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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, September 10, 2015

“I will tell you truths while I can”--shocking truths Jane Austen told about fathers playing “backgammon”

Yesterday, one of my best Janeite friends, Jenny Allan, a brilliant independent Austen scholar with whom I have had the privilege of brainstorming many an Austen discovery over the past decade, alerted me that Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue  (1810)---previously identified by myself and others as a source for some Austenian sexual innuendoes----contained the following very vulgar slang definition:        BACK GAMMON PLAYER: Sodomite

Jenny noted how unbecoming a conjunction that definition made with Mr. Woodhouse’s well-known love of backgammon, and she (like myself) immediately recognized this had to be related to the (now) well established sexual subtext of Garrick’s Riddle (which Mr. Woodhouse tries so hard to remember the final verses of), which is about men with syphilis attempting to cure their disease by having sex (repeatedly) with virgins. But, as you will see in the remainder of this post, that is only the tip of a very large iceberg of disturbing sexual subtext, not only in Emma, but elsewhere in JA’s writings as well.

Right off I verified that Grose’s definition was no freakish outlier—Fick’s 1802 English-German Dictionary contained the identical definition. But I also found an extraordinary bit of clever doggerel in the Ladies Magazine (1786)---a periodical JA is known to have been familiar with---and then repeated in The Festival of Wit (1793):
“Epitaph on Mr. Thomas Hammond, Parish-clerk of Ashford in Kent, who was a good Man, and an excellent Backgammon Player, and was succeeded in office by a Mr. Trice.
By the chance of the die,
Our most audible clerk, Mr. Hammond;
'Till three score and ten,
But hark, neighbour, hark,
Here again comes the clerk!
By a hit very lucky and nice:
With death we're now ev'n,
HE JUST STEPP’D UP to heav'n,
And is with us again in a Trice

Even if Mr. Hammond actually existed in real life, the author clearly had a very witty, saucy time playing on the sexual slang meaning of being “back-gammon’d” (sounds very painful!)---and the most telling line is about how Mr. Hammond “bore many men”. So there can be no doubt that this slang definition was alive and well in the English language during Jane Austen’s entire writing career, and I think it’s clear, from what I will show you below, that she exploited that double entendre to the max in her writings—not salaciously, but to tell horrible truths while she could.


Jenny was referring of course to three different passages in Emma. The first is in Chapter 1, describing Mr. Woodhouse’s angst the first night Miss Taylor was no longer there at Hartfield:

"Emma SPARED NO EXERTIONS TO MAINTAIN THIS HAPPIER FLOW of ideas, and hoped, BY THE HELP OF BACKGAMMON, to get her father tolerably through the evening, and BE ATTACKED BY no regrets but her own. The backgammon-table was placed; but A VISITOR IMMEDIATELY AFTERWARDS WALKED IN and made it unnecessary."

As you can readily discern, I’ve capitalized those words which hide a graphic sexual meaning in plain sight, just beneath the surface of their apparently innocent G-rated meaning. Is it just a coincidence that Knightley happens to show up just before the backgammon game? Could Knightley have been protecting Emma from being the new victim of Mr. Woodhouse’s strange desires (as per Garricks Riddle) to cure his syphilis via sex with virgins—including one of his own daughters?!

And, in that same vein, is it a coincidence that Harriet Smith shows up at Hartfield very soon after that, and quickly becomes a sleep-over guest—and when Knightley wonders if Emma’s friendship with Harriet should be discouraged, read Mrs. Weston’s reply, keeping in mind the dark possibility that having Harriet sleep with Emma was the only protection Emma had from being ‘backgammon’d” by her father:

