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Monday, February 22, 2010

More Mr. Floor

The following are a couple of messages I have sent in Janeites and Austen L in response to some responses I received earlier today to my first post about the mysterious Mr. Floor:

MY FIRST FOLLOWUP MESSAGE (in response to the comment in parenthesis which immediately follows):

"I thought that Jane Austen just took the opportunity of Mr. Floor's name to pun on it. That is, she did not make up his name in order to pun-- I find that rather meaningless activity-- but that she saw his name and made a true comment which could also be seen as a pun."

As I said, it could be either way, and frankly, I would argue that it really does not matter whether her pun was opportunistic or generated from thin air. And if it was from thin air, I strenuously object to your finding that a "meaningless activity". Why meaningless?

The funny thing is that the rest of this message, which I composed BEFORE I read your comment, and was just gearing up to hit the "Send" button when your message appeared on my screen, actually functions as a response to your claim of meaninglessness. I would suggest that there was a great deal of very personal and significant meaning in this little pun.

Here goes....

As is almost always the case with one of JA's little gems, I find myself continuing to think about them even after writing a message about them. Here is the further train of thought I just took a quick ride on, and which led, I hope you will agree, to a worthwhile destination.

Let's take one more look at that sentence:

"As for Mr. Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation."

The pun, once noticed, tends to draw all our attention, and so may tend to discourage further examination of the entire sentence, because we've already "gotten" the joke. But what I just realized when I did revisit that sentence has to do with the TONE in which this sentence would be read aloud. Surely it would be most effectively delivered in a mock-pompous tone, precisely like Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine or one of JA's other phony self-important snobs would say it, trying to elevate themselves at the expense of others. If you think about it, this is NOT something JA herself would say in a serious way. JA was a lot like Holden Caulfield, I think, and had a fully operational pomposity meter going in her head, and so she would be the LAST person to pontificate in such a phony way.

I was instantly reminded of the scene in Davies's P&P, when Lizzy is talking to either Charlotte or Jane about Darcy, and she makes fun of him, as she delivers Darcy's full-of-himself putdown with her nose playfully pointed skyward:

"She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt _me_; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men."

Lizzy repeating Darcy's putdown is not in the novel, but it is, I think, a great example of where Davies was a master of appropriate dramatization of JA's narration.

Anyway, I imagine that CEA would automatically have heard that sentence spoken aloud by JA in exactly that same narcissism-deflating mockery that Jennifer Ehle so perfectly expressed in her amazing performance.

And (here is the punch line), it got me thinking----of course, look at the context of this letter! CEA is at Godmersham, surrounded by rich snobs and phonies, a social world where everybody is a version of Sir Walter Elliot and, with a straight face, routinely says things like "As for Mr. Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation". And JA, of course, is home in Southampton among the rabble, and is well aware of where her sister has been for some time. Perhaps JA is even specifically reacting to some report from CEA in the immediately preceding letter about some actual examples of such snobbery expressed in her presence.

In such a context, JA writing the above sentence {and yes, even inventing Mr. Floor out of whole cloth--silk cloth, that is) would not be a trivial outburst of silly humor, but would have the very important purpose of providing her sister some desperately needed comic relief, a little mini-theatre where the absurdities of the rich and haughty can be mined for sport, to defuse the pain of having to endure the "condescension" of these high falutin' folks.

And most of all, we should read about Mr. Floor as a sad and scarily accurate premonition of what Fanny Austen Knight Knatchbull notoriously wrote many decades later about her aunts:

"....They were not rich, & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all HIGH bred...."

MY SECOND FOLLOWUP MESSAGE (in response to the comment which immediately follows in parenthesis below):

"It just seems pointless to mention a fictional person in a letter when she was very conscious of how much each word cost."

Inadvertently, you've just made my argument for me, Nancy. It is indeed a measure of just how precious her freedom of self expression was to JA that she would spend precious money for the privilege of writing such things to her sister, things that you find meaningless---we may therefore infer that these jokes were EXTREMELY precious to them both, and I argue that it is because these jokes were a lifeline between the sisters when they were separated geographically, as they supported each other in enduring the constricted lives that they, as impecunious unmarried females dependent on monied male relatives, had to endure! Like all human beings enduring oppression, humor is a life-saver, which is why for so long so many American comedians have been Jewish, and then African-American, and why more recently we have seen so many who are female or gay.

"Yet this is how many members of the list have presented the material. That is, the material has been presented as bawdy jokes, locker-room humor, and downright salacious content."

I will freely acknowledge that my own understanding of the significance of JA's sexual innuendoes has grown over the past 5 years since I have been actively researching this very important subject in the realm of JA Studies. Therefore, I now am much more careful than I used to be in, say, 2006, to point to the thematic significance of JA's bawdy, as well as it's being extremely funny, clever and outrageous. It has been some time since I considered the thematic aspects of JA's sexual innuendo to be much more important than its sheer funniness.

Anyway, to me, the thematic meaning and the humor are of a piece, and it all comes down to consideration of the source. The bawdy humor of a vulgar charlatan like, say, Howard Stern is, to me, worthless, and I would not waste five minutes listening to him, because it just isn't funny to me. It's sophomoric, it's chauvinistic, it's leering, it appeals to the lowest common denominator. It does not lead me to the essence of humanity. Whereas the bawdy humor of a Chaucer, a Shakespeare, a Fielding or an Austen, each of them unique, is extremely bawdy, but it's always very funny precisely because it is not "just" salacious, it is so much more, it is integral to the genius of the literature itself, and it is at the center of the human comedy. Again, consider the source.

"This also disagrees strongly with the strong opposition criticism that Mary Crawford would not have mentioned sodomy in a polite conversation brings.
It is hard to see how sexual double entendres can be considered lady-like, proper, or with in the field of propriety."

And I would answer that it is 100% clear that the only use to JA of those in 'high' society in her time who placed a high value on what is "lady-like" and "proper", rather than on what is "artistic" or "true to life", was as objects for her own subtle satire. She did not aspire to be such a person, and that is why, in a way, Fanny Knatchbull, even if she was an awful snob, was correct in her judgment of her aunt in one respect. I suspect that over the decades after JA died, when Fanny had the chance to really read her aunt's fiction, especially the Juvenilia, she realized that Jane's writing did embody a vision of the world that was not kindly disposed toward the world that Fanny lived in. JA wanted no part of that world, and bitterly resented the twist of fate that granted members of high society all the wealth that was required in that era in order to live life unconstricted by want, and to have at their disposal the employment of the likes of JA and CEA as unpaid part time governesses.

"Even today, you will find those who consider sexual double entendres as something men might do more than women and somehow improper for women."

JA's role model for writing sexual innuendo was Cleland--Fanny Hill is nonstop description of sexual acts of every kind, and yet there is not a single word used in it which could not safely be uttered in a sermon in church, not a single four letter word. It is euphemism elevated to a form of high literary art, and JA was a student of his elegant art.

And of ALL the aspects of writing that JA was referring to when she has Anne Elliot refer to men having jealously guarded control of writing, I'd argue that the most important to JA was the right to describe sexuality-she was claiming woman's right to do it her way. Men had it their way in every way, and she thought to herself, well, at least THIS they can't control, because they are not clever enough elves to even realize what I am writing in my subtext. Exhibit A being the "Prince of Whales" charade in Emma.


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