Jane Austen’s Philadelphia, Toni Morrison’s Denver

January 30, 2013

2013  is the bicentennial of Pride and Prejudice, so I’ve been learning new things about Jane Austen — for instance, the fact that her aunt was named Philadelphia, Phila for short.  Phila never saw Philadelphia; no, at age 21 she set sail for Madras, where she married Tysoe Saul Hancock, a surgeon and trader with the East India Company.   Among her niece’s prized possessions was an “East Indian shawl,” the centerpiece of a chapter in Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things.

Toni Morrison’s favorite author growing up was Jane Austen.

Her Denver probably never saw Denver either.   Beloved is set in Ohio, in what would have been Cincinnati, except that “Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far” then.  Denver loves hearing about a white girl Sethe had met, named Amy.   Amy was on her way to Boston, “to get me some velvet.”   She said: “velvet is like the world was just born.  Clean and new and so smooth.  The velvet I seen was brown, but in Boston they got all colors.  Carmine.  That means red but when you talk about velvet you got to say carmine.”

Sethe wasn’t  thinking about velvet just then.   “Below her bloody knees, there was no feeling at all; her chest was two cushions of pins.   It was the voice full of velvet and Boston and good things to eat that urged her along and made her think that maybe she wasn’t, after all, just a crawling graveyard for a six-month baby’s last hours.”

That’s why that baby, finally delivered because the two women somehow managed it, has that odd name.   Named after the velvet-seeking “Miss Amy Denver.  Of Boston.”


About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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