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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dirty Jokes....and (Uncle Toby's) Dirty Annuity!

[JA, Letter 26] "-With such a provision on my part, if you will do your's by repeating the French Grammar,& Mrs. Stent will now& then ejaculate some wonder about the Cocks& Hens, what can we want?-"

[Nancy] "...not everyone sees dirty jokes in such combinations of words. reminds me of a class of 11 year old boys."

Nancy, you wrote the above comment in response to my postings in which I pointed to striking but covert allusions by JA in Letter 26 to salacious punning in Sterne's _Tristram Shandy_ [hereafter abbreviated as "TS"]. I have subsequently been revisiting the topic of JA's complex allusivity toward Sterne's radically experimental metafictional novel, and as a result, today I will share my latest thoughts on the explicit allusion to TS in JA's 9/14/04 letter to Cassandra, which I mentioned only in passing yesterday, an allusion which has been noted by numerous Austen scholars, and which bears on the question of what is real and what is imagined, in terms of JA's salacious puns:

"James is the delight of our lives, he is quite _an uncle Toby's annuity_ to us. My mother's shoes were never so well blacked before, & our plate never looked so clean. He waits extremely well, is attentive, handy, quick and quiet, & in short has a great many more than all the cardinal virtues (for the cardinal virtues in themselves have been so long possessed that they are no longer worth having) & amongst the rest, that of wishing to go to Bath, as I understand from Jenny. He has the laudable thirst I fancy for travelling, which in poor James Selby [character in "Sir Charles Grandison"] was so much reprobated, & part of his disappointment in not going with his master, arose from his wish of seeing London."

Uncle Toby is one of the main characters of TS, and while most of those Austen biographers who've noted it, have, with typical passivity, made no attempt to explain its significance, Valerie Grosvenor Myer at least gave it a shot several years back, pointing to a passage in Book 2, Chapter 5 of TS....

"...he rung his bell for his man Trim; --....I must here inform you, that this servant of my uncle Toby's, who went by the name of Trim, had been a Corporal in my uncle's own company,--his real name was James Butler--but having got the nick-name of Trim in the regiment, my uncle Toby, unless he happened to be very angry with him, would never call him by any other name. The poor fellow had been disabled for the service...and as the fellow was well beloved in the regiment, and a handy fellow in the bargain, my uncle Toby took him for a servant, and of excellent use was he, attending my uncle Toby in the camp and in his quarters as valet, groom, barber, cook, sempster, and nurse; and indeed, from first to last, waited upon him and served him with great fidelity and affection. My uncle Toby loved the man in return, and what attached him more to him still, was the similitude of their knowledge..."

....and then Myer posited that JA used the term "annuity", to draw an analogy to the multi-talented fictional James Butler aka Trim, who did the work of 6 servants, at the cost of Uncle Toby's entire L120 annuity. The reference to that 120 pound annual payment occurred later in Book 2, at Chapter 42:

"Zooks! said my father, did not my uncle leave you a hundred and twenty pounds a year?—What could I have done without it? replied my uncle Toby..."

However, I claim that Myer has only captured only the surface meaning of that allusion by JA, and here's why I say that.

The actual word "annuity" is only used _once_ in all of TS, and it is in the following passage in Book 1, Chapter 42 of TS, which has _never_, as far as I can detect after diligent search, ever been cited by any Austen scholar, to explain JA's allusion to an "Uncle Toby's annuity". In this passage in TS, Uncle Toby and his brother (and Tristram's father) are discussing a line from Hebrews 13:18 which bears on the topic of _conscience_---more specifically they are engaged in a saucy debate about whether the absence of guilty feelings constitutes reliable evidence that a person actually has nothing to feel guilty about:

'A man shall be vicious and utterly debauched in his principles;—exceptionable in his conduct to the world; shall live shameless, in the open commission of a sin which no reason or pretence can justify,—a sin by which, contrary to all the workings of humanity, he shall ruin for ever the deluded partner of his guilt;—rob her of her best dowry; and not only cover her own head with dishonour;—but involve a whole virtuous family in shame and sorrow for her sake. Surely, you will think conscience must lead such a man a troublesome life; he can have no rest night and day from its reproaches.

'Alas! Conscience had something else to do all this time, than break in upon him; as Elijah reproached the god Baal,—this domestic god was either talking, or pursuing, or was in a journey, or peradventure he slept and could not be awoke.

