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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, May 28, 2011

P.S. re Dirty Jokes....and (Uncle Toby's) Dirty Annuity!

Nancy Mayer responded to my earlier post about Uncle Toby's "dirty annuity", and I responded as follows:

[Nancy] "I think psychiatrists have a name for people who see salacious meanings everywhere. What I am having trouble grasping is Jane Austen as that sort of person. Also, I am having trouble with the masculine sort of puns and details. Many don't hit me as something most women would use. Also, where is Jane supposed to have learned the vocabulary? I doubt her father included pornography in his library and even the books that explained Shakespeare left them out for family consumption. I do not see her brothers doing show and tell with their anatomy while they explain and describe functions and slang words."

And so, to cut to the chase, Nancy, let me understand you correctly. You seem to be saying that because you have trouble conceiving of JA as a person who sees salacious meanings (of a masculine hue) everywhere, and/or as a woman who would even have a salacious-word vocabulary, _and_ because you also see her as only having had access to literature via her father or her brothers, therefore (taking a breath)..... you are therefore of the opinion that JA put "Uncle Toby's annuity" and "all the cardinal virtues" in the _same_ paragraph of Letter 39 dated September 14, 1804, thereby echoing, beyond (I claim) _any_ reasonable doubt, the passage in _Tristram Shandy_ (which, by the way, is one of JA's important sources for sexual innuendo) in which Uncle Toby himself refers to both a "dirty annuity, the bargain of [conscience's] lust" _and_ "seven cardinal virtues", for _what_ reason exactly _if not_ the explanation I gave in my post? I.e., do you have some non-salacious interpretation of a "dirty annuity, the bargain of [conscience's] lust" which is as likely and as persuasive?

It seems to me that you would need to specifically and persuasively respond to these points I've just raised, in order to rebut my claims.

And by the way, of course, I do not share _any_ of your basic assumptions.

First, I have no trouble at all grasping JA as the sort of person who did exactly what I see she did as a writer in terms of her pervasive deployment of sexual innuendo for a variety of purposes, the most important of which were _not_ salacious at all, but very worthy. As Auden famously opined, "Next to Austen, Joyce was innocent as grass." And Joyce was no innocent.

Second, I have no strong opinion about how widespread was the familiarity (with sexual innuendo) of intelligent, well-read women of JA's day, but that is, to me, irrelevant, because, regardless of whether it was common or rare, I am 100% certain that JA herself was such a woman. She was exceptional in so many ways, why do you assume she must have been ordinary in this particular way?

And third, I don't think her brothers and her father exerted any control over what she read, and that, from a very young age, she was clearly extremely adept at gaining access to all the literature she was interested in. Example #1, she obviously knew Tristram Shandy really well, to make an erudite and subtle allusion to a passage buried deep in the novel. And there are many who would say that Tristram Shandy is extremely bawdy, but in a very clever way, including, e.g., using asterisks at key moments to avoid writing very dirty words, but leaving those words extremely obvious to any reader over the age of 10.

And Tristram Shandy is the least of it. As I demonstrate during my Jane Fairfax talks to JASNA regional groups, and have posted about in the past year in these groups and in my blog, my research establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that she was also very familiar with _Fanny Hill_, which is the "poster child" of exactly the sort of "pornographic" writing you think JA never read.

But note that, as I point out frequently, there is not a single four letter word in all of Fanny Hill--it is a virtuosic paean to sexual euphemism--which is exactly the technique that JA used in her novels, but, she being a far superior writer to Cleland, she found a way to hide her sexual euphemisms in plain sight behind a thin palimpsest of non-sexual meanings.

Cheers, ARNIE

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