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Using Mental Maps to Locate Austen

The following is the second in a series of posts on Jane Austen. This is a guest post written by James Brown, contributor to a special issue of Critical Survey which is devoted to the subject of Jane Austen. James Brown is the author of the article titled “Jane Austen’s Mental Maps.”


The idea of mental maps was planted in my mind when I was a research student in Oxford. It comes from geography, especially from Peter Gould and Rodney White’s 1974 book, Mental Maps.


I’d also been an undergraduate at Oxford – one of Terry Eagleton’s students. I followed up the ideas he threw out about all manner of topics besides English literature. But as a postgraduate, things were different. I was writing about seventeenth-century drama, and Emrys Jones was my supervisor.


Emrys’s interests were wide-ranging. In the faculty’s list of research expertise, Emrys’s entry was ‘English literature 1500 to 1800’, with some later topics thrown in for good measure. He was an expert on Byron, for example. Though there were no degrees in drama at Oxford, Emrys took an obvious delight and interest in theatre. He could look forbiddingly donnish (as he does in Al Pacino’s Looking For Richard), but if he was talking about a performance he’d liked, his delight was infectious. At one of our meetings we got onto the topic of farce, and Emrys thought of a show in which Sheila Steafel had made an entrance that was side-splittingly funny because she was wearing sensible shoes. I can’t remember exactly how or why the sensible shoes were funny, but I do remember Emrys, in his book-lined room in New College, succumbing to a fit of giggles, struggling to gasp out the words ‘sensible shoes’, and wiping away tears of laughter.


Emrys proposed all manner of connections between the drama I was researching and other literature and theatre. But, to me at any rate, he seldom suggested reading something from quite another discipline. So when he recommended Gould and White’s Mental Maps the title lodged in my mind. I thought of using it in my doctoral work as a way of understanding late seventeenth-century playgoers’ perceptions of London. But in the end I didn’t use it in my thesis. So the idea remained filed away at the back of my mind, waiting for its cue. The cue was just over twenty years coming. When I saw the call for papers for the ‘Locations of Austen’ conference at Hatfield a couple of years ago, the phrase ‘mental maps’ popped back up.


As it happens, the way I’ve used the concept shows the influence of Terry Eagleton as well as of Emrys Jones. Though they were both Oxford professors of English, I suspect they felt they had little in common. Even though he’d been at Oxford for 14 years when I met him, and would remain for another 18, Terry gave the impression he was just passing through, and he’s since left. Emrys, on the other hand, seemed wedded to the place. Having been C.S. Lewis’s student, in 1955 he had been chosen by Lewis as his successor at Magdalen, and he only left Magdalen in 1984 to take up the Goldsmiths’ Chair at New College a quarter of a mile away, just the other side of Longwall Street. Yet it dawned on me, as I revised ‘Jane Austen’s Mental Maps’ for Penny Pritchard’s special issue of Critical Survey on Austen, that I had finally succeeded in bringing the two of them together. Emrys had alerted me to the idea of mental maps. But the way I describe them in my essay as performative – as being about what one can do with them rather than simply reflecting false consciousness  goes back to what I learned about ideology from Terry. Having struggled as postgraduate to reconcile what I learned from each of them, there’s a private satisfaction in finally bringing them together.



James Brown is an associate research fellow in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, and a lecturer in theatre at IES Abroad, having previously taught politics and sociology at Birkbeck and film and literature at Middlesex University.