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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Marianne & Sir John, Miss Smitten, and Jane Austen’s tumbling, ankle-spraining wordplay

In Austen-L this morning, Anielka Briggs wrote:  
"Benjamin Bluster, Sophia Sentiment, Edmund Escutcheon and Margaret Mitten all share alliteration. "I am in a fair way (of)...marrying against my will.....From the love of (Miss Mitten) who will ensure me?" Margaret reveals her desire for Mr. Loiterer in her name. Miss. Mitten = Miss SMITTEN
Works just as well with Miss. M. Mitten.”

Very clever, Anielka! And, in support of your suggestion, I see JA adding a light, twinkling, subliminal hint at that missing “Miss”, in the reluctant suitor’s excuse at the end of #43:    “…it is impossible for me to accept [Miss Mitten’s] intended kindness, as I have the MIS-fortune to be a Fellow of a College.”   Miss Fortune indeed!

Prompted by your post, I checked in the Index of the Loiterer for other alliterative names, and quickly found the depressed widower Richard Rueful (#31) and his cousin Fanny Fretful; and Dick Distich (#34) the author of an epic poem in blank verse (note the nice irony in his surname, because a “distich” (“a couple of lines or verses, making complete sense: a couplet) is at the opposite, short end of the poetical spectrum from an epic poem! And let us not forget Christopher Cockney, the hero of #3.

There’s (at least) one other alliterative name to be found in the Loiterer--- here’s a link to my 2009 post about #11, the Luke Lickspittle issue, a determined hunter of unfortunate animals and also of noble favor, whom I wrote about a long while back here:
I believed then, and still believe, that the 13 year old Jane Austen wrote both the Luke Lickspittle and the Sophia Sentiment letters, and the cleverness of the (MisS) Mitten wordplay you’ve discovered, Anielka, makes me wonder if JA didn’t have a hand in that one as well.

I say that partly because of Loiterer #43’s resonance with the ending scene of Chapter 9 of S&S, the memorable exchange between Marianne and the apparently ponderous (and panderous) Sir John Middleton, who just happens to be the utterer of the single solitary usage of the word “smitten” in all of JA’s novels!:

"Aye, aye, I see how it will be," said Sir John, "I see how it will be. You will be setting your cap at [Willoughby] now, and never think of poor Brandon."
"That is an expression, Sir John," said Marianne warmly, "which I particularly dislike. I abhor every common-place phrase by which wit is intended; and 'setting one's cap at a man,' or 'making a conquest,' are the most odious of all. Their tendency is gross and illiberal; and if their construction could ever be deemed clever, time has long ago destroyed all its ingenuity."
Sir John did not much understand this reproof; but he laughed as heartily as if he did, and then replied, --
"Aye, you will make conquests enough, I dare say, one way or other. Poor Brandon! he is quite smitten already, and he is very well worth setting your cap at, I can tell you, in spite of all this tumbling about and spraining of ankles."

Because Elinor is so clueless in her perception of Sir John (“Sir John did not much understand”), Janeites also don’t give Sir John credit for possessing any brains at all. After all, he’s the “studier of character” who answers Marianne’s question about Willoughby’s “genius” as follows:    "Upon my soul," said he, "I do not know much about him as to all THAT. But he is a pleasant, good humoured fellow, and has got the nicest little black bitch of a pointer I ever saw. Was she out with him today?"

But let’s take a closer look at his Chapter 9 parting shot across Marianne’s bow, in reaction to her hitting him with a broadside of judgment on his penchant for clichéd expressions about romance. Do you see how witty Sir John actually is in his reply? (I’ll pause while you reread……..).

Did you see? Sir John is actually giving Marianne as good as he gets! I.e., not only is he not cowed by Marianne’s criticism of his love of cliché, he thumbs his nose at her by squeezing into his last two sentences not only Marianne’s “making a conquest” and his own “setting one’s cap”, but also, for good measure, “smitten” (a trite adjective JA would never let her narrator use unironically), and two new expressions (“tumbling about” and “spraining of ankles”).

There are two levels of cleverness in Sir John’s two new expressions. In one sense, he is in effect saying to her, “Who’s the cliché-monger here?” I.e., it was a cliché of the Gothic novel—the very kind that JA burlesqued in her juvenilia--that the exaggeratedly sentimental heroine would tumble about and sprain her ankle ever other chapter. That’s pretty clever, don’t you think?

But there’s a second, more serious level, too. Sir John’s repartee, properly decoded, goes far beyond holding his own in a battle of wits with Marianne. In a code that flies right over Elinor’s head, but is understood by Marianne, Sir John is actually warning Marianne that he’s well aware of how her romance with Willoughby really began. I.e., Sir John, who is far more alert and insightful than he lets on, understands that Marianne deliberately tumbled down and appeared to sprain her ankle at the very instant when Willoughby----who she knew had been stalking her----was very close by—the better to be romantically and rainily rescued by him!

In Unbecoming Conjunctions, Jill Heydt-Stevenson brilliantly detected and explicated the strong sexual innuendoes of the repeated references to “tumbling” (i.e., copulating) in S&S, and also of “spraining an ankle” (i.e., getting pregnant). And Sir John has indeed already used the word “tumbling” in exactly the same vein in a tete-a-tete with Elinor not long before:      
"Yes, yes, [Willoughby] is very well worth catching I can tell you, Miss Dashwood; he has a pretty little estate of his own in Somersetshire besides; and if I were you, I would not give him up to my younger sister, in spite of ALL THIS TUMBLING DOWN hills. Miss Marianne must not expect to have all the men to herself. Brandon will be jealous, if she does not take care."

And even the precocious tween Margaret gets in on Sir John’s game:            
"But, indeed, Elinor, it is Marianne's. I am almost sure it is, for I saw him cut it off. Last night after tea, when you and mama went out of the room, they were whispering and talking together as fast as could be, and he seemed to be begging something of her, and presently he took up her scissors and cut off a long lock of her hair, for it was ALL TUMBLED DOWN her back; and he kissed it, and folded it up in a piece of white paper; and put it into his pocket-book."

Heydt-Stevenson is spot-on in her analysis of this “tumbling” sexual innuendo:       “Austen’s pointed and repeated use of the term ‘tumbled,’ slang for copulation..., alludes to The Rape of the Lock and enunciates how the dispossession of [Marianne’s] ‘hair’ foreshadows an injury to her reputation.”

But what JHS does not realize, because it is even further outside the box, is that Sir John is not a ventriloquist’s dummy for Jane Austen. He is using this sexual slang intentionally! In short, Sir John is not as dumb, nor is Margaret as naive, as you might expect—quite the contrary in both cases!

And in conclusion, circling back to where we began in Loiterer #43, where Anielka showed us we were dealing with “Miss Smitten”----what should we make of the following averral by her in her letter to Mr. Loiterer, in light of the above discussion of “tumbling” in S&S?:

“I am sure, Mr. Loiterer, you are too much a man of sense to pay any regard to mere external beauty; otherwise I would tell you, that I am in person of the very tallest size, not encumbered with the coarse redundance of plumpness, or flushed with the vulgar glow of health; and that I have preserved my figure in the unbending Majesty of prim perpendicular, uncorrupted by the present fashionable lounge of our modern Girls, who always appear to me as if they were going to tumble on their noses…..”

Modern girls like Marianne Dashwood, who does indeed TUMBLE on her nose while setting her cap at a prospective beau, in order to make a conquest?  Seems to me that the 35 year old Jane Austen remembered well her 13 year old self’s wordplay on “smitten” and “tumbling”! Miss Smitten, tip your cap at your soul mate, Sir John Middleton!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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