(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Frank Churchill aka Catullus as Mrs. Elton's abominable puppy: Two Curs fighting over a Bone outside Ford's

This is a followup to my recent post on the above topic, as I respond to Anielka Briggs's interesting comments on my post: 

Anielka: “I hate to disappoint you but I had already used all those connections.”

Anielka, I’m a little surprised that you didn’t, right off the bat, specifically mention Catullus’s elegant acrostic in the “Scylla” Poem 60—given your and mine long focus on JA’s multiple-answered acrostic charade (a crucial insight for which we both are indebted to Colleen Sheehan’s seminal discovery), I’d have expected you to lead with that headline. Be that as it may, that ancient acrostic, hidden in the very same short poem by “Puppy” that names a famous mythological character who sounds like a puppy, is what seals the deal for me—no question, Jane Austen really must have had Catullus on the brain as she had Mrs. Elton talk about that ‘abominable puppy’ acrostic charade-writer in Emma.

Anielka: “Nevertheless well done so far.”

Likewise. And that’s the point—what you just found synergizes powerfully with my prior insight, which I arrived at several years ago without any awareness of the Catullus connection, i.e., that Frank is Mrs. Elton’s abominable puppy---he gave that charade to Miss Hawkins before Mr. Elton gave it to Emma. The odds are microscopically small that BOTH my discovery AND yours would dovetail together so perfectly by random coincidence.  I am very glad that you’ve provided strong additional and convergent evidence that Frank is a puppy.

Anielka: “Here's the clue: "TWO curs quarrelling over a dirty BONE"… There are TWO dogs quarrelling over the dirty bone. This was a contemporary political expression alluding to the idea that whilst two parties are busy arguing over a political bone of contention, a third will come in and snatch the prize away. Emma is watching a metaphor; a motif repeated in the narrative”

Also an excellent catch! I have one important quibble, though. You leap to the conclusion that there is only one meaning for that proverb, but Google Books just alerted me that there were, in contemporary publications, no fewer than THREE variants on that proverbial motif of two dogs fighting over a bone, when JA was writing Emma.

One was the most famous one that you mention, about the third dog snatching the prize.

A second one, called an English proverb, goes as follows:
“Two wives in a house, two cats with a mouse, two dogs with a bone, will never agree in one.”

That has a different moral from the first version. It’s (obviously) about how some prizes—a husband, a mouse or a bone--by their very indivisible nature can’t be shared. And that brings to mind the most famous indivisible prize in literary history--two mothers with a baby—i.e., the King Solomon Dilemma.

And…there’s also a third variant, which appears, of all places, in Part 3, Canto 2 of Samuel Butler’s very famous mock-epic 17th century poem Hudibras:

 “…The Poet steps out of his road, and skips from the time wherein these adventures happened, to Cromwell's death, and from thence to the dissolution of the Rump parliament. This conduct is allowable in a satirist, whose privilege it is to ramble wherever he pleases, and to stigmatize vice, faction, and rebellion, where and whenever he meets with them….

So, ere the storm of war broke out,
Religion spawn'd a various rout
Of petulant capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts,
That first run all religion down,
And after every swarm its own.
And yet no nat'ral tie of blood,
Nor int'rest for the common good,
Could, when their profits interfere!
Get quarter for each other's beard.
For when they thriv'd they never fadg'd,
But only by the ears engag'd ;
As by their truest characters,
Their constant actions, plainly appears.
Rebellion now began, for lack
Of zeal and plunder, to grow slack…

If I am interpreting Butler correctly, the meaning of his use of this proverbial motif is that the very existence of a rare prize can cause strife between otherwise amicable neighbors. Butler uses it in the context of sectarian religious strife, but this is intriguing in light of the subtle hints of a rupture between Donwell Abbey and Hartfield two years before the action of the novel, a rupture which is apparently healed by the outing to Donwell Abbey. Perhaps Romeo & Juliet stuff.

So as you can see, we actually have three different plausible proverbial meanings bubbling around beneath JA’s invocation of that dog-bone proverb, and I can think of a dozen ways of parsing it in terms of the shadow story of Emma.

Anielka, I think that if we keep worrying these connected “bones”, and avoid biting each other in the process, then our very different visions of Jane Austen’s shadows will nonetheless both be nourished by the marrow we are able to extract from it.

I conclude by pointing out that I gave interpretations within the last year of two of Emma’s other observations as she waits at Ford’s:

“a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket”

I suggested that this was actually the increasingly pregnant Jane Fairfax wrapped in shawls and disguised as an old woman so as not to attract attention to her body, while procuring vitally needed groceries.


“Mr. Perry walking hastily by”

I suggested that Mr. Perry is no longer alive during the action of the novel, and that Emma only thinks she sees Mr. Perry, when it is actually someone else entirely.

So, although I did note that this passage at Ford’s was a riddle requiring decoding, you are indeed the first to spot the proverbial significance of the dogs fighting over a bone.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: