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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Jane Austen’s Hilarious “Dirty” Jokes in her Novels; or: Lizzy Bennet REALLY puts her foot in “it”!

Yesterday, the following passage in Jane Austen's Letter 120…  

"...They will come Monday instead; it must be before Wednesday, since then she is going to London with Henry. "If Monday therefore should appear too DIRTY for walking, & Mr. B.L. would be so kind as to come & fetch me to spend some part of the morning with you, I should be much obliged to him,"

…was brilliantly decoded as follows by Diana Birchall in Janeites and Austen-L:

“Jane writes, reminding us once again of the difficulty of transportation in the neighborhood, or any neighborhood, at that period. The smallest trip involving "solitary female walking" involves anxious study of the state of the road - it's all just dirt of course, and raining as much as it does in England, the muddy roads thick with horse droppings would have been something fearful. When Elizabeth Bennet's petticoats were inches deep in mud, we must remember she was bringing horse dung into the Netherfield drawing-room. "

I immediately and enthusiastically endorsed Diana’s sharp and persuasive reading of Elizabeth Bennet’s famous walk from Longbourn to Netherfield as follows:

Excellent point, Diana! And actually, that does make the Bingley sisters seem a bit less nasty in their joking about Elizabeth, because Elizabeth is indeed more than a little insensitive to the bad smells she was importing into the Netherfield salon, even taking into account that bathing was not as regular during the Regency Era as it is today, even for the elite. Elizabeth is oversensitive to the bad impression that sister Mary makes when she eagerly displays her musical skills to a crowd at a ball, but she herself literally ignores that she brings a very bad smell into a roomful of snobs, and doesn't seem to know or care--there is a disconnect there that Jane Austen does intend us to notice--Elizabeth really is presenting herself as a country girl.

Then, after Diana's suggestion was stoutly challenged in Janeites, I responded as follows:

Here's a photo I found online when I Googled "stile":
That sure looks to me like there's one stile where the worn path is, and one through the field next to the path. I agree with those who would say Lizzy would have followed footpaths in part, but how can anyone be so sure that Jane, e.g., would not have ridden her horse on the identical path over fields, stiles, and footpaths, that Lizzy did? What if that was THE preferred path between Longbourn and Netherfield, which over years had become codified in the minds of the Bennet girls? Why should we assume that there'd have always been separate paths for pedestrians and horseback riders? I'd think they'd use the same paths in the countryside.

And actually, I strongly suspect that it was Lizzy walking in part over horse trails, and not the reverse, because everyone is so surprised to hear that Lizzy walked such a long distance. Which suggests that probably nobody else ever made that same walk, at least in dirty weather, and that suggests to me that by default she'd be following the same route that Jane (and anyone else going back and forth on that route) took a few days earlier to get to Netherfield.

I know nothing about horses and their bodily functions, but I bet that someone who does could comment about where, when, and how often horses tend to make their "deposits" on the ground--perhaps there was a larger accumulation at stiles, the junction points where BOTH pedestrians and horse riders had to pass, and where there'd be a short stop while getting over the stile. And that would account for the SIX inches of "mud" on Lizzy's petticoat-when you jump down from even a small height, you would tend to sink deeper into the mud (that included horse manure) than just by normal walking.  Tiny, seemingly insignificant details mean something in JA's writing!

What's for sure is that the Bingley sisters react, and Bingley and Darcy respond to them, as if they were all talking about more than just plain mud, but nobody wants to say it straight out. And it would also make sense that a country girl like Lizzy would have gotten used to country smells that these city girls like the Bingley sisters would, like Mary Crawford, be totally unfamiliar with--so the latter would probably be much more sensitive to those country smells than Lizzy.

And finally, remember that Jane Austen is the author who created Mr. Woodhouse, the man who was obsessed with "bad air" at "south end" (classic ribald humor!) and also wrote the following exchange about another rustic walk and the dangers of dirty feet:

"But you must have found it very damp and DIRTY. I wish you may not catch cold."
"DIRTY, sir! Look at my shoes. Not a speck on them."
 "Well! that is quite surprising, for we have had a vast deal of rain here. It rained dreadfully hard for half an hour while we were at breakfast. I wanted them to put off the wedding."

