I've posted twice before about Kitty Bennet's coughing in the opening scene of Pride & Prejudice, most recently here:
Last weekend, I came across the following discussion in a scholarly article which shed surprising light on Kitty's strategic coughing.
In “Goblin laughter: violent comedy and
the condition of women in Frances Burney and Jane Austen” by Audrey Bilger, Women’ Studies, 24.4 (Mar.
1995): p323, I detected some striking resonance to Kitty's coughing in Fanny Burney's satirical faux conduct book, which was not published until long after Pride & Prejudice, which made me wonder whether Jane Austen might have actually read Burney's sharp satire. See what you think:
“An entry from [Fanny Burney’s]
early journal shows that even before her first novel, she was painfully aware
of the restrictions placed upon women and that she could turn the tables
somewhat by making these restrictions a subject for laughter. In this entry
from 1774, Burney has made it known to an assembled group that she intends to
write a conduct book of her own, so her friends eagerly interrogate her about
it: "It will contain all the newest
fashioned regulations. In the first place, you are never again to cough."
"Not to cough?," exclaimed
every one at once; "but how are you to help it?"
"As to that," answered I,
"I am not clear about it myself, as I own I am guilty sometimes of doing
it; but it is as much a mark of ill breeding, as it is to laugh; which is a
thing that Lord Chesterfield has stigmatized." . . .
"And pray," said Mr.
Crisp, making a fine affected face, "may you simper?"
"You may smile Sir," answered
I; "but to laugh is quite abominable; though not quite so bad as sneezing,
or blowing the nose." . . .
"But pray, is it
permitted," said Mr. Crisp, very drily, "to breathe?"
"That is not yet, I believe,
quite exploded," answered I; . . . "I shall only tell you that
whatever is natural, plain, or easy, is entirely banished from polite circles."
In Burney's conduct book run mad,
all natural behavior is restricted and frowned upon; the body becomes a thing
to be controlled, and every gesture exposes one to censure or ridicule. Eleven years later, when Burney returned to
this theme, shortly before her five-year confinement at court, she included
even more graphic elements of violent suppression, as evidenced by her
"Directions for coughing, sneezing, or moving, before the King and
“In the first place you must not
cough. If you find a cough tickling in your throat, you must arrest it from
making any sound; if you find yourself choking with the forbearance, you must
choke - but not cough. In the second place, you must not sneeze. If you have a
vehement cold, you must take no notice of it; if your nose membranes feel a
great irritation, you must hold your breath; if a sneeze still insists upon
making its way, you must oppress it, by keeping your teeth grinding together;
if the violence of the repulse breaks some blood-vessel, you must break the blood vessel - but not sneeze.”
Violent image begets violent image
as the directions continue. Next, the author commands that if "a black pin
runs into your head," one must not move to take it out. Neither pain nor
tears, anguish nor streaming blood, should cause one to budge in the presence
of royalty. Burney offers one ghastly consolation to the suffering acolyte: “If, however, the agony is very great,
you may, privately, bite the inside of your cheek, or of your lips, for a
little relief; taking care, meanwhile, to do it so cautiously as to make no
apparent dent outwardly. And, with that precaution, if you even gnaw a piece
out, it will not be minded: only be sure either to swallow it or commit it to a
corner of the inside of your mouth till they are gone - for you must not spit.”... “ END QUOTE
When I Googled to ascertain the first publication of Burney's wit (it appears to be 1842), I stumbled upon the following anonymous satire in The
Spirit of the Public Journals for 1803, Volume 7 edited by
Stephen Jones, Charles Molloy Westmacott, which also appeared as early as 1794 in the Hibernian Magazine, in plenty of time for Jane Austen to have read, enjoyed, and then emulated it:
THE CONVENIENCE OF COUGHING. [From
the Sentimental Magazine.]
Sir, There are few disorders
incident to the human frame, which people seem more desirous of curing than a cough.
