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

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Oh, SHUT UP! Jane Austen didn’t mean THAT by her ”particulars of RIGHT HAND”……did she?

Near the end of my previous post (about Jane Austen’s “courtship” charade in Emma  as a complex veiled allusion to Charles Lamb’s “Triumph of the Whale”), my chain of textual inferences led me to assert that Jane Austen, in Emma, also specifically alluded to the stanza in Lamb’s poem about the Prince of Whales’s fawning courtiers, by broadly hinting at a coercive sexual relationship between the “King” of Highbury, Mr. Knightley, and his chief “courtier” or “pet”, the foppish “beau” Mr. Elton. I claimed that Jane Austen conveyed this via Mrs. Elton’s boasting about her caro sposo, which takes on shocking new meaning when read from a sexually suspicious perspective:   
"He promised TO COME to me as soon as he could DISENGAGE HIMSELF from Knightley; but he and Knightley are SHUT UP TOGETHER in DEEP CONSULTATION.—Mr. E. is Knightley's RIGHT HAND."
I count five sexual winks in that one sentence (which I’ve put in ALL CAPS), but my favorite is the part about Elton being Knightley’s “right hand”—it’s really the epitome of a sophisticated double entendre, because the sexual meaning is well hidden, and yet, once you become aware of it and you think about it, you realize that it’s very vulgar and even more clever, as you imagine the physicality of the scene. I.e., it’s a thinking person’s sexual pun! And I, for one, will never again be able to read about a “right hand man” to a man of power without thinking about Elton vis a vis Knightley.

I am sure everyone reading this, whether they buy this interpretation or not, can now understand the point of my Subject Line, which is the reaction I playfully predicted a fair percentage of readers would have. After all, the Jane Austen whom most Janeites know and love would never pack five winks at sexual intercourse between two men into a single short speech…..or would she?

I decided to investigate further, thinking that if I am correct, then this would not be the only passage in JA’s novels that fits this particular suggestive pattern. And so, after I wrote that post, I searched Jane Austen’s novels and immediately found the following telltale passage in Mansfield Park, Chapter 31, which I found strikingly and disturbingly resonant with my reading of Mr. Knightley as exploiting his position of great power as the grantor of livings to vicars in the parish, by extorting sexual favors from Mr. Elton in exchange for the appointment to such a valuable living.

The scene in MP occurs at the moment when Fanny is being coerced into sitting and listening to Henry Crawford court her, right after she has read a letter from Mary Crawford congratulating Fanny on Henry’s desire to marry her:

“[Fanny] was distressed whenever Mr. Crawford spoke to her, and he spoke to her much too often; and she was afraid there was a something in his voice and manner in addressing her very different from what they were when he talked to the others. Her comfort in that day’s dinner was quite destroyed: she could hardly eat anything; and when Sir Thomas good–humouredly observed that joy had taken away her appetite, she was ready to sink with shame, from the dread of Mr. Crawford’s interpretation; for though nothing could have tempted her to turn her eyes to the RIGHT HAND, where he sat, she felt that his were immediately directed towards her.
She was more silent than ever. She would hardly join even when William was the subject, for HIS COMMISSION CAME ALL FROM THE RIGHT HAND too, and THERE WAS PAIN IN THE CONNEXION.”

The parallel to Knightley and Elton may not be immediately apparent until you read the above passage through the lens of what I’ve previously claimed about the real message Mary Crawford is trying to communicate, in code, to Fanny, about Henry’s having shepherded William to a naval promotion, via Mary’s (in)famous pun about “rears and vices”. Here’s the relevant portion of my recent JASNA AGM presentation on this very point:

“Note what is going on immediately before Mary utters her infamous pun–Mary speaks specifically  about the possibility of William’s early naval promotion. Since Mansfield Park is a place where inconvenient truth (like Sir Thomas’s slave plantation in Antigua) is not spoken aloud, Mary the whistleblower is trying to warn Fanny--in code that Fanny, alas, does not understand---that Fanny’s beloved brother William will be forced to pay a VERY dear “price” for his promotion in the navy—Uncle Crawford and/or some other members of his Danteesque circle of admirals will wish to use William “very ill” indeed. “

What I hadn’t noticed before today, however, which greatly bolsters my claim about Mary’s coded warning, is that when Henry deliberately turns the conversation to William’s commission in Chapter 31 (25 chapters and 6 months after Mary’s “rears and vices” warning), Fanny seems to have gotten Mary’s coded message. This is why we get that same sexual double meaning of “right hand” in Fanny’s panicky thoughts. On the surface, Fanny is reminded that William’s commission came via the efforts of Henry Crawford, seated to her right, and that will only put her under more pressure to show him some gratitude by accepting his proposal; but under the surface, it’s all of that and even worse, because Henry has just reminded Fanny, in code, that William’s commission came from William’s having been coerced to be the sexual equivalent of Henry’s “right hand”. So it’s no surprise that we then read that Fanny thinks that  “there was pain in the connexion”—this can mean that Fanny feels emotional pain at being reminded of the debt owing to Henry for his intercession on William’s behalf, or it can also mean that William himself suffered physical pain from the physical “connexion” with Henry, which is a close analogue of Elton needing to “disengage himself from Knightley” after “deep consultation”, before he could “come to” his wife. Henry is the kind of degenerate sexual pervert, who would deliberately provoke Fanny to panic in this way, because it would turn him on. This is the darkest of black humor about painful coerced sex, as only Jane Austen could write it in her rapier sharp wit and authorial tact.

