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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jane Austen’s Great Chasms and Dirty Bottoms

The recent thread about Jane Austen’ attitude toward Samuel Johnson has been fruitful for me in crystallizing and solidifying my thoughts and opinions in various ways on that complex and important subject. One particularly interesting example of the way Jane Austen alluded and made reference to Samuel Johnson, which pulls together several seemingly unrelated tidbits from the writings of and/or about Austen and Johnson, rotates around two very suggestive words—“chasm” and “bottom”. As you will see, these words are, in JA’s adept hands, equally at home in descriptions of both the picturesque AND the sexual.


First, those of you who’ve been reading my blog of late may have recognized from the title of this post that I am in part referring to my blog post of November 3, 2010:

In that post, I claimed that, in the shadow story of S&S, Edward Ferrars and Marianne Dashwood were talking about more than landscapes when they had the following exchange:

[Edward Ferrars] “It is a beautiful country,” he replied; “but THESE BOTTOMS MUST BE DIRTY IN WINTER.
[Marianne Dashwood] “
HOW CAN YOU THINK OF DIRT, with such objects before you?”
[Edward] “Because,” replied he, SMILING, “among the rest of the objects before me, I see A VERY DIRTY LANE.”
said Marianne to herself as she walked on.

And some of you who’ve been following my postings for a longer period, and/or who heard me address the NYC-JASNA regional chapter on May 1, 2010, may have also been reminded of the title of my less recent blog post of May 22, 2010:

In that post, I claimed that in the shadow story of Persuasion, Wentworth (and also Louisa and Admiral Croft, replying to him) were all talking about Anne Elliot as much as Wentworth’s former sea command the Asp, when Wentworth said the following:
“ ……..ANY OLD PELISSE, which you had seen LENT ABOUT AMONG HALF YOUR ACQUAINTANCE ever since you could remember, and which at last, on some VERY WET DAY, is LENT TO YOURSELF. Ah! she was a DEAR OLD ASP to me. SHE DID ALL THAT I WANTED. I KNEW SHE WOULD. I knew that we should either GO TO THE BOTTOM TOGETHER, or that she would be the making of me; and I never had two days of FOUL WEATHER all the time I was at sea in her; and after taking privateers enough to be very entertaining, I had the good luck in my passage home the next autumn, to fall in with THE VERY FRENCH frigate I wanted.”

I think the sexual innuendo I refer to is already obvious from the words I’ve capitalized for emphasis, but there’s more. What I have NOT previously posted about in my blog was a THIRD variation on this same double entendre of “bottom”, three usages contained in one long passage from a THIRD Austen novel, i.e., MP. I refer to the Sotherton “ha-ha” episode, consisting of the following snippets of narration:

“A few steps farther brought them out AT THE BOTTOM of the very walk they had been talking of; and standing back, well shaded and sheltered, and LOOKING OVER A HA-HA into the park, was a comfortable-sized bench, on which they all sat down…..They would go to one end of it, in the line they were then in -- for there was a straight green walk ALONG THE BOTTOM BY THE SIDE OF THE HA-HA- and perhaps turn a little way in some other direction, if it seemed likely to assist them, and be back in a few minutes…..She followed their steps along THE BOTTOM WALK, and had just turned up into another, when the voice AND THE LAUGH OF MARY CRAWFORD once more caught her ear; the sound approached, and A FEW MORE WINDINGS brought them before her….ON REACHING THE BOTTOM of the steps to the terrace, Mrs Rushworth and Mrs Norris presented themselves at the top, just ready for the wilderness, at the end of an hour and a half from their leaving the house.”

So I think it well established by all of the above that JA had a fondness for “bottom” jokes, and, Samuel Johnson’s abhorrence for Shakespeare’s puns notwithstanding, I think there are many who share with me a delight in the likely primary source for JA’s said fondness, i.e., the name of perhaps the most memorable character in one of JA’s favorite Shakespeare comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of course I refer to Bottom the Weaver (of many wonderful puns and other immortal words), he whose head is magically transformed into that of a jackASS for a brief romantic interlude with Titania.


Now, speaking of Samuel Johnson, those of you familiar with Samuel Johnson may perhaps have guessed how all of the above relates to him. But for those who don’t know Johnson’s life well, here is the connection, courtesy of Boswell:

Johnson, “[t]alking of a very respectable author [Dr. John Campbell], told us a curious circumstance in his life, which was that he had married a printer's devil. _Reynolds_. 'A printer's devil, Sir! why, I thought a printer's devil was a creature with a black face and in rags.' _Johnson_. 'Yes, Sir. But I suppose he had her face washed, and put clean clothes on her.' Then, looking very serious, and very earnest. 'And she did not disgrace him;--THE WOMAN HAD A BOTTOM OF GOOD SENSE.' The word _bottom_ thus introduced was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity, that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing; though I recollect that the Bishop of Killaloe kept his countenance with perfect steadiness, while Miss Hannah More slily hid her face behind a lady's back who sat on the same settee with her. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule, when he did not intend it: he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotic power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, 'Where's the merriment?' Then collecting himself, and looking awful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, 'I say the _woman_ was _fundamentally_ sensible;' as if he had said, Hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral."

