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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, September 30, 2013

“…unless you keep on the footpath”: Mr. Woodhouse, Chief of Municipal Hygiene, & Highbury’s Dirty Lane

In my post last week about the subliminal scatological aroma of Lizzy Bennet’s muddy petticoats when she walks to Netherfield…

…I also mentioned the famous passage at the beginning of Emma re Mr. Knightley’s shoes, which I claimed was JA revisiting that same scatological theme she had used re Lizzy 3 years earlier:  

“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.”  END QUOTE

 Skip ahead to the JASNA AGM just completed in Minneapolis (as to which I will be blogging gradually the rest of this week, there were so many cool highlights to mention). On Friday, Juliet McMasters gave her usual AGM master class in her uniquely witty, poetic and insightful way. This year, her presentation was about the parallels she sees between JA’s Juvenilia (as to which no one in the world is a greater expert than Juliet) and Pride & Prejudice.

As I listened, I knew immediately that serendipity had led Diana to post her insight about Lizzy’s “muddy” petticoat just days before (her dear friend) Juliet’s presentation. Why? Because the question was therefore already fresh in my mind, one that Juliet would be uniquely qualified to answer. I.e., if there really is all this veiled “dirty” scatology in JA’s novels, all published after she was 34, when most Janeites (but not including me!) believe that JA had long since left behind the wild impropriety of her Juvenilia, then wouldn’t there be poop jokes all over the place in the Juvenilia?

Thinking just that, last week, I had searched “dirt” and “dirty” in JA’s juvenilia and had found nothing. That had particularly puzzled me, as there is otherwise lots of dirty (in a metaphorical sense) material in JA’s juvenilia, such as the rather frank ribaldry of JA’s History of England:

That’s the question I asked Juliet during the Q&A after her session, and my question received a mixture of jolly and worried laughter from the other attendees. Juliet also chuckled, but then paused and really thought about it, but could not from memory retrieve any such example from the Juvenilia. So for now, that remains an open question, and my best guess at this moment is that JA did not start using “dirt” as code for “poop” till she wrote The Watsons round about 1804, when she was almost 30, and that , before then, she had another code word, which I will endeavor to discover!  

Anyway, today, as I got back in my normal routine, I went back and looked a bit more closely at this theme of “dirt” as “poop” in Emma, and immediately found a smoking gun (or should I better say, a puddle concealing a pile of reeking poop?) in the following passage in Chapter 23:

[Emma to Frank]  "If you were never particularly struck by [Jane’s] manners before," said she, "I think you will to-day. You will see her to advantage; see her and hear her -- no, I am afraid you will not hear her at all, for she has an aunt who never holds her tongue."
"You are acquainted with Miss Jane Fairfax, sir, are you?" said Mr. Woodhouse, always the last to make his way in conversation; "then give me leave to assure you that you will find her a very agreeable young lady. She is staying here on a visit to her grandmamma and aunt, very worthy people; I have known them all my life. They will be extremely glad to see you, I am sure, and one of my servants shall go with you to shew you the way."
"My dear sir, upon no account in the world; my father can direct me."
"But your father is not going so far; he is only going to the Crown, quite on the other side of the street, and there are a great many houses; you might be very much at a loss, and it is a very DIRTY walk, unless you keep on the foot-path; but my coachman can tell you where you had best cross the street."
Mr. Frank Churchill still declined it, looking as serious as he could, and his father gave his hearty support by calling out, "My good friend, this is quite unnecessary; Frank knows a puddle of water when he sees it, and as to Mrs. Bates's, he may get there from the Crown in a hop, step and jump."
They were permitted to go alone; and with a cordial nod from one, and a graceful bow from the other, the two gentlemen took leave. Emma remained very well pleased with this beginning of the acquaintance, and could now engage to think of them all at Randalls any hour of the day, with full confidence in their comfort.”   END QUOTE

Do you see the language that makes it crystal clear that it’s poop everyone’s discreetly talking about, and not merely dirt? It’s in my Subject Line---“unless you keep on the foot-path”.  Now, why would it be that a footpath on the street in Highbury would avoid being dirty after rain (remember, there are puddles out there), when the rest of the street was “very dirty”? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the one thing missing from footpaths that would be found in abundance on the street where the horses strode was horse poop!

