You know Jane Austen.
Author of timeless classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Writer of realistic stories with brilliant social commentary. Overall supercalifragilisticexpialidocious human whose signature wit is responsible for her books still remaining in print. In what other romantic story would you find gems such as this?
“It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”
But, that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Did you know that our girl Jane wrote some excellent dirty jokes that totally went over our heads when we were kids?
I read most of her books growing up, but I read Persuasion only recently. In my review, I talked about post-colonial feminism and Austen’s signature wit. But there was one thing I left out of my review–the obvious bawdy humor in some parts of Persuasion.
[Related: Book review of Persuasion by Jane Austen]
And that was mostly because I’d immediately think it was dirty, and then go “she wouldn’t, would she?”. After several weeks of research in the dark web, I’ve discovered that I was not wrong. Our girl Jane did indeed make dirty jokes!
Here’s the first instance I noticed what could possibly be a dirty jibe:
“…that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted… He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard,’ been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”
To recap, Austen, umm, referred to a dead guy as a dick. Now, this isn’t bawdy. This is just Austen being contemptuous. This essay explains why Austen was this rude about the name “Richard”.
So, where’s the bawdiness?
Towards the end of the novel, the following quote happened. I re-read it multiple times and it really did sound like a dirty joke. Anne’s friend Lady Russel says this when she catches sight of Captain Wentworth while the two friends are walking down the street.
“You will wonder,” said she, “what has been fixing my eye so long; but I was looking after some window-curtains, which Lady Alicia and Mrs Frankland were telling me of last night. They described the drawing-room window-curtains of one of the houses on this side of the way, and this part of the street, as being the handsomest and best hung of any in Bath, but could not recollect the exact number, and I have been trying to find out which it could be; but I confess I can see no curtains hereabouts that answer their description.”
So, Lady Russel just said that some ladies described something as “the handsomest and best hung of any in Bath”, but she wasn’t able to spot anything that matched the description.
These were the only two instances where I was able to detect what could possibly be lewd jokes. A quick search and several articles later, I discovered that there were a lot more that I missed. Here’s another from Persuasion:
“He did justice to his very gentlemanlike appearance, his air of elegance and fashion, his good shaped face, his sensible eye; but, at the same time, “must lament his being very much under-hung, a defect which time seemed to have increased; nor could he pretend to say that ten years had not altered almost every feature for the worse.”
Under-hung? I honestly thought she was referring to a weak chin when I first read it.
Wait, there’s more.
Austen scholar, Jill Heydt-Stevenson, in “Slipping into the Ha-Ha”: Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen’s Novels, has referenced many of Austen’s writings to point out instances of bawdy humor. And, these are all words none of us probably thought anything of the first time around. Here’s the best one (from Mansfield Park):
“Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and VicesI saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”
Now, Mary is definitely making a pun. Or else she would’ve said Rear Admirals and Vice Admirals, and not rears and vices. And it wouldn’t have been italicized. Asks this article about Mary’s words, “Is Mary making a joke about powerful old men’s big bums and bad habits (gambling, drinking, gluttony, avarice, and adultery), or is she making a ribald joke about the Navy’s associations with sodomy?”.
While people have speculated for years about whether Austen really meant to have her characters make dirty jokes, there is one thing to be noted. A book is not just about how the author meant it to be, it’s also about how it’s interpreted. Whether or not you think that in addition to wit and irony there’s some bawdy humor in Austen’s books is up to you.
In the words of D. A. Miller, “Mary’s advice merely invites–and does no more than invite–an ironic reading. How far we wish to go with her statement, where we choose to stop in our speculation, is our business, she would imply, not hers.”
What did you think about this post? Do you think these jokes were meant to be dirty? Let me know in the comments!