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English professor unravels the word puzzles of 19th Century British Literature

GREENVILLE   (Mar. 16, 2009)   —   Today’s crossword puzzles have a distinguished literary pedigree, tracing their beginnings to acrostics and other word puzzles from centuries ago.

East Carolina University English associate professor Gregg Hecimovich has unraveled word puzzles from Victorian England with his new book, “Puzzling the Reader: Riddles in Nineteenth-Century British Literature,” (Peter Lang, 2008) and a second work focusing on Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

For his research, Hecimovich trolled through periodicals and parlor game books of the time at the British Library. Queen Victoria even created a double acrostic, “Windsor Engima,” for a parlor book; her puzzle’s answer was a reference to the glories of the British Empire.

Riddles and word puzzles were the parlor games of the 19th century.

“They were a product of the oral tradition as it entered mass produced culture in the 19th century,” Hecimovich said. “There was a vast increase in literacy and cheaper production costs through the advances in papermaking and the distribution made possible by the expansion of the railroad.”

That growing literate population, the Victorians, created different word puzzles, such as rebuses and acrostics, for entertainment in the evenings. A rebus is a puzzle composed of words or syllables that appear in the form of pictures, creating a kind of literary charade. “Hecimovich explains that the Victorians love for rebuses, acrostics, and charades led them to invent the double acrostic, a complex combination of all three – the steam engine of literary parlor games.”

Hecimovich also points out the important role of riddles, especially in the interlocking courtship games, in his “Austen’s Emma: A Reader’s Guide” (Continuum, 2008). In the novel, the slow-witted Harriet Smith is gathering riddles for a booklet. Included in the submissions gathered by Emma Woodhouse, who loves the word plays, is bits and pieces from her father of a rather bawdy riddle of the times.

“Modern readers likely often miss many of the word plays in works such as Austen, William Blake or Charles Dickens; however, the 19th century reader would have been looking for these,” Hecimovich said. “For instance, the answer to the bawdy puzzle offered up in Austen is ‘a virgin prostitute.’ We don’t think of Austen telling those kind of jokes, but she does.”

In his reader’s guide to “Emma,” Hecimovich leads the careful reader of the novel to a point to render his or her own criticism of the last novel Austen published in her lifetime. He also explores the three main themes of the work: courtship, conduct and wellbeing. And how each theme is played out under the broader rubric of games: word games and social games.

“The humor and fun of books of that era are in the games,” he said. “Both of these books point those elements out, and both come from my teaching and the pleasure that I get from these 19th century works – Austen’s feminism, Dickens’ class issues.”

He added that the puzzles revealed deeper structures of thought and the authors used these to challenge their readers.

Since joining the faculty in 2002 Hecimovich received in 2006 the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Distinguished Professor for Teaching Award and the ECU Scholar-Teacher Award in Humanities, as well as the Max Ray Joyner Award for excellence in online education and the Bertie Fearing Award recognizing excellent teaching among English Department faculty.


Contact: Gregg Hecimovich