In Austen L & Janeites, Anielka Briggs responded to my recent post (and followups) about Scott’s allusion to Cupid in Highbury by quoting me: “Can this be anything other than a sexually charged allusion to a link-boy carrying a phallic torch? To my eyes, it is a perfect literary counterpart to Reynolds's painting." and then Anielka added her own, opposite answer. “Yes. it can be many things other than a "sexually charged allusion" “
Anielka, although I freely acknowledge that I was careless in my wording, you know very well that you took my comment out of context, and that it was clear from the rest of my post that I was attributing to Walter Scott a very Austenesque slyness in creating DOUBLE meaning--which is, when you think about it, the whole point of any worthy sexual innuendo. However, I am glad to have the opportunity to correct my overhasty verbal sloppiness and be precise and complete now.
I assert that Scott wrote the above sentence (“at Highbury Cupid…”) so that it could be read in two completely different, indeed, opposite ways:
ONE: the overt meaning being completely innocent, without sexual innuendo (although with some Audenesque economic cynicism), referring to JA’s clever, subtle, and realistic portrayal of how the couples in Emma wind up marrying, but also
TWO: the veiled meaning, which is multi-layered and sexually disturbing in the extreme. It was aimed at a contemporary reader who would recognize Scott’s representation of Cupid in that sentence as a link-boy, i.e., a young boy who carried a lit torch (“link”) to provide illumination for customers walking unlit city streets at night.
What I meant by my earlier comment about this sentence was that it was beyond dispute that Scott intended for all his readers to recognize that he was portraying Cupid specifically as a link-boy. In a way, that sentence of Scott’s is itself a riddle. That sentence could’ve been rephrased in riddling terms: He looks like Cupid (i.e., he’s a small boy); and he walks around carrying around a torch inside a lanthorn (lantern) in the vicinity of houses?
Let’s put it this way. If Family Feud had been a TV show in Regency Era England, then Link-boy would have been the most frequent answer given by a representative sampling of viewers! And Link-boys were an urban amenity which JA, having lived in Bath for several years, and also having visited London a great deal in later years, was very familiar with.
But here’s the punch line, which makes Scott’s allusion to link-boys disturbing. As I’ve written several times recently, it’s a well documented, uncontroversial historical fact that link-boys were not just providers of nighttime urban illumination—they were notorious for also providing the unofficial service of leading customers to prostitutes, and/ or for being prostitutes & therefore victims of sexual abuse themselves!
So I claim that Scott chose that particular disturbing imagery for Cupid in that particular sentence, as a hint to the knowing eyes of the sophisticated, urban-savvy, sharp elves readers of the Critical Review (published by the same Murray who published Emma at that very same time!), which strikes me as likely having the same kind of readership among “the Ton” that The New Yorker has today. These readers would have been mostly men, some of whom would have been patrons of that disturbing private service provided by link-boys, but many of whom, even if not such patrons, would have been just the kind of person to be familiar with all or most of the following FIVE veiled but unmistakable allusive sources:
(1) the later, “clever” stanzas of Garrick’s 1771 version of his Riddle which Mr. Woodhouse tries to remember, which include a pandering Cupid who sounds like one of those real-life link-boys;
(2) Joshua Reynolds’s very disturbing and famous 1774 “Cupid as Link Boy” painting which, I’ve asserted, Reynolds panderingly painted on special commission from his main patron for Reynolds’s pedophilic “fancy portraits” of young children--the famously debauched 3rd Duke of Dorset--to hang in the Duke’s private gallery at Knole (the Duke’s great Kentish estate, for which JA’s own great uncle Francis Austen acted as lawyer/agent);
(3) that same 3rd Duke of Dorset’s notorious elopement with Lady Derby in the 1770’s was clearly a source for Henry Crawford’s elopement with Maria Bertram;
(4) the fact that Garrick, like Reynolds, was also a very close friend of the 3rd Duke of Dorset;
(4) the 1st Duke of Dorset’s famous early 18th century “Dorinda” poem which crudely insulted Catherine Sedley with this XXX-rated couplet: “Her Cupid is a blackguard boy, Who runs his link full in your face. “
Now, if you want to believe that all of the above is just some monstrous coincidence—that Garrick, Reynolds, the 1st and 3rd Dukes of Dorset, Francis Austen, Mr. Woodhouse, and Henry Crawford, are all connected along the edge of a literary-historical wheel to the same hub—link-boys--by accident, then knock yourself out. I think the fairest interpretation, by far, is that Scott intended both of these meanings, both the innocent and the disturbing, to be readable in that sentence—take it either way, as Mrs. Elton might have said, as you like it.
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