“Kitty, a Fair but Frozen Maid,” the riddle that Mr. Woodhouse attempts to recall in Emma, is a real poem dating from 1750 or possibly earlier. Traditionally the riddle has been read as being full of clever double meanings that point to “Cupid” as the answer when the correct solution is “a chimneysweep.” In the last few decades, however, two prominent Austen scholars have argued that the riddle is really about prostitution and venereal disease. Their interpretation has been widely accepted and promulgated and is used to support the argument that Austen was more severely critical of her times than prior scholarship has acknowledged.
This modern view of the Kitty riddle, however, is founded upon mistaken interpretations of the idioms used in the riddle—classically derived idioms that were routinely used to describe the pangs of love. Thorough examination of the publishing and reception history of the Kitty riddle reveals no suggestion prior to 1975 that the riddle’s meaning was either obscene or subversive. On the contrary, the existing commentary indicates that people saw it as a clever but trifling brain teaser suitable for genteel gatherings. The riddle was thus aptly chosen by Austen as a typical riddle Mr. Woodhouse would remember (or partly remember) from his younger days, and its Cupid theme fits with Emma’s misguided match-making aspirations.
When Mr. Woodhouse attempts to recall “Kitty, a Fair but Frozen Maid,” Emma tells him that she and her friend Harriet Smith have already transcribed the complete poem into Harriet’s riddle book (84). Austen quotes only the first stanza, all that Mr. Woodhouse can remember. Here is the complete poem:
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’r,
The little urchin came;
At once he sought 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. (qtd. in Heydt-Stevenson, Unbecoming Conjunctions 160)
The final stanza tells us that “Cupid” is not the answer to the riddle, despite the many clues that point to him and distract from the correct answer: “chimneysweep.” For example, “hood-wink’d boy” seems to describe Cupid with his blindfold (literally to be “hoodwinked” is to be blinded by a hood over one’s eyes). “Hood wink’d,” however, also describes a sweep’s sticking his head up the hood (or opening) of a chimney. While Cupid flies in the “midway air,” the sweep climbs up the chimney to “clear the bitter relicks” of a fire. Other idioms in this riddle will be discussed in more detail in this essay.
As of this writing, the earliest appearance of the riddle that has come to light in our digital age is in a 1750 collection of songs and jokes. The riddle was first attributed to the playwright David Garrick in The Poetical Magazine in 1764. Over the next hundred years the riddle appeared, with some variations, in dozens of books, chiefly almanacs and riddle books, and in newspapers and magazines. (See Appendix A: Publication History.) An early biographer of Garrick called the Kitty riddle “good, and difficult to guess . . . , artfully suggesting the more ‘namby pamby’ associations of ‘hearts’ and ‘flames,’ and so causing [the guesser] to stray away in a wrong direction” (Fitzgerald 209).
More recently, two scholars have asserted that the Kitty riddle, rather than having a “namby-pamby” meaning, actually alludes to prostitutes and syphilis. In 1975 Alice Chandler argued that Austen’s writing was more sexually charged than earlier generations were prepared to admit:
Read with a knowledge of eighteenth-century slang, the first stanza reveals itself to be about a man who has contracted venereal disease (“a flame I yet deplore”) from patronizing “frozen Kitty.” . . . Having cured himself . . . , he now derives pleasures from frequenting only the virginal Fanny. . . . The reference in the last three lines—“some willing victim bleeds”—is literally hymeneal [as] “chimney sweeping” was a well-known cant term for sexual intercourse. (39, emphasis mine)
Building on Chandler’s interpretation, Jillian Heydt-Stevenson argues that the Kitty riddle is not only “bawdy” but “disturbing,” because it alludes to having sex with young virgins (i.e., “victim” in the third stanza), once touted as a cure for venereal disease. The second stanza, Heydt-Stevenson argues, alludes to another cure, the use of mercury vapors and smoke: “And soon he clear’d, with dextrous care / The bitter relicks of my flame” (“Games” 153).1 Heydt-Stevenson constructs her analysis of Emma upon this interpretation of the Kitty riddle, contending that “Austen interweaves into her novel the same topics that the riddle introduces, such as prostitution, venereal disease, and the double standard . . . , including a marked emphasis on heat and cold and on figures of Cupids and chimneys” (Unbecoming Conjunctions 162).
