Being “Stupid” in Jane Austen ~ A Quiz of Sorts

“I do not write for such dull elves
As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.”

Letters, No. 79

Jane Austen wrote the above to her sister Cassandra on January 29, 1813, the day after Pride and Prejudice is published:

There are a few Typical errors – & a “said he” or a “said she” would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear –  but “I do not write for such dull elves As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.” [the notes remark that this is from Scott’s Marmion: “I do not rhyme to that dull elf / Who cannot image to himself…”]

She could have as soon written “stupid” for her dull elves, as she does in another place in this letter:

The Advertisement is in out paper to day for the first time; – 18s – He shall ask £1-1 for my two next, & £1-8 for my stupidest of all.

I think Jane Austen liked the word “stupid” – it appears in all her writings: the juvenilia, the novels, the letters – and she uses it to great effect. But I would argue that today the word has a more negative connotation, especially when used to describe a person, as in “he is a really stupid man” vs. “this is a stupid movie.”  I have been re-reading Pride and Prejudice very SLOWLY and as always, even on this umpteenth read, I find things that amaze – and this time I find myself dwelling on Austen’s “stupids.”

Rowlandson -VADS online

Rowlandson -VADS online

Many of us can call quickly to mind a few of her more famous lines:  You can comment below in the “comments” section with:  Which book / who said it  / to or about whom:

1. “Not that ______ was always stupid — by no means; she learnt the fable of ‘The Hare and Many Friends’ as quickly as any girl in England.”

2. “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

etsy.com

[from etsy.com: http://www.etsy.com/listing/101749200/jane-austen-quote-pride-and-prejudice-no ]

3. “She is a stupid girl, & has nothing to recommend her.”

4.  “She had never seen _______ so silent and stupid.”

5.  “_____ is as stupid as the weather.”

6. “I feel quite stupid. It must be sitting up so late last night. _____, you must do something to keep me awake. I cannot work. Fetch the cards; I feel so very stupid. ”

7.  “If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.”

8.  “…that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable…”

********************

And these are only a small sample of Austen’s ‘stupids’ – there are a number more in each novel – it has been interesting to see how and why she uses this term, more freely thrown about in her letters: – just these few here by way of example:

 -“We met not a creature at Mrs. Lillingstone’s, & yet were not so very stupid, as I expected, which I attribute to my wearing my new bonnet & being in good looks [Ltr. 36],

-“And now, that is such a sad, stupid attempt at Wit, about Matter, that nobody can smile at it, & I am quite out of heart. I am sick of myself, & my bad pens.” [Ltr. 53], and

-“I expect a very stupid Ball, there will be nobody worth dancing with, & nobody worth talking to but Catherine; for I believe Mrs. Lefroy will not be there…” [Ltr. 14]

***************

PP-peacock cover

But today I will focus only on Pride and Prejudice, continuing my closer look at the novel throughout this bicentenary year.

We begin by going back to the source, the OED to see how it has been used and its meanings as Jane Austen would have seen it used: [Oxford English Dictionary: www.OED.com ]

Wit's Magazine - illus G. Cruikshank - Project Gutenberg

Wits Magazine – illus G. Cruikshank – Project Gutenberg

  1. Adj.

1. a.Having one’s faculties deadened or dulled; in a state of stupor, stupefied, stunned; esp. hyperbolically, stunned with surprise, grief, etc. Obs. exc. arch. (poet.). As in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale (1623): Is not your Father growne incapeable Of reasonable affayres? Is he not stupid With Age, and altring Rheumes? Can he speake? heare? Know man, from man?

1. b. Belonging to or characterized by stupor or insensibility. Obs. As in Keats Endymion (1818): “My sweet dream Fell into nothing—into stupid sleep.”

1. c. Of a part of the body: Paralysed. Obs.

1. d. Emotionally or morally dull or insensible; apathetic, indifferent. Const. to [compare French stupide à] – As in Steele in the Guardian (1713): “It was a Cause of great Sorrow and Melancholy to me…to see a Crowd in the Habits of the Gentry of England stupid to the noblest Sentiments we have.”

2. As the characteristic of inanimate things: Destitute of sensation, consciousness, thought, or feeling. Obs. As in 1722 W. Wollaston Religion of Nature (1722) – “Matter is incapable of acting, passive only, and stupid.”

3. a. Wanting in or slow of mental perception; lacking ordinary activity of mind; slow-witted, dull. As in J. Addison Spectator (1712) “A Man, who cannot write with Wit on a proper Subject, is dull and stupid.” And Frances Burney in Evelina (1778): “‘Why is Miss Anville so grave?’ ‘Not grave, my Lord,’ said I, ‘only stupid.’”

3. b.  Of attributes, actions, ideas, etc.: Characterized by or indicating stupidity or dullness of comprehension. As in J. Jortin  Sermons (1771): “Great reason have we to be thankful that we are not educated in such stupid and inhuman principles.”

3. c. Of the lower animals: Irrational. Also of an individual animal, its propensities, etc.: Lacking intelligence or animation, senseless, dull. Obs. As in Goldsmith History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774): “[The badger] is a solitary stupid animal.”

