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Austen Writing Bristol: The City and Signification in Northanger Abbey and Emma

traditionally, critics have not seen Austen as a writer of place.  George Lewes, for example, called her a “dramatic” not “descriptive” author (158).1  Furthermore, he stated that “the absence of all sense of outward world . . . is more remarkable in her than any writer we remember” (159).  More recently, critics such as Wenner have reassessed Austen’s “outward world.”  Wenner notes that although Austen does not provide detailed descriptions of landscapes in the way that later novelists such as Dickens and Hardy do, “she is extremely accurate in her placement of characters within their settings” (1 n.1).  In this essay I wish to argue that Austen’s depiction of place is central to her artistry as an emergent realist writer.  In particular, I will analyze the significance of Bristol in the novels Northanger Abbey and Emma, and make some passing references to “Lesley Castle.” 

Austen’s portrayal of Bristol in her fiction has two specific functions.  First, it underscores her topographical realism:  the references to the city and its immediate environs show how her novels are set in the recognizably real world, even if Bristol is not described in great detail.  Second, a character’s attitude towards, or connection with, the city and its surrounding area exposes significant aspects of his or her personality.  A character’s relationship to place reveals a great deal; furthermore, the aspect of temperament that is exposed in the process may be linked to important wider themes of the particular novel in question.  The connection between place and person is part of Austen’s “hyperrealistic” method, a technique whereby she used real life places and their associations to help inform an understanding of her characters.2

Austen and the South West: Topography and social custom 

Austen drew on her own experiences when writing place.  Although she is associated strongly with Hampshire in the South East, the South West is a part of the world she was very familiar with.  She stayed with her aunt and uncle the Leigh-Perrots in Bath for four weeks in 1797 and visited her brother in Queen Square in the city for six weeks in 1799.  Austen and her family then moved to Bath in 1801, living at various locations in the city until 1806.  After leaving Bath in 1806, she stayed somewhere in Clifton, Bristol, for four weeks.  However, it is evident she knew something of Bristol as a teenager, given her use of it in “Lesley Castle.”  Le Faye speculates that Austen may have passed through Bristol on her way to see maternal relatives in Gloucestershire in the 1790s (“Jane Austen and Bristol” 186).  Also, it is probable that Austen visited Bristol when in Bath in 1797 and 1799.  When preparing for the family’s move to Bath, Austen writes to Cassandra about their likely new home:  “I flatter myself that for little comforts of all kinds, our apartment will be one of the most complete things of the sort all over Bath—Bristol included” (3-5 January 1801).  This letter suggests that Austen might have known through past personal observation what accommodation was like in Bristol.  And due to holidays in Sidmouth, Dawlish, Teignmouth, and Lyme Regis when living in Bath, Austen was familiar with seaside locations in the South West.3  Places in the South West feature heavily in the fiction, and in writing them Austen drew on her own knowledge of the locations she had visited. 

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View of Clifton from Leigh Woods, by Francis Danby (c. 1818-20). Courtesy of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives.

Furthermore, in her letters we can see Austen’s belief in the importance of geographical precision in fiction.  When replying in 1814 to her novel-writing niece, Anna Austen, she emphasizes the need to be accurate in her topography.  Austen insists that Anna’s characters “must be two days going from Dawlish to Bath; They are nearly 100 miles apart” (10-18 August 1814).  The letter ends in this vein, with the postscript picking up on other geographical errors:  “Twice you have put Dorsetshire for Devonshire.  I have altered it.—Mr Griffin must have lived in Devonshire; Dawlish is half way down the County.”  In this letter Austen also points out the importance of Anna’s depicting local social behavior correctly.  She stresses the need for her niece to be accurate in portraying characters’ likely discussion of the surrounding area when she writes, “Lyme will not do.  Lyme is towards 40 miles distance from Dawlish & would not be talked of there.—I have put Starcross indeed.—If you prefer Exeter, that must always be safe.”  Austen suggests that Starcross or Exeter should be substituted for Lyme because they are more likely to be discussed by Anna’s Dawlish characters.  Furthermore, Austen goes on to state that Anna should not depict her characters in Ireland because she knows “nothing of the Manners there.”  As Southam has suggested of this letter, “the topography she sets out here extends further than the linear tracing of distances and durations of travel; it becomes a topography of social culture, dependent on her own personal knowledge” (129).  Austen’s advice to her niece does, I think, enlighten us on her kind of realism:  the reader must recognize the world depicted, both geographically and culturally.  A novelist’s topography has to be correct, but so does the portrayal of social behavior within geographically-specific cultural groups.

