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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mr. Woodhouse’s “Coachman” James is the Professor of Poop at Highbury University!



My last post yesterday…
…was about the coded double meaning of Mr. Woodhouse’s superficially silly offer of his coachman’s advice to Frank Churchill about the best place for Frank to cross the street on the way to Miss Bates’s home. That post was inspired by the excellent scholarly ruminations of Mark Sundaran -- @alliterative on Twitter----on one from among the many tortuous etymologies of the word “coachman”—the early 19th century Oxfordian slang coinage of “coachman” as a university professor.

I awoke today with a massive BeenThereDoneThat Moment. I realized that Jane Austen’s sly wink at that scholarly Oxford “coachman” actually adds another crucial and LOL funny layer of meaning to two of the series of a half dozen posts I wrote back in late 2013 without any awareness of that slang meaning…
…about the numerous veiled references in at least 3 of JA’s novels to the large quantities of odorous and unsanitary POOP (both horse- and human-generated) needing to be dodged by the likes of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Knightley, and Anne Elliot, while walking on the streets and roads in the less affluent parts of Meryton, Highbury, and Bath!

In the latter of my two above-linked 2013 posts about poop in Highbury, I wrote the following, as to which it will be immediately obvious as to how the slang meaning of “coachman” fits so hilariously. I.e., knowing the slang meaning of “coachman” as “professor” clues us that Mr. Woodhouse is offering to Frank the expert “scholarly” route-planning advice of his coachman James, who would of course be a parodically learned  “professor” (very much like the gravediggers at the end of Hamlet with their faux-scholarly ruminations on the smelly remains of Alexander the Great)—indeed, a leading authority--- on how to avoid the worst concentrations of feces on the streets of the poorer section of Highbury on or leading to where Miss Bates lives!!!

Please then read the following analysis I wrote in 2013, with the “coachman” firmly in mind, and tell me if you don’t also LOL as you do:

“And the joke doesn’t end there with Mr. Woodhouse’s warning. We then have the additional humor of Frank and Mr. Weston having to exert themselves to put an end to Mr. Woodhouse’s attempts to teach Frank how not to walk in poop!  So when it says that Frank “still declined [the advice], looking as serious as he could”, it’s not just the G-rated humor of Frank being a grownup who doesn’t need advice on how to walk around Highbury, it’s the PG-13 or even R-rated humor of Frank being a normal person who can navigate around the excrement in his path! Of course it would have been ten times harder for Frank to keep a straight face in the face of that sort of advice!
So, now put the above passage from Ch. 23 alongside the earlier quoted passage from Ch. 1 (re Knightley’s shoes walking to Hartfield) and we see that Mr. Woodhouse really was concerned about Mr. Knightley’s getting specks of very bad stuff on his boots after all.  These two passages are bookends to each other. And we also see that Mr. Woodhouse is just as obsessive in his veiledly-expressed concerns about getting poop on one’s feet, as he is in his explicit warnings about dietary concerns—he’d have made a fantastic chief of a Municipal Hygiene Department, don’t you think? He’d be watching everything that went into everyone’s mouths, and everything that got on their feet, that might lead them down the path to disease and ill health!
And the most significant part, where Jane Austen’s genius takes all of this humor to yet another level, is that beneath the humor there is deadly seriousness. There were genuine health benefits from such proactive attention to such things as stepping in poop, because in an era when infectious disease was not understood, and there was no penicillin around to deal with it when it arose, it was (dare we use this word about Mr. Woodhouse?) common sense to make sure you at least didn’t track poop into everyone’s houses! So perhaps Mr. Woodhouse really had his poop together (so to speak) after all?” END QUOTE

So it seems to often go with my research on Jane Austen—in the first stage, I spot a wormhole—some coded wordplay which I know in my gut was intentional on her part, but as to which I am only able to grasp part of the hidden meaning. But then, often the very next day, my subconscious has had time to process the new data in relation to what I had discerned before—and recall, I’ve been doing this research for over a decade now---and then a flash of recognition, when I realize that this new data actually is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle I assembled (sometimes years) earlier, but as to which one piece remained to be found and filled in.  But actual jigsaw puzzles are much easier, because you can see the shape of the piece remaining to be found and inserted.  Whereas in Jane Austen’s six amazing literary jigsaw puzzles, there is no blank space alerting the solver as to the shape, or even the existence, of a missing piece. Much more difficult, but then, much more satisfying to solve!

Such experiences never cease to leave me in even greater awe of Jane Austen’s infinitely subtle genius, and feeling joy that I have the luck, privilege, and luxury of being the one who has first presented so many of them to the world of Janeites.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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