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

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Mousetrap of Mansfield Park

The following is a response I wrote to some posts by Christy Somer in the Janeites group:

Before I go any further, I just read your latest post, entitled The Mansfield Park Finale, and I wish to tell you that I admire and enjoy the vivid description you gave of the wonderful literary time travel that reading JA provides for you, and to state to you that, as I see things, your approach is NOT inconsistent with my interpretation of the Mansfield Park Finale. The last thing I would wish to do is to take away from you that experience.

And, as always, I explain that apparent contradiction with my mantra—what you describe belongs to the rich and entirely valid fictional world of the OVERT story of Mansfield Park, and what I describe belongs to the rich (and I claim ALSO entirely valid) fictional world of the SHADOW of Mansfield Park. Two separate, but parallel fictional universes. I wish to see EACH story having its honored place in the canon of JA.

Did you ever see Back to the Future? They captured that sense of alternative realities so beautifully in that film, showing that with just a tweak of the conditions of living, an entirely different world can arise, i.e,. that sometimes darkness is only an inch away from light, comedy only an inch away from tragedy.

Anyway, I wanted to begin with that, to put what I am about to write in full context.
Now…when I was interrupted earlier today, it just so happens that I was mulling over in my head the question of whether to respond more fully and directly to the excellent question you posed to me yesterday:

“Taking everything that has been discussed around Sir Thomas and most of the Mansfield Park characters recently, I would just like to be clear in my mind and understanding with what you're truly proposing by all of this sharing and discussing around the material you plan on publishing.”

I responded honestly to you yesterday, but even as I was doing so, perhaps you sensed there was something I was NOT saying, i.e., that there WAS something ELSE significant about Sir Thomas that was giving me such a sense of confidence that JA did not want the reader to forgive Sir Thomas, because his sins had been even greater than was apparent in the overt story of the novel.

And indeed there IS such an insight I’ve had about Sir Thomas since way back in October 2006, which I have occasionally hinted at very obliquely since then in these groups, but which I have never written about publicly, but which I have only revealed privately to a small circle of Janeite friends.

But now feels like just the right time to go public with my thoughts in this regard—and I will also preface these remarks by saying that I do not expect anyone reading along in these groups who has not already found my arguments about Sir Thomas plausible, to be convinced by what I will now reveal. All the same, I will tell what I believe, and those of you who are so inclined will find value in what I will say.

I will begin by telling you the brief story of how I got to these insights I’ve been alluding to. In October 2006, toward the tail end of several months of very active discussion in Janeites about the slavery subtext of MP, I knew I was going to attend my second JASNA AGM, the one about Mansfield Park held in Tucson, and I was particularly looking forward to attending a remarkable presentation by the brilliant Austen scholar, Marcia McClintock Folsom, discussing Shakespearean allusions in MP, in particular parallels between Fanny Price and Catherine of Aragon.

When I first read Marcia’s blurb for her breakout session, it prompted me to take a much closer look at MP in terms of OTHER Shakespearean allusions in MP, such as the one noted by several scholars and Janeites regarding the King Lear subtext of MP. However, another Shakespeare allusion, which I believe is of the greatest importance in understanding MP, occurred to me a few weeks earlier, while reading the section of the novel regarding Lover’s Vows. In the 4 years since then, as I have seen the significance of Hamlet in all of JA’snovels, it has naturally taken on greatly increased significance in the matrix of my interpretations of MP.

To wit: the moment when Sir Thomas returns from Antigua and finds Mr. Yates rehearsing the role of Baron Wildenhaim in Sir Thomas’s private rooms converted to impromptu theatre, is, I claim, a direct allusion to the Mousetrap play-within-the-play scene in Act III of HAMLET!

The full explanation of the significance of this claim must wait for the chapter in my book on this subject, because it has many facets and requires extended unpacking over many pages. However, I wanted to give you a taste of this now, by focussing on
ONE aspect of this allusion, which is my claim as to the principal reason why I believe JA chose Lover’s Vows in particular to be the play within Mansfield Park—it was because of the terrible sin that Baron Waldenheim commits in Lover’s Vows (and of course also in Kotzebue’s original), which he ends up, after considerable pressure, making at least partial amends for, i.e., his seduction of Agatha, combined with his abandoning her and their illegitimate son, Frederick.

