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

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mr. Woodhouse’s Gruel—an Unusual Punishment

As I was just working on the NY Times crossword puzzle yesterday morning, one clue was for an 8-letter word meaning "arduous"--as soon as I got the first letter "g", I realized the answer was "GRUELING".

Which, for reasons which would not surprise any serious Janeite, got me wondering for the first time about the etymology of that word, in light of the meaning of the word "GRUEL" as thin cooked cereal in which receives such comic emphasis in the following famous passages in Emma:

Such another small basin of thin GRUEL as his own was all that he could, with thorough self-approbation, recommend...
"...You must go to bed early, my dear—and I recommend a little GRUEL to you before you go.—You and I will have a nice basin of GRUEL together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little GRUEL."
Emma could not suppose any such thing, knowing as she did, that both the Mr. Knightleys were as unpersuadable on that article as herself;—and two basins only were ordered. After a little more discourse in praise of GRUEL, with some wondering at its not being taken every evening by every body...
...The GRUEL came and supplied a great deal to be said—much praise and many comments—undoubting decision of its wholesomeness for every constitution, and pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerably;—but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth GRUEL, thin, but not too thin. Often as she had wished for and ordered it, she had never been able to get any thing tolerable. Here was a dangerous opening. "Ah!" said Mr. Woodhouse, shaking his head and fixing his eyes on her with tender concern.—The ejaculation in Emma's ear expressed, "Ah! there is no end of the sad consequences of your going to South End. It does not bear talking of." And for a little while she hoped he would not talk of it, and that a silent rumination might suffice to restore him to the relish of his own smooth GRUEL.
Mr. John Knightley, ashamed of his ill-humour, was now all kindness and attention; and so particularly solicitous for the comfort of her father, as to seem—if not quite ready to join him in a basin of GRUEL—perfectly sensible of its being exceedingly wholesome…

So….did the negative connotation of “arduous” arise in some way from the word for nutritious cooked food? According to a number of sources on the Internet, it did, and here is the most detailed explanation I found:

“Gruel is a truly unpleasant food — weak and runny, consisting of oatmeal or cornmeal boiled in milk or water. It's the kind of "slop" prisoners and other inmates of institutions were historically forced to eat.
Gruel was made most famous by Dickens's Oliver Twist, the little orphan boy in the workhouse, who was so hungry he even asked for seconds of it: "Please sir, I want some more." Gruel's reputation, not great to begin with, never recovered. From this delightful substance comes the adjective grueling, describing an experience that's exhausting and punishing. "To get one's gruel" was 1700s slang meaning "to receive one's punishment." Even back then gruel had a bad rap.”

And, in an 1805 edition of Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary,  I found the following quotation under his definition of “gruel”:

Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the GRUEL thick and slab:

Of course, that “gruel thick and slab” is part of the recipe for some very unpleasant concoction, courtesy of the Third Witch in Macbeth!

So, what does this mean for our understanding of Mr. Woodhouse’s obsession with thin gruel? I think it’s part and parcel of the veiled allusion to Swift’s Modest Proposal that Diane pointed out a few months ago--- Jane Austen’s close readers would have recognized that beneath the veneer of Mr. Woodhouse’s solicitude for the health of his family members, he is offering them an arduous form of punishment, with more than a hint of the demonic via Macbeth's weird sister.

My friend Diane Reynolds then responded to the above in Janeites & Austen L as follows: 
“The word gruel also sounds like cruel, the kind of wordplay Austen, as we know, liked--and there is something cruel about serving your guests, especially those who might be depending on you for a meal, something like poorhouse gruel.”

And I replied as follows:

I did some further Googling, and saw that my friend Jenny Allan had posted the following back in 2010 in her blog:
“So last night I was making wheat flour by milling up wheat berries in a coffee grinder (like ya do) . I had about a quarter cup of wheat pieces that the grinder just couldn't tackle and they were too coarse to go in my pie crust. I was about to throw it out for the birds when I thought to myself, "Gruel!" So I put those wheat bits in about a cup of boiling water for twenty minutes and they developed into a small Emma-sized token portion of water gruel.
You're not going to believe this but I'm totally a gruel fan, now. It had a nice, nutty flavor that tasted just fine without sugar, as opposed to oatmeal which I can't choke down without lots of additional flavoring. I can see myself making gruel for breakfast or as a snack when I get home from work. Mr. Woodhouse would be pleased.”

And I also saw, to my surprise, that I had replied to her at the time, with tongue firmly in cheek:

“I must say, young lady, that this latest post might better have been entitled "Gruel and Unusual Punishment"

And today, I realized that could be better rendered as in my Subject Line, “Mr. Woodhouse’s Gruel- an Unusual Punishment”!

But on a more serious note, which actually connects to my little joke, it is interesting to note the following two among the four usages of the word “cruel” in Emma:

“How could she have been so brutal, so CRUEL to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!”

“In such a party, Harriet would be rather a dead weight than otherwise; but for the poor girl herself, it seemed a peculiarly CRUEL necessity that was to be placing her in such a state of unmerited PUNISHMENT.”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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