Further, Chandler and Heydt-Stevenson both assume, for example, that “flame” indicates venereal disease. It is true that “flame” was sometimes used to refer to “venereal disease” (Moreton 131), and that impression is perhaps strengthened because the riddle’s narrator “deplore[s]” the flame and is “afraid” of the hoodwink’d boy’s “near approach.” A comparison of the idioms of the Kitty riddle to other poems of the long eighteenth century, however, reveals that the phrases that are suggestive of obscenity and violence to Chandler and Heydt-Stevenson were in fact the accepted and routine way of describing passionate or unrequited love.
The metaphor of “flames” for love or lust—an image we still use to this day—has its origin with Cupid and his flaming torch, as depicted in the Latin and Greek literature that formed the chief part of an English gentleman’s education. The educational emphasis on learning Latin and Greek and studying the classics naturally produced generation after generation of writers who translated Horace, Juvenal, and others into English and who wrote imitative verses referencing classical imagery and themes. Their poetry and prose were imbued with classical idioms that formed a shared language of allusion and reference for the educated classes. Even a trifling poem such as the Kitty riddle is filled with these classical allusions, starting with the deity Cupid.
A 1711 treatise about the classical gods by William King explained that there are in fact two Cupids, a Good Cupid and a Bad Cupid, the latter being “the god who revenges slighted Love.” Both are “arm’d with a Bow, Arrows and a torch: They have Darts of different Natures, one Golden, which procures Love, the other Leaden which causes Hatred” (92). Thus Cupid, as the Kitty riddle says, “can raise, or quench a flame” of love. (We still have the expression “to carry a torch for someone,” referring to unrequited love.) Cupid’s arrows were sometime shown as flame-tipped in eighteenth-century illustrations.
Some poets, such as in this 1730 “Petition to Cupid,” lamented or deplored being struck with Cupid’s arrow, just as the narrator in the Kitty riddle is afraid of his “near approach”:
Release me, God of Love, from am’rous Cares,
Alas! how ill they suit with serious Years?
Withdraw thy Arrows, and my Chains remove,
Let me not suffer Shame, as well as Love.
The world, an Emblem of the cruel Dame,
Sports with my wounds, and ridicules my flame.
With double Justice I my Fate deplore,
Oh! Cupid, spare at last, and strike no more. (33, emphasis added)
These expressions of fear and regret were used frequently to describe Cupid’s power over the human heart. Likewise, in the first stanza of the Kitty riddle, the narrator is “afraid” of Cupid’s approach. Cupid’s arrow, perhaps the leaden one, was “fatal to my suit before”—a clever play on a suit of clothes that has been ruined by a cloud of soot raised by a chimneysweep, and “suit” as “courtship.”
Willing bleeding victims
But what about that disturbing third stanza of the Kitty riddle with its “willing victim[s],” who “bleed,” and the “strange desires”? Could it possibly have a benign interpretation?
Many references to bleeding and victims turn up in eighteenth-century love poetry. As with Cupid, these terms owe their origin to the literature of Greece and Rome. In this translation of Horace’s Ode 19, for example, the narrator asks the aid of the goddess Venus (in Latin original “Mater sæva Cupidinum,” or “Cupid’s ferocious mother”) to kindle into flame the passion of the girl he desires, and he offers to sacrifice a victim:
The imperious Queen of Love,
Joyn’d with Sem’les Son by Jove,
And lewd Freedom, bid me fire
All their Pow’rs with young desire. . . .
Here Boys, place green Turf, and raise
Banks with Vervain deck’d and Bayes;
Put the Goblet, filled with Wine
Two Years old, upon the Shrine.
