Nancy Mayer wrote the following skeptical comment about claims by myself and others about the coded meaning of the word "beau" as used by Nancy Steele in Sense & Sensibility:
"As usual, assumptions made and presented as absolutes irritate me. We need at least some proof that anyone used the word beau at that time to mean a homosexual. No one would have thought it meant a person was gay. Wellington was also called Beau. The famous ones were Beau Nash of bath, Beau Brummell, and Wellington. The title didn't gain common usage because of other qualities of Wellington. No such definition of Beau is given in the Dictionary of the Vulgar tongue. Can you find references to show that someone Austen would have been acquainted with used the word beau to mean a homosexual? I don't much beleive in authors writing in a code only understood by one or two people. I admit that I generally don't go along with all the supposedly sexual connotations given to Austen's words. Not sure I would like an author with such a mind. There is something wrong with such an obsession with scatological details. However, that is just part of my dissatisfaction with some of the wide claims being made. One has to show that such a use was in circulation in large enough circles so that more than 2 people would be in on the joke."
Nancy, I was thinking about what you wrote, above, last night, and I realized that there was a much more important point about Jane Austen's writing, than whether or not there was a Regency Era subcultural slang usage of "beau" to refer to a gay or bisexual man. In fact, I will argue the opposite, i.e., that for Nancy Steele to have used a term for a gay man that was universally recognized would have defeated her (and Jane Austen's) purpose!
My Subject Line is the clue, as I begin with the following memorably hilarious dialog from the film Analyze This:
BEN [Billy Crystal's character]: ...As [the mob boss, Robert De Niro's character's] consigliere, I'm intimately involved in all aspects of the family business and I'm prepared to speak for Mr. Vitti on all matters.
SINDONE: Okay, Doctor, then let's get down to business. Everybody knows there's been this thing between me and Paul Vitti for a long time.
BEN: Which thing are you talking about? The first thing or the second thing?
SINDONE: What second thing? I only know one thing.
BEN: Well, I don't see how we can discuss the first thing without bringing up the second thing. Didn't you talk to the guy? (He tugs meaningfully on his earlobe)
SINDONE: What guy?
BEN: The guy with the thing.
SINDONE: What thing? What the ____ are you talking about?
BEN: How should I know? You brought it up. (gestures helplessly to the others) This is the whole problem. You can't have an intelligent conversation with the man.
The joke in this passage is a variation on a cliche of modern Mafia movies and TV shows, from The Godfather to Goodfellas to The Sopranos, where the Mafiosi, who know they are being wiretapped or otherwise overheard by the FBI, speak in code, using some innocuous word to describe some criminal act or another--Analyze This is a very clever parody of such genre, and the above-excerpted _shtick_ (as they used to say in the Catskills) sends up that cliche.
And my point in all of this is that JA was exploiting this very same convention, to great but covert effect, in many passages in her novels, where characters are substituting one word or theme as code for another. I have mentioned some of these in the past, such as the conversation among Wentworth, Louisa and Henrietta when they talk about ships overtly, but are talking about women's bodies covertly...
...and that is a very relevant example for the usage of "beau" in S&S, because the code word used in substitution is metaphorically related to the concealed word. In the former case, ships have always been referred to as female, as in "thar she blows!", etc. And I suggest that what Nancy Steele is doing in her perseverations on "beau" is in exactly that same vein. What better code word for a gay man than a word that is associated with fastidious dressing, sexually active, _straight_ men? When delivered with appropriate nonverbals, such as significant smiles and winks, it conveys the intended meaning to those who are aware that we are in "code mode", while remaining safely unrecognized by those who are not aware.
And so it's clear to me that Nancy Steele is making a very big deal about the sexual orientation of various men in S&S, in ways that quite intriguing, but that are beyond the scope of this post.
I conclude this post with three other passages in JA's fiction, all from _Emma_, which came to my mind as soon as I started writing this post, and thought of bringing forward the above excerpt about "the thing", "the first thing", and "the second thing", from the screenplay of Analyze This:
First we have Mr. Woodhouse expressing his grave concerns about dancing with open windows:
"The doors of the two rooms were just opposite each other. "Might not they use both rooms, and dance across the passage?" It seemed the best scheme; and yet it was not so good but that many of them wanted a better. Emma said it would be awkward; Mrs. Weston was in distress about the supper; and Mr. Woodhouse opposed it earnestly, on the score of health. It made him so very unhappy, indeed, that it could not be persevered in. "Oh! no," said he; "it would be the extreme of imprudence. I could not bear it for Emma!—Emma is not strong. She would catch a dreadful cold. So would poor little Harriet. So you would all. Mrs. Weston, you would be quite laid up; do not let them talk of such A WILD THING. Pray do not let them talk of it. That young man (speaking lower) is very thoughtless. Do not tell his father, but that young man is not quite THE THING. He has been opening the doors very often this evening, and keeping them open very inconsiderately. He does not think of the draught. I do not mean to set you against him, but indeed he is not quite THE THING!" "
Second, we have Mrs. Elton expressing her grave concerns about Jane retrieving her mail all by herself:
" "You are extremely kind," said Jane; "but I cannot give up my early walk. I am advised to be out of doors as much as I can, I must walk somewhere, and the post-office is an object; and upon my word, I have scarcely ever had a bad morning before."
[Mrs. Elton] "My dear Jane, say no more about it. THE THING is determined, that is (laughing affectedly) as far as I can presume to determine any thing without the concurrence of my lord and master. You know, Mrs. Weston, you and I must be cautious how we express ourselves. But I do flatter myself, my dear Jane, that my influence is not entirely worn out. If I meet with no insuperable difficulties therefore, consider that point as settled." "
And third and last, we have Mrs. Elton again, expressing her decided opinions about coming on donkeys (so to speak) in al fresco outings:
""I wish we had a donkey. THE THING would be for us all to come on donkeys, Jane, Miss Bates, and me—and my caro sposo walking by. I really must talk to him about purchasing a donkey. In a country life I conceive it to be a sort of necessary; for, let a woman have ever so many resources, it is not possible for her to be always shut up at home;—and very long walks, you know—in summer there is dust, and in winter there is dirt.""
In each of these cases, I suggest we have hinting and suggestion of some unspoken (or unspeakable) subject coded generically as "the thing".
And that's (only a small part of) why I entitled my subject line, "the _code's_ the thing not only in Analyze This but also in Jane Austen's writing!
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- August Wayne Booth in Once Upon A Time: Jane Austen Really IS Everywhere in 2012!
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- The secret codeword Shakespeare devilishly hid in plain sight in Romeo & Juliet that Shakespeare Uncovered DIDN’T uncover—but John Milton (and then I) did!