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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Jane Austen & Edmund Bertram read the newspaper advertisements together!

The Austen scholar Barbara Benedict recently revisited an Austen topic that she first wrote about in 2002, when she quoted Jane Austen’s 1811 wordplay poem which was captioned (by JEAL?) with “On reading in the newspaper, the marriage of ‘Mr. Gell of Eastbourne to Miss Gill’….

Of Eastbourne Mr. Gell
From being perfectly well
Became dreadfully ill
For the love of Miss Gill.
So he said with some sighs
“I’m the slave of your eyes,
Oh! Restore if you please
By accepting my ease.”

…and then added this brief analysis:

“…In the patch of doggerel quoted above, stimulated by a newspaper advertisement, Jane Austen collapses the printed letters “i” and “e” into a pun on the couple’s names, as well as a charade on “i. e.” In the printed edition, a further manuscript hand has marked the puns, and replaced “Of” with “At.” “

I had seen this poem before, but I never really paid much attention to it, but this time around, I took the time to really absorb the various nuances of JA’s intricate wordplay. It is quite clever, and I would imagine JA was pretty satisfied with her work when she was done.

But I mention it today because it occurs to me that in the minds of most Janeites, there is a wide disconnect between this sort of “doggerel” (as Benedict puts it) and Jane Austen’s novels. I.e., most Janeites would not think there is anything to learn about Jane Austen’s novels from studying this little poem.

That’s where I strongly disagree, because to me the same impulse that led JA to react to a name similarity in the newspaper and then to concoct a poem about it, playing on homophonic puns, also led her to write the “courtship” charade in Chapter 9 of Emma. And…taking it one step further, these sorts of puns are at the heart of the Jane Austen Code as I have decoded it over the past decade---she did not hesitate to embed the most serious and significant meanings in passages in her novels, which are clued by this very sort of pun.

Yesterday, I quoted from my JASNA AGM speech about the elaborate punning behind Edmund Bertram reading an advertisement in the newspaper (think about THAT vis a vis the above poem, apparently written less than 2 years before JA wrote MP) for a “season ‘d capital hunter”, which I showed was a three-pun extravaganza pointing in three different ways to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Her willingness to stretch homophonic puns (“season’d” from “Caesar”) is the same in the “doggerel” and in the fictional masterpiece.

In my JASNA talk, I also unveiled my discovery of one of the most audacious puns in all of JA’s writing, which is found in this passage in MP:

“Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself.
In this occupation she hoped, moreover,  TO BURY some of the recollections of Mansfield, which were too apt to SEIZE HER mind if her fingers only were busy; and, especially at this time, hoped it might be useful in diverting her thoughts from pursuing Edmund to London, whither, on the authority of her aunt's last letter, she knew he was gone.”  

I come…. TO BURY….CAESAR!!!! And in case you think I’m out too far on a limb with that one, I can tell you that this is the only “seize her” in all the Austen novels, and so don’t you find it a tad suspicious that it just so happens to have “to bury” right before it in the same sentence! Recall also that Julius Caesar is a play based on actual history, but a play written in poetry. So Jane Austen has touched all the Shakespearean bases in that short seemingly trivial passage.

And this is not just an erudite wordgame, to show off esoteric literary knowledge. This is actually a giant clue for interpretation of the main character, Fanny, who, I went on to explain in my talk, is in grave danger at that instant of falling completely in love with Henry ----i.e., having a hole made in her heart as he, like Babe Ruth, predicted he would—just like Julius Caesar’s heart is “riddled” with holes in the “Capitol”.

So, now you better understand why I took the time this time around to study the poem about Mr Gell and Miss Gill.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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