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Sunday, March 8, 2015

“Not down in the Weald I am sure, Sir…”: Jane Austen’s virtuosic Wealdly punning in the beginning of Sanditon



In the first chapter of Jane Austen’s last fictional output, the fragment of Sanditon composed during the first half of the final twelve months of her all too short life, we read the following exchange between Mr. Heywood and Mr. Parker, as the former corrects the latter’s geographical mistake:

"I beleive I can explain it Sir. — our mistake is in the place. — There are two Willingdens in this Country — & your advertisements refer to the other — which is Great Willingden, or Willingden Abbots, & lies 7 miles off, on the other side of Battel — quite down in the Weald. And we Sir — (speaking rather proudly) are not in the Weald."
"Not down in the Weald I am sure Sir, replied the Travellor, pleasantly. It took us half an hour to climb your Hill….”

Only today did my eye catch Jane Austen’s witty humor, which apparently was not diminished by her increasingly poor health. Did my Subject Line help you see it, too?

Wikipedia defines “the Weald” as follows:   “an area in Southeast England situated between the parallel chalk escarpments of the North and the South Downs. It crosses the counties of Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Surrey. It should be regarded as three separate parts: the sandstone "High Weald" in the centre; the clay "Low Weald" periphery; and the Greensand Ridge, which stretches around the north and west of the Weald and includes its highest points. The Weald once was covered with a vast forest through this area. The name, Old English in origin, signifies woodland. The term is still used today, as scattered farms and villages sometimes refer to the Weald in their names.

It is clear to me that Jane Austen, with her exquisitely sharp sense of wordplay, could not resist the pun on “Weald” and “world”, both of them being geographical entities, the former being a tiny portion of the latter, but still large enough to be a microcosm of a “world” to the people living there. But that wordplay was only the beginning. JA also picked up on the punny potential of the word “down”—which has three meanings in the context of the opening scene of Sanditon:

First, the “Down” in the “North Down” and the “South Down” of the Weald is a word of Celtic origin,  which has the opposite meaning an English speaker would  expect---i.e, a “Down” is actually a hill, when we might have expected it to be a valley!

Second, as Mr. Parker’s witty reply indicates, his accident occurs at the very top of a Down –a seeming oxymoron that emphasizes the joke.

And third, “down in the world” is a common expression for a person being down on their luck financially and/or socially.

So now, with all of that in mind, I suggest you go back and reread the above passage from Sanditon a few more times, and savor the subtle triple entendre. It is amazing that the repartee between Mr. Heywood and Mr. Parker works so well when understood geographically, topographically, and/or socioeconomically. What a virtuosic bit of classic Austenian irony, accomplished with amazing economy of words!

And….as I have also long believed that Mr. Parker’s “accident” is not really an accident---any more than Marianne Dashwood’s twisted ankle in Sense & Sensibility, and Louisa Musgrove’s broken head in Persuasion---the double meaning of Mr. Parker not being down in the world makes me wonder whether his motive in pretending to twist his ankle was somehow part of a scheme to bring Charlotte Heywood to Sanditon (the same way that Catherine Morland is taken to Bath), based on some strange misconception about her being an heiress?

Food for thought! And how sad that we only have a rough draft of the first 1/6 of the seventh novel Jane Austen envisioned, too little to do more than make wild guesses about where it was going —and yet, 1/6 of a Jane Austen novel, with passages like the “Wealdly” one I quoted, above, is more interesting to me than a full novel by almost anyone else!

But that’s not quite all I’ve got for you today from the “Weald” of Jane Austen:

Next, here is a paragraph written by a writer who utterly lacked that same spark and sense of punny humor that Jane Austen had in superabundance, and I included it in this post, because it refers to both Jane Austen and “the Weald”. Here, then, is a reminiscence of Jane Austen by Egerton Brydges:

I remember Jane Austen the novelist, a little child: she was very intimate with Mrs. Lefroy [of course, Egerton Brydges’s sister and friend to Jane Austen till her death in a horseback riding accident in 1806], and much encouraged by her. Her mother was a Miss Leigh, whose paternal grandmother was a sister of the first Duke of Chandos. Mr. Austen was of a Kentish family, of which several branches have been settled in the Weald, and some still remaining there.”

If it were Jane Austen herself writing about branches of a family settled in the Weald, you can be sure she’d have mined the humorous possibilities.

And here’s another offering, and it’s a real doozy—it’s a passage from Jane Austen’s Letter 72 written to sister Cassandra, who was then helping out at Godmersham, the great Kentish estate of brother Edward, on 4/30/11:

I congratulate Edward on the Weald of Kent Canal Bill being put off till another Session, as I have just had the pleasure of reading. There is always something to be hoped from delay.
Between Session and Session
The first Prepossession
May rouse up the Nation,
And the villanous Bill
May be forced to lie still
Against wicked men's will.
-There is poetry for Edward and his daughter.“

A detailed account of the history of the Weald of Kent Canal Bill is provided here:

In a nutshell, the proposed canal was touted by its originators and supporters as a potential economic boon to trade in Southern England, but it was never ultimately built, even after the Bill was passed and went into effect in 1812, because sufficient funding was never able to be raised, in no small part because of the very public opposition of certain persons, most notably (for Janeites) including Edward Austen Knight.

But I quoted the poem here because Jane Austen’s apparent metaphor of a legislative Bill as a woman being “forced to lie still” by an aroused Nation, which will then foil “wicked men’s will” by causing the Bill to be “put off till another Session”, is pretty disturbing, even if the metaphor is a little wobbly in its poetic execution.

It’s even more disturbing when we consider Jane Austen’s conclusory comment: “There is poetry for Edward and his daughter”. Just think about Edward, widowed only 2 ½ years earlier by the death in childbirth of his wife, Elizabeth, after bearing him 11 children in 15 years. It seems to me that Jane Austen by this poem, was recalling that Elizabeth Austen Knight had been “forced to lie still” by Edward one too many times, when she might have survived Edward’s “wicked will” had someone---her family or friends---roused themselves in her defense and “put” her insistent husband “off till another Session”?  

Recall in that specific regard the infamous passage from the 12-year old Fanny Knight’s diary entry for August 5, 1805, or three years before her mother’s death:  “I slept half with Mama & half with Sackree [the family nurse], for Papa came home late in the evening & I was obliged to be pulled out of bed. “

So, it does seem to me that Jane Austen is hinting at the prospective building of a major canal in the Weald as being equivalent to Edward Austen Knight, as husband, having insisted on his conjugal right to launch eleven voyages of “cargo” down his wife’s birth canal!

And if you think I’m overreaching for that point, take another look at the last four lines of Jane Austen’s poem. Without changing any letters, I’ve moved the letters of the first word in each of those lines, so as to bring into obvious view the familial name that daughter Fanny Knight would have used in addressing her mother:

M    ay rouse up the Nation,
A     nd the villanous Bill
M   ay be forced to lie still
A    gainst wicked men's will.

Fanny indeed lost her dear “Mama” as a result of her wicked father’s wilful actions!

And finally, given that Letter 72 is the only place in JA’s writings other than Sanditon where she referred to “the Weald”, is it just a coincidence that Elizabeth died bearing her eleventh child, which is one less than the even dozen children that we learn in that same first chapter of Sanditon were borne by JA’s fictional Mrs. Heywood?

I hope you’ll agree that none of this is a coincidence at all, and that Jane Austen was at the top of her game every time she picked up her pen. And unlike Mr. Woodhouse, she did not “live out of the World”.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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