"I know that you all love her really too well to be unjust or unkind; but excuse me, Mr. Knightley, if I take the liberty (I consider myself, you know, as having somewhat of the privilege of speech that Emma's mother might have had) the liberty of hinting that I do not think any possible good can arise from Harriet Smith's intimacy being made a matter of much discussion among you. Pray excuse me; but supposing any little inconvenience may be apprehended from the intimacy, it cannot be expected that Emma, accountable to nobody but her father, who perfectly approves the acquaintance, should put an end to it, so long as it is a source of pleasure to herself. It has been so many years my province to give advice, that you cannot be surprized, Mr. Knightley, at this little remains of office."
"Not at all," cried he; "I am much obliged to you for it. It is very good advice, and it shall have a better fate than your advice has often found; for it shall be attended to."
"Mrs. John Knightley is easily alarmed, and might be made unhappy about her sister."
"Be satisfied," said he, "I will not raise any outcry. I will keep my ill-humour to myself. I have a very sincere interest in Emma. Isabella does not seem more my sister; has never excited a greater interest; perhaps hardly so great. There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma. I wonder what will become of her!"
"So do I," said Mrs. Weston gently, "very much."

And..further in that same vein, is it really so that Isabella “is easily alarmed” and that is why she “might be made unhappy about her sister”? Or is Isabella justifiably alarmed for Emma’s safety, because, horrifically, Isabella, before she married and moved out from Hartfield (to her father’s undying dismay), was backgammon’d by him herself?

The drumbeat of dark hints continues in Chapter 25, when we read about another game which seems to arouse Mr. Woodhouse’s……interest:

"Oh yes, papa. I have no fears at all for myself; and I should have no scruples of staying as late as Mrs. Weston, but on your account. I AM ONLY AFRAID OF YOUR SITTING UP FOR ME. I am not afraid of your not being exceedingly comfortable with Mrs. Goddard. SHE LOVES PIQUET, you know; but when she is gone home, I AM AFRAID YOU WILL BE SITTING UP BY YOURSELF, instead of going to bed at your usual time—and the idea of THAT WOULD ENTIRELY DESTROY MY COMFORT. YOU MUST PROMISE ME NOT TO SIT UP."

Again, in her mastery of slight misdirection of the reader’s gaze with innocent verbiage, JA manages to hide in plain sight that Emma is very afraid of having her own own bodily comfort destroyed by Mr. Woodhouse’s sexual organ persistently “sitting up for” Emma!

And this terribly disturbing motif just won’t go away, JA returns to it in Chapter 38, when we read this additional account of Mr. Woodhouse and backgammon, courtesy of the ever observant and truth-telling (albeit in code) Miss Bates, chattering to Emma at the Crown Inn:

"Grandmamma was quite well, had a charming evening with Mr. Woodhouse, a vast deal of chat, and BACKGAMMON. Tea was made down stairs, biscuits and baked apples and wine before she came away: AMAZING LUCK in some of her throws: and SHE INQUIRED A GREAT DEAL ABOUT YOU, how you were AMUSED, and WHO WERE YOUR PARTNERS."

So Mrs. and Miss Bates are also worried about Emma and backgammon at Hartfield. And we are also being prompted to wonder who were Emma’s “partners”—but not in a literal—but rather a figurative—“ballroom”. And…we are also reminded by the mention of Mrs. Bates inquiring after Emma’s being “amused”  of Lady Bertram who gets her “ear” (or her “rear”) amused when Sir Thomas returns from Antigua after a VERY long separation from his wife:

“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: 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; and she would have answered as freely for the good conduct and useful pursuits of all the young people as for her own. It was so agreeable to her to see him again, and hear him talk, TO HAVE HE R EAR AMUSED AND HER w HOLE comprehension FILLED by his narratives, that she began particularly to feel how dreadfully she must have missed him, and how impossible it would have been for her to bear a lengthened absence.”

And circling back to Chapter 3, how about an alternative reading of the following passage, given that backgammon was commonly called a “table game” during JA’s lifetime:

“After these came a second set; among the most come-at-able of whom were Mrs. and Miss Bates, and Mrs. Goddard, three ladies almost always at the service of an invitation from Hartfield, and who were fetched and carried home so often, that Mr. Woodhouse thought it no hardship for either James or the horses. Had it taken place only once a year, it would have been a grievance.”

The most come-at-able? As in “come at a table”?

