Trailing and Trolling.

I’m still reading Jane Eyre, and in Chapter 17 I was amused by a chance resemblance to a modern usage. Jane’s employer (and heartthrob) Mr. Rochester has arrived with a bunch of fancy house guests, and after dinner she is observing the darkly beautiful Miss Ingram, whom she fears Rochester may have a fancy for:

She entered into a discourse on botany with the gentle Mrs. Dent. It seemed Mrs. Dent had not studied that science: though, as she said, she liked flowers, ‘especially wild ones’; Miss Ingram had, and she ran over its vocabulary with an air. I presently perceived she was (what is vernacularly termed) trailing Mrs. Dent; that is, playing on her ignorance: her trail might be clever, but it was decidedly not good-natured.

“She’s trolling that poor woman!” thought I with delight. The OED has this as sense 3b (though it should really be divided in two, with the “draw on” sense of the first two citations separated from the slangy one of the last two):

b. To draw as by persuasion or art; to draw on; hence colloq. ‘to quiz, befool’ (Farmer Slang).
a1717 T. Parnell Fairy Tale 158 Then Will, who bears the wispy fire, To trail the swains among the mire.
1748 S. Richardson Clarissa VII. x. 48, I sometimes long trailed on between hope and doubt.
1847 C. Brontë Jane Eyre II. ii. 42, I..perceived she was (what is vernacularly termed) trailing Mrs. Dent; that is, playing on her ignorance: her trail might be clever, but it was decidedly not good-natured.
1900 C. Kernahan Scoundrels & Co. xxi, To see the Ishmaelites ‘trail’ a sufferer from ‘swelled head’ is to undergo inoculation against that fell malady.

Incidentally, I have another issue with punctuation (to follow up on this post): twice within as many pages Brontë uses quotation marks in a way that makes me twitch. When the guests arrive, she writes: “I should not be called upon to quit my sanctum of the schoolroom; for a sanctum it was now become to me,— ‘a very pleasant refuge in time of trouble’.” This is an allusion to the beginning of Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” and a very clever allusion it is too (I love the switch from “present” to “pleasant”) — but it is not a quote. And on the next page, when Jane tells little Adèle that “she must not on any account think of venturing in sight of the ladies, either now or at any other time, unless expressly sent for,” Brontë adds: “‘Some natural tears she shed’ on being told this; but as I began to look very grave, she consented at last to wipe them.” This is a reference to the magnificent passage that ends Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve are expelled:

Some natural tears they dropt, but wip’d them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Again, not a quote. I realize conventions were different, and the quote marks are just signaling “Hey, I’m referring to something well known here,” but I’ve spent so much time and effort correcting misquotes in modern texts that I can’t seem to take it in stride.


  1. I am also confounded by the use of italics here, and elsewhere in 19th and 18th century printed English.

    I never learned the difference between trolling and trawling. That’s why I don’t hang out with commercial fishermen. They might get mad at me.

  2. From 2013, our trawl vs. troll discussion, with a note that trawl and trail are etymological doublets.

  3. JC: Thank you. I guess I have heard of trawl nets and of troll hooks. AJP’s concise explanation cements the distinction.

  4. amused by a chance resemblance to a modern usage

    Yep. Lot of that. I love & read Victorian lit a lot. Today we say “everybody and his brother” – not new. In Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend I ran across “everybody and his aunt and cousins”. “Knock off” (in the sense of ceasing work) I once found in the 17th century, referring to a doctoral defense. Wish I had kept notes.

  5. Well, but those aren’t so much chance resemblances to modern usages as actual modern usages that turn out to be not so modern. Equally amusing, of course.

  6. Sometimes such misquotations are just an unreliable narrator. Then again, a guilty author can always blame the character.

  7. But in these cases they’re not actually misquotations, since there is zero chance the author thought that’s what the originals said — every literate Englishperson in those days knew both the psalm and the Milton passage verbatim, and she was consciously playing with the wording. They’re allusions, not quotes, but she uses quote marks (which I guess you could call “allusion marks” in this situation).

  8. I suppose this is getting off into the weeds, but can we be so sure that shed/dropt wasn’t a genuine error on Bronte’s part? Metrically speaking obviously “dropt” or “shed” works just as well in the original, and I don’t see how replacing that one word adds any wit or relevance to the quotation.

  9. That’s possible, but doesn’t affect the point at issue, since the “she” is a deliberate change in any case.

  10. J. W. Brewer says:

    U.S. lawyers are trained to be obsessive-compulsiveness about getting quotations exactly right, with the addendum that if the quotation is other than strictly verbatim (because e.g. a verb tense or pronoun has been changed in order to make the quoted passage flow better in its new context) you can still put the passage in quotation marks but with square brackets around the words that differ from the original as a disclosure to the reader that those specific words have been changed. Indeed, if you italicize for emphasis a word that was not italicized in the quoted source, you are supposed to so indicate by a parenthetical note at the end of the quotation. But as I think acknowledged in the OP, perhaps our current conventions expecting that level of precision are anachronistic if applied to the usage of an earlier time.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    [pardon the damn-you-autocorrect problem in the opening line of the above comment; I thought I’d turned the oft-erroneous autocorrect on this computer off but no doubt some software “upgrade” reactivated it without my knowledge]

  12. You’ll see me doing this: putting ellipsis marks in brackets to show that they mark my omissions rather than authorial ellipsis, and even around a single letter to show that its capitalization has been changed. OCD indeed.

  13. I definitely do that with ellipses, but I generally let the capitalization go.

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    There’s a further complication I see upon further reflection. That sort of hyperprecise use of brackets and ellipses to show the extent to which quoted material is verbatim versus modified is in 21st century AmEng pretty genre-specific. You’d expect it in scholarly writing, lawyers’ briefs, and things like that. You would *not* imho generally expect it in a novel, especially one like Jane Eyre where the “voice” deciding whether or not to use quotation marks is a first-person narrator for whom that sort of usage would seem even more genre-inappropriate.

  15. Right, but still, the extremely loose use as “allusion marks” takes one aback. I mean, there was no need to use any punctuation at all; half of Russian literature seems to consist of allusions to other Russian literature, but they just reproduce or alter the words and expect you to understand what’s going on. I’ve had to develop keen antennae for that sort of thing, and thank goodness for the internet and Google, which usually allow me to decipher it.

  16. “I never learned the difference between trolling and trawling. That’s why I don’t hang out with commercial fishermen. They might get mad at me.”

    And don’t bother anyway, Y. The term here in the Seattle area is “troll caught” salmon. I wonder if it wasn’t the Norwegian fishermen who are the backbone of the industry having a little pun.

  17. Your “very pleasant refuge” is introduced by a closing rather than an opening single quote mark; is this a [sic] or a typo? (Wouldn’t usually be worth noting, but in this post…)

  18. Good catch! It was a function of the blog software (I just type an apostrophe and it corrects to the appropriate fancy form), and to fix it I had to introduce a space after the dash.

  19. Just read the same passage and made the same connection

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