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

Sunday, September 26, 2010


[Elissa] "In turn, this thought led me to the following, I think, major idea about Austen's novel *Mansfield Park.* That it never struck me or anyone else sooner is astonishing, for as Arnie often says, it was hidden "in plain sight" all along. Here it is: Mansfield Park, that seeming bastion of stability, moral strength, of all that was good in the eyes of the European world but that many readers have seen as a gilded or veneered surface hiding the reverse, darker aspects of humanity, that for many signifies a journey into the evils of the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean and the New World, is also known to readers of Jane Austen by those famous initials "MP." These are, of course, the very initials of the phrase that conjure up the European-African slave trade route: the *M*iddle *P*assage, also MP. I suggest that this, in addition to all we have previously discussed in the novel concerning the place and people names and references associated with British Abolishionists of the time and historical events that connect Mansfield Park (the novel) to the slave trade/plantations clinches the matter. - cadit quaestio."

Well, the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park has been demonstrated a hundred times over by a half a hundred or more of able Janeite scholars, but nonetheless, that is still a VERY ingenious suggestion, Elissa, which does add SEVERAL elegant bricks in the existing wall of knowledge—Nicely done! ;)

I think it is an excellent example of JA's subliminal artistry both in the way you have detected (shared initials pointing to very different meanings), but also in a way I don't know if you consciously realized, but which I am cetain you did subliminally notice (I call these subliminal realizations Trojan Horse Moments, and I have them all the time!)—there is indeed very specific wordplay evidence buried in the text of the novel itself, like sunken treasure left behind by pirates in the Caribbean (ha ha), which supports your interpretation.

Here’s how I found it. The first thing I thought to do when I read your message was to search the words “middle” and "passage" in MP, in the belief, based on prior experience, that if JA really meant to allude to the Middle Passage in MP, she’d leave behind some bread crumbs in the text that could be found by a reasonably diligent sleuth, that would constitute the wink of confirmation, as if to say, “Yes, you were not just imagining that, reader!”

And look at what popped out at me off the computer screen, in Chapter 38 in MP, we have the word “passage” appearing SIX times during the description of Fanny’s first day back in her old home in Portsmouth with the Price family, as well as one usage of “middle” and one of “midshipman” for good measure. And of course the word “passage”, even besides that dense cluster in Chapter 38, has appeared elsewhere in MP much more frequently than in the other novels, including the following subliminal hints toward the Middle Passage, first in Chapter 11:

“It would hardly be early in November, there were generally delays, a bad PASSAGE or something; that favouring something which everybody who shuts their eyes while they look, or their understandings while they reason, feels the comfort of. It would probably be the MIDDLE of November at least; the MIDDLE of November was three months off. Three months comprised thirteen weeks. Much might happen in thirteen weeks.”

There again we have the word “middle” repeated, for subliminal emphasis, to make sure it registers in the reader’s mind.

But these subliminal repetitions of “passage” and “middle” would only be literary parlor tricks, if they were all there was. But what if they are all TAGS, which tell the reader, read this Chapter with the Middle Passage of the slave trade in mind, and you will find that the action in Chapter 38 indeed points metaphorically to the Middle Passage taken by slave ships, and does so in abundance!

Is it not obvious that, in a very real sense, emotionally, in Chapter 38, it is precisely the moment after Fanny has been abducted out of her home “country”, Mansfield Park (i.e., Africa), and smuggled down against her will to a kind of servitude more akin to a prison sentence in Portsmouth? Isn’t that a metaphor for the same sort of experience, but of course magnified a million fold, that millions of African slaves tragically suffered during the centuries of the slave trade?

So it is no accident that JA made you think “passage”, Elissa, in Chapter 38!

Now, as I said, to get the full effect of this tour de force, one must read all of Chapter 38 with this idea of a slave ship journey in mind. This post is too long already. But it’s enough to give a few highlights, that demonstrate that we are hearing, in a kind of code, Fanny's experiences as she takes horrified stock of the dreadful conditions in the Pride home in Portsmouth:

"...almost every door in the house was open, could be plainly distinguished in the parlour, except when drowned at intervals by the superior noise of Sam, Tom, and Charles chasing each other up and down stairs, and tumbling about and HALLOOING."

