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Friday, May 30, 2008

Jane Austen's gay joke 

I have a become a big Jane Austen fan in the last year or so. She takes a jumble of things that should be mundane and trivial and she stuffs them with import, until the reader is breathlessly engaged, eagerly reading every word, flipping page to page to see what happens, and not too concerned or disappointed every time nothing happens.

Frequently, the major thing that happens in a chapter is something like: they have finally figured out where everyone will sit in the carriage with a minimum of shocked proprieties and wounded countenances.

Sometimes, the reader is surprised. For example, "Mansfield Park" has a gay joke.

In the following passage, Edmund and Miss Crawford are talking about the navy. Edmund's cousin is a midshipman, and Miss Crawford's uncle is an admiral. The admiral is kind of a dick, and Miss Crawford has good reasons to not like him, which prompts some inappropriate comments.

"Do you know any thing of my cousin's captain?" said Edmund; "Captain Marshall? You have a large acquaintance in the Navy, I conclude?"

"Among Admirals large enough; But" with an air of grandeur; "we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us. Of various admirals, I could tell you a great deal; of them and their flags, and the gradations of their pay, and their bickerings and their jealousies. But in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat."


- Mansfield Park, Chapter VI


There is a note after Vices which directs the reader to the following endnote:

The Navy was divided into three squadrons - in order of seniority, the Red, the White, and the Blue. Once there had been only nine admirals, but by 1807 there were 166 flag-officers - admirals flying their own flags. In each fleet the lowest ranking flag-officer was Rear-Admiral of the Blue and the highest (and most highly paid) was Admiral of the Red (known as Admiral of the Fleet). The Admiral commanded the centre ships in the squadron, the vice-admiral those in the lead, and the rear-admiral commanded the ships in the rear. Nelson was made Rear-Admiral of the Blue in 1797, Rear-Admiral of the Red in 1799, and in 1801 he was Vice-Admiral of the White. Jane Austen's sailor brothers eventually became Queen Victoria's Admiral of the Fleet (Sir Francis Austen) and a Rear-Admiral (Charles Austen). Mary Crawford may deny any intention to pun, but her witticism (in fact a rather filthy joke) draws attention to the Royal Navy's wartime reputation for homosexual activity. See Arthur N. Gilbert, 'Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861', Journal of Social History 10 (1976), 72-98; and A.D. Harvey, 'Prosecutions for Sodomy in England at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century', Historical Journal 21 (1978), 939-48.


Oh, Jane. You naughty thing, you.

And here I was, thinking that Jane Austen would faint if she ever suspected that men would ever do such a thing.

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