sir Walter, the man who thought him unworthy to marry his daughter" (67). The notion is wicked, delicious--but, given what Jane Austen had been reading, perhaps not entirely improbable.


Austen, Henry. "Biographical Notice of the Author." 1818. A Memoir of dane Austen and Other Family Recollections. Ed. Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: OUP, 2002. 135-43.

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. 3rd ed. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: OUP, 1997.

--. Persuasion. Ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Barchas, Janine. Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.

Beard, Pauline. "The English Columella, or Pigs in the Primroses and Periwinkles." Persuasions On-Line 33.1 (2012).

Doody, Margaret Anne. "Jane Austen's Reading." The Jane Austen Companion. Ed. J. David Grey, A. Walton Litz, and Brian Southam. New York: Macmillan, 1986. 347-63.

Dow, Gillian, and Katie Halsey. "Jane Austen's Reading: The Chawton Years." Persuasions On-Line 30.2 (2010).

Ford, Susan Allen. "Mrs. Dashwood's Insight: Reading Edward Ferrars and Columella; or, The Distressed Anchoret." Persuasions 33 (2011): 75-88.

[Graves, Richard]. Columella; or, The Distressed Anchoret. A Colloquial Tale. 2 vols. London, 1779.

Harris, Jocelyn. A Revolution Almost beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion. Newark: U Delaware P, 2007.

Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen and Names. Bristol: Blaise Books, 2002.

Raft, Sarah. "'Procrastination," Melancholia, and the Prehistory of Persuasion." Persuasions 29 (2007): 174-79.


(1.) Mr. Elliot too recognizes and employs this fascination in his attempt to captivate Anne: "'The name of Anne Elliot," said he, 'has long had an interesting sound to me. Very long has it possessed a charm over my fancy; and, if I dared, I would breathe my wishes that the name might never change'" (204).

(2.) In an 1804 edition of the Baronetage, part of the collection at Godmersham, the Bridges entry is heavily annotated: one insertion is the marriage of Elizabeth Bridges to Edward Austen. Dow and Halsey speculate that these annotations "might have suggested Sir Walter's additions."

(3.) For the workings of other fictional intertexts to the story of Anne and Wentworth, see Raff's enlightening analysis of George Crabbe's "Procrastination" and Harris's exploration of Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall and a tale from Oliver Goldsmith's Life of Nash (30-35).

(4.) At the end of the novel, Wentworth recognizes his culpability: "I was proud, too proud to ask again.... Six years of separation and suffering might have been spared'" (268).

Susan Allen Ford is Editor of Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line and Professor of English at Delta State University. She is at work on a book on what Austen's characters are reading.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Ford, Susan Allen
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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