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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Macaulay & the uncommonly clever (Shakespearean) pun in P&P that he repeated (twice)

This is in followup to my post yesterday about Jane Austen’s uncommonly clever punning on variants of the word “common” in P&P. I was curious to know whether any Janeite had ever noticed any of this punning before myself, and so far I’ve found only one, who did pick up on part of it --- and, to my great delight, it turns out to have been only 20 years after P&P was published, and the name of that clever elf was Thomas Babington Macaulay!
For those who don’t recognize the name, Macaulay is well known to modern Austen scholars for having been a very influential very early adopter of what we would today call Austenmania— his great claim to Austenian fame is that he dared to speak of Jane Austen in the same breath with Shakespeare in the following passage of a published essay of his more than a century and half ago:

“Shakespeare has had neither equal nor second. But among the writers who, in the point which we have noticed, have approached nearest to the manner of the great master we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace, all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings.”

As I’ll show you, below, I now believe that the above, lavish praise for JA’s writing was in part based on Macaulay’s subtle appreciation of JA’s sharp sense of punning humor, which was nothing less than…Shakespearean, as you’ll see yet another example of in this post – let me take you step by step.

First, in December 2011 I pointed out the following pun in the narration introducing Sir William Lucas in P&P:

“For, though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to everybody. By nature inoffensive, friendly, and obliging, his presentation at St. James's had made him COURTEOUS."

Of course JA’s pun is that Sir William’s presentation at “court” had made him “courteous”, and it’s especially clever, because it is not only funny, it also reveals JA’s awareness of the origin of the word “courteous”, which surely was coined to describe the carefully deferential behavior of a courtier at a court, before the word spread to the wider, non-royal, social world.

Second, in April 2014, I pointed out that I believed JA had linked the words “courteous” and “uncommon” to Sir Wiliam Lucas, in no small part so as to draw a parallel between him and Shakespeare’s word-drunk, holy fool Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; specifically, when Oberon sends Puck to give Bottom a  jackass’s head, and to charm Titania into loving (and making love to) Bottom. I claimed that JA was pointing to the following speeches by Titania (the first of which also happens to include the famous Titania Acrostic first discovered by the Baconian William Stone Booth a century ago), speeches which contain, in close proximity, both “no common” and “courteous”:


O,     Out of this wood do not desire to go:
T      Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no;
I        I am a spirit of NO COMMON rate;
T       The summer still doth tend upon my state;
AN   And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I        I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
A      And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,

Be kind and COURTEOUS to this gentleman;
Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes;
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries…

And that brings me to my main point, which is the following anecdote first written about by JASNA member Anita Fielding in the 1993 issue of Persuasions, and then summarized in Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786–1945 by Katie Halsey (2012), at p. 193, which I found by Googling “elegant breeding not being uncommon”:

“Macaulay used the medium of a repeated reference to P&P’s Sir William Lucas to signal his amused disapproval of the pomposity of particular acquaintances. In June 1832, he wrote to [sisters] Hannah and Margaret: ‘He [Mr. Edwin Pearson] condescended to quiz me through his glass, and then to extend his hand and congratulate me on my appointment [to the House of Commons]. ‘Such instances of elegant breeding,” as Sir William Lucas says, “are not uncommon at the Court”. A year later, he repeated the joke, writing to Margaret, “On Monday the House does not sit on account of the Queen’s Birthday. But Lord Goderich has asked me to dinner—such instances of elegant breeding not being uncommon, as Sir William Lucas well observed, about the court; and I must go in all my official finery.”  END QUOTE

And now I come to the punch line of this post--- did you notice what were the specific circumstances of both occasions, one year apart, on which Macaulay invoked Sir William’s bon mot?

The first was the occasion of the young Macaulay’s appointment to the House of Commons, when Macaulay kissed the King’s ring. The latter was a year later, on the occasion of the Queen’s Birthday, which, as Macaulay point out, occurred on a day when the House of Commons was not in session.

