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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Pen(cil)s and Penetration

The following is my response to the following comments by Nancy Mayer in Janeites where she was reacting to the claim by I forget who that the word "penetration" had a sexual connotation in a sentence in _Emma_:

[Nancy] “Okay, I admit to being slow on the uptake. What is so startling about Emma thinking that the knightly brothers had penetration-- the ability to see through murk to basic truths and issues?”

Nancy, I would not say slow on the uptake, only that you have (in your words) a very “chaste mind”. But I do claim that JA did not have a chaste mind at all, and what’s more that she was not an unconscious sexual punster, she was very conscious in hershaping of her sexual innuendoes. And I also claim that while I am certain she enjoyed artfully constructed and presented ribald humor, such as in Shakespeare (which, from my point of view, is a very good thing), I also believe that it is not in her novels for salacious purposes, but, exactly as with Shakespeare, in presenting a full picture of the human comedy.

[Nancy] “Penetration as a sexual term does not occur readily to the mind of one who is not obsessed with sex and probably wouldn't occur to the mind of one who had never been penetrated at all. I think we are reading something into the word that Austen never dreamed of. In the sexual sense, all the males have penetration.”

And I respectfully disagree, I would say that the word “penetration” raised a sexual connotation in JA’s day, just as much as it does now, for many readers, like myself, who are not, as you say, obsessed, with finding sexual puns. In my opinion, you have the chicken and the egg in the wrong order. It is because these sexual puns are everywhere in JA’s writing, that I (and many other readers of JA’s novels) focus on them.

So, turning to specifics, before I even get to her usage of the word “penetration” (which is among the quotations I deploy in my standard presentation about Jane Fairfax as the shadow heroine of _Emma_), I will point out that JA famously deployed the very Freudian objects, the very closely related (by sound) words “pen” and the “pencil” in this fashion:

In Pride and Prejudice, we have perhaps the best known of JA’s sexual puns on the word “pen”:

["I am afraid you do not like your pen.”….”I mend pens remarkably well."]

These above two comments of course take place during thesexually charged repartee between the jealous Caroline Bingley and the unflappable (so to speak) Mr. Darcy.

[“…Kitty and me were to spend the day there, and Mrs Forster promised to have a little dance in the evening (by the bye, Mrs Forster and me are _such_ friends!); and so she asked the two Harringtons to come, but Harriet was ill, and so Pen was forced to come by herself; and then, what do you think we did?...”

I take up my pen again to do what I have just told you I would not, but circumstances are such, that I cannot help earnestly begging you all to come here as soon as possible.]

And, I claim, it is not a coincidence that the verb “to come” is in such close proximity—in the same sentence--with the word or name “pen”.

And not only in P&P, but also in _Emma_, we see two such deployments:

[She must allow him to be still frequently coming to look; any thing less would certainly have been too little in a lover; and he was ready at the smallest intermission of the pencil, to jump up and see the progress, and be charmed. –‘

And there once again, the word “pencil” in the same sentence with a form of the verb “to come”. But the clearest example in _Emma is the following:

[It was the end of an old pencil, -- the part without any lead……Mr Knightley had been telling him something about brewing spruce-beer, and he wanted to put it down; but when he took out his pencil, there was so little lead that he soon cut it all away, and it would not do, so you lent him another, and this was left upon the table as good for nothing….."But, Harriet, is it necessary to burn the court-plaister? -- I have not a word to say for the bit of old pencil, but the court-plaister might be useful."]

Above we have the infamous pun in _Emma_ on the theme, repeated three times, of Mr. Elton’s sadly deficient “pencil”—the lack of “lead” is emphasized by repetition, as is its old age, which is, I claim, reinforced by Mr. Elton’s confession at the Crown Inn, only _one_ chapter earlier, of being “an old married man” past his “dancing days”. This is further evidence that, as with all her thematic wordplay, JA spread it subliminally across her novels.

And it is in the overall context of the above dramatic usages of sexual puns on the words “pen” and “pencil”, it also permits, I suggest, reasonable speculation as to the following less dramatic examples:

In Lady Susan: [“I am so much agitated by Delight that I can scarcely hold a pen…”…]

In Emma, as our clueless heroine speaks to Harriet about Robert Martin’s letter:

[“…No doubt he is a sensible man, and I suppose may have a natural talent for -- thinks strongly and clearly -- and when he takes a pen in hand, his thoughts naturally find proper words…”]

As befits Emma’s na├»ve as yet unconscious sexuality, here it pops up beyond her conscious control!

The usages of the word “pen” in MP are a mixed bag:

["Fanny," said he directly, leaving his seat and his pen, and meeting her with something in his hand, "I beg your pardon for being here.]

The above statement by Edmund to Fanny, standing alone, would likely be innocent, but the following narration about Fanny’s unconscious sexual attraction to Edmund reverses my position on that point:

[Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author -- never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer.]

