Sunday, May 11, 2008


{The New Novel (1877), by Winslow Homer.}

The early action of Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) turns on a book of poetry published anonymously by the heroine of the title, who, though the daughter of servants, is the widow of a gentleman. Her mother-in-law, Lady Petherwin, with whom she lives, is horrified when the cloak of authorial anonymity is pulled away. I laughed out loud on the train at her response to the discovery of Ethelberta's authorship:
"But surely you have not written every one of those ribald verses?"

Ethelberta looked inclined to exclaim most vehemently against this; but what she actually did say was, "'Ribald'--what do you mean by that? I don't think that you are aware what 'ribald' means."

"I am not sure that I am. As regards some words, as well as some persons, the less you are acquainted with them the more it is to your credit."
That "Harrumph!" of a riposte reminded me of a position that Rabbit takes on a difficult word in The House at Pooh Corner (1928), of which a post at Crooked House reminded me last week:
You can't help respecting anybody who can spell "Tuesday," even if he doesn't spell it right; but spelling isn't everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn't count.
But perhaps that's not a fair connection: Rabbit's position on "Tuesday," after all, though part of a larger argument about his indispensability to Christopher Robin, does include of a dash of humility and kindness--qualities that would, I'm afraid, be relatively foreign to Lady Petherwin. She might find herself more in sympathy with Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty--though she's not nearly so clever:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," Alice said, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."
Taken from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872), those are among the most-quoted of Carroll lines--but Humpty's follow-up, which is far more rarely noted, is at least as good:
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them--particularly verbs; they're the proudest--adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs; however, I can manage the whole lot of them. Impenetrability! That's what I say!"
Seems like the right way to end a rainy, gray, and defiantly non-spring weekend, no?

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