 I find it drolly funny to wonder whether Mr. Woodhouse is slyly hinting that Knightley might have gotten poop on his shoes. And I believe JA was perfectly capable of some subtle country humor about the "process of elimination" in man and beast. I'd say the question is up in the air, pending more evidence tending one direction or another.

And then, today, in the final stage (so far) of this smelly tale (I couldn’t resist) of subtextual interpretation, Diana did a very creditable channeling of Sir Walter Scott, writing in the lingo of an illiterate British shepherd, in order to reiterate her claim:

Diana wrote: "(darkly, in Hertfordshire peasant voice) Ah, there's no a-tellin' what mixes in t' mud in yon part of t' world, ye knows.  Them as thinks as no horses, an' no cows, an' no sheepses goes paradin' over thar self same fields as Miss Liza Bennet trompled over, th' hussy, they be city folks and don' know nothin' about what manner o' dirt we got in these here parts.  Loam, mon. What you be thinkin' loam are made of?  Ye demned fules! 
Diana (who in walking from Selborne to Chawton very narrowly missed stepping into a violently oozy cow-pat and will guarantee that English country mud has always been as liberally mixed with horse dung as my cappuccino is with cocoa.)" END QUOTE

And that inspired me to further chime in, in support of Diana:

And as to any who object to such a reading, I suggest it's enough that Jane Austen raised a suggestion (a whiff, if you will) of scatology in her descriptions of Lizzy's six inches of dirty petticoats (three times as long as the ivory she used to writer her novels!). Maybe Lizzy stepped in poop, maybe it was a mixture of poop and ordinary dirt, maybe it smelled a lot or maybe it smelled a little. The point is that this is a reasonable question raised by the text itself, a question which cannot be resolved definitively either way based on the text.

So Diana's excellent sensitivity to the subliminal aroma of JA's language in Letter 120 and in P&P has brought fresh perspective on that passage in P&P which is pretty significant.

In fact, if you think about it, aren't Lizzy's possibly poopy petticoats (say that ten times in a row very fast!) the perfect symbol of the way Lizzy feels A LOT when she's around Darcy, a feeling that Caroline Bingley does not hesitate to bolster at every opportunity.

We've all heard or used the expression "Now you've REALLY stepped in it", and isn't that exactly how Lizzy feels when Mary performs at Netherfield ball, when Lydia brazenly cavorts around, and most of all when Mrs. Bennet does her thing?

It's a classic Jane Austen mixture of crude sexual innuendo wrapped in a tactful textual package that creates just enough doubt about JA's intentions, that readers like Nancy will feel justified in denying any dirty meanings, while readers like Diana and myself will feel equally justified in  opening the package and enjoying the rich, complicated aroma of those same dirty meanings.

But then, just as was getting ready to conclude this post, I realized with an electric jolt what had been tickling my memory ever since I first read Diana’s provocative suggestion, which absolutely clinches her interpretation, in spades, and shows that this was not an isolated deployment of subtle scatology by JA, in fact parts of her oeuvre are literally “covered” in it!


First, the part I remembered. Three years ago, I posted the following claim of thinly veiled scatological innuendo…

…in the following passage in S&S Chapter 16:

"Dear, dear Norland," said Elinor, "probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves."
"Oh," cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight."
"It is not every one," said Elinor, "who has your passion for dead leaves."
"No; my feelings are not often shared, not often understood. But SOMETIMES they are."—As she said this, she sunk into a reverie for a few moments;—but rousing herself again, "Now, Edward," said she, calling his attention to the prospect, "here is Barton valley. Look up to it, and be tranquil if you can. Look at those hills! Did you ever see their equals? To the left is Barton park, amongst those woods and plantations. You may see the end of the house. And there, beneath that farthest hill, which rises with such grandeur, is our cottage."
"It is a beautiful country," he replied; "but these bottoms must be dirty in winter."
"How can you think of dirt, with such objects before you?"
"Because," replied he, smiling, "among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane."
"How strange!" said Marianne to herself as she walked on.

