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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 3, 2011

To Die of Laughter: The School for Jane Austen's Scandalous Wit

In Janeites and Austen L, we have reached Jane Austen’s Letter #4 in our marathon group read of all of her surviving letters. Nancy Mayer noted that "Jane says that she could die of laughter at her sister's letter "as they used to say at school” and I responded as follows.

What I find very interesting about this description by Jane of her reaction to Cassandra’s letter responding to Jane's Letter #3 (with its breathless hyperbole about "Dissipation and Vice" in the big city) is that the one character in all of Jane's novels who uses that expression is......Lydia Bennet, who uses it not once but twice in a short passage from Chapter 39 of Pride & Prejudice, describing some the fun she and Kitty have had during Lizzy's sojourn at Hunsford:

"I was ready to die of laughter."

That might at first seem like an insignificant coincidence, until you carefully read the beginning of Chapter 39 of Pride &Prejudice and see the context of Lydia's hyperbolic ejaculation, which I will comment on in brackets as it goes:

"It was the second week in May, in which the three young ladies.....

[That would be Lizzy, Jane, and Maria Lucas]

...set out together from Gracechurch Street for the town of -- -- , in Hertfordshire;....

[Jane Bennet has just spent a great deal of time in the midst of London with its Dissipation and Vice]

....and, as they drew near the appointed inn where Mr. Bennet's carriage was to meet them, they quickly perceived, in token of the coachman's punctuality, both Kitty and Lydia looking out of a dining-room upstairs. These two girls had been above an hour in the place, _happily employed in visiting an opposite milliner_.....

[This is very much apropos of my recent claims regarding the significance of the real life Mrs. Hester Cole _the milliner_ of Covent Garden where the young Phila Austen was a hard working girl, vis a vis the fictional Mrs. Coles of _Fanny Hill_ and _Emma_]

.....watching the sentinel on guard, and _dressing a salad and cucumber_.

[And I suggest that this cucumber is the Freudian offspring of the breathlessly described cucumber of Laura's Letter the 13th in Love and Freindship, and also one of the ancestors of Oscar Wilde's famous cucumber sandwiches in _The Importance of Being Earnest_]

After welcoming their sisters, they triumphantly displayed a table set out with _such cold meat as an inn larder usually affords_, exclaiming, "Is not this nice? is not this an agreeable surprise?"

[Indeed, from the point of view of a girl like Lydia, "such cold meat" is nice and a very agreeable surprise]

"And we mean to treat you all," added Lydia; "but you must lend us the money, for we have just spent ours at the shop out there."

[Lizzy missed an opportunity here to tell Lydia that she did not approve of Lydia's manner of procuring "such cold meat". Then let's skip ahead a quarter page...]

_"How nicely we are crammed in!"_ cried Lydia.

[Lydia is a veritable fount of Freudian imagery.]

"I am glad I bought my bonnet, if it is only for the fun of having another bandbox! Well, now let us be quite comfortable and snug, and talk and laugh all the way home......Lord! how I should like to be married before any of you! and then _I would chaperon you about to all the balls. Dear me!_ we had such _a good piece of fun_ the other day at Colonel Forster's. Kitty and me were to spend the day there, and Mrs. Forster promised to have _a little dance_ in the evening (by the bye, Mrs. Forster and me _are /such/ friends!_); and so she asked the two Harringtons to come, but Harriet was ill, and _so Pen was forced to come by herself_; and then, what do you think we did? We dressed up Chamberlayne in woman's clothes on purpose to pass for a lady -- only think what fun! Not a soul knew of it, but Colonel and Mrs. Forster, and Kitty and me, except my aunt, for we were forced to borrow one of her gowns; and you cannot imagine how well he looked! When Denny, and Wickham, and Pratt, and two or three more of the men came in, they did not know him in the least. _Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died._ And /that/ made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter."

[And there is the _first_ such usage of that image of dying laughing, in the context of a series of sexual puns on flirting, balls, dancing, and cross dressing fun with when Lydia talk about dying laughing, I find it impossible _not_ to make the association to the metaphorical "death" of sexual consummation]

With such kind of histories of their parties and good jokes, did Lydia, assisted by Kitty's hints and additions, endeavour to amuse her companions all the way to Longbourn. Elizabeth listened as little as she could......and Lydia, in a voice rather louder than any other person's, was enumerating the various pleasures of the morning to anybody who would hear her.

"Oh! Mary," said she, "I wish you had gone with us, for _we had such fun_! As we went along, Kitty and me _drew up all the blinds_, and _pretended there was nobody in the coach_; and _I should have gone so all the way_, if Kitty had not been sick; and when we got to the George, I do think we behaved very handsomely, for we treated the other three with _the nicest cold luncheon in the world_, and if you would have gone we would have treated you too. And then, _when we came away, it was such fun!_ I thought we never should have got into the coach. _I was ready to die of laughter._ And then we were so merry all the way home! we talked and _laughed so loud, that anybody might have heard us ten miles off!_"

[And that little speech is also a veritable cornucopia of sexual puns, which frame the _second_ reference by Lydia to dying of laughter]

To this Mary very gravely replied, "Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate _such pleasures._ They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for /me/ -- I should infinitely prefer a book."

[A remark by Mary which takes on ironic significance in light of the veiled allusion to a book--_Fanny Hill_!]

But of this answer Lydia heard not a word. She seldom listened to anybody for more than half a minute, and never attended to Mary at all.

[And I see this exchange between Mary and Lydia as purely Freudian satire--we have the "Id", i.e., Lydia, having a conversation with the "Superego", i.e., Mary--and of course the Id never attends at all to the Superego!]

So, I suggest that the above contextualizing gives the reader of Jane's use of that expression in Letter #4 a whole different sense of its meaning than at first might appear, and of the qualifying clause "as they used to say at school"--I suggest further that JA is winkingly alluding to Sheridan's _The School for Scandal_ , and also to _The Critic_ (with Tilburina's famous word salad alluded to by JA in that same Letter the 13th in _Love and Freindship_) , and also _The Rivals_ (which has its own sexually charged Lydia).

Now, whether Cassandra had actually engaged in some sort of repartee in this general vein in her letter which prompted Jane to applaud Cassandra's comic genius, and then respond in kind, or whether Jane was ribbing her strait-laced sister for responding to Jane's jokes the way Mary Bennet responds to Lydia, I do not hazard a guess.

Cheers, ARNIE

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