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Map of Bristol, 1794. BRO PicBox/6/map/30. Courtesy of Bristol Record Office. (Click on image to see a larger version.)

This emphasis on accurate topography and local social customs is evident in Austen’s early work “Lesley Castle.”  She most likely wrote this in early 1792, when she had just turned seventeen.  “Lesley Castle” is a parody of the epistolary novel, and the characters Misses Margaret Lesley and Charlotte Lutterell are melodramatically drawn for maximum effect.  However, this pastiche also provides evidence of Austen’s interest in geographical precision4 and the authentic portrayal of local customs.  The latter is demonstrated through the references to Bristol.  After the death of Henry Hervey, the fiancé of Charlotte’s sister Eloise, the Lutterell family decamps to Bristol, hoping that the air of the Bristol downs will restore Eloisa’s blighted spirits; Margaret hopes for this too, stating, “I do not doubt but that the healthy air of the Bristol-downs will intirely remove it [“your Sisters affliction”], by erasing from her Mind the remembrance of Henry” (153).  The references to Bristol provide an idea of how the region was viewed at this period:  the large green space around the edge of the city was deemed beneficial to the afflicted and so was becoming increasingly popular as a place to visit, as was the nearby village of Clifton.  Indeed, when there, Charlotte and Eloisa meet a Mr. and Mrs. Marlowe who are visiting in the hope of improving their young son’s health (155).  Furthermore, one of Charlotte’s letters reveals that Bristol was a cheaper option than London, a good choice for genteel people on a budget (164).  To keep their costs as low as possible, the Lutterells are visiting out of season in February (the Bristol season ran from late March to late September), much to Charlotte’s displeasure: as a result of their unseasonal visit, the place is sparsely populated. 

The delineation of specific, geographically-precise locales and their customs is an even more sustained feature of one of the early novels, Northanger Abbey.  The majority of Northanger Abbey was most likely written later in the same decade as “Lesley Castle”:  Susan (the original title of Northanger Abbey) was probably drafted in 1798-99 although it was revised in the winter of 1802 (Le Faye, “Chronology” 5-6).  The novel features South West locations extensively:  Catherine Morland lives in a Wiltshire village nine miles from Salisbury; the majority of the action takes place in Bath when Catherine visits with the Allens; Catherine also spends some time in Northanger Abbey in Gloucestershire, thirty miles from Bath; when staying in Bath, the Thorpes suggest a visit to Bristol.

Austen’s thorough geographical knowledge of Bath and Bristol is evident in the novel:  when the Thorpe-Morland party travels from Bath to visit Blaise Castle on the outskirts of Bristol,5 Austen’s narrator has James Morland observe that seven miles from Pulteney Street in Bath has taken them one hour, and they have at least another eight to go, which means they won’t get to Bristol until it is too late to enjoy its attractions and get home in time (87).  (Austen’s knowledge of distances to Bristol is also in evidence in her later novel, Emma:  the journey from Maple Grove, near Bristol, to London is, Mrs. Elton notes, 125 miles.6)  The references to areas in and around Bristol in Northanger Abbey imply Austen’s thorough knowledge of it as a tourist; the places mentioned in the novel would be known to visitors and locals alike.  When the Thorpes and James Morland finally go without Catherine to Clifton, Bristol, they dine at the York Hotel.  The Royal York House Hotel and Tavern, which opened in 1790, was, according to Mathews’s Bristol Directory for 1793-4, “extremely well calculated for parties who arrive here, or make excursions for a few days to this delightful spot” (qtd. in Le Faye, “Jane Austen and Bristol” 189).  The Thorpe-Morland party (without Catherine) also goes to the Pump-room, “at the new small spa, the New Hot Wells, which had opened on Sion Hill in the 1780s” (Le Faye 189).  The “spars” the young people buy are quartz crystals that were found at the bottom of the Avon Gorge; termed “Bristol diamonds,” they were sold to tourists (Le Faye 189).  Wick Rocks, mentioned by John Thorpe, was a “local beauty spot” between Bath and Bristol, part of the tourist trail (Le Faye 190).  And Blaise Castle on the outskirts of Bristol was a well-known Gothic folly that attracted tourists.  All these references show, as Le Faye points out, that “Austen was thoroughly up to date with the latest social trends and building developments in Bristol and its locality” (188).  And of course readers would have recognized the places mentioned, enabling Austen to create an intimate connection between her fictional world and her readers’ real one. 

