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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Edmund Taking Orders and Mary Taking him for a Ride

In Janeites, several folks have responded to Anielka's thread about Mary Crawford's extensive knowledge of horseback riding, despite her presenting herself as a novice equestrian. One comment was by Diane, who in part wrote the following, which I wish to respond to here as well as in Janeites and Austen L:

"I don't think JA made a mistake in having Mary go from a walk to a canter but assuming she did, that, to my mind, makes two mistakes in JA, both around Mary. The other mistake I find, a mistake I find quite glaring, is that at the time of the trip to Sotherton, Mary doesn't know that Edmund means to be a clergyman."

Diane, indeed it would be a glaring mistake, if it were a mistake. But it will come as no shock to anyone that I claim neither of these authorial actions on JA's part is a mistake. Quite the contrary, together they represent one of JA's many inspired and very "becoming conjunctions" Anielka's analysis re Mary's horsemanship is spot on in all respects, as several others participating here, have agreed, and Diane, you did very well indeed, and have gotten to the heart of the matter, in connecting the dots to Mary's apparent astonishment at hearing that Edmund plans to take orders. Of course it is ludicrous to imagine that Mary did not already know Edmund was planning to take holy orders, or that somehow JA overlooked this point, or, even more unlikely, JA did notice the point but made an expedient authorial decision to ignore it, because she would not take the time to make things fit together better.

Remember, this is the same author who made sure she would not place hedgerows in a non-hedgerow county.

And so I claim it is no accident that these "mistakes" both relate to Mary (and let's add to the mix, the most famous question of all relating to Mary, which is "do not be suspecting me of a pun")--in each case, JA has chosen Mary as the vehicle to challenge the reader to ask, "Is it possible that JA REALLY meant Mary to say, and seem to mean, what she said?"

Today was also the first time I can recall catching the very clever and apt pun in the expression "taking orders"--indeed, we can see Mary exerting strenuous, and not even subtle, efforts, to cause Edmund to "take orders" (i.e., commands) from a LOWER power, not the higher one he aspires to serve.

An authorial error in regard to Mary's awareness of Edmund's planning to take orders would have been grievous indeed, because it is one of the major motifs of the novel, one that is revisited in FOUR chapters, 9, 11, 23, and 34. In each of those passages, some important aspect of the career path of clergyman is addressed with great esprit, nuance, and depth, and Mary is there every time, pushing the edges of the envelope, challenging Edmund with some troubling aspect of the English clergy. All the more reason why Mary's (faux) astonishment is no error at all.

Note in particular the unmistakable and enormous irony of the initial discussion in Ch. 9, when Mary's "astonishment" at hearing of Edmund's future ordination, which just happens to occur at Sotherton (i.e., Hell, which is due "South"), is almost immediately followed by Mary issuing the following subtle "order" to the "horse" she has "borrowed" from Fanny:

Mary: “I do not think you ever will,” said she, with an arch smile; “I am just as much surprised now as I was at first that you should intend to take orders. You really are fit for something better. Come, do change your mind. It is not too late. Go into the law.”

Edmund: “Go into the law! With as much ease as I was told to go into this wilderness.”

Mary: “Now you are going to say something about law being the worst wilderness of the two, but I forestall you; remember, I have forestalled you.”

Could the symbolism be more obvious? Indeed, this is the beginning of Satan's temptation of "the Son", in earnest. Sotherton as the Garden of Eden has been the subject of a hundred scholarly discussions of Mansfield Park.

And if there were ANY doubt at all about Mary's willingness to dissemble in order to take command of Edmund, I give you not one, but two additional evidentiary points.

First, my fellow Janeites, let us turn to Ch. 5 and read the "catechism" of the "Hill Street school for matrimony", which is expressed by Mary during her playful repartee about Henry C. with her sister Mrs. Grant (which is highly reminiscent of Lizzy and Miss Bingley's playful chat about Darcy), after Henry C. spontaneously assumes the role of the naive, gullible suitor vis a vis Julia and Maria:

“Mary, how shall we manage him?”

“We must leave him to himself, I believe. Talking does no good. He will be taken in at last.”

“But I would not have him _taken_ _in_; I would not have him duped; I would have it all fair and honourable.”

“Oh dear! let him stand his chance and be taken in. It will do just as well. Everybody is taken in at some period or other.”

“Not always in marriage, dear Mary.”

“In marriage especially. With all due respect to such of the present company as chance to be married, my dear Mrs. Grant, there is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I see that it _is_ so; and I feel that it _must_ be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.”

