Jane Austen Society of Australia
Limerick Competition 1999
There was a young lady named Jane...
According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the limerick had its very
beginnings in a kind of extemporised nonsense-verse sung by each member of a convivial
In introducing the winners of JASAs Limerick Competition, therefore, Id
like to call attention to the appropriateness of the form itself to the present occasion,
a party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Jane Austen Society of
It has been suggested that the name derives from the chorus of an 18th century Irish
soldiers song, Will you come up to Limerick? The origin of the limerick is
unknown. The Shorter Oxford suggests 1898/1899 as the date of origin, in which
case we should be celebrating the limericks centenary as well as our own 10th
anniversary, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica assigns the earlier date of 1820 to
the first collections of limericks in English. Edward Lear, who composed and illustrated
those in his Book of Nonsense (1846) claimed to have gotten the idea from a
nursery rhyme beginning There was an old man of Tobago. A typical example from
Lears collection is this verse:
There was an Old Man who supposed
That the street door was partially closed;
But some very large rats
Ate his coats and his hats,
While that futile Old Gentleman dozed.
My own favourite among Lears limericks is probably the one that you all know
There was an old man with a beard
Who said, It is just as I feared:
Two ducks and a hen,
Four larks and a wren
Have all made their nests in my beard.
Like all other literary genres of the 18th century, the limerick is a poetic form with
its own strict rules. First among these, which Lear and others duly observed, is, clearly,
that a verse which is meant to be sung as a chorus must satisfy the demands of metrical
accuracy; ie. it is important that an acceptable limerick, whatever its subject, should
scan satisfactorily. The Encyclopaedia Britannica is very definite on this point:
The limerick, says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, consists of five lines, usually
rhyming aabba, and the metre is roughly anapestic, with two feet in the 3rd and 4th lines,
and three feet in the others. However, some limerick-writers experimented with the form,
Walter de la Mare among them. He came up with several variations, one of these being the
double limerick. Among de la Mares best, I have a special favourite, which Id
like to share with you because it reads like a sub-plot from a novel by Fanny Burney or
There was a young man in a hat and by came Miss B. in a bonnet;
He smiled when he looked at the latter, aye, and the roses upon it.
But when by and by,
As blue as the sky,
He detected her eye
Neath its brim, well, oh my,
He wished that fair cheek was well under his hat,
And his own half concealed in her bonnet.
Since I know that the Societys members read widely and love literature, I thought
it quite likely that an entry or two might come up with a double limerick. One came close
to it Marjorie Jones striking a personal note with an extra line in her entry on Mansfield
A modest young lady named Price
Was ever so humble but nice;
When a charmer pursued her
And ardently wooed her
She put it all down to his vice -
(If only shed asked my advice!)
Other rules gradually attached themselves over the years to the limerick, deriving more
from practice than from prescription. These are: that a limerick should be popular in
character, brief, humorous, often nonsensical and frequently ribald, crowded with
improbable incident and brimming with innuendo, occasionally exploiting the anomalies of
English spelling, or using the form for pithy observations upon serious philosophical
All these principles were taken into account when reading the entries to the
competition. On consideration, some adaptation of the rules seemed in order. For example,
since the limericks were to relate to the work of one of the most sensible and accurate
writers in the English language, it seemed proper that nonsense should be
ruled out, unless of course it was called for by Austens text itself; as, for
example, in the verbal contributions to the novels of such notable nitwits as Mr Woodhouse
and Harriet Smith in Emma or Mrs Allen in Northanger Abbey. (As it turned out,
all the entries without exception ignored mere nonsense and nitwittery.) Also, and again
because of the care with which Jane Austen constructed her plots and characters, entries
which treated her text with respect and accuracy were looked on with favour. This, I
hasten to say, did not rule out humour, it only eliminated inaccuracy. For, since we are
an Australian society (and not North American or British) popular in character
was taken to read related in some way to our own experience, ie. local or
contemporary, or even Australian. Indeed, several entries, including the winning one (to
which I will come later) used popular or Australian idiom to good effect. Some,
interestingly, indicated to me that many of Jane Austens readers in the Society
habitually compare her world with ours: for example, Pat Bolands speculation on Jane
Austen in Australia -
Had Jane Austen been born in Australia
would she have had success or failure
Would her pride turn to prejudice
Whilst she looked on incredulous
At the sight of the convicts behaviour.
or Shirley Byrnes philosophical and moral comparison of Janes times with
Through rose-coloured glasses were aided
To see Janes people paraded
Their behaviours fictitious
But oh! so delicious
How different from our world degraded.
You will agree that within the rules of the limerick as applied to this special case,
there are plenty of possibilities for the limerick poet, and plenty of scope for the
imagination. The entries that came in explored all such possibilities, and discovered some
new and unexpected ones. However, a few entries failed to fulfil the basic requirement of
accurate scansion, and so had to be eliminated at stage one with much regret, I
should add, because such entries, though they might have had a foot too few or a foot too
many, were by no means short on humour or pithiness (and even occasionally on ribaldry).
A general survey showed that the great majority of the entries succinctly summarised
the plots or sub-plots of the novels. Among these were notable entries by Shirley Byrne on
Pride and Prejudice:
Naughty Lydia influenced Kitty
With tales of high times in the City
But Mr Bennet said No
You are never to go
Until youve become wiser and witty.
Hilary Rudden, also on Pride and Prejudice:
Dear Lizzie is everyones girl,
Her wit and her charm make us whirl.
Darcy feels hes above her,
But cant help but love her
Then knows he has captured a pearl.