One fascinating point in regard to the above is that Jill Heydt Stevenson, who so brilliantly analyzed many sexual innuendoes from the MP Sotherton ha-ha scene in her famous 1999 article of that title, and who also specifically quoted (in her 2005 booklength followup, Unbecoming Conjunctions) the above Boswell passage about Johnson’s Freudian slip about “bottom”, somehow failed to connect the dots between the Austenian and the Johnsonian puns, and, in fact, did not even notice any of the above three Austenian “bottom” jokes. But all the same, this does not in any way diminish JHS’s achievement in making it impossible to rationally oppose the notion that JA put numerous, complex sexual innuendoes in her novels.

Anyway…so now we see that the matrix of this riffing on “bottom” connects Shakespeare, Johnson AND Austen. But I am only halfway through the serpentine thread of sexual innuendo that connects Austen and Johnson.


Now I will take us through the second half, via the following two stanzas from the 1808 poem that JA wrote in memory of her dear older friend, Madam Lefroy:

AT JOHNSON’S DEATH by Hamilton ’twas said,
‘Seek we a substitute – Ah! vain the plan,
No second best remains to Johnson dead—
None can remind us even of the Man.’

So we of thee – unequall’d in thy race
Unequall’d thou, as he the first of Men.
Vainly we search around the vacant place,
We ne’er may look upon thy like again. ...

Aside from the interesting allusion in that last line to Hamlet speaking about his dead father the Ghost of King Hamlet, what is noteworthy vis a vis my argument in this post is that JA chooses to allude to Samuel Johnson’s death in order to draw a parallel to describe the magnitude of the sense of loss suffered in Steventon when Madam Lefroy died exactly four years earlier on JA’s 29th birthday.

I could not find, online, the full text of William Hamilton’s lament for Samuel Johnson after the great man’s death (and if anyone can provide it, I would be grateful), but I did find the following partial quotation in a 19th century book about Johnson:

“ ‘He has MADE A CHASM, which not only NOTHING CAN FILL UP, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead—Let us go to the best—there is nobody; no one can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.’ So lamented William (“Single-Speech”) Hamilton to Boswell several years after their friend’s demise in 1784…”

I wonder if any of you were struck as you read Hamilton’s words, above, as I was, by the echoes of same inserted by JA in not one but TWO widely separated passages in Mansfield Park.

Here is the first:

“Mr Bertram set off for ----, and Miss Crawford was prepared to find A GREAT CHASM in their society and to miss him decidedly in the meetings which were now becoming almost daily between the families; and on their all dining together at the Park soon after his going, she retook her chosen place near THE BOTTOM of the table, fully expecting to feel a most melancholy difference in the change of masters. It would be a very flat business, she was sure. In comparison with his brother, Edmund would have nothing to say. The soup would be sent round in a most spiritless manner, wine drank WITHOUT ANY SMILES OR AGREEABLE TRIFLING, and THE VENISON CUT UP WITHOUT SUPPLYING ONE PLEASANT ANECDOTE OF ANY FORMER HAUNCH, or a single entertaining story, about ‘my friend such a one.’ SHE MUST TRY TO FIND AMUSEMENT in what was passing at the upper end of the table…

Note that the capitalized verbiage in the latter part of that passage has been carefully crafted by JA so as to be readable either in an innocent, small-talky way, OR as an extension of the notion of a “bottom” being a subject likely to raise, as it did for Hannah More, “smiles or agreeable trifling” and “amusement”, as well as some playful riffing on “haunch” as a culinary term for an animal’s buttocks.

And here is the second echo in MP:

“[Maria and Julia’s] departure made another material change at Mansfield, A CHASM WHICH REQUIRED SOME TIME TO FILL UP.”

So we see JA, in the aggregate of these two passages, pointing unmistakably winking at Hamilton’s eulogizing of Johnson via great chasms being filled up, you don’t have to be Groucho Marx to realize that there’s a sexual joke going on here. I will leave to each of you the decision of what to make of JA putting such innuendo into a eulogy for a dead friend, and move on to the final stage of my argument, which is that, lurking BEHIND (forgive me, I could not resist) all of the above is, of course the most infamous sexual pun in all of JA’s published novels:

“Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”

That last line takes on startling new significance, when you take into account everything I have written, above, in this message, which established the Johnsonian patina that subliminally rests on the surface of Mansfield Park in particular.

It is precisely as if Jane Austen were speaking SPECIFICALLY TO DR. JOHNSON through the mouth of her own creation, Mary Crawford, and essentially teasing him about his priggish blockheadedness about puns, particularly sexual puns. Which, you will recall from the passages in Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare, was one of Johnson’s major complaints about Shakespeare’s writing.

So I see all of JA’s playing around with various versions of human hindquarters, as JA’s response to Samuel Johnson—and since Sir Thomas Bertram is, in many ways, a representation of Samuel Johnson,--both of them being, in a way, bona fide jackasses---Mary’s pun, combined with all the “dirty bottoms” in three of her novels, and also with the Johnsonian subtext of JA’s poem eulogizing Madam Lefroy, is the perfect way for JA to get that point across most powerfully.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. I just checked JHS again before sending this message, and see that while she failed to pick up on the two ‘great chasm’s of MP as sexual innuendo, she did refer to a passage in Persuasion as “humorous parody of erotic sedition” (whatever that means), that includes a reference to “Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest-trees and orchards of luxuriant growth…”

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