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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

“It was no more than an ejaculation” & “It is but an uncle”: Jane Austen’s Homages to Sterne’s Sexual Innuendoes



For those who still doubt my claim in my preceding post that Sterne intended a sexual connotation for the word “ejaculation” when he wrote, in Tristram Shandy, for what the world thinks of that ejaculation—I would not give a groat.”---let me now present you with further compelling corroborative evidence that orgasmic ejaculation was front and center in Sterne’s mind whenever he used the word “ejaculation”—and at the end of  this post, I will relate same to Jane Austen’s bawdy reference to Mrs. Stent’s ejaculation.

In The Cambridge Companion to English Novelists, in the chapter “Laurence Sterne” by Melvyn New, at 67-8, Prof. New presents the “ejaculation” quote from Tristram Shandy, then compares it to a usage of “ejaculation: in Sterne’s equally famous Sentimental Journey as follows:
“…Yorick finds himself in a ‘case of delicacy’. Forced to share a room at the inn with an attractive fellow traveler, he finds himself protesting that he has not, in his restlessness, broken their oath of silence with his ‘O my God!’ It was, he insists, ‘no more than an EJACULATION’…Sterne’s punning use of ‘ejaculation’ in these two passages can help us understand why reading him as a satiric rather than novelistic writer best exhibits his genius to us. We might begin with the obvious: Sterne intertwines the religious (‘ejaculation’ as short prayer) with the bawdy (‘ejaculation’ as male sexual discharge)…the putative narrator of TS…tells us early on that his writing is characterized by ‘rash jerks, and hare-brained squirts’: ‘spurting thy ink about thy table and thy books’ (TS, III. Xxviii, 254); compare Toby’s wonderful question, a few chapters earlier: ‘are children brought into the world with a squirt?’ (III, xv, 219). Put another way, life begins with an ejaculation, continues by means of human exchange, some of it thoughtful, most of it by way of ejaculations that result, in far too many instances, with both sides ejaculating missiles at one another, and concludes, if one dies as one should live (at least in the eyes of the Christian world Sterne inhabited), with an ejaculation to God for…salvation…”

The explicit references earlier in A Sentimental Journey to Yorick squirting and jerking make it crystal clear, even to the most skeptical reader from Missouri (the “show-me state”), that Sterne is cleverly referring at that instant to Yorick’s double ejaculation (i.e., simultaneously verbally and sexually, as they usually do go together that way).

This becomes even more obvious when you look at the context of the scene in which Yorick says  “ejaculation”, which is as famous a bawdy scene as the ones in Fielding’s Tom Jones. Here is the scene (it is in fact the final scene in the novel)---Yorick and the French lady (and her fille de chamber) with whom he finds himself sharing intimate sleeping quarters at an inn, have consumed a great deal of wine, and have drunkenly negotiated a  “treaty” minutely setting forth the delicate terms governing how they will share the room overnight. This is high-grade sexual farce, as Yorick and the lady are both clearly intoxicated not only by all the wine, but their extremely close proximity—whetted perhaps by the additional presence of the nubile young maid-- in their respective, side-by-side beds:

“…Now, when we were got to bed, whether it was the novelty of the situation, or what it was, I know not, but so it was, I could not shut my eyes; I tried this side and that, and turn'd and turn’d again, till a full hour after midnight, when Nature and Patience both wearing out, O my God! said I.
You have broke the treaty, Monsieur, said the lady, who had no more sleep than myself. I begg'd a thousand pardons; but insisted it was no more than an EJACULATION. She maintain‘d it was an entire infraction of the treaty; I maintained it was provided for in the clause of the third article.
The lady would by no means give up the point, though she weaken’d her barrier by it; for, in the warmth of the dispute, 1 could hear two or three corking-pins fall out of the curtain to the ground.
Upon my word and honor, Madame, said I, stretching my arm out of bed by way of asseveration, (I was going to have added, that I would not have trespass’d against the remotest idea of decorum for the world)
But the fille de chambre hearing there were words between us, and fearing that hostilities would ensue in course, had crept silently out of her closet; and it being totally dark, had stolen so close to our beds, that she had got herself into the narrow passage which separated them, and had advanced so far up as to be in a line betwixt her mistress and me;
So that when I stretch‘d out my hand, I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s—

Of course, that last dash is not a typo, it is one of the most famous dashes in all of English literature, as Sterne left it entirely to the reader’s imagination as to what part of the maid Yorick caught hold of in the dark. And so the novel ends.

But now I shall relate the above directly to Jane Austen. As is well known to all Austen scholars, JA was well aware of Sterne’s writing----most famously, we have JA’s epistolary reference to “an Uncle Toby annuity” as well as Maria Bertram’s reference to Sterne’s caged starling in A Sentimental Journey as Maria yearns for Henry.

And, speaking of illicit sex as I was just reading Yorick’s insistence that “it was no more than an ejaculation”, I heard the unmistakable echo of that passage in the following equally ridiculous and distressing comment by Edmund Bertram about Sir Thomas ogling Fanny’s body upon his return from Antigua:

"Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—IT IS BUT AN UNCLE. If you cannot bear an uncle's admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman."

So, to suggest that a professional writer like JA, whose command of the English language was second to none before or since, was somehow oblivious to Sterne’s obvious and brilliant sexual innuendoes, and that she might have echoed them without realizing what they meant, is simply preposterous.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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