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

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"...but it was MOONLIGHT and EVERY BODY was full of engagements..."

In Chapter 7 of S&S, we read the following description of the Dashwood women's first visit to Barton Park:

"Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were met at the door of the house by Sir John, who welcomed them to Barton Park with unaffected sincerity; and as he attended them to the drawing room repeated to the young ladies the concern which the same subject had drawn from him the day before, at being unable to get any smart young men to meet them. They would see, he said, only one gentleman there besides himself; a particular friend who was staying at the park, but who was neither very young nor very gay. He hoped they would all excuse the smallness of the party, and could assure them it should never happen so again. He had been to several families that morning in hopes of procuring some addition to their number, but it was moonlight and every body was full of engagements. Luckily Lady Middleton's mother had arrived at Barton within the last hour, and as she was a very cheerful agreeable woman, he hoped the young ladies would not find it so very dull as they might imagine. The young ladies, as well as their mother, were perfectly satisfied with having two entire strangers of the party, and wished for no more."

At first, my 21st century mind was puzzled by Sir John's explanation for why he had been unable to gather a larger crowd, and especially "any smart young men", at Barton Park, the better to entertain the Dashwood women. What did it mean that "it was moonlight and every body was full of engagements."? At first I considered the far-fetched possibility that adventurous hunters like Willloughby might be out on moonlit nights shooting game birds, under extremely difficult conditions, as a kind of macho amusement. But I soon realized how ridiculous that was, and that there was a much more plausible real-world explanation, which was that, 2 centuries ago, moonlit nights were the safest ones on which to travel, because drivers of coaches and carriages would be much less likely to have accidents when they had the best visibility. Which also renders a bit more rational Mr. Woodhouse's panic over the short carriage ride from Randalls to Hartfield on a dark and snowy night. And a quick check of various online Austen archives confirmed that this explanation was the generally accepted one in Janeite circles, among those to whom the question had occurred, such as our own Nancy Mayer.

But a third, and not at all benign explanation, had also occurred to me by this time, which is the true subject of this post, and which I believe is original. To wit, another significance of a "moonlight night" could have been that the smart young men of the neighborhood would all be "full of engagements" the local version of the infamous Sir Francis Dashwood's Hellfire Club!

Janine Barchas has written about the thinly veiled allusion to the Hellfire Club in great detail in “Hell-Fire Jane:**Austen and the Dashwoods of West Wycombe” **// at Eighteenth Century Life, Volume 33, Number 3, ppg. 1-36, Fall 2009. However, Barchas did _not_ pick up on Sir John's apology about the unspecified _moonlight_ engagements of the smart young men of the neighborhood as being a sly clue provided by JA pointing toward Sir Francis. But I draw encouragement from another scholar, Daniel Willens, who, in“The Hell-Fire Club: Sex, Politics, and Religion in Eighteenth-Century England”, in Gnosis, Summer 1992, begins his article with the following statement:

" ON MOONLIT NIGHTS during the reign of England's King George III, immensely powerful members of His Majesty's Government, important intellectuals, and influential artists could sometimes be seen travelling up the Thames River by gondola to a ruined abbey near West Wycombe. There, to the sonorous tolling of the deconsecrated cloister's bell, they dressed in monkish robes and indulged in every manner of depravity, culminating in a Black Mass celebrated on the naked body of a debauched noblewoman and presided over by that notorious rake Sir Francis Dashwood...."

For the Hellfire Club, I would imagine that the moonlight was not merely a pragmatic consideration that prompted scheduling of Black Masses on those particular nights, but rather was _symbolically_ meaningful.

I conclude by pointing out that JA, with her wicked way with puns and wordplay, was not content to leave her veiled allusion to the Hellfire Club's activities to rest merely upon a reference to "moonlight" connected to the surname "Dashwood". No, always alert to a way to insert an extra clue, she also played with the orthographical ambiguity, which still prevailed in the written English of her day, of the word "everybody", which was in her lifetime was often written as "every body".

I just did some quick checking, and the result is very interesting. I verified that in the first edition of S&S, over 3/4 of the usages were of the now archaic "every body", whereas only 15 months later, in P&P, only one out of _forty_ used "every body", and in MP, only 2 years later still, the usages were _all_ the modern "everybody"! So I think it is reasonable to infer that in S&S, JA may very well have meant to engage with this ambiguity in a subtle thematic way.

That is why I am quite confident that in the above-quoted passage, JA was having some punny fun with the spelling ambiguity---i.e., she deliberately and carefully constructed her sentence so that every _body_, when read against the grain, could plausibly be read as referring to the _physical_ "body" of every person present at the Black Mass, including in particular the debauched lady whose _body_ was the focal point of the proceedings, a particular part of her body being _full_ of...."engagements", a very flexible word which can function as a euphemism for engagement in various sorts of unmentionable actions.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.:  This post is directly connected to my much earlier post about Lucy Ferrars (aka Lucifer!) and her Hell-born cousins!:


Susan Ardelie said...

What a clever bit of sleuthing you've done! The explanation seems perfectly rational to me, and it makes sense that JA would recall Francis Dashwood when writing about the Dashwood sisters. The use of "every body" is particularly fascinating.

Bravo for your fine work. I very much enjoy reading about your process of discovering JA's shadow stories. There seems to be an abundance of them dashed all about.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Susan, thanks for your kind words, but Barchas's sleuthing in that article was the real breakthrough on this point-- I've just added some icing on the cake she baked!

And I also enjoyed your historical delvings as well, it's always a pleasure to share the sleuthing trail with kindred spirits,