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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sir Walter's Subtle Wit



Sir Walter Elliot is generally considered one of the duller elves among the range of Austen characters, for good reason, it would seem. Not only is he in the running for Most Narcissistic Character (of course with strong competition from Mrs. Elton), but when he tries to be funny, he doesn’t quite make it.

Jane Austen seems to make this crystal clear early on, in Chapter 3, when we read Sir Walter’s response to Mr. Shepherd’s hinting at the possibility of renting Kellynch Hall:

“ “…If a rich admiral were to come in our way, Sir Walter--"
"He would be a very lucky man, Shepherd," replied Sir Walter; "that's all I have to remark. A prize indeed would Kellynch Hall be to him; rather the greatest prize of all, let him have taken ever so many before; hey, Shepherd?"
Mr Shepherd laughed, as he knew he must, at this wit… “

Mr. Shepherd has to pretend to laugh with Sir Walter, presumably because this is false wit, a lame attempt at simile that falls flat on its face.

But is it really that lame? The narrator (reflecting Anne’s point of view, I would suggest), wants us to see Sir Walter as a fool, but then, let’s look past the narrator and analyze Sir  Walter’s symbolism. He is really comparing Kellynch Hall to a ship ready to be plundered by a privateer (like Wentworth). And that idea of plunder is actually very much on his mind in relation to the leasing of Kellynch Hall, he views the prospective lessor almost as a pirate, who is attempting to take what does not belong to him.

Actually sophisticated thinking, upon examination, especially if the reader views Mr. Shepherd (as I have since 2004) as being the kind of lawyer no client in his right mind would wish to have representing him, because of (among other major problems) the massive conflict of interest and breach of basic fiduciary duty reflected by his daughter, Mrs. Clay, doing everything in her power to marry Sir Walter. 

And, speaking of reflection, as I wrote a while back…


…Jane Austen also punnily encourages her readers to both laugh at, but also think deeply about, the notion of “serious reflection”, in a novel where Sir Walter’s mirrors are among the most important symbols.

But today, I was forced to consider whether Sir Walter perhaps does possess the capacity for genuine, clever, even funny, and intentional wit, when I reread the following passage in Chapter  4, the next  discussion between Mr. Shepherd and his favorite client, this time about a specific admiral, one whom all Janeites know and love: 

"And who is Admiral Croft?" was Sir Walter's cold suspicious inquiry.
Mr Shepherd answered for his being of a gentleman's family, and mentioned a place; and Anne, after the little pause which followed, added-- "He is a rear admiral of the white. He was in the Trafalgar action, and has been in the East Indies since; he was stationed there, I believe, several years."
"Then I take it for granted," observed Sir Walter, "that his face is about as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery."

So, where’s the wit in Sir Walter’s comments? On the surface (and, I believe, to Anne’s ears), this is just one more boring, repetitive remark by Sir Walter about facial beauty, Obsession #1, as usual filtered through the lens of status snobbery, Obsession #2. The Admiral was at sea, his face must have turned orange while this “nobody” labored at sea for decades in environments no gentlemen would have subjected himself to.

Can you see Sir Walter’s joke?  Scroll down for my explanation  of it.


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I bet you saw it now that I flagged this passage for you, and told you to look for a joke. And once you notice it, it’s pretty obvious---the joke is based on a juxtaposition of COLORS and BODY PARTS.  I.e., Admiral Croft may, by his superior  seamanship and bravery have achieved the rank of REAR admiral of the WHITE (actually, only the eighth rank out of a total of nine, for admirals) , so Sir Walter sneers, but at what “terrible” cost?  The price paid by Admiral Croft in achieving this distinction is that his FACE was turned ORANGE (which is what you get when you mix RED with BROWN)!

Maybe not lol funny, but clever, reflecting some nuanced wordplay and manipulation of imagery, the work of a somewhat ingenious mind.  And the veiled opposition of a “rear” with a “face” is, to me,  inspired as well as risqué---and of course it brings to mind the “rears and vices” pun of Mary Crawford, does  it not, the one about a circle of---who else? admirals!

And  did you know that, in Regency Era slang, an “admiral of the red” was a drunk, and an “admiral of the  white” was a cowardly admiral (i.e., one who turned white with fear)?  Could Sir Walter be aware of such slang, and then created his own slang neologism, an admiral of the orange, to refer to sailors who’ve been at sea too long?

What’s also fascinating to me is that this wordplay has apparently not been previously recognized. I know I never noticed it in the at least ten times I had previously read that passage. This time, no doubt  sensitized by my recent close readings of other such passages in JA’s novels, I saw it.  But I cannot find that Sir Walter’s wordplay has ever been taken notice in any online venue, or in the JASNA journals, or in Google Scholar or Google Books---which goes to show the power of expectation in shaping perception As I noted at the start of this post, we are primed to view Sir Walter as a narcissistic status obsessed dolt, and therefore we all glide right by his attempts at wit which the narrator does not  comment on.

But Jane Austen only created rounded characters, and so I suggest that we need to look a  whole lot more closely at Sir Walter Elliot, to see if perhaps  there is more to this man than meets the eye.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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