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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An Hem! Of Unquietness

In Janeites & Austen L today, Christy Somer brought up something very interesting, that spurred me to connect dots in various directions, all centered on the motif or conceit in Jane Austen's novels of faux coughing that signifies something else, which I first wrote about not long ago in connection with Kitty Bennet's Indiscreet Coughing. I responded as follows (Christy's comments have obviously been broken up into short quoted sentences for ease of response):

Christy: "I'm reading Mansfield Park again...And during the aftermath of Sir Thomas's return, JA has written her version of a consciously expressive cough -the only one in all of her work, I believe."

The only _EXPLICIT_ consciously expressive cough in her fiction, Christy, that is (probably) true. ;)

Christy: "Arnie, I seem to remember a post regarding Kitty Bennet's coughing not too long ago..."

Yes, indeed, thanks you, and here it is again for those who might not have noticed it, or don't recall what I said in it: _

Christy: "Anyway, here's the ch.19 moment: "Mr. Yates….immediately gave Sir Thomas an account of what they had done and were doing…. relating everything with so blind an interest as made him not only totally unconscious of the uneasy movements of many of his friends as they sat, the change of countenance, the fidget, the hem! of unquietness, but prevented him even from seeing the expression of the face on which his own eyes were fixed--from seeing Sir Thomas's dark brow contract as he looked with inquiring earnestness at his daughters and Edmund, dwelling particularly on the latter, and speaking a language, a remonstrance, a reproof, which he felt at his heart. Not less acutely was it felt by Fanny..."

Very nicely done, Christy! Although I had previously noticed that "Hem!" (the exclamation point is a nice touch, isn't it?) as significant in another context not directly related to significant coughing, I _failed_ to connect the dots back to it when I saw Kitty's indiscreet coughing in a new light. Therefore, I am very glad _you_ spotted it, and I thank you very much for pointing it out here. Such an example of an _explicit_ significant cough does, I assert, bolster my claims for the intentionality of JA's depiction of the _implicit_ significant coughing by Kitty. Why? Because at least it establishes beyond question that JA deployed such a motif in her novels, and leaves only the question of whether she would deploy it implicitly as well as explicitly. My answer is, of course, "Yes!".

And you have found a particularly lovely example of it, it's worth savoring for a moment, and there are no "shadows" about it. If we pause in our reading and focus on the scene set by JA, we can all readily imagine Sir Thomas, with his "dark contracted brow" [not coincidentally, rather like Hamlet's darkly contracted and brooding brow, as Claudius takes note of it in 1.2 of Hamlet], frowning at the suddenly sobered group of young adults which only an instant before had been carousing merrily in their boisterous rehearsals of Lovers Vows---like a classroom of schoolkids when the teacher returns after leaving them alone for a while---in the aftermath, while the angry teacher lectures, the braver children (I am thinking of Tom, Henry, and Mary, and probably Maria too) engage in one last bit of fake coughing as covert, defiant bravado before the fun is shut down completely. And that phrase, "the hem! of unquietness", is the linchpin that anchors that entire paragraph, and sparks it to vivid life! Who said JA did not write enough descriptive narration---her four words were worth forty words from a lesser writer!, I will return the favor to you, Christy, and tell you that in my presentation to the LA JASNA chapter only four days ago, I not only led with Kitty's coughing, as a prime example of JA's intentional textual ambiguities, I also mentioned Jane Fairfax's and Mrs. Elton's _implicitly_ conscious & significant coughing in _Emma_. As you will see, below, they're just as _conscious_ and just as _significant_, in _both_ senses of _both_ of those words, as Kitty's! Here they are:

"Miss Fairfax, who had seldom spoken before, except among her own confederates, spoke now. "Such things do occur, undoubtedly."—She was stopped by a COUGH. Frank Churchill turned towards her to listen."You were speaking," said he, gravely. She recovered her voice."

I suggested to my audience that Jane Fairfax coughs because she and Frank are actually having a coded conversation about a very sensitive subject, which of course Emma has no idea about.

