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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Getting to the Bottom of Jane Austen's Black Hole of England..and the sexual innuendo in the "woman" charade in _Emma_

[Ellen] "Arnie, if you are genuinely interested in the question of widow-burning and attitudes towards women in India v Britain, I'll try to find the articles I have someone on my computer. They are directed to a slightly later period because it's later the English got involved directly. Two books which have much information are Nancy Paxton's Writing Under the Raj_ and Pat Barr, the Memsahibs. These two focus on women -- and also on British women of the type Austen's aunt represents. Paxton's book has in fact a book by an author Austen read, Syney Owensen. The one usually cited is The Wild Irish Girl, but she also wrote the very interesting _Missionary_."

Ellen, whatever you can find conveniently, I would be interested in knowing about, yes, thanks; even if I don't have the time for an in-depth study of same, I would like at least to know something more about them--whatever Jane Austen might have known is my primary focus, so I would be particularly interested in knowing more about those books by Owensen--I'd also be curious to know whence came the notion that JA read Owensen?

[Ellen] "Yes, Arnie, we agree here: the perspective in the letter and books is anti-macho male but the accent in the letter and the novels too is more that these people can think of nothing better to do with themselves."

I think it's _both_: a lighter satire of men wasting time, for sure, but also a deeper satire of male privilege, the common denominator behind so much about JA's world that she wanted to be different.

[Nancy] "Like all those who glue themselves to TV sets to watch sports."

It's so funny you mentioned that, Nancy, because I just realized only yesterday that whatever chance I had of inducing a lot of _men_ to attend my Austenmania event down here in Fort Lauderdale this coming Sunday from 1 to 4 pm EST.....

...was reduced significantly by the scheduling of the NFC Championship game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers at 3 pm EST on Sunday!

But...the bright side, I suppose, is that there will likely be a lot of "football widows" that afternoon looking for something to do while their husbands watch the football games (there is also the AFC Championship game at 6:30 pm EST), and so, with the publicity I have been able to secure for the event, there might be even more married women showing up for my event than otherwise might have occurred! And they can then go back and tell their husbands what they missed! ;)

[Ellen] "If you were trying to suggest that anal intercourse is punned on in Austen's words, I don't think so. The two uses of "hole" are natural (it was a black hole, the man's name is Holwell) and there is nothing uncomfortable (my pun is intended) in the lines to suggest anything sexual of that nature."

Ellen, I don't know what I wrote that prompted you to write that, as I did not recall presenting my thoughts on the sexual innuendo in the phrase "black hole". However...I must have written something to give you that impression, and you are entirely correct that it was indeed on my mind right from the first moment I focused on that reference to the Black Hole of Calcutta. However, it was not "sodomy" that I was thinking of but, following JA's lead in her references to one wife for two husbands, _heterosexual_ intercourse.

It is not just in the Sharade on James the First in JA' History of England, with its clear gay subtext, that JA deploys the sexual pun on the word "whole". That word also makes a crucial appearance in the first charade (the one JA took from a popular riddle book, where the official answer, "woman", is implied but never actually stated) in Chapter 9 of Emma:

"My first doth affliction denote,
Which my second is destin'd to feel
And my whole is the best antidote
That affliction to soften and heal. "

At my presentation in Oxford in July 2007, I pointed out that this charade not only has a second secret answer, "heartfiel", which was first discovered by Colleen Sheehan and described in her article in the 2000 issue of Persuasions....

....but this charade also has a _third_ sexual solution, which dispenses entirely with the normal charadic combining of syllables to form a new word, but instead is based on the _meaning_ of each line. The first line refers to the "affliction" suffered by men when they are sexually aroused (i.e., tumescence), which a certain part of the male anatomy (which I don't think I need to name explicitly) "is destin'd to feel", as to which a certain part of a _woman's_ anatomy (represented by the homonym of the word "whole") is most definitely "the best antidote that affliction to soften and heal".

Again, this charade was not written by JA herself (I believe I know who was the author, himself a famous man---but that is a topic for my book), but in my opinion she included it precisely because JA was aware of the hidden answers, and how they relate to the sexual undercurrents of true love coursing beneath the surface of _Emma_ .

She understood, in a very profound way, that this seemingly trivial little charade was actually a mini-masterpiece of covert self-reference, since the official answer to that charade is "woman"; the secondary answer is "heartfiel", which is the magical potion Puck sprinkles on Titania to make her fall in passionate love with Bottom; and the tertiary answer is that the entire charade itself is a description of the act of heterosexual intercourse, which, paradoxically, is what Titania wishes to engage in with "Bottom"!

As JA wrote the Sharade on James the First while still a teenager, and wrote _Emma_ in her thirties, I think it is a safe assumption that when she was 21, she was also perfectly capable of deploying the sexual pun on "whole" in a sexually charged sentence in a letter to her sister (who, after all, was the illustrator of JA's History of England!)

Cheers, ARNIE

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