Does this not conjure up the image of midshipmen climbing up and down the mast, hallooing "Land ahoy!"? This is what the slaves down below decks would hear from up above, as if in a nightmare.

"Fanny was almost stunned. The SMALLNESS OF THE HOUSE AND THINNESS OF THE WALLS BROUGHT EVERYTHING SO CLOSE TO HER, THAT, ADDED TO THE FATIGUE OF HER JOURNEY, and all her recent agitation, she hardly knew how to bear it. “

And here we have a striking resonance to the awful claustrophobic, dangerous, disgusting conditions that the slaves lived (and often died) under during their awful ‘journeys” to the “New World”.

“Within the room all was tranquil enough, for Susan having disappeared with the others, there were soon only her father and herself remaining; and he, taking out a newspaper, the accustomary loan of a neighbour, applied himself to studying it, without seeming to recollect her existence. The solitary candle was held between himself and the paper, without any reference to her possible convenience; but she had nothing to do, and was glad to have the light screened from her aching head, as she sat in bewildered, broken, sorrowful contemplation."

And here we have the claustrophobia of life on a small and crowded vessel, the Captain reading his maps by the light of a candle.

And much much more, but the coup de grace, the true smoking gun, is the following sentence:

“THE SMALLNESS OF THE ROOMS ABOVE AND BELOW, indeed, and THE NARROWNESS OF THE PASSAGE and staircase, struck her beyond her imagination."

This is a kind of poetic transformation of Clarkson’s vivid detailed descriptions of the unspeakable conditions that the slaves suffered under, in Clarkson’s book that JA specifically praised, and also of Cowper’s heart-wrenching poetry bewailing the fate of these victims of the English colonial system!

So it's no accident that the Price residence in Portsmouth sounds a little like a stinking slave transport ship--with foul-mouthed "Captain" Price at the "helm"! But truth be told, Fanny lived like a slave even at Mansfield Park, and JA reminds us of this by having the word "smallness" in Chapter 38 echo back, also intentionally, to younger Fanny's prior experience living in cramped quarters, in Chapter 11:

"The little white attic, which had continued [Fanny's] sleeping–room ever since her first entering the family, proving incompetent to suggest any reply, she had recourse, as soon as she was dressed, to another apartment more spacious and more meet for walking about in and thinking, and of which she had now for some time been almost equally mistress. It had been their school–room; so called till the Miss Bertrams would not allow it to be called so any longer, and inhabited as such to a later period. There Miss Lee had lived, and there they had read and written, and talked and laughed, till within the last three years, when she had quitted them. The room had then become useless, and for some time was quite deserted, except by Fanny, when she visited her plants, or wanted one of the books, which she was still glad to keep there, from THE DEFICIENCY OF SPACE AND ACCOMMODATION IN HER LITTLE CHAMBER ABOVE: but gradually, as her value for the comforts of it increased, she had added to her possessions, and spent more of her time there; and having nothing to oppose her, had so naturally and so artlessly worked herself into it, that it was now generally admitted to be hers. The East room, as it had been called ever since Maria Bertram was sixteen, was now considered Fanny’s, almost as decidedly as the white attic: the SMALLNESS OF THE ONE making the use of the other so evidently reasonable that the Miss Bertrams, with every superiority in their own apartments which their own sense of superiority could demand, were entirely approving it; and Mrs. Norris, having stipulated for there never being a fire in it on Fanny’s account, was tolerably resigned to her having the use of what nobody else wanted, though the terms in which she sometimes spoke of the indulgence seemed to imply that it was the best room in the house.”

The dehumanization of the powerless, even down to petty details like not giving enough physical living space, that is Rule One of oppression and exploitation, on slave ships and, less obviously, in the ordinary English family.


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