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Could she have meant that?! Sexual Innuendos in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’

Academic research has a way of opening up the subtext of a work, where the reader can gain a deeper understanding of a reference or turn of phrase. Jane Austen, of course, is no exception. In fact, because so many scholars have examined her works there is plenty of room for debate—but I always encourage going back to the source material and seeing if there is evidence for the argument.

This post is going to introduce you to the ‘sexy’ side of gender relations in Emma (1815). Yes, it is a novel about matchmaking, but there are sexual innuendoes throughout the novel are likely (mostly) missed by a modern audience. One of the more mystifying ones centers on the riddle “Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid.” We are never provided more than a stanza of the riddle as Mr. Woodhouse simply can’t remember it all. However, Austen’s contemporary readers would have been very familiar with the licentious riddle and have understood the ideas associated with it. So, let’s bring us modern readers up to speed!

Here is the riddle from Jane Austen's Emma, in full:

Marisa holds a copy of Austen's novel Emma.

Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid,

Kindled a flame I still deplore;

The hood-wink’d boy I call’d in aid,

Much of his near approach afraid,

So fatal to my suit before.

At length, propitious to my pray’d,

The little urchin came;

At once he fought the midway air,

And soon he clear’d, with dextrous care,

The bitter relicks of my flame.

To Kitty, Fanny now succeeds,

She kindles slow, but lasting fires;

With care my appetite she feeds;

Each day some willing victim bleeds,

To satisfy my strange desires.

Say, by what title, or what name,

Must I this youth address?

Cupid and he are not the same,

Tho’ both can raise, or quench a flame—

I’ll kiss you, if you guess.

This riddle is not from Austen’s own imagination. It was printed in The New Foundling Hospital for Wit in 1771, a publication that featured prose alongside poetry and was known for treading the line of decorum. The riddle itself is written by David Garrick—yes, the celebrated Shakespearean actor and friend of Samuel Johnson—so it is no wonder that there would be bawdy humour in it. Let’s breakdown some of the sexual innuendo in the riddle:

  • “Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid”: there are few possibilities here. Either Kitty has rebuffed the narrator, thus being classified as ‘frigid’ and leaving the narrator to turn to a prostitute who gave him venereal disease (VD). This possibility also reinforces the expectations that regency women should be uninterested in sex. Or Kitty is ‘frozen’ in death from the disease. It was also prevalent ‘scientific’ knowledge at the time that women were always the source of VD.

  • “a flame I still deplore”: the narrator here hints at his suffering at the hands of VD. Not only is VD associated with burning sensations, heat was particularly associated with the disease as flannel was used to wrap the affected area and sitting atop a fire was thought to cure the disease.

  • “hood-wink’d boy I call’d in aid”: praying to Cupid for relief.

  • “Each day some willing victim bleeds”: it was thought that sex with a virgin could be a cure for VD.

  • “I’ll kiss you, if you guess”: kiss, at the time, was slang for sexual intercourse.

So, what is the solution to the riddle? Who “can raise, or quench a flame”? Why, it is a chimney sweep (also a euphemism for sex, to have one’s chimney swept). In summary, Austen’s allusion to the full riddle introduces themes of prostitution, sexually transmitted disease, and double standards around women's sexuality.

How Austen Uses this Riddle in Emma

In her book Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History, scholar Jill Heydt-Stevenson links the sexual innuendos in Jane Austen's Emma to a number of characters in the novel: Miss Bates talking about having her chimney swept, Harriet burning love relics, Frank going to town to have his hair cut (another allusion to having sex), Emma’s matchmaking, like Cupid in the riddle, has devastating results. But the most convincing of her observations are left for Mr. Woodhouse, the character who ‘introduces’ us to Kitty.

A hypochondriac, Mr. Woodhouse prefers to sit by the fire—perhaps for its ‘curing’ heat—no matter the season (think of Frank’s reaction when getting to the strawberry picking party and he has to sit by the fire). Mr. Woodhouse also follows the prescribed diet of the era for ‘curing’ VD: “a light diet, mostly consisting of gruel, Mr. Woodhouse’s favourite meal and the only one he can with ‘self-approbation recommend’” (Heydt-Stevenson 163). And perhaps most disturbingly, he is not a fan of marriage, preferring to surround himself with virgins to keep him in health—think of how Emma is careful to cater to his sensitivities and whims!

The act of collecting riddles acts as a kind of Cupid-like messenger between Emma, Harriet, and Elton. In parallel, the inclusion of “Kitty, a fair, but frozen maid” also acts as a messenger for the reader, once we know what we’re looking at. And that is the beauty of reading one of Austen’s novels!

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