“Ah! You have been in a bad school for matrimony, in Hill Street.”

“My poor aunt had certainly little cause to love the state; but, however, speaking from my own observation, it is a manoeuvring business. I know so many who have married in the full expectation and confidence of some one particular advantage in the connexion, or accomplishment, or good quality in the person, who have found themselves entirely deceived, and been obliged to put up with exactly the reverse. What is this but a take in?” END OF EXCERPT

They are having a grand time pretending that a cobra could be eaten by two garden snakes, but surely we are meant to experience a "ping" of recall four chapters later when Mary begins, in earnest, her campaign to take Edmund in.

Second, as evidence that Mary has, right from the getgo, been an ACUTE observer of all nuances of the Bertram family, I give you the following passage, also from Ch. 5:

“I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price,” said Miss Crawford, as she was walking with the Mr. Bertrams. “Pray, is she out, or is she not? I am puzzled. She dined at the Parsonage, with the rest of you, which seemed like being _out_; and yet she says so little, that I can hardly suppose she _is_.”

And Mary then steers the conversation over to Tom Bertram, to interrogate him about his behavior vis a vis the Anderson sisters.

Whatever time has elapsed between the departure of Tom Bertram from Mansfield Park, and the outing to Sotherton has been spent by Mary in softening up her prey, i.e., Edmund, primarily via their equestrian adventures. That is the origin of Mary's concealment of her riding skill--she needs an excuse to have Edmund out there with her all the time. Plus, can there be a more romantic (and erotic, in a veiled) way for a young man and woman to fall in love than while riding the English countryside together on horses?

And any resonance that some might detect in my comment between the horseback riding motif and JHS's excellent discussions of all things equestrian and equine in NA in Unbecoming Conjunctions is ALSO not accidental, and fits even better with this discussion in MP.

So Mary's turning out to have concealed her being an accomplished horsewoman is part and parcel with her very open attempts to divert Edmund from his chosen path in life. The entire novel is really a battle for Edmund's soul, and so MP is really is all about "ordination" after all. JA does not lie, nor does she make mistakes, nor are there any throwaway details in any of her novels.



Anonymous said...

I can't find the original thread questioning Mary Crawford's declared unfamiliarity with horse riding. Is the query entirely based on the fact that Jane Austen has Mary go from a walk to a canter without an intervening trot? Some years ago I spent about a year having somewhat infrequent side-saddle lessons (having already spent some time riding astride), and as a beginner side-saddle rider I was frequently required to perform this manoeuvre, because of the danger to an inexperienced rider of losing balance if going into canter out of a trot (for instance if the horse mistakes the aids of an inexperienced rider and merely continues to trot faster, or canters with the incorrect leg leading). Walking is going to be the best pace for a rider to establish her stability, but cantering on the right rein also has the advantage of "throwing" the inexperienced rider into a more correct position by the movement of the horse. Though cantering on the left rein has the reverse effect, and is therefore more difficult! I wouldn't have thought that Mary Crawford, on a well trained horse and with assistance, would have found going directly from walk to a slow canter difficult. Due to my own experience, this passage has always seemed true to life. Also, it is worth noting that a side-saddle of this date would not have had the security of a modern side-saddle, having only one pommel. The second pommel (the leaping head) provides additional security to the rider by allowing her to grip her legs round it. I can only imagine that trotting quickly with only the fixed pommel would be likely to upset a novice rider.
I would like to stress that I am by no-means an expert in this field, and it is some years since I have ridden at all, but I think this is a line worth investigating. I would be very interested to know whether there is any other "evidence" for Mary Crawford's concealing a profficiency.

Best Wishes,


Arnie Perlstein said...


Are you a member of Janeites or Austen L? That is where the messages were sent, to which I was responding.

The thread in Janeites has gone mostly under the caption "Active, fearless, equine, lying" and began on June 13 with a post by Anielka Briggs.

Your reply is consistent with others I have received privately, which suggest that Mary's riding performance is not implausible, even if she was a beginner.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your help (and news that I am not alone!)- I have found the original discussion now, and will probably try posting on Austen L.

Best Wishes,


Anonymous said...

I have tried posting on Austen L, but can't tell if it has worked or not, as my message has yet to appear. I'm sorry to take up your time with my technical inexperience, but would be very grateful for any guidance,

Best Wishes,


Arnie Perlstein said...

Eth (is that short for Ethel?)

If you'd like my help, you will have to call me at 954 6476154, perhaps I can walk you through the process of joining Austen L (or if you are already a member, of how to post a message there)

Cheers, ARNIE