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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 31, 2011

Secrets of Chapter 9 of Emma

Victoria Lansburgh wrote the following in Janeites in response to claims by me regarding sexual innuendoes in Emma:

[Victoria] "I'm going to repeat part of a post of mine from awhile back, in which I set out some of Emma's statements to Harriet about Mr. Elton's charade: "And now for the cream"….; "….there is so pointed…a meaning in this compliment…"; "I do not consider its length as particularly in its favour"; "[this couplet is] for private enjoyment";…"the longer it lasts [Harriet's enjoyment], the better I shall be pleased." If you're looking for references to the male sexual organ and the acts of sexual intercourse and ejaculation, it's all there. But I don't believe that Austen, even if she made the occasional sexual reference, would have been so heavy-handed as to load every sentence she could with sexual double entendre. That would not be subtle. That would make her Michael Scott."


Had you been there to hear me speak to the Chawton House Conference in July 2009 and to the JASNA NYC chapter in May 2010, you would have heard me both times quoting from those very same passages in Chapter 9 of Emma---that you yourself, curiously, independently zeroed in on-- among others, as evidence for the presence of sexual innuendoes in the novel. I further argued that this was part of an extended veiled allusion in _Emma_ to Cleland's _Fanny Hill_ (an allusion which I recently extended to include the teenaged London experiences of Philadelphia Austen, via the character name "Mrs. Cole", which appears in all _three_ of these settings).

Apropos that Fanny Hill allusion, anyone who wishes can follow the following link to my blog and find a series of posts I wrote on this subject only 6 weeks ago:

But back to Ch. 9 of Emma. The way you quoted has eviscerated the text, making it sound fragmented, like it could be a random coincidence. But here is one of the densely sexual passages you quoted from, but this time verbatim from Ch. 9 of Emma, with _no_ editing:

"It is _as long again_ as almost _all we have had before_."

"I do not consider its length as particularly in its favour. _Such things in general cannot be too short_."

Harriet was too intent on the lines to hear. _The most satisfactory comparisons were rising in her mind_."

This is sophisticated sexual wit at its best. There is, to me, nothing crude or vulgar about it--it is elegant, droll, and clever. But in my opinion, the chances of that sexually loaded passage happening spontaneously, or even by some sort of unconscious Freudian frenzy, is nil--and if the latter, that high level of unconscious "leakage" would indicate that Jane Austen was a sexually repressed and deprived monster, which I for one don't believe she was! It's a much simpler explanation to say that this is not a coincidence or unconscious, but that she was like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fielding, and many other great writers who enjoyed sexual innuendo, and used it for serious thematic purposes, as well as for the very human (and to my mind, estimable, as long as it's very clever and also not done to death) joy of laughing at a clever dirty joke.

If you think that the Michael Scotts of the world (of whom I am not) can find that sort of dense sexual innuendo in _any_ contemporary literature from Jane Austen's time, I claim you are wrong. Can you bring such passages forward from, say, Hannah More's Coelebs, or from the writings of dozens of other writers from JA's era who did _not_ engage in this sort of wordplay? If you do, then we can set those passages you find side by side with these from Austen's novels, and we'll see who is more convincing in this debate between us.

My explanation is that when you have certain gifted writers like Shakespeare or Cleland or Fielding or Austen, who deploy sexual innuendoes for complicated purposes, you can indeed find dense sexual innuendo all over the place---because that is what _they_ did, intentionally!

I have recently spent an enjoyable foray among the Nabokovians, and nobody blinks an eye at modern writers like him who _deliberately_ write this way, with very clever sexual puns all over the place.

But with JA, there is the widespread belief (which to me is a myth) that she was too proper to write such things, and we have no explicit extratextual statements confirming that she did--or did not--do this. And so I claim that you beg the fundamental , decisive question when you don't carry your burden of demonstrating your claim that anyone can find this anywhere. The devil is in the details of the relevant texts.

And a writer who creates characters like Mary Crawford with her sexual punning, and who writes, at the tender age of 17, a sharade about King James I treading on the "whole" of his homosexual pet, Carr, is someone who is identifying herself as someone to hold under suspicion of doing the same thing herself.

And finally, note the context of the _last_ part of the extended sexual riff in Ch. 9 of Emma:

[Harriet] "I shall never let that book go out _of my own hands_," said she.

"Very well," replied Emma, "_a most natural feeling_; and _the longer it lasts, the better I shall be pleased_. But here is _my father coming_: you will not object to my reading the charade to him. _It will be giving him so much pleasure_! He loves any thing of the sort, and especially any thing that pays woman a compliment. He has the tenderest spirit of gallantry towards us all! You must let me read it to him."

Harriet looked grave."

And then the _next_ thing we hear is Mr. Woodhouse hazily remembering a stanza from Garrick's Riddle---which just happens to be one of the epicenters of sexual innuendo in Jane Austen's writing, as Jill Heydt Stevenson so brilliantly elucidated in 1999 (actually picking up on earlier scholarship, by the way--but, still, she deserves all the credit for making it famous)--with its subtext about men with syphilis having sex with virgins to cure them.

_No wonder_ "Harriet looked grave" at the prospect of Emma's "father coming"!

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: One more secret to reveal--check out the following excerpt from a recent Persuasions Online (Vol. 28, 2007) article by a completely mainstream Janeite academic scholar, Susan Allan Ford--she is the editor of the journal!---who wrote as follows in "Reading Elegant Extracts in Emma: Very Entertaining!". After, curiously, making reference to Mr. Elton's _first_ charade (the one to which the unspoken answer is "woe-man = woman", and where I claimed, in the following recent blog post, that there was a secret sexual solution).... having been in a riddle book (one that my research confirms JA actually read), Ford then goes on:

"...[Riddle books like] Ralph Wewitzer’s /The School for Wits, or the Cream of the Jests/ (1814), emphasize their innocent, educative purpose, as does the latter on its title page: “A Jest-book should be such as may be admitted into every boarding-school, as an instructive recreation; and which parents may place in the hands of their sons and daughters, without danger of corrupting their morals, or contaminating the purity of their tender minds.” This emphasis on the dangers of corruption or contamination suggests that these books quite frequently contained riddles and jests that Mrs. Norris might describe as “‘a little too warm’” (/MP/ 141). /The British Jester/ (1800) proclaims in its Advertisement that “[e]very care has been taken to exclude any thing bordering on indelicacy, so that it may claim a preference to most collections of the kind to the countenance of the Fair Sex.” Its frontispiece depicts a family scene: a child teasing a cat before a garden bench, upon which are seated a woman and a man who reclines with a book in one hand and her breast in the other. /The Trial of Wit/ (1782) contains the kind of riddle that concerned parents might have been thinking of:

Pleasantly growing in a bed, Of complexion white and red, The fairest lady in the land, Desires to have me in her hand, And put me in her hole before, And wish she had two handfuls more.

Such riddles “seduce” the wit into enjoying the indelicate answer before providing the innocent solution—in this case, “A Strawberry”" END OF FORD QUOTE

I don't think the significance of the above for the reading of sexual innuendoes in _Emma_ requires any "lines under the words"!

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