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

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Mrs. Malaprop’s ‘long sentences of refined nonsense’ are ‘prodigiously’ and provocatively echoed in three Austen novels

This post had its origin yesterday, while I was writing my two posts about irony in Pride and Prejudice and Emma, respectively. By serendipity I came upon a bit of Austenian wordplay I had never noticed in a passage near the beginning of Chapter 53 of Pride and Prejudice which I had read dozens of times before, but this time it leapt off the page at me and demanded to be read in a very different way than before:

“[Wickham] is as fine a fellow,” said Mr. Bennet, as soon as they were out of the house, “as ever I saw. He simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all. I am prodigiously proud of him. I defy even Sir William Lucas himself to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”

Can you see the wordplay that I saw? Give it a try as long as you like, but if you give up, just scroll down a bit, and I’ll reveal all, and then continue:

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The wordplay is hidden in plain sight in Mr. Bennet’s ironic claim to be “prodigiously proud” of Wickham. First, did you notice the alliteration of two consecutive words each of which begins with the diphthong “pr”? Does that remind you of anything? Perhaps my putting it that way enabled you to see why I am certain that Jane Austen meant for Mr. Bennet to unwittingly echo the title of the novel he appears in-- Pride and Prejudice, which also has that precise alliteration of two words each beginning with the diphthong “pr”.


That Pirandellian echoing of the novel title by Mr. Bennet is even more intricate than mere alliteration.  Mr. Bennet’s “proud” is a variant of “Pride” of the title; and Mr. Bennet’s “prodigiously” doesn’t just sound a lot like “prejudice”, these two words are potential malapropisms each for each other, because they sound a lot like each other, but they mean completely different things.

So what? Well, as it turns out, recognizing that malapropistic relationship between “prodigiously” and “prejudice” opens up a vast cavern of subterranean literary allusion, all pointing to an author who wrote his most famous creations around the time Jane Austen was born, but who also lived just long enough to read Pride and Prejudice and then comment admiringly to a friend that it was “one of the cleverest things he ever read”.

That author was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and it is thanks to his fertile imagination that the word “malapropism” entered the English language from the French idiom for "inappropriate" ("mal a propos"), to describe certain words misspoken by Sheridan’s most enduringly famous and fittingly named character, Mrs. Malaprop. She appears in one of Sheridan’s three comic masterpieces-- The Rivals, a play which (along with Sheridan’s other famous comedies, The Critic and The School for Scandal)  was, according to myself and some other Austen scholars, were important allusive sources for Pride and Prejudice --- for example in the name of Sheridan’s witty, uncontrollable young heroine, Lydia Languish --- who, surprisingly but revealingly, shares a first name not with Austen’s witty heroine, Eliza, but with Eliza’s uncontrollable younger sister, Lydia!

But here’s the punch line, so to speak, of Austen's word game, which I only realized as I started writing this post. It’s not just that “prodigious” could theoretically work as a malapropism for “prejudiced”; it’s that Mrs. Malaprop actually utters a strikingly similar malapropism in the following dialog in The Rivals, which is famous because it could fairly be called the Parthenon (or as she might’ve put it, the “Pentathlon”) of malapropisms. In what is basically one long speech, Mrs. Malaprop utters a staggering rapidfire succession of thirteen of these masterful comic monstrosities (which I put in ALL CAPS):

SIR ANTHONY In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece's maid coming forth from a circulating library!—She had a book in each hand—they were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!—From that moment I guessed how full of duty I should see her mistress!

MRS. MALAPROP  Those are vile places, indeed!

SIR ANTHONY Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.

MRS. MALAPROP   Fy, fy, Sir Anthony! you surely speak LACONICALLY.

SIR ANTHONY Why, Mrs. Malaprop, in moderation now, what would you have a woman know?

MRS. MALAPROP Observe me, Sir Anthony. I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a PROGENY of learning; I don't think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance, I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or algebra, or SIMONY, or fluxions, or paradoxes, or such INFLAMMATORY branches of learning—neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, DIABOLICAL instruments.—But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little INGENUITY and ARTIFICE. Then, sir, she should have a SUPERCILIOUS knowledge in accounts;—and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in GEOMETRY, that she might know something of the CONTAGIOUS countries;—but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of ORTHODOXY, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might REPREHEND the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know;—and I don't think there is a SUPERSTITIOUS article in it.

