In Janeites, Rita Lamb wrote the following in connection with my ongoing discussion with Christy Somer about my claims that the Kitty Riddle and the "Prince of Whales" charade in Chapter 9 of Emma cannot be reconciled with a nonsubversive Jane Austen:
Rita: "So is Jones secretly purveying porn to the Regency young? I really don't think so. I think his book is evidence that however sordid a past might be claimed for Kitty, by 1822 at least she had become quite innocuous - harmless enough to pop up in a respectable, middle-of-the-road book aimed at improving the minds of the young. So why denounce her appearance in the hazy memory of poor old Mr. Woodhouse just a few years before?"
First, Rita, and this is important not to be flip or casual about, I'm not denouncing Kitty and Fanny. They are the Riddle’s symbols for the many real life female victims of this horrific sexual abusive practice that was considered “normal” by many powerful men. But of course I know you also would not mean to be flip about such a serious subject. I just want to set the stage for this discussion properly, by emphasizing that this was not about solving a word game puzzle, this was a terrible practice extant in JA’s lifetime, which, I am certain, outraged her.
But now to answer your question:
When JA wrote Emma, there were already out there in print Bowdlerized versions of Garrick's Riddle extant (your link is to one of them, but there were others, too, the same or very similar), which were sufficiently sanitized so as not to be obviously about sex with virgins as a cure for some disease.
The Riddle is written from the point of view of one of the narcissistic men who perpetrated such depraved acts without losing sleep over it---who seems in some lines to find it rather funny, but at other times comes near to acknowledging the horror of what he’s describing. The creep factor from reading a complete unBowdlerized version of the Riddle is off the charts.
So as to those later sanitized versions of the Riddle, of course, there were those who read them and did NOT automatically think, hmm, this is about sex with virgins to cure syphilis. It was possible, by 1816, for someone who treated it purely as a riddle, who didn’t even know about any earlier versions, but who just enjoyed solving word puzzles, getting to the safe answer (chimney sweep), and truly overlooking the concealed, horrible meaning entirely.
Which……..is precisely why Jane Austen very pointedly gives not one, not two, not three, but FOUR connected clues to her NOT being among those clueless but innocent readers and purveyors of the Riddle!
Here’s the relevant passage from Emma, which contains all of those four clues:
[Mr. Woodhouse] “…But I can remember nothing;—not even that particular riddle which you have heard me mention; I can only recollect the first stanza; and there are several.
[First stanza of Riddle]
And that is all that I can recollect of it—but it is very clever all the way through. But I think, my dear, you said you had got it."
"Yes, papa, it is written out in our second page. We copied it from the Elegant Extracts. It was Garrick's, you know."
"Aye, very true.—I wish I could recollect more of it.”
Let’s look at each of the four clues to Jane Austen’s understanding of the subversive subtext of the Riddle:
ONE: Identifying Garrick as the author: none of the latter sanitized versions I have ever found refers to Garrick as the author, whereas those earlier (mid 18th century) versions which DO connect the Riddle to Garrick also contain the most sexually graphic, telltale couplet:
Each day some willing victim bleeds
To satisfy my strange desires
TWO: Mr. Woodhouse specifically states that there are SEVERAL stanzas. That means at least 3 stanzas. None of the latter sanitized versions has more than TWO stanzas, but the earlier versions, which include that damning couplet, contain THREE stanzas.
THREE: Mr. Woodhouse says “it’s clever all the way through” ---so, again, as with Clue TWO, the reader is alerted to not stop reading carefully after Stanza One, but to be sure to search for the “clever” parts in Stanzas Two and Three, as well.
To believe that JA really innocently included the Riddle without awareness of its subversive subtext and provenance, even though she KNEW these three interesting facts from that subtext and provenance, is to me simply not rational.
But then Jane Austen, mistress of irony, could not resist a final ironic zinger:
FOUR: The Riddle is supposed to have appeared in Elegant Extracts. Elegant Extracts, as has been discussed in these groups and in scholarly books and articles, was a compendium of no racier than PG rated material for the delectation of an innocent audience. Sorta like Reader’s Digest in the present.
In point of fact, despite diligent search, no scholar has ever found any version of the Riddle in any edition of Elegant Extracts. So there are two ways of understanding the meaning of that curious error by Emma. Either Emma is repeating Jane Austen’s own editorial mistake, or Jane Austen knows the truth, but deliberately causes Emma to make a false claim.
To believe that this is Jane Austen’s mistake is to somehow reconcile in your mind two opposite things: that Jane Austen demonstrated a learned knowledge of the provenance of the Riddle having, in its original published versions, been attributed to Garrick’s authorship and having had three stanzas, and was very clever all the way through, but then blundered badly by placing the Riddle in an absurdly, grotesquely inappropriate contemporary publication venue.
Which one do YOU believe is the correct explanation? It is a mark of the sorry state of current Austen studies, when it comes to Austen’s subversive subtexts, that David Shapard’s recent annotated edition of Emma actually, with a straight face, has an annotation for the Riddle that concludes as follows:
“…Emma is not the sort of person to misremember the source of something she just copied or to lie about it, especially since such a lie would serve no purpose. Jane Austen, however, could easily have mistakenly recollected seeing the poem in Elegant Extracts, for it is the sort of piece that does appear there.”
And Shapard, even though he does reproduce the telltale couplet, utterly ignores all of JHS’s scholarship on the Riddle. Whether this is just gross negligence in doing research for this particular annotation, or is a deliberate editorial omission of dangerous material that Shapard and his publisher don’t want to bring to their unknowledgeable readers’s attention, I cannot say for certain, but I do lean in one direction.
At first, as I read Shapard’s annotation, I am strongly reminded of Deirdre LeFaye’s annotation for JA’s statement in Letter 57 that “Mr. Floor is low in our estimation”, in which Le Faye opined that Mr. Floor must have been a dyer in Southampton.
But whereas I do believe LeFaye, with her tin ear for JA’s irony, just plain missed JA’s joke in Letter 57, my guess is that Shapard’s omission was entirely intentional. Why? Because the alternative would mean that he somehow managed to overlook THE most notorious annotation in all of Austen studies during the past 15 years, bar none!
While Sheehan’s articles about the Prince of Whales charade are still, I believe, unknown to many Austen scholars, there are few Austen scholars who haven’t read or heard about the Kitty Riddle as discussed in JHS’s article and book, since they have been very high profile since 1999.
Shapard published his annotated version of Emma in 2012. Even if he had limited his research to Googling “Kitty Frozen Maid”, he would have found several hits pointing to Jill Heydt-Stevenson’s research pointing to very bad things in Garrick’s Riddle. And this is an annotated edition of Emma published by Random House. I mean, really.
And so Shapard and/or his publisher, it appears to me, chose to avoid addressing an obvious and quintessential example of JA’s razor-sharp irony. I.e., JA puts on Emma’s clueless tongue the hilarious equivalent of a suggestion, in modern terms, of a monologue by Andrew Dice Clay popping up in the Reader’s Digest or Good Housekeeping, and an innocent reader of Good Housekeeping taking delight in this unbecoming conjunction!
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