This narration comes right after Fanny has been surprised to find Edmund at the writing table in her inner sanctum (her “heart” if you will), leaving her a note. Could this be more Freudian, and more intentional?

[Miss Crawford's style of writing, lively and affectionate, was itself an evil, independent of what she was thus forced into reading from the brother's pen, for Edmund would never rest till she had read the chief of the letter to him; and then she had to listen to his admiration of her language, and the warmth of her attachments.]

Conversely and perversely, the pun on “pen” deployed in the above passage suggests something very unsavory in terms of the relationship between Mary and Henry, in terms of Mary being “forced into reading from the brother’s pen” and her having to hear him speak about “the warmth of her attachments”.Shades of the Admiral, and of Henry’s perverse desire to make a hole in Fanny’s chaste heart.

It could not be more clear that this is not salacious, this is actually a stone-cold accusation, a pointing to perverse male abuse of power over women, and insistence that women enjoy it.

And I have not even connected the dots to the matrix of puns on the name “Fanny” in the novel, especially as we seem to be hearing about “My dear Fanny” every time a pen is mentioned.

And, in light of that, I leave it to other pens to opine as to the significance of the above claims for interpretation of the following very famous line:

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”

And finally, in Persuasion, we have another cluster of sexually charged plays on the word “pen” this time in relation to Anne’s reactions to Edmund (which in many ways sound like Fanny Price’s to Edmund). And of course these occur in the sexually superheated atmosphere of the climactic scene at the White Hart:

[She felt its application to herself, felt it in a nervous thrill all over her; and at the same moment that her eyes instinctively glanced towards the distant table, Captain Wentworth's pen ceased to move, his head was raised, pausing, listening, and he turned round the next instant to give a look, one quick, conscious look at her…..It was nothing more than that his pen had fallen down; but Anne was startled at finding him nearer than she had supposed, and half inclined to suspect that the pen had only fallen because he had been occupied by them, striving to catch sounds, which yet she did not think he could have caught…..Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands…..On the contrary, when he saw more of Captain Wentworth, saw him repeatedly by daylight, and eyed him well, he was very much struck by his personal claims, and felt that his superiority of appearance might be not unfairly balanced against her superiority of rank; and all this, assisted by his well-sounding name, enabled Sir Walter at last to prepare his pen, with a very good grace, for the insertion of the marriage in the volume of honour.]

These passages also could not be more Freudian—“felt a nervous thrill all over her…[his] pen ceased to move….his pen had fallen down…startled at finding him nearer than she had supposed…half inclined….the pen had only fallen because…the pen has been in their hands… prepare his pen…for the insertion…”

In the context of _all_ of the above, I now conclude with a parade of the usages of “penetration” in JA’s novels, without any further commentary on my part, as I believe these examples speak for themselves, in terms of what each example suggests about the characters who are described in them:


[“Harriet had no penetration. …There was no denying that those brothers had penetration….

She may not have surmised the whole, but her quickness must have penetrated a part….Her own father's perfect exemption from any thought of the kind, the entire deficiency in him of all such sort of penetration or suspicion, was a most comfortable circumstance….It was hardly right; but it had been so strong an idea, that it would escape her, and his submission to all that she told, was a compliment to her penetration, which made it difficult for her to be quite certain that she ought to have held her tongue.”]

Actually, I must stop there, to admire the audacity of juxtaposing “her penetration” with “she ought to have held her tongue”! Now I will continue the examples:

[“He looked with smiling penetration; and, on receiving no answer, added, "She ought not to be angry with you, I suspect, whatever he may be. –


[Sir Thomas _disturbingly_ speaking to Fanny: “Why do not I see my little Fanny?" -- and on perceiving her, came forward with a kindness which astonished and penetrated her, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately, and observing with decided pleasure how much she was grown!]


[“It could be nothing but the violence of the wind penetrating through the divisions of the shutters; and she stepped boldly forward, carelessly humming a tune, to assure herself of its being so, peeped courageously behind each curtain, saw nothing on either low window seat to scare her, and on placing a hand against the shutter, felt the strongest conviction of the wind's force.]

Cheers, ARNIE


Anonymous said...

Regarding the remark by Sir Thomas to Fanny you quote regarding the sexualized dual meanings --

Fanny's name actually goes very well with the famous rears and vices wise crack by Mary Crawford, does not it?

(Or maybe I should not say wise CRACK in this context.)

Anyway, JA basically reports that Sir Thomas has been away and pinches his niece's fanny (or Fanny's behind) when he comes back. Sir Thomas is behind hand in more than one way, it appears, when it comes to Fanny.

Am I right?

Arnie Perlstein said...

Anonymous (and if you wish to post further comments, please identify yourself),

You are absolutely correct, that is exactly what I was suggesting. Your comment leads me to write a new blog post only on the subject of Sir Thomas vis a vis Fanny, where I will address this issue further.

Cheers, ARNIE