A Matter of Name: Places in Austen
I’m a vintage movie buff. Fortunately, the rest of my family enjoys an occasional vintage film. One night, we were watching an old Bob Hope film. At the end, Bing Crosby does a humorous cameo as a disappointed executioner. My daughter sensed she was missing something and asked me what was supposed to be funny about the stranger showing up at the end of the movie. I told her it was like the double take Mel Gibson and Danny Glover do on seeing each other in Maverick, since everyone knows they starred opposite each other in the Lethal Weapon series. Bob Hope and Bing Cosby had starred opposite each other in the very popular, at the time, Road movies. My daughter had seen Bob Hope from time to time due to my penchant for old films, but didn’t know anything about the pair’s Road movies.
How long until young people don’t get the bank robbery scene in Maverick? This article is speculation on what may well be a forgotten connection between two similar names. Since Jane Austen wrote her novels as contemporary works, rather than as the historical novels we tend to think of them as, there are occasional references to events, objects, and customs that have ceased to be matters of day-to-day concern.
In Sense and Sensibility, the dashing Willoughby, who proved to be deeply in debt, needed the promise of inheriting Allenham to keep his creditors at bay. A case can be made that Allenham, the name of the estate Willoughby was to inherit from his relative Mrs. Smith, may hint at a royal family scandal. If the common Anglo-Saxon place name ending –ham is replaced by the other common Anglo-Saxon place name ending -ton, the name reads quite close to Allerton-- a property involved in a recent, in Jane Austen’s day, royals behaving badly scandal. The further disguise of the name by changing n to r would have been necessary to avoid any chance of being charged with openly criticizing the royal family, a very real concern in the post French Revolutionary climate of Austen’s day. However, the name is still similar enough to jog associations with certain royal debts. One can’t help wondering if Jane Austen’s contemporary readers read the estate’s name with a wry smile.
Frederick, the second son of George III, was raised with his older brother George Prince of Wales. He was then sent away for military training in Hanover. Frederick again fell under the influence of his brother when the 24-year-old returned to England in 1787. (Austen is thought to have begun work on Sense and Sensibility only 10 years later, in 1797.) The drinking, gambling, and partying of the two brothers ran up a debt for Frederick of 40,000 pounds in less than a year and resulted in the sale of Allerton in the West Riding of York.
Frederick, the Duke of York, had purchased Allerton with the accumulated revenues of the bishopric of Osnaburg and made a number of improvements to the property, including the creation of a 200 foot hill or mott on which a tower was constructed, for viewing the property. The tower, designed by Henry Holland, known as The Temple of Victory, can still be seen at Allerton Park. As an infant of seven months, in 1764, Frederick was elected by his father as titular bishop of Osnaburg, in Westphalia. That George III had bestowed this lucrative secular dignity with an ecclesiastical designation worth £20,000 a year on his own infant second son was a favorite topic of ridicule in Jane Austen’s day. For the young man to simply gamble the entire income away was considered outrageous. The Duke of Wellington stated that the sons of George III were, “The damnedest millstones about the neck of any Government that can be imagined.” It seems likely that when a contemporary of Jane Austen read the name Allenham, they may have recalled the scandal connected with an estate of a similar name--Allerton. Today little remains of the castle that would be recognizeble to Austen's Regency readers. The estate changed hands again in 1805 when purchased by the 17th Baron Stourton, the premier baron in England. In 1843 his son demolished the Georgian house and engaged George Martin, to build the present house in a Tudor-Gothic style. Alert viewers will note that Allerton was used as a location in ITV's recent mini-series, Lost in Austen
Sharon Wagoner is the Curator of The Georgian Index. Visit this site for a historical tour through Regency London!
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