But far and away, the most disturbing passage of all—indeed, it appears to me to be the deliberate culmination of all that precedes it in the text of Emma, is in Chapter 44, when the heroine, feeling emotionally shattered in the aftermath of Box Hill, finds herself suddenly vulnerable to, and unable to any longer resist, her father’s incessant appetite for “backgammon”:

“The wretchedness of a scheme to Box Hill was in Emma's thoughts all the evening. How it might be considered by the rest of the party, she could not tell. They, in their different homes, and their different ways, might be looking back on it with pleasure; but in her view it was a morning more COMPLETELY MISSPENT, more TOTALLY BARE of rational SATISFACTION at the time, and more TO BE ABHORRED IN RECOLLECTION, than any she had ever passed. A WHOLE EVENING OF BACK-GAMMON WITH HER FATHER, was FELICITY to it. There, indeed, LAY REAL PLEASURE, for there SHE WAS GIVING UP the SWEETEST hours of the twenty-four TO HIS COMFORT; and feeling that, unmerited as might be THE DEGREE OF HIS FOND AFFECTION and confiding esteem, she could not, in her general conduct, BE OPEN to any SEVERE reproach. AS A DAUGHTER, she hoped she was not without A HEART. She hoped no one could have said to her, "How could you be so unfeeling to your father?—I must, I will tell you truths while I can."

I don’t think I need to explain any of my capitalizations, and how they confirm where Jane Austen has been leading all along, beginning with that first night after Miss Taylor is no longer living at Hartfield. These are, indeed—as JA makes clear in that last sentence---the “truths” she will tell us, the reader, if we listen carefully, while SHE can—i.e., before she dies, or the pen of authorship is taken out of her hand. Which explains why she did not make these horrible truths explicit—because as sure as can be, she’d never have gotten any of her novels published-nor would she have been provided a home to live in—had she been explicit.


The above would have been enough to prove my point, and validate my friend’s brilliant catch. But there's more, which shows that this issue must have become extremely prominent in JA’s mind in 1813. Read this passage in Ch. 15 of P&P, which is startlingly similar to the ones in Emma, with fresh eyes:

"Then turning to Mr. Bennet, [Collins] OFFERED HIMSELF as his antagonist AT BACKGAMMON. Mr. Bennet accepted the challenge, observing that he acted very wisely in leaving the girls to their own trifling AMUSEMENTS. Mrs. Bennet and her daughters apologised most civilly for LYDIA’S INTERRUPTION, and promised that IT SHOULD NOT OCCUR AGAIN, if he would resume his book; but Mr. Collins, after assuring them that HE BORE HIS YOUNG COUSIN no ill-will, and should never resent her behaviour as any AFFRONT, SEATED himself at another table with Mr. Bennet, and PREPARED FOR BACKGAMMON."

Mr. Collins "offered himself" and "prepared for backgammon"? It sounds to me like he is offering and preparing himself for that same “game” which Mr. Hammond apparently endured during his life, and which Emma did as well. And isn’t a parallel between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse as incongruous as any between two Austen characters from different novels? The witty urbane Mr. Bennet and the senile Mr. Woodhouse couldn’t be more different personalities! And yet, the backgammon passages in P&P and Emma are very parallel, because both involve “backgammon” being played by the family patriarch with a younger family member; both refer to the word “amusement”; and, tellingly, both involve either an attempted or an actual interruption of that “game” at the last minute, by someone who is either a family member, or virtually one, and knows the patriarch well. Chilling, don’t you agree?

But I am still not quite done. Here’s where it gets even eerier. In Letter 89 from JA to CEA, written from Godmersham where JA was visiting Edward & his family, and dated Sept. 24, 1813---which UNCANNILY is almost EXACTLY the date upon which Miss Taylor weds Mr. Weston and Emma narrowly avoids a game of backgammon with her father---- we read this description of a gathering attended by JA, brother Edward, and niece Fanny (whom I’ve often asserted was the prime real life allusive source for the character of Emma):    “There was nothing entertaining, or out of the common way. We met only Tyldens and double Tyldens. A Whist Table for the Gentlemen, a grown-up musical young Lady to play Backgammon with Fanny, & engravings of the Colleges at Cambridge for me."

