As many readers of Jane Austen Fan Fiction know, certain elements are common to many JAFF stories that aren’t actually found in the cannon of Austen’s work. Christian names or character attributes are frequently consistently applied by JAFF Authors. I personally find this practice helpful as a reader —it lends continuity to the genre and can orient a reader within the story. For example, I adopted the name “Richard” for Colonel Fitzwilliam, as have many JAFF authors before me.
Another common one is the name Madeline for Mrs. Gardiner. Austen never told us her name, but she did indicate that the first initial was “M.” Perhaps because there were already so many Marys in the list of characters, another “M”name, “Madeline,” was selected in early JAFF stories and it stuck.
Then there is Viscount Milton. The name is innocuous enough that I’d probably seen it in three or four JAFF stories before I even noticed it, but when I had decided to use him in the plot of Constant as the Sun, the reason for it became clear as soon as I started researching. Within the Fitzwilliam family, the heir to the earl was given one of the earl’s lesser titles as a courtesy until he inherited the earldom, and that title was Viscount Milton.
Jane Austen would never have been able to do this. She was already using the name “Fitzwilliam” for Darcy’s uncle who was an earl. The name itself was imbued with meaning and projected certain qualities by association. By using that name, however, for legal reasons, she had to be careful. There was only one earl by the name of Fitzwilliam in the real world, and he had one son. By making Colonel Fitzwilliam the second son, there could be no misunderstanding that he was anything other than a fictional character.
By leaving the details of the first son blank, however, Austen left an implied character wide open for JAFF authors to fill in the details. Two-hundred years down the line, we aren’t subject to the same legal constraints as she was. Hence, in Constant as the Sun, the Viscount Milton was an antagonist. I fear that Austen might not approve, considering that it goes against the implied meaning of the name Fitzwilliam she so carefully selected. Some of the characteristics of the family name of Fitzwilliam are loaded.
- The Fitzwilliam family held peerages in both England and Ireland.
- They were rich. Not just slightly rich, but one of the richest families in England. At the time of his death in 1833, the Earl Fitzwilliam had an income of £60,000 per annum.
- They were famous. Everyone in England had heard the name and most would know enough about them to pick up on the implications of being linked to that family.
- There was a decided lack of scandal associated with the Fitzwilliam family. Their reputation was pristine.
- They were deeply entrenched in Whig party politics, including spending a small fortune in an election to place Viscount Milton in the seat previously held by a Tory. This happened around the time Jane Austen was re-writing on Pride and Prejudice, so there was more publicity around the name than usual.
- They were extremely generous with their employees and tenants, with higher wages and lower rents than others have. They also provided affordable food, and for the elderly, there was extra coal and blankets.
- They were religiously tolerant at a time when persecution of Catholics was common.
- Their connections, social, familial and political, were persons of prominence and power. They even threw a party for the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York in 1790.
- They invested money in trade during an era when others of their station avoided being associated with industry in the belief that it would taint their reputation. Mr. Darcy’s friendship with Mr. Bingley seems more likely in this circumstance, doesn’t it?
- The 4th Earl Fitzwilliam had inherited the massive Wentworth-Woodhouse estate on the death of Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, his maternal uncle. This added to the portfolio of multiple properties he already owned.
By associating Mr. Darcy with that name, Austen was attaching him to the very best of reputations and a family of extensive holdings as well. Just reading this poem, written by Lord Carlisle, one of Fitzwilliam’s school friends give you a sense of this:
Say, will Fitzwilliam ever want a heart,
Cheerful his ready blessings to impart?
Will not another’s woe his bosom share,
The widow’s sorrow and the orphan’s prayer?
Who aids the old, who soothes the mother’s cry,
Who feeds the hungry, who assists the lame?
All, all re-echo with Fitzwilliam’s name.
Thou know’st I hate to flatter, yet in thee
No fault, my friend, no single speck I see
Making the Viscount Milton a villain goes against all the weighted meaning Austen gave Darcy in making his mother a member of the Fitzwilliam family. It’s over two centuries later, and adding a black sheep to the family doesn’t really challenge their legacy – it isn’t political. It’s fiction.