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Monday, March 3, 2014

Mrs. Goddard’s Boarding-School for (Ready) Wit & Scandal: Harriet Smith, star Prodigy/Progeny!



 Today, I bring forward evidence from an unlikely source, to supplement my earlier rebuttals of the claim that those (like myself) who find sexual innuendoes in Jane Austen’s allusion to Garrick's Riddle in Chapter 9 of Emma, and in hundreds of other passages in JA’s writings, are guilty of anachronism, attributing sexual connotations that (supposedly) are only to be found in 20th century writing.  By the time you reach the end of this post, you’ll see the fulfilment of my cryptic Subject Line, seeing that Jane Austen drew upon both high and low contemporary sources to weave complex threads combining wit, riddling, sexual innuendo, and characterization in the most prodigiously brilliant way imaginable!

In a 2007 Persuasions Online article…


… by a mainstream Austen scholar, Susan Allen Ford, the excerpt quoted by me, below, specifically discusses the sexual innuendoes that were commonly found in riddle books published during JA's lifetime. Susan has for a number of years been the editor of the two JASNA journals, and is also a very sharp elf whom I have known (via JASNA) for 8 years. As far as I am aware, Susan does not subscribe to my “shadow story” theories, but her various articles about JA over the years have shown me that she and I are alike in one important way, i.e., we both read JA’s writing with special alertness to JA’s wordplay and other textual hints of various kinds, as to which many other Austen scholars are not so focused.  Now, for the excerpt:

"Some, like Old Puzzle-Cap; or, a New Riddle-book, are meant for children. And some, like Pour Deviner . . . Selected from the best authors by a Lady, for the Exercise of Genius (1814) and Ralph Wewitzer’s The School for Wits, or the Cream of the Jests (1814), emphasize their innocent, educative purpose, as does the latter on its title page:  “A Jest-book should be such as may be admitted into every boarding-school, as an instructive recreation; and which parents may place in the hands of their
sons and daughters, without danger of corrupting their morals, or contaminating the purity of their tender minds.”  This emphasis on the dangers of corruption or contamination suggests that these books quite frequently contained riddles and jests that Mrs. Norris might describe as “‘a little too warm’”...The British Jester (1800) proclaims in its Advertisement that “[e]very care has been taken to exclude any thing bordering on indelicacy, so that it may claim a preference to most collections of the kind to the countenance of the Fair Sex.” Its frontispiece depicts a family scene: a child teasing a cat before a garden bench, upon which are seated a woman and a man who reclines with a book in one hand and her breast in the other.  The Trial of Wit (1782) contains the kind of riddle that concerned parents might have been thinking of:
Pleasantly growing in a bed,
Of complexion white and red,
The fairest lady in the land,
Desires to have me in her hand,
And put me in her hole before,
And wish she had two handfuls more.
Such riddles “seduce” the wit into enjoying the indelicate answer before providing the innocent solution—in this case, “A Strawberry” (2).
Mr. Woodhouse’s offering for Harriet’s collection, “Kitty, a fair but frozen maid,” a 1771 riddle by David Garrick, also flirts with sexual mischief (in this case syphilis and sodomy) before ending in an “innocent”
answer. Variants of Garrick’s riddle (minus the stanza about turning to Fanny) appear in A New Collection of Enigmas, Charades, Transpositions, &c. (1806) and Pour Deviner (1814), one of those collections advertised as “perfectly chaste” and suitable for young readers…Emma’s response to her father—that she and Harriet have “‘written [it] out on our second page.  We copied it from the Elegant
Extracts’” (79)—is, given Knox’s moral seriousness and careful scholarship, unlikely.  David Selwyn assumes that Jane Austen “was confused,” having given her copy of Elegant Extracts to her niece thirteen
years earlier (199).  Jill Heydt-Stevenson, however, argues that this misdirection is Austen’s joke, that the riddle, “on a vulnerable border between the acceptable and the illicit, . . . collapses the gulf between the sexual underworld of Austen’s time and Highbury’s respectable world”. Emma’s citation of Elegant Extracts, then, highlights the distance between the sexual play in which she, however unwittingly, is engaged and the “merry games” of Abbey Mill Farm, perhaps in its invocation of disease even suggesting Hartfield’s distance from the bucolic health of the Martin home.”   
 END QUOTE

I quoted at length from Ford’s article, because I wanted to direct your attention to the following specific details in Ford’s excellent summation, which suggest to me, that she wished to bring our attention to certain of Jane Austen’s own sexual innuendoes, by selecting carefully chosen items of contemporary riddle-book verbiage to quote, but was perhaps too discreet to explicitly flag those innuendoes as such. Whatever Ford’s intentions, here is my unpacking of those sexual innuendoes:

ONE: Ford’s observation about the double entendre in one published riddle (“Such riddles “seduce” the wit into enjoying the indelicate answer before providing the innocent solution—in this case, “A Strawberry”.”) alerted me to the likelihood that JA had that particular double entendre in mind when she wrote the Donwell Abbey strawberry picking episode, as to which more than one Austen commentator (including myself) has suggested a sexual subtext, especially in Mrs. Elton’s barely concealed lust for “Knightley”!


