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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, March 30, 2015

John & Isabella’s scatological humor: “Something NEW for your coachman and horses to be making their way through a storm of…..SNOW"

Mark Sundaram’s explanation of one etymology of the word  “coachman”---as early 19th century Oxford slang for a university professor---turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving, when it comes to my decoding of Jane Austen’s masterful deployment of that slang usage in Emma. In the second of my two previous posts on that topic earlier today, I demonstrated that James, Mr. Woodhouse’s coachman, was a leading expert in the avoidance of the perils of walking and driving through accumulations of poop on the streets and roads in and around Highbury. Today, I went back to Emma and my posts from 2013 about all that poop in Highbury, and I found, in Chapter 15, a whole new layer (sorry, I can’t resist that metaphor in this context) of comic scatological meaning.

In one of my 2013 posts, I had written the following:

“…in Chapter 15, we have Isabella being surprisingly pragmatic and flexible about doing whatever it takes to get back to Hartfield from Randalls as the snow begins to fall:  
"You had better order the carriage directly, my love," said [Isabella]; "I dare say we shall be able to get along, if we set off directly; and if we do come to any thing very bad, I can get out and walk. I am not at all afraid. I should not mind walking half the way. I could change my shoes, you know, the moment I got home; and it is not the sort of thing that gives me cold."
Sure it could be snow that would make it desirable to take off her shoes as soon as she got home, but I wonder whether it might be a very unpleasant cocktail of snow and horse poop that would be trebly nasty to get on one’s shoes!”

I.e., I had realized a year and a half ago that Isabella Knightley was discreetly referring to poop in her comments to her husband John, but I took Isabella literally. However, what I only realized this evening was that Isabella did not make these comments in a vacuum, out of the blue. Instead, their full meaning only becomes clear when you read them in full context in Chapter 15. Here is the full relevant passage, and I suggest to you that Isabella is actually chiming in on her husband John’s deliberate and angry attack on Mr. Woodhouse’s Achilles heel, being the old man’s persistent paranoid fear of getting stuck in street poop:

“Mr. John Knightley now came into the room from examining the weather, and opened on them all with the information of the ground being covered with snow, and of its still snowing fast, with a strong drifting wind; concluding with these words to Mr. Woodhouse:  "This will prove a spirited beginning of your winter engagements, sir. Something NEW for your COACHMAN and horses to be making their way through a storm of SNOW."  

Jane Austen’s irony is razor-sharp in that second sentence spoken by John to his father in law. What does John mean by “something NEW”? I say that the negative implication is that James the coachman and his horses are usually making their way through a “storm” of POOP, but this night their obstacle will be something new, i.e, they’ll be making their way through an accumulation of SNOW instead of the usual everyday poop! And that’s why we should not be surprised to then read Mr. Woodhouse’s worried reaction, followed shortly afterwards by John’s “pursuing his triumph”:

“Poor Mr. Woodhouse was silent from consternation; but every body else had something to say; every body was either surprized or not surprized, and had some question to ask, or some comfort to offer. Mrs. Weston and Emma tried earnestly to cheer him and turn his attention from his son-in-law, who was pursuing his triumph rather unfeelingly.  "I admired your resolution very much, sir," said he, "in venturing out in such weather, for of course you saw there would be snow very soon. Every body must have seen the snow coming on. I admired your spirit; and I dare say we shall get home very well. Another hour or two's snow can hardly make the road impassable; and we are two carriages; if one is blown over in the bleak part of the common field there will be the other at hand. I dare say we shall be all safe at Hartfield before midnight."

The image of a carriage blown over by wind (with connotations of violent rear-end flatulence) onto a pile of poop is grotesque scatology worthy of Laurence Sterne!

And that’s when Isabella stands by her husband, and adds to her father’s unease by raising the specter of something even more horrifying to the old man, i.e., that she would then start walking on foot in the dark, without James’s expertise providing any guidance for avoiding poopy shoes. Horrors!

But then, the next act of this intense scatological mini-drama consists of Mr. Knightley defusing Mr. Woodhouse’s scatological fears (just as he did in Chapter 1 when he reassured him that his shoes were perfectly clean after walking up to Highbury) as follows:

“Mr. Knightley, who had left the room immediately after his brother's first report of the snow, came back again, and told them that he had been out of doors to examine, and could answer for there not being the smallest difficulty in their getting home, whenever they liked it, either now or an hour hence. He had gone beyond the sweep—some way along the Highbury road—the snow was nowhere above half an inch deep—in many places hardly enough to whiten the ground; a very few flakes were falling at present, but the clouds were parting, and there was every appearance of its being soon over. He had seen the COACHMEN, and they B OTH AGREED WITH HIM IN THERE BEING NOTHING TO APPREHEND.”

So, once again, we have the absurdity of “the coachmen” as the acknowledged ultimate experts on poop avoidance, agreeing (after Mr. Knightley instructed them accordingly) that there is no risk of ground poop preventing safe and clean travel back to Highbury.

But we’re not quite “home” yet. What follows next in Chapter 15 is Mr. Elton’s near-assault on Emma in the carriage ride from Randalls---and that is the darkest part of JA’s biting irony, which is that Mr. Woodhouse is so focused on the imaginary dangers of poop, and meanwhile his own daughter is nearly raped by a drunken vicar inside a warm and secure carriage!

And then finally, we have the closing scene back at Highbury:

“…There [Emma] was welcomed, with the utmost delight, by her father, who had been trembling for the dangers of a solitary drive from Vicarage Lane—turning a corner which he could never bear to think of—and in strange hands—A MERE COMMON COACHMAN—no James; and there it seemed as if her return only were wanted to make every thing go well: for Mr. John Knightley, ashamed of his ill-humour, was now all kindness and attention…”

There we have Mr. Woodhouse having been worried to death about the “strange hands” of “a mere common coachmen” being  unqualified to avoid the dangers of poop on the drive from Vicarage Lane—and we also see John Knightley, evidently satisfied with the success of his earlier attack on Mr. Woodhouse, now gracious in victory and therefore merciful on his sad, defeated foe.

It is truly astonishing how much substance JA was able to pack into this elaborate conceit which turns entirely on a single slang meaning.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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