"Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick & wicked"

- Jane Austen
"Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the Eros-and-Agape people, the Marxists, the Freudians, the Jungians, the semioticians, the deconstructors - all find an adventure playground in six samey novels about middle-class provincials. And for every generation of critics, and readers, her fiction effortlessly renews itself."

- Martin Amis, in The New Yorker

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mr Woodhouse & "Kitty, a Fair But Frozen Maid"

In Emma, Jane Austen makes much use of riddles and games. The riddle given by Mr Woodhouse, of which he could only remember the first few lines, follows in full.

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.

The "official" (although entirely unconvincing), answer to the riddle is a chimneysweep. However, modern critics including Susan Allen Ford have found far racier interpretations:

'Mr. Woodhouse’s offering for Harriet’s collection, “Kitty, a fair but frozen maid,” a 1771 riddle by David Garrick, also flirts with sexual mischief (in this case syphilis and sodomy) before ending in an “innocent” answer.'

Daryl Jones acknowledges Jill Heydt-Stevenson's reading of this riddle as an hilarious possibile explanation for Mr Woodhouse's delicate health, although not quite corresponding with his own reading of Mr W., who he sees as an entirely sexless being. (Perhaps he was an incorrigible rake in his youth and is now paying the price?) Jones also points out that Mr Woodhouse is inordinately fond of thin gruel as the only wholesome food for supper - gruel at that time being one of the purported remedies for syphilis!

Susan Allen Ford "Reading Elegant Extracts in Emma: Very Entertaining" Persuasions Online, Volume 28, NO.1 (Winter 2007)
Darryl Jones Critical Issues: Jane Austen, Palgrave, 2004.

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