In Chapter 7 of S&S, we read the following description of the Dashwood women's first visit to Barton Park:
"Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were met at the door of the house by
Sir John, who welcomed them to Barton Park with unaffected sincerity;
and as he attended them to the drawing room repeated to the young ladies
the concern which the same subject had drawn from him the day before, at
being unable to get any smart young men to meet them. They would see, he
said, only one gentleman there besides himself; a particular friend who
was staying at the park, but who was neither very young nor very gay. He
hoped they would all excuse the smallness of the party, and could assure
them it should never happen so again. He had been to several families
that morning in hopes of procuring some addition to their number, but it
was moonlight and every body was full of engagements. Luckily Lady
Middleton's mother had arrived at Barton within the last hour, and as
she was a very cheerful agreeable woman, he hoped the young ladies would
not find it so very dull as they might imagine. The young ladies, as
well as their mother, were perfectly satisfied with having two entire
strangers of the party, and wished for no more."
At first, my 21st century mind was puzzled by Sir John's explanation for
why he had been unable to gather a larger crowd, and especially "any
smart young men", at Barton Park, the better to entertain the Dashwood
women. What did it mean that "it was moonlight and every body was full
of engagements."? At first I considered the far-fetched possibility that
adventurous hunters like Willloughby might be out on moonlit nights
shooting game birds, under extremely difficult conditions, as a kind of
macho amusement. But I soon realized how ridiculous that was, and that
there was a much more plausible real-world explanation, which was that,
2 centuries ago, moonlit nights were the safest ones on which to travel,
because drivers of coaches and carriages would be much less likely to
have accidents when they had the best visibility. Which also renders a
bit more rational Mr. Woodhouse's panic over the short carriage ride
from Randalls to Hartfield on a dark and snowy night. And a quick check
of various online Austen archives confirmed that this explanation was
the generally accepted one in Janeite circles, among those to whom the
question had occurred, such as our own Nancy Mayer.
But a third, and not at all benign explanation, had also occurred to me
by this time, which is the true subject of this post, and which I
believe is original. To wit, another significance of a "moonlight night"
could have been that the smart young men of the neighborhood would all
be "full of engagements".....at the local version of the infamous Sir
Francis Dashwood's Hellfire Club!
Janine Barchas has written about the thinly veiled allusion to the
Hellfire Club in great detail in “Hell-Fire Jane:**Austen and the
Dashwoods of West Wycombe” **// at Eighteenth Century Life, Volume 33,
Number 3, ppg. 1-36, Fall 2009. However, Barchas did _not_ pick up on
Sir John's apology about the unspecified _moonlight_ engagements of the
smart young men of the neighborhood as being a sly clue provided by JA
pointing toward Sir Francis. But I draw encouragement from another
scholar, Daniel Willens, who, in“The Hell-Fire Club: Sex, Politics, and
Religion in Eighteenth-Century England”, in Gnosis, Summer 1992, begins
his article with the following statement:
" ON MOONLIT NIGHTS during the reign of England's King George III,
immensely powerful members of His Majesty's Government, important
intellectuals, and influential artists could sometimes be seen
travelling up the Thames River by gondola to a ruined abbey near West
Wycombe. There, to the sonorous tolling of the deconsecrated cloister's
bell, they dressed in monkish robes and indulged in every manner of
depravity, culminating in a Black Mass celebrated on the naked body of a
debauched noblewoman and presided over by that notorious rake Sir
For the Hellfire Club, I would imagine that the moonlight was not merely
a pragmatic consideration that prompted scheduling of Black Masses on
those particular nights, but rather was _symbolically_ meaningful.
I conclude by pointing out that JA, with her wicked way with puns and
wordplay, was not content to leave her veiled allusion to the Hellfire
Club's activities to rest merely upon a reference to "moonlight"
connected to the surname "Dashwood". No, always alert to a way to insert
an extra clue, she also played with the orthographical ambiguity, which
still prevailed in the written English of her day, of the word
"everybody", which was in her lifetime was often written as "every body".
I just did some quick checking, and the result is very interesting. I
verified that in the first edition of S&S, over 3/4 of the usages were
of the now archaic "every body", whereas only 15 months later, in P&P,
only one out of _forty_ used "every body", and in MP, only 2 years later
still, the usages were _all_ the modern "everybody"! So I think it is
reasonable to infer that in S&S, JA may very well have meant to engage
with this ambiguity in a subtle thematic way.
That is why I am quite confident that in the above-quoted passage, JA
was having some punny fun with the spelling ambiguity---i.e., she
deliberately and carefully constructed her sentence so that every
_body_, when read against the grain, could plausibly be read as
referring to the _physical_ "body" of every person present at the Black
Mass, including in particular the debauched lady whose _body_ was the
focal point of the proceedings, a particular part of her body being
_full_ of...."engagements", a very flexible word which can function as a
euphemism for engagement in various sorts of unmentionable actions.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: This post is directly connected to my much earlier post about Lucy Ferrars (aka Lucifer!) and her Hell-born cousins!:
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