Letter 121: “Mr. Murray’s letter is come. He is a rogue, of course, but a civil one. He offers £450 but wants to have the copyright of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility included. It will end in my publishing for myself, I daresay. He sends more praise, however, than I expected.”
The above famous passage in Letter 121 caught my eye today with the epigrammatical wit of “He is a rogue, of course, but a civil one.” Past experience has taught me to suspect a veiled allusion in such instances, and sure enough, Google quickly led me through a trail that begins with a heretofore unrecognized but significant literary allusion by Jane Austen, and ends with some of her filthiest (and I use that specific word for a playful but scholarly reason) sexual innuendo, once again demonstrating her deep but largely unrecognized affinity with the rakish, subversive, sexy wit of Restoration comedy.
This post will be a tad long, only because I will be quoting a few play scenes so that you don’t need to follow links to read the actual textual evidence. But I swear to you, the payoff, in terms of proof of my claims about Jane Austen, will be well worth it!
Specifically, I will by the end of this post ascribe a very unexpected meaning to the following line in Letter 63:
“I shall not tell you anything more of Wm. Digweed's china, as your silence on the subject makes you unworthy of it."
But first, to “the Restoration” part of my argument:
WILLIAM WYCHERLEY’S FAMOUS PLAYS: THE PLAIN DEALER & THE COUNTRY WIFE
When I searched Google Books for “civil & rogue” prior to 1816, I found myself reading the following scene from Act 2, Scene 1 of William Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer, in which the hero, Captain Manly, is eavesdropping on his mistress Olivia as she gossips about Manly with “Novel, a pert railing Coxcomb, and an admirer of novelties, makes love to Olivia”:
Olivia. I heard of his fighting only, without particulars, and confess I always loved his brutal courage, because it made me hope it might rid me of his more brutal love.
Manly. What's that? [Aside.]
Olivia. But is he at last returned, d'ye say, unhurt?
Novel. Ay, faith, without doing his business; for the rogue has been these two years pretending to a wooden leg, which he would take from fortune as kindly as the staff of a marshal of France, and rather read his name in a gazette--
Olivia. Than in the entail of a good estate.
Manly. So! [Aside.]
Novel. I have an ambition, I must confess, of losing my heart before such a fair enemy as yourself madam; but that silly rogues should be ambitious of losing their arms, and--
Olivia. Looking like a pair of compasses.
Novel. But he has no use of his arms but to set 'em on kimbow, for he never pulls off his hat, at least not to me, I'm sure; for you must know, madam, he has a fanatical hatred to good company: he can't abide me.
Lord Plausible. O, be not so severe to him, as to say he hates good company: for I assure you he has a great respect, esteem and kindness for me.
Manly. THAT KIND, CIVIL ROGUE has spoken yet ten thousand times worse of me than t'other. [Aside.]
Olivia. Well, if he be returned, Mr. Novel, then shall I be pestered again with his boisterous sea-love; have my alcove smell like a cabin, my chamber perfumed with his tarpaulin Brandenburgh; and hear volleys of brandy-sighs, enough to make a fog in one's room. Foh! I hate a lover that smells like Thames Street!
Manly. [Aside.] I can bear no longer, and need hear no more.--[To Olivia.] But since you have these two pulvillio boxes, these essence-bottles, this pair of musk-cats here, I hope I may venture to come yet nearer you.
Olivia. Overheard us then!
Novel. I hope he heard me not. [Aside.] END QUOTE
So, Captain Manly uses the phrase “civil rogue” to describe a man who says flattering, nice things to your face, but then stabs you in the back when you’re not around. And that certainly informs our understanding of what Jane Austen is saying, in code, about John Murray to Cassandra, which is that he’s a flatterer (“He sends more praise, however, than I expected”) whom you can’t trust farther than you can throw him!
And if that were all the benefit gained from my curiosity about a witty phrase of Jane Austen’s, then that would be enough….but there’s much much more, so please keep reading!
What alerted me to keep digging was the following description of William Wycherley:
Wikipedia, edited down by me: “The Plain Dealer is a Restoration comedy by William Wycherley [first performed in] 1676...based on Moliere’s Le Misanthrope, and is generally considered Wycherley's finest work along with The Country Wife. The play was highly praised by John Dryden and John Dennis, though it was equally condemned for its obscenity by many. Throughout the 18th century it was performed in a bowdlerized version by Isaac Bickerstaffe. The title character is Captain Manly, a sailor who doubts the motives of everyone he meets except for his sweetheart, Olivia, and his friend, Vernish. When Olivia jilts him and marries Vernish, he attempts to gain revenge by sending a pageboy (who, unknown to him, is a girl in disguise and is in love with him) to seduce Olivia. When the truth of the page's identity is discovered, Manly marries her instead.”
