Jane Austen Puns

True Fact: As I type, Pun Salad is the number one hit at the Google for Jane Austen puns. This is amazing, given that we've never had any Jane Austen puns here at all. No doubt scores of Googlers have visited briefly and slunk away, shaking their heads in bitter disappointment. It's time to remedy that situation.

Like most language-lovers, Miss Austen was not above a bit of wordplay:

  • In Mansfield Park, Chapter XL, she had Mary Crawford write, in a letter to Fanny:
    Baron Wildenheim's attentions to Julia continue, but I do not know that he has any serious encouragement. She ought to do better. A poor honourable is no catch, and I cannot imagine any liking in the case, for take away his rants, and the poor baron has nothing. What a difference a vowel makes! If his rents were but equal to his rants!
    OK, so that's probably not going to make milk come out of your nose.

  • This one, although in the same vein, works a little better. Miss Austen herself writes, in one of her letters:
    [I]t is a Vile World, we are all for Self & I expected no better from any of us.--But though Better is not to be expected, Butter may, at least from Mrs Clement's Cow.
    Not a thigh-slapper either, but it helps if you imagine Groucho Marx saying it while sitting in Margaret Dumont's lap.

  • And, although this probably isn't a pun, exactly, I still like this (unintentional?) double entendre from Persuasion, Chapter VIII:
    Very, very happy were both Elizabeth and Anne Elliot as they walked in. Elizabeth, arm-in-arm with Miss Carteret, and looking on the broad back of the dowager Viscountess Dalrymple before her, had nothing to wish for which did not seem within her reach …
    "Watch out, Viscountess!" cried Miss Carteret. "Elizabeth, keep your hands to yourself!"

In addition to what Jane herself says, an academic army is ready, willing, and able to tell you what she really meant.
  • Things can get quite heated even discussing whether Miss Austen was punning. For example, a recent article in Critical Quarterly by one Sylvia Adamson discusses a controversy about Miss Austen's usage of interest, and whether she was playing on the differing meanings of the word in the opening paragraphs of (again) Mansfield Park:
    The example of Jane Austen's 'punning' that Empson offers is germane to the question of an economic/affective interface and indeed is thoroughly Marxist in its implications. It comes from the first page of Mansfield Park, a book which implicitly exposes the economic foundation of late eighteenth-century polite society (the security of Mansfield Park and its humane values depends, we learn, on the success of its owner's West Indian plantations) and explicitly raises the question of the economic foundation of eighteenth-century marriage customs. The novel begins with an extended account of the marriage fortunes (in both senses) of the three Misses Ward and there is no reason to doubt that Empson is correct in thinking that Austen here exposes the economic base (and the base economics) underlying and undercutting the language of feeling and sentiment.
    Do your eyes glaze over at the first mention of the word 'Marxist'? Mine too.

  • But if you research this topic even superficially—which is all I intend to do—you eventually come across Jillian Heydt-Stevenson. Here's the opening of a Chronicle of Higher Education article about the contribution she's made to Austen scholarship:
    Some of Jill Heydt-Stevenson's fellow Jane Austen scholars were perturbed last year when she ventured that the great English novelist was far more given to "erotically charged allusions, puns, and double entendres" than her prim reputation might lead one to expect.

    "Jill's untenured," explains one of those colleagues.

    Ouch. That's probably not the kind of remark you want to read about your research in a national periodical. But Professor Heydt-Stevenson went on to write a celebrated article (JSTOR URL) on the topic, titled (I am not making this up) "'Slipping into the Ha-Ha': Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen's Novels". (Notice the Bawdy/Body thing? Good, you're sentient.) Also, a book: Austen's Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History will set you back a cool $79.95 at Amazon.

  • Exhibit A for the academics is (again) from Mansfield Park, Chapter VI, where (again) Mary Crawford says:
    "…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."
    Get it? Rears? Vices? She's talking about sodomy! Or so say scads of English Literature profs.

  • Other examples aren't immediately convincing to someone outside the field, or who isn't looking for a good grade in class. Here's Prof Jillian's lead example from her article:
    In Pride and Prejudice (1813) Caroline tries to engage Darcy with a powerful metonymy of phallic power: "I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well." Apparently recognizing the significance of her sexual allusion, Darcy playfully invokes autoeroticism when he answers, "Thank you—but I always mend my own."
    Because a pen is, um, you know, that shape, and "pens" is only a single vowel away from…well, you know that too.

    To the uninitiated, this sort of thing reads much like a hifalutin mutation of the famous "Nudge, Nudge" Monty Python sketch (which, by the way, is here), with Jane in the Terry Jones role and Jillian doing Eric Idle. Sometimes a pen is just a pen. And Darcy doesn't come across as "playful" to me; he's bored and aloof.

Personally, I prefer my Austen puns to be obvious, and stupid is OK too. Some examples:
  • The decennial Enumeration mandated by the Constitution is coming up next year. Pundits, if you think it's witty and fresh to title your thoughts on the matter "Census Sensibility", forget it. It's been done.

  • Also, for Information Technologists: "Census and Sensible IT" has also been taken.

  • Over at Lila Prime, Lila suggests titles for fake Jane Austen novels. Example: Funk and Functionality. If that tempts you to check out the other four… go. Just go. (Sob!)

  • Added 9/15/2017: A new book by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro: Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities. It got a good review from Deirdre N. McCloskey, which is a slam-dunk indicator for quality.

  • But I've saved the (non-stupid) best for last. Hope you know your Tolkien too:

    [Ents and Sensibility]

    From www.savagechickens.com, which I hope won't sue me if I tell you to go over there and buy stuff.

That's it for now. Pun Salad hopes to earn its high Google placement on this topic.


Last Modified 2017-09-15 5:15 AM EDT