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Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Riveting Spectacle of Jane Austen & Joseph Addison in a Witty Clinch


My eye was caught this morning by a curious resonance of expression between the following two passages written about 80 years apart:

Joseph Addison on James the First in his 4th Paper on Wit, published in The Spectator #61, 05/10/1711:

"...the age in which the pun chiefly flourished was in the reign of King James the First. That learned monarch was himself a tolerable punster, and made very few bishops or Privy Councillors that had not some time or other signalised themselves by a clinch, or a conundrum. It was, therefore, in this age that the pun appeared with pomp and dignity..."

 Jane Austen on James the First in her History of England, written circa  1790:

“His Majesty was of that amiable disposition which inclines to Freindship, and in such points was possessed of a keener penetration in discovering merit than many other people. I once heard an excellent Sharade on a Carpet, of which the subject I am now on reminds me, and AS I think it may afford my Readers some amusement to find it out, I shall here take the liberty of presenting it to them."

 I zeroed in on the intriguing word  "clinch" as used by Addison, and that proved  a very fortunate choice on my part, as you shall see.

First, here is a typical online dictionary listing for “clinch” as  a noun, which I just found, which seems accurate to me:

1. Something, such as a clamp, that clinches.
2. The clinched part of a nail, bolt, or rivet.
3. Sports:  An act or instance of clinching in boxing.
4. Nautical: A knot in a rope made by a half hitch with the end of the rope fastened back by seizing. Also called clench.
5. Slang:  An amorous embrace.

It also appears clear that, except perhaps for #3, these definitions were extant in the 18th century as well. But, as Addison’s comments exemplify, there was another meaning of “clinch”  in the 18th century, which has gone the way of the dodo today, and that is “clinch” as a slangish synonym for “pun”.

Now…should we be suspecting the witty Mr. Addison of a pun when he suggests that the surest path to royal patronage of the kind bestowed on Carr et al. during that amiable, learned monarch's reign was to "signalise" oneself by a "clinch" for (or, should we instead say, with) James the First himself?  

Of the various synonyms that Addison could have used for punning vis a vis James the First’s patronage, Addison chose one which was rich in alternative  meanings, i.e., itself  very ripe for  punning. Whereas, by contrast,  he also chose “conundrum”, which is barren of such possibilities.

So, I do very much suspect Addison of that mischievous intent, which he executes with subtle  skill and panache, making it seem as if  he disapproves of the mania for puns which gripped England during James I’s reign, while  simultaneously hiding a salacious pun in plain sight in the midst of his disapproval--brilliant!

But, what's more relevant to those reading along here today, is that I equally strongly suspect the 15 year old Jane Austen herself of having intentionally alluded to Addison's 80-year old bit of covert punning wit when she wrote her above quoted comments about James the First. Addison’s famous essays would  certainly have occupied an honored place in the Steventon family library, and so no question could arise as to her access to this  one.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I will point out  the following  two parallels between Addison’s and Austen’s passages (including the Sharade about Carr and carpet)  about James the First:

ONE: Both make specific mention of James’s royal patronage to his privy counselors; and

TWO: Both are about punning—Addison writing about puns, Jane Austen making a Sharade which by definition depends on the pun between “Carr-pet” and “carpet”.

In that context, it cannot be coincidence  that we then have a  third parallel:

THREE: Both punningly suggest a reliable sexual path to patronage from James the First. We can readily see how the original, PG-rated meaning of “clinch”, drawn from the world of furniture construction and nautical ropesmanship, both involving the concept of a long thin object being firmly inserted and then secured, could take on a sexual meaning.

And that observation leads us to one more block of  textual evidence, hiding in plain sight elsewhere in JA’s writings, which, in the context of the above, adds to the probability that Jane Austen had Addison’s comments about  James  the First’s love  of puns in mind when she wrote her youthful Sharade.

I give you the slyest punster of them all, the riveting reiterator herself,  Miss Bates:

'…For, would you believe it, Miss Woodhouse, there he is, in the most obliging manner in the world, fastening in the RIVET  of my mother's spectacles.—The RIVET came out, you know, this morning…. At one time Patty came to say she thought the kitchen chimney wanted sweeping. Oh, said I, Patty do not come with your bad news to me. Here is the RIVET of your mistress's spectacles out…"I declare I cannot recollect what I was talking of.—Oh! my mother's spectacles. So very obliging of Mr. Frank Churchill! 'Oh!' said he, 'I do think I can fasten the RIVET; I like a job of this kind excessively.'—Which you know shewed him to be so very.... Indeed I must say that, much as I had heard of him before and much as I had expected, he very far exceeds any thing.... I do congratulate you, Mrs. Weston, most warmly. He seems every thing the fondest parent could.... 'Oh!' said he, 'I can fasten the RIVET. I like a job of that sort excessively.' I never shall forget his manner”

And then Frank Churchill screws home the clinching rivet:

"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."

From 1790 to 1815, we see a quarter century of  preoccupation with this particular sexual pun on Jane Austen’s part, and now we may safely add to that preoccupation a linkage back to a famous punster of the literary past  who appears to have inspired Jane Austen's wit in this regard.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: The following passage in Northanger Abbey takes on a new ironic significance in light  of the above: 

"Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”
 
And now I also suspect that the RIVETS Miss Bates speaks of are part of her mother's SPECTAcles, because Jane Austen read about that "clinch" in one of her FATHER's Spectators! 

P.P.S.:  See my followup to the above post, which I added on 03/10/13 at 8:45 am EST: 


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