Place, character, and signification

In Northanger Abbey it is the promise of the visit to “Blaize Castle” that prompts Catherine to set out for Bristol with John Thorpe instead of waiting at home for the Tilneys, with whom she has a prior walking engagement.  Catherine imagines it is an old castle; Thorpe confirms it is the “‘oldest in the kingdom’” with “‘dozens’” of ‘“towers and long galleries’” (83).  Catherine’s imagination goes into overdrive:  she envisions “the delight of exploring an edifice like Udolpho, as her fancy represented Blaize Castle to be” (85).  In Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho the castle is anthropomorphized:  “the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. . . . Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign” (226-27).  If Catherine had gone to see Blaise, geographically situated near Bristol, she would have realized her mistake:  Blaise is no sublime Udolpho-like castle but a Gothic folly.  It was a modern structure, built for the sugar-merchant Thomas Farr from the design by Robert Mylne in 1766.  Blaise was used as a summer house for meditation and for enjoying the views over the Bristol Channel.7  It is also quite small, so Catherine’s desire to ‘“go all over it,’” to “‘go up every staircase, and into every suite of rooms’” illustrates comically her ignorance to the well-informed reader (84).  Barchas confirms that “[a]lthough at least one contemporary guidebook aggrandizes the folly, describing it as ‘a Gothic castellated building’ with ‘stately turrets’ named after St. Blasius for his association with ‘an ancient chapel’ formerly occupying the spot, it amounted to but one open-air room fit only for picnics.” (97)

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View of Henbury, showing Blaise Castle, by the British School (c. 1780). Courtesy of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives. 

However, the party never gets to visit Blaise and be disabused of their preconceived Gothic notions:  it’s too late in the day, so they have to pull up in Keynsham and turn round.  Catherine is miserable because she knows she has affronted her friends, all for the promise of a trip that never materializes.  Her desire to visit Blaise and imagine she is a heroine like Emily St. Aubert blinds her to the demands of civility and the bonds of friendship.  When she sees the Tilneys on their way to visit her, as she sits in the carriage with John Thorpe, she realizes that she would “willingly” give up “the happiness of being stopped in their way along narrow, winding vaults, by a low, grated door; or even of having their lamp, their only lamp, extinguished by a sudden gust of wind, and of being left in total darkness” to be with the Tilneys instead (86).  Her appetite for all things Gothic and her gullibility in being taken in by Thorpe are exposed here. 

Catherine’s susceptibility mirrors the predisposition of many contemporary readers to read life through the lens of the Gothic romance.  The response of Mrs. Austen’s friend Mrs. Lybbe Powys to Canterbury Cathedral in 1798 suggests this kind of inclination:  she describes “‘spiral staircases, dark passages, &c& c, which put one in mind of the haunted castles of our present novels’” (qtd. in Benedict and Le Faye xxxvi).  Northanger Abbey doesn’t just act as a comic parody of the Gothic novel; it castigates contemporary readers’ desire to interpret life as a Gothic romance, as the heroine is an exaggerated version of many of the novel’s readers.  Catherine never realizes her mistake about Blaise, but she does learn that real life can include tyrannical fathers such as General Tilney, if not Gothic villains.  The novel demonstrates that Catherine’s empirical experiences in the South West are part of her education in the ways of life as it really is, in “human nature” “in the midland counties of England,” which contain “a general though unequal mixture of good and bad” (205-06).  Catherine has to learn to see the world as it is, evaluating the evidence before her and using her own judgment in making her conclusions.