Venus, when the Victim’s slain,
Will not sacrifice her Swain. (Hanway 21–23, emphasis added)
This tribute “To a Young Lady,” an original poem by a translator of Virgil, ups the ante to a thousand victims:
This, Cupid, this, the peerless Dame
The Rival of thy Mother’s [i.e., Venus’s] fame:
Since she, tho’ mortal, first was seen,
Scarce hear we nam’d the Cyprian Queen,
Shoulds’t thou a Thousand Arrows speed,
Should a Thousand other Victims bleed,
None so can please thy Mother’s eye,
None e’er can raise thy Fame so high. (Sherburn 55, emphasis added)
These classical references were used in both dramatic and jocular ways. One could write in a light-hearted vein and still refer to flames and suffering. A 1745 English translation of Juvenal’s satires shows that he used the language of Cupid satirically when speaking of a man who has married a woman for her money: “But why is Cesennia praised as the best of Wives, and by her Husband? Well she may, she brought her Thousands, her Fortune makes her chaste; the Man never pined away by the Shaft, or burned with the Flame of Love; he took fire at the Portion, the Dowry shot the Darts” (Juvenalis 120–21).
In “Reasons against Deifying the Fair Sex,” from a volume of poems published in 1733 and owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward, the writer predicts that if a man woos his sweetheart as a “Goddess” during courtship, his exalted classical flattery of “flames and darts, altars, / Worship, bleeding hearts,” will be forgotten “when you condescend to wed / And take the Mortal to your bed.” Her attendants, the Graces or the Muses, will become plain “Betty,” the serving-maid, and her “altar” will become merely a tea-table or a toilet (her vanity-table).
Whether comical or serious, eighteenth-century love poetry tended to be dramatic and surprisingly violent in its imagery. Poets used references to slaves, chains, binding, flames, stabbing, and bleeding to describe the victims of love, who lament and curse their plight, as in this poem, which appeared in The Ladies Cabinet in 1743.
Bind him, ye cupids, bind his impious hands
(Which first offended) with your silken bands
A victim on love’s altar let him bleed,
Stabb’d with a frown, and pay the impious deed
Or in love’s flames groan out his trembling breath
There burning live, and bear a living death.
Thus shall the wretch long curse the fatal hour,
He durst offend bright beauty’s sacred pow’r. (“Rapturissa” 25, emphasis added)
Both Chandler and Heydt-Stevenson assume that the bleeding in the Kitty poem must refer to intercourse—Chandler’s “literally hymeneal.” Although the Kitty riddle does not mention hearts, other eighteenth-century poems make it clear that victims of love are struck in the heart by Cupid’s darts. “Hearts/darts” is the eighteenth century’s “moon/June/croon.”
As for “strange desires,” which may suggest sexual perversion to a modern reader, we must remember that “strange” had a more benign connotation in the eighteenth century than it does today. Johnson’s dictionary defined “strange” as “foreign, wonderful, odd,” but he didn’t add “weird” or “perverse” as we would today. And Johnson’s “wonderful” was used in its literal meaning of something which excited wonder. As an example, “Mariana’s Complaint, a New Song” from 1702 warns “maidens, that are young” to be wary about men’s seductive language:
Whilst every part within conspires
to entertain the subtle Foe,
Which by degrees breeds Strange Desires,
till it your Peace quite overthrow. (Shirley 164, emphasis added)
Mariana is warning young women about lust; she is not hinting at other kinds of illicit sexual activity.
A poet of the long eighteenth century could use “strange desires” or “bleeding victims” without referring to children trafficked into the sex trade. “Bleeding” also serves the dual chimneysweep/Cupid meaning of the riddle, because “bleeding” refers to the tendency of firewood to exude sap as it heats up (Lister 2124). Additionally, the author of the Kitty riddle uses the fireplace as an allusion to the sacrificial altar featured in the poetry of the classical poets and their English imitators.
