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July 8, 2006 9:19 PM   Subscribe

Why does Jane Austen make her readers fill-in-the-blanks?

I’ve decided to re-visit my favourite Jane Austen titles, beginning with Pride and Prejudice. I’m now in the middle of Emma and have noticed in this second-time around that whenever Ms. Austen refers to a character in the military, she seems to leave certain details to the reader’s imagination.

For example, in P&P, when she describes the army group stationed in town, she writes, “The officers of the ---------shire were in general a very creditable, gentlemanlike set…” Further into the story, in reference to Wickham’s new marching orders, “His regiment is there; for I suppose you have heard of his leaving the --------shire.”

And in Emma, when she first mentions Jane Fairfax’s circumstances as an orphan, she writes: “The marriage of Lieut. Fairfax, of the --------regiment of infantry….”

Ms. Austen has no qualms about letting the reader know the details and whereabouts of her non-military characters—in P&P, they reside in Derbyshire and Hertfordshire—so why isn’t the reader given the same disclosure when it comes to her characters in the military?
posted by phoenixc to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Good explanations offered at Google Answers, namely that she did it to avoid any perception that she was criticizing the government, and to avoid accusations of inaccuracy (by using fictional characters instead of the actual people) by referencing real regiments from real militias.

Also, while her counties may be real enough, towns like Merryton and Lambton are fictional.
posted by junkbox at 9:59 PM on July 8, 2006

Jane Austen isn't the only British writer of the period who used this convention -- it's basically a method to avoid the possibility of libel before the handy "this is a work of fiction so any resemblence to persons living or dead is pure coinkidink" disclaimer now in popular use. It would be especially on point when writing about political organizations or institutions (the first example I thought of was Lowood School in Jane Eyre, which was based on the horrible Clergy Daughters' School that Charlotte Bronte attended as a child). See a more fleshed out explanation here.
posted by melissa may at 10:02 PM on July 8, 2006

Tangent: Was this what Joseph Heller was mocking in Catch-22 with "Major ____ DeCoverly"?
posted by devilsbrigade at 10:42 PM on July 8, 2006

Already discussed.
posted by Gnatcho at 12:05 AM on July 9, 2006

It's something people did in novels of the 18th and 19th century in order to give people the impression that the characters and places they were writing about were taken from real life.

posted by ludwig_van at 12:13 AM on July 9, 2006

devilsbrigade: Tangent: Was this what Joseph Heller was mocking in Catch-22 with "Major ____ DeCoverly"?

As far as I know, no. Heller was mocking obscenity conventions (since there is a real "Roger DeCoverly" and Roger is archaic slang for "fuck").
posted by jweed at 3:08 AM on July 9, 2006

Although this convention is usually identified with British novelists, another notable use is in Nikolai Gogol's satiric masterpiece, "Dead Souls." The novel's opening lines:
To the door of an inn in N ________, a provincial town, drew up a smart brichka — a type of light spring-carriage affected by bachelors, retired lieutenant-colonels, staff-captains, land-owners with about a hundred souls; in short, all persons who rank as gentlemen of the middling sort. In the carriage was such a gentleman — a man who, though not handsome, was not ill-favoured, not over-fat, and not over-thin. Also, though not over-elderly, he was not over-young.
Writing in — and about — Czarist Russia, Gogol would have taken care not to run afoul of the powers that be — and those powers could retaliate with much more bite than might the British Crown.

devilsbrigade, this source suggests Heller's omission of DeCoverley's first name thusly:
Neither German nor American intelligence agents can determine exactly who Major _____ de Coverley is. Godlike, he selects cities about to fall, commandeers planes and jeeps, arranges recreation houses for officers and men, and appears among the first troops to enter the city.... [The] comparison of de Coverley with Jehovah is strengthened by omission of his first name. The ancient Hebrews used synonyms instead of God's actual name, which they considered too sacred to utter.

posted by rob511 at 3:12 AM on July 9, 2006

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