From time to time, scholars have studied Jane Austen’s vocabulary and word usage, but I don’t know if anyone has ever noticed a very curious choice of words by JA that I came across by accident this morning. To wit: while she frequently used the words “large” and “great” (or variants thereon) in her fiction to refer to size, she only used the word “big” (actually, “bigger”) one single time in her entire fictional output (i.e., encompassing all six novels, plus all her Juvenilia and fragments).
Here is that single usage, in Chapter 37 of JA’s first published novel, Sense & Sensibility, in a speech by Mrs. Jennings to Elinor Dashwood about the secret-no-more engagement of Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele:
“...There is no reason on earth why Mr. Edward and Lucy should not marry; for I am sure Mrs. Ferrars may afford to do very well by her son, and though Lucy has next to nothing herself, she knows better than any body how to make the most of every thing; I dare say, if Mrs. Ferrars would only allow him five hundred a-year, she would make as good an appearance with it as any body else would with eight. Lord! how snug they might live in such another cottage as yours—or a little BIGGER—with two maids, and two men; and I believe I could help them to a housemaid, for my Betty has a sister out of place, that would fit them exactly."
Here Mrs. Jennings ceased, and as Elinor had had time enough to collect her thoughts, she was able to give such an answer, and make such observations, as the subject might naturally be supposed to produce…”
At this moment, Elinor is obviously feeling pretty awful, as the voluble Mrs. Jennings unwittingly forces Elinor to muster up a polite, positive reaction to bad news that is actually not news at all to Elinor, since she had carried the heavy burden of Lucy’s secret for quite some time before it was revealed to all.
So, the question is, why would Jane Austen use the word “bigger” in S&S, her first published novel, this one time, and then never use “big” (or a variant thereon) again in any of her other novels, but instead use both “large” and “great”, hundreds of times, to refer to size? And given its uniqueness, was there some significance in Mrs. Jennings’s “bigger”, in particular because she uses it in what appears to be a parenthetical afterthought?
It took me only a few minutes to find the answer---it was hiding in plain sight in the only two places in Jane Austen’s surviving letters where she also used the word “big”:
First, in Letter 28 to sister CEA, dated 11/30-12/01/1800, JA wrote: “My journey was safe and not unpleasant;-I spent an hour in Andover of which Messers Painter and Redding had the larger part;-twenty minutes however fell to the lot of Mrs Poore and her mother, whom I was glad to see in good looks and spirits-The latter asked me more questions than I had very well time to answer; the former I believe is very big, but I am by no means certain;- she is either very big, or not at all big, I forgot to be accurate in my observation at the time; and tho' my thoughts are now more about me on the subject, the power of exercising them to any effect is much diminished.”
Of course this is Jane Austen joking in her usual ironic, absurdist way about Mrs. Poore’s being pregnant. We should understand, as CEA surely did, that JA was just horsing around---how could Mrs. Poore either be in the late stage of pregnancy, or not pregnant at all, but not anywhere in between? And how could JA not know which one it was? It’s patently not meant to be taken literally.
This is yet another example of the single most repeated hobby horse that JA returned to in dozens of her letters during her entire adulthood—that of married English gentlewomen as “poor animals” suffering under the yoke of perpetual pregnancy—as I have written about dozens of times, and which I claim is the deepest, most significant subtext of Northanger Abbey.
And now as we turn to the second usage of “big” in JA’s letters, only two months later, we see exactly the same meaning of “big” in yet more sarcastic wit about pregnancy in Letter 34, 02/11/1801 (written by JA from Manydown—the great estate, by the way, of the BIGG family!). JA describes a visit to the Reverend Henry Dyson’s home at Baughurst Rectory near Manydown:
“The house seemed to have all the comforts of little Children, dirt & litter. Mr. Dyson as usual looked wild, & Mrs. Dyson as usual looked big.”
And there you have it all in two short sentences, a mini-masterpiece of compressed sarcastic wit.
So…what does this tell us about Mrs. Jennings’s reference to “bigger”? I suggest that if we look at what Mrs. Jennings is really talking about, pregnancy is the unspoken subtext:
“how snug they might live in such another cottage as yours—or a little BIGGER—with two maids, and two men; and I believe I could help them to a housemaid, for my Betty has a sister out of place, that would fit them exactly."
Think about it. Lucy and Edward are going to get married—or so it seems at that moment—and so, what reason might there be for Edward and Lucy to need “a little bigger” (which itself is almost an oxymoron) cottage, so as to not be TOO “snug”? Of course, it’s that Edward is going to make Lucy pregnant before too long! And so we can now see the ingenious pun that JA has snugly tucked away in Mrs. Jennings’s speech. The cottage needs to be “a little bigger” because Lucy is going to get “a little bigger”! Her snug uterus will “house” the baby until it is born, whereupon their slightly bigger but still snug cottage will house the family which has grown “a little bigger”!