It should be obvious, I think, from the italicized words in Edward’s surprisingly risqué repartee with Marianne—which, like so much of what happens in S&S, utterly eludes the clueless Elinor---that when Elizabeth Bennet strode into the Netherfield parlor with legs coated in a dark brown wet substance, JA was having a really really good time revisiting the “dirty” motif she had so cleverly and brilliantly introduced in the above passage in S&S.

And, interestingly, it also makes it extremely likely that JA’s reference to a walk being too “dirty” in Letter 120 to Anna was probably meant to be understood by her intelligent and earthy niece as (literally) a “dirty” joke!

In short, in thinking about the path taken by Elizabeth to Netherfield, and paraphrasing the smiling Edward Ferrars, I see a VERY “dirty” lane! 


I also checked in JA’s juvenilia and fragments and found no evidence of this “dirty” joke in the former, but found a very interesting example of it in The Watsons:

"Have you been walking this morning?"
"No, my Lord. We thought it too DIRTY."
"You should wear half-boots." – After another pause, "Nothing sets off a neat ancle more than a half-boot; nankin galoshed with black looks very well [have a very good air]
“Do not you like Half-boots? “
“Yes ‒ but unless they are so stout as to injure their beauty, they [have not advantage in the deep dirt of] are not fit for Country walking.Ladies should ride in DIRTY weather.
…. He recommended Exercise in defiance of DIRT spoke again in praise of Half-boots wanted her to begged that his Sister might be allow 'd allowed his sister to send her Emma the name of her Shoemaker”

What’s most interesting are the two substitutions that JA makes. She initially writes that half-boots “have a very good air” (which is clearly a pun on “air” as meaning either the overt meaning of “style” or the covert satirical meaning of “smell”—i.e., JA was attributing to the speaker a witty suggestion that the half boots smell better after a walk on a “dirty” road!  But then for whatever reason (perhaps the disapproval of one or more of JA’s siblings or parents) , she instead substitutes the sanitized “looks very well”.  

And then, only two lines later, she at first makes reference to “have not advantage in the deep dirt” of “country walking”, which conveys the notion of manure piled high in the countryside, but then sanitizes that into the harmless “are not fit for”.

While these two substitutions could otherwise have had some stylistic motivation, I think that the coincidence of not one but two substitutions in the same conversation, which both sanitize “dirty” punning, is beyond the realm of reasonable coincidence. This was entirely intentional!


But something apparently happened between 1804 and 1811 that gave JA the courage to keep her “dirty” jokes in her texts, hidden in plain sight in S&S and then again in P&P. But these are one-shot deals in S&S and P&P, as it turns out, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the most pervasive deployment by JA of this “dirty” scatological joke in all of JA’s novels, is in the most overtly youthful, exuberant, and satirical of her novels---Northanger Abbey.

Read in amazement (as I was amazed) at how many times she goes to the well on this same “dirty” joke in the following passages, especially in Chapter 11, which must henceforth be known as the epicenter of “dirt” in JA’s novels! All you have to do every time you see the word “dirt” or “dirty”, is to hear that other 4-letter word which “dirt” stands in for, and the rest will be laughter, and lots of it, unless your name is Malvolio and you just don’t approve of such humor:

Ch. 1: “Her love of DIRT gave way to an inclination for finery, and she grew clean as she grew smart; she had now the pleasure of sometimes hearing her father and mother remark on her personal improvement.”
MY COMMENT: Indeed a more careful attention on Catherine’s part to “dirt” than the Prince Regent’s wife exhibited when he was first introduced to her in person would be considered an “improvement”!

Ch. 5: “ ….if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and DIRT, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.”
MY COMMENT: So Catherine and Isabella would still get together, even though they had to navigate through Bath’s “dirty” streets to do so.

Ch.9: “Unsafe! Oh, lord! What is there in that? They will only get a roll if it does break down; and there is plenty of DIRT; it will be excellent falling….” 
MY COMMENT: I.e., if the carriage rolls over on the road, not to worry, because all the muddy horse manure will cushion the fall!

