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Fun with Words: Riddles, Rebuses and Jane Austen

Jane Austen must have had fun writing her fourth published novel, Emma. In addition to sparkling dialogue, funny situations, and comic misunderstandings, she included a couple of riddles.  If you have the book handy, these riddles (also referred to as charades) appear in Chapter IX of Volume I.

Here’s how the riddles appear: Emma is attempting to improve her protégé Harriet’s mind with reading and conversation, but the only literary pursuit that interests Harriet is collecting riddles, which she is compiling into a book.

Emma sees an opportunity to further her misguided scheme of matching Harriet with Mr. Elton. She asks the vicar to contribute a riddle to Harriet’s collection. He replies with this convoluted gem:

“Another view of man, my second brings, Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!

But ah! united, what reverse we have! Man’s boasted power and freedom, all are flown; 

Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave, And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone. 

Thy ready wit the word will soon supply, May its approval beam in that soft eye!”

Emma solves the riddle right away but has to explain it to Harriet. It’s a two-syllable word, she tells her friend. “My first” or the first syllable signifies “court” (the wealth and pomp of kings) and the second (monarch of the seas) is “ship.” Put together, the answer is “courtship,” during which a man “bends a slave” and “woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.”

Emma is convinced that the riddle is a compliment to Harriet, announcing Mr. Elton’s wish to court her. But Emma is clueless, of course. She doesn’t get that Mr. Elton meant the riddle for her.

In any case, riddles were a popular pastime in Regency England. Here’s another riddle, well-known in her time, that Jane Austen also mentions in Chapter IX:

“My first doth affliction denote, Which my second is destin’d to feel 

And my whole is the best antidote, That affliction to soften and heal.

Thy ready wit the word will soon supply, May its approval beam in that soft eye!”

Once again the answer is a two-syllable word. The first syllable, a synonym for affliction, is woe. The second syllable refers to who feels the pain – man. So the answer to the riddle of what is the best cure for man’s pain is woe-man or woman.

Though this riddle is discussed by Emma and Harriet the answer isn’t spelled out in the text – probably because the author figured everybody already knew it.

But perhaps the best-known riddle of all time is the classic Riddle of the Sphinx. Jane Austen would almost certainly have been familiar with it. It’s in Oedipus Rex, a play written by the Greek dramatist Sophocles approximately 430 years BCE.

“Oedipus and the Sphinx,” by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres, 1808

In the story, Oedipus has to get into the city of Thebes. But he has a problem: the entrance to the city is guarded by the Sphinx, a mythical creature that has the face of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird.

The Sphinx amuses herself by demanding that anyone who wants to enter the city answer a riddle first. If they don’t get the right answer – and, spoiler alert, no one does – she eats them. That’s why the Sphinx is often depicted in art with the remnants of her victims at her feet.

Here’s her riddle: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” Do you know the answer? Oedipus did, so the Sphinx went hungry that night.

The answer is man – as a baby he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks on two feet, and as an old man he walks with a cane – the cane is the third foot.

Riddles were popular brain teasers in the 18th and 19th centuries. One form of entertainment was a riddle menu, where you had to figure out what items were on a menu by solving a riddle.

For example, would you care for some “counterfeit agony”? You might turn that offer down until you realize it’s a riddle: “counterfeit” means “sham” and rhymes with “cham,” while “agony” is “pain” and rhymes with “pagne.” Now, how about that glass of champagne?

Bishop Oldham’s “owl-dom” rebus in Exeter Cathedral

In addition to riddles, a type of puzzle known as a rebus was another popular game, not only in the 18th and 19th centuries but going back as far as the Middle Ages.

A rebus is a word puzzle that uses pictures combined with letters to illustrate a word, a phrase, or even a whole sentence. It’s like a code you have to decipher to understand the message.

During the Middle Ages, rebuses were used in heraldry. A rebus often represented a surname in a family crest.

Jane Austen may have been familiar with a children’s Bible published by English painter and engraver Thomas Bewick during the 1780s in London.

Bewick’s book bears a ponderous title that begins with “A new hieroglyphical Bible: for the amusement & instruction of children: being a selection of the most useful lessons, and most interesting narratives (scripturally arranged) from Genesis to the Revelations : embellished with familiar figures, & striking emblems; elegantly engraved”  and continues for several more lines.

In his book, Bewick often uses pictures in place of text to simplify the stories and make them more appealing to children. A few years after this book came out in England, Isiah Thomas published a similar rebus-filled children’s Bible in America.

Here’s a Victorian example of a rebus on an “escort card” (also known as acquaintance or flirtation cards) that a 19th-century man might give to a woman he’s interested in courting:

“May I see you home, my dear?”

Rebuses are still popular today, used by advertisers, in books and on game shows, and even in the form of emojis in text messages and emails. Any parent who’s ever sat with a child in an American doctor or dentist’s office has likely seen the rebus page in the magazine Highlights for Children.

A rebus may have been difficult for Jane Austen’s publishers to add to her manuscripts, even if she wanted one in her stories. But at least we have proof in Emma that Jane enjoyed a good riddle!


Sources for this post include:

  • Riddles, Charades, Rebusses, from the British Library Collection
  • “Decoding (Most of) an 18th-Century ‘Riddle Menu’,” by Anne Ewbank, Atlas Obscura, October 26, 2018
  • Emma, by Jane Austen, published December 23, 1815, by John Murray, London

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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