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

Monday, March 30, 2015

John & Isabella’s scatological humor: “Something NEW for your coachman and horses to be making their way through a storm of…..SNOW"

Mark Sundaram’s explanation of one etymology of the word  “coachman”---as early 19th century Oxford slang for a university professor---turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving, when it comes to my decoding of Jane Austen’s masterful deployment of that slang usage in Emma. In the second of my two previous posts on that topic earlier today, I demonstrated that James, Mr. Woodhouse’s coachman, was a leading expert in the avoidance of the perils of walking and driving through accumulations of poop on the streets and roads in and around Highbury. Today, I went back to Emma and my posts from 2013 about all that poop in Highbury, and I found, in Chapter 15, a whole new layer (sorry, I can’t resist that metaphor in this context) of comic scatological meaning.

In one of my 2013 posts, I had written the following:

“…in Chapter 15, we have Isabella being surprisingly pragmatic and flexible about doing whatever it takes to get back to Hartfield from Randalls as the snow begins to fall:  
"You had better order the carriage directly, my love," said [Isabella]; "I dare say we shall be able to get along, if we set off directly; and if we do come to any thing very bad, I can get out and walk. I am not at all afraid. I should not mind walking half the way. I could change my shoes, you know, the moment I got home; and it is not the sort of thing that gives me cold."
Sure it could be snow that would make it desirable to take off her shoes as soon as she got home, but I wonder whether it might be a very unpleasant cocktail of snow and horse poop that would be trebly nasty to get on one’s shoes!”

I.e., I had realized a year and a half ago that Isabella Knightley was discreetly referring to poop in her comments to her husband John, but I took Isabella literally. However, what I only realized this evening was that Isabella did not make these comments in a vacuum, out of the blue. Instead, their full meaning only becomes clear when you read them in full context in Chapter 15. Here is the full relevant passage, and I suggest to you that Isabella is actually chiming in on her husband John’s deliberate and angry attack on Mr. Woodhouse’s Achilles heel, being the old man’s persistent paranoid fear of getting stuck in street poop:

“Mr. John Knightley now came into the room from examining the weather, and opened on them all with the information of the ground being covered with snow, and of its still snowing fast, with a strong drifting wind; concluding with these words to Mr. Woodhouse:  "This will prove a spirited beginning of your winter engagements, sir. Something NEW for your COACHMAN and horses to be making their way through a storm of SNOW."  

Jane Austen’s irony is razor-sharp in that second sentence spoken by John to his father in law. What does John mean by “something NEW”? I say that the negative implication is that James the coachman and his horses are usually making their way through a “storm” of POOP, but this night their obstacle will be something new, i.e, they’ll be making their way through an accumulation of SNOW instead of the usual everyday poop! And that’s why we should not be surprised to then read Mr. Woodhouse’s worried reaction, followed shortly afterwards by John’s “pursuing his triumph”:

“Poor Mr. Woodhouse was silent from consternation; but every body else had something to say; every body was either surprized or not surprized, and had some question to ask, or some comfort to offer. Mrs. Weston and Emma tried earnestly to cheer him and turn his attention from his son-in-law, who was pursuing his triumph rather unfeelingly.  "I admired your resolution very much, sir," said he, "in venturing out in such weather, for of course you saw there would be snow very soon. Every body must have seen the snow coming on. I admired your spirit; and I dare say we shall get home very well. Another hour or two's snow can hardly make the road impassable; and we are two carriages; if one is blown over in the bleak part of the common field there will be the other at hand. I dare say we shall be all safe at Hartfield before midnight."

The image of a carriage blown over by wind (with connotations of violent rear-end flatulence) onto a pile of poop is grotesque scatology worthy of Laurence Sterne!

And that’s when Isabella stands by her husband, and adds to her father’s unease by raising the specter of something even more horrifying to the old man, i.e., that she would then start walking on foot in the dark, without James’s expertise providing any guidance for avoiding poopy shoes. Horrors!