And Marjorie Jones on Persuasion:
When Louisa fell on her head
They [all were] afraid she was dead
[When] Mary set up a wail
Captain Wentworth turned pale
But it all turned out well for dear Fred.
Also popular were character sketches as the subjects of limericks ideal subjects
since the limerick affords very little space and, as we know, Jane Austen herself went in
for miniature painting in literature. Good examples included Pamela Whalan on Persuasive
Elizabeth Elliot was proud
Mary complained very loud
Sir Walter was vain
Mrs Clay sadly plain
And Wentworth stood out from the crowd.
And Christene Evans, also on Persuasion:
Sir Walter of Kellynch was vain
In fact, he was rather a pain
His actions were rash
He squandered his cash.
Though handsome, he hadnt a brain.
Sometime the entries allowed Jane Austens characters to talk (or think) aloud,
and did it very convincingly, as in Melissa Kangs limerick on Emma:
His words badly done were so mighty
I cannot think of them lightly
I must make amends
To family and friends
And win back my dear Mr Knightley.
Or Sadie Underwoods delightful portrait of guests entertained at Hartfield
by Mr Woodhouse, also in Emma:
There [once were] two ladies called Bates
Who were careful to watch what they ate
When Mr Woodhouse was near.
But they said, Oh, my dear,
You should see what we eat when he aint.
Ribaldry, as such, was present in some of the entries, but was mild by 18th century
standards. However, we had Pamela Whalans Potted Persuasion:
There was a young Wentworth called Fred
Who wanted Anne Elliot to wed.
But the dutiful Anne
Renounced this fine man
Though he finally got her to bed.
Bedtime comes into the picture again, accompanied by lust, when Bertha McKenzie goes to
work on the play within the plot of Mansfield Park:
Enter Henry, lustful cad,
Exit Maria, running mad;
and a little later.
When Maria Bertram lost her head
Playing Agatha, mother of Fred,
Mr Rushworth adoring
But so dull and boring,
Couldnt keep her from Henrys bed.
The limerick, like the sonnet, requires accurate rhyming, and some entries experimented
with amusing and unexpected rhymes, as Marjorie Jones did in her limerick on Pride and
An accomplished young lady name[d] Bingley
Was afraid that shed have to live singly,
So she set her cap
At a rich handsome chap
The thought of his wealth made her tingly.
Most of us would agree with Marjorie and Helen Sims when they rhymed Darcy with classy.
Marjorie (who sent in several good entries) completed that particular one with:
When he met Liz he said
I wish we could wed
What a pity your mothers so brassy.
While Helen Sims saw the ending of the novel differently:
Then he met sparkling Lizzy,
Fell into a tizzy
And his masculine optics grew glassy.
And added, in another limerick, that the Bennets daughter named Mary
sang songs that would curdle a dairy. Christene Evans, an impressively
inventive rhymester, and Marlene Arditto were among several competitors who noticed, like
Helen, that the young Georgian lady name Lizzy sent Mr Darcy into a tizzy.
Two pithy observations that were, alas, defeated by the scansion rule included that of
Denise Harris from Hunters Hill who thinks Fanny Price needs assertiveness training, and
Katarina Bavcevic from WA, who yearns to throw Caroline in a den together with
her sister Mrs Hurst, and then check them in a year or ten.
Needless to say, several entries gave the author priority over her works. One of these
tributes came from Jean Boland:
There was a young lady called Jane
Who lived a short life not in vain
She wrote with such style
Wit, irony [and] guile
That the fame of her name shall [ever] remain.
Another was sent in anonymously from the Northern Suburbs:
There was a young lady called Jane
Read Burney, and never in vain,
Changed her epistolary form
Took the whole world by storm,
Gave us six of the best so thanks Jane.
A third entry, by Julia Ermert writing on Pride and Prejudice, paid tribute to
Jane Austens modern imitators and successors:
Mrs Wickham, née Lydia Bennet
Ran off with her man in a seennight ...
How the other two sisters
Procure their misters
Is told us by clever Miss Tennant!
Since none of these entries, good as they were, made it to the very top, you can expect
that the winning entry was exceptional. And so it was. Or rather, so they were. Because
there were two, and they were exceptional in such interestingly different ways that the
Jane Austen Society has decided to present not one prize but two. Both Christene Evans and
Pamela Whalan sent in several limericks, among which, in each case, two were outstanding;
one (by Pamela, titled Mansfield Meditations) is strikingly witty in the Augustan
manner, including in five lines two of the 18th centurys favourite literary devices,
alliteration and the pun. Pamelas other winning limerick (titled Prejudiced
Pride) combines accuracy as regards the text with a delicious Australianness very
appropriate to a celebration such as ours. Here they are:
Fanny Price was prudent and prim
Henry Crawford loved on a whim
But Edmund the fair
Joined Fanny in prayer
So Henry lost out to a hymn.
To capture the heart of his Lizzie
Mr Darcy was kept very busy
By reforming his way
Before naming the day
When the Bennets could break out the fizzy.
A similarly refreshing contemporaneity is at the heart of the two entries by our equal
First Prize winner, Christene Evans, who also impressed with her ability to pun and rhyme
There was a young filly name Lydia
And neer was a teenager gydia
She ran off with Wickham
Who just couldnt pick em
And soon thought, Im gonna get rydia!
When Darcy looked closely at Lizzy
His heart-beats went into a tizzy
She wasnt so struck with im
Wouldnt have truck with im
Till the sight of his pile sent her dizzy.
I would like to thank on behalf of the Society all those who sent in such entertaining
and clever entries, and to thank and congratulate the winners: Christene Evans, and Pamela
30 January 2002
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