TWO: The riddle-book intro quoted by Ford (“A Jest-book should be such as may be admitted into every BOARDING-SCHOOL, as an instructive recreation; and which parents may place in the hands of their sons and daughters, WITHOUT DANGER OF corrupting their morals, or contaminating the purity of their tender minds.”) was clearly on JA’s mind when JA wrote what is clearly an ironic and hilariously clever parody of same:

“Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a SCHOOL—not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity—but a real, honest, old-fashioned BOARDING-SCHOOL, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, WITHOUT ANY DANGER OF coming back PRODIGIES.”

That would be enough by itself, but that’s only one thread from JA’s allusive tapestry. I am also certain that, in addition to the above, JA also brilliantly alluded to the actual title of that book containing that Mr. Collins-esque “defence of the jest-book”----THE SCHOOL FOR WITS, or THE CREAM of the Jests----in two different, but complementary, ways:

First, JA alludes to that title directly, in two of Emma’s short speeches to Harriet about the charade in Chapter 9: 

 “That is ship;—plain as it can be.—Now for THE CREAM.” and not long after that,

 “Thy ready WIT the word will soon supply.” --Humph—Harriet's ready WIT!”

And second, and indirectly, JA alludes to that jest-book title via a veiled allusion to Mrs. Malaprop’s famous speech in Act 1, Scene 2 of Sheridan’s classic comedy, THE SCHOOL FOR Scandal, which is filled with witty malapropisms, but of special relevance to the above-quoted “boarding-school” passages in Ch. 3 of Emma and in THE SCHOOL FOR WITS, including the specific malapropism substituting  “progeny” for “prodigy”!:

“Observe me, Sir Anthony. I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a PROGENY of learning; I don’t think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance, I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or algebra, or simony, or fluxions, or paradoxes, or such inflammatory branches of learning—neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, diabolical instruments.—But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a BOARDING-SCHOOL, in order to learn a little ingenuity and artifice. Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts….”

Actually, I first detected this veiled allusion in Chapter 3 of Emma to Sheridan’s comic masterpiece 8 years ago in Feb. 2006, but not till today did I connect that allusion to the allusions in Chapter 9 of Emma, that Ford’s article brought to my attention.

Now I see that they are all of a piece, in aggregate constituting what was not merely a superbly clever comic allusion to Sheridan, but was actually JA’s recognizing “a dangerous opening” to be achieved by  combining Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop with the self-justifying editor of The School for Wits, and JA thereby achieved a level of witty “ creaminess” which far surpassed even her illustrious source Sheridan.


THREE: As a bonus beyond all of the above, consider the following observation by Ford regarding Garrick’s Riddle and its role in Emma:
 “Jill Heydt-Stevenson, however, argues that this misdirection is Austen’s joke, that the riddle, “on a vulnerable border between the acceptable and the illicit, . . . collapses the gulf between the sexual underworld of Austen’s time and Highbury’s respectable world”.
What I realized (and only because of Ford’s expert editing) for the first time is that JHS had pulled off a quiet rhetorical coup in essentially suggesting that Garrick’s Riddle functions in Emma the way that Capability Brown’s landscape gardening specialty functioned in the wilderness at Sotherton:

"You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram," she cried; "you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown; you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha. You had better not go."

Now, nine years after reading Heydt-Stevenson’s groundbreaking article, I finally understand the hidden reason why she chose  a phrase from Mansfield Park, “Slipping into the ha-ha” for the title of that article, even though her most explosive and controversial revelation in that article was about Garrick’s Riddle from JA’s next novel, Emma. I.e., Heydt-Stevenson was thereby showing that Garrick’s Riddle was a verbal form of “ha-ha” in all its punny senses, i.e., a joke that makes us laugh, but also a kind of optical allusion translated into words, which “collapses the gulf between the sexual underworld of Austen’s time and Highbury’s respectable world.” 

So bravo to both Heydt-Stevenson and Ford, as I was only able to put all these pieces together, along with my own “catch” of the veiled progeny/prodigies allusion in Emma, on the shoulders of their prior scholarship.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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