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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Jane Austen's Cucumbers

On 7/29/2011 10:30 AM, Diane Reynolds wrote:
> I keep pondering the shilling for a cucumber in Letter 35. I want to think that's about $10 in today's money. Can that be? That seems impossible. But perhaps it's a commentary on how much fresh produce will be in the city, that the Austens grew for virtually nothing in the country. Or perhaps a cucumber was an exotic item?

Diane,

You are spot-on in identifying this passage about a one-shilling cucumber as significant. It is indeed absurd---but the answer to your good question does not lie in eliminating the absurdity, and finding some rational analysis of the actual cost of actual edible cucumbers in Bath in 1801, or in anything else from the real world of food commerce. Instead, the answer must be sought in the _mind_ of the author who wrote the following suggestive and absurdist passages in her fiction, pointing to a very different sort of commerce, and a very different sort of "cucumber" than you've been thinking of:

Love & Freindship:

"Talk not to me of Phaetons (said I, raving in a frantic, incoherent manner) -- Give me a violin. -- I'll play to him and sooth him in his melancholy Hours -- Beware ye gentle Nymphs of Cupid's Thunderbolts, avoid the piercing Shafts of Jupiter -- Look at that Grove of Firs -- I see a Leg of Mutton -- They told me Edward was not Dead; but they deceived me -- they took him for a CUCUMBER --" Thus I continued wildly exclaiming on my Edward's Death."

The great Sigmund himself could not have invented a more Freudian passage if he had tried--and recall that JA wrote this passage as a 16 year old!

Pride & Prejudice:

"It was the second week in May, in which the three young ladies set out together from Gracechurch Street for the town of ——, in Hertfordshire; and, as they drew near the appointed inn where Mr. Bennet's carriage was to meet them, they quickly perceived, in token of the coachman's punctuality, both Kitty and Lydia looking out of a dining-room upstairs. These two girls had been above an hour in the place, happily employed in visiting an opposite milliner, watching the sentinel on guard, and dressing a salad and cucumber. "

Isn't it interesting that the above passage in P&P pertains to a long trip from one place in England to another, just as is the case in JA's May 1801 letter? And we know from so many of the previous letters we've discussed this year that JA embedded many echoes of her novels (especially P&P and NA) in these letters.

And then remember what a "milliner" was slang for in JA's time:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/01/to-die-of-laughter-school-for-jane.html

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/12/highbury-tradesman.html

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/12/morality-of-philadelphia-austen-hancock.html

And then imagine what sort of "salad and cucumber", the "dressing" of which would have kept a young lady like Lydia Bennet "happily employed" "above an hour" in a "milliner's" shop near a much-trafficked inn.

And there's a lot more where that came from.....

Cheers, ARNIE

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