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Blaise Castle, by J.M. Field (1827). Courtesy of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

In Northanger Abbey Blaise Castle near Bristol functions as an important signifier of willful delusion about the real world:  its metonymic function reminds the reader that one should avoid imaginative fantasies and instead let experience be one’s guide.  In many ways, Northanger Abbey is an endorsement of the commonplace, the everyday:  it features an unremarkable, unheroic young woman who learns to come to terms with the realities of her world and reject imaginative castle-building.  Catherine’s misapprehension about Blaise is illustrative of the novel’s central trope:  the theme of “the power of misconception” (Barchas 93).

Unlike Northanger Abbey, Emma belongs to Austen’s mature, Chawton novel-writing phase.  The novel was begun in January 1814 and finished in March 1815 (Le Faye, “Chronology” 9-10); it is set during the period it was composed.  As Cronin and McMillan confirm, critics have argued that Austen probably used an almanac for 1813-14 to ensure that everything was presented accurately (xxi); it’s also worth noting that the letter to Anna alluded to earlier was written when Austen was drafting Emma, when she was working hard at creating a recognizable, credible world in this novel.  Although Emma is unusual for Austen’s novels in that the heroine never—except for the picnic at Box Hill—ventures out beyond her native village, the references to Bristol are, I believe, very significant.

Mrs. Elton provides the Bristol connection in the novel.  Mr. Elton leaves Highbury after having his pride damaged by Emma’s refusal of his offer of marriage, decamping to Bath, well-known during the period as a place to find a spouse.  He is successful in his quest, soon marrying the “charming Augusta Hawkins” from Bristol (194).  She is pretty and comes with a dowry, but Emma maintains that Harriet would have been the better choice.  The following passage is focalized through Emma: 

Miss Hawkins was the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called; but, as the whole of the profits of his mercantile life appeared so very moderate, it was not unfair to guess the dignity of his line of trade had been very moderate also.  Part of every winter she had been used to spend in Bath; but Bristol was her home, the very heart of Bristol; for though the father and mother had died some years ago, an uncle remained—in the law line—nothing more distinctly honourable was hazarded of him, than that he was in the law line; and with him the daughter had lived.  Emma guessed him to be the drudge of some attorney, and too stupid to rise.  And all the grandeur of the connection seemed dependent on the elder sister, who was very well married, to a gentleman in a great way, near Bristol, who kept two carriages!  This was the wind-up of the history; that was the glory of Miss Hawkins.  (196-97) 

What is most immediately striking in this passage is the repetition of Miss Hawkins’s home city:  Bristol features four times.8  Bristol had been one of the foremost slavery ports in the eighteenth century, with slavers sailing out to West Africa to trade manufactured goods for slaves, then taking the slaves to the Caribbean and the Americas to trade raw materials, and finally bringing back these raw materials, such as sugar, to one of the city’s many refineries.9  Indeed, the “refining industries which processed the tobacco, chocolate and sugar were . . . crucial to Bristol’s eighteenth-century prosperity” (Dresser 34).

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     “A List of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa” (1755).  BRO 44784/13 p.159.  Courtesy of Bristol Record Office.  (Click on each image to see a larger version.)

The repeated references to the city may have reminded contemporary readers of the fact of its recent position at the heart of the transatlantic slave trade, a position which secured its wealth.  Indeed, an anonymous comment on Bristol affirms that there “is not a brick in the city but what is cemented with the blood of a slave” (qtd. in Dresser 96).  It is not unlikely, then, that Mrs. Elton’s inheritance may come directly or indirectly from slavery, particularly given the reference to her father’s occupation as a merchant.  Her father may have been a merchant who had been directly involved in the slave trade, in a line of mercantile trade that was indirectly associated with it, or provided with a legacy of inherited wealth created from slavery.10  The idea of his trade being one of “moderate dignity” could imply he was associated with the trade; furthermore, the moderateness of the fortune might serve to suggest that he was involved in it as the trade was winding down:  by the late eighteenth century slaving voyages leaving Bristol had reduced significantly.11  Although Bristol “was the nation’s number one slaving port” from the 1720s to the 1740s, by “the 1780s, Bristol’s role as a slaving port, whilst still significant, had long been eclipsed by Liverpool” (Dresser 28, 98).  Also, the financial crash of 1793 had affected trade in Bristol badly, as some traders went bankrupt.12  As Dresser summarizes, “Bristol remained a significant slaving port right up to the end of the eighteenth century, but the trade became concentrated in fewer hands, and by the 1780s fewer leading African traders were from established Bristol families” (36).  Austen may well have been aware of these facts in her visits to the city in the 1790s and have used them as a subtext for her novel. 

