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Saturday, January 26, 2013

A man "endued with one article more than commonly falls to the lot of man" WAS in want of a wife!


Apropos the wonderfully alliterative phrase "want of a wife" in the famous first sentence of Pride & Prejudice, it just occurred to me for the very first time (after reading that sentence a thousand times before) to check to see whether Jane Austen had invented it, or if perhaps she had perhaps adapted it from an earlier source for some satirical purpose.

Via Google Books, look at the promising snippet I just found, in the Scots Magazine, Vol. 37, (1775) at p. 53:

"Mr William Merrett, of the parish of Bishopstoke, in the county of Southampton, Yeoman, doth hereby advertise himself, that HE IS IN WANT OF A WIFE. He is a stout jolly man, fair skin, and his age about forty. He would be glad of a woman about the same age; is a man of good account, and endued with one article more than commonly falls to the lot of man. Any woman whom this may suit, may apply to the said Mr Merrett. None but those of good account will be looked upon."

I cannot help but suspect, in Mary Crawfordian ways, about Mr. Merrett's extraordinarily meritorious "article"-- I mean, really, if he was boasting about the size of his house, or of his carriage, wouldn't he just name it explicitly? Sounds to me like he was proud of the "good fortune" that Mother Nature bestowed on him, but he was prudent enough to know that he needed to be a little indirect about it,
or he'd never get the ad published!

Even if JA never actually read Mr. Merrett's ad, I do now suspect her of thinking of "a good fortune" as encompassing more possibilities than riches in money, and that suspicious reading would make the maritally desperate housewives of Meryton, like Mrs. Bennet, sound more like the Desperate Housewives of Whysteria Lane!

But even if you dont share my suspicion, it seems to me safe to claim that at the very least, JA deliberately chose that particular phraseology, precisely so as to subliminally trigger in the minds of her readers an association to the idea of reading a personal ad--which, when you think about it, is exactly the same mindset JA wittily attributes to the parents of an eligible young woman in that famous first sentence of Pride & Prejudice--that the single man, just by showing up, is in effect intentionally publishing a personal ad for himself--which fits perfectly with Mr. Bennet's witty
question replying to his wife's mentioning Bingley's marrying a Bennet girl:

   "Is that his design in settling here?"

Indeed, one places a personal ad with the design of finding a wife!

Now, anyone else skilled at Regency Era research, can you find any other examples of personal ads during JA's lifetime in which the phrase "is in want of a" is used in personal ads?  I bet there were lots of them, in ads looking for prospective spouses, but also (shades of the Tevya stories) looking for a horse or an ox to buy. ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I also found the following in a 1740 jokebook:

"An old Man who had married a young Wife, complained to a Friend, how unhappy he had always been: When I was young, said he, I went abroad for want of a Wife; and now I am old, my Wife goes abroad for want of a Husband."

Worth a cynical chuckle, perhaps, but I see no particular reason to infer that JA might have been familiar with that joke, or one similar to it.

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