In Janeites, Nancy Mayer wrote: "The dictionary I read said that while [the word “pregnant”] was used for pregnancy by 1800 in medical books, it wasn't widely used at that time and was rather socially taboo until the 20th century. Edmund Wilson is credited with creating the phrase “pregnant pause”. Usually the silence after some one makes a gaffe."
Nancy, I am afraid that Edmund Wilson arrived at that party about a century too late to be the originator of that phrase!
In Honesty: A Drama by Henry Spicer published in 1842, we read:
I am no judge of feature —(Approaches closer.)
Still as death!
What beating hearts anticipate the birth
Of fate, that PREGNANT PAUSE may furnish! — Ah!
[A sudden and loud murmur heard within — then enter two Advocates.
That’s the earliest explicit usage of the idiom which is now in such common usage, but I am so glad you wrote the above, prompting me to check for the earliest usage, because as a result, Google Books just led me to something so mind-boggling so surreal, that I am still shaking my head in amazement.
It’s something which bears (ha ha) directly on the expression “pregnant pause” as it relates to the post office discussion in Chapter 34 of Emma where we find the usage of “pause” which I punningly characterized as “pregnant”, without my intending to claim that JA meant to use the common expression there. But now, after what I am about to tell you, I really am not so sure Jane Austen wasn’t herself the catalyst to the creation of that phrase by Henry Spicer 26 years later. Anyway, that is only a sidebar to the significant discovery I have now just serendipitously made.
Mary Anne Clarke, the notorious courtesan turned mistress of the Duke of York and the center of a massive public firestorm in 1809 over the corrupt sale of military promotions, has previously been recognized (at least as early as August 2012 by a blogger calling herself “The Honest Courtesan”, aka Maggie McNeil, at http://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/author/maggiemcneill/) as a model for JA’s scintillating, scandalous Mary Crawford.
That catch by McNeill (and you really oughta read her post in full, its filled with interesting details about Clarke’s life) fits with uncanny closeness with my earlier claim, arrived at by me in 2009….
…solely from the context in the story line of Mansfield Park, that Mary’s “rears and vices” bon mot is really blowing the whistle on Admiral Crawford and Henry extracting a sexual quid pro quo from William Price, as the price for his naval promotion).
Well, what I found today while searching in Google Books for the earliest usage of the term “pregnant pause” in print, shows that Jane Austen continued to be fascinated by the 1809 scandal with Mary Anne Clarke and her lover the Duke of York, even while JA was writing Emma. But instead of Jane Austen being focused on the naval promotion side of the scandal, she was focused on the public furor over the evidence for whether the Duke knew what his mistress was doing.
With that brief intro, then, read the following excerpt from the 1812 publication (i.e., the year before Jane Austen supposedly began writing Emma) of a very long speech to the House of Commons by the Councillor of the Exchequer which was delivered on March 8, 1809, on the subject of “The Conduct of the Duke of York” [i.e., right when the corruption scandal was exploding into the British tabloid press].
The question being discussed at great length by the Councillor was whether the Duke of York did, or did not, personally write a certain note which was at the heart of the scandal—i.e., if it were determined that he actually wrote it, then it would be highly probative that he was involved in his mistress’s racket, and not merely an innocent dupe:
"As to the proof of the HAND-WRITING, it does not rest, certainly, on Mrs. C.'s evidence alone. Those most conversant in h.r.h.’s character of HAND-WRITING all think it very like his hand: one only (General Brownrigg) says he does not believe it to be his. But still I think WE HAVE STRONG AND PREGNANT EVIDENCE TO INDUCE US TO PAUSE, before we do conclude that it is his HAND-WRITING. The house is too well aware that there is such a thing as forgery, as successful forgery; but, in order that the forgery should succeed, it is necessary that the person whose object is deception and fraud, should be able closely to imitate the HAND-WRITING, by which the fraud is to be effected, and the parties to be imposed upon; unless the forgery is well executed, it can impose on no one. Is the house not aware that Mrs. C. has had the infamous audacity to boast at its bar of the dexterity with which she can imitate the HAND-WRITING of others? how she has admitted that she could imitate the Duke's. Does it recollect to what a dangerous extent this abandoned woman is gifted with the faculty of adopting her HAND-WRITING to the style and manner in which others write? Does it advert to the very important circumstance that she had the letters of the D. of Y. constantly before her; and that if it was her intention to write a short note which should have every appearance of his HAND-WRITING, how easy it was for a person of her ability to execute her design? That among the notes of h.r.h. which she has given in at the table, there appears one or two in which the very words in this note about Tonyn are introduced; that she had only to look at the words, which would answer her purpose—that she had only to select and copy those particular notes which would furnish her with a pattern to imitate? Can the house contemplate all these facilities which Mrs. Clarke possessed in so eminent a degree, and not entertain even more than a doubt, as to the fact of this being the note of the D. of Y.? It does stand undoubtedly in evidence as a piece of paper, on which there is handwriting to a small extent similar to the HAND-WRITING of the D. of Y. The contradictions in the evidence, as to the fact, OUGHT TO MAKE ONE PAUSE. I am ready to admit, that upon the testimony of the witnesses, who have been called from the Bank and POST-OFFICE, to state their opinion of the authenticity of this note, the balance of the evidence is in favour of its being the HAND-WRITING of the D. of Y.; but is it not possible that the witnesses may have been deceived by the closeness of the imitation? There is a doubt in the minds of all the persons who were acquainted with the HAND-WRITING of h.r.h. Gen. Brownrigg does not think it is his HAND-WRITING; and the result, I think, fairly is, that the question is so far involved in doubt and obscurity, as fully to justify this house in hesitating, before it comes to any conclusion upon its authenticity; as however, I cannot disguise from myself, that it does appear that the impression of the house upon the direct evidence seems to be in favour of the authenticity of the note, it is necessary to examine the collateral evidence which we have upon the subject of it.”
