Miss Hale asks: What is with the ____shire business in Austen novels? When they redacted the name?
Mrs. Fitzpatrick answers: Miss Hale, there’s not very much, if any, solid information on this point, though plenty of idle speculation. A similar question about Jane Eyre on Askville came up with the ideas that it was done to protect people’s privacy, or to protect the author from looking silly by people saying “There’s no Blankshire Street in Fayetteville!”, which you know they would. One Wessex resident posited that her island was so small that people would know where any town or factory was or wasn’t. Actually, I think that’s more likely a problem today with Ye Olde Worlde Wide Webbe than it was in days when people didn’t get about so much.
Cliff Notes (yes, yes) speculates that by using blank spaces, Jane Austen’s readers could add whatever names they wanted for a personalized story, but apart from the very un-Austen-like quality of this idea, a quick flip through the Austen novels shows that Jane was actually pretty specific about her places. She gives real counties where her action takes place, and uses real cities and towns like London, Exeter, and Bath. She’ll even say things like “the village was 16 miles from London,” and the street the Gardiners live on in Pride and Prejudice, Gracechurch Street, is a real street. (See above.) I’ve always assumed the villages themselves where her heroines live are made up, and a quick search on Google Maps doesn’t give any likely results.
The only names she blanked, as far as I can tell—feel free to correct me, alert readers!—were the names of towns where people changed horses on journeys and the names of regiments in the army. I can see blanking the names of pit stops as an I-don’t-know-and-I-don’t-care measure. (Quick! If you’re traveling by bus from Washington, DC, to San Francisco, where are your stopovers? No Internet allowed!) As for the names of regiments, that was likely to make sure she wasn’t accusing the fine gentlemen of any particular regiment of misconduct. But it’s also a historic and still-used way of referring to British regiments. In this context I would just like to point out that if you want to design a website for the Blankshires, here is your assignment. (Fans of Blackadder will especially appreciate this link, and I think it’s for real.) These days Blankshire seems to be a common way to refer to a generic county, similar to “Main Street, USA.”
So, Miss Hale, there you have it. Miss Austen didn’t do nearly as much blanking as other people did back then, though she did make stuff up. There’s even one real name I’ve always been amused that she used, and that’s Churchill. In Emma she describes Frank Churchill as coming from “a great Yorkshire family.” I wonder if she knew about the Churchills of Blenheim Palace, who were important in her day, though they didn’t come from Yorkshire. She couldn’t have known about Sir Winston Churchill, of course, and I like to speculate that he’s a descendant of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. You never know.