That reference to the "grown up musical young lady" eerily reminds me both of Frank Churchill’s first questions upon finally arriving Highbury… “…Balls—had they balls?—Was it a musical society?"
…and also of Mrs. Elton and all her sexual innuendoes about forming a “musical society” in Highbury with Emma:
"I do not ask whether you are musical, Mrs. Elton. Upon these occasions, a lady's character generally precedes her; and Highbury has long known that you are a superior performer."
"Oh! no, indeed; I must protest against any such idea. A superior performer!—very far from it, I assure you. Consider from how partial a quarter your information came. I am doatingly fond of music—passionately fond;—and my friends say I am not entirely devoid of taste; but as to any thing else, upon my honour my performance is mediocre to the last degree. You, Miss Woodhouse, I well know, play delightfully. I assure you it has been the greatest satisfaction, comfort, and delight to me, to hear what a musical society I am got into. I absolutely cannot do without music. It is a necessary of life to me; and having always been used to a very musical society, both at Maple Grove and in Bath, it would have been a most serious sacrifice….”

And then in Letter 90 dated Oct. 14, 1813, i.e., less than 3 weeks after Letter 89, being the very next surviving JA letter, we read: “The Comfort of the Billiard Table here is very great. – It draws all the Gentlemen to it whenever they are within, especially after Dinner, so that my Br Fanny & I have the Library to ourselves in delightful quiet”

Gaming tables in general seem to be laden with sexual innuendoes in JA’s writing.

But the question which must have occurred to you by now, as it did immediately to me, is: “Was there a real life father who insisted on frequent games of backgammon with his daughter?”  I personally think that Reverend Austen is a prime candidate, given that Jane Austen is the author telling these “truths’ while she can. But perhaps there was another father in her circle as well, who fit the profile—the father of Jane Austen’s dearest non-family friend, Martha Lloyd!

In January 2015 Ellen Moody wrote the following in Janeites:  “In Caroline Austen's memoir there is a description of some Austen single woman who led her life with this old man practically his prisoner playing backgammon with him (it's there) and to me the explanation for this is Austen is remembering it -- that old man had control of property and the woman probably no income and no man or job to rescue here.”

I did some quick checking and found that Ellen was slightly misremembering –here is what she wrote way back in 2001 which led me to the actual facts, and which also, in my opinion, was spot-on in identifying it as a source for Mr. Woodhouse: “There is an important real life analogue to Mr Woodhouse: he is found in Caroline Austen's memoir, Reminiscences: the likenesses, from hypochrondria, to backgammon, from the way the weak tyrannize over the supposed strong, between Austen's Mr Woodhouse and Mr Lloyd (see beginning p. 15, "Mr Lloyd became a sad nervous invalid ...”, edition published by the Jane Austen Society in 1986) is striking.”

I found that passage, and here is what Caroline Austen wrote about her maternal grandfather:
“Mr. Lloyd became a sad nervous invalid, keeping much in his own room, and some days equal to nothing. His malady had no name then, but I have heard it was thought afterwards that it might have been suppressed gout. When better, he liked to amuse himself by playing at cards, and then his daughters were summoned to play with him. At first, it was some childish game which they knew, for he was too nervous to teach [them, but…] he was glad when he found that their mother had taught them whist, and afterwards they always played it. They played for money-some small stake I suppose-he always paying, whichever side might lose. Sometimes he would like backgammon, and then two were left at liberty.  Such constant card-playing was very irksome to these young girls, though to a degree it soothed his nervous sufferings. He was, I believe, a good and a truly religious man; his daughters respected him, and thought highly of his abilities. But I fear he lived in their memories chiefly as a nervous hypochondriac, as the shadow cast over their young life. He died at Enborne, 28th January, 1789, aged 69 years…”