In fact these tropes about Cupid and his darts and bleeding and anguish and flames were so well known by the eighteenth century that they were regarded as trite, as in this 1703 song:
Cupid, instruct an amorous swain
Some way to tell the nymph his pain
To common youths unknown,
To talk of sighs, and flames, and darts,
Of bleeding wounds and burning hearts,
Are methods vulgar grown. (Weldon 7, emphasis added)
The Kitty riddle compared to other riddles
In addition to looking at the refences to bleeding and victims and flames in the Kitty riddle in their classical context, we can look at the riddle itself not in isolation but as an example of a typical riddle of its era. Many riddles posed a series of misleading clues. While Chandler and Heydt-Stevenson suspect a darker meaning lurks in the Kitty riddle, Georgians tended to go in the opposite direction; they enjoyed riddles that sounded risqué but had amusingly banal solutions. Peter Wagner gives several examples of erotic riddle-poems (“the women love to wiggle it to and fro”) that had innocent solutions (“a rolling pin”) (170). The humor arises out of the fact that the reader has been misled into thinking about sex (“My lady has a thing most rare / round about it grows much hair”), but the answer (“a lap dog”) is not sexual. Similarly, the Kitty riddle masquerades as a love poem when it is really about a chimneysweep; the narrator is not a lovesick swain, but the owner of the fireplace.
Heydt-Stevenson goes in the other direction: the “true” meaning of the riddle is not innocent but coarse and horrific. Her interpretation, however, is actually rather tortured. The Cupid/urchin/youth figure in the poem serves as a “pimp” in the first stanza (“Cupid works as a pimp who conjoins Kitty and the narrator”) then becomes the “metaphoric” personification of the mercury smoke cure (the “him” who “mount[s] in air”); then he switches from singular to plural to become “willing victims” because he is the youth who can raise a flame of venereal disease and also supposedly quench it (“‘Slipping’” 319). As Hecimovich states, this reading means that “[t]he ‘name’ by which the gentleman addresses “this youth” is at once ‘chimney sweep,’ ‘prostitute,’ ‘virgin,’ and ‘whore.’ . . . Potent stuff indeed to be recalled for inclusion in Harriet’s riddle book!” (68). This solution would be an odd one for a riddle intended for parlor games. Further, and unlike poetry in general, which often invites multiple interpretations, riddles are designed to have only one correct answer.
Playful and ingenious
Chandler and Heydt-Stevenson assert that since “Kitty and Fanny were common names for prostitutes” and everyday words such as “chimney-sweep” have ribald slang meanings, then the author of the riddle must have intended the subversive, rather than the conventional, meaning. But many respectable girls were named Kitty and Fanny, including characters in Austen’s novels, and all homes had chimneys that needed to be swept out. Surely the interpretation of these words must take into consideration the intended audience. Heydt-Stevenson points to the fact that the riddle was published in a 1771 book that contains bawdy riddles and songs (“‘Slipping’” 317). But it also appeared in dozens of other publications, before and after 1771, which were intended for a general audience. The Kitty riddle was thought appropriate for avowedly Christian publications such as the Monthly Packet of Evening Readings for Younger Members of the English Church. Many compilers, magazine editors, and acknowledged men of letters obviously saw nothing wrong with the riddle. (See Appendix A: Publication History.)
In addition to being frequently republished—the Kitty riddle was published at least another twenty-one times after its mention in Emma—it was also occasionally commented upon. In none of these comments have I found any suggestion that the Kitty riddle was thought to bear a scurrilous meaning. Garrick’s biographer Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald called the riddle a “trifle,” an example of a vers de société, in other words, a “light and airy satire” on society, for the amusement of society.2 Near the end of the nineteenth century, the riddle began to be discussed in reference to Austen and Mr. Woodhouse, but no one before Chandler brought up the topic of venereal disease.
Where an origin story is given for the riddle, the explanation is that it was inspired by a maid starting a chimney-fire: that is, the accumulated soot in the chimney caught fire and a chimney-sweep had to be called in. In an 1802 appearance in an almanac, the riddle was introduced with a more specific explanation: “The late David Garrick once had the mishap of having a new and elegant suit of clothes spoiled by the dust raised by one of this class [i.e., a chimneysweep] and some little time after, wrote the following” (“Enigma” 19). Whether a true origin story or an urban myth, this narrative illustrates the benign associations that contemporary editors and readers placed upon the riddle.
