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Monday, September 30, 2013

Mr. Woodhouse and Sir Walter Elliot: Urban Poop Mavens



Apropos Mr. Woodhouse’s warnings to Frank Churchill about stepping in poop on the way to the Bates residence:

"You are acquainted with Miss Jane Fairfax, sir, are you?" said Mr. Woodhouse, always the last to make his way in conversation; "then give me leave to assure you that you will find her a very agreeable young
lady. She is staying here on a visit to her grandmamma and aunt, very worthy people; I have known them all my life. They will be extremely glad to see you, I am sure, and one of my servants shall go with you to
shew you the way."

It was only now, upon rereading the post I wrote a few hours ago on this topic…


….that I realized that Jane Austen actually revisited Mr.Woodhouse’s concern about where Frank might step, when, writing Persuasion the following year, she had Sir Walter Eliot sound off about Anne at Westgate Buildings….

"WESTGATE BUILDINGS!" said he, "and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate Buildings? A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith; and who was her husband? One of five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are to be met with everywhere. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that REVOLTS other people, LOW company, paltry rooms, FOUL AIR, DISGUSTING associations are inviting to you….”

….as I posted last Thursday in the second of my posts about Jane Austen’s “dirt” as “poop” motifs:



What Sir Walter Elliot and Mr. Woodhouse have in common in their respective warnings is that they are not just issuing them randomly, without regard to where Anne and Frank walk. That would be paranoia or snobbery, and totally irrational. But no, it turns out that these two supposed fools are remarkably congruent in the specificity of their advice. In Persuasion it is because Anne is going to visit her poor friend Mrs. Smith in the low rent district of Bath, and in Emma it is because Frank is going to visit the home of the impoverished Miss Bates in the low rent district of Highbury. And we know that it was in those parts of town which received minimal to no municipal services like street cleaning that the problem of accumulated horse poop was going to be at its absolute worst.

When my four recent posts about Austen scatology are viewed as a collectivity, then, I cannot see any reasonable basis for refuting my inference (again, based on Diana Birchall’s brilliant insight upfront about Lizzy’s muddy petticoats, without which I would not have seen any of this other stuff) that Jane Austen very consciously, from at least 1804 until 1816, repeatedly deployed the motif of “dirt” as “poop” in her fiction, not only for laughs, but, beneath the laughter, for serious social criticism—the degrading, disgusting, and potentially dangerous unsanitary conditions that the urban poor had to endure.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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