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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Jane Austen DID write her own “courtship” charade (aka her Rosetta Stone) for Emma!

I noticed today that the esteemed senior Oxford literature Prof. Margaret Doody has just published a book with the interesting title Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places. At page 8, Doody writes:  “Mr. Elton’s elaborate charade on ‘Courtship’ is not his invention-nor Austen’s. It can be found in the second volume of A New Collection of Enigmas, Charades, Transpositions, etc. (1791). This set of verses is treated as if  Mr. Elton were the ingenious original author—but that is Austen’s joke, the smiling Mr. Elton simply plagiarized his text, adding a couple of pointed lines of compliment (aimed at Emma, but misread as directed to Harriet)….” END QUOTE

I was not surprised, and yet also disappointed, to read the above, and I will briefly explain why I had this mixed reaction.


I was NOT surprised because this is an old story of failed Austen literary scholarship. I had, early in 2005, when I first began my research into Jane Austen’s wordplay and puzzles, read the identical claim, first made by Doody way back in 1986 in her article ‘Jane Austen’s Reading’ in The Jane Austen Handbook.  Doody claimed that A New Collection of Enigmas, Charades, Transpositions, Etc.  (London, 1791) contained the originals of JA’s First Charade (Vol. I, p. 31), the Second Charade (Vol. II, p. 15) and Garrick’s Riddle (Vol. I, p. 42) all presented in Chapter 9 of Emma.

Dowdy’s claims of Jane Austen’s appropriations were picked up and repeated without question in 2002 in Jane Austen: A Companion by Josephine Ross, at P. 114:
“While kindly, semi-senile Mr. Woodhouse searches his memory for a verse beginning ‘Kitty a fair but frozen maid,’ first published in The Lady’s Magazine in 1762. . . the sly, self-seeking clergyman, Mr. Elton, without telling a direct lie, lets it be thought that his contribution—a charade on the word  ‘Courtship’—is his own invention. In fact, like his other offering (a play on the word ‘Woman’), this appears in a 2-volume anthology of 17[9]1… ” END QUOTE

In early 2005, I got my hands on the microfilm of the original New Collection, because I was dissatisfied with Dowdy’s claim. That just didn’t ring true with my intuition that Mr. Elton’s “courtship” charade was too elaborate to have been taken from a generic riddle book collection. It felt like it had been written by JA herself, especially given that I knew by then that Jane Austen and her family loved to write charades. So when I had the original New Collection riddle book before me, I was encouraged by my not being able to locate the second Emma charade where Doody and Ross claimed it was. Then I realized, to my great delight, that a big mistake had been made by Doody, and repeated by Ross! 

I.e., that same Collection, a later 1810 edition of which can be viewed in Google Books here....
…contained the following different “courtshipcharade at p. 184:

Great homage in my first is often shown,
And justice says you there will find her throne:
My second braves our enemies in war,
And bears Britannia's fame and glory far:
My whole is grateful to each nymph and swain,
Tho' often it produces heart-felt pain.

Of course the answer is “court-ship”, but it’s obviously NOT the same charade as appears in Chapter 9  of Emma! Nonetheless, I found Doody’s erroneous attribution to be quite useful, because it is clear from reading the 1791 version that JA must have read that earlier charade! There is so much resonance between it and what she eventually wrote herself in Emma, it is easy to see how Doody could mix them up. But what also became clear to me in 2006, was that JA was not content with that earlier charade, because she needed a charade that would fulfill two very specialized functions, which the 1791 charade did not:

It had to have multiple plausible answers, including but not limited to:

ONE: the “courtship” answer that Emma cluelessly assumes is the only correct answer;  AND

TWO: the satirical “Prince of Whales” answer discovered by Colleen Sheehan in early 2006 (while brainstorming with me about Jane Austen’s wordplay in Emma), as outlined in Colleen’s 2007 Persuasions Online article…
…that identified JA’s charade’s significant source as Charles Lamb’s satirical poem “The Triumph of the Whale”, and as to which I shortly thereafter added the additional connection to Cruikshank’s famous caricature of a beached-whale Prince Regent which I use as the masthead of this blog;  AND

THREE: the “Leviathan” answer discovered by Anielka Briggs in 2009; AND

FOUR: the “Crown of Thorns” answer discovered by myself right after, and prompted by, Anielka’s discovery.


…the charade ALSO had to function not only as a charade but as an acrostic. I.e., as Colleen’s article also brilliantly demonstrated, Jane Austen wrote her “courtship” charade so that it had not one but two anagram-acrostics on the name “Lamb”.

And that was the crucial clue that in turn eventually enabled me, later in 2007, to realize that the “acrostic” which Mrs.Elton refers to as having been given to her by an unnamed “abominable puppy” is actually one and the same as the “courtship” charade given to Emma and Harriet by Mr. Elton! And…that in turn led me to the even cooler realization that Frank Churchill was that “abominable puppy”, as I explain here:

So, in short, it turns out that understanding that Jane Austen wrote that “courtship” charade herself, with the above two crucial aspects which were lacking in her riddle book models, leads straight to the heart of understanding the shadow story of Emma, making that charade a kind of Rosetta Stone for solving the Jane Austen Code.I.e., this is not just a trivial pursuit regarding Austen arcana, this is a perfect illustration that Jane Austen’s puzzles were at the heart of her creative literary genius.


I was disappointed that Doody’s 2015 book  includes the identical error that she made in 1986, nearly 30 years before! That shows that Doody (and everyone else who had a hand in producing her book) were all utterly oblivious of the subsequent research and discoveries by Sheehan (in Persuasions Online, which is a peer-reviewed journal, and one of JASNA’s two definitive sister scholarly journals devoted exclusively to all things Jane Austen) and also by Anielka and myself (who wrote our interpretations in Austen-L and Janeites, being two of the three most widely subscribed and participated-in Jane Austen amateur discussion websites of the past decade, Republic of Pemberley being the third).

It is deeply disappointing that some of the most cutting edge scholarly work being done on Jane Austen in the world today continues to be ignored by many of the most senior and elite Austen scholars, by reputation, in the world—Deirdre Le Faye comes to mind immediately as a far more significant roadblock to enlightenment than Doody, who just appears to have made a careless mistake.

And finally, that ignoring has a secondary reifying effect—I Googled “Austen courtship charade”, and there was nothing on the first page of “hits” to alert a reader that Doody’s interpretation (which appears there on the first page as the fifth “hit”) was in doubt in any way. A reader would have had to click on the second page of “hits” and then scroll down nearly to the bottom to get to two of my blog posts where I discussed alternative answers to the Emma courtship charade, before getting any inkling that Doody’s claim might be incorrect.  And how many readers are likely to be that persistent? Not many!

This shows me that there is still a steep mountain to climb, in order to really begin to dismantle the Myth of Jane Austen, in particular the belief that Jane Austen would not have engaged in such deeply subversive activities as joining with Charles Lamb and George Cruikshank in their secret skewering of the debauched, degenerate, sexist Prince of Whales, the very man whom Jane Austen famously wrote she hated, in the famous 1812 letter to her trusted friend Martha Lloyd, a letter which miraculously escaped burning.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAusten on Twitter

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