The other day, I read the following very interesting Austenian discussion at an academic blog:
Jane Austen and imply and infer (by Ingrid Tieken):
K.C. Phillipps, in his book Jane Austen’s English (1970), identified a usage problem in Jane Austen’s language: “The one usage to which the purist might object is INFER in the sense of ‘imply’, though the OED has several instances of this:
“…an alacrity and cheerfulness which seemed to INFER that she could taste no greater delight. (S&S).” Analysing Jane Austen’s language for my forthcoming book on the language of her letters, I learnt that her usage should never be underestimated, so I wonder if she did this deliberately. Any views on this?”
As those who read my posts regularly already know, I could not agree more with Tieken (a distinguished Dutch scholar of “sociohistorical linguistics”) in her final assertion that JA’s “usage should never been underestimated”-and, indeed, as I will show below, Tieken’s acute intuition as to JA’s “erroneous” usage of “infer” was spot-on that JA “did this deliberately”! Turns out, upon close examination, JA really did want her readers to (1) notice the error, (2) wonder why it might have been planted in Chapter 23, and then (3) realize that this “error” actually was a giant, subliminal, and diabolically clever clue pointing to the word puzzle at the heart of S&S!
Before reading further, can you guess what it is?
Hint: It’s something a word puzzle I have written about many times.
Scroll down for my answer whenever you wish….
In a nutshell, my explanation for the textual crux detected by Tieken in Ch. 23 of S&S is that Jane Austen deliberately used the erroneous “inFER” in that passage instead of the correct “imply”, so as to draw the attention of a very sharp reader (like Phillipps in 1970) to that passage, which was all about Lucy Steele, and to plant a subliminal clue, via the syllable “FER” to Lucy’s future married name, Lucy FERrars, which, as I have been asserting since 2005, is a word puzzle for “LUCIFER”!:
Think I’m reaching too far this time? Well, read on and see how this example fits perfectly into the matrix of subliminal allusion to “Lucifer” which I last summarized in the above-linked August 2013 blog post of mine.
First, here is the full context in Ch. 23, chez Middleton, which shows that it really is all about Lucy:
“They all rose up in preparation for a round game.
“I am glad," said Lady Middleton to Lucy, "you are not going to finish poor little Annamaria's basket this evening; for I am sure it must hurt your eyes to work filigree by candlelight. And we will make the dear little love some amends for her disappointment to-morrow, and then I hope she will not much mind it."
This hint was enough, Lucy recollected herself instantly and replied, "Indeed you are very much mistaken, Lady Middleton; I am only waiting to know whether you can make your party without me, or I should have been at my filigree already. I would not disappoint the little angel for all the world: and if you want me at the card-table now, I am resolved to finish the basket after supper."
"You are very good, I hope it won't hurt your eyes—will you ring the bell for some working candles? My poor little girl would be sadly disappointed, I know, if the basket was not finished tomorrow, for though I told her it certainly would not, I am sure she depends upon having it done."
Lucy directly drew her work table near her and reseated herself with an alacrity and cheerfulness which seemed to INFER that she could taste no greater delight than in making a filigree basket for a spoilt child.” END QUOTE
I did some quick word searching in JA’s novels, and determined that Jane Austen used “imply” correctly on over a dozen occasions, and, similarly, that she used “infer” correctly on over a dozen occasions, including a few examples of each in S&S itself. The single solitary exception was the erroneous usage identified by Phillipps in 1970.
This overwhelming pattern of correct grammatical usage makes it very improbable that Jane Austen made a grammatical error. So the only possibility other than intentional error would be an error of proofreading, in which the printer erred in transcribing JA’s manuscript, and then she failed to detect the error.
Here’s why I am convinced it was intentional and thematic.
Check out the following textual snippets from the very end of Chapter 22, and then in Chapter 23 prior to the above passage with the error:
“Marianne, who had never much toleration for any thing like impertinence, vulgarity, INFERIORITY of parts, or even difference of taste from herself, was at this time particularly ill-disposed, from the state of her spirits, to be pleased with the Miss Steeles, or to encourage their advances…
…Could he ever be tolerably happy with Lucy Steele; could he, were his affection for herself out of the question, with his integrity, his delicacy, and well-informed mind, be satisfied with a wife like her—illiterate, artful, and selfish?
The youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him to every thing but her beauty and good nature; but the four succeeding years—years, which if rationally spent, give such improvement to the understanding, must have opened his eyes to her defects of education, while the same period of time, spent on her side in INFERIOR society and more frivolous pursuits, had perhaps robbed her of that simplicity which might once have given an interesting character to her beauty.
If in the supposition of his seeking to marry herself, his difficulties from his mother had seemed great, how much greater were they now likely to be, when the object of his engagement was undoubtedly INFERIOR in connections, and probably INFERIOR in fortune to herself. These difficulties, indeed, with a heart so alienated from Lucy, might not press very hard upon his patience; but melancholy was the state of the person by whom the expectation of family opposition and unkindness, could be felt as a relief!
… Lucy directly drew her work table near her and reseated herself with an alacrity and cheerfulness which seemed to infer that she could taste no greater delight than in making a filigree basket for a spoilt child. Lucy directly drew her work table near her and reseated herself with an alacrity and cheerfulness which seemed to INFER that she could taste no greater delight than in making a filigree basket for a spoilt child.
… And so well was she able to answer her own expectations, that when she joined them at dinner only two hours after she had first sufFERed the extinction of all her dearest hopes, no one would have supposed from the appearance of the sisters, that Elinor was mourning in secret over obstacles which must divide her for ever from the object of her love, and that Marianne was internally dwelling on the perfections of a man, of whose whole heart she felt thoroughly possessed, and whom she expected to see in every carriage which drove near their house….Much as she had sufFERed from her first conversation with Lucy on the subject, she soon felt an earnest wish of renewing it; and this for more reasons than one.
My ALL CAPS references in the above passages make clear, I hope, that Jane Austen has gone out of her way to use the phoneme “fer” numerous times in a short textual interval leading up to the erroneous use of “infer”—four references to Lucy’s being “inferior” and two references to Elinor’s “suffering” at Lucy’s hands. The subliminal message, I suggest, is that Lucy is going to be a “Ferrars” sometime soon. And what better place in the entire novel for JA to present this clue to Lucy’s future married name than right after Lucy has chosen, with Luciferian cunning, to inform Elinor about Lucy’s secret engagement to Elinor’s beloved Edward FERrars!
And, best of all, this error fits perfectly with JA’s having Lucy speak in extremely ungrammatical English! It is Lucy’s apparent poor command of English, born of a lack of education, which makes Elinor feel so intellectually superior to Lucy, and so mystified by Edward’s attraction to Lucy. Guess where the definitive narrative discussion of this point is located—in the very same passage I quoted above, which discusses Lucy’s “inferiority”!!
And so I suggest further to you that just as Harriet Smith plays dumb with Emma, and speaks ungrammatically as a key technique for triggering a snobbish elitist response from Emma, so too does Lucy Steele play dumb, and use poor grammar as a Luciferian misdirection and disguise. And, one more layer---the misdirecting wordgames played by Jane Austen are mirroring Lucy’s misdirections in courtship strategy, wheels within wheels within wheels!
In short, then, I hope I’ve convinced you of the wisdom of drawing the inference that Jane Austen intentionally misused “infer” to subliminally reveal her own “Luciferian” nature and strategic manipulation of the arc of the novel!
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