And Knightley having been “SHUT UP together in deep consultation” with Elton, reminded me of what I had noticed in 2011, a key phrase that was a gold mine of sexual innuendo throughout JA’s novels, a keyword I snuck into my Subject line---“shut up”! You may be shocked to see how well that sort of interpretation of “shut up” fits a variety of passages from all of JA’s novels. Here are the most obvious ones:

In NA, Chapter 23, we have Catherine’s Gothic imaginings of Mrs. Tilney being “shut up” as JA’s code for garden-variety marital heterosexual sex as a form of Gothic imprisonment of a wife, motivated by the husband’s jealousy or wanton cruelty, in no small part because of the risk that the outcome would be serial pregnancy leading to eventual death in childbirth:
“There must be some DEEPER CAUSE: something was to be done which could be done ONLY WHILE THE HOUSEHOLD SLEPT; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, SHUT UP FOR CAUSES UNKNOWN, and RECEIVING FROM the pitiless hands of HER HUSBAND A NIGHTLY SUPPLY of COARSE FOOD, was the conclusion which necessarily followed. Shocking as was the idea, it was at least better than a death unfairly hastened, as, in the natural course of things, she must ere long be released. The suddenness of her reputed illness, the absence of her daughter, and probably of her other children, at the time—all favoured the supposition of her imprisonment. Its origin—jealousy perhaps, or wanton cruelty—was yet to be unravelled.”

In S&S Chapter 38, Anne Steele sounds a lot like Fanny Hill getting sexually stimulated watching live sex through a peep hole, when Anne describes sister Lucy’s tete-a-tete with Edward:
"No, indeed, not us. La! Miss Dashwood, do you think people MAKE LOVE WHEN ANY BODY ELSE IS BY? OH, FOR SHAME!—To be sure you must know better than that. (Laughing affectedly.)—No, no; they [Edward and Lucy] were SHUT UP in the drawing-room together, and all I heard was only by listening at the door."

In P&P Chapter 52, Mrs. Gardiner writes to Eliza, and the reader already aware of Knightley and Elton in Emma and Henry and William in MP will wonder what Darcy and Mr. Gardiner have been doing for several hours, before “IT was all over”:
"On the very day of my coming home from Longbourn, your uncle had a most unexpected visitor. Mr. Darcy called, and was SHUT UP WITH HIM SEVERAL HOURS. It was ALL OVER before I arrived; so my curiosity was not so dreadfully racked as yours seems to have been. HE CAME to tell Mr. Gardiner that he had found out where your sister and Mr. Wickham were…

In MP Chapter 47, we may well wonder what was really going on behind closed doors such that Susan was left on her own so much after her arrival at Mansfield Park, such that Edmund was burying and exerting for Tom’s relief, and Fanny was returning to every former office with Lady Bertram with more than former zeal:
“[Susan] was now left a good deal to herself, to get acquainted with the house and grounds as she could, and spent her days very happily in so doing, while those who might otherwise have attended to her were SHUT UP, or wholly occupied each with the person quite dependent on them, at this time, for everything like comfort; Edmund trying to BURY HIS own feelings in EXERTIONS for the relief of his brother's, and Fanny devoted to her aunt Bertram, returning to EVERY FORMER OFFICE with more than former ZEAL, and thinking she could never do enough for one who seemed so much to want her...”

But Mrs. Elton is the undisputed Queen of the sexual “shut up” in JA’s fiction, as JA gives her three such passages (two in Chapter 32 & one in Chapter 42) in addition to the one in Chapter 52 (describing Elton with Knightley), in all of which Mrs. Elton has also used the phrase “shut up” in sexually suggestive ways. The first uses is a veiled critique of masturbation, the second uses the metaphor of ‘music” as sex to suggest a wives’ lesbian club: and the third almost goes overboard with the double entendre of coming on a donkey in the repartee between Knightley and Mrs. E:

“…Many a time has Selina said, when she has been going to Bristol, 'I really cannot get this girl to move from the house. I absolutely must go in by myself, though I hate being STUCK UP in the barouche-landau without a companion; but Augusta, I believe, with her own good will, would never stir beyond the park paling.' Many a time she has said so; and yet I am no advocate for entire seclusion. I think, on the contrary, when people SHUT THEMSELVES UP entirely from society, it is a very bad thing; and that it is much more advisable to mix in the world in a proper degree, without living in it either too much or too little.”

