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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hedgerows, Shrubbery and Evergreens in Mansfield Park

Part One:

The word "converted" only appears twice in all of JA's novels, and both are in MP, the first a rapturous speech by Fanny to Mary, the second Mary's cynical mockery of Edmund. As I will demonstrate below, the word “converted” is a tag which connects these two passage in the most powerful way.

“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…”

“There may be some old woman at Thornton Lacey to be converted.”

I read Fanny's speech to Mary as a kind of parable for spiritual growth--one might start with a person like Mary whose spiritual faculties are completely dormant and untended, like "a rough hedgerow..never thought of as anything" by herself. Fanny almost seems to be giving Mary a veiled sermon, suggesting that the process of spiritual growth may be very slow (three years only to convert the rough hedgerow to a walk), meaning a person still spiritually immature, whose spirituality is therefore no more than "an ornament" (the word used by phonies like Mr. Collins to describe a young woman as an "ornament" of a court), but, if one stays on the path, and does not wander off the walk in a serpentine digression, i.e., if one fails to stay on the "straight and narrow" path toward virtue, but instead treads "the primrose path of dalliance" (I will stop with the spiritual cliches at this point!), then, after six years, perhaps, perhaps, one has achieved enough spiritual growth that one looks back to one's spiritual beginnings, and cannot recall what it was like to have no spiritual life, no kindling of the inner light.

So when Fanny goes on and rhapsodizes about "the changes of the human mind", is she really talking about forgetting, or rather is she veiledly talking about spiritual growth? I think the latter! Fanny is speaking in sophisticated rhetorical code, talking on one level about memory, but on a subliminal level developing her original conceit, if we substitute "spirit" for "memory"--indeed, the "walk" of spiritual growth is fraught with pitfalls, and is very mysterious, at times seemingly beyond our conscious control--miraculous, and yet, "peculiarly past finding out".

And how revealing is Mary's response--"untouched and inattentive", the person who is never at a loss for words suddenly with "nothing to say".

It seems that Fanny has failed to pierce Mary's thick armor that encases her soul in a block of ice. And yet, do we not, at the very end of the novel, perhaps hear Mary's answer to Fanny, which is in fact repeated to Fanny by Edmund---in Mary's mind, the noble mission of raising spiritual consciousness has been reduced to mean-spirited ridicule of Edmund's charity toward "some [nameless faceless] old woman", i.e., a Miss Bates not worthy of notice, a disposable item, only good as a butt for cruel humor.

P.S.: And isn't Fanny's little speech to Mary the reason for JA's question to CEA in Letter 79 dated Jan. 29, 1813?: "If you cd discover whether Northamptonshire [where Mansfield Park is situated] is a Country of Hedgerows, I should be glad again." How meticulous JA was, to worry about such a detail, in order to make sure Fanny's complex metaphor would be firmly planted in the tangible reality of nature!

PPS: By the way, as a cautionary tale for why it is always good to doublecheck even seemingly reliable sources, especially those from prior to when everybody had "computers" ;) :

Until 1980, everybody (Chapman, Leavis, and others) all claimed that JA never did use CEA's answer in MP after all. But then, in 1980, Janeite Mary Millard, in a brief note in Persuasions Volume 2, noted the above passage in MP, and wrote: "....contrary to Chapman (in his note on Letter 76) and many later critics, Jane Austen /did/ use a hedgerow in MP."

Part Two:

I just realized that the passage which I quoted and analyzed in Part One, above, in claiming that Fanny obliquely and subtly sermonizes Mary about Mary's potential for spiritual growth and improvement, if Mary will only be patient and carefully tend to the "rough hedgerow" which is Mary's soul, does NOT end where I ended my quote. In fact, I now realize I left out the "punch line"! Here is the rest of it, with my further comments interspersed in brackets:

"Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say; and Fanny, perceiving it, brought back her own mind to what she thought must interest.

