1st November

The Acknowledged Expert

The Professor stood clapping like some circus animal, peering over his glasses to make sure that everybody else was doing the same. When the applause died down, he spoke.

‘Thank you, Dr Saunders, for such an engrossing and, ah, stimulating lecture on one of the undoubted geniuses of our literature. It is customary on these occasions for the guest speaker to take, ah, questions, and you have already intimated that you are willing to, ah, do so. Perhaps I might take advantage of my position as departmental head, as well as convenor of this seminar, to pose the first one?’

‘Just get on with it,’ Dr Saunders said encouragingly.

‘Ah, quite. I was surprised by your suggestion, made almost in passing, it seemed, that Austen coined many new phrases. This is not something one associates with her. Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, yes – but Jane Austen? Could you perhaps elaborate?’

Dr Saunders rose again.

‘There are countless examples,’ she said. ‘Austen gave us so many expressions – either new words or words used for the first time with a particular meaning. Thanks to Austen we have “macaroon”, “life cycle”, “bedroom eyes”, “crampon” . . .’

‘ “Crampon”?’ the Professor queried.

‘Yes, in Persuasion. After Louisa Musgrove falls at the Cobb Mr Elliot remarks rather unpleasantly that she should have been wearing crampons.’

‘Oh, I’d, ah, forgotten that. Any others?’

‘Yes, “double jeopardy”, “jumpsuit”, “chainsaw” . . .’

‘ “Chainsaw”?’

‘Actually, no, that was Ann Radcliffe in The Romance of the Forest. I meant to say “internal combustion engine”. That occurs in Mansfield Park, when Henry Crawford says to Maria Bertram that he can sense that her heart is purring like one.’

‘Like an “internal combustion engine”? Are you quite sure? I can’t help thinking –’

‘Chapter 34,’ said Dr Saunders. There was a furious turning of pages.

‘Well, you are, ah, the acknowledged expert on Austen,’ the Professor said. ‘You have, after all, written fifteen books on different aspects of her work.’

‘Sixteen,’ Dr Saunders said. ‘My latest is out next month.’ She stared at the serried ranks as if daring anyone to challenge her. ‘ “Serried”,’ she said. ‘That’s another Austen coinage. As in “serried ranks”. It’s in The Watsons. Any other questions?’

Not one was forthcoming.

Reader: Kirstin McLean
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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