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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Unlocking the door to the sexuality of Hannah the Seamstress (or ill-natured jade) of Highbury &Randalls

In Janeites & Austen L, Diane Reynolds responded to my identifiying Hannah, the daughter of James, the head servant at Hartfield, as a covert source for the X-rated answer, “Hancock” (referring to Jane Austen’s aunt Phila Austen Hancock) for a private Austen charade, wrote:

“Here is the passage we have on Hannah, James's daughter. Mr. Woodhouse is speaking to Emma: "when you have had her here to do needlework, I observe she always turns the lock of the door the right way and never bangs it. I am sure she will be an excellent servant; and it will be a great comfort to poor Miss Taylor to have somebody about her that she is used to see. While I don't *think* this has a sexual connotation, it might, and what suggests that to me is The Great Gatsby --since the 70s, people have noted a number of subtextual clues indicating that Nick , Gatsby's narrator, is gay. One is that he gets into an elevator with an effeminate Mr. McKee, a photographer, and the elevator boy says to him, "Get your hand off the lever!," "lever" felt by some to be a stand in for a piece of anatomy ... later Nick ends up in McKee's bed.” END QUOTE FROM DIANE

Diane, that Gatsby line is about as subtle as a sledgehammer—of course it’s a Freudian double entendre! Although I don’t know if I should be suspecting you of a sly pun when you referred to the lever as a “STAND in”. ---especially because, in my posts yesterday about the Hancock/patriot charade, I claim that the line “My whole STANDS HIGH in lists of fame” was meant by JA to be phallic!

Diane also wrote: “Here we have two things--if Arnie is right about being a seamstress as a euphemism for prostitution, we have Hannah coming in to do "needlework," and we have her knowing how to turn the lock of the door the right way and never banging it. This could be a sexual allusion “

Yes, bravo, Diane, I didn’t think of that, but I was blind---of course you are spot-on! It is referring to sex, and I connect it to passages in THREE other Austen novels which I have long thought to also be sexual, as you will now see.

The first is a passage I quoted in my recent presentation at the JASNA AGM about the hidden Shakespeare in MP). It describes how Lady Bertram managed to find some sort of pleasure to get her through the night during the long months of separation from her (evidently) virile, handsome husband in Antigua:

By not one of the circle was he listened to with such unbroken, unalloyed enjoyment as by his wife, who was really extremely happy to see him, and WHOSE FEELINGS WERE SO WARMED by his sudden arrival as to place her NEARER AGITATION than she had been for the last twenty years. She had been ALMOST FLUTTERED for a few minutes, and still remained so SENSIBLY ANIMATED as to put away her work, move Pug from her side, and give all her attention and all the rest of her sofa to her husband. She had no anxieties for anybody to cloud HER PLEASURE…..

It could not be clearer that Lady Bertram is at the moment of Sir Thomas’s surprising return experiencing exactly the same sort of sexual “flutter” that David Lodge famously (and accurately) detected as Anne Elliot’s orgasm when Wentworth takes Anne’s nephew off her back:

“Her SENSATIONS on the discovery made her PERFECTLY SPEECHLESS. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with MOST DISORDERED FEELINGS. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon FORCED ON HER by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced SUCH A CONFUSION of varying, but VERY PAINFUL AGITATATION, as she COULD NOT RECOVER FROM, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room.

Diane also wrote: “But do we have enough accumulation of evidence to make this reading plausible? We never find Hannah waking up in a strange bed ...However, we do have the "come at able" older women, the allusions to venereal disease, illegitimate Harriet ... and in this reading, the comedy that if Hannah is a prostitute, Mr. Woodhouse's assertion that she will be a "great comfort" to Miss Taylor may not be so--and of course this leads to the "sewing" connotation of the name Miss "Tailor." No wonder Mr. Woodhouse might be mourning her loss!”

But back to Lady Bertram for one more round. Here’s the punch line that connects her response to Sir Thomas’s return directly to Hannah’s needlework:

…her own time had been irreproachably spent during his absence: she had done a great deal of carpet-work, and made many yards of fringe….

Indeed, it probably took a LOT of “carpet-work” to produce “many yards of fringe”, and that’s what it took for Lady Bertram, like Odysseus’s Penelope, to survive the long Sir Thomas Drought, sexually speaking! And similarly, re Hannah and Miss Taylor (tailor), I take an even more subversive interpretation. I.e., Miss Taylor and Hannah were living in the same home (Hartfield) for a number of years until Mrs. Weston left for Randalls. So when Mrs. Weston leaves, and then Hannah joins her there, she is actually REjoining her there! And I’d say that Jane Austen is suggesting nothing less than that Miss Taylor and Hannah were doing more than sewing together at Hartfield for the past several years, since Hannah came to sexual maturity, and that Hannah has been sent along to Randalls so that she and her former de facto mistress can continue to “sew” beautiful designs together!

