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Saturday, March 28, 2015

The improbable Parable of the Oxford Coachman & his Wayward Tutee hidden in plain sight in Jane Austen’s Emma



This post was inspired by my listening to a remarkable video this morning….
..written and spoken by Mark Sundaram [@alliterative on Twitter] with assistance from his wife Aven McAllister [(@AvenSarah on Twitter], in which Mark spins a delicate web of intellectual connection out of a dozen threads, all having to do with the origins of the various connotations of the English word “coach”.  Before you go further, I urge you to click on the above YouTube video and invest 10 minutes in a wonderful magic carpet ride of allusions traced (and explained in plain English without a trace of academic jargon!). Then come back here for the decoder ring for my cryptic Subject Line.

Here’s the part of Mark’s video that inspired this post:

“So how do we get from the development of transportation technology in the early modern period to the modern sense of coaching, like with those St Louis Rams I started with?  Well, the answer is, it’s a metaphor that developed in the early 19th century at Oxford University, bringing us back to academic institutions, the modern equivalent of Plato’s Academy.  Coach came to be used as a slang term for a tutor who metaphorically carries a student through an exam, in other words helping him get to where he wants to be.  The first recorded instance in the Oxford English Dictionary of the noun ‘coach’ being used with this sense is in a poem written in 1848 by Arthur Clough, who had been an Oxford University student, and who in addition to writing poetry and being involved with educational matters, worked for a time as an unpaid secretarial assistant to the famous nurse Florence Nightingale.  Clough’s narrative poem “The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich” features an Oxford University student as the main character.  As a side note, Clough’s sister Anne was a suffragette who promoted higher education for women, and became the principle of Newnham College at Cambridge University, the other major academic institution in England along with Oxford.  But anyway, the first recorded instance of the verb “to coach” in this sense is in the novel Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray, who is most famous for his novel Vanity Fair.  The main character in the novel Pendennis is a student at a fictional college at the fictional university called Oxbridge…”  END QUOTE

From my past experience of Jane Austen as a profound student and innovator of nuances in the English language, I wondered whether she, who had a father and two brothers who attended Oxford, among other family academic connections, might have covertly used the word “coach” in the metaphorical Oxfordian sense that Mark articulated, above, which, per the OED, was supposed not to have been used in literature until 1848, over 30 years after Jane’s premature death.

And sure enough, in 3 minutes of browsing, I found the following passage in Chapter 23 of Emma, which lit up like a Christmas tree with unexpected new and deeper meaning when I read it with Mark’s explanation in mind—or, more aptly, when I read it with Mark’s insights as a special pair of spectacles seemingly created especially to help me “see” the following dialog in a startling new light:

"You are acquainted with Miss Jane Fairfax, sir, are you?" said Mr. Woodhouse, always the last to make his way in conversation; "then give me leave to assure you that you will find her a very agreeable young lady. She is staying here on a visit to her grandmama and aunt, very worthy people; I have known them all my life. They will be extremely glad to see you, I am sure; and one of my servants shall go with you to shew you the way."
[Frank] "My dear sir, upon no account in the world; my father can direct me."
"But your father is not going so far; he is only going to the Crown, quite on the other side of the street, and there are a great many houses; you might be very much at a loss, and it is a very dirty walk, unless you keep on the footpath; but MY COACHMAN CAN TELL YOU where you had best cross the street."
Mr. Frank Churchill still declined it, looking as serious as he could, and his father gave his hearty support by calling out, "My good friend, this is quite unnecessary; FRANK KNOWS A PUDDLE OF WATER WHEN HE SEES IT, and as to Mrs. Bates's, he may get there from the Crown in a hop, step, and jump."
They were permitted to go alone; and with a cordial nod from one, and a graceful bow from the other, the two gentlemen took leave….”
Read with the grain, the above passage is just another sad but comic example of Mr. Woodhouse’s baseless neurotic fears about every tiny aspect of the world beyond the tiny cocoon of his hermetically sealed existence at Highbury. But read AGAINST the grain, I hear a sophisticated parody of a lecture by an Oxford philosophy professor (or “coachman”) setting forth wisdom about epistemological issues – how do we recognize a thing for what it truly is?

This passage of course occurs just after Frank arrives in Highbury after endless promises to come visit his father and new stepmother. What happens when we reread it through these special spectacles provided by Mark, and also apply the hindsight we gained on first reading of the novel, when we learned in Chapter 49 that Jane and Frank have had a secret relationship since before we ever saw or even heard of either of them in the novel?

I suggest that it is a broad hint to us from Jane Austen that Mr. Woodhouse knows more about that secret relationship than Emma (through whose eyes we see all the action) realizes---Mr. Woodhouse appears to be a kind of Oxford don lecturing to Frank, saying, in code, “Come now, young man, I know very well about your secret connection to Miss Jane Fairfax, and so stop pretending to me that you want to talk to me--get on your way to her….and get away from my daughter!!”

And…I also distinctly hear a veiled allusion by Mr. Weston to the following famous line spoken by Hamlet to his false friends Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in Mr. W’s “Frank knows a puddle of water when he sees it””:

“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

And I already had previously noticed Mary Crawford channeling Hamlet when SHE said:  "South or north, I know a black cloud when I see it”

Food for thought, isn’t it? Seems like many of the things Mr. Woodhouse says in the novel are not the  “thin gruel” that most Janeites take it for, but are actually rich, savory dishes filled with hidden delights and mysteries!

So once again, major thanks to Mark Sundaram and Aven McAllister for inspiring this post, and I look forward to watching all of their videos in the very near future, and urge you all reading this to do so as well. If you like what I write, the chances are extremely great that you will buy what Mark is selling, too, since we all specialize in spotting and explaining hidden literary and historical connections! 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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