Last December, my research into Kitty, a Fair but Frozen Maid (the riddle which Mr. Woodhouse tries to recall in Emma) was published in Persuasions online, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America. I also published some pages and blog posts with more background information about Georgian love poetry and riddles.
My research is intended to refute the theory that the Kitty riddle about a chimney-sweep is actually a very dark and scurrilous poem about venereal disease and deflowering young virgins. So I won't recap all of that here, but I have come across some more riddles about chimney-sweeps, which I want to share because it gives us more context into what people of the long 18th century said about chimney sweeps.
As we know, the job of sweeping chimneys was miserable and sometimes fatal. Poorly fed, unwashed, overworked, dressed in rags, they were a daily sight on city streets. Many sympathetic poems and ballads were written about them.
But Georgians, being Georgians, could joke about anything. The blackness of chimney-sweeps was a frequent topic for humor, of course, and the same terms--"sooty," "dusky," even "negro"--were used interchangeably for them.
Okay, on to the chimney-sweep riddles. These two riddle-poems appeared in The Ladies' Diary: Or, The Women's Almanack, a long-running magazine for women. The readers affectionately referred to the Ladies' Diary as "Lady Di," and "Lady Dia." The title page shows Queen Charlotte and praises the "virtue and sense" of "Britain's matchless fair," a reminder that English women considered themselves fortunate compared to women in other countries. "Justly their charms the astonish'd world admires."
The Diary was a collective effort; readers sent in their own poems, enigmas (aka riddles), charades, general queries, and even algebra problems. Then readers would mail in their answers which the editors would publish in the following issue. Readers sometimes even composed their answers to the riddle-poems in the form of a poem, as we will see.
It's interesting to see that the hive-mind was not an invention of the internet age.
The poet points out that all ranks and characters of people ("all conditions"), including pensioners (old people living on charity), can mingle in their masquerade disguises. We also have a reference to cross-dressing, for all you historical gender-bending cross-dressing aficionados.
When the Pantheon rises now complete,
Delighting all the fashionable great;
Where, in fantastic, motley, masquerade,
To Folly’s shrine, devotion’s duly paid;
Where all conditions each disguise admit,
And ignorance assumes the mask of wit;
Where pensioners in masks with peers may vie,
And law puts on the mask of honesty;
Where sex itself is lost in garbs uncouth;
And falsehood wears the sacred form of truth;
Undaunted I appear the group to grace,
All dark disguis’d my person and my face
Genteel men might also dress up as chimney-sweeps for masquerades and there is a record of a man going as "half miller, half sweep," a black and white costume of a miller of flour and a chimney sweep, as the contrast of black and white was endlessly amusing. There's also references to real sweeps going to masquerade balls pretending to be genteel people disguised as sweeps. So going in "blackface" had a different meaning.
But, let's get back to our riddle. Next, the riddler goes on to drop hints about rising, as though speaking of rising in a profession:
By early education taught to please, (a reference to the fact that sweeps started young at 5 or 6 years old)
I rose by slow and regular degrees;
And by much study, and by cunning slight,
Reach’d an exalted, elevated height….
Still I’ve perfections—be they now proclaim’d;
I’m a physician eminently fam’d;
No common quack, whose med’cines only tease,
Giving, at best, but temporary ease;
Nor one of those whose patent-royal pill,
Or noted nostrum, cannot cure, but kill;
For all my patients, whether rich or poor,
I soon relieve, and never kill, but cure;
And, in the compass of a single hour,
I prove my matchless medicating pow’r:
Like the magicians of remotest days,
With dark, disguis’d, insinuating ways,
Myself into th’infected parts instil,
Then on my patients exercise my skill
Their bowels penetrate, and inmost veins,
Where foul disorder and obstruction reigns,
At once cathartic and emetic prove,
Risking my life, tho; every part I move,
Till all is well, pursue the ailment close,
Myself the doctor and myself the dose.
When condescending to parade the street,
Respect is paid me from all ranks I meet;
And, whether it proceeds from love or fear,
All clear the way whenever I draw near.
Perhaps from those I cure contagion flows,
Infects my breath, and hangs about my clothes.
Grave and collecting, still I move along,
Bidding defiance to the common throng,
While the attendants of my solemn pace,
All I proclaim, with repetitions, grace;
Monntomy from each salutes the ears,
And thro’ my suite one uniform appears.
Of course you can buy scurrilous material in all ages, but this publication is for ladies and there were some lines the editors would not cross. Therefore, the reference to disease and contagion in the chimney-sweep riddle is not necessarily a reference to sexually transmitted diseases; after all, contagious diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis were a daily fact of life.
Intermission: here is an example of a crude cartoon involving a chimney-sweep: "The Black Joke." The caption reads:
Sweep-Sweep-soot hoa! Young Sooty cries
And shakes his Bag in Masters eyes,
But when by choleric Tom knock’d down
His head gets under Mamma’s gown,
Sweep saw the Joke with half a peep,
And archly cry’d, Sweep soot hoa! Sweep!
Courtesy British Museum and WikiCommons.
"His bag" refers to the bag of soot. "Master" is the term of address for a genteel male youth. We recall that in those days, women did not routinely wear underwear. Petticoats yes, underwear no. Subtle, the Georgians were not.
Nor rest, nor ease, the weeping fair can know;
The nymph no longer able to endure,
On me she calls, from me she begs a cure,
Yet wond’rous strange! Tho’ I’m the only friend,
On whose kind aid she can for health depend
Her inconsistency of temper’s such,
Dreads my approach, and trembles at my touch!
When I appear, she , who before could rail,
At my neglect, now at my sight turns pale!
Yet why, fair maid, should you thus tim’rous be,
Or tremble at an urchin such as me?
Your faithful servant? Nay, were I inclin’d,
Say what could harm you? Could an elfin blind?
At length she bids: obedient to the fair,
Her flame I quench and upwards mount in air;
And oft the strains I chaunt while swift I rise,
Will reach her ears when far beyond her eyes;
Joyful the maid with pain opprest no more,
Deems the worst part of this dread business o’er;
How weak mortality! Ah! Sanguine dame!
Quick I descend, perhaps relight the flame,
Add sevenfold fuel to the kindling fire,
Enjoy the blaze, and with a smile retire,
Fiercer than erst the gathering ruin grows,
Far brighter flames, and more infuriate glows!
Ye lovely maids to whom the lay belongs.
Who oft have smil’d, and oft approv’d my songs,
Vain the attempt at permanent disguise,
For what to[o] dark to [e]scape your piercing eyes?
Much less the simple tale which now I sing,
A flimsy covering to a noted thing;
Draw off the shade, my name and merits know,
Full soon declare me, for full well ye know.
I submit that a ladies' magazine would not place a riddle that alludes to a fair lady needing a "cure" if the implication was that she needs to be cured from venereal disease. So here we have a riddle that is very similar to the Kitty riddle, but which has an innocent meaning.
When drawing conclusions about the Kitty riddle, we should study the riddle in the context of its times, not our own.