'Perhaps He was gone out in company with Honour to fight a duel: to pay off some debt at play;—_or dirty annuity, the bargain of his lust_; Perhaps Conscience all this time was engaged at home, talking aloud against petty larceny, and executing vengeance upon some such puny crimes as his fortune and rank of life secured him against all temptation of committing; so that he lives as merrily;'—(If he was of our church, tho', quoth Dr. Slop, he could not)—'sleeps as soundly in his bed;—and at last meets death unconcernedly;—perhaps much more so, than a much better man.'

(All this is impossible with us, quoth Dr. Slop, turning to my father,—the case could not happen in our church.—It happens in ours, however, replied my father, but too often.—I own, quoth Dr. Slop, (struck a little with my father's frank acknowledgment)—that a man in the Romish church may live as badly;—but then he cannot easily die so.—'Tis little matter, replied my father, with an air of indifference,—how a rascal dies.—I mean, answered Dr. Slop, he would be denied the benefits of the last sacraments.—Pray how many have you in all, said my uncle Toby,—for I always forget?—Seven, answered Dr. Slop.—Humph!—said my uncle Toby; tho' not accented as a note of acquiescence,—but as an interjection of that particular species of surprize, when a man in looking into a drawer, finds more of a thing than he expected.—Humph! replied my uncle Toby. Dr. Slop, who had an ear, understood my uncle Toby as well as if he had wrote a whole volume against the seven sacraments.—Humph! replied Dr. Slop, (stating my uncle Toby's argument over again to him)—Why, Sir, are there not seven cardinal virtues?—Seven mortal sins?—Seven golden candlesticks?—Seven heavens?—'Tis more than I know, replied my uncle Toby.—Are there not seven wonders of the world?—Seven days of the creation?—Seven planets?—Seven plagues?—That there are, quoth my father with a most affected gravity. But prithee, continued he, go on with the rest of thy characters, Trim.)..." END OF EXCERPT FROM TS

So we have the quick-witted Uncle Toby taking his brother's conceit of describing conscience as a _sleeping_ god, and extending the anthropomorphization of conscience to a person distracted by having to fight a duel, or distracted by having to pay a debt or pay a "dirty annuity, the bargain of his lust". I.e., that last bit is a salacious suggestion by Uncle Toby that conscience is a man who has conceived a child out of wedlock and then has to pay a "dirty annuity" to the mother for that love child's support!

And that's where the Subject Line of this post kicks in, as I claim that it is _this_ passage in TS to which JA is covertly alluding. evaluating my above argument, perhaps Nancy speaks for many Janeites in claiming that there is no reason for me to assume that JA ever noticed that one reference to a "dirty annuity", and that Myer was right, there was an innocent, plausible explanation for JA's explicit allusion to TS, and there Arnie goes again, seeing dirty jokes where none was intended by JA.

Well....before you conclude that this bawdy allusion really is a product of my own dirty mind, take a closer look at the above quoted excerpt from JA's 1804 letter, and then compare it closely to the above quoted excerpt from Book 1, Chapter 42 of TS. Notice any other parallels besides Uncle Toby and the word "annuity"???

If you've followed my suggestion, the answer to my question is obvious on the face of both passages---in JA's letter, she goes on to write " short [James] has a great many more than all the _cardinal virtues_ (for the _cardinal virtues_ in themselves have been so long possessed that they are no longer worth having)..." and in TS, we read "Why, Sir, are there not seven _cardinal virtues_?"

Bingo! Can it be a coincidence that there is an explicit reference to the "cardinal virtues" in _both_ JA's letter and in Sterne's novel, in the very passages which also refer explicitly to an "annuity"? Of course not!

And so, if this is not just my dirty mind, but is an intentional but totally covert allusion by JA, that raises the next logical question, which is: _why_ would JA, in making reference to James the Austen family servant in Bath, go to this elaborate trouble to create, in her sister's mind, a this thinly veiled linkage to the fictional Uncle Toby's explicit image of dormant conscience as a man paying child support for an illegitimate child? And, that in turn raises a further question, in light of my earlier posts showing that JA has alluded to TS in her novels, which is, might this epistolary allusion in some manner be a hint at something in JA's novels as well?

Food for thought!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: I keep forgetting to also mention that JA's reference to "the French Grammar" in Letter 26 is, I believe, a playful oblique reference to "the French tongue", and I don't think I need to spell that salacious allusion out further for anyone.....

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