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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Samuel Johnson’s inadvertently bawdy Dictionary: Jane Austen’s vehement innuendoes



On p. 153 of Samuel Johnson’s supremely influential 1768 Dictionary of the English Language, we read the following consecutive definitions:

Orgasm: a sudden vehemence
Orgies: frantic revels, rites of Bacchus

Subsequent lexicographers in the late 18th century, perhaps concerned that some might be prompted by the close proximity of the word “Orgies” to read Johnson’s definition of “Orgasm” as sexual, hastened to eliminate that implication by citing Derham’s 1723 Physico-Theology, in Book IV about sound, for the following proposition re the effect of music and melody received via the miracle of the human ear:
“By means of the curious lodgment and inoculation of the auditory nerves, the orgasms of the spirits should be allayed, and perturbations of the mind quieted.”

Those lexicographers had reason to be  nervous because, according to http://etymologynow.blogspot.com/2010/08/eymology-of-orgasm.html, “The term [orgasm] appears to have first been used in its modern meaning in French during the late 17th century as orgasme. Orgasm then entered the English language in the early 18th century to refer to female sexual climax. By the 20th century, orgasm was used to refer to both male and female sexual climaxes.”

Which brings me to an explanation of my curious Subject Line—what do I mean by “Jane Austen’s vehement innuendoes”? Because I have long since been aware that Jane Austen, like Shakespeare, never met a sexual pun she did not put to clever use, it occurred to me when I learned about Samuel Johnson’s definition of “orgasm”, that I ought to check to see whether Jane Austen ever exploited it for comic use.

I found a very small total of seven usages of the word “vehement/vehemence” in all of JA’s fiction combined, and out of them, two leapt off the page at me. I will present them to you in reverse chronological order, as the earlier of the two is the more spectacular—but not by that much, as you will see.


In Chapter 47 of P&P, Mrs. Bennet amplifies on her three earlier appeals for pity for her “poor nerves” as follows:   "… And, above all, keep Mr. Bennet from fighting. Tell him what a dreadful state I am in, that I am frighted out of my wits—and have such TREMBLINGS, such FLUTTERINGS, ALL OVER ME—SUCH SPASMS in my side and pains IN MY HEAD, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day….”

In this breathless account of her recent, chronic state of acute distress and its effect on her body, we find both an innocent meaning clearly in line with Derham’s neurological definition, but it is no great stretch of imagination to read these same symptoms incongruously, and to take them as Jane Austen’s satire on Mrs. Bennet, by framing her somatic complaints as if she were having all the symptoms of a veritable daisy chain of orgasms—Masters and Johnson could not have described one more descriptively!

Now, many of you will say, “There you go again, Arnie, with your dirty mind.” And my answer is to send you twelve chapters further into P&P, to Chapter 59, when we read the following, right after Eliza and Darcy finally resolve their mutual angst, and he proposes, and she accepts:

“During [Eliza’s and Darcy’s] walk, it was resolved that Mr. Bennet's consent should be asked in the course of the evening. Elizabeth reserved to herself the application for her mother's. She could not determine how her mother would take it; sometimes doubting whether all his wealth and grandeur would be enough to overcome her abhorrence of the man. But whether she were VIOLENTLY SET against the match, or VIOLENTLY DELIGHTED with it, it was certain that her manner would be equally ill adapted to do credit to her sense; and she could no more bear that Mr. Darcy should hear THE FIRST RAPTURES OF HER JOY, than THE FIRST VEHEMENCE of her disapprobation.”

“The first vehemence” does not particularly hint at a sexual orgasm, but note the verbiage in all caps, in particular “violently delighted” and “first raptures of her joy”. It’s clear to me that Jane Austen has hereby created another artful double entendre, by seeming to describe Eliza’s fears about her mother’s embarrassing nervous explosions of emotion, while at the same time planting a seed of subversive sexual wit right beneath that innocent meaning.  

