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What jane austen meant by "raffish". (Miscellany).

Peter Knox-Shaw, a Research Associate of the University of Cape Town, is author of The Explorer in English Fiction and numerous critical essays. Recent articles on Jane Austen include "Sense and Sensibility, Godwin and the Empiricists" (Cambridge Quarterly, September 1998) and "Northanger Abbey and the Liberal Historians" (Essays in Criticism, October 1999).


PERHAPS NO WORD HAS BEEN MADE to carry more weight in the construction of Jane Austen's political outlook than "raffish," the adjective that colors her only surviving mention of William Godwin. Though the reference is indirect, and the word itself enigmatic, many critics have been quick to deduce Anti-Jacobin leanings from it. And when quoted in isolation the passage can readily support the view that her attitude to the famous radical writer was hostile or "negative" (1):

The Pickfords are in Bath & and have called here.--She is the most elegant looking Woman I have seen since I left Martha.--He is as raffish in his appearance as I would wish every Disciple of Godwin to be. (Letters 21-22 May 1801)

From this item of news in a postscript to Cassandra it is certainly possible to extract the sense that "the more disreputable all Godwin's followers look, the better." But a fuller regard for contexts--lexical and otherwise--suggests that Jane Austen rather welcomed a "raffish" appearance, and that the point of her comment was to introduce Mr. Pickford as an enthusiastic reader of Godwin who looked the part.

Austen's use of "raffish" is the first recorded, and since the noun from which it comes was a slang word of uncertain derivation, the best source for its meaning is Francis Grose who in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) describes "raff" as "an appellation given by the gownsmen of the university of Oxford to the inhabitants of that place" (280). Despite sounding like a joke, his remark is well founded, for one of the issues given over to Oxford types in The Loiterer, (2) the periodical run by Jane Austen's brother James, confirms such a currency To a blustering student who represents the "Dasher," all tradesmen are to be "resisted by gentlemen" and are "complete raff'; it turns out the young man is himself from a trading family and feels obliged to express his scorn "merely to support his character as a dashing man" (141-42). James Austen argues that such "prejudice" is intensified by the town-gown divisions of university life-"In Oxford the wind always blows from one quarter, gownsman meet s gownsman, they strengthen each other in their own line of life, and in the contempt of what is opposite to their own" (142)- and he brings home the callousness to which it leads in a series of chilling anecdotes. (3) Commerce, he contends, is the cornerstone of civil society, and collegiate existence itself depends on "these very Raffs, these contemptible Tradesmen," many among whom have endowed the University only to be held "in the most utter Contempt by the Objects of their Bounty" (141).

Several of the stereotypes sketched in the pages of The Loiterer (1789-90) are deftly incorporated in work by Jane Austen dating from the nineties, and her treatment of them is invariably in line with James's analysis. John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey has "the propensities of a rattle" and is from the same mould as the journal's James Rattle (The Loiterer no. 24). In Sense and Sensibility Edward Ferrars nearly misses out on a profession because he rules out the army as "too smart" while his family shun the church as "not smart enough" and are persuaded that he can be "as dashing and expensive without a red coat" as with one (103). Austen's "dashing" is exactly in line here with her brother's use of the word, one which precedes the first recorded usage by thirteen years. And in contrast to Edward Ferrars, who believes he was born to be fond of "'low company"' and shrinks from "'strangers of gentility,"' Willoughby can never surrender the desire to cut a figure, so that his expensive "'dashing about"' commits h im at last to the wealth of a Miss Grey (194). Again, the novels follow in the footsteps of The Loiterer in their caustic probing of snobbish attitudes towards trade, an activity glossed by the odious John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility as the business of making money "'in a low way"' by those who are best avoided (228). (4)

The immediate context of the remark on the "raffish" Mr. Pickford is the batch of letters written to Cassandra from Bath in the early stages of the family's move there. Dispirited by the inspection of "putrifying Houses" and by the sale of her piano and books, Jane exclaims--a few lines above her reference to Godwin--that the whole world seems to be "in a conspiracy to enrich one part of [her] family at the expense of another" (21-22 May 1801). Nowhere in the letters does she take less trouble to conceal her boredom with what passes for conversation in polite society, and her tone verges at times on the brutal. The phrase "stupid party" recurs, and a repetition of the same guests leads her to remark after one long evening, "I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreable" [sic] (12-18 May 1801). Revealingly, however, the prospect of a further get-together is lightened by the thought that the Pickfords may be present, (5) for what regularly excites her interest and praise is some departure from conformity. S he warms to the Arnold sisters because they are "very civil, and not too genteel," defends the eccentric dress of the Holder women, and admires the physical energy of Mrs. Chamber-layne who strides up a hill on a hot day without parasol or bonnet (21-22 May 1801). She too, she jibes, can be something of a monster. What deters her from ousting the wife of Mr. Maitland?--the sheer size of his family. To this jest she returns in the sentence that follows her mention of Godwin: "I scandalized [Mrs. Busby's] Nephew cruelly; he has but three Children instead of Ten" (21-22 May 1801). Austen was clearly not among those who affected to be outraged at what Godwin's Memoirs (1798) disclosed of his relationship to Wollstonecraft.

In the course of the nineteenth century the word "raffish" acquired the secondary meaning "rakish," and the germ of this sense may have been present from the first. From the 1790s onwards an art was made of dressing down. The drama of this revolution in style is well illustrated in the Austen family by the decision of Charles to wear his hair unpowdered and cropped, a fashion that was known to have started in Paris. (6) Jane reports that her younger brother's new look was generally admired, and cites Mrs. Lefroy who "never saw anyone so much improved in her life" (21-22 May 1799). But news of the transformation was kept from Edward, the proud inheritor of Godmersham, who happened at the time to be unwell, on the grounds that it might "fall on his spirits and retard his recovery. Jane's own response on this occasion is surely inconsistent with any deep horror of the "raffish." To Cassandra she wrote, "He appears to far more advantage Enow than he did at Godmersham, not surrounded by strangers and neither oppr essed by a pain in his face or powder in his hair." (7)


(1.) Frank Bradbrook seems to have been the first critic to raise the point, see Jane Austen and her Predecessors (Cambridge: CUP, 1966), 54; for a typical Anti-Jacobin reading see Warren Roberts, Jane Austen and the French Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1979), 156.

(2.) No. 24, 11 July 1789.

(3.) Several of these have the ring of truth (as do many of the characters), which may explain why James Austen ascribed the essay, retrospectively, to anonymous contributors, forgetting perhaps that he had presented it as his own in the opening paragraph.

(4.) In Pride and Prejudice the Gardiners embody the Loiterer's views on the "benevolence of commerce."

(5.) In her next letter to Cassandra she gives details of a further party with a set of guests "new to you," and listing them adds, "and I hope the Pickfords." Letters 26 May 1801.

(6.) See Richard Corson, Fashions in Hair (London: Owen, 1965), 594 and Plate 87.

(7.) While at Oxford in 1788 Henry Austen had pleased Eliza de Feuillide by wearing his hair "powdered & dressed in a very tonish style." See Austen Papers, ed. R. A. Austen-Leigh (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne, 1942), 33.


AUSTEN, JANE. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: OUP, 1995.

AUSTEN, JANE. Northanger Abbey. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP 1933.

AUSTEN, JANE. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933.

GROSE, FRANCIS. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. 1785. Ed. Eric Partridge. London: Routledge, 1931.

The Loiterer: A Periodical Work first published at Oxford. Dublin, 1792.
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Author:Knox-Shaw, Peter
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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