House of Commons, get it? ;)

But here’s the final irony. If you read Anita Fielding’s much more detailed account of the first of Macaulay’s two “uncommon” moments, you have to wonder how it was possible that Macaulay, in calling Pearson a Sir William Lucas-like fool, did not realize that he was also inadvertently hoisting himself on that same petard of fawning adulation toward royalty:

Anita Fielding  Persuasions (1993) “Macaulay and Miss Austen”:
“Later in the month, when Macaulay is back in London, one of his letters is inspired by a rare parliamentary event.  He relates to his sisters how the House of Commons had gone in a body to St. James’s Palace to present an address to King William on his safe escape from a discharged Greenwich pensioner who had thrown a stone at him and hit his hat.  Macaulay describes the day, along with an aside from Jane Austen.
“Oh if you but knew of the pleasure of being admitted to the Royal presence!  I cannot keep my elation to myself.  I cannot describe my feelings in dull creeping prose.  I burst forth in unpremeditated verse, worthy of the judicious poet I so often quote.
I passed in adorning The whole of the morning When the hand of the King must be kissed, must be kissed.
I put on my back A fine suit of black And twelve ells of lace on my wrist on my wrist.
I went to the levee And squeezed through the bevy Till I made good my way to his fist to his fist.
 But my wing fails me.  I must creep in prose for a few lines.  At one we assembled in the House of Commons.  For this was the day appointed for taking up our address to the King …  The House looked like a parterre of tulips – all red and blue …  Much gold lace was there and much silver lace – many military uniforms – yeomanry uniforms – navy uniforms, official uniforms …  Then the Speaker rose and walked majestically down stairs to his state carriage, – an old thing covered with painting and gilding of the days of Queen Anne …  We came behind in about a hundred carriages … at hearse pace, forming a string from Westminster Hall to St James’s palace.  The carriage stopped.  We alighted at the door of a long passage, matted, and furnished only with large wooden benches. Along this passage we went to a stone staircase.  On the landing places guards with their swords and carbines were in attendance to slay us if we behaved improperly.  At the top of the staircase we passed through two ranks of beef-eaters, blazing in scarlet and gold, to a table, where we wrote our names, each on two cards. One card we left on the table with the page.  The other we took with us to give to the Lord in Waiting.
As a member of the House of Commons, I had peculiar advantages.  For before the levee we were admitted to present our address.  The throne room was however so crowded that while we were going through the ceremony I heard little, and saw nothing.  But I mistake – one thing I saw – a great fool with a cocked hat and a coat like that of the fifer of a band, Mr. Edwin Pearson, who was performing his duties as Exon.  He condescended to quiz me through his glass, and then to extend his hand and congratulate me on my appointment.  “Such instances of elegant breeding,” – as Sir William Lucas says, “are not uncommon at the Court.”  When we had walked out backward, trampling on each other’s toes and kicking the skin of each other’s shins, the levee began, and we were re-admitted singly to the apartment which we had just left in a body.  The King stood near a door.  We marched before him and out at a door on the other side, bowing and scraping the whole way.  When I came to him, I gave my card to the Lord in Waiting who notified the name to the King. His Majesty put forth his hand.  I kneeled, or rather curtseyed, and kissed the sacred object most reverently.  Then I walked away backwards bowing down my head like a bulrush, and made my way through the rooms into the street with all expedition.  (2:141-2)”

I am pretty sure that Jane Austen would have smiled at the irony of Macaulay simultaneously being so uncommonly clueful about Sir William Lucas, and yet so clueless about his own inner Sir William Lucas, without any apparent awareness of that irony.

ADDED 7/10/16 at 6:30 pm PST:

In response to my above claim that Macaulay had hoist himself on his own Sir William Lucasian petard with his effusions about kissing the King’s ring, I received two dissenting responses:

Nancy Mayer: “Why do you say he had a bit of Sir William in him? His tone is entirely different from that of that William….I may be misreading, but to me he sounds like he is, or is trying to be, satirical.”

Jane Fox: “That was my impression. He isn't making fun of Sir William so much as comparing himself to him and making fun of his own involvement.”

You ladies are ABSOLUTELY correct, I read too quickly, and was too happy to find Macaulay being inconsistent to go back and double check. Mea culpa. There is no question Macaulay was being ironic the entire way through. The doggerel about the King makes it crystal clear.

There is an irony, Nancy and Jane, in having both of you catch me being insensitive to irony. It is poetic justice, and will be a good reminder to me in the future to double check before opining on such matters. Irony is a slippery matter --- it can be tied down, but it requires patience to reach reliable readings.

And Macaulay being satirical about meeting the King would of course be entirely consistent with his detecting JA’s complex irony about “common” in P&P. If only Macaulay could have known about the  “Prince of Whales” secret answer to the charade in Emma , and the satirical insincerity of the Dedication to the Prince Regent, it would have greatly added to his pleasure in all things Austen, I am sure.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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