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Thursday, July 10, 2014

You Tread on my Whole: the Sixteen Year old Jane Austen’s Unassailably Sexual Sharade



Me before in Janeites: 'I've written many times before about the graphic sexual meaning of the Sharade Jane Austen wrote about James I and his favourite "carpet" in her  History of England…”

Rita Lamb in Janeites: “Arnie, did you mean to write: 'I've written many times before about' (WHAT I ARGUE TO BE) 'the graphic sexual meaning of the Sharade Jane Austen wrote about James I and his favourite "carpet" in her History of England...' - because a questionable interpretation unshared by many others should not be asserted as if it were unassailable fact.”

Rita, again, I think you’re putting me on--as John McEnroe famously said, you can’t be serious!

Nonetheless, just for fun, I gathered together all the scholarly reactions to the carpet Sharade I could find on the Internet, and every single one of the eight I found, from Elfrida Vipont (1977), David Nokes (1998), Christopher Nugent Lawrence Brooke (2000), Clara Tuite (2002), Claire Tomalin (2007), Mary Spongberg (2011), and Laura Mooneyham White (2013), to Paula Byrne (2013), asserts, albeit with varying degrees of emphasis and explicitness, that this is an innuendo on male-male sex between James I and his ‘pets’. Not a single one even tries to argue that it’s not sexual (and the most thorough and best analysis of the lot is Tuite's).

So, Rita, I invite you to show me the ‘many others’ who (so you say) dispute the sexual reading that  is so obvious  to the rest of the world.

And, again, I claim the sexual interpretation would unassailable even if all we had to go on was JA’s Sharade itself, and there was nothing known to the world about James I’s sexual preferences and partners. But what makes it doubly unassailable—like two infinities in mathematics—is that the main reason why Carr and Buckingham are remembered today by historians has nothing to do with JA’s Sharade, and everything to do with the overwhelming and uncontroverted historical documentation, from a variety of contemporary sources, that James’s relationship with these two young men was (as Tuite put it) an “open secret” among the British elite living under James’s….rule.

I will add now that I am also convinced, upon further study, that Jane Austen was, by her particular references to the words “tread” and “carpet”, demonstrating--again unassailably--her love of, and influence by, (i) the ribald sexual innuendoes of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and (ii) the elegant pornographic euphemisms of Cleland’s Fanny Hill, among other allusive sources. 

Just as I demonstrated a few years ago that the 25-year old JA’s letter to Martha Lloyd in 1800, with its memorable sentence referring both to French grammar and to Mrs. Stent’s ejaculations about cocks and hens, is also an unassailable homage to Tristram Shandy.

So we see that JA at 25 had not given up the very vulgar sexual innuendoes of 16, but had learnt to disguise them just enough to be deniable, in a way that the allusion to James I’s sexual proclivities was not deniable. And I’d like to bring forward two later examples to show the further refinement of JA’s art of sexual innuendo by the time she became a published novelist.

The sexual “You tread on my whole” clearly gave rise to an offshoot (a reading I’ve been making since 2005) in the form of the first charade that we read in Chapter 9 of Emma, which, we now know, JA took from a popular riddle book and adapted:

“Mr. Elton was the only one whose assistance she asked. He was invited to contribute any really good enigmas, charades, or conundrums that he might recollect; and she had the pleasure of seeing him most intently at work with his recollections; and at the same time, as she could perceive, most earnestly careful that nothing ungallant, nothing that did not breathe a compliment to the sex should pass his lips. They owed to him their two or three politest puzzles; and the joy and exultation with which at last he recalled, and rather sentimentally recited, that well-known charade,
    My first doth affliction denote,
      Which my second is destin'd to feel
    And my whole is the best antidote
      That affliction to soften and heal.—

I believe  that JA tweaked the charade she found in the riddle book such that “my first” can be read to refer to an erection,  “my second” to the male sexual organ, and then “my whole”  refers to the female sexual organ which indeed softens and heals that very “affliction”.

And finally, the example that comes to mind that best exemplifies JA’s highest subtlety of sexual innuendo comes  in P&P, when Lizzy’s piano playing is discussed by her, Lady Catherine, and Darcy, such that Lizzy is utterly unaware that Darcy is inferring a sexual innuendo that Lizzy does not intend!:


Here’s the “punch line” of that earlier post of mine:

“At this point, Darcy is no longer puzzled at Lizzy’s seeming deep ambivalence about him. He flashes on the notion that Lizzy is intentionally engaging in very audacious sexual repartee, and is strongly implying to him that she is not going to explicitly tell him how much she desires him sexually, so she is taking the next best step, and intentionally hinting at it repeatedly.

And that’s what he means by “we neither perform to strangers”---i.e., he smiles  because he gives her exactly what he believes she wants to hear, a coded acknowledgment that he  “gets” her coded sexual messages!  Their mutual coded exchange of sexual messages is for their mutual ears only, and is not intended to be understood by anyone else present, most of all the nosy matchmaking wannabe “stranger “ Lady Catherine, seated a dozen feet away.

And, final inspired touch, “No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting” is a coded version of  “I, Darcy, by virtue of having finally taken all your hints, have now been admitted to the privilege of really hearing what your coded  innuendoes are saying to me, and now I know that I no longer  think anything wanting in terms of the sexual partner I want—you! 

What a long way JA had come in twenty years, from the obvious, even heavy-handed (so to speak) sexual innuendo of The History of England to the infinitely subtle and crucially thematic sexual innuendo of Pride & Prejudice, and then revisiting her childhood love of risqué charades with extraordinary complexity and elegance in Emma.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

marks said...

Not to mention that "tread" has a direct sexual meaning (if a little obscure), and "hole" as a homophone of "whole" puts some icing on the cake for this dull elf at least.