Aside from recognizing the obvious debt Wycherley owed to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as well as to Moliere, I was intrigued, dug some more, and found this:
1911 Britannica: “Scarcely inferior to The Country Wife is The Plain Dealer-- a play of which Voltaire said "I know not of a single comedy of either the ancients or the moderns where there is so much wit." This comedy had an immense influence, as regards manipulation of dialogue, upon all subsequent English comedies of repartee….[alluded to by Burns and Sterne]…it is in the fourth and fifth acts that the coruscations of Wycherley's comic genius are the most dazzling; also, it is there that the licentiousness is the most astonishing….Being less humorous than Vanbrugh's scenes, they are more terribly and earnestly realistic; therefore they seem more wicked.”
So Wycherley’s somewhat notorious influence and reputation had clearly survived well into the 18th century, but it also remained highly visible in the 20th as well:
James Branch Cabell (1919): “For the comedy of Gallantry took its cue from the Court of Charles the Second, where morality was strictly conformable to the standards of spinsters whose inexplicable children were viewed with a peculiar tenderness by the king. And these Carolan arbiters—the Duchess of Cleveland, the Duchess of Portsmouth, the Duchess of Richmond, and other ladies of the bedchamber, were not duchesses of Lewis Carroll's creation, intent on finding a moral in everything. . . One of these dainty iniquities had, indeed, bestowed considerable and even profoundly personal favors on Wycherley, in return for verses in praise of her ancient calling: and the dramatist, remembering it was the Duchess of Cleveland who had lifted him to fame and participation in royal privileges, felt perhaps that common gratitude demanded of him a little rough treatment of virtues any general practise of which would involve the destitution of his benefactress. Whatever his motives, Wycherley manifested scant respect for the integrity of the Seventh Commandment, or in fact for any sort of integrity. This, of course, was very reprehensible. Yet the plays of this William Wycherley make rather more than interesting reading, for there is in his wit a genuine vigor that withstands the lapse of time and the distraction of explanatory notes. One may yet smile over the clever things said in his comedies, without being profoundly in sympathy with the speakers. For Wycherley's priapeans are, when you view them closely, in nothing an improvement upon actual human beings. They have forsaken blank verse for something very like the real speech of unusually quick-witted persons in social intercourse: and their behavior springs from no more exalted motives than people ordinarily bring into a drawing-room. In depicting character, and in his dialogue, Wycherley was the first of English writers to attempt anything like sustained "realism": and it is a quaint reflection that JANE AUSTEN IS HIS LITERARY GRANDDAUGHTER.”
At this point, I was REALLY intrigued about Wycherley as a covert allusive source for Jane Austen’s own covertly ribald wit. I, like Cabell, sensed an affinity, and I also knew well of Jane Austen’s special interest in the peccadillos of the rich and famous, like the real life ladies of honour whom Wycherley had lampooned in his plays. So I dug still further, and struck gold, it turns out, when I came across the following 1989 critical commentary on The Country Wife in The London Theatre Record:
“Notorious scenes in the play include "the china scene", a sustained double entendre dialogue mostly heard from off stage, where Horner is purportedly discussing his china collection with two of his lady friends. The husband of Lady Fidget and the grandmother of Mrs. Squeamish are listening front stage and nodding in approval, failing to pick up the double meaning which is obvious to the audience. Lady Fidget has already explained to her husband that Horner "knows china very well, and has himself very good, but will not let me see it lest I should beg some. But I will find it out, and have what I came for yet" (IV.iii.110). Dialogue such as this made "china" a dirty word in common conversation, Wycherley later claimed.”
And now, here’s “the china scene” from The Country Wife, with my added capitalizations to bring out the bawdy meanings—it’s easy to see why this scene became emblematic of the sexual double entendre:
Horner. Stay here a little, I'll ferret her out to you presently, I warrant.
[Exit Horner at the other door. Sir Jasper talks through the door to his wife, she answers from within.]
Sir Jasper. Wife, my Lady Fidget, wife, HE IS COMING IN TO YOU THE BACK WAY.
Lady Fidget. LET HIM COME, AND WELCOME, WHICH WAY HE WILL.
Sir Jasper. He'll catch you, and use you roughly, and be too strong for you.
Lady Fidget. Don't you trouble yourself, LET HIM IF HE CAN.
Quack. [Behind.] This indeed I could not have believed from him, nor any but my own eyes.
[Enter Mrs. Squeamish.]
Squeamish. Where's this woman-hater, this toad, this ugly, greasy, dirty sloven?
Sir Jasper. So, the women all will have him ugly; methinks he is a comely person; but his wants make his form contemptible to them; and 'tis e'en as my wife said yesterday, talking of him, that a proper handsome eunuch was as ridiculous a thing, as a gigantic coward.
