In discussing a passage in Jane Austen's Letter 91, Diane Reynolds made the following interesting observation:
"I too find troubling--and interesting--the brothers' pursuit of
the maid, Mary Doe, an "upstairs-downstairs" activity that, as Diana
points out, is not overt in the novels. I agree with Ellen in being
concerned that Austen would blame the maid, when she would have very
little power or control over the situation--and I agree that nuts is a
pun on testicles. Here is the passage:
"Sackree does not at all approve
of Mary Doe & her nuts-on the score of propriety rather than health.-She
saw some signs of going after her in George & Henry, & thinks if you
could give the girl a check, by rather reproving her for taking anything
seriously about nuts which they said to her, it might be of use.-This,
of course, is between our three discreet selves."
Interesting too that
Jane is at pains to ask that this is kept quiet. I wonder, though, why
it would be Cassandra who would be assigned to "give the girl a check?"
Where is this flirtation transpiring? At Godmersham? Is Cassandra coming
there soon?....I looked in the OED, which I happened to have out, and
found that the "vulgar" use of the word nuts to describe someone "well
hung" goes back the 1780s; as a word meaning testicles," nuts dates
back to the late 1500s. The context in JA's letters sounds as if the
brothers and the maid were engaged in bawdy (or "vulgar") repartee
about nuts. "
I had flown right past this passage about gleaning nuts in Letter 91 in my first reading,
and am glad that it is now under the microscope for examination and
My initial inclination is to agree with those who claim that JA has
generated some sort of sexual innuendo on the word "nuts"---JA's using
words like "propriety", "reprove", "check" and "discreet" collectively
hint strongly at something outside of "proper" behavior.
And, even without the OED verifying a contemporary common sexual double
meaning around "nuts", I already knew that JA took delight in bending
all sorts of ordinary words toward forbidden or suggestive meanings, and
so she was perfectly capable of inventing such a double meaning at the
drop of a hat, without the necessary of dictionary confirmation.
But what to say beyond that? I think the key to understanding JA's
cryptic comments is to examine the context.
What is clear is that Letter 91 is a response to a letter CEA wrote to
JA, which JA (shades of Miss Bates!) has not only read herself, but has
also then read it alound to Sackree and then to 13-year old Elizabeth
Knight (with little sister 9 year old Louisa Knight tagging along). And
this little tale involves two elder brothers of these girls, George (18)
and Henry (16) who are apparently staying at the Chawton Great House at
So, whatever it is that CEA actually wrote to JA about Mary Doe (which
does sound rather suspiciously like "Jane Doe", which would be a perfect
coded name for an imaginary girl, because these little girls Elizabeth
and Louisa would not know this code) and the two Knight boys, it seems
quite likely to me that JA was doing what she did so often--a
hyperbolizing of some actual event, turning some trivial nothing into a
fantastical little farce in the theater of the absurd, with an adult
double meaning for the benefit of any adults listening.
And I can see in my mind's eye the two girls with eyes agog, eating up
Aunt Jane's spontaneous nonsense, not quite knowing what to believe and
what not to believe. And I can imagine JA writing Letter 91--or at least
that part of the letter---with the girls by her side, each of them
eagerly contributing ideas for what to write to Aunt Cassandra. And all
the while the crusty, laconic old Sackree benevolently smiles and shakes
her head in mock disapproval at Jane's creeping right up to the edge of
salaciousness, while keeping the girls in blissful innocence.
So I think it is quite possible that Sackree never even said anything
about George and Henry, but that the girls were vastly entertained
hearing about the shenanigans of their elder brothers, which meant
nothing salacious to _them_.
And JA shows that this is a coded passage with adult meanings hidden in
plain sight from the comprehension of the girls, by referring (hint
hint) to this being a secret "between our three discreet selves"---i.e.,
only the adult ladies, CEA, JA and Sackree, get the joke, and that is
how it should be, the girls are too young for what Nancy refers to as
the "smutty" part.
And I therefore seriously doubt that the two boys actually did anything
untoward with Mary Doe (if she even existed in real life), this was just
a tale told to amuse the girls at Godmersham. JA would not have looked
the other way at any sort of sexual harassment of young maids in one of
her brother's residences.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: Mary Doe makes another appearance a few letters later, and the
little tale about her in that later letter fits with my notion of JA
dramatizing things for the entertainment of her nieces.
PPS: I could not resist adding that Shakespeare was there first, two
centuries before JA, with witty sexual humor on the theme of nuts, in
Midsummer Night's Dream, when the lovers Bottom and Titania discuss food:
TITANIA Or say, sweet love, what thou desirest to eat.
BOTTOM Truly, a peck of provender; I could munch your good dry oats.
Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle of hay: good hay, sweet hay,
hath no fellow.
TITANIA I have a venturous fairy that shall seek
The squirrel's hoard, and fetch thee new nuts.
I had rather have a handful or two of dried peas. But, I pray you, let
none of your people stir me; I have an exposition of sleep come upon me.
Not only are Bottom (whose name is itself a sexual pun) and Titania
talking about more than oats, nuts and peas, we also have the added
bonus that Bottom refers to "a peck of provender", and that reminds me
of JA's reference to a "Peck Loaf" in Letter 89.
PLEASE NOW READ PART TWO, IN WHICH I ANALYZE A PASSAGE ABOUT "NUTS" IN PERSUASION
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