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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jane Austen's "Charadic" Prose

Responding to bits and pieces from Christy and Nancy scattered over their many messages yesterday relative to Jane Austen's Letter 5 dated September 1796

First Christy:

"And since we all, each of us, have such unique mixtures of this, that, and the other ever-attaching to our personally interpretive and observatory places -and those places, filled with remnants borne from ones own personalized and historical baggage- agreements on the letters, sometimes, or often, may be "few and far between". Yet, I also suppose that within all of the "in-betweenities", interesting speculations and suggestions will continue.~~~~:-) "

Indeed, the dialectic of forceful but polite opposition is most fruitful for all of us, that butting up against opposed ideas inevitably sharpens thinking, even if none of us reverses our positions.

"Perhaps, there may be more of these redundantly compounded puns in the letters...and if that was done intentionally, is it worth exploring for this type of paradoxical perversity?"

I always am on the alert for them, I agree that they are always very interesting, mini-charades, if you will, awaiting solution. And that leads me to say something that should have been obvious all along but I never quite articulated before---every Janeite knows that the Austen family loved charades, and if you think about what a charade is, it is a puzzle that begs a clever solution. It is the most logical thing in the world that the "charadic" habit would, after a while, become extremely addictive, and would spill over into ordinary speech and letter-writing.

I bet, e.g., that Will Shortz makes a lot of puns in his ordinary talking and email writing, for exactly that reason. And I know that i do it much more myself, now that I have devoted myself so intensely to analyzing wordplay.

"Though I can see that this kind of punning-in-reverse, might render the more straightforward ones much less interesting and very predictable."

An astute observation, my first reaction is that variety is the spice of life, and that JA would have recognized, like a skilled standup comedian of today, that what matters is comic _rhythm_--you set up the more complex jokes with simpler jokes, and then cycle through again and again.

"Presenting possible puns, while, also, negating, yet affirming them by some later, more redundant unravelling....Again, perhaps this suggestion may just be a little too odd, too off, and too Zen.......even for a Jane Austen~~~:-) "

Christy, I do declare, I think you are beginning to get hooked on looking at these puns--watch out, it only gets worse over time! ;)

Now all the rest are Nancy:

"I think you are really reaching for a pun to say she was punning the word breeching."

I don't think it's a coincidence that the gerund breeching had, as an established secondary meaning, whipping, which just happens to be the other gerund JA chooses.

"If she is forever punning, that means that Cassandra had to have the same sensitivity for puns so that she'll recognize each and everyone."

Yes, certainly so. And why not? I think CEA may not have enjoyed punning, but she was very smart and understood them, and she also knew this was who her sister was, and that the tic was inextricably linked to JA's gift for words in general, so even if CEA did wish for JA to tone it down, she tolerated it, because JA so obviously loved her sister, and vice versa, and they shared everything in their lives. You live with your loved one's quirks, and perhaps you even learn to enjoy them, too, over time.

"Frankly, I think that such punning would be tiring and tiresome."

Sure, anyone married or otherwise closely related to a punster will say that sometimes it gets very tiresome. But, again, it was who JA was when she was comfortable. But I bet she kept a tight lid on her punning when out in public, especially at Godmersham--it would have interfered with her "field research in the wild" if the "beasts" she was studying so carefully were aware that they were being "stalked" for literary satirical purposes. So it was not a tic in a Tourettic sense of involuntary cursing, it was a faucet which JA either chose to open, or to keep shut.

"Why can't it just be a plain statement of fact: the boy got breeched and got a birching?"

Because, again, it fits with the 1,000 other puns that JA wrote, and because it is a way JA had of expressing a complex web of feeling in relatively few words--a compression of meaning, verging on poetry. In other words, great writing.

"Babies weren't generally whipped-- birched-- or otherwise punished harshly except by abusers. However, once a boy put on his breeches he became subject to a boy's punishment which was far too often a whipping. This was probably more accurately called a switching or a birching."

But again, the 1795 Dictionary makes it clear that breeching was a word used to refer to corporal punishment.

"Switching was when a flexible switch of a tree or bush was used on the legs. Birching used a flexible cane of birch wood. It is very likely that JA did not approve of whipping so young a child. "

I think we can all agree on that one, which is why it is very possible that the boy really never was punished at all, it was just JA's wordplay in service of venting some strong feelings about other events of the moment, as I have suggested.

Cheers, ARNIE

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