Gentle reader, This post was written by Tony Grant of London Calling, whose association with this topic is mentioned at the bottom.
I’ve been reading a book recently called, The British Museum is falling Down, by David Lodge. One of the main threads of the story is that Roman Catholic, Adam Appleby, a research student, husband and father of three and with possibly one more on the way, goes off one night into the surreal and ethereal world of a smog bound London to visit an old lady in Bayswater who knew the writer, Egbert Merrymarsh. The author he is researching for his thesis. There is the possibility she has an unknown manuscript by this writer that would make Adam’s thesis shed new light and insights into the writers work and life. Within this world of smog, where he can hardly see in front of his own nose, he stumbles into sexual temptation, meat cleaver wielding characters from a sort of hades underworld and his strongly anti contraception, Irish parish priest, who he has a conversation with inside a shop that sells whips, corsets, chains and belts to be used for sexual gratification. The priest remains unaware of the shops purpose. The whole scenario had me laughing out loud. The story is a morality play but one hell of a funny one.
What makes it funny? Trying to explain humour is a death knell. Humour happens!!! And we enjoy it. To analyse it takes the humour away and the joke is lost. However a few pointers might be; humour is created when, misunderstandings lead to a series of unlikely mishaps, which often can be related to ourselves. The use of highly unlikely and ridiculous metaphors and similes with a strong ring of truth also can create humour. Negative statements cancelling each other out to make something positive or direct, can create a chuckle of recognition. Unlikely scenarios and happenings being put side by side can be funny. Opposing statements creating a third view. But, we must be taken by surprise to really laugh out loud.
Word play of every sort is what jokes are made from. Jane Austen was good at this. Throughout her letters and often in her novels there are examples of what people describe as waspishness. Sometimes this can be hurtful or even insulting to the person she talks about, if that person were to hear or read what Jane said about them. Some of them did, because she wrote the letter directly to them. Cassandra, Martha Lloyd and her own mother, Mrs Austen, did not escape.
Sunday 10th January 1796 to Cassandra written from Steventon.
Jane has just turned 21 the month before. This is the first letter we have of hers and one of her most famous because in this letter she extols the virtues of Tom Lefroy but it is not towards Tom she turns her twist of humour, it is towards another young man. She is relating to Cassandra the events of a ball at Ashe the night before.
“ I danced twice with Warren last night, and once with Charles Watkins, and, to my inexpressible astonishment, I entirely escaped John Lifford. I was forced to fight for it however.”
Bad breath, body odour, an inexpressibly boring way of talking, I wonder what it was?
Sunday 9th November 1800 to Cassandra from Steventon.
“Earle Harwood has been giving uneasiness to his family, & Talk to the neighbourhood; – in the present instance he is only unfortunate & not at fault.- About ten days ago, in cocking a pistol in the guard-room at Marcou, he accidently shot himself through the Thigh. Two young Scottish surgeons in the island were polite enough to propose taking off the Thigh at once but to that he could not consent; & accordingly in his wounded state was put on board a cutter & conveyed to Haslar Hospital at Gosport; where the bullet was extracted & where he now is I hope in a fair way of doing well.”
The more you consider this story you begin to think, how? what? did he really? were they going to? Sometimes telling a story straight is enough.
Here is one of my favourite quotes in a letter to Cassandra. I wonder how Cassandra was left feeling? The speed of this delivery is enough to bring a smile.
Friday 31st May 1811
“ I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive. We shall have pease soon- “
A double negative if I am not mistaken. A master of the art.
Wednesday 28th December 1808 from Castle Square to Cassandra.
“ We spent Friday evening with our friends at the boarding house, & and our curiosity was gratified by the sight of their fellow inmates, Mrs Drew & Miss Hook, Mr Wynne and Mr Fitzhugh, the latter is brother to Mrs Lance, & very much the gentleman. He has lived in that house more than twenty years, & poor man is so totally deaf, that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, & talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough.”
From the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. That’s almost a scene from Monty Python.
