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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, May 26, 2014

Jane Austen's Tender and Well-Conceived Ejaculations

In response to my claim that the following passage in Letter 26 dated May 1801....

"With such a provision on my part, if you will do your's by repeating the French Grammar, & Mrs. Stent will now & then ejaculate some wonder about the Cocks & Hens, what can we want?” an obvious example of Jane Austen's sexual innuendoes, which I have been patiently cataloguing for over a decade now, Rita Lamb wrote the following:
"Arnie, aren't you taking words out of their historical context here, and then presenting them so that they strike a modern hearer with only their modern meaning?  Specifically, 'ejaculate'?  The word has become associated so much with one activity in modern minds that we now avoid using it in other contexts.  But this was not so in Austen's day, when its primary meaning was still 'to utter suddenly'. Now, I'm guessing you're going to retort that's all very well, but the mention of 'cock' in close proximity to 'ejaculate' confirms we're in the presence of a racy pun? And if JA had accused Mrs Stent of ejaculating 'some wonder about cocks and bulls', I would have agreed with you.  But I don't, because she didn't - she said Mrs Stent would go on about 'cocks and hens'....I suspect you'll consider this so much wilful naivety.  Well you may roll your eyes and mutter that to the pure, all things are pure. But that cuts both ways.  If you're determined to look for sexual double-entendres everywhere, then - with the added help of semantic drift - you will soon find them." END QUOTE

 Rita, as we say here in the USA on this Memorial Day which traditionally used to be filled with major league baseball doubleheaders, you’re throwing me such a big, slow softball, that I can’t avoid hitting it out of the park—it makes me wonder if you are not just playing the Devil’s Advocate. I.e., you’re a very sharp elf, and so it would have been easy enough for you to do a quick search of my blog and find the following two posts:

 5/28/11 “11-year olds and alternative ejaculations in Tristram Shandy and Jane Austen's Writings”

12/14/10 “The Answer to my Best Quiz Ever”  [re what I call the “Hancock” Charade]

Those who are interested can readily follow the above links and see how JA on at least two separate occasions, covertly alluded to Laurence Sterne’s broadly-hinted phallic cocks and ejaculations in both Letter 26 and also in the charade composed sometime during JA’s youth.

Which one? The one that the Austen family attributed to elder brother Henry, but which I claim was written by the same young Jane Austen who filled her juvenilia with all sorts of extravagant sexual innuendoes. As my second above-linked post reveals, I discovered 8 years ago that behind the official innocent charade answer “patriot”, was a second, secret, and very sexual, answer, the American patriot, “HanCOCK” (which was also, of course, the maiden name of JA’s cousin Eliza!)  If you don’t believe me, read those posts!

But with all that strong proof already in the bank, Rita, you have induced me to revisit this question of interpretation of the word “ejaculate” during JA’s era, and so, after an enjoyable hour watching French Open tennis and doing word searches, I will now take this opportunity to publicly adduce further evidences from JA’s novels.

But first re JA’s letters. Other than the sexually supercharged passage in Letter 26 re Mrs. Stent, we have only one other “ejaculation” in a JA Letter, and that is in the famous little poem in her January 1809 Letter 65 to CEA, which JA wrote a little poem for 13 year old nephew JEAL, who must’ve been enthusiastic for Brag and Speculation—so, it was hardly a place setting for JA to “go sexual”!
JA very rarely used any variant of the word “ejaculate” in her fiction, too, and that in itself is significant, as it distinguished her from her contemporaries who did indeed use it, I would guess, perfunctorily, where the context was utterly unsuggestive sexually, with only the innocent meaning that was primary.

So when JA did use this word in a novel (a total of 5 times, once in each novel except P&P, and also once in The Watsons fragment), it was most likely calculatedly and not haphazardly, so it is noteworthy, and it all depends, obviously, on the textual context where she used it.

