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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fanny and Mary: The olive branches of Mansfield Park

During the past three weeks, I’ve written an “awful” (ha ha) lot of posts about Mansfield Park, and I think I will shortly bring that series to an end, and move on to other Austen subjects. As I reflect on this wave of postings as a whole, what is most striking to me is how it has become crystal clear to me that the center of the novel is the relationship NOT between Fanny and Edmund, but between Fanny and Mary. Everything else in the novel seems secondary to that relationship, and much of everything else seems to rotate around the Mary-Fanny axis.

I think that is what connects MP to S&S in a unique way, as they are the only Austen novels where the relationship between two women is the center of the novel. Even P&P is not in the same category, because the love story between Darcy and Lizzy is, I think, more central than the relationship between Lizzy and Jane, rich as that latter relationship is.

Next, what follows strongly on the heels of the above insight is how important are the scenes (and correspondence) between Fanny and Mary in private, away from the other characters, in terms of JA’s masterful cultivation of a wide spectrum of metaphors and feelings pertaining to their relationship, as their interaction ebbs and flows during the course of the novel.

And in particular, for me, the scene in the shrubbery at the Parsonage is ground zero of that relationship, it is the defining moment when the basic rules of engagement between Fanny and Mary are articulated most clearly and most richly.

Now, after having addressed that scene in a number of ways during my previous postings, I wish to add another, final layer, about an insight that occurred to me a couple of days ago, and which I have been mulling ever since. If you’ve been following along, I think you will find this perhaps the most interesting layer yet, as it encompasses not only the romantic rivalry between Fanny and Mary for Edmund’s heart, it also relates to the rich discussions we’ve had in Janeites about claims by myself that Fanny may well have been a Quaker or a Methodist, or some other dissenting form of Christianity where her (and JA’s) unique spiritual vision could take root and flower.

Here is Fanny’s speech, again: “Three years ago, this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never thought of as anything, or capable of becoming anything; and now it is converted into a walk, and it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or an ornament; and perhaps, in another three years, we may be forgetting -- almost forgetting what it was before. How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called _more_ wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say; and Fanny, perceiving it, brought back her own mind to what she thought must interest…”

In my searching to see what other scholars have written about this speech, I came across a passing reference [in a very impressive 1974 article unpretentiously entitled “Three Problems of Mansfield Park” by the young Joel Weinsheimer] to an allusion to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in Fanny’s words about memory as a mysterious miracle “peculiarly past finding out.”

Weinsheimer claimed that Fanny was covertly quoting Verse 33 (and also alluding to certain passages in Samuel Johnson’s Idler series, also relating to the faculty of memory): “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways PAST FINDING OUT!”

After his remarkable discovery, here is all that Weinsheimer wrote about this passage: “Here memory, by its awesome miraculousness, coupled with the Biblical allusion (Romans 11.33), is clearly established as a mysterious moral faculty to be contemplated with wonder and reverence.”

Alas, he did not take the next step, which was to realize that Fanny (and JA) was not just alluding to Verse 33, but that we were meant by JA to read the ENTIRE Epistle. Read on and you’ll see why I say that so decisively.

First here is a link to the entire text of Chapter 11 of Romans (which actually is not that long anyway):

Second, here is the text of Verses 16-24 of Romans, which is the necessary prelude in order to understand the full meaning of Verse 33, and to see why Fanny quotes from it at the tail end of her speech about memory:

“For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?

Do you see it? Isn’t it obvious? Fanny, in talking about the slow growth of the hedgerows along the Parsonage walk, has ALREADY been subtly paraphrasing and extending the above Verses from Romans! (and I add in passing, this also casts interesting new light on Mr. Collins’s and Mary Bennet’s comments about the “olive branch” in P&P!)

And now you see that my claim in my earlier message entitled “Converted”, in which I claimed that Fanny was delivering a veiled sermon to Mary, in which Fanny was trying to encourage Mary to embrace the slow but sure process of spiritual growth, was 100% correct—I just was not familiar with the text of Romans, but I sensed with certainty the sermonic quality of Fanny’s speech.

Just as Paul wrote the Epistle to the Gentile Romans to proselytize them to join the Christian Church, Fanny is gently proselytizing Mary to join Fanny’s own idiosyncratic rustic “congregation”! And, further, Fanny is already anticipating Mary’s objections, when Fanny by bringing in those 9 other verses of Romans by implication, is in effect saying to Mary, “yes, I know that the natural branches at Mansfield Park, i.e., the Bertram Family, who are the “Jewish-born” branches in Fanny’s metaphor, are diseased, are not living a spiritually observant life despite their hypocritical pretense to same, but wait, I will bring them back to the fold too, I will get them to return to the straight and narrow of the proper “Christian walk”—but I need you in the fold, too!”

But as I have outlined in my later messages, in Chapter 36, Mary, in her encomium to the memory of the acting of Lover’s Vows, is giving Fanny HER sermon, which is a decided “No!” to all that Fanny has proselytized. Mary is not about to join Fanny’s congregation, Mary likes her own city ways, her freedom to do as she feels in the moment, selfishly, and she is as determined as Fanny. She in turn continues HER proselytizing, by her alluring arts, to seduce both Fanny AND Edmund over to Mary’s and Henry’s Satanic congregation, where anything goes.

There is much much more to be unpacked from this approach to the Romans allusion in MP, but I will not draw it out here today, beyond the above, because I think I’ve given you enough to make the case.

I will however point out one other wonderful allusion which is another “branch” growing from the root of the landscaping metaphors in that same speech of Fanny’s, which came to me around the same time I was finding Weinsheimer’s article.
To wit, purely by searching various words from that one speech about memory by Fanny, Google Books brought me to the text of Chapter V of the following book published in 1813:

_Hints on the formation of gardens and pleasure grounds: With designs_ by John Claudius Loudon. And Chapter V was promisingly entitled “On the Formation of Groves, Woods, Labyrinths & Shrubberies, Plantations, Borders, §c.”

It turned out, to my great excitement, that Loudon was a VERY popular and influential writer in his day, and Loudon even wrote specifically about the improvement of country parsonages! I am too tired to give you more details now, but suffice to say that this is a slam dunk, there is no doubt that JA had seen this book of Loudon’s, or else another one by him with pretty much the same language in it.

I am so confident in that statement in part because Loudon advocated a natural sort of landscape improvement in contrast to and critique of Repton (Henry’s “god”) and his artificial approach to landscaping, epitomized at Sotherton’s ha-ha.

And the capper was that I THEN found an article entitled “Jane Austen, The Architect: (Re)building spaces at Mansfield Park” by P. Keiko Kagawa, in Women’s Studies, 35:125–143, 2006, subtitled “Austen’s Architectural Know-How — Austen and J.C. Loudon”, in which Kagawa, who had absolutely no idea about Fanny’s speech about memory, made the argument that Edmund’s plans for improving Thorton Lacey were JA’s covert homage to Loudon and her covert critique of Repton (Henry)!

Indeed, JA’s genius at times seems so boundless and astonishing as to almost seem “peculiarly past finding out”—but that doesn’t stop me from trying! ;)


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