It is my claim that in the shadow story of Mansfield Park, the young Sir Thomas Bertram does something comparably heinous to what the young Baron does in Lover’s Vows, which is that Sir Thomas seduces and abandons his sister in law, Frances Ward, later Frances Price, leaving her with no option (since he is a married man) but to marry a horrible man and be subjected to a lifetime of cruel penance under the heavy chains of endless childbearing and poverty, while Sir Thomas enjoys his life of ease and opulence far away at Mansfield Park. And to make it worse, he and his “assistant” Mrs. Norris arrange things so that all the blame will fall on Frances Ward Price, and none at all on himself, as he, like Baron Wildenhaim, continues in his marriage to a rich wife…. ALL IN THE SHADOW STORY!

And, given the magnitude of this theme in the shadow story of MP, it is no surprise that JA gives the reader the first hints of it in the very first chapter of the entire novel:

“But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. SIR THOMAS BERTRAM HAD INTEREST, which, from principle as well as pride—from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram’s sister; but her husband’s profession was such as no interest could reach; and BEFORE HE HAD TIME TO DEVISE ANY OTHER METHOD OF ASSISTING THEM, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place. It was THE NATURAL RESULT OF THE CONDUCT OF EACH PARTY, AND SUCH AS A VERY IMPRUDENT MARRIAGE ALMOST ALWAYS PRODUCES. To save herself from useless remonstrance, Mrs. Price never wrote to her family on the subject till actually married. Lady Bertram, who was a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent, would have contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter; but Mrs. Norris had a spirit of activity, which could not be satisfied till she had written a long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the folly of her conduct, and THREATEN HER WITH ALL POSSIBLE ILL CONSEQUENCES. Mrs. Price, in her turn, was injured and angry; and an answer, which comprehended each sister in its bitterness, and bestowed such very disrespectful reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas as Mrs. Norris could not possibly keep to herself, PUT AN END TO ALL INTERCOURSE BETWEEN THEM FOR A CONSIDERABLE PERIOD.”

In October 2006, I started a thread in Janeites entitled “What was so objectionable about Lover’s Vows anyway?” What I did not reveal then, but am revealing now, is that the one aspect of Lover’s Vows which makes it anathema to Sir Thomas is that it functions as a mirror held up to his face, revealing his OWN grained spots, as a seducer, adulterer, and cruel abandoner of women. A career which he will then continue in another way, when he commits his many sins as father and uncle vis a vis the three Mansfield girls.

The claim that many have made, which is that the apparent leniency of Kotzebue/Inchbald’s play toward the sin of Agatha in having sex with the Baron before marriage was so scandalous that it would scorch the eyes of the “innocent” at Mansfield Park, is, I would also point out, in direct contradiction with a text which I think JA would have considered authoritative on this thorny point:

“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" “No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

I am quite confident that JA considered Kotzebue/Inchbald’s play to be pitch perfect on the morality of how to deal with the likes of Agatha and Baron Wildenhaim.
And by they way, in the novel, it is of course not Jane Austen who selects Lover’s Vows as the play to be performed—if you take careful note, it is the following speech which triggers the consensus that the play shall be Lover’s Vows:
“The pause which followed this fruitless effort was ended by the same speaker, who, taking up one of the many volumes of plays that lay on the table, and turning it over, suddenly exclaimed—”Lovers’ Vows! And why should not Lovers’ Vows do for us as well as for the Ravenshaws? How came it never to be thought of before? It strikes me as if it would do exactly. What say you all?...”

Of course the speaker is the soul-sickened Tom Bertram, and now you may begin to understand why I believe Patricia Rozema’s depiction of Tom as a gifted pictorial artist who draws sketches of father doing very bad things in Antigua was absolutely spot-on!

But in the novel, there are no sketches, only Tom, the Rhyming Butler who knows all—the HAMLET of the novel---who subtly stage manages things so that when his father returns, he will find Mr. Yates in his own bedroom reciting speeches as Baron Wildenhaim—so that, in other words, Sir Thomas will, on multiple levels, see HIMSELF “in the mirror” as it were, repenting for his sins-truly the ultimate Mousetrap. So Sir Thomas, in his own way, then, is every bit as much of a “mouse” in the shadow story as Fanny is in the overt story!

Cheers, Arnie

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