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

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Jane Austen’s Subtly Ringing Door-Bells




The other day, I read a short news item online about Jane Austen that puzzled me, but also opened an interesting door (metaphorically speaking) for me, as well. First, here is the full text of the article:

“If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times’ is an expression used by countless exasperated parents to their children. But many are unlikely to realise that Jane Austen is the first recorded writer to use the phrase. The author of Pride & Prejudice has more than 300 words and phrases credited to her, according to Prof Charlotte Brewer, an Oxford academic. Speaking at the Telegraph Hay Festival about Jane Austen's influence on the Oxford English Dictionary, she said that "family portrait", "door bell", "flower seed", "shaving glass", "breakfast room" and "morning room" were just some of the common place phrases first recorded by her. The great majority of Austen's words are domestic turns of phrase referring to children's games, furniture, and cooking processes, including the first recorded use of "to dress a salad". The third edition of the OED, which is still being worked on (and being published online) has already attributed 40 then-new words to her works, including "mothering", "pedal (of a piano)" and "of the moment". Shakespeare, however, trounces Austen with 1,607 first uses, followed by John Milton, with 601 words.” END QUOTE

The thing that puzzles me is that I cannot find any evidence that Jane Austen ever used the (what is now a) cliché “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times”. If anyone else can find where she did, please bring the cite forward. It sounds like something Mrs. Bennet, Mary Musgrove, or Anne Steele might say, but I see no sign that any of them did—nor did I find that cliché anywhere in JA’s juvenilia or letters. The earliest usage I found on Google Books was from 1926, a pretty long time after JA’s era.

Otherwise, I noted that JA uses the term “family portraits” to refer to the portraits from many generations, past to the present, in the great halls of Sotherton and Pemberley, whereas, today, we’d used that term to refer to the photos taken at weddings, when the entire family present at the great occasion all gather for one large group shot. The change in meaning would seem to be a reflection of a changed world, where a tiny few of us live in grand mansions, but a great number of us have IPhone cameras and families to photograph in the moment.

But now on to my main point. The term mentioned in the article which opened a metaphorical door for me was (appropriately) “door-bell”, which appears a grand total of only three times in all of JA’s six novels. What’s interesting to me, for starters, is that two of them occur in P&P—both referring to the door-bell at the Hunsford Parsonage---and the third is in Persuasion, and refers to the Kellynch Lodge. It is in examining those usages more closely that we once again see the minuteness of JA’s literary artisanship, which shows that she didn’t just talk the talk when she advised niece Anna Austen about subtle points of factual authenticity and consistency in novel-writing, JA walked the walk, a thousand times, in her own novels.

Specifically, I infer from this handful of usages in JA’s novels that door-bells were not in common use in mansions in JA’s day—if they were, then we’d have heard about door-bells ringing at Pemberley, Mansfield Park, Kellynch Hall, Netherfield, Northanger Abbey, and/or Sotherton. Instead we only hear about door-bells at two small residences situated on the grounds of great estates. Now, why would that be?

Is it because there was no need for door-bells, if you had a servant standing by the front door at all times, ready to answer a knock? And, conversely, does the presence of a door-bell suggest that one has no servant, or at least, no servant who would always be in close enough proximity to the front door to answer  a knock? Any other theories?

The curious linkage of small residence on the grounds of an estate to door-bells is strengthened  by the obvious fact that it occurs in P&P, JA’s second published novel, and also in Persuasion, JA’s last completed novel, finished 3 ½  years later. It can’t be a coincidence.

And there was one additional, serendipitous benefit to me from walking through the above analysis.

Am I the only one who has read Persuasion many times, but never realized that Kellynch _Lodge_ was a smaller residence situated on the grounds of Kellynch _Hall_? And furthermore, the even more significant fact that Kellynch Lodge was Lady Russell’s residence?  I had never noticed either of those facts before, and can’t even recall if the 1995 Persuasion depicted this in some way.

Sure enough, when I did appropriate searches, I took note for the first time of the full meaning of the following passage:

“Herself the widow of only a knight, she gave the dignity of a baronet all its due; and Sir Walter, independent of his claims as an old acquaintance, an attentive neighbour, an obliging landlord, the husband of her very dear friend, the father of Anne and her sisters, was, as being Sir Walter, in her apprehension, entitled to a great deal of compassion and consideration under his present difficulties.”

“…an obliging landlord…”---of  course, Sir Walter was the landlord of Kellynch Lodge—which adds a certain irony to his being forced into becoming the landlord of Kellynch Hall.

And it also brought to my mind, as I am sure it did for some of you---in a way, Lady Russell’s situation, in terms of residence, was similar in this way to Mrs. Norris—a single woman very closely connected to the mother of the heroine, living on the grounds of the great estate owned by the novel’s patriarch.

That parallel makes ya wonder how far that parallel extends……

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode  on Twitter

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