What to make of this extraordinary coincidence of fact and fiction? I suspect that Caroline, writing 50 years after publication of Emma, and finally having her chance to tell the world about her famous aunt, was trying to put as bland a spin as possible on the parody of her grandfather via the character of Mr. Woodhouse. Did Caroline, born in 1798, have any idea of the dark family memory that Jane Austen was preserving? Did she understand the vulgar slang meaning of backgammon? I think she tried very hard to bury dark truths in her family history which she preferred to keep unremembered, and to prevent any possibility that her aunt’s “telling truth while [she] can” might be understood in their awful true sense.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S. In the conclusion of A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote about his own existential angst:
“The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I PLAY A GAME OF BACKGAMMON, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther….”

So Mr. Woodhouse is in one sense a parody of David Hume, and it is funny to think of Mr. Woodhouse as a philosopher whose existential angst (and “heated brain”) was eased by backgammon! But with Mr. Woodhouse (and not with Hume), it’s also a dark sexual innuendo, pointing toward deep trauma, caused by incestuous sexual abuse!

P.P.S.: As a stark contrast to my above analysis, John Mullan in Chapter 10 of his recent What Matters in Jane Austen, exemplifies a safe mainstream Austen scholarly discussion of Emma playing backgammon with her father, and the broader game playing motif of the novel as a whole. The plausibility of both my explanation and Mullan’s, is a quintessential example of Jane Austen’s extraordinary command of the fine art of sexual double entendre:
“Some games are for clever people, and some are for the empty-headed. In Emma, the clever and the empty-headed play together. Mr. Woodhouse loves games—his piquet with Mrs. Goddard and, especially, his backgammon. Backgammon is just right for him, relying enough on chance to offer him the occasional opportunity of victory, especially if the other player is guileful enough to help him win. No wonder it is also the game that Mr. Bennet plays with Mr. Collins. We learn from Miss Bates that during the Highbury balls Mr. Woodhouse passed the evening with ‘a vast deal of chat and backgammon’ with Mrs. Bates. When late in the novel, a chastened Emma looks back to the trip to Box Hill, considering it as a morning ‘totally bare of rational satisfaction’, she thinks that a ‘whole evening of backgammon with her father was felicity to it’. Here at least she is doing something unselfish, ‘giving up the sweetest hours of the twenty-four to his comfort.’ The hours and hours of backgammon with Mr. Woodhouse lie in wait for her if she really is committed to avoiding marriage as she claims.
This image of an almost eternal backgammon game with Mr. Woodhouse is all the more powerful, because of Emma’s native love of intriguing play. Emma is a novel in which game playing is exciting enough to seem dangerous. ‘A most dangerous game’ is just the phrase that Mr. Knightley chooses to describe Frank Churchill’s flirtation with Emma…Game playing is an activity into which Mr. Elton…is disastrously recruited….Harriet has enjoyed ‘merry evening games’ with the Martins, but her games with Emma will be rather more hazardous…Emma draws other characters into games; even her slow witted father tries to join in the business of charades…”

And then, Chapter 11 of Mullan’s book is (without any awareness on his part of the irony, in light of my above post) “Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?”. But rest assured, Mullan, while showing a willingness to see Lydia Bennet, Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, and all the bachelor heroes as having sexual lives in the margins of the novels, he does not cross the line that I have obliterated, above.

1 comment:

Diane Reynolds said...


As soon as I saw that Jenny had identified backgammon as slang for sodomite--and, yes, of course, it would be slang for that once you think about--I immediately jumped to the two bookend backgammon woes that Emma suffers--her fear of endless nights of backgammon with her father at the beginning and the seemingly ridiculous, comic idea of her penance after Box Hill--spending time playing backgammon with her father! But then--you will love thi--I looked up gammon on a whim and it is the back portion or hind leg of a pig. You know how often I have pondered and been nagged by that hind portion of the pig that Emma/Mr. W send the Bates, wanting somehow to connect it to the animal cruelty of eating suckling pigs described in Lamb's seemingly comic essay written after Austen's death. But now it takes on a different meaning, one I don't need to spell out.