In Janeites, Victoria Lansburgh wrote the following:
“And as for that "firm and upright figure" of Emma's, somehow this had always passed me by before. But hearing it, and realizing that this expression, used by a woman about a woman, was identical to the one that Emma later uses (in her mind) about Mr. Knightley, I was more convinced than ever that no double entendre of the locker room type was intended in the latter instance. Emma's admiration of Mr. Knightley's figure has a subtle sexual component to it, but I can't buy the idea that in "firm and upright" here, we're supposed to see a (not at all subtle) reference to the erect penis, as some have argued.”
I responded as follows:
I beg to differ, not only based on the passages in Ch. 5 and Ch. 38, of which you took note, but also a _third_ passage (actually a series of passage) in Ch. 28, where the sexual punning on the words “firm” and “upright” is made _so_ obvious that even mainstream Austen scholars, with no special agenda to sex JA up (as many people see the likes of Jill Heydt Stevenson, myself, and some others), have recognized the sexual innuendo. See for example, David Bell’s 2007 Persuasions Online article:
In a nutshell, even Janeites whose minds are _not_ (in your terms) in “the locker room” read Chapter 28 as presenting a situation where Jane and Frank have been engaging in some sexual behavior of some kind.
And my claim is that when these passages in these _three_ chapters are read as a group rather than in isolation, the obvious sexual imagery in Chapter 28 casts the usages in the other two chapters in a clearer sexual light.
Here are the relevant passages:
"Such an eye! the true hazle eye -- and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a FIRM AND UPRIGHT figure. There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears sometimes of a child being ""the picture of health;"" now Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health. She is loveliness itself. Mr. Knightley, is not she?"
"I have not a fault to find with her person," he replied. I think her all you describe. I love to look at her; and I will add this praise, that I do not think her personally vain. Considering how very handsome she is, she appears to be little occupied with it; her vanity lies another way. Mrs. Weston, I am not to be talked out of my dislike of her intimacy with Harriet Smith, or my dread of its doing them both harm."
So this is a passage in which Mrs. Weston draws out from Mr. Knightley an explicit acknowledgment that _he_ finds Emma physically attractive. Indeed, once drawn out, he waxes eloquent—“I _love_ to look at her”. A 37 year old man who spends a lot of time around a gorgeous 21-year old girl who looks up to, and loves to engage in provocative banter with him.
I suggest your characterization of this passage as an “expression, used by a woman about a woman” is misleading, because it is an expression used by a woman speaking to a _man_ about a woman _he_ finds very attractive. A whole different kettle of fish.
"I have not been working uninterruptedly," he replied, "I have been assisting Miss Fairfax in trying to make her instrument stand steadily, it was not quite firm; an unevenness in the floor, I believe. You see we have been wedging one leg with paper. This was very kind of you to be persuaded to come. I was almost afraid you would be hurrying home."
…"Conjecture -- aye, sometimes one conjectures right, and sometimes one conjectures wrong. I wish I could conjecture how soon I shall make this rivet quite firm. What nonsense one talks, Miss Woodhouse, when hard at work, if one talks at all; -- your real workmen, I suppose, hold their tongues; but we gentlemen labourers if we get hold of a word -- Miss Fairfax said something about conjecturing. There, it is done. I have the pleasure, madam, (to Mrs. Bates) of restoring your spectacles, healed for the present."
…Emma wished he would be less pointed, yet could not help being amused; and when on glancing her eye towards Jane Fairfax she caught the remains of a smile, when she saw that with all the deep blush of consciousness, there had been a smile of secret delight, she had less scruple in the amusement, and much less compunction with respect to her. This amiable, upright, perfect Jane Fairfax was apparently cherishing very reprehensible feelings.”
The above three passages are, to my mind, obviously sexual, because they are thick with sexual puns, including but not limited to “upright” and “firm”. These passages may fairly be characterized as a garden of Freudian delight.
And here is Jane Austen ventriloquistically making veiled comments on the sexual punning that fills Chapter 28:
….He brought all the music to her, and they looked it over together. Emma took the opportunity of whispering,
"You speak too plain. She must understand you."
"I hope she does. I would have her understand me. I am not in the least ashamed of my meaning."
"But really, I am half ashamed, and wish I had never taken up the idea."
"I am very glad you did, and that you communicated it to me. I have now a key to all her odd looks and ways. Leave shame to her. If she does wrong, she ought to feel it."
Indeed Jane Austen was not in the least ashamed of her meaning, and meant for her readers to have, by recognizing these sexual puns, a key to all of Jane Austen’s odd looks and ways.
And finally, after all of that, here is the relevant passage in Ch. 38:
She was more disturbed by Mr. Knightley's not dancing, than by any thing else. There he was, among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; he ought to be dancing, -- not classing himself with the husbands, and fathers, and whist-players, who were pretending to feel an interest in the dance till their rubbers were made up, -- so young as he looked! He could not have appeared to greater advantage perhaps any where, than where he had placed himself. His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body's eyes; and, excepting her own partner, there was not one among the whole row of young men who could be compared with him. He moved a few steps nearer, and those few steps were enough to prove in how gentlemanlike a manner, with what natural grace, he must have danced, would he but take the trouble. Whenever she caught his eye, she forced him to smile; but in general he was looking grave. She wished he could love a ball-room better, and could like Frank Churchill better. He seemed often observing her. She must not flatter herself that he thought of her dancing, but if he were criticising her behaviour, she did not feel afraid. There was nothing like flirtation between her and her partner. They seemed more like cheerful, easy friends, than lovers. That Frank Churchill thought less of her than he had done was indubitable. The ball proceeded pleasantly. The anxious cares, the incessant attentions of Mrs. Weston, were not thrown away. Every body seemed happy; and the praise of being a delightful ball, which is seldom bestowed till after a ball has ceased to be, was repeatedly given in the very beginning of the existence of this.”
In this context, it is not only the reference to Mr. Knightley’s tall, firm, upright figure—which is, revealingly, contrasted to that of older men (who are, due to the changes caused by age, the target audience for the barrage of Cialis and Viagra commercials and spam emails we see in 2011), it is also the frequent repetition of the word “ball”.
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