To reinforce the connection between Augusta Hawkins and slavery, her maiden name (repeated nineteen times in the course of the novel) has associations with the trade.  Admiral Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595), of West Country origin, is, as DeForest notes, perceived by many to be the father of the English slave trade.13  Indeed, she suggests that “both the name of Miss Hawkins and her place of origin would have indicated her connection with the slave trade” (11).  Barchas has shown authoritatively how surnames (and settings) in Austen’s fiction are historically specific (25) and that an understanding of a character’s real-life counterpart deepens our perception of her work; the name Hawkins is, I think, another example of what Barchas calls Austen’s “mimetic realism,” whereby she uses real people’s names for her characters to create an extra level of signification (256).  Hawkins undertook three slaving voyages and was clearly “a product of his age, which accepted slaving with an easy mind” (Morgan 13).  However, in the nineteenth century, Hawkins was judged “from the standpoint of Wilberforce” and thus viewed “as primarily the greedy and unscrupulous father of a lucrative English slave trade” (Morgan 12).14  The association of Mrs. Elton with Hawkins enables the canny reader to prejudge her as a dominating, enslaving character. 

Furthermore, Augusta’s sister, Selina, has married a Mr. Suckling, and they live in a grand way in Maple Grove, near Bristol, reinforcing the familial connection with the city.  During a conversation with Jane Fairfax about her future vocation as a governess, Mrs. Elton alludes to Mr. Suckling’s position on slavery:

“There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”

“Oh! my dear, human flesh!  You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”  (325)15 

Jane Fairfax states that she is not alluding to slavery in her reference to “the sale . . . of human flesh”; it is likely she is thinking of prostitution.16  Mrs. Elton’s sensitivity to the topic of slavery and her association of it with Mr. Suckling speak volumes.  Why does Mrs. Elton feel the need to defend Mr. Suckling, whom Jane Fairfax does not know?  Possibly because she knew he had some prior association with slavery before lending his support to the abolition movement, which was strong from the 1780s onwards.17  Mr. Suckling has been resident in Maple Grove some eleven years, and his father may have lived there before him; Mrs. Elton speculates that his father “‘completed the purchase before his death’” (336).  It is possible that Maple Grove was purchased with money old Mr. Suckling had gained from the slave trade, just as the Hawkins sisters may have gained money from slavery from their father.  Furthermore, DeForest observes that “Bristol families whose revenues derived in large part from the slave trade were joined by ties of marriage” (12):  Mr. Suckling and Selina Hawkins could, perhaps, be an example of this kind of intermarriage.

Furthering the association of Maple Grove with slavery, Mrs. Elton says that Maple Grove is retired from the road, with “‘Such an immense plantation all round it!’” (332).  “Plantation” may be an oblique reference to the colonial estates that grew sugar and cotton using slave labor that Britain traded with by supplying the slaves.  Although Austen uses “plantation” as a horticultural term in many of her works (for example, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey), the specific use of it here could have reminded readers of a colonial context.18 

It is very likely that Austen’s sojourn in Clifton in 1806 helped inspire the creation of Maple Grove.19  Le Faye argues that Austen’s naming of Maple Grove was a clever conflation of places around the city:  since Maple Grove is 125 miles outside London, it could be situated “quite probably in Clifton,” but, she suggests, “the name of Maple Grove may have been Jane’s combination of ‘Stapleton’ to the north-east of Bristol with ‘Grove’ House in Clifton, thus carefully confusing its location” (“Jane Austen and Bristol” 194).  Grove House in Clifton was one of several mansions built on the Downs that Le Faye assumes, quite reasonably, Austen would have seen when out walking.  It is fair to suggest, then, that the location of the Sucklings’ home was at least partly inspired by property in Clifton.  Much of Clifton was built with profits from the slave trade:  as Dresser confirms, “Clifton was awash with slave-based wealth” (108).  Residents of Bristol who had established themselves financially as a result of slavery moved out of the city, and Clifton became “Bristol’s most fashionable suburb” (108). 

