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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jane Austen's Sovereign Good & Fanny Price's Sovereign Wish

In Janeites, Nancy Mayer made the following comment on my previous post about Jane Austen punning on "sovereign good" in Letter 54:

"Do you really think she meant a gold coin that hadn't been used for two hundred years? The coin wasn't coined between 1607 and 1816. Surely, most people had forgotten all about the old coin. Even though I know that people still give the cost of luxury items in guineas and they haven't been used since 1816, that wasn't true of the old sovereign."

I replied as follows:

Nancy, sovereigns may not have been used as _coins_ between 1607 and 1816, but I think the _pun_ on sovereign was a verbal "coinage" that _never_ went out of circulation among punning wits like JA:

"Elizabeth has a very sweet scheme of our accompanying Edward into Kent next Christmas. A legacy might make it very feasible;-a Legacy is our sovereign good."

Please reconsider my interpretation of this line in my previous message:

"Just as JA joked about legacies providing a wholesome diet in Letter 52, she again jokes about the "sovereign good" (in a Shakespearean pun on "sovereign", the name of an Elizabethan-era gold coin worth about a pound) of spending more time in Kent--but it will only be feasible if JA and CEA miraculously discover the "sovereigns" required to pay for the trip! She is about as sincere here as Mr. Bennet is for Mr. Collins to come back soon to Longbourn---NOT!!!"

Do you really believe that it is a coincidence that JA refers to a _Legacy" (which is a thing of value--whether money or property---that is passed from one person to another upon death) as a "sovereign good", having just made it explicit that she is talking (albeit in a joking way) about the necessity of a legacy to make a trip feasible?

I think this is one of her best puns, because she takes a cliche of high-falutin' pious moralizing writing, "sovereign good", and turns it completely on its head, by giving it a subtly cynical spin (remember Auden and his bon mot about Joyce being as innocent as grass compared to JA) by placing it in an explicitly mercenary and monetary context---this is the ultimate in hiding a pun in plain sight!

And lo and behold! I just searched, and found that JA _repeats_ this very same pun, in a very similar monetary context, in Mansfield Park, Chapter 27, and hides it in plain sight there as well!:

On reaching home Fanny went immediately upstairs to deposit this unexpected acquisition, this doubtful good of a [GOLD] necklace [just given to Fanny by Mary], in some favourite box in the East room, which held all her smaller treasures; but on opening the door, what was her surprise to find her cousin Edmund there writing at the table! Such a sight having never occurred before, was almost as wonderful as it was welcome. “Fanny,” said he directly, leaving his seat and his pen, and meeting her with something in his hand, “I beg your pardon for being here. I came to look for you, and after waiting a little while in hope of your coming in, was making use of your inkstand to explain my errand. You will find the beginning of a note to yourself; but I can now speak my business, which is merely to beg your acceptance of this little trifle—a chain for William’s cross. You ought to have had it a week ago,
but there has been a delay from my brother’s not being in town by several days so soon as I expected; and I have only just now received it at Northampton. I hope you will like the chain itself, Fanny. I endeavoured to consult the simplicity of your taste; but, at any rate, I know you will be kind to my intentions, and consider it, as it really is, a token of the love of one of your oldest friends.”

And so saying, he was hurrying away, before Fanny, overpowered by a thousand feelings of pain and pleasure, could attempt to speak; but quickened by one SOVEREIGN WISH, she then called out, “Oh! cousin, stop a moment, pray stop!” He turned back. “I cannot attempt to thank you,” she continued, in a very agitated manner; “thanks are out of the question. I feel much more than I can possibly express. Your goodness in thinking of me in such a way is beyond— “ “If that is all you have to say, Fanny” smiling and turning away again. “No, no, it is not. I want
to consult you.” Almost unconsciously she had now undone the parcel he had just put into her hand, and seeing before her, in all the niceness of jewellers’ packing, a plain GOLD chain, perfectly simple and neat, she could not help bursting forth again, “Oh, this is beautiful indeed!
This is the very thing, precisely what I wished for! This is the only ornament I have ever had a desire to possess. It will exactly suit my cross. They must and shall be worn together. It comes, too, in such an acceptable moment. Oh, cousin, you do not know how acceptable it is.”

Nancy, are you going to suggest to me that it is _also_ just a coincidence that this single solitary usage of the word "sovereign" in all six of JA's novels happens to be smack dab in the middle of a passage in which Fanny has just received the gift of not one but _two_ pieces of GOLD neck jewelry? A passage in which JA also refers to Fanny "deposit[ing] this unexpected acquisition, this doubtful GOOD" (the diametric opposite of a SOVEREIGN good from Letter 54)--as though it were a modern day deposit in a safety deposit box; a passage in which JA also refers to "smaller treasures"?

This is JA's satire at its highest level, a metaphorical oxymoron raised to a high pitch, with the inseparable mingling of the spiritual, the material, and the moral crammed into a plain GOLD chain! ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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