"No, indeed, I have no doubts at all on that head. I am delighted to find myself in such a circle. I hope we shall have MANY SWEET LITTLE CONCERTS TOGETHER. I think, Miss Woodhouse, you and I must establish A MUSICAL CLUB, and have regular weekly meetings at your house, or ours. Will not it be a good plan? If we exert ourselves, I think we shall not be long in want of allies. Something of that nature would be particularly desirable for me, as an inducement to keep me in practice; for married women, you know—there is a sad story against them, in general. They are but too apt to give up music."
"But you, who are so extremely fond of it—there can be no danger, surely?"
"I should hope not; but really when I look around among my acquaintance, I tremble. Selina has entirely given up music—never touches the instrument—though she played sweetly. And the same may be said of Mrs. Jeffereys—Clara Partridge, that was—and of the two Milmans, now Mrs. Bird and Mrs. James Cooper; and of more than I can enumerate. Upon my word it is enough to put one in a fright. I used to be quite angry with Selina; but really I begin now to comprehend that a married woman has many things to call her attention. I believe I was half an hour this morning SHUT UP WITH MY HOUSEKEEPER."
"But every thing of that kind," said Emma, "will soon be in so regular a train—"
"Well," said Mrs. Elton, laughing, "we shall see."
Emma, finding her so determined upon neglecting her music, had nothing more to say.”

"I wish we had a donkey. The thing would be for us all to COME ON DONKEYS, Jane, Miss Bates, and me—and my caro sposo walking by. I really must talk to him about purchasing a donkey. In a COUNTRY life I conceive it to be a sort of necessary; for, let a woman have ever so many resources, it is not possible for her to be always SHUT UP at home;—and very long walks, you know—IN SUMMER THERE IS DUST, AND IN WINTER THERE IS DIRT."
"You will not find either, between Donwell and Highbury. Donwell Lane is never dusty, and now it is perfectly dry. COME ON A DONKEY, however, if you prefer it. YOU CAN BORROW MRS. COLE's. I would wish every thing to be as much TO YOUR TASTE as possible."
"That I am sure you would. Indeed I do you justice, my good friend. Under that peculiar sort of dry, blunt manner, I know you have the warmest heart. As I tell Mr. E., you are a thorough humourist.—Yes, believe me, Knightley, I am fully sensible of your attention to me in THE WHOLE of this scheme. You have hit upon the very thing TO PLEASE ME."

In one of the cancelled chapters of Persuasion, we find a passage describing Mrs. Croft shut up with her Mantuamaker, which reminds us of both of Lady Bertram and her sexual “carpet-making” that I posted about last week, but also of Darcy being “shut up” with Mr. Gardiner (quoted above), with “IT” being over soon after quite a long private session alone:
“Oh! yes, quite alone Nobody by but her Mantuamaker with her, & they have been SHUT UP TOGETHER this half hour, so IT MUST BE OVER SOON."

I suggest that it is beyond the realm of reasonable possibility that all these passages should by random chance contain very similar verbiage that lends itself so readily to sexual interpretations.

And perhaps the most remarkable (and poignant) usages of “shut up” are from JA’s own real-life letters:

First this 12/9/1808 from JA in Southampton to CEA at Godmersham, not long before their big move to Chawton Cottage:

"I have but one thing more to tell you. Mrs. Hill called on my mother yesterday while we were gone to Chiswell, and in the course of the visit asked her whether she knew anything of a clergyman's family of the name of Alford, who had resided in our part of Hampshire. Mrs. Hill had been applied to as likely to give some information of them on account of their probable vicinity to Dr. Hill's living, by a lady, or for a lady, who had known Mrs. and the two Miss Alfords in Bath, whither they had removed, it seems, from Hampshire, and who now wishes to convey to the Miss Alfords SOME WORK OR TRIMMING which she has been doing for them; but the mother and daughters have left Bath, and the lady cannot learn where they are gone to. While my mother gave us the account, the probability of its being ourselves occurred to us, and it had previously struck herself . . . what makes it more likely, and even indispensably to be us, is that she mentioned Mr. Hammond as now having the living or curacy which the father had had. I cannot think who our kind lady can be, but I dare say WE SHALL NOT LIKE THE WORK.
Distribute the AFFECTIONATE LOVE of a heart not so tired as the RIGHT HAND belonging to it."

Given my recent interpretation of Lady Bertram’s sexual “carpet work”… makes me think that Jane Austen has written the above passage in deep code, to convey to Cassandra that the unnamed “kind lady” who was looking for Jane had been a “particular friend” of Jane’s in Bath several years earlier, but that JA no longer had any “affectionate love” for her “right hand” to “distribute” to that lady---perhaps because Jane was already looking forward to residing at Chawton Cottage with Martha Lloyd.

And finally, I see the same double entendre in play in the following famous writing advice in JA’s 1814 letter to her writing niece Anna:. “You give too many particulars of right hand & left.”
The two above quoted “right hand” passages in Emma and MP make me think that JA is suggesting to Anna, in code, that when it comes to sexual innuendoes, it is better to not give too many particulars, i.e., not to be too obvious, as JA had been in the “carpet” Sharade she wrote at age 16. We’ll never know if Anna took that advice in Which is the Heroine, because Anna burnt the manuscript which never was published.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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