For their timidity in this respect, I never could obtain a proper reason.
Coughing is, unquestionably, in some cases, attended with a degree of pain;
but, have we actually arrived at an age of light, and reason, and philosophy,
and yet cannot endure a little pain? Admitting that the pain is on some
occasions troublesome; or grafting that it is, on those occasions, much greater
than it has been represented; is there nothing to balance it? is not the
possession of a cough, and the liberty of using it when we please, an advantage
of the first importance? It is, indeed, so valuable a substitute for speech,
that I do not see how we can part with it, without suppressing' those opinions
which we are not allowed to give in words. The great utility of coughing appears
principally in the senate, the pulpit, and at the bar.
To begin with the senate. Suppose a member had
made a speech so long as to become tiresome, and so dull as to create no
interest, and that he still persists in wearing out-the patience of his
hearers, what are they to do? None of them dare to interrupt him in words; not
even the Speaker of the House himself can request him to conclude before
he pleases. What then is to be done? Why, Sir, half a dozen, or a dozen of his
brethren, begin a coughing chorus, which they repeat until he is
completely put to silence. And it very fortunately happens that this
venerable assembly hold their fittings in winter, when coughs are more frequent
than at any other season, and when, consequently, a member may provide himself
with this method to reply, at a very easy rate.
In the church, coughing is of
considerable service. If the Rev. Mr. A , or the Dean of B , or the Bistiop of
C , happen to say any thing which seems to allude to a person or persons
present, they can immediately communicate their opinions to one another by a
gentle, tickling cough, ay, and understand each other through a whole dialogue,
at the expense of the preacher, who thinks, poor man! that their lungs are
touched; whereas it is only their consciences.
At the bar, during the harangue of
some able and eloquent lawyer, I have often heard a clandestine cough
between his opponent and the jury, which was translated into very plain English
when they came to give their verdict. Winks and nods any person may detect, but
the language of coughing is confined to your old practitioners.
In the private intercourses of life,
the advantages of coughing have, I dare say, been experienced by most persons
who will honour this letter with a perusal. At the tea-table, when characters
come to be discussed, upon which occasion it may not be always safe to speak
out, a cough supplies the want of words. Praise an absent character, and
accompany your words with a proper intermixture of coughing, and the company
will immediately understand that you mean the very reverse of what you say. In
another case, when a person advance any thing to which you are not disposed to
assent, but which, for certain reasons, you do not choose to contradict, a
cough will explain your intention very fully. This is particularly useful when
listening to what old aunts and uncles advance, from whom we have great
expectations, and who, therefore, must not be thwarted. It will likewise often
happen that we are tempted to laugh, and yet must suppress it: this is
exceedingly painful, especially when we see another person in the lame
situation. The laugh begins involuntarily; but any expert person may soon
change it into a fit of coughing; and when he is black in the face, who will
dare to dispute the severity of the disease?
In playing at cards, I know, from
experience, that coughing is much resorted to, although I can by no means
defend any practice that is unfair. The Tabithas and Dorothys, however, do not
scruple to inform each other of the state of their hands by means of a gentle
coughing duet, intelligible only to themselves. 1 am convinced 1 have
lost many a game because my opponents were not provided with pectoral lozenges,
or sat with their back to the door, or slept with a window open, or some other
cause; while I well know they would not have parted with their cough for five
shillings per night.
I have thus, Sir, set down at random
some of the advantages of coughing ; and I hope that the ingenious gentleman
who executes the medical department of your Magazine, will hereafter mention
this disorder - with a becoming tenderness, and not hint at a cure, which, I am
persuaded, would be to all the personages above mentioned a very great
I am, Sir, &c. Tussiphilus. [i.e., lover of coughing!] END QUOTE
Burney's sharp satire of the suppression
of female expression, and in Tussiphilus’s wit, we see Kitty’s strategy
for expressing herself nonetheless.
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