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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mr. low in our Estimation....

I just posted the following in the online Austen-L and Janeites groups, during the group read of Jill Heydt-Stevenson's book Unbecoming Conjunctions, which is an expansion of her original "Ha-Ha" article from 1999 which first blew the roof off the long-standing notion that Jane Austen did not have sexual innuendoes in her novels. I had not intended to mention the following point during that group read, but then a posting there made it suddenly seem like a very good time to point out the following here, which I did also point out at Chawton House in July, receiving a good immediate response at the time, by the way, from those listening.

That passage in Letter 57 that was just mentioned, reads as follows:

“My mother is preparing mourning for Mrs. E. K.; she has picked her old silk pelisse to pieces, and means to have it dyed black for a gown -- a very interesting scheme, though just now a little injured by finding that it must be placed in Mr. Wren's hands, for Mr. Chambers is gone. As for Mr. Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation. How is your blue gown? Mine is all to pieces. I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a touch. There was four shillings thrown away, to be added to my subjects of never-failing regret.”

In addition to the (to me, obvious) sexual innuendo in this passage which I first noticed two+ years ago, and which is very interesting indeed, there is ALSO a remarkably sly pun in that same passage, which is not particularly sexual, but which is very funny.

The way I have carefully edited that sentence in the Subject Line of this message has, I hope, made the pun clear to many of you? Can you see it? If you can't, and don't enjoy struggling to solve a little puzzle, then scroll down a bit and I will give you the answer, and also add one amusing footnote.

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The pun: Whether or not there actually was an actual Mr. Floor who did a bad job as a dyer (my personal guess is that there never was, and that he was an utterly fictional creation, brought into being by JA on the spur of the moment, solely to delight her sister).....what should be obvious from my Subject Line is that the sentence "Mr. low in our Estimation" is a pun, because the FLOOR in a room is obviously LOW!

The pun would have been immediately obvious to everyone if it had read "Mr. high in our Estimation"--but what this little example illustrates, and which is very significant in terms of our discussion of what is real and what is Memorex in JA's writing---is that JA NEVER wrote puns that were obvious, because that would be as boring as the clues in the Monday crossword puzzle in the New York Times. JA only ever created Saturday puzzles (i.e., with the hardest-to-decode, slyest clueing) in her writing. So to set a standard for detection and confirmation of the existence of sexual innuendoes which is so restrictive that it only allows in the obvious, is a guarantee of only detecting the "Monday puzzle" stuff, which is boring, boring, boring, as opposed to the "Saturday puzzle" stuff, which is where all the action is!

That's precisely why there is the endless argument as to whether the innuendoes, hidden meanings, etc are "really there"--because she was too adept and meticulous a puzzle constructor to make it easy for the reader--as she told us, she did not write for the dull elves........

One final funny footnote---it may have occurred to some of you (as it did to me, when I first detected this pun) to check Le Faye's footnotes and biographical index, to see whether she attempted to identify the mysterious Mr. Floor. Here is what she has in her Biographical Index:

"Floor, Mr.?: Tradesman in Southampton--perhaps a dyer?"

I do not mention this to criticize Le Faye--after all, this pun has been undetected (as far as I can tell, and I have searched everywhere I could, over the past few years, to verify that no one has previously published this point] for the entire 125 years since Lord Brabourne first published this letter, until I spotted it--she is not the only reader of that passage in Letter 57 to be utterly taken in.

And why me? Only because I recognized over 5 years ago that JA was playing this sort of word game in everything she wrote, and I took that VERY seriously, and devoted a huge amount of time and effort into discovering, and understanding, the significance of these word games. It turns out that they lead to the very center of her authorial artistry.


P.S.: When I first learned about the (then) upcoming exhibition of JA's letters at the Morgan, I immediately wrote to the curator of the exhibit, to point out this pun, as well as some other curious passages in JA's letters, but while he found my discoveries interesting, it was, alas, too late to include them in the exhibit itself.

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