And I don’t want to forget one other wonderful catch in your post, when you noted re Hannah’s “knowing how to turn the lock of the door the right way and never banging it. This could be a sexual allusion “ – for strong corroborative evidence that this is sexual, I give you the following passages in NA referring to “locks” on “doors” which several scholars, including myself, have identified as part of elaborate sexual subtext of Catherine’s sexual awakening at the Abbey:

"How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment!... Dorothy, meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To RAISE YOUR SPIRITS, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that YOU WILL NOT HAVE A SINGLE DOMESTIC WITHIN CALL. With this parting cordial she curtsies off—you listen to the sound of her receding footsteps as long as the last echo can reach you—and when, with fainting spirits, YOU ATTEMPT TO FASTEN YOUR DOOR, you discover, with increased alarm, that IT HAS NO LOCK."

Scarcely, however, had she convicted her fancy of error, when the noise of SOMETHING MOVING CLOSE TO HER DOOR MADE HER START; it seemed as if SOMEONE WAS TOUCHING THE VERY DOORWAY—and in another moment A SLIGHT MOTION OF THE LOCK proved that SOME HAND MUST BE ON IT. SHE TREMBLED a little at the idea of anyone's approaching so cautiously; but resolving NOT TO BE AGAIN OVERCOME by trivial appearances of alarm, or misled by A RAISED IMAGINATION, she stepped quietly forward, and OPENED THE DOOR. Eleanor, and only Eleanor, stood there.”

And now the mother of all sexual innuendoes in JA’s novels:

Again, therefore, she applied herself to THE KEY, and after moving it in every possible way for some instants with the determined celerity of hope's last effort, THE DOOR SUDDENLY YIELDED TO HER HAND: her heart leaped with exultation at such a victory, and having thrown open EACH FOLDING DOOR, the second being secured only by bolts of less wonderful construction than THE LOCK, though in that her eye could not discern anything unusual, a DOUBLE RANGE OF SMALL DRAWERS appeared in view, with some larger drawers above and below them; and IN THE CENTRE, a small door, closed also with a lock and key, secured in all probability A SMALL A CAVITY OF IMPORTANCE.
Catherine's HEART BEAT QUICK, but her courage did not fail her. With a cheek flushed by hope, and an eye straining with curiosity, HER FINGERS GRASPED THE HANDLE of a drawer and drew it forth.
[I’m tired of ALL CAPPING, but you get the picture by now]
It was entirely empty. With less alarm and greater eagerness she seized a second, a third, a fourth; each was equally empty. Not one was left unsearched, and in not one was anything found. Well read in the art of concealing a treasure, the possibility of false linings to the drawers did not escape her, and she felt round each with anxious acuteness in vain. The place in the middle alone remained now unexplored; and though she had "never from the first had the smallest idea of finding anything in any part of the cabinet, and was not in the least disappointed at her ill success thus far, it would be foolish not to examine it thoroughly while she was about it." It was some time however before she could unfasten the door, the same difficulty occurring in the management of this inner lock as of the outer; but at length it did open; and not vain, as hitherto, was her search; her quick eyes directly fell on a roll of paper pushed back into the further part of the cavity, apparently for concealment, and her feelings at that moment were indescribable. Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale. She seized, with an unsteady hand, the precious manuscript, for half a glance sufficed to ascertain written characters; and while she acknowledged with awful sensations this striking exemplification of what Henry had foretold, resolved instantly to peruse every line before she attempted to rest.

There must be twenty sexual puns and innuendoes in that one passage!

So, you see, Hannah and her abilities to open doors without banging does not occur in an Austen sexual innuendo vacuum—it was part of a consistent pattern throughout all of Jane Austen’s writings.

Before I close, let me reemphasize one last hugely important point about your wonderful catch about Jane Austen’s hints about Hannah’s sexual activities at Hartfield and Randalls. I’ve claimed that when “Han”, short for “Hannah”, is plugged into that Austen charade as the first syllable  (the housemaid who is an ill-natured jade), and then plug in the very crude sexual word for the second syllable for the “lever” that “stands high in lists of fame”, we wind up with “Hancock” as the X-rated answer, and I say that is indeed a reference to the teenaged Phila Austen working for Mrs. Cole the “milliner” in Covent Garden”.

It’s ALL tied together in an intricate bow, with not a single thread out of place, by the great literary seamstress, Jane Austen.

(And that’s not even getting into Jane Fairfax as Marina, the brothel-jumping heroine of Shakespeare’s Pericles, the allusion that Diana dismissed so peremptorily without real consideration of all the details of that allusion.)

The bottom line is that the Myth of Jane Austen is the real barrier—the 900-pound gorilla--that stands in the way of otherwise quite clever Janeites grasping all these sexual innuendoes. If all this authorial legerdemain had been detected in a novel by, say, Nabokov, the mainstream scholars would be lining up unanimously to acclaim his subtle achievements—but because it’s Jane Austen, it just cannot be possible, so that, even in the face of extraordinarily probative evidence, there is a flat refusal to embrace what is there.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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