But then, the next act of this intense scatological mini-drama consists of Mr. Knightley defusing Mr. Woodhouse’s scatological fears (just as he did in Chapter 1 when he reassured him that his shoes were perfectly clean after walking up to Highbury) as follows:

“Mr. Knightley, who had left the room immediately after his brother's first report of the snow, came back again, and told them that he had been out of doors to examine, and could answer for there not being the smallest difficulty in their getting home, whenever they liked it, either now or an hour hence. He had gone beyond the sweep—some way along the Highbury road—the snow was nowhere above half an inch deep—in many places hardly enough to whiten the ground; a very few flakes were falling at present, but the clouds were parting, and there was every appearance of its being soon over. He had seen the COACHMEN, and they B OTH AGREED WITH HIM IN THERE BEING NOTHING TO APPREHEND.”

So, once again, we have the absurdity of “the coachmen” as the acknowledged ultimate experts on poop avoidance, agreeing (after Mr. Knightley instructed them accordingly) that there is no risk of ground poop preventing safe and clean travel back to Highbury.

But we’re not quite “home” yet. What follows next in Chapter 15 is Mr. Elton’s near-assault on Emma in the carriage ride from Randalls---and that is the darkest part of JA’s biting irony, which is that Mr. Woodhouse is so focused on the imaginary dangers of poop, and meanwhile his own daughter is nearly raped by a drunken vicar inside a warm and secure carriage!

And then finally, we have the closing scene back at Highbury:

“…There [Emma] was welcomed, with the utmost delight, by her father, who had been trembling for the dangers of a solitary drive from Vicarage Lane—turning a corner which he could never bear to think of—and in strange hands—A MERE COMMON COACHMAN—no James; and there it seemed as if her return only were wanted to make every thing go well: for Mr. John Knightley, ashamed of his ill-humour, was now all kindness and attention…”

There we have Mr. Woodhouse having been worried to death about the “strange hands” of “a mere common coachmen” being  unqualified to avoid the dangers of poop on the drive from Vicarage Lane—and we also see John Knightley, evidently satisfied with the success of his earlier attack on Mr. Woodhouse, now gracious in victory and therefore merciful on his sad, defeated foe.

It is truly astonishing how much substance JA was able to pack into this elaborate conceit which turns entirely on a single slang meaning.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mr. Woodhouse’s “Coachman” James is the Professor of Poop at Highbury University!

My last post yesterday…
…was about the coded double meaning of Mr. Woodhouse’s superficially silly offer of his coachman’s advice to Frank Churchill about the best place for Frank to cross the street on the way to Miss Bates’s home. That post was inspired by the excellent scholarly ruminations of Mark Sundaran -- @alliterative on Twitter----on one from among the many tortuous etymologies of the word “coachman”—the early 19th century Oxfordian slang coinage of “coachman” as a university professor.

I awoke today with a massive BeenThereDoneThat Moment. I realized that Jane Austen’s sly wink at that scholarly Oxford “coachman” actually adds another crucial and LOL funny layer of meaning to two of the series of a half dozen posts I wrote back in late 2013 without any awareness of that slang meaning…
…about the numerous veiled references in at least 3 of JA’s novels to the large quantities of odorous and unsanitary POOP (both horse- and human-generated) needing to be dodged by the likes of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Knightley, and Anne Elliot, while walking on the streets and roads in the less affluent parts of Meryton, Highbury, and Bath!

In the latter of my two above-linked 2013 posts about poop in Highbury, I wrote the following, as to which it will be immediately obvious as to how the slang meaning of “coachman” fits so hilariously. I.e., knowing the slang meaning of “coachman” as “professor” clues us that Mr. Woodhouse is offering to Frank the expert “scholarly” route-planning advice of his coachman James, who would of course be a parodically learned  “professor” (very much like the gravediggers at the end of Hamlet with their faux-scholarly ruminations on the smelly remains of Alexander the Great)—indeed, a leading authority--- on how to avoid the worst concentrations of feces on the streets of the poorer section of Highbury on or leading to where Miss Bates lives!!!