“It may seem impertinent in _me_ to praise, but I must admire the taste Mrs. Grant has shewn in all this. There is such a quiet simplicity in the plan of the walk! Not too much attempted!”

[So even though the narration seems to suggest that Fanny is starting a new topic, in reality she has not given up her previous one, she is just taking a different tack at trying to get Mary to see the metaphor]

“Yes,” replied Miss Crawford carelessly, “it does very well for a place of this sort. One does not think of extent _here_; and between ourselves, till I came to Mansfield, I had not imagined a country parson ever aspired to a shrubbery, or anything of the kind.”

[And isn't that a clever riposte by Mary, showing that she does indeed catch Fanny's subtle meanings, and means to have some fun with it. When Mary says she "had not imagined a country parson"--it is now HER turn to be oblique and insinuating, as she has shifted the topic from the parson Dr. Grant to the future parson EDMUND! And the "shrubbery, or anything of the kind" of course refers to Mary herself!]

“I am so glad to see the evergreens thrive!” said Fanny, in reply. “My uncle’s gardener always says the soil here is better than his own, and so it appears from the growth of the laurels and evergreens in general. The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature! In some countries we know the tree that sheds its leaf is the variety, but that does not make it less amazing that the same soil and the same sun should nurture plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence. You will think me rhapsodising; but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.”

[And here we have Fanny's counterthrust---Fanny refers to HERSELF as an "evergreen", which she describes as "beautiful" and "wonderful". The pun in "evergreen" is an interesting one, though---"green" can mean "young", and Fanny is certainly young; it can mean "inexperienced and naive", and Fanny is, in some ways, inexperienced and naive; and it can mean "jealous"--green is, after all, the color we associate with Mrs. Norris, who seems to be choking on jealousy during the entire novel; but perhaps above all, "evergreen" for me conjures up the notion of "constancy" and "moral fixedness"--Fanny is saying, in code, that she remains constant to her values and ethics, and also, unintentionally, she reveals that she remains constant in her secret love for Edmund!
We can almost not wait to see how Mary will reply to this!]

“To say the truth,” replied Miss Crawford, “I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV.; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it. If anybody had told me a year ago that this place would be my home, that I should be spending month after month here, as I have done, I certainly should not have believed them. I have now been here nearly five months; and, moreover, the quietest five months I ever passed.”

[And here Mary makes explicit what was implicit in her previous thrust--Mary is acknowledging that she is indeed the "shrubbery" to which, she hints to Fanny, Edmund aspires--once again, I believe that Mary is aware all along that Fanny is in love with Edmund. ]

“_Too_ quiet for you, I believe.”

[And here is yet another counterthrust by Fanny--in effect, she says to Mary, isn't Edmund going to be TOO boring for you?]

“I should have thought so _theoretically_ myself, but,” and her eyes brightened as she spoke, “take it all and all, I never spent so happy a summer. But then,” with a more thoughtful air and lowered voice, “there is no saying what it may lead to.”

[And Mary becomes thoughtful because Fanny's thrust has drawn some blood--Mary genuinely is not sure if Edmund will be too boring for her.]

Fanny’s heart beat quick, and she felt quite unequal to surmising or soliciting anything more.

[Q.E.D. We now know why Fanny's heart would 'beat quick", and "felt quite unequal" to continuing this joust--but rest assured, like the evergreen, Fanny has not been "unhorsed"--and now I do believe that there is a subtext of jousting inherent in the earlier episode of Mary engrossing Fanny's pony!--will not abandon the field, and she will be back for more ]

Although almost all commentators on this passage have been oblivious to the possibility that there is more being discussed here than nature, horticulture and landscape architecture, I am not the first to realize that Fanny is the evergreen in contrast to Mary as shrubbery--Weinsheimer saw it 36 years ago, e.g.--but I cannot find that any prior commentator prior to myself has delved more deeply and has perceived and articulated the rich ironies which inform every line of this shadowy verbal joust between Fanny and Mary......

Cheers, Arnie

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