Ch. 11: "No walk for me today," sighed Catherine; "but perhaps it may come to nothing, or it may hold up before twelve."
"Perhaps it may, but then, my dear, it will be so DIRTY."
"Oh! That will not signify; I never mind DIRT."
"No," replied her friend very placidly, "I know you never mind DIRT."
After a short pause…”
MY COMMENT: That last part is pitch perfect subtle sarcasm on Mrs. Allen’s part—Catherine obliviously says she never minds getting poop on her legs, and Mrs. Allen, who has been smelling Catherine’s disregard for leg hygiene for quite a while, drops that sarcasm on Catherine, who, being a sharp elf herself, picks up on the sarcasm, hence the “short pause” before conversation resumes. This is priceless!

Also Ch. 11:  “…whether Catherine might still expect her friends, whether there had not been too much rain for Miss Tilney to venture, must yet be a question. It was too DIRTY for Mrs. Allen to accompany her husband to the pump-room…”
MY COMMENT: Again, Mrs. Allen most definitely does not want to get poop on her legs.

Ch. 11 yet again!: "Well, I saw him at that moment turn up the Lansdown Road, driving a smart-looking girl."
"Did you indeed?"
"Did upon my soul; knew him again directly, and he seemed to have got some very pretty cattle too."
"It is very odd! But I suppose they thought it would be too DIRTY for a walk."
"And well they might, for I never saw so much DIRT in my life. Walk! You could no more walk than you could fly! It has not been so DIRTY the whole winter; it is ANKLE-DEEP everywhere."
Isabella corroborated it: "My dearest Catherine, you cannot form an idea of the DIRT; come, you must go; you cannot refuse going now."
MY COMMENT: No comment is necessary, I think, to convey the hilarious humor implicit in this passage, if you only substitute for “dirt” that other 4-letter word!

And CH. 11 yet AGAIN: “It was now but an hour later than the time fixed on for the beginning of their walk; and, in spite of what she had heard of the prodigious accumulation of DIRT in the course of that hour, she could not from her own observation help thinking that they might have gone with very little inconvenience.”
MY COMMENT: “prodigious accumulation” indeed! The echoes of Swiftian scatalogy are unmistakable!

And the last round of the joke in Ch. 11: “…Why were not they more punctual? It was DIRTY, indeed, but what did that signify? I am sure John and I should not have minded it. I never mind going through anything, where a friend is concerned…”
MY COMMENT: Again, think about Isabella in effect saying, I don’t mind through s-t, when a friend is concerned!

Sure, one can read all of these “dirt” usages in a PG way, but you have to ask yourself why JA would repeat this joke over and over and over again in Chapter 11 in particular, if it was only that and nothing more.


Anyway, as for the other JA novels, while JA also briefly revisits this “dirty” joke in MP, Emma and Persuasion, it’s like the joking in S&S and P&P, but less overt—essentially one-shot deals (like Mr. Knightley’s shoes which have “not a speck” on them). They’re not on a scale that we see in the above quoted passages in the “Bath” episode of NA, and that’s significant, I suggest. It has been asserted, and I agree, that the “Bath” episode was not substantially rewritten after JA took it back from the publisher, but that the “Abbey” episode was significantly rewritten thereafter.  My findings, above, which show that the “dirty” joke is almost entirely confined to the “Bath” episode only, together with its next strongest presence being otherwise present in the first two novels to be published, tell me that JA did not want to wear her youthful joke out with too much revisiting in her last three novels to be written, but she never did let go of it entirely, either.

That’s why I think it fitting to end this post with what Mrs. Smith says to Anne about Cousin Elliot’s feelings about Kellynch in her last completed novel, Persuasion:

“His chance for the Kellynch estate was something, but all the honour of the family he held as cheap as DIRT.”

This has nothing to do with “dirt” on shoes, boots, or petticoats, but nonetheless I think it clear that Mrs. Smith has sanitized what she really means when she speaks of “dirt”, because only the crude Anglo-Saxon 4-letter word (that “dirt” stands in for) accurately embodies the depth and intensity of the contempt and anger that Mr. Elliot felt for the “honour” of the Elliot family.  This is no longer a “dirty” joke, it’s an appropriate novelistic way of conveying, in a single word, this powerful meaning, which is why human language will never abandon ‘dirty words”, as they fulfill an invaluable purpose when not abused.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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