Furthermore, the name of Elton has associations with Clifton.  Le Faye notes that the Eltons were an important local family, and Austen could have been familiar with the name through her likely attendance at the local church (St. Andrews), where the Eltons had a permanent pew, when she resided in Clifton in 1806 (“Jane Austen and Bristol” 191).  When writing Emma, Austen corresponded with her dear friend Martha Lloyd, who was staying in Bath, saying, “I hope you will see Clifton” (2 September 1814).  Le Faye speculates that “it was perhaps the thought of Martha Lloyd visiting Clifton which reminded Jane of her own holiday there and the name of Elton, and so paved the way for the creation of Mrs. Elton, late of Bristol and—possibly Clifton” (“Jane Austen and Bristol” 191).  The Elton family, like many others in Bristol, had profited from the slave trade.20 

So, Augusta and her husband are connected to the Bristol slave-trade by the surnames Austen carefully selected for them.  This connection between the Eltons and slavery is transposed onto the novel in interesting ways, particularly through their relationships with other characters.  If the Eltons are implicitly aligned with slavers, Jane Fairfax is associated with slaves:  she compares, as we have seen earlier, her position as governess to that of a slave.  While this might be, as Tsomondo has stated, a “hysterical[. . .] conflat[ion]” (194), through its portrayal of the dominating Eltons, who torment the enslaved Jane Fairfax, the novel suggests that relationships that mimic master-slave dynamics need serious questioning. 

As the novel progresses, the Eltons force their “friendship” on Jane Fairfax, taking liberties with her name—Mrs. Elton simply calls her “Jane,” a transgressive indulgence by standards of the time—and denying her agency.  Mrs. Elton singlehandedly arranges—forces—Jane Fairfax’s employment with Mrs. Smallridge, who lives only four miles from Maple Grove, refusing to accept Jane’s decision not to go (414).  The combination of the quarrel with Frank Churchill and the wearying officiousness of Mrs. Elton leads Jane Fairfax to accept the situation.  The association of Maple Grove with slavery reinforces this subject-positioning of Jane Fairfax as slave.  The thought of going, combined with the sense of the loss of her fiancé, causes “severe headaches” and “a nervous fever” (423); her health deteriorates so badly that Perry thinks she will not be able to go on time (424).  Is Austen here obliquely mirroring the physical suffering endured by slaves at the hands of their masters?  The Eltons’ impact on Jane Fairfax has debilitating psychosomatic effects; Austen’s portrayal shows how committed she is to depicting human nature and its desire for mastery through this “hyperrealistic” framework.

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Blaise CastleNear Bristol, by F. Jukes (1786). Courtesy of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives.

Reading the relationship in this way casts light on the representation of the novel’s protagonist, Emma.  As much as Emma detests Mrs. Elton, there are many connections between them.21  Like Mrs. Elton, Emma’s vice is her love of domination, the supreme exercise of her own will:  she has dominated her governess, her father, Harriet Smith.  Only Mr. Knightley resists her, but it is important that he resists not in a way that asserts his own power:  his desire to give up his property and all that it signifies (albeit temporarily) and move to Hartfield on their event of their marriage shows how their relationship will be about mutual understanding, one of give and take rather than domination.  In Emma, Bristol acts as a cipher for humankind’s desire for mastery—a mastery that, the novel argues, must be resisted in favor of mutually supportive human relationships.

Scrutiny of Austen’s portrayal of Bristol and its immediate environs reveals how significant her choice of places is in her fiction.  Topographical realism is evident from the early fiction to the late work.  Furthermore, critical scrutiny of the places mentioned, from the real-life Blaise to the fictional Maple Grove, enables a deeper perception of the characters.  Austen utilized fully her knowledge of the environments she had visited to create subtle connections between her fictional people and the places associated with them.  There are deep significations at work when Austen writes place.