Please then read the following analysis I wrote in 2013, with the “coachman” firmly in mind, and tell me if you don’t also LOL as you do:

“And the joke doesn’t end there with Mr. Woodhouse’s warning. We then have the additional humor of Frank and Mr. Weston having to exert themselves to put an end to Mr. Woodhouse’s attempts to teach Frank how not to walk in poop!  So when it says that Frank “still declined [the advice], looking as serious as he could”, it’s not just the G-rated humor of Frank being a grownup who doesn’t need advice on how to walk around Highbury, it’s the PG-13 or even R-rated humor of Frank being a normal person who can navigate around the excrement in his path! Of course it would have been ten times harder for Frank to keep a straight face in the face of that sort of advice!
So, now put the above passage from Ch. 23 alongside the earlier quoted passage from Ch. 1 (re Knightley’s shoes walking to Hartfield) and we see that Mr. Woodhouse really was concerned about Mr. Knightley’s getting specks of very bad stuff on his boots after all.  These two passages are bookends to each other. And we also see that Mr. Woodhouse is just as obsessive in his veiledly-expressed concerns about getting poop on one’s feet, as he is in his explicit warnings about dietary concerns—he’d have made a fantastic chief of a Municipal Hygiene Department, don’t you think? He’d be watching everything that went into everyone’s mouths, and everything that got on their feet, that might lead them down the path to disease and ill health!
And the most significant part, where Jane Austen’s genius takes all of this humor to yet another level, is that beneath the humor there is deadly seriousness. There were genuine health benefits from such proactive attention to such things as stepping in poop, because in an era when infectious disease was not understood, and there was no penicillin around to deal with it when it arose, it was (dare we use this word about Mr. Woodhouse?) common sense to make sure you at least didn’t track poop into everyone’s houses! So perhaps Mr. Woodhouse really had his poop together (so to speak) after all?” END QUOTE

So it seems to often go with my research on Jane Austen—in the first stage, I spot a wormhole—some coded wordplay which I know in my gut was intentional on her part, but as to which I am only able to grasp part of the hidden meaning. But then, often the very next day, my subconscious has had time to process the new data in relation to what I had discerned before—and recall, I’ve been doing this research for over a decade now---and then a flash of recognition, when I realize that this new data actually is a piece of a jigsaw puzzle I assembled (sometimes years) earlier, but as to which one piece remained to be found and filled in.  But actual jigsaw puzzles are much easier, because you can see the shape of the piece remaining to be found and inserted.  Whereas in Jane Austen’s six amazing literary jigsaw puzzles, there is no blank space alerting the solver as to the shape, or even the existence, of a missing piece. Much more difficult, but then, much more satisfying to solve!

Such experiences never cease to leave me in even greater awe of Jane Austen’s infinitely subtle genius, and feeling joy that I have the luck, privilege, and luxury of being the one who has first presented so many of them to the world of Janeites.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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

Does Bingley amuse himself by subtly ridiculing Elizabeth’s delusions of grandeur as a “studier of character”?

There are two very famous and very memorable scenes in Pride & Prejudice in which the pretensions of a man with an unjustified pride in his own abilities derived from serious studies are subtly ridiculed, providing amusement to the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.

The first is in Chapter 11, when Elizabeth, with her razor-sharp satire, punctures Darcy’s narcissistic self-delusion of having his pride under good regulation:

"Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!" cried Elizabeth. "That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love a laugh."
"Miss Bingley," said he, "has given me more credit than can be. The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions—may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke."
"Certainly," replied Elizabeth—"there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without."
"Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the STUDY of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
"Such as vanity and pride."
"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile.
…"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best EDU CATION can overcome."
"And your defect is to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them."

The second is in Chapter 14, when Mr. Bennet has a private laugh, shared with his favorite daughter Elizabeth, at Mr. Collins’s unwitting expense, over the latter’s skill in paying “pleasing attentions”:

“…I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine, that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her. These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay."
"You judge very properly," said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous STUDY?"
"They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as UNSTUDIED an air as possible."
Mr. Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure….