Mrs Lance, who was mentioned in the last quotation comes under Jane’s scrutiny a few times over the two years the Austens are in Southampton. Mrs Lance was the wife of a well to do merchant and local politician, who owned a beautiful mansion and grounds just outside of Southampton at Bitterne Park. Two roads are named after the Lances to this day. The house no longer exists.
Just after Jane, Mrs Austen and Martha move to Southampton they receive cards from Mrs Lance inviting them to tea. A mutual friend has informed Mrs Lance of the Austens coming to Southampton.
Thursday 8th January 1807 from Southampton to Cassandra.
“ We found only Mrs Lance at home, and whether she boasts any offspring beside a grand pianoforte did not appear.”
Synical, waspish,how would you describe that comment? Poor Mrs Lance obviously thought a lot of her pianoforte. Maybe she mentioned nothing else. Mrs Lance did have daughters and they appear in other letters and especially in Jane’s description of a ball at The Dolphin Hotel in Southampton’ s High Street.
Tuesday 24th January 1809 from Castle Square to Cassandra.
“The room was tolerably full, & the ball opened by Miss Glyn; – the Miss Lances had partners, Capt. Dauvergne’s friend appeared in regimentals, Caroline Maitland had an Officer to flirt with, & Mr John Harrison was deputed by Capt. Smith being himself absent, to ask me to dance, – Everything went well you see, especially after we had tucked Mrs Lance’s neckerchief in behind,& fastened it with a pin.”
What on earth was going on there? Can you imagine the scene?
There is another ball Jane describes that took place at The Dolphin. Her sharp observation is in evidence here.
Friday 9th December 1808 from Castle Square to Cassandra.
“The room was tolerably full & there were perhaps thirty couple of Dancers; – the melancholy part was to see so many dozen young Women standing by without partners, & each of them with two ugly naked shoulders! – It was the same room we danced in 15 years ago! – I thought it all over – &in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then. – We paid an additional shilling for Tea, which we took as we chose in an adjoining & very comfortable room. – There were only four dances and it went to my heart that the Miss Lances ( one of them too named Emma!) should have partners only for two.- You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance – but I was…..”
This is not what you might term funny but perhaps confrontational in the style of Lenny Bruce. It’s confessional and opinionated. The emotions and the thoughts waver between memory, sadness, melancholy, joy and happiness. Jane is contemplating her past and her present.
I couldn’t possibly finish without a quote about, “The Americans.” Jane is staying with Henry at Hans Place. Henry hasn’t been well. Jane has been privy to a conversation between Henry and some of his banker friends, or, Henry has related their thoughts and beliefs to her.
Friday 2nd September 1814 from Hans Place to Martha Lloyd.
“ His view and the view of those he mixes with, of Politics is not cheerful – with regard to an American War I mean; – they consider it as certain, & as what is to ruin us. The Americans cannot be conquered, & we shall all be teaching them the skill in War, which they may now want. We are to make them good Sailors & Soldiers & gain nothing ourselves. – If we are to be ruined, it cannot be helped – but I place my hope of better things on a claim to the protection of Heaven, as a Religious Nation, a nation in spite of much evil improving in religion, which I cannot believe the Americans to possess.”
Powerful Lenny Bruce type stuff again. Confessional.
Any talk shows over there that could accommodate our Jane?
There are so many instances of Jane’s wit, humour, waspishness and deep intelligence throughout her letters. One of you could write a post with the same title as this and choose entirely different quotations. I can only regard what I have written here as a taste, a mere flavour. The letters are worth reading. Although they were thoroughly culled by Cassandra after Jane’s death, they do give us a deep insight into her thoughts, worries, beliefs, hopes and joys. Letters are very direct things. It’s the writer’s immediate voice talking to you.
PS. The white house on the opposite side of the valley to where the Lances lived is my old school in Southampton still run today by the, de La Mennais Brothers, a French order from Brittany. It was their boarding school I went to at Cheswardine Hall in Shropshire – A connections between me and Jane!!!!!!!!!!!!!!