Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jane Austen's Word Game

In Chapter 41 of Jane Austen's novel Emma, several of the characters use an impromptu game of anagrams to convey thoughts and feelings they cannot express. In the case of Mr. Churchill, he offers a kind of oblique apology to Miss Fairfax by spelling the word "blunder," in acknowledgment of his mistake, and then proceeds to taunt her by spelling "Dixon," the name of another young man.

The game is played with "letters" used by Emma's young nephews for their lessons. They are probably not children's alphabet blocks, but more like Scrabble tiles. They work well for playing anagrams, which was a favorite parlor game of the English middle- and upper-classes, who delighted in puzzles and wordplay. 

Anagrams was a simple game of turning the letters of a word into another word. The characters in the novel create their words in secret, then scramble the letters and pass them to another person, who has to discover the original word. 

It's remains an easy filler game to play while waiting for others to join a game of Scrabble, or just as a fun way to help children learn their words.

Here's the entire passage from Emma, with the rest coming after the break.
"Miss Woodhouse," said Frank Churchill, after examining a table behind him, which he could reach as he sat, "have your nephews taken away their alphabets -- their box of letters? It used to stand here. Where is it? This is a sort of dull-looking evening, that ought to be treated rather as winter than summer. We had great amusement with those letters one morning. I want to puzzle you again."
Emma was pleased with the thought; and producing the box, the table was quickly scattered over with alphabets, which no one seemed so much disposed to employ as their two selves. They were rapidly forming words for each other, or for any body else who would be puzzled. The quietness of the game made it particularly eligible for Mr. Woodhouse, who had often been distressed by the more animated sort, which Mr. Weston had occasionally introduced, and who now sat happily occupied in lamenting, with tender melancholy, over the departure of the "poor little boys," or in fondly pointing out, as he took up any stray letter near him, how beautifully Emma had written it.
Frank Churchill placed a word before Miss Fairfax. She gave a slight glance round the table, and applied herself to it. Frank was next to Emma, Jane opposite to them -- and Mr. Knightley so placed as to see them all; and it was his object to see as much as he could, with as little apparent observation. The word was discovered, and with a faint smile pushed away. If meant to be immediately mixed with the others, and buried from sight, she should have looked on the table instead of looking just across, for it was not mixed; and Harriet, eager after every fresh word, and finding out none, directly took it up, and fell to work. She was sitting by Mr. Knightley, and turned to him for help. The word was blunder; and as Harriet exultingly proclaimed it, there was a blush on Jane's cheek which gave it a meaning not otherwise ostensible. Mr. Knightley connected it with the dream; but how it could all be, was beyond his comprehension. How the delicacy, the discretion of his favourite could have been so lain asleep! He feared there must be some decided involvement. Disingenuousness and double-dealing seemed to meet him at every turn. These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick. It was a child's play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill's part.
With great indignation did he continue to observe him; with great alarm and distrust, to observe also his two blinded companions. He saw a short word prepared for Emma, and given to her with a look sly and demure. He saw that Emma had soon made it out, and found it highly entertaining, though it was something which she judged it proper to appear to censure; for she said, "Nonsense! for shame!" He heard Frank Churchill next say, with a glance towards Jane, "I will give it to her -- shall I?" and as clearly heard Emma opposing it with eager laughing warmth. "No, no, you must not; you shall not, indeed." 
It was done however. This gallant young man, who seemed to love without feeling, and to recommend himself without complaisance, directly handed over the word to Miss Fairfax, and with a particular degree of sedate civility entreated her to study it. Mr. Knightley's excessive curiosity to know what this word might be, made him seize every possible moment for darting his eye towards it, and it was not long before he saw it to be Dixon. Jane Fairfax's perception seemed to accompany his; her comprehension was certainly more equal to the covert meaning, the superior intelligence, of those five letters so arranged. She was evidently displeased; looked up, and seeing herself watched, blushed more deeply than he had ever perceived her, and saying only, "I did not know that proper names were allowed," pushed away the letters with even an angry spirit, and looked resolved to be engaged by no other word that could be offered. Her face was averted from those who had made the attack, and turned towards her aunt.


Tante Léonie said...

A game similar to this is played in "Anna Karenina"; Levin uses it to propose to Kitty.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

I'll have to look that one up!

Tante Léonie said...

Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of the book at hand, or else I would have posted the section.

I do know it's towards the end of the book, if that's any help.

Tante Léonie said...

Actually, I just googled it, and it is to be found in Part 4, Chapter 13; not the end of the novel, but the middle.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

Yep, I just found it myself as well:

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