I suspect I am not the first reader of P&P to notice the striking parallels between the above two scenes, particularly because this is far from the only parallel between Mssrs. Darcy and Collins. Several years ago, I pointed out several others here:

However it was only today that I realized that in Chapter 9, shortly before the above two scenes, Mr. Bingley, of all people, shares a private laugh with his sister and Mr. Darcy at Elizabeth’s unwitting expense, when he suckers Elizabeth in exactly the same way that Mr. Bennet plays his little trick on Mr. Collins. I.e., Bingley appeals to Elizabeth’s Achilles Heel—her overinflated, unjustified vanity in her own abilities as what Bingley called a “studier of character” and we today would call a “psychologist”:

"Whatever I do is done in a hurry," replied [Bingley]; "and therefore if I should resolve to quit Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes. At present, however, I consider myself as quite fixed here."
"That is exactly what I should have supposed of you," said Elizabeth.
"You begin to comprehend me, do you?" cried he, turning towards her.
"Oh! yes—I understand you perfectly."
"I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful."
"That is as it happens. It does not follow that a deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours."
"Lizzy," cried her mother, "remember where you are, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home."
"I did not know before," continued Bingley immediately, "that you were a STUDIER of character. It must be an amusing STUDY."
"Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage."
"The country," said Darcy, "can in general supply but a few subjects for such a STUDY. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society."
"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."
"Yes, indeed," cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. "I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town."
Everybody was surprised, and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment, turned silently away. Mrs. Bennet, who fancied she had gained a complete victory over him, continued her triumph.
"I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country, for my part, except the shops and public places. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr. Bingley?"
"When I am in the country," he replied, "I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either."
"Aye—that is because you have the right disposition. But that gentleman," looking at Darcy, "seemed to think the country was nothing at all."
"Indeed, Mamma, you are mistaken," said Elizabeth, blushing for her mother. "You quite mistook Mr. Darcy. He only meant that there was not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in the town, which you must acknowledge to be true."
"Certainly, my dear, nobody said there were; but as to not meeting with many people in this neighbourhood, I believe there are few neighbourhoods larger. I know we dine with four-and-twenty families."
Nothing but concern for Elizabeth could enable Bingley to keep his countenance.

Notice in particular how Mrs. Bennet tries to shut Lizzy down before she can embarrass herself, but then Bingley “immediately” hands Elizabeth the forbidden fruit with his flattery about her being “ a studier of character”, and Lizzy takes the bait hook, line and sinker.

And the final brilliant touch is that last quoted line---while Elizabeth believes that Bingley cannot keep his countenance because of her mother’s gauche and strident advocacy for the supposed sophistication of the limited social circle of the Bennet family, what Elizabeth does not realize is that Bingley is finally unable any longer to keep from cracking up at Elizabeth’s cluelessness as to his having made fun of her to Darcy and his sister without Elizabeth having the slightest inkling of same.
Now, of course I am well aware that the suggestion that the gentle, kindly, and unassuming Bingley might enjoy—indeed, might generate—the same sort of unkind humor at the expense of Elizabeth that Mr. Bennet enjoys at the expense of the pompous Mr. Collins, is likely to shock pretty much all readers of P&P.

But I believe the parallels between the above quoted scene in Chapter 9 and those two scenes which follow not long afterwards, are too strong to be coincidental. Jane Austen meant for those parallels to be noticed upon rereading (and this is probably the 20th time I am reading those scenes in P&P). And there is a final, very sharp Austenian irony in this parallel—i.e., the enjoyment Elizabeth takes in the zinging of Mr. Darcy and then of Mr. Collins, which we, the readers who identify with Elizabeth, readily enter into ourselves, is tempered when we realize that Elizabeth had just been unwittingly hoist on her own satirical petard right before those memorable scenes.

What a genius Jane Austen was, to hide this in plain sight for 200 years!       

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter