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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Mr. Floor and the General's Private

I just noticed a moment ago another one of JA's clever wordplays, in the text of Emma:

"Captain Weston was a general favourite..."

I had never thought about that otherwise unremarkable sentence as having a pun buried in it, but then I did, and tentatively identified it as being in the same silly but delightful genre as JA's letter witticism:

"Mr. Floor is low in our estimation."

Before leaving it at just that, however, I did a quick search to see if JA had planted any OTHER military puns in her novels, and what they might signify, and that led me to another one in Emma, which characterizes a moment in the scene in Ch. 9 where Emma and Harriet consider which worthy man to "draft" (that was what a "requisition" was in JA's day) to provide them with some fresh charades. But of course Emma has only one man in mind, Mr. Elton, whom she has drafted for highly "selective service" to serve in an "army of one" for the mission of capturing Harriet's heart:

"It was by no means [Mr. Woodhouse's] daughter's wish that the intellects of Highbury in GENERAL should be put UNDER REQUISITION."

At first, you might think I am stretching things to claim a military connotation in that sentence. But when you begin to think about it, a faux-military aura is very much a subliminal, but integral, part of the ironic absurdity of the chapters involving Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton in their little comedy of romantic errors. Here we have Mr. Elton, the effete, pompous, grandiose country vicar--not exactly Captain Wentworth material---a man whom Harriet wickedly remembers later for his very short pencil stub, before she tosses it into the fire---but who in Chapter 9 is still busy puffing himself up like the soldier-braggart Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well.

And isn't it also interesting that Elton brings Emma and Harriet a charade which conjures up the military might of the British Navy--talk about grandiose! And then Elton bravely volunteers for the dangerous and important mission of getting Emma's sketch of Harriet framed in London, as if he were being parachuted behind enemy lines in the dead of night to win a war!

So, I think it is clear, upon close reading, that the punning juxtaposition of "general" and "put under requisition" is very much intentional in that context, and therefore complements and supports the intentional attribution of that earlier pun with Mr. Weston.

And, last but not least, it also suggests to me that the several clanging verbal juxtapositions in the following narration in Northanger Abbey is ALSO intentional, as we hear about Catherine's tour of Northanger Abbey:

"...by finding herself successively in a billiard–room, and in THE GENERAL'S PRIVATE aPARTment, without comprehending their connection, or being able to turn aright when she left them; and lastly, by passing through a dark little room, owning Henry’s authority, and strewed with his litter of books, GUNS, and GREATCOATS."

I particularly like that added wink, "without comprehending their connection", because it suggests to me that behind a superficially silly, trivial military pun, there is more than a whiff of innuendo, as if the reader is being challenged to "comprehend" a joking "connection" between a billiard room (where the principal activity of course consists of the shooting of balls into holes called pockets) and a general's private parts AND Henry's "dark little room" which actually is redolent
with the heady macho aroma of "guns and greatcoats"! And, for good measure, yet ANOTHER clanging pun "turn aRIGHT when she LEFT them" seems to me to be there to suggest soldiers marching and turning, as the sergeant shouts out the count: "right, left, right, left...."

What I find remarkable about JA is not that she includes passages with a cluster of subliminal images that pertain to a given domain, such as the military in this instance. Any writer can do such a thing. The trick, which she pulls off hundreds of times in all her novels, is that she manages to hide them all in plain sight, so that the reader is seduced into passing them by as if they weren't there, until one day, perhaps, a reader notices one of the puns, and stops, and thinks about what it
might mean, and then, a whole tiny universe opens up for the duration of a paragraph, and then vanishes without a trace.

And, by the way, I just checked, and can confirm that

(i) Google Books shows me that "private parts" was a very commonly used term in JA's day, in both medical and more general usage, to mention the unmentionables; and

(ii) JA was very much aware of the context of the usage of particular words from novel to novel, and as Exhibit A, I can tell you that she must have used the word "general" about 100 times in Emma, and still pretty frequently in all the other novels except NA, and every single one of them in the non-military "generic" sense. And yet, in all of NA, which is about half the length of Emma, there cannot be more than a half dozen usages of that word "general" in that "generic" sense, rather than
the many references to GENERAL Tilney. Now, why would that be? I would suggest that this is because JA was very very sensitive to variance in the environment for word usage from novel to novel. And so, since it was only in NA that there was literally a "general" among her main characters, who would be mentioned ofte, she knew how slovenly and confusing it would be to present a novel to her readers where they
constantly had to be asking which sense of "general" were they supposed to be reading in each instance. So she essentially cut the "generic" usage of the word "general" out of the novel.

Which, again, is why I believe that there are very very few accidents or errors of word usage in JA's novels.

Cheers, ARNIE

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