Notice first that one of the thirteen malapropisms, 'progeny', via the correct word it supplants, 'prodigy', is explicitly echoed by Mr. Bennet’s “prodigiously” (even though, as Emily Auerbach observed in 2004, it is his verbally incontinent wife whom we might have expected to echo Mrs. Malaprop). Second, Austen, in pairing “prodigiously” with “proud”, and thereby “prodigiously” with “prejudice”, Austen’s wordplay is more elegant than Sheridan’s, because these two alliterative words also contain a jumble of three interior consonantal sounds which Sheridan’s did not. I.e., the D, the soft G, and the S in “proDiGiouSly” produce the same sounds as the J, the D, and the soft C in “preJuDiCe”. 

Now, if the above were all that was there behind this wordplay, I hope you'll agree that this would be marvelous in itself, and would bolster the already strong claim that The Rivals was a significant source as Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. But there’s more, much more to it than that, that turns comedic wordplay into serious veiled meaning.


Second, there’s an added delicious overtone to Austen’s pointing to Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop in Pride and Prejudice, because it turns out that Austen had already pointed to Sheridan himself in the title of her previously published novel, Sense and Sensibility. As I first noted in 2010, Sheridan was a nationally renowned political orator who, during Warren Hastings's impeachment trial in 1788, gave a long speech against Hastings which received enormous national attention. That trial was of course a seismic event for the extended Austen family, due to Mr. Hastings’s being widely whispered to have been the father of Eliza Hancock, Jane Austen’s paternal first cousin. 

Sheridan uttered a memorable turn of phrase in that speech regarding Hastings’s destructive chicanery vis a vis the Indian Oudh, in his machiavellian and successful scheme to turn son against mother vis a vis inheritance. Now, doesn't that sound a lot like what Fanny Dashwood does in working on her malleable, selfish husband John, to persuade him to screw his half-sisters, Elinor, Marianne, Margaret, and their mother out of the inheritance their dying father made John promise to fulfill? Of course it does! And so there is no surprise in the Austenian ring in Sheridan’s oratorical flourish describing the nastiness of Hastings's scheming:

“Filial Piety-It is the primal bond of society. It is that instinctive principle, which, panting for its proper good, soothes, unbidden, each SENSE AND SENSIBILITY of man.”

Filial piety is precisely what is shredded by Fanny Dashwood's Ragan and Goneril-like rationalizing  away keeping more and more of her late father-in-law's estate, to selfishly benefit her and her child.


But even that is not the end of Austen’s wordplay inspired by Mrs. Malaprop’s blizzard (or should I say “buzzard”) of malapropisms. I now ask you to note the substantive content of Mrs. Malaprop’s flurry of verbal “fluxions”. What's she going on and on about? Once we decode her meaning by translating those 13 malapropisms back to their proper words, we find that she is going into minute detail to decry the young heroine, her ward Lydia Languish’s “dangerous” passion for novel reading. Does that remind you of Mr. Collins, following the anti-female prejudice of Fordyce’s sermons, and being ridiculed by LYDIA Bennet? Again, of course it does!

But this is not just comedy. Mrs. Malaprop has brought the audience right into the thick of the great debate that raged in England before, during, and even after Jane Austen’s lifetime, as to how to best educate women. That debate was at the heart of whether the powerless subjugation that most women suffered under at that time would continue, or if women would be allowed to develop strong minds (as Wollstonecraft advocated) and not useless ornamental “accomplishments”, and then assume more power over their own destinies.

But now, take a closer look at the specific malapropisms in her long speech, and notice that several of them just happen to be extremely well-suited to sexual innuendo. A "progeny of learning" hints at babies and childbirth; "meddle with Greek" suggests sodomy; diabolical instruments" sounds like one of Cleland's thousand phallic euphemisms in Fanny Hill; and finally, Sheridan's piece de resistance-- "the contagious countries": "contagious" suggests venereal disease (which of course is extremely contagious),  and "countries" recalls Hamlet's bawdy reference to "country matters".

