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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hedgerows, Shrubbery, Evergreens….. and Country Parsons

I have been reflecting a bit more on my certainty that Edmund is the veiled subject of the conversation between Mary and Fanny about nature and memory in Chapter 22 of MP, and who in particular is the “country parson” Mary has in mind when she says to Fanny:

“…between ourselves, till I came to Mansfield, I had not imagined a country parson ever aspired to a shrubbery, or anything of the kind.”

Nancy probably speaks for many reading along here that she just cannot accept my claim, and yet, this is a claim I feel as confident of as any I have ever made. So I felt I should be able to 'splain myself better than I already have, and now, as you will read below, I believe I can do so.

I started from my strong intuition that Edmund's being the veiled subject of the talk about shrubbery is what brings this passage straight to the central conflict of the novel, the "joust" between Fanny and Mary for the heart and mind of Edmund. Winner take all. It's a contest which begins in Chapter 6 of the novel, and does not end until Chapter 47. But I knew I needed to zero in on the specifics of that contest, especially the part that preceded Mary and Fanny pastoral conversation outside the Parsonage.

SO I carefully reread the relevant sections of Chapters 9 through 11 of MP, and now I can more specifically explain why I am so certain that Edmund is that unnamed “country parson” mentioned by Mary a dozen chapters later. The key is to start by looking carefully at exactly what Mary says—she is focused specifically on that clergyman’s aspirations, i.e., what he hopes to gain by being a clergyman.

I claim that it is no coincidence that in those three earlier chapters, we have several extended conversations involving Mary, Fanny AND Edmund, all on the subject of Edmund’s intention to take orders and become a country parson, and all of them, at one or more points in the ebb and flow of lively debate, focus on that exact same question, i.e., what a man has to gain from following a clerical career. Mary makes her opinion very clear, that she cannot think very highly of a man who does not aspire higher than to be a country parson, and Edmund and Fanny very ably argue the other side of the coin.

THAT is the context within which Mary issues her strong indictment of Dr. Grant’s character and behavior. It’s not because they’ve all been talking about poor Mrs. Grant and what she endures as Dr. Grant’s wife. Mary has raised Dr. Grant as an example of what can go very wrong when a man becomes a country parson. And Mary is making this argument only because she wants Edmund NOT to become a country parson!

But, perhaps one of you skeptics may object, isn't the more important context that Mary and Fanny are having their conversation at the Parsonage, where Dr. Grant is the parson? Doesn't that carry weight sufficient to make him a plausible candidate to be Mary's "country parson"?

My reply is to point you to the following passage in Chapter 11, when Mary says this "Gotcha!" to Edmund:

"There is a very good living kept for you, I understand, hereabouts."

But, you then reply, isn't that "very good living" at Thornton Lacey?

And I reply, yes, but where, in fact, do Fanny and Edmund wind up at the end of the novel, upon the (too) fortuitous death of Dr. Grant?:

"On that event they removed to Mansfield; and the Parsonage there, which, under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been."*//*

It turns out that Edmund's "best" living (because they obviously prefer the Mansfield living to that at Thornton Lacey) is "born" exactly when Dr. Grant's "living" (as in "being alive") comes to an end--what a wicked pun on the word "living", one which there is no doubt in my mind was meant by JA to occur to her readers at some point!

So when Mary speaks in Chapter 22 with mock incredulity about the wondrous rarity of a “country parson” who “aspired to a shrubbery”, as if she were speaking about one of the curious pheasants in the Sotherton gardens, I claim that, for all of the above reasons, as well as those I have elucidated in my previous messages today, the best interpretation is to read Mary’s ironic comment in the full context of those highly significant earlier conversations, which are all about Edmund’s career choice.

To read only on the level of Mary talking about Dr. Grant’s shrubberies would be ignoring all that rich and highly significant prior context, PLUS it would also NOT fit Dr. Grant himself. He is, after all, a glutton, a man who “aspires” to every single thing he can put his hands on--especially if he can then stuff it in his mouth--do you think Dr. Grant planted edible hedgerows???? ;)

But to return to seriousness...why read this passage in such a narrow and uninteresting way, a way also so ill-suited to the full context of Dr. Grant’s character, when this passage practically begs to be read in the broad and multiply interesting way I am suggesting, which fits so beautifully with all that prior context, PLUS it has the added ring of veracity that Mary is one of the two characters in MP (her brother being the other) who never misses a chance to mean more than she says overtly, speaking her words, as it were, accompanied by winks and nods toward unspoken meanings. So if we were to suspect anyone of making a veiled allusion to another character in the novel, one of the two prime suspects would be MARY!

Cheers, Arnie

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