4.  Void of interest, tiresome, boring, dull. As in: Burney, Evelina (1778): “Of all the stupid places ever I see, that Howard Grove is the worst! there’s never no getting nothing one wants.”

5. Obstinate, stubborn. (north. dial.)

B. noun.  A stupid person. Colloq. As in Steele Spectator (1712): “Thou art no longer to drudge in raising the Mirth of Stupids…for thy Maintenance.”

******

If we look at the stupids of Pride and Prejudice, we see all of these definitions in their great variety, but the emphasis is on being tiresome, boring as in number 4 above:

CE Brock - Mollands.net

CE Brock – Mollands.net

1. “Come, Darcy,” said he, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.” [vol. I, ch. III]

britarmyuniforms

British Army Uniforms 1750-1835: from Book Drum

2. She had been watching him the last hour, she said, as he walked up and down the street, and had Mr. Wickham appeared, Kitty and Lydia would certainly have continued the occupation, but unluckily no one passed the window now except a few of the officers, who, in comparison with the stranger, were become ‘stupid, disagreeable fellows.’ [vol. I, ch. XV]

3. “ Oh! if that is all, I have a very poor opinion of young men who live in Derbyshire; and their intimate friends who live in Hertfordshire are not much better. I am sick of them all. Thank Heaven! I am going to-morrow where I shall find a man who has not one agreeable quality, who has neither manner nor sense to recommend him. Stupid men are the only ones worth knowing, after all.” [vol. II, ch. IV]

from Georgian Index

from Georgian Index

4. When the gentlemen had joined them, and tea was over, the card-tables were placed. Lady Catherine, Sir William, and Mr. and Mrs. Collins sat down to quadrille; and as Miss De Bourgh chose to play at cassino, the two girls had the honour of assisting Mrs. Jenkinson to make up her party. Their table was superlatively stupid. Scarcely a syllable was uttered that did not relate to the game, except when Mrs. Jenkinson expressed her fears of Miss De Bourgh’s being too hot or too cold .… [vol. II, ch. VI]

5. “Well, he certainly is very agreeable, and I give you leave to like him. You have liked many a stupider person.” [vol. I, ch. IV]

CE Brock - Mollands.net

CE Brock – Mollands.net

6. The stupidity with which he was favoured by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance  [vol. I, ch. XXII]

7. But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice — a sacrifice to propriety, not a pleasure to himself. He seldom appeared really animated. Mrs. Collins knew not what to make of him. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s occasionally laughing at his stupidity proved that he was generally different, which her own knowledge of him could not have told her… [vol. II, ch. IX]

8. Wickham will soon be gone; and therefore it will not signify to anybody here what he really is. Some time hence it will be all found out, and then we may laugh at their stupidity in not knowing it before. At present I will say nothing about it.” [vol. II, ch. XVII]

9. Elizabeth was distressed. She felt that she had no business at Pemberley, and was obliged to assume a disinclination for seeing it. She must own that she was tired of great houses; after going over so many, she really had no pleasure in fine carpets or satin curtains. …  Mrs. Gardiner abused her stupidity. “If it were merely a fine house richly furnished,” said she, “I should not care about it myself; but the grounds are delightful. They have some of the finest woods in the country.” [vol. II, ch. XIX]

pemberley-photo

And finally when Mr. Bennet asks Lizzy: “Lizzy,” said he, “what are you doing? Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man?” –  he could as well have called her stupid… [vol. III, ch. XVII]

CE Brock - Mollands.net

CE Brock – Mollands.net

Sources for the images as noted:

Note your answers to the eight non Pride and Prejudice quotes at the beginning of this post in the comment area below: how did you do?  we shall have no dull elves around here…

c2013 Jane Austen in Vermont

4 thoughts on “Being “Stupid” in Jane Austen ~ A Quiz of Sorts

  1. Have I told you how much I enjoy these thoughtful posts of yours? I especially loved this one, as I’ve only recently been conversing with a friend about the ways in which definitions change over time, often coming to mean the exact opposite of their original ones.

    A couple of these quotes stymied me a little, I had to dig deep for them – but here’s my take:
    1. Northanger Abbey – narrator uses to describe Catherine Moreland
    2. also NA – Henry Tilney talking with Catherine about books
    3. Lady Susan – I knew she said (wrote) it but had to look it up to see that it was to Mrs Johnson concerning Frederica
    4. Emma about Frank Churchill
    5. S&S — I love Mr Palmer! (speaking of Sir John M)
    6. Mansfield Park – I know it was said to Fanny, I think it was Mrs Bertram talking
    7. Mansfield Park again – Edmund Bertram, about Mr Rushworth and his sister’s engagement to him
    8. Persuasion – the narrator explaining about Dick Musgrove

    Like

  2. You posted one of my favorite quotes “I feel quite stupid” said by Lady Bertram. It just always makes me giggle. I also have always loved the quote about Mr. Collins, “the stupidity with which he was favoured by nature…” Oh, Jane is a master with words! Thanks for the post!

    Like

    • Yes, what is it about the word “stupid” that makes us “giggle” when it appears in Austen? – she _loved_ this word! Thanks for stopping by and getting a good chuckle out of it!

      Like

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