And that’s not quite the end of my interpretation—it gets yet “a little bigger” still, when you realize, as I just did, that it gives suggests a startling alternative reading of an earlier passage in Chapter 18, where there are (not coincidentally, I suggest) two other usages of the word “snug”. It’s a passage that might otherwise might seem extraneous to the advancement of the plot of the novel, but now I see that, when decoded, it actually also, like Mrs. Jennings’s speech, bears on Edward’s covert (sexual) relationship with Lucy.
In the scene, which I quote below, Edward is visiting the Dashwood women at Barton Cottage, and surprises Marianne when he (very much like Elton surprises Emma by his lack of interest in being alone with Harriet) promptly leaves Elinor alone, right after Marianne has just discreetly left Edward and Elinor together for a private tete a tete. I suggest that you read the following passage AS IF Marianne guesses while speaking to Edward that Edward cannot answer Marianne’s demand for specificity as to the landscape he has just supposedly been out observing, because he has not been out in nature at all, but has actually just had a tryst with another woman---i.e., Lucy! You will see that it works perfectly—and then, in particular, watch out for the reference to Marianne’s “compassion” and ask yourself why such a strong word is used then, and then also ask yourself why Marianne remains “thoughtfully silent” after her unsatisfying chat with Edward. Both of these words take on startling new meaning under my alternate interpretation.
“Elinor saw, with great uneasiness the low spirits of her friend [Edward]. His visit afforded her but a very partial satisfaction, while his own enjoyment in it appeared so imperfect. It was evident that he was unhappy; she wished it were equally evident that he still distinguished her by the same affection which once she had felt no doubt of inspiring; but hitherto the continuance of his preference seemed very uncertain; and the reservedness of his manner towards her contradicted one moment what a more animated look had intimated the preceding one.
He joined her and Marianne in the breakfast-room the next morning before the others were down; and Marianne, who was always eager to promote their happiness as far as she could, soon left them to themselves. But before she was half way upstairs she heard the parlour door open, and, turning round, was astonished to see Edward himself come out. "I am going into the village to see my horses," said he, "as you are not yet ready for breakfast; I shall be back again presently."
Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding COUNTRY; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne's attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him, when Edward interrupted her by saying, "You must not enquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine COUNTRY—the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and SNUG—with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine COUNTRY, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque."
"I am afraid it is but too true," said Marianne; "but why should you boast of it?"
"I suspect," said Elinor, "that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration of the beauties of nature than they really feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious and will have an affectation of his own."
"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning."
"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a SNUG farm-house than a watch-tower—and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world."
Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with COMPASSION at her sister. Elinor only laughed.
The subject was continued no farther; and Marianne remained thoughtfully silent, till a new object suddenly engaged her attention. She was sitting by Edward, and in taking his tea from Mrs. Dashwood, his hand passed so directly before her, as to make a ring, with a plait of hair in the centre, very conspicuous on one of his fingers.
"I never saw you wear a ring before, Edward," she cried. "Is that Fanny's hair? I remember her promising to give you some. But I should have thought her hair had been darker."
Marianne spoke inconsiderately what she really felt—but when she saw how much she had pained Edward, her own vexation at her want of thought could not be surpassed by his. He coloured very deeply, and giving a momentary glance at Elinor, replied, "Yes; it is my sister's hair. The setting always casts a different shade on it, you know."
Elinor had met his eye, and looked conscious likewise. That the hair was her own, she instantaneously felt as well satisfied as Marianne; the only difference in their conclusions was, that what Marianne considered as a free gift from her sister, Elinor was conscious must have been procured by some theft or contrivance unknown to herself. She was not in a humour, however, to regard it as an affront, and affecting to take no notice of what passed, by instantly talking of something else, she internally resolved henceforward to catch every opportunity of eyeing the hair and of satisfying herself, beyond all doubt, that it was exactly the shade of her own.
Edward's embarrassment lasted some time, and it ended in an absence of mind still more settled. He was particularly grave the whole morning. Marianne SEVERELY CENSURED HERSELF for what she had said; but her own forgiveness might have been more speedy, had she known how little offence it had given her sister.”
What I see happening, above, is Edward and Marianne in effect carrying on a conversation that flies entirely over Elinor’s clueless head, in which they use the code of discussing landscapes as code for discussing Edward’s secret love life—and I conclude by pointing you to Hamlet’s following-quoted, infamous pun, and asking yourself whether Edward uses it in the same infamous manner when he refers three times to “COUNTRY” in the above-quoted passage:
Lying down at OPHELIA's feet
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