Taken altogether, these sexual innuendoes suggest that Mrs. Malaprop, in describing circulating libraries as dens of iniquity, where girls like Lydia Languish would find novels which would corrupt their virtue, is, via her malapropisms, subliminally painting a portrait of such circulating libraries as virtual brothels. And this metaphor also fits very closely with some of the more virulent anti-novel propaganda of that era, in which fiery clergymen like Fordyce railed against the sexual degradation which awaited girls whose overactive imaginations would be overstimulated by Gothic tales of abduction, which they were exposed to via circulating libraries. In so doing, she is poetically echoing Sir Anthony's linear summary of that situation: "Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last."


Which brings me to the last and, to my mind, the most significant portion of Austen’s send-up of Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, which I believe specifically picks up on both Sheridan's malapropisms  and the sexual innuendoes which accompanied it, as I just articulated.  While writing this post, I also remembered yet another Malapropian Austenian echo which I first noticed a decade ago, pointing to Mrs. Malaprop’s above-quoted substitution of “progeny” for “prodigy”. I realized way back when that Austen had very likely written the following passage in Emma, so as to echo that very same “progeny/“prodigy” mashup, which she had previously winked at in Pride and Prejudice 3 years earlier:

“Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a SCHOOL—not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, IN LONG SENTENCES OF REFINED NONSENSE, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems—and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity—but a real, honest, old-fashioned BOARDING-SCHOOL, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, WITHOUT ANY DANGER OF coming back PRODIGIES.”

Mrs. Malaprop’s “long sentences of refined nonsense” in that extraordinary comic speech quoted above, are nonsense in part because they’re chock full of words which do not mean what she intends to say, but also in part for the Mr. Collinsian nonsense of her educational priorities. And, connecting the dots to the above passage from Emma, note that Mrs. Malaprop advocates for sending girls to a “boarding school” (like Mrs. Goddard’s) at age 9 (which perhaps was the age at which Harriet Smith first arrived there as a parlor boarder).

But here’s where I really cash in on the above analysis of Mrs. Malapropism word bungles as having heavy sexual content. What happens, I ask you, when we treat Austen’s last line “without any danger of coming back PRODIGIES” as a hint inviting the Sheridan-savvy reader to reverse Mrs. Malaprop’s malapropism. I.e., what if we reread that passage as saying that “young ladies for enormous pay” are sent to Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school in Highbury  “without any danger of coming back PROGENY”? Or, taking that a little step further, “without any danger of coming back with PROGENY” --- as in, “without any danger of coming back barefoot and pregnant after getting (as Austen’s narrator conveniently expresses it) “screwed out of health”??!!

In other words, as I have suggested long ago, before I had any inkling of what I now see as Sheridan's deliberate sexual innuendoes hidden in plain sight in Mrs. Malaprop's greatest speech, perhaps Mrs. Goddard’s “boarding school” in Emma is actually the realization of Sheridan's fantasy: an actual brothel disguised (for the benefit of the truly clueless like Emma Woodhouse) as a school for girls, where “young ladies for enormous pay” are metaphorically “boarded” (the way a ship is boarded) by those "sailors" who pay that enormous pay, i.e., the Johns who do the screwing!Se

And that reading fits with my reading of the shadow Harriet Smith as a young woman who is the furthest thing from the innocent naif Emma believes Harriet to be, but who is rather a canny manipulator (rather like Lucy Steele) who knows the fine art of exerting the power of the strong mind over the weak in order to level the sexist playing field of Regency Era courtship, and give a woman a shot at actually getting the life she wants. This fits perfectly with my notion that Harriet is a kind of Lady Susan, who has enjoyed sexual fun with (in no particular order) Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill, and….Mr. Knightley! And perhaps, somewhere along the way while getting “boarded” with these gentlemen, Harriet wound up (like Jane Fairfax) in the precarious position of coming back with progeny—which may explain why she is introduced to Emma at the moment she is, and why she is so determined to find a husband without the lapse of too many months.

Even if you won’t go that far with me on that last interpretation, at the very least I hope you’ll agree that there can no other plausible reading of all of the above-described echoes and intricate wordplay, than that Jane Austen fully intended to point to Sheridan’s The Rivals, particularly the fraught relationship between Lydia Languish and her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, in order to invite her knowing readers to think about the allusive presence of that relationship in Sheridan’s witty, edgy play in  Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

And that, I suggest, makes Emma (may the ghost of Edmund Wilson forgive me) even more so the greatest “Pentathlon” of fiction!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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