Squeamish. Sir Jasper, your servant: where is the odious beast?
Sir Jasp, HE’S WITHIN IN HIS CHAMBER, WITH MY WIFE; she's playing the wag with him.
Squeamish. Is she so? and he's a clownish beast, he'll give her no quarter, he'll play the wag with her again, let me tell you. Come, let's go help her—What, the doors locked?
Sir Jasper. Ay, my wife locked it—
Squeamish. Did she so? let us break it open then.
Sir Jasper. No, no, he'll do her no hurt.
Squeamish. No.But is there no other way to get in to them; whither goes this? I will disturb them. [Aside.]
[Exit Squeamish at another door. Enter Old Lady Squeamish.]
[Enter Lady Fidget with a piece of CHINA in her hand, and Horner following]
Lady Fidget. And I have been toiling and moiling, for the prettiest piece of CHINA, my dear.
Horner. NAY, SHE HAS BEEN TOO HARD FOR ME, DO WHAT I COULD.
Squeamish. Oh, lord, I'll have some CHINA too, good Mr. Horner; don't think to give other people CHINA, and me none? come in with me too.
Horner. UPON MY HONOUR, I HAVE NONE LEFT NOW.
Squeamish. Nay, stay, I HAVE KNOWN YOU DENY YOUR CHINA BEFORE NOW; but you shan't put me off so come-
Horner. THIS LADY HAD THE TEST THERE.
Lady Fidget. YES INDEED, MADAM TO MY CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE HE HAS NO MORE LEFT.
Squeamish. OH, BUT IT MAY BE HE MAY HAVE SOME YOU COULD NOT FIND.
Lady Fidg. WHAT D’YE THINK IF HE HAD HAD ANY LEFT, I WOULD NOT HAVE HAD IT TOO? FOR WE WOMEN OF QUALITY NEVER THINK WE HAVE CHINA ENOUGH.
Horner. Do not take it ill; I CANNOT MAKE CHINA FOR YOU ALL; but 1 WILL HAVE A ROLL-WAGGON FOR YOU, TOO, ANOTHER TIME.
Squeamish. Thank you, dear toad [To Horner aside]
Lady Fidget. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT PROMISE?
Horner. ALAS, SHE HAS AN INNOCENT, LITERAL UNDERSTANDING. [Apart to Lady Fidget.]
And…(it gets better and better)…a little more digging still on my part revealed that Wycherley could not resist revisiting his by then notorious “china” joke in his next play, which happened to be The Plain Dealer—but what’s amazing from an Austenian perspective is that his self-referential reprise happens to be within a page or two of the very same passage I quoted above as having been Jane Austen’s source for calling John Murray a “civil rogue”—which means that Jane Austen would have certainly have read the following explicit decoding and debriefing of “the china scene” in the following scene!:
Lord Plausible. Mrs. Hoyden! a poor, affable, good-natured soul. But the divine Mrs. Trifle comes thither too. Sure her beauty, virtue, and conduct, you can say nothing to.
Novel. No!--Pray let me speak, madam.
Olivia. First, can any one be called beautiful that squints?
Lord Plausible. Her eyes languish a little, I own.
Novel. Languish! ha! ha!
Olivia. Languish--Then, for her conduct, SHE WAS SEEN AT THE COUNTRY WIFE after the first day. There's for you, my lord.
Lord Plausible. But, madam, she was not seen to use her fan all the play long, turn aside her head, or by a conscious blush discover more guilt than modesty.
Olivia. Very fine! Then you think a woman modest that sees the hideous COUNTRY WIFE without blushing or publishing her detestation of it? D'ye hear him, cousin?
Eliza. Yes, and am, I must confess, something of his opinion; and think, that as an over-conscious fool at a play, by endeavouring to show the author's want of wit, exposes his own to more censure, so may a lady call her own modesty in question, by publicly cavilling with the poet's. For all those grimaces of honour and artificial modesty disparage a woman's real virtue, as much as the use of white and red does the natural complexion: and you must use very, very little, if you would have it thought your own.
Olivia. Then you would have a woman of honour with passive looks, ears, and tongue, undergo all the hideous obscenity she hears at nasty plays.
Eliza. Truly, I think a woman betrays her want of modesty, by showing it publicly in a playhouse, as much as a man does his want of courage by a quarrel there; for the truly modest and stout say least, and are least exceptions, especially in public.
Olivia. O hideous, cousin! this cannot be your opinion. But you are one of those who have the confidence to pardon THE FILTHY PLAY.
Eliza. Why, what is there of ill in't, say you?
Olivia. O fy! fy! fy! would you put me to the blush anew? call all the blood into my face again? But to satisfy you then; first, THE CLANDESTINE OBSCENITY IN THE VERY NAME OF HORNER.
