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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, February 6, 2012

Jane Austen's Letter 64: "....immured UNDER a very fine villain...."

In our ongoing groupread of Jane Austen's letters, one week at a time, in Janeites and Austen-L, we are up to Letter 64, and Diane Reynolds mentioned, in passing, the following passage in Letter 64:

"We are just going to set off for Northumberland to be shut up in Widdrington Tower, where there must be two or three sets of victims already immured under a very fine villain,"...."

Le Faye's footnote gives a citation for a 1930's Notes & Queries entry that gave a synopsis of the long forgotten Gothic novel, Margiana, that Jane Austen had been reading, but what caught my eye in the above passage was the word "under".

Of course one can read this phrase as referring to a Gothic villain who buries his female victims _under_ the floor of his castle, in some deep dark cellar. However, Jane Austen, in all of her novels, but most of all Northanger Abbey, relentlessly played with Gothic-tinged puns on "confinement" and "shut up", etc., as metaphors for the horrors of serial pregnancy and childbirth, and with abbeys as metaphorical representations of the female body.

Therefore, I assert that it is not a coincidence that Jane Austen uses the preposition "under" as a continuation of that punning on the method by which the male villain initially implements the "confinement" of his female victims, the consequences of which actually occur, according to the biological timetables that regulate the female human body, about 9 months later.

Dark sexual innuendo to describe a dark situation for the ordinary English gentlewoman of Jane Austen's era.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

I forgot to mention, there is one other fine bit of wordplay in Letter 64, which shows that Jane Austen was in a particularly punny mood that day, as she wrote to her sister:

"I can now answer your question to my mother more at large, and likewise more at small-with equal perspicuity and minuteness..."

Reading along in the flow of news in Letter 64, out of nowhere erupts Jane Austen's irrepressible love of wordplay--the above is a play on words which JA appears to spontaneously invent as she is writing---at least, I can find no evidence of any other writer using the expression "at small" other than JA, until the modern author Anne Fadiman steals it (without giving credit to JA) as the title of her 2008 essay collection, "At Large and At Small"'.

I see no sign of premeditation by JA in conjuring up this wordplay, and that begins to explain the inexhaustible riches of expression that we find in her novels, both in the narration and in the dialogue, why we take delight upon every rereading, and never feel like JA is just going through the motions, writing filler in order to get from Point A to Point B in her story line.

And it's not gratuitous wordplay, it corresponds to JA's content at that moment in Letter 64, as JA goes on to give the big picture as to coming travel plans for the Austen women, as well as the minute details of specific dates and places.

There is never a danger of cliched expression in JA's writing, because JA's mind automatically seeks out some wrinkle, some joke, some way of putting her personal stamp on what she writes, to make each sentence original and distinctive.