As authors of historical fiction, we take great pleasure in a research “tidbit,” which introduces our fictional characters to historical figures. I, for example, have introduced John Loudon McAdam, the father of the modern road, to the readers of A Touch of Honor: Book 7 of the Realm Series. The founder of Bournemouth (UK), Lewis Tregonwell, makes an appearance in The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy, a Pride and Prejudice Mystery, while William Hulton and James Nadin, key players in the Peterloo Massacre, play out in a pivotal plot point in His Irish Eve.
However, Jane Austen was NOT writing historical fiction. Our Miss Austen wrote contemporary fiction; yet, we today hope to find historical figures in her work.
In our search for those who influenced Austen, we know her own reading played a role in Austen’s works. We see bits of Shakespeare, for example. She cites the Bard as a “source” of her mock History of England. We find references to Shakespeare’s plays in Emma (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Sense and Sensibility (Romeo and Juliet), and Mansfield Park (Henry the VIII, as well as Julius Caesar).
The conversations between Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice are reminiscent of Mirabell and Millamant in William Congreve’s The Way of the World. Most Austen scholars believe the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Henry Fielding had a great influence on her writing. One must remember that acting out plays, an activity in which the Austen brood gladly participated, was a common pastime for evening entertainments of the time. In Mansfield Park, the play’s performance is a key point in Fanny Price’s development.
The latter part of the 1700s saw the rise of the Age of Sensibility in England, meaning the dramas of the period were more a reflection of real life than previously. Feelings prompted behavior, not reason and logic. People were encouraged to act with empathy for the trials of others. Austen’s juvenile pieces are known to ridicule sentimental novels. In Love and Freindship (spelled as such by Austen), her characters sentimentality borders on the absurd.
One of Austen’s favorite novels was Samuel Richardson’s The History of Sir Charles Grandison. It was from Richardson that Austen modeled her early novels in the epistolary style (letters form the plot). One of my favorite things for my students to do when I taught Pride and Prejudice was to keep a record of letters, notes, etc., in the story line. Both Elinor and Marianne (later to Sense and Sensibility) and First Impressions (later to become Pride and Prejudice) heavily employed the epistolary style.
Another point Austen mastered was Richardson’s use of writing from the point of view of a young woman. In his Pamela; or; Virtue Rewarded, Richardson brings life to Pamela in letters, which record her feelings and emotions. Richardson called this style “writing to the moment,” a technique in which Austen excelled. Austen, however, wrote from the familiar.
We also cannot forget the influence of John Milton or that of Fanny Burney upon Austen. A Miltonian temptation motif can be found in most of Austen’s novels: Isabella Thorpe’s pursuit of Frederick Tilney in Northanger Abbey; Elizabeth Bennet’s preference for George Wickham over Darcy; Lucy Steele’s ensnaring Edward Ferras’s affections when he is her father’s pupil, and her dumping of Edward for his older brother Robert, etc. And then we find in Mansfield Park how Henry Crawford purposely misquotes Milton’s Paradise Lost when he calls marriage “Heavens last best gift.”
The title of Pride and Prejudice comes from the final chapter of Fanny Burney’s Cecilia. The phrase is in all caps three times on one page. Burney also influence Austen’s work by bringing realistic contemporary women to her readers. She presented intelligent young women operating in Society. Burney transformed the comedy of manners found upon the stage to the novel. She also made novel writing a respectable occupation for women.
Yet, I have strayed from my original premise. Did real people influence Austen? For example, in an account of the Battle of Trafalgar in The Times (7 November 1805) there is the report of a midshipman by the name of William Price, and many wonder if Jane Austen had read the account and had created her “William Price” for Mansfield Park.
What do we know of the real William Price? We know he was wounded. The article from The Times includes Price in the tales of heroes of Trafalgar. It says, “A midshipman, of the name PRICE was brought into the cockpit, with his leg cut at the calf; he was an heroic youth of 17. The Surgeons could not attend him at the moment. He drew out a knife, and cut off a piece of flesh and the splinter of bone with great composure. ‘I can stay,’ said he, ‘let me doctor myself.’ When the surgeon attended him, it was found necessary to amputate above the knee. He submitted to the operation without a groan. ‘It is nothing at all, I thought it had been ten times worse.’”
So did this account of William Price influence Austen’s tale of William Price in MP? The William Price in Austen’s novel is “heroic,” but he is also sound of body. Do you recall how he loves to dance? So, although Miss Austen might have been star struck by the tales of such valor, I personally doubt she based her character upon the real William Price. Most Austen scholars look more to her brother Francis Austen as the model for Mansfield Park character.
Likewise, Jane’s French cousin, Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide (the daughter of Philadelphia Austen Hancock) can be found in both the self-absorbed Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, as well as the more overly flirtatious Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.
We can observe from Austen’s letters how she delved into character traits from some of her acquaintances. Lydia Bennet’s impetuousness can be seen in Austen’s seventeen-year-old neighbor Lucy Lefroy. Austen wrote of Lucy: “By Everyone, I suppose [she] means that a new set of Officers have arrived there…”
In an October 1813 letter, we read how at breakfast with her brother, an acquaintance, Robert Mascall covers his toast with thick butter. Likewise, Arthur Parker does the same in Sandition.
In the same letter, Austen describes the perfect Mrs. Elton from Emma, based on a Mrs. Britton: an “ungenteel woman with self-satisfied and would-be elegant manners.”