Eliza. Truly, 'TIS SO HIDDEN, I CANNOT FIND IT OUT, I confess.
Olivia. O horrid! Does it not give you the rank conception or image of a goat, or town-bull, or a satyr? nay, what is yet a filthier image than all the rest, that of an eunuch?
Eliza. What then? I can think of a goat, a bull, or a satyr, without any hurt.
Olivia. Ay: but cousin, one cannot stop there.
Eliza. I can, cousin.
Olivia. O no; for when you have those FILTHY creatures in your head once, the next thing you think, is what they do; as their defiling of honest men's beds and couches, rapes upon sleeping and waking country virgins under hedges, and on haycocks. Nay, farther--
Eliza. Nay, no farther, cousin. We have enough of your comment on the play, which will make me more ashamed than the play itself.
Olivia. O, believe me, 'tis a FILTHY PLAY! and you may take my word for a filthy play as soon as another's. But the filthiest thing in that play, or any other play, is--
Eliza. Pray keep it to yourself, if it be so.
Olivia. No, faith, you shall know it; I'm resolved to make you out of love with the play. I say, the lewdest, filthiest thing is his CHINA; nay, I will never forgive the beastly author his CHINA. He has quite taken away the reputation of poor CHINA itself, and sullied the most innocent and pretty furniture of a lady's chamber; insomuch that I was fain to break all my defiled vessels. You see I have none left; nor you, I hope.
Eliza. You'll pardon me, I cannot think the worse of my CHINA for that of the playhouse.
Olivia. Why, you will not keep any now, sure! 'Tis now as unfit an ornament for a lady's chamber as the pictures that come from Italy and other hot countries; as appears by their nudities, which I always cover, or scratch out, whereso'er I find 'em. But CHINA! out upon't, filthy CHINA! nasty debauched CHINA!
Eliza. All this will not put me out of conceit with CHINA, nor the play, which is acted to-day, or another of the same beastly author's, as you call him, which I'll go see.
Oliv. You will not, sure! nay, you sha' not venture your reputation by going, and mine by leaving me alone with two men here: nay, you'll disoblige me for ever, if-- [Pulls her back.]
Eliza. I stay!--your servant. [Exit.] END QUOTE
JANE AUSTEN’S SEXUAL INNUENDO RIFFING OFF WYCHERLEY’S CHINA SCENE:
Without further ado, I will now present you with passages from JA’s Letter 57 and 63, respectively, written within a scant three months of each other in late 1808, which, I assert, clearly are winking very broadly and very lewdly at Wycherley’s “china scene”:
Letter 57: “I am afraid the Webbes have lost a great deal-more perhaps from ignorance or plunder than the Fire; — they had a large stock of valuable CHINA, & in order to save it, it was taken from the House, & thrown down anywhere. “
Letter 63: “I shall not tell you anything more of Wm. Digweed's CHINA, as your silence on the subject makes you unworthy of it."
I have previously opined on a number of occasions that Letter 57 is the Rosetta Stone of Jane Austen’s surviving letters, filled with fictitious happenings (storms blowing down chimneys and wood houses, a la The Three Pigs) and false names (like Mr. Floor). So it is in that same fantastical spirit that the Webbes (a family name JA used in both her Juvenilia and her novels) would have a “large” stock of “china” that was “thrown down anywhere”—a very droll image, when “china” is read in a Wycherleyian sense.
But the capper is the veiled Wycherley allusion in Letter 63. Unless you are, like Lady Squeamish in The Country Wife, inclined to an “innocent, literal understanding”, I think you’ll agree that “Wm. Digweed’s china” is not referring to his kitchenware, but to a rather significant part of his body!
And, as if further proof were needed, recall in this regard the following famous discussion of the Digweed brothers in RAAL’s 1913 bio, JA’s Life & Letters:
" So hasty, indeed, did Mr. Austen's decision appear to the Perrots that they suspected the reason to be a growing attachment between Jane and one of the three Digweed brothers. There is not the slightest evidence of this very improbable supposition in Jane's letters, though she does occasionally suggest that James Digweed must be in love with Cassandra, especially when he gallantly supposed that the two elms had fallen from grief at her absence."
So, JA already has a well-established habit of teasing Cassandra about a romantic connection with a Digweed brother. Then, what better way of even more teasing than for JA to take special delight in teasing Cassandra about a prudish silence about this embarrassing subject, than by winking (for the second time in three months) at Wycherley’s notorious “china scene”.
Anyone so innocent and literal as to reject this conclusion is perhaps not to be trusted to read Jane Austen.
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P.S.: If anyone can find out whether there were any performances of The Country Wife and/or The Plain Dealer that Jane and/or Cassandra might have actually attended in London, I’d be very grateful!