More recently, however, many scholars have accepted Heydt-Stevenson’s darker interpretation of the riddle. They agree that the poem is “sexually charged,” “very bawdy,” “scurrilous,” “obscene,” “a veritable catalogue of bawdry,” “thoroughly ribald,” “appalling,” and contains “troubling sexual violence.”3 Gregg A. Hecimovich asserts that the Kitty riddle was “famous as a bawdy gentleman’s joke regarding prostitution, syphilis, and the conquest of virgins” (67). If the riddle was “famous” for its bawdiness, why are there no contemporary references saying so? Recall that Chandler claimed the riddle “revealed itself to be” about venereal disease. I cannot find that it revealed itself to anyone before Chandler.
As a result of this new interpretation, scholars have been perplexed by the problem of reconciling Austen’s portrayal of Mr. Woodhouse, a man having “the tenderest spirit of gallantry” (E 82) with Heydt-Stevenson’s assertion that he recited a disgusting riddle to two young virgins, one of whom was his own daughter. Austen’s motive for referencing an obscene riddle in Emma “has been much debated,” as Nora Gilbert and others have noted.4 This was not a problem that confronted earlier commentators. A 1901 critic, for example, regarded Mr. Woodhouse as a “bore,” not as a pervert (Grey 37).
In summary, I suggest that modern Emma scholars might wish to take the following into account in their appraisal of the Kitty riddle:
- References to “flames,” “victims,” and “bleeding” routinely signified classical allusions in the eighteenth century.
- The publication history of the riddle unquestionably shows that it was thought by many to be appropriate for women and children.
- While the riddle appeared in collections of jokes and riddles that contained smutty material, I have discovered no critic prior to Chandler who suspected the riddle had a sexually subversive meaning, nor have I found any commentator who referred to the riddle as being salacious or obscene. On the contrary, where an origin story is given for the riddle, it is said to have been inspired by a chimney fire or a cloud of soot.
- The very nature of riddles means that this riddle, even though it is a poem, is not open to multiple interpretations. Riddles are written with specific answers in mind. I have found no reference to this riddle stating that the solution is anything other than “chimneysweep.”
I conclude that Austen chose “Kitty, a Fair but Frozen Maid” for Mr. Woodhouse because it was an old chestnut of a riddle that her genteel readers knew and, further, because it has to do with Cupid, a reference that fits with Emma’s misguided matchmaking efforts. On the balance of probabilities, I conclude that “Kitty, a Fair but Frozen Maid” is an example of eighteenth-century comic love poetry cleverly constructed out of classical allusions, not scabrous at all, and perfectly fine to include in Harriet’s riddle-book.
Appendix A: Publication History
Austen scholars have long pondered over the fact that Emma tells her father she copied the Kitty riddle from the Elegant Extracts, when in fact it never appeared in any edition of the Extracts, a sort of eighteenth-century Reader’s Digest. The editor of the Elegant Extracts selected prose and poetry, but the only riddles I’ve found in the Extracts are attributed to Jonathan Swift. Elegant Extracts is a more high-brow publication, more apt to be displayed in a genteel family’s library as opposed to collections of jokes and riddles that were more ephemeral publications. In the end, we can only speculate as to why Austen has Emma say the poem came from the Elegant Extracts.
In the following chart I have provided the publication dates of the riddle, whether the version published was the three- or four-stanza version (without the stanza about the “willing victims” who bleed), the name of the publication, and other relevant information, such as notable variations on the poem, if it was attributed, and any additional remarks made about the poem, including explanations of the riddle’s origin or inspiration. It should also be noted that none of these publications gives the answer to the riddle as having to do with venereal disease or prostitutes. Where the answer to the riddle is given, it is always “chimneysweep.”
(Click here to see the chart discussed above.)
