Monday, May 09, 2011

Emma, Volume I, Chapter 9

The collection of "elegant extracts" was so common among young women of Austen's time that there were publishers who put out a series of books with that phrase in the title, containing excerpts of Shakespeare and Spenser alongside various bits from philosophers, historians, moralizers and more. Another fun (and suitable) pastime for young women was the collection of riddles, conundra, word puzzles and "trophies" (things like pressed flowers, perhaps, or mementoes).

Inspired by one of the teachers at Mrs Goddard's school, Harriet is currently collecting a bunch of riddles into a book.

I actually think I'll do a separate post about the rest of the chapter, but I'd like to point out that in this chapter of Emma, Austen is not at all the prim, proper author so many people think of. Instead, she is referencing a well-known dirty joke.

Mr Woodhouse's riddle is a well-known (and rather bawdy) riddle published by David Garrick in 1771. Garrick was a noted actor and owner of the Drury Lane Theater. He was also friends with Sir Francis Dashwood, the founder of the infamous Hellfire Club, and was part of the Society of Dilettanti - an organization of young men interested in the arts in England, although the group had some unsavory connotations as well.

Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid,
Kindled a flame I still deplore;
The hood-wink'd boy I call'd in aid,
Much of his near approach afraid,
So fatal to my suit before.

At length, propitious to my pray'r,
The little urchin came;
At once he sought the midway air,
And soon he clear'd, with dextrous care,
The bitter relicks of my flame.

To Kitty, Fanny now succeeds,
She kindles slow, but lasting fires:
With care my appetite she feeds;
Each day some willing victim bleeds,
To satisfy my strange desires.

Say, by what title, or what name,
Must I this youth address?
Cupid and he are not the same,
Tho' both can raise, or quench a flame --
I'll kiss you, if you guess.
Those of you who cling firmly to the belief that Austen was always entirely proper, all I can say is prepare to have your minds blown.

In the first stanza: "Kitty" was a slang term during that period for a prostitute. "Hoodwinked" at that time meant only "hooded", and the "hoodwinked boy" called upon by the speaker is, in fact, his penis (uncircumcised males being predominant). The "flame" that was kindled was the burning sensation associated with syphilis.

The second stanza is often read as referring to sodomy - it was not an uncommon practice during Garrick's time for young boys to be used sexually as a way of trying to avoid venereal disease. Some of the boys were male prostitutes by trade, while others were boys kidnapped off the street by procurers for the use of their male patrons. It also reads quite rightly as references to what a penis gets up to during intercourse, with the word "came" meaning exactly what you might expect.

In the third stanza, the man has switched from female prostitutes to virgins - Fanny (even then a euphemism in England for the vagina) is obviously female, and is probably supposed to be the guy's wife, who is fine for vanilla sex. However, in order to try to rid himself of the symptoms of syphilis and to satisfy his "strange desires", the man has been having sex with virgins (it was believed during Garrick's time - as during Shakespeare's - that intercourse with virgins would cure VD). Hence the reference to a new one bleeding every day. That it was not uncommon for children of both sexes to be raped as part of this sort of treatment feeds into the "strange desires" as well.

Throughout the poem, it's been possible for a tame reading to lead one to the answer Cupid, but in the final stanza, we're flat-out told it's NOT Cupid. The correct "tame" answer to this poem is "a chimney-sweep" while the "dirty" answer is "a penis". The reason I put the word tame in quotes in the prior sentence is that the phrase "to get one's chimney sweep out" was a naughty slang reference for heterosexual sex - the chimney being a reference to the vagina.

This particular riddle was quite definitely never included in Elegant Extracts for Young Ladies, but it was a fairly well-known dirty joke. Having Emma say it was from Elegant Extracts is a huge wink to the readers of Austen's time that she is making fun of Elegant Extracts - and not for the first time, since she mocks them in Northanger Abbey as well, a version of which long predated Emma. That Mr Woodhouse - old, asexual, "preserve the virgins" Mr Woodhouse - is the one mentioning it repeatedly to Emma and Harriet is hilarious. And he's an older man, so he can be expected to have learned it when it was first published. Perhaps he's unaware of the dirty second meaning (actually the most likely first meaning, really, but not a socially acceptable one), but some commentary has speculated that Mr Woodhouse was a bit of a libertine in his youth and that the association of a poem associated with syphilis is paired with Mr Woodhouse deliberately - the eating of "thin gruel" being one of the known cures, as well as exposure to heat - and we all know how he wants to be beside a fire, even in midsummer.

I'll be back later - a word which here may turn out to mean "tomorrow" - with another post about the rest of the chapter, but for now, I want to note that although Austen's readers would most likely have known this was a dirty joke (just as a reference these days to a "man from Nantucket" might be expected to put contemporary readers on notice), Mr Woodhouse certainly wouldn't have told the joke to Emma or Harriet had he realized or remembered that it was actually obscene. Moreover, Emma, despite being "the cleverest of her family" (as Mr Knightley observed in Chapter 7), obviously doesn't realize there's a sexual meaning to the book - otherwise, they wouldn't have put it in Harriet's book at all, let alone on the second page. Metaphorically speaking, Emma is at present completely unaware of or inattentive to sexual matters.

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