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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jane Austen's Nuts: Part One

In discussing a passage in Jane Austen's Letter 91, Diane Reynolds made the following interesting observation: 

"I too find troubling--and interesting--the brothers' pursuit of the maid, Mary Doe, an "upstairs-downstairs" activity that, as Diana points out, is not overt in the novels. I agree with Ellen in being concerned that Austen would blame the maid, when she would have very little power or control over the situation--and I agree that nuts is a pun on testicles. Here is the passage:

"Sackree does not at all approve of Mary Doe & her nuts-on the score of propriety rather than health.-She saw some signs of going after her in George & Henry, & thinks if you could give the girl a check, by rather reproving her for taking anything seriously about nuts which they said to her, it might be of use.-This, of course, is between our three discreet selves."

Interesting too that Jane is at pains to ask that this is kept quiet. I wonder, though, why it would be Cassandra who would be assigned to "give the girl a check?" Where is this flirtation transpiring? At Godmersham? Is Cassandra coming there soon?....I looked in the OED, which I happened to have out, and found that the "vulgar" use of the word nuts to describe someone "well hung" goes back the 1780s; as a word meaning  testicles," nuts dates back to the late 1500s. The context in JA's letters sounds as if the brothers and the maid were engaged in bawdy  (or "vulgar") repartee about nuts. "   END QUOTE

I had flown right past this passage about gleaning nuts in Letter 91 in my first reading, and am glad that it is now under the microscope for examination and analysis.

My initial inclination is to agree with those who claim that JA has generated some sort of sexual innuendo on the word "nuts"---JA's using words like "propriety", "reprove", "check" and "discreet" collectively hint strongly at something outside of "proper" behavior.

And, even without the OED verifying a contemporary common sexual double meaning around "nuts", I already knew that JA took delight in bending all sorts of ordinary words toward forbidden or suggestive meanings, and so she was perfectly capable of inventing such a double meaning at the drop of a hat, without the necessary of dictionary confirmation.

But what to say beyond that? I think the key to understanding JA's cryptic comments is to examine the context.

What is clear is that Letter 91 is a response to a letter CEA wrote to JA, which JA (shades of Miss Bates!) has not only read herself, but has also then read it alound to Sackree and then to 13-year old Elizabeth Knight (with little sister 9 year old Louisa Knight tagging along). And this little tale involves two elder brothers of these girls, George (18) and Henry (16) who are apparently staying at the Chawton Great House at that moment.

So, whatever it is that CEA actually wrote to JA about Mary Doe (which does sound rather suspiciously like "Jane Doe", which would be a perfect coded name for an imaginary girl, because these little girls Elizabeth and Louisa would not know this code) and the two Knight boys, it seems quite likely to me that JA was doing what she did so often--a hyperbolizing of some actual event, turning some trivial nothing into a fantastical little farce in the theater of the absurd, with an adult double meaning for the benefit of any adults listening.

And I can see in my mind's eye the two girls with eyes agog, eating up Aunt Jane's spontaneous nonsense, not quite knowing what to believe and what not to believe. And I can imagine JA writing Letter 91--or at least that part of the letter---with the girls by her side, each of them eagerly contributing ideas for what to write to Aunt Cassandra. And all the while the crusty, laconic old Sackree benevolently smiles and shakes her head in mock disapproval at Jane's creeping right up to the edge of salaciousness, while keeping the girls in blissful innocence.

So I think it is quite possible that Sackree never even said anything about George and Henry, but that the girls were vastly entertained hearing about the shenanigans of their elder brothers, which meant nothing salacious to _them_.

And JA shows that this is a coded passage with adult meanings hidden in plain sight from the comprehension of the girls, by referring (hint hint) to this being a secret "between our three discreet selves"---i.e., only the adult ladies, CEA, JA and Sackree, get the joke, and that is how it should be, the girls are too young for what Nancy refers to as the "smutty" part.

And I therefore seriously doubt that the two boys actually did anything untoward with Mary Doe (if she even existed in real life), this was just a tale told to amuse the girls at Godmersham. JA would not have looked the other way at any sort of sexual harassment of young maids in one of her brother's residences.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Mary Doe makes another appearance a few letters later, and the little tale about her in that later letter fits with my notion of JA dramatizing things for the entertainment of her nieces.

PPS: I could not resist adding that Shakespeare was there first, two centuries before JA, with witty sexual humor on the theme of nuts, in Midsummer Night's Dream, when the lovers Bottom and Titania discuss food:

TITANIA Or say, sweet love, what thou desirest to eat.
BOTTOM  Truly, a peck of provender; I could munch your good dry oats. Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle of hay: good hay, sweet hay, hath no fellow.
TITANIA  I have a venturous fairy that shall seek
The squirrel's hoard, and fetch thee new nuts.
I had rather have a handful or two of dried peas. But, I pray you, let none of your people stir me; I have an exposition of sleep come upon me.

Not only are Bottom (whose name is itself a sexual pun) and Titania talking about more than oats, nuts and peas, we also have the added bonus that Bottom refers to "a peck of provender", and that reminds me of JA's reference to  a "Peck Loaf" in Letter 89.


1 comment:

Cherie E said...

I was busily 'googling' stories on my ancestry when your blog post popped-up. It's an interesting analysis of JA but I need to correct you on a glaring oversight. The name 'Doe' (Jane, John, or otherwise) is not coded in the UK. The American use likely derived from the abbreviation for 'ditto' - i.e. 'do'.

The 'Mary Doe' referred to in Jane Austen's letters was indeed a real person…. my 4 x great aunt to be precise. The Does were a labouring family in Chawton village concurrent with JA's residency there. Parish records reveal that Mary Doe was the daughter of William and Sarah Doe of Chawton (which is also noted in 'Jane Austen's Letters' by Deidre le Faye). Mary married in Chawton in 1816 and then moved to Binsted where she died in 1873.

After researching the Doe family and the context in which they lived, I seriously doubt that there was anything 'playful' in JA's comment about Mary. The social barrier between 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' was rigidly observed and JA would have been concerned by her brothers' banter with Mary. Note that Mary was about 14 years old when she began working for the Austens.

Forgive me for sounding waspish (not intended as I am smiling as I type this) but I think it would have been helpful if you had researched the history of ALL of those named (wealthy or otherwise) before attempting a literary analysis of this particular extract.