Appendix B: Authorship
The Kitty riddle is most often attributed to playwright and theatrical manager David Garrick (1717–1779). It is worth pointing out that Garrick, cognizant of the changing social mores of his time, had a reputation for avoiding obscenity. The introduction of his collected plays devotes several pages to Garrick’s habit of revising the ribald plays of the Restoration era and includes a contemporary response from Biographia Dramatica:
But there is one part of theatrical conduct which ought unquestionably to be recorded in Mr. Garrick’s honour, since the cause of virtue and morality and the formation of public manners are very considerably dependent on it, and that is the zeal with which he ever aimed to banish from the stage all those plays which carry with them an immoral tendency, and to prune . . . such scenes of licentiousness and libertinism. . . . [He kept the public] taste within its proper channel and [fed] it with a pure and untainted stream. (qtd. in Bergmann and Pedicord xxi)
George Winchester Stone and George M. Kahrl describe Garrick’s plays as “racy, occasionally risqué, but not licentious or obscene” (122). Given that Garrick had a reputation for avoiding obscenity, it seems improbable that he would allow his name to be publicly attached to a poem about syphilis and prostitutes. The editor of Poetical Works, with Explanatory Notes (1785), in which the Kitty riddle appeared, noted that Garrick’s death “impoverished the publick stock of innocent pleasure,” which would be an odd encomium to publish along with his riddle about bleeding virgins sacrificed to syphilitic men.
This assessment of Garrick and the riddle is much at odds with the interpretation of Chandler and Heydt-Stevenson.
The poem has been attributed to others besides Garrick and the fact that it has many variations means that many hands have tinkered with it. I have assembled a list of putative authors and the variations on the riddle which I have posted on my website for anyone interested in researching this question (http://www.lonamanning.ca/kitty-riddle.html).
The author would like to thank J. Wayne Shaw, classical scholar, for kindly sharing his knowledge with the author during the research and writing of this essay. Thanks to Susan Ford Allen for her insights about the riddle’s clues and meaning.
1See also Jill Heydt-Stevenson’s Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions and “‘Slipping into the Ha-Ha.’” Heydt-Stevenson’s thesis is that Austen’s novels, so genteel on the surface, are full of humorous sexual imagery, provoking “subversive laughter” that she uses not only for its own sake but to undermine the patriarchy.
2As an 1892 article explains, vers de société poems are “delicate,” “light and airy satire” (“Vers de Société” 543).
3The British Library website states: “This is in fact a very bawdy riddle, which requires knowledge of slang about prostitution and venereal disease in order to be understood.” John McAleer repeats Chandler’s assertion that the Kitty riddle “was actually an obscene lyric” (72). Darryl Jones says the riddle is “a veritable catalogue of bawdry” (161). Thomas Rand says that the riddle is “sexually charged” (185). Susan Allen Ford states that it “flirts with sexual mischief . . . before ending in an ‘innocent’ answer.” Neil Vickers declares that it is “one of the few thoroughly ribald moments in the Austen oeuvre” (224). In a 2016 tour of an exhibit at the Chawton House library, Gillian Dow said the Kitty riddle “had a range of more or less scurrilous ‘solutions.’” Shawn Normandin writes that “the poem encodes the appalling belief that having sex with a virgin would cure venereal disease” (165). Laura White Mooneyham notes Heydt-Stevenson’s interpretation of “troubling sexual violence,” though she also mentions that others have interpreted the riddle benignly (141n15).
4Nora Gilbert, quoting Chandler: “It has been much debated “[p]recisely what kind of game Jane Austen is playing with Mr. Woodhouse and her readers” by putting a poem about syphilis and prostitution into such a feeble, seemingly sexless character’s mouth” (72). Michael Tatham wonders “[t]hat the innocent-seeming Mr. Woodhouse should ever—even in his long-vanished youth—have been familiar with Garrick’s bawdy riddle” but concludes that “there may well have been a good deal more womanising than polite society would ever have cared to acknowledge" (111). See also Hecimovich for a discussion of the “elusive . . . puzzle” of Austen’s possible meaning. Patricia Menon states that “this is a reference more provocative than conclusive” (38), and Darryl Jones agrees that “Jill Heydt-Stevenson offers a reading . . . outrageous in its implications” (161–62).