A useful prosopography

Silhouette of “l’aimable Jane” pasted in an early copy of Mansfield Park (http://wp.me/pCurp-1zS)

Glenda Leeming, Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës
Foreword by Phyllis Bentley
Elm Tree Books 1974

What’s not to like about prosopography? Conventionally this is defined as a description of an individual’s appearance or life, but in general a Who’s Who offers a collection of such descriptions. These days prosopographies cover not just real-life biographies (mostly of historical personages, in Ancient Rome, say, or Victorian England) but also cast lists of fictional characters from literary works.

In Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës Dr Glenda Leeming lists all the characters found in the literary canons of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Austen’s characters come first, plucked from the pages of Jane’s six novels (but not the juvenilia or unfinished writings like Lady Susan and Sanditon). They’re followed by seven of the best-known Brontë books — four by Charlotte, two by Anne and one by Emily (again, juvenilia is not included, nor Charlotte’s Angrian pieces written in her twenties). A short section on animals mentioned (particularly in the Brontë siblings’ writings) follows, and then a helpful list of characters book by book, noting the appropriate chapter when each first appears.

Phyllis Bentley’s foreword mostly renders any comments I might have perfectly superfluous. “This is a really intelligent and useful little book,” she declares, and praises Leeming’s notes for “vividly” presenting characters and personalities: “a nice tinge of irony, a very neat use of the novelists’ own words, a brevity decidedly marked by wit, make these notes pleasurable reading.” (Sadly, Bentley herself died just three years after this appreciation was published.) That brevity marked by wit is evident in the descriptions of the main protagonists, never longer than the equivalent of a page but containing everything you need to know.

Leeming also includes individuals mentioned only in passing, one line descriptions often providing no more than each writer herself offered. Opening at random I read of Goton in Villette (“Flemish cook in Mme. Beck’s school, with whom Lucy is a favourite”) or Miss Prince in Emma (“a teacher at Miss Goddard’s school”).

These days online sites freely and profusely provide such lists of characters; forty years ago though this would have indeed been “a useful little book” for readers losing track of which individual was being referred to, or what relationship they had to another individual. Here it is also done with sly humour, capturing the piquant observations of the novelists.

(By all accounts John Sutherland’s recent The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë also treats the novels with wit,** but as this work omits Austen altogether I’ll happily make do with Leeming for a while longer.)


** I assume Sutherland penned his own description of himself in the Guardian, where he is distinguished as “Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL (“emeritus” being Latin for “scrapheap” and “Northcliffe” journalistic shorthand for “you cannot be serious”).” If so, then readers of The Brontësaurus (and indeed his other writings) must be in for a treat.

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8 thoughts on “A useful prosopography

  1. I’d like to read this! Especially as Austen’s characters are very real to me. I would imagine them looking themselves up and being variously outraged or gratified.

    1. I’m reading Emma at the moment, and very occasionally I come across a name — the Gilberts, for example, or Mrs Stokes — and can’t remember if they’ve been mentioned before, so this Who’s Who is great for a quick memory refresher! Whether they’d be disappointed at their brief mentions or not would be fascinating to know, particularly if they had a high opinion of themselves!

  2. I’m sure you’re right that these days we could find all of the basic info online, but this sounds like an entertaining read as well as informative. And books are still useful for those times and places where the net fails us. Nice review Chris

    1. I’ve just come across this, http://www.strangegirl.com/emma/characters.php, and useful though it is nothing beats a quick flip through a simple alphabetical list in a real book! (And noting the page with a real bookmark!) And all so witty with it too.

      Anyway, glad you liked the crit. I’m so glad to have found the book in my travels (even if at some stage it’s probably been purloined from a library — the front fly leaf is missing).

      1. That blog is a real labour of love, isn’t it? As you say, though, I too prefer a book if attempting a long read. I really can’t cope reading these things online. And as you say, the wit is key, especially in light of Austen’s own wit – a fitting tribute.

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