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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Literary Charades

In the ongoing discussion of Jane Austen's knowledge of Greek and Roman classic literature, someone pointed out a connection between two passages in consecutive letters that Jane Austen wrote to sister Cassandra in early 1809:

"-You have by no means raised my curiosity after Caleb;-My disinclination for it before was affected, but now it is real; I do not like the Evangelicals.-Of course I shall be delighted, when I read it, like other people, but till I do I dislike it.-I am sorry my verses did
not bring any return from Edward, I was in hopes they might-but I suppose he does not rate them high enough.-It might be partiality, but they seemed to me purely classical-just like Homer and Virgil, Ovid and Propria que Maribus." [24 Jan 1809]

"I am not at all ashamed about the name of the Novel, having been guilty of no insult towards your handwriting; the Dipthong I always saw, but knowing how fond you were of adding a vowel wherever you could, I attributed it to that alone-& the knowledge of the truth does the book
no service; the only merit it could have, was in the name of Caleb, which has an honest, unpretending sound; but in Coelebs, there is pedantry & affectation.-Is it written only to Classical Scholars?" [30 Jan 1809]

The "classical" comment in the second letter is _clearly_ a clue to the pun in the first---my guess is that CEA, in her reply to JA's 1/24/09 letter, did not "get" the joke in "Propria que Maribus", and asked JA for more hints and then JA, in her next letter to CEA, obliged by
playfully saying, in code, "think first about that strange phrasing in my previous letter, "Propria que Maribus", which is presented _as if_ it were a person's name and not the opening sentence in a Latin grammar primer; and _then_ focus on a _transformation_ of that phrase, "Propria que Maribus" that JA wrote "only to Classical Scholars" into a person's name, and then use these two clues to figure out what the original name is, punnily concealed in the phrase. And that's when "Propertius", which is a clever transformation of "Propria que Maribus" and is also also a name that would indeed be known only to Classical Scholars, should pop out at CEA!

What JA and CEA are doing in these two letters is playing a sophisticated game of literary charades with her also-learned sister, giving her additional hints when the first presentation of the pun was too obscure without those hints. It is perfectly consistent with what we
know about the Austen family's persistent love of charades _and_ literature that such a game of literary charades would be enjoyed by the sisters in these letters.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: By serendipity, this post is connected to the discussion today in Janeites about the following short speech by Eleanor Tilney in Northanger Abbey, in a discussion of history and fiction, when she mentions Hume and Robertson, who wrote histories of England, and also mentions Caractacus, Agricola and Alfred the Great. Just as Jane Austen concealed a pun about Propertius in her 1809 letters, she also concealed a world of submerged meaning in the seemingly random grouping of three prominent figures from Early British history, and the historians who wrote histories about them. And it is no accident that Jane Austen was doing some major revisions of Northanger Abbey in 1809 (when she famously wrote her M.A.D. letter to the publisher holding the copyright to the novel demanding that it either be published or returned to her). We see the novel spilling over in this interesting way into her contemporaneous correspondence with her sister, and we also see the same sort of "throwaway" grouping of ancient historical personages that is actually not a random group at all.

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