The first three passages, re Margaret Watson in The Watsons, Mrs. Allen in NA, and Mrs. Jennings in S&S, do not particularly lend themselves to sexualized interpretations, so perhaps this indicates that JA (who had already used the word sexually in Letter 26) was not yet ready to unveil one in a published novel when she wrote those passages.

But the solitary usages in each of the last 3 novels published during JA’s lifetime are so spectacularly suggestive of sexual meaning, that they collectively suffice, along with Mrs. Stent’s ejaculation, to convincingly nail down my claim, and to further suggest that JA chose to go overt on them after she had achieved enough success  and recognition to be willing to risk it, I think.  

First, in MP, we have the sexual landscape imagery (JA was far from the first author to write such passages, and we see them in every one of her novels) that subliminally and delicately hovers over the following narration about what I see as a subtly romantic tete-a-tete between Fanny and Mary in Mrs. Grant’s “shrubbery”, another more intimate Garden of Eden as a bookend to the wilderness at Sotherton where Maria is seduced by Henry’s charms:

Mansfield Park, Chapter 22:
“She went, however, and they sauntered about together many an half-hour in Mrs. Grant's shrubbery, the weather being unusually mild for the time of year, and venturing sometimes even to sit down on one of the benches NOW COMPARATIVELY UNSHELTERED, remaining there perhaps till, in the midst of some TENDER EJACULATION of Fanny's on the SWEETS of so protracted an autumn, they were forced, by the SUDDEN SWELL of a cold gust shaking down the last few YELLOW LEAVES about them, to jump up and walk for warmth.”

Clearly this is a revisiting of the even more blatant sexual imagery of Marianne and Edward talking about dirty bottoms and dead leaves, which I wrote about long ago, a coded sexualized conversation that goes straight over Elinor’s na├»ve head.

Next, in Emma, we have an intensely sexual conceit where a number of surrounding words and images all contribute to a subliminal depiction of sodomy, in which Mr. Woodhouse’s “thin gruel” (disgustingly) is suggested as being introduced (via his lower “head” which he “shakes” that has a vertical “eye”) into “a dangerous opening” of Emma’s (r)ear, her “South End”, where basic human biology dictates that she “does not bear” any “sad consequences”—like getting pregnant.  

Emma, Chapter 12:
"Ah!" said Mr. Woodhouse, SHAKING HIS HEAD and FIXING HIS EYES on her with TENDER concern.—The EJACULATION IN EMMA's ear expressed, "Ah! there is no END of the sad consequences of your going to SOUTH END. It DOES NOT BEAR talking of." And for a little while she hoped he would not talk of it, and that a silent rumination might suffice to restore him to the RELISH of HIS OWN SMOOTH GRUEL. “

And finally, JA returns again to the sexual metaphor of an Edenic “fall”, when Louisa “falls” and (to borrow from the bawdily poetic Admiral Croft)--"Ay, a very bad business indeed. A new sort of way this, for a young fellow to be making love, by breaking his mistress's head, is not it, Miss Elliot? This is breaking a head and giving a plaster, truly!"

Persuasion Chapter 12:
“The HEAD had received a severe contusion, but he had seen greater injuries recovered from: he was by no means hopeless; he spoke cheerfully.
That he did not regard it as a desperate case, that he did not say a few hours must END it, was at first felt, beyond the hope of most; and the ECSTASY of such a reprieve, the rejoicing, DEEP and silent, after a few FERVENT EJACULATIONS of gratitude to Heaven had been offered, may be CONCEIVED. “

Again, the same cluster of words of sex and conception surrounding the word “ejaculations”, the same subtly sinister and disturbing reference to injuries and sad consequences.

Which is why I consider this humor to be very dark, as JA’s humor often is—it’s a kind of sexual “gallows humor” in which a powerless victim has recourse to humor in order, at least, to reclaim some sense of control, at least by hiding her mockery of the perpetrator in plain sight to those with eyes to see.  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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