And then a short time later Mrs. Elton also speaks and coughs:

"Very true, Mr. Weston, perfectly true. It is just what I used to say to a certain gentleman in company in the days of courtship, when, because things did not go quite right, did not proceed with all the rapidity which suited his feelings, he was apt to be in despair, and exclaim that he was sure at this rate it would be May before Hymen's saffron robe would be put on for us. Oh! the pains I have been at to dispel those gloomy ideas and give him cheerfuller views! The carriage—we had disappointments about the carriage;—one morning, I remember, he came to me quite in despair." She was stopped by a slight fit of COUGHING, and Mr. Weston instantly seized the opportunity of going on.

In the same vein, I've been suggesting in my Jane Fairfax presentations for several years now that the reason Mrs. Elton coughs at that very instant could be genuine, but they also could equally plausibly be a sarcastic “ahem!” about the identity of that "certain gentleman", which I then reveal, along with my reasons for my identification of him.

And finally, in composing this email today, I have connected the dots back to a _fourth_ implicit example of consciously expressive coughing, also in _Emma_, which I had seen some time ago but also did not connect to Kitty's coughing (or the "Hems!" in MP that you just spotted, Christy) until your post prompted me to it today, for which I thank you once again:

"Poor Mrs. Churchill! no doubt she had been suffering a great deal: more than any body had ever supposed—and continual pain would try the temper. It was a sad event—a great shock—with all her faults, what would Mr. Churchill do without her? Mr. Churchill's loss would be dreadful indeed. Mr. Churchill would never get over it."—Even Mr. Weston shook his head, and looked solemn, and said, "Ah! poor woman, who would have thought it!" and resolved, that his mourning should be as handsome as possible; and his wife sat sighing and moralising over her _broad_ HEMS with a commiseration and good sense, true and steady. How it would affect Frank was among the earliest thoughts of both."

Mrs. Weston's "broad hems" can be plausibly understood to be referring to mourning clothes, and that makes perfect sense, if we think of the Westons as sincerely mourning Mrs. Churchill. But...they also can be plausibly understood to refer to precisely the opposite--i.e., Mrs. Weston's faux coughing while _pretending_ to get "choked up" about the death of Mrs. Churchill. "Broad" is a double entendre, referring to either the physical breadth of the mourning clothes hem, or to the hinting, burlesquish or "broad" humor of Mrs. Weston's "Hems"! Suddenly we have been transported into the Monty Python version of mourning!

And, thematically, Indeed it would be faux coughing by Mr. and Mrs. Weston, for two powerful reasons. First, their "earliest thoughts" (what sharp irony there!) were about how Mrs. Churchill's death would affect Frank--i.e., of course the "effects" were that he had just become filthy _rich_!!! And, beyond the reliable motivation of greed, there was also no love lost between the Westons and Mrs. Churchill, I think you will all agree, and with good reason. It was Mrs. Churchill who was the one who exiled her sister to "Siberia" after she married then Captain Weston, and thereby denied the young couple access to the comforts of Enscombe. So we can so readily add in a huge dollop of "just deserts" and "poetic justice" to Mrs. Weston's "Hems" as well!

And best of all, just as Lizzy is utterly clueless as to the significant's of Kitty's coughing, and Fanny is too busy being creepmouse to notice her cousins's final rebellion, so too, Emma is utterly clueless about why Mrs. Weston is ahemming! And the Westons of course don't want Emma to know any of their private feelings about this, even though Emma has to be an incredible dolt not to read between the lines. But...that's Emma, unbelievably naive about.....everything!

And finally, based on all of the above, I have a strong feeling there are at least two or three _more_ of these faux coughings scattered through JA's other novels as well, coded in a different way, waiting to be found. JA was so diabolically clever, when she came up with a clever conceit like veiled significant coughing, she would rise to the challenge of finding a number of clever ways to express them, so as to provide further delight to readers/solvers who would eventually find them.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: The LA JASNA meeting was a fantastic success, by the way---there were the incredible number of 160 attendees to hear Cheryl Kinney [who gave an astonishingly polished, brilliant _and_ hilarious talk about the horrors of female medical care in JA's England---following her was a little like having the Beatles as my warmup act!], then myself, and then a very talented local LA historian, Walter Nelson, all followed by a lovely luncheon during which our own Diana Birchall, along with two other authors, read excerpts aloud to all of us from their contributions to the new Austen story anthology). Just an amazing accomplishment by the LA JASNA folks, from beginning to end!

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