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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Kitty's Indiscreet Coughing: She's Just Following Advice

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 Queen": 
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 misfortune.
I am, Sir, &c. Tussiphilus. [i.e., lover of coughing!]   END QUOTE
So in Burney's sharp satire of the suppression  of female expression, and in Tussiphilus’s wit, we see Kitty’s strategy for expressing herself nonetheless.

Cheers, Arnie
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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