In fact, Nancy, when arguing against Lizzy having gotten poop on her petticoat, claimed that Lizzy would not have gotten poop on her petticoat en route to Netherfield, because she would have kept to the footpath and open meadow, and would have avoided the riding path. In other words, Nancy was sounding suspiciously like Mr. Woodhouse and thereby was inadvertently supporting my claim about the “dirty walk” in Highbury! It’s like Literary Whack-A-Mole when you try to rebut arguments about Jane Austen’s ribaldry---knock down one claim with an argument, and then another argument pops right up that is supported by the first argument!

And the joke doesn’t end there with Mr. Woodhouse’s warning. We then have the additional humor of Frank and Mr. Weston having to exert themselves to put an end to Mr. Woodhouse’s attempts to teach Frank how not to walk in poop!

So when it says that Frank “still declined [the advice], looking as serious as he could”, it’s not just the G-rated humor of Frank being a grownup who doesn’t need advice on how to walk around Highbury, it’s the PG-13 or even R-rated humor of Frank being a normal person who can navigate around the excrement in his path! Of course it would have been ten times harder for Frank to keep a straight face in the face of that sort of advice!

So, now put the above passage from Ch. 23 alongside the earlier quoted passage from Ch. 1 (re Knightley’s shoes walking to Hartfield) and we see that Mr. Woodhouse really was concerned about Mr. Knightley’s getting specks of very bad stuff on his boots after all.  These two passages are bookends to each other.

And we also see that Mr. Woodhouse is just as obsessive in his veiledly-expressed concerns about getting poop on one’s feet, as he is in his explicit warnings about dietary concerns—he’d have made a fantastic chief of a Municipal Hygiene Department, don’t you think? He’d be watching everything that went into everyone’s mouths, and everything that got on their feet, that might lead them down the path to disease and ill health!

And the most significant part, where Jane Austen’s genius takes all of this humor to yet another level, is that beneath the humor there is deadly seriousness. There were genuine health benefits from such proactive attention to such things as stepping in poop, because in an era when infectious disease was not understood, and there was no penicillin around to deal with it when it arose, it was (dare we use this word about Mr. Woodhouse?) common sense to make sure you at least didn’t track poop into everyone’s houses! So perhaps Mr. Woodhouse really had his poop together (so to speak) after all?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

P.S.: And now I also see why Harriet and Mr. Elton REALLY follow Emma up onto the narrow footpath in Chapter 10-it's to get off the main road, where all the horse poop is! Emma (typically) invents another explanation ("Harriet's habits of dependence and imitation"):

Anxious to separate herself from them as far as she could, she soon afterwards took possession of a narrow footpath, a little raised on one side of the lane, leaving them together in the main road. But she had not been there two minutes when she found that Harriet's habits of dependence and imitation were bringing her up too, and that, in short, they would both be soon after her. This would not do; she immediately stopped, under pretence of having some alteration to make in the lacing of her half-boot, and stooping down in complete occupation of the footpath, begged them to have the goodness to walk on, and she would follow in half a minute. They did as they were desired; and by the time she judged it reasonable to have done with her boot, she had the comfort of further delay in her power, being overtaken by a child from the cottage, setting out, according to orders, with her pitcher, to fetch broth from Hartfield. To walk by the side of this child, and talk to and question her, was the most natural thing in the world, or would have been the most natural, had she been acting just then without design; and by this means the others were still able to keep ahead, without any obligation of waiting for her. She gained on them, however, involuntarily; the child's pace was quick, and theirs rather slow; and she was the more concerned at it, from their being evidently in a conversation which interested them. Mr. Elton was speaking with animation, Harriet listening with a very pleased attention; and Emma having sent the child on, was beginning to think how she might draw back a little more, when they both looked around, and she was obliged to join them.

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