Unconvinced?  Then let me move on to what I consider the more convincing example. In Chapter 37 of  S&S, we read the following reactions to Mrs. Ferrars disinheriting Edward, and irrevocably conferring her estate upon Robert:

“ "If [Edward] would only have done as well by himself," said John Dashwood, "as all his friends were disposed to do by him, he might now have been in his proper situation, and would have wanted for nothing. But as it is, it must be out of anybody's power to assist him. And there is one thing more preparing against him, which must be worse than all—his mother has determined, with A VERY NATURAL KIND OF SPIRIT, to settle THAT estate upon Robert immediately, which might have been Edward's, on proper conditions. I left her this morning with her lawyer, talking over the business."
"Well!" said Mrs. Jennings, "that is HER revenge. Everybody has a way of their own. But I don't think mine would be, to make one son independent, because another had plagued me."
Marianne got up and walked about the room.
"Can anything be more galling to THE SPIRIT OF A MAN," continued John, "than to see his younger brother in possession of an estate which might have been his own? Poor Edward! I FEEL FOR HIM sincerely."
A few minutes more spent in THE SAME KIND OF EFFUSION, concluded his visit; and with repeated assurances to his sisters that he really believed there was no material danger in Fanny's indisposition, and that they need not therefore be very uneasy about it, he went away; leaving the three ladies unanimous in their sentiments on the present occasion, as far at least as it regarded Mrs. Ferrars's conduct, the Dashwoods', and Edward's.
Marianne's indignation BURST FORTH as soon as he quitted the room; and as her VEHEMENCE made reserve impossible in Elinor, and unnecessary in Mrs. Jennings, they all joined in A VERY SPIRITED critique upon the party.”  END QUOTE

Now, you may well ask, why did I put the word “spirit” in all caps in each of its three appearances in this passage? What could “spirit” have to do with sexual orgasm? For my answer, I will first quote from “Sexual Symbolism, Religious Language and the Ambiguity of the Spirit: Associative Themes in Anglican Poetry and Philosophy” by Ralph Norman, in Theology Sexuality (May 2007), Vol. 13 #3 233-256:
In the 17th century, the word `spirit' stood euphemistically for semen and erections. Shakespeare knew this, as did the more explicitly theological poets, Donne and Herbert. These euphemistic meanings were exploited by the latter when writing religious poetry. Moving beyond the sexual language typical of much Christian mysticism, Donne also drew on renaissance ideas of metempsychosis which allowed him to view sperm as something physically connected with the spirit of a man, and potentially associated with the Holy Spirit itself. The reproductive potential of sperm was further associated with the creative power of the poet, and poetry became for Donne and Shakespeare a substitute for sexual reproduction. The ambiguous, playful and erotic spirit of poetry is considered as in terms of the equally ambiguous, playful and erotic spirit of theological language.” END QUOTE

I’ve been aware of “spirit” as an early modern euphemism for “semen”, because of my first recognizing its repeated brilliant deployment throughout the entirety of Hamlet, including most of all in the following two speeches by Hamlet himself:

First, describing the ghost as if it were a phallus ready to go to orgasm:


Second, describing Fortinbras as if he were a phallus about to expel an army of sperm!:


But there’s also Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, which seems in its opening couplet to describe the fatal sin of the Biblical Onan, who literally wasted his seed on the ground rather than impregnate Tamar:

The EXPENSE OF SPIRIT in a WASTE OF SHAME
Is LUST IN ACTION; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
So, viewed through that lens, John’s references to his mother’s “very natural kind of spirit” and to “the spirit” of the disinherited Edward (a form of emasculation), and then the Dashwood women’s “very spirited critique” of the conversation, is a perfect complement, in sexual innuendo, to Marianne’s  “burst out” and “vehemence”, taking us right back to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definition of “orgasm”!

And as a final irony, some of you will be familiar with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s famous claim that Marianne’s masturbatory orgasm is described in Chapter 29, especially in the following passage:

 “The sort of desperate calmness with which this was said, lasted no longer than while she spoke, and was immediately followed by a return of the same excessive affliction. It was some minutes before she could go on with her letter, and the frequent bursts of grief which still obliged her, at intervals, to withhold her pen, were proofs enough of her feeling how more than probable it was that she was writing for the last time to Willoughby.”

The irony is that I believe that Sedgwick was very much on the right track in ascribing a sexual significance to the above passage, but that she lighted upon the wrong sexual event—the above is not Marianne having an orgasm, it’s Marianne IN LABOR, not long before she gives birth to her illegitimate child.

And I will stand by all of the above claims most vehemently!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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