Jane Austen’s Letter 144 was written by her to sister Cassandra in the Fall of 1816 from Cheltenham, the spa town where JA had gone, presumably, seeking a cure for her (ultimately fatal) illness. It contains the following bit of seemingly trivial family news:
“The Alton 4 drank tea with us last night, & we were very pleasant:--JEU DE VIOLON &c—all new to Mr. Sweney-& he entered into it very well.—It was a renewal of former agreable evenings. –We all (except my Mother) dine at Alton tomorrow--& perhaps may have some of the same sports again—but I do not think Mr. & Mrs. D[igweed] will add much to our wit.”
The “Alton 4” consisted of brother Frank, his wife, his sister in law and one of Frank’s sailor buddies, Mr. Sweney. No mystery there. But my eye was caught by “jeu de violon”—what was that about? Some sort of sports, something involving the group’s exercise of wit. But what could it be, and what might it have to do with playing violin?
Le Faye’s footnote explained it thusly: “This would mean literally someone performing on the violin; but as none of the Austen family is known to have played the instrument, the context would suggest instead some form of parlour game.”
That sounded promising, but I felt there was more to be found out, so I did some Googling, and found the following entry for June 30, 1813 in the diary of JA’s niece Fanny Knight:
“Chawton Great House: ‘Wet day. The Papillons & ALL THE COTTAGE BUT G. MAMA dined here. A letter from At. J.B. & Eliz. Hatton. Musick & JEU DE VIOLON in the evening. Mr. Griesbach came.’
Was it just a coincidence that Fanny Knight's dinner which included "Musick & Jeu de Violon" at the Chawton Great House, also included “the cottage” (i.e., included JA and CEA, but not their mother), and 3 years later, another gathering involving JA & CEA (but also not their mother) also included "Jeu de Violon"?
I wondered if Le Faye was correct, and if so, whether it was a peculiarly Austen-family game of that name, as I could find nothing published about it from that era. But still the violins were unexplained.
While I was pretty sure that Fanny's report in her own diary was entirely innocent, from the teasing tone of JA's report, I began to suspect that there must be some risque humor under the surface of her report of this "Jeu de Violon" activity in such agreeable company.
So I posed the above question in Janeites and Austen-L, and as often is the case, I was rewarded with a quick, on-point answer (in Austen-L) from an infrequent poster named Linda:
“It's actually Jeu de Volant, or badminton. The name evolved the same way the French card game vingt-et-un became the English pontoon.”
And that’s when everything finally fell into place for me. My quibble with Linda was that of interpreting the twisted spelling of the name of the game. Linda seems to assume it was just a misspelling by JA, and that she really was talking about a kind of badminton, but I am now certain that is not the case.
It's clear to me that Jane Austen, even though she often disobeyed orthographic rules like "i before e except after c", was not likely to be confused and not know the difference between "violon" and "volant"!
And now that Linda had correctly alerted us to the background meaning, I saw that this had to be a
classic instance of (what I strongly suspect is uniquely Austen family) transformational wordplay.
It reminds me of the silly/smart wordplay my wife and I enjoy. For example, a few months ago, we began watching reruns of the SVU (for Special Victims Unit) American TV crime series starring Mariska Hargitay. We have been enjoying the long running task of catching up on 15 seasons of reruns, and one day I started saying to her, silly stuff like "Is it time yet for an SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle) or two before we go to sleep?" In my deliberate silly blurring of two American pop culture acronyms, I think I was engaging in exactly the sort of wordplay that I strongly suspect was behind the Austen's' "jeu de violon".
And, as further evidence of that, note Jane Austen's reference in that same paragraph to her skepticism as to whether the "wit" of Mr. and Mrs. Digweed was quite up to the task of participating in this agreeable sport. You don't need a lot of WIT in order to play badminton!
Recall where we saw that same sort of sentiment expressed about the wit of a dull couple leading to a lack of participation in a group word game under similar circumstances:
"Oh! for myself, I protest I must be excused," said Mrs. Elton; "I really cannot attempt -- I am not at all fond of the sort of thing. I had an acrostic once sent to me upon my own name, which I was not at all pleased with. I knew who it came from. An abominable puppy! You know who I mean (nodding to her husband). These kind of things are very well at Christmas, when one is sitting round the fire; but quite out of place, in my opinion, when one is exploring about the country in summer. Miss Woodhouse must excuse me. I am not one of those who have witty things at every body's service. I do not pretend to be a wit. I have a great deal of vivacity in my own way, but I really must be allowed to judge when to speak and when to hold my tongue. Pass us, if you please, Mr. Churchill. Pass Mr. E., Knightley, Jane and myself. We have nothing clever to say -- not one of us."
Aside from my longstanding claim that the “acrostic” is actually the “courtship” charade (which contains the two anagram acrostics on the name “Lamb”) and that the “abominable puppy” is actually Frank Churchill, it also seems to me that the description of the game in Letter 144 that was so agreeable for the group was not an ancestral form of badminton, but was something else entirely and the key clue to the identity of that game was its title - it had to be a variant on the party game we today call "charades"! And so JA had that above quoted passage from Emma very much in mind after all when she wrote this short passage in Letter 144!
Think about it-- if the name to be enacted in pantomime was "jeu de volant", but (to increase the level of difficulty in the game) it was not permitted under the rules of the game to actually enact a game of badminton, then what would YOU enact in order to get your teammate to guess that answer? You'd suggest “jeu de violon” by miming playing the violin, and then get them to tweak that answer, via a “sounds like” cue, into "jeu de volant"!
And so I believe the name given to the game was itself an example of that sort of wordplay. In short, I don't think anybody was actually hitting a small object in the air. It would be so like Jane Austen to be part of such a thing, if not to have been the actual originator of same, or at least, the namer of the game.
And finally, given the risqué hidden meanings of so many of JA's charades—like the “Prince of Whales” answer…..
or the Hancock answer….
or the History of England answer to the James I “carpet” Sharade…
…perhaps the coincidence of the pointing out of the absence of Mrs. Austen from BOTH the 1813 and 1816 Austen family playings of "jeu de violon" was indicative of that matriarch's being a bit like the Eltons at Box Hill, i.e., not really being of the devil’s party in terms of her frowning on the risqué spirit of the game, hence it's being played when she was NOT around was a key part of the equation.
And that, finally and in turn, makes me think that the Austen family story that it was Mrs. Austen who loved word play, is just another example of myth-making. I.e., perhaps the reality was that she hated Jane's risqué wordplay, just as Henry Austen’s and JEAL’s protesting so much about JA not having ever alluded to real people in her novels was the surest evidence that she DID!
And all this from a seemingly trivial French phrase in a paragraph about not much at all. That is the essence of the Jane Austen Code!
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