So….is there a doubt in anyone’s mind, after reading the above transcript, that JA was very deliberately alluding to it in the discussion of handwriting in Chapter 34 of Emma? I hope not! To me it’s obvious that she was having wickedly good fun hiding the scandal in (deniable but) plain sight.
First I ask you--is it just a coincidence that the above quoted passage includes the following excerpts?:
“But still I think WE HAVE STRONG AND PREGNANT EVIDENCE TO INDUCE US TO PAUSE, before we do conclude that it is his HAND-WRITING.” &
“The contradictions in the evidence, as to the fact, OUGHT TO MAKE ONE PAUSE.”
Recall that in Chapter 34, right after the group discussion of handwriting, we read:
"I never saw ANY GENTLEMAN’S HANDWRITING"—Emma began, looking also at Mrs. Weston; but stopped, on perceiving that Mrs. Weston was attending to some one else—and THE PAUSE gave her time to reflect, "Now, how am I going to introduce him?....”
And…now I also know why Emma interrupts Mrs. Weston when Mrs. Weston starts to say that Frank “chose to say he was employed" in regard to writing the note to Emma. I concluded last night that Mrs. Weston was about to imply, discreetly, that Frank wrote the note WITHOUT Mrs. Weston’s authorization to do so on her behalf! But now we can see that the question of male vs. female handwriting on notes which may or may not have been forged, was at the center of the issue of the Duke’s guilt or innocence.
Above all, I claim that is why there is all that discussion in Chapter 34 about the difference between male and female handwriting---it’s all JA’s hugely wicked satire on the 1809 Duke of York-Clarke scandal!
And there’s more that corroborates my inference in that regard. That 1809 scandal, you will recall, was front page news in England only a few years before JA was beginning to write Emma, and was also only a few years before the time that the Prince Regent’s abominable treatment of Princess Caroline also became front-page news.
In that regard, we all know that JA, in her 1812 letter to Martha Lloyd, famously stated, without pulling any punches (with Martha, JA could be direct), that JA hated the Prince for how abominably he had treated his wife for so long—and of course it is by now well known that the “Prince of Whales” was the primary butt of the second charade in Chapter 9 of Emma.
Clearly, when we put the two together, it’s clear—JA had cast her allusive net widely, to catch all sorts of notorious Royal scandals….
So, for all of the above reasons, it makes perfect sense that Jane Austen would hide this allusion to the Clarke scandal in plain sight in Chapter 34 of Emma, and would also (as a bonus) pick up on that phraseology about “pregnant” evidence which gives “pause”, and to, in effect, imply the idea of a “pregnant pause” which covertly points to the great scandal of Emma waiting to explode, i.e., Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy.
So I am very grateful to Nancy for inadvertently creating a pregnant pause in this thread of discussion, which allowed me to deliver an answer pregnant with multiple implications for a deeper understanding of Jane Austen’s satires of the Royal Family.
And I conclude by bringing forward another Royal Family factoid which I dug up from my files as I was writing this post—we’ve seen the Prince Regent and his younger brother the Duke of York get skewered in Emma—let’s not forget the mentally deranged, Mr.Woodhouse-like King George the Third. Here is Mary Anne Clarke, speaking to us from beyond the grave in an anecdote provided by John Wardroper in his 2002 book Wicked Earnest about the deeply disturbed Duke of Cumberland:
P. 46: “Mary Anne Clarke says in her memoir that sometimes the king’s greatest amusement ‘was to listen to all the tender and delicate stories that those two dukes (Ernest and the Duke of York) could collect or had the filthiness and obscenity enough to invent for him.”
Yet further evidence that Mr. Woodhouse recalls Garrick’s filthy riddle for a very specific reason—to be part of this satire on scandalous doings in high (or High-bury) places.
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