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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hanging Jane Austen

Diana Birchall wrote the following about Jane Austen's predilection for referring to hanging in her letters:

"It's in context there, but what about all the other numerous timesJane Austen uses the phrase in her letters?Most of them have nothing atall to do with the sea. It really is a joke she makes all the time, and throughout her life. She seems to find hanging so extreme as to be grotesquely funny.Here are a few, I haven't time to look up more, butit's clear she doesn't only use the expression in a seagoing context.It'snot a ladylike thing to say, of course, and she doesn't use it in any of thenovels. Odd, therefore, that she uses it not just in family correspondence, but also to Stanier Clarke."

I think that JA was well aware of _both_ the common practice of hanging sailors at sea as well as the equally common practice of hanging all sorts of petty criminals on dry land.

As I am sure you know, Susannah Fullerton has a whole chapter in _JA and Crime_ on the topic of hanging in JA’s era, in particular the imposition of capital punishment by hanging for all sorts of acts which today would be misdemeanors, and also the leaving of hung highwaymen on roads that everyone had to ride by when travelling. Fullerton mentions the hanging of Sukey in the Juvenilia Jack & Alice, and also the passing reference in the Sanditon fragment to the family of a man recently hung at the York Assizes--that spans JA’s entire writing career.

And she also points out that the court records in Highbury recording the judicial decisions of a magistrate like Mr. Knightley would, by the age of 37, have contained a "long footnote" on the large number of petty criminals he would by then have condemned to hang by the neck until dead.


There are three more references to hanging in her letters in addition to those that Diana listed. I note that JA refers to hanging both in a suicidal sense and also in the punitive sense we see in the letter to Clarke, but also in another 1816 letter, this one to nephew JEAL.

The one in the Clarke letter is the most interesting, because it does seems _so_ out of place in a letter to the Prince's librarian. I assert that this dicey reference is entirely deliberate on her part, it goes with her comment two sentences earlier about "saving her life", and it reflects the audaciousness of her satire of Clarke in her correspondence with him, and also her satire of the PR in Emma itself: in the faux praise of the Dedication, in the "Prince of Whales" secret answer to Mr. Elton's charade, and also in the shadow story of the novel as a whole.

What makes this satire so audacious is that it might have alerted even the clueless Clarke that she was putting him and his boss on in a massive way--mocking them outrageously. I have claimed since 2006 that JA asked brother Henry to set bait, via his London connections, to lure Clarke to her so that she would be asked to dedicate Emma to the PR. But if the Prince of Whales secret answer had been discovered----then she really was in danger, if not of being hung, of at least suffering imprisonment as Leigh Hunt did for a single sharply critical editorial about the PR.

JA was pushing the envelope, almost flaunting her contempt for Clarke and the PR, but also believing (correctly, as it turned out) that she was protected by their own macho obliviousness, taking her faux humility as sincere. If they had been perceptive, they would have realized how much JA was treating them as objects of amused derision in exactly the same way that Mr. Bennet treats Mr. Collins--her correspondence with Clarke eggs him on, plays to his vanity, and drives him to even greater heights of absurdity in his further replies.


But back to JA's "tic" on the idea of hanging. I also think that JA enjoyed, in her letters, letting her inner Falstaff loose, and it is no accident that Henry IV, Parts 1&2 is filled with references to hanging for theft, and as exclamations like “go hang”, particularly among Falstaff and his disreputable crew.I also think she’d have taken note of the following ribald ditty sung by the drunken Stephano in The Tempest

The master, the swabber, the boatswain and I, The gunner, and his mate, Lov'd Mall, Meg, and Marian, and Margery, But none of as car'd for Kate: For she had a tongue with a tang, Would cry to a sailor, Go, hang: She lov'd not the savour of tar nor of pitch, Yet a tailor might scratch her where'er she did itch .- Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang.

"For she...would cry to a _sailor_, Go, hang" sounds very much like what Ellen is saying.

And the ribaldry of Stephano's song corresponds closely with JA’s playing with the sexual connotations of the word “hung” and “hang” in her novels---which, as Jill Heydt Stevenson first described, permeate Mr. Thorpe’s boasting about the hangings on his curricles, and also the discussions about “well hung” curtains which point indirectly to Captain Wentworth’s virile masculinity. By the way, JHS failed to note the following additional passage which is the other side of the coin of that same veiled sexual innuendo in Persuasion:

“[Sir Walter] did justice to [Mr. Elliot’s] very gentlemanlike appearance, his air of elegance and fashion, his good shaped face, his sensible eye; but, at the same time, "must lament his being very much under-HUNG, a defect which time seemed to have increased; nor could he pretend to say that ten years had not altered almost every feature for the worse.”

I was puzzled as to what Sir Walter was referring to, but Google Books quickly taught me that “under-hung” was referring to Mr. Elliot’s protruding lower jaw. That is the “cover story” for the sexual innuendo, in which “under-hung” is the opposite of “well-hung”.

Cheers, ARNIE

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