I would like to thank Susan Allen Ford and the anonymous reader for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this essay. 

1Lewes valued Austen for her ability to allow characters to “reveal themselves . . . in the course of several scenes” (165). 

2Janine Barchas uses this term in her very informative book, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen (9). 

3See Southam for more on Austen’s familiarity with the seaside. 

4For example, Margaret alludes to how Perth, Scotland is more than 400 miles from London (157), and that it takes seven days by carriage to travel from Lesley Castle to England’s capital (171). 

5The Blaise Estate became part of Bristol in 1935; see Friends of Blaise website. 

6Mr. Weston says Enscombe in Yorkshire is “‘about 190 miles from London’”; Mrs. Elton replies that that distance is “‘Sixty-five miles farther than from Maple Grove to London’” (331). 

7After Farr went bankrupt in 1778, Denham Skeet purchased the Blaise estate and opened the folly to the public, as Maggie Lane notes.  (She spells Skeet “Skeate.”)  John Scandrett Harford bought the estate in 1789 and lived there until his death in 1815.  See Lane for more information.  Although Farr was a Bristol sugar merchant, I don’t think one of the estate’s owner’s connection with slavery is significant in this novel; I will argue, however, that Bristol’s association with slavery is very meaningful in Emma

8DeForest picks up on this repetition too (11). 

9Dresser elucidates as follows:  slavers “returning from the Caribbean brought back cotton, ginger, tobacco, cocoa, and, increasingly, sugar.  Those returning from Virginia brought tobacco; those from South Carolina, mainly indigo and rice” (34).  For an exhaustive history of Bristol’s association with the slave trade, see Dresser’s book. 

10DeForest thinks Augusta’s father was a slave trader; Birchall believes that Augusta’s father wasn’t rich enough to have been a trader, although her family may have been associated with it in the past. 

11That stated, it is worth bearing in mind Dresser’s point:  “Although the African trade was no longer very important to the city’s economy, and public opinion in the city was judged, in one contemporary magazine, to have ‘nearly brought about its extinction,’ Bristol ships still managed to ship nearly 11,000 enslaved Africans to the Americas between 1795 and 1804” (180). 

12See “Changes in Trade.” 

13For further details about Hawkins, see Morgan. 

14Austen’s abolitionist stance, in keeping with the contemporary tide of opinion, is indicated by her declaration in a letter to Cassandra that she was “in love with” Thomas Clarkson, the author of the History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition  of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament (1808) (24 January 1813). 

15White analyzes this passage in detail.  She argues that in ridiculing Mrs. Elton and Maple Grove, both associated with slavery, Austen reveals her abolitionist sentiments.  For more information about Austen’s personal views on slavery and abolitionists such as Clarkson, see White. 

16The editors of the Cambridge edition support this reading (579 n. 2). 

17The 1807 Slave Trade Act made the trade in slaves illegal.  Of course, chattel slavery was still legal throughout the British Empire and remained so until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which Austen did not live to see. 

18Interestingly, perhaps, Mansfield Park, a work that Edward Said for example has suggested implicitly supports the institution of slavery, contains six references to plantations, mostly to Sir Thomas’s grounds.  More recently White has critiqued Said’s postcolonial reading of Austen, arguing that the novelist doesn’t legitimize Sir Thomas in the way Said assumes, and in this conclusion I think she is right. 

19Le Faye speculates that Austen’s stay in Clifton in the summer of 1806 may have provided imaginative sustenance for Emma

20Le Faye notes that Austen would have probably seen the mansion Clifton Hill House when walking on the Downs; it was the home of Edward Elton from 1776 until some point in the 1780s.  Edward Elton was the grandson of Jacob Elton, who was, with his brother Isaac, “involved in slave-trading” (Dresser 106).  Another sibling of Jacob and Isaac, Abraham II, “invested in at least three slaving voyages” (Dresser 106).  Clifton Hill House was built in 1747 by Paul Fisher, who also had financial interests in slavery (Dresser 109).  Le Faye doesn’t mention the house’s slavery associations. 

21Birchall has discussed the connections between Emma and Mrs. Elton.

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