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

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sir Walter’s Wit, Yellowed Admirals and…..Conchs and Conchology!

In response to my immediately preceding post about Sir Walter's Subtle Wit, Anielka Briggs wrote the following in Austen-L: "Well that would have been quite clever. Except for one critical error. ORANGE is the colour you get when you mix RED with YELLOW Not brown!"

I replied as follows:

Orange being obtained from red and yellow instead of from red and brown (which was indeed a factual error on my part about color blending) actually enhances my point—dramatically so, as you'll see below. So before I forget, Anielka, thanks very much for your (entirely unintended) assistance in prompting me to make my point about ten times stronger! 

Here’s the deal. In the brief interim last night between my posting about Sir Walter's Subtle Wit to my blog...

...shortly after posting it to Austen-L and Janeites, it occurred to me to do a quick Google search to see if Sir Walter's joke might have a slang angle (slangle?) to it as well, and my hunch proved very fruitful. Here's what I included in my blog post as a result:

"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?"

But as I didn't find anything about an "admiral of the brown",  I left that angle alone. But now you've guided me to another subtlety of Sir Walter's (now apparently inexhaustible) wit, a whole new vista opened up because of a tweak in colors that reset my sleuthing “prism” to the proper wavelength.

To wit:

There was a meaning—and an official one, and not merely slang,  and… a very rich and relevant one for our passage in Persuasion,  of "admiral of the yellow" in the Regency Era!

And guess what, we can thank Patrick O'Brian (of course the late author of the Jack Aubrey series of naval novels, including the film-adapted Master and Commander, and as obsessive a Janeite as ever sailed the literary seas) for an entertaining explanation of same. Let me set the stage:

In O’Brian’s novel, entitled (yes, you guessed it, The Yellow Admiral!), Jack Aubrey is bemoaning his status as a superannuated admiral, i.e., one without a command, and his wife Sophie  (yes, not coincidentally nearly the same name as Mrs. Croft’s Sophia!) tries to comfort him:

“But you are neither red, white nor blue; neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring; and when  sailors call you admiral, the decent ones look away—the others smile. In the cant phrase, you have been yellowed'
'But that could never happen to you, Jack,' she cried. 'Not with your fighting record. And you have never refused any service, however disagreeable.' 
"If a captain becomes an admiral without a command he is "in the cant phrase... yellowed". Jack, on blockade duty off Brittany, frets that the impending peace will indeed yellow him; and he's also in for some rough marital weather with his wife, Sophie.”  END QUOTE

And here’s what Wikipedia tells us in its article on admiralty color coding about yellow admirals, which two minutes searching in Google Books will show you is entirely accurate and was in usage in Jane Austen’s era:

“Another way was to promote captains to the rank of admiral without distinction of squadron (a practice known as yellowing—the captain so raised became known as a yellow admiral) . According to N.A.M. Rodger this was the Navy's first attempt at superannuating older officers: a 'yellow admiral' was in effect being retired on half pay.”

So we find from all of this that Sir Walter’s wit has been dramatically validated still further. He’s managed to slip in a double dig at Admiral Croft, by covertly referring to the Admiral’s being over the hill (or  over the wave? ) in more “colorful” ways than one—i.e., with a weather-beaten “orange” face, and as a “yellowed” admiral without a command to  boot.  

But there’s still more… I was searching for  Regency Era usages of the yellowing of admirals, I fortuitously stumbled across the following entry in the 1819 Pantalogia Cyclopaedia put out by Mssrs. Good, Gregory and Bosworth, which will be utterly self explanatory as to why I am bringing  it  forward:

Admiral, in conchology, the name of a beautiful shell of the volute kind, much admired by the curious. There are four species of this shell, viz. the grand-admiral, the vice-admiral, the ORANGE-ADMIRAL, and the extra-admiral. The first is extremely beautiful, of an elegant white enamel, variegated with bands of yellow, which represent, in some measure, the colours of the flags in men of war. It is of a very curious shape, and finely turned about the head, the clavicle being exerted; but its distinguishing character is a denticulated line, running along the centre of the large yellow band; by this it is distinguished from the vice-admiral, the head of which is also less elegantly formed. The ORANGE-ADMIRAL has more yellow than any of the others, and the bands of the extra-admiral run into one another.”

So indeed, there was such a thing as an “orange admiral” in Jane Austen’s time, and Admiral Croft shows he is  aware even of that when he gazes at the painting in the shop  window and speaks to Anne about a “cockleSHELL”!

And speaking of shells, I am personally of the belief that when JA and her family were in Lyme  Regis  in1804, and she wrote:  “I have written to Mr Pyne on the subject of the broken Lid: it was valued by Anning here we were told at five shillings and as that appeared to us beyond he value of all the furniture in the room together We have referred ourselves to the Owner”, that this laid the groundwork, a dozen years  later, for a personal connection between Jane Austen and the by then well known fossil hunter, Mary Anning, which JA in some wise paid covert tribute to via her veiled reference to the “orange  admiral”  conch. Here’s what Peter W. Graham, Persuasions #26, “Why Lyme Regis?”, had to say about Mary Anning:

“…But the most famous geological finds at Lyme fell to a working-class girl, Mary Anning (1799-1847), who was later famed as “the fossil woman,” praised as “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew,” and commemorated by a stained glass window placed in Lyme’s church of St. Michael the Archangel by the local vicar and the Geological Society of London. Mary was taught to hunt for fossils by her father, a cabinetmaker called Richard Anning, who died in 1810, leaving a wife and two young children in poverty. With her mother and her brother Joseph, Mary Anning combed the local cliffs for fossils that could be sold as curiosities. Although there is evidence that gentleman collectors had been aware of the presence of “crocodiles” being found by fossil hunters such as the Annings since at least 1810, Mary’s celebrity hinges on a somewhat oversimplified story that she discovered the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaurus, as the so-called “crocodile” was officially named in 1817. The facts of this discovery are more complex than is the myth. Joseph Anning apparently located the ichthyosaurus specimen in 1811 at Black Ven, a 150-foot hill east of Lyme and next to the fossiliferous shale and limestone of Church Cliffs; and Mary found the remainder of the skeleton in 1812. Described in Sir Everard Home’s “Some account of the fossil remains of an animal,” an illustrated article appearing in the 1814 volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, this find was the first to come to the attention of learned circles. “

So, Anielka, if there was also a William of Orange reference lurking in the back of Sir Walter’s mind  as well, I would not be entirely surprised.  Jane Austen loved to layer her meanings, as we both know. 

A famous connoisseur of sea-life once famously wrote:

By my two posts, I hope I have caused Sir Walter’s wit at the Admiral’s expense to undergo a sea-change in meaning, from the dull elf narcissistic snobbery it first appeared to be, to something very rich and strangely pregnant in multiple meanings, like one of Mary Anning’s fossils—except these  “fossils” were dropt on  the “beach” known as Persuasion  by their creator,  Jane Austen.

Or I could just conclude by echoing Admiral Croft:  “Phoo, phoo”.  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: If Patrick O’Brian were alive, I could ask him if he also picked up on any of Sir Walter’s subtle  wit as I explained above, or if the “Yellow Admiral” was merely a coincidence. My guess is that he did realize at least some of it. After all, O’Brian famously loved Mary Crawford’s “rears and vices’ pun, as he deployed in the very first Jack Aubrey novel, Master and Commander! So he was closely attuned to Jane  Austen’s suggestive naval wordplay.

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