It occurred to me this afternoon that in all this wonderful discussion of the overarching multilayered theme of religion in MP ….
(and let me echo Diane’s comment about this thread, this has been a great example of how a potentially very contentious issue in Austen studies can be discussed from several widely divergent points of view, without a hint of incivility, and with much rational opposition and even more creative responsiveness)
…no one has recollected a passage in the novel which has actually been noted many times before, both by Austen scholars and also by members of these groups, which occurs at the climactic moment in the action of the novel, and which is as overt a reference to non-Anglican Christianity as appears anywhere in JA’s novels, to the best of my recollection.
And by the way, the following does not alter my opinions about the validity of the Quaker subtext of JA’s novels---it merely illustrates that JA alluded in her novels, but particularly in MP, to a range of politically “seditious” Christianities—Quakerism, Methodist, and perhaps others--- with which I claim JA felt a strong affinity, especially during the last 5 years of her life, because of her own strong beliefs in egalitarianism and social justice, which I believe she considered to be at the core of her own very personal brand of Christianity.
Of course I am referring to the passage in Chapter 47, immediately after Edmund has recounted to Fanny how his eyes were painfully opened to Mary’s moral degradation by the way she responded to Maria’s elopement with Henry, even in the face of Edmund’s patent disgust at same. Edmund then goes on to describe Mary’s reaction to Edmund’s (finally) calling her on her rationalizations for sin:
“This is what I said, the purport of it; but, as you may imagine, not spoken so collectedly or methodically as I have repeated it to you. She was astonished, exceedingly astonished—more than astonished. I saw her change countenance. She turned extremely red. I imagined I saw a mixture of many feelings: a great, though short struggle; half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame, but habit, habit carried it. She would have laughed if she could. It was a sort of laugh, as she answered, ‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon? At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.’ She tried to speak carelessly, but she was not so careless as she wanted to appear. I only said in reply, that from my heart I wished her well, and earnestly hoped that she might soon learn to think more justly, and not owe the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire, the knowledge of ourselves and of our duty, to the lessons of affliction, and immediately left the room. “
Then we hear how Mary attempts to tempt him one last time, and he pauses, and later still experienced regret… but nonetheless moves on. Edmund has been “saved”.
Mary’s sarcastic mockery of Edmund’s heartfelt statements to her describing how heartbroken he is at her reaction is the coup de grace—she has again fallen back on dark humor as a way of snuffing out the moral light which keeps struggles to reignite inside her badly damaged soul.
However, I quoted this passage, not only because it contains an explicit reference to the Methodists, but because, as ALWAYS is the case with what I call the Jane Austen Code, there are keywords (in this case, a cluster of them) in that passage which point elsewhere in a subliminal way, and which raise the artistic and moral ante. In this instance, where the words ‘reform” and “Methodists” and “missionary” all point is straight back to the following passage seven chapters earlier, when Fanny is still in Portsmouth. It is a passage describing Fanny’s experience many weeks into her time there, but when there is still no end in sight for Fanny’s painful exile (ironically, as the text suggests, at “home”) in Portsmouth:
“The first solid consolation which Fanny received for the evils of home, the first which her judgment could entirely approve, and which gave any promise of durability, was in a better knowledge of Susan, and a hope of being of service to her. Susan had always behaved pleasantly to herself, but the determined character of her general manners had astonished and alarmed her, and it was at least
a fortnight before she began to understand a disposition so totally different from her own. Susan saw that much was wrong at home, and wanted to set it right. That a girl of fourteen, acting only on her
own unassisted reason, should err in the method of reform, was not wonderful; and Fanny soon became more disposed to admire the natural light of the mind which could so early distinguish justly, than to censure severely the faults of conduct to which it led. Susan was only acting on the same truths, and pursuing the same system, which her own judgment acknowledged, but which her more supine and yielding temper would have shrunk from asserting. Susan tried to be useful, where _she_ could only have gone away and cried; and that Susan was useful she could perceive; that things, bad as they were, would have been worse but for such interposition, and that both her mother and Betsey were restrained from some excesses of very offensive indulgence and vulgarity.”
Is it not wonderfully clear that this clustering of the words of nonconformist Christianity in BOTH of these two passages not otherwise connected by content, but totally connected in metaphorical significance, is entirely intentional on JA’s part? It is as though Mary, speaking in Chapter 47, has leapt out of the novel for an instant, and has somehow “read” that passage from Chapter 40, found it intensely unnerving, and has therefore felt the need to parodize it, exactly as she very explicitly parodizes the Browne poem about tobacco many chapters earlier.
And, to add to the wonders of JA’s virtuosic braiding of multiple threads from the novel into an exquisite literary blend, Mary’s mockery is also a startlingly brilliant echo of the re-casting of roles during the Lover’s Vows rehearsals, as this time, implicitly, Mary recasts Edmund in the role of missionary in which JA, without ever using the word “missionary” in that Chapter 40 passage, nonetheless has previously, and unmistakably, cast Fanny as well!
So in Chapter 40, we had Fanny assuming the position of a Methodist in spirit if not in name, turning her exile in Portsmouth into a spiritually charged, Quixotically mad mission of “reform”, resulting in the “conversion” (all puns intended) of her sister Susan--who is worthy of this effort because Susan shows Fanny that she is amply endowed with the “inner light”--from a Price to a Bertram. It is, ironically, the very same “conversion” that Fanny underwent a decade earlier. But this will be a much kinder “baptism” than Fanny’s earlier ‘baptism by (NO KINDLED) fire”! Susan will not have to learn from “affliction”, as Fanny had to, but from true Christian love in a reformed Mansfield Park from which all the devils have either been banished, or, in the case of Sir Thomas, himself reformed (or, at least, restrained) .
And don’t forget that the word “method” has been unobtrusively tucked into that passage from Chapter 40, just as the word “methodical” has been unobtrusively tucked into Chapter 47, not just the on instance quoted above, but also in the description of Lady Bertram’s epistolary reports:
“Fanny learnt from her all the particulars which had yet transpired. Her aunt was no very methodical narrator, but with the help of some letters to and from Sir Thomas, and what she already knew herself, and could reasonably combine, she was soon able to understand quite as much as she wished of the circumstances attending the story. “
And…also don’t forget that the word “method” also makes an inobtrusive appearance much earlier in the novel, in relation to Sir Thomas:
“He had to reinstate himself in all the wonted concerns of his Mansfield life: to see his steward and his bailiff; to examine and compute, and, in the intervals of business, to walk into his stables and his gardens, and nearest plantations; but active and methodical, he had not only done all this before he resumed his seat as master of the house at dinner…”
When you think about it, the implication of the syntax is that he did exactly the same thing every time he returned to Antigua at his slave plantation! That was the rhythm of Sir Thomas’s life, until Fanny, a true Quaker or Methodist in spirit, by NON-action, rocked his world. In that regard, it is no accident that Methodism was allowed to be preached to the slaves on West Indian plantations—and JA would have been well aware of this, via her father’s intimate and long standing connection to the Nibbs family.
In conclusion, I wish to point out that at the end of the novel, it is only fitting that we hear about Edmund finally seeing “his Fanny” in the proper light, whereupon, speaking of course, you know what “position” Fanny assumed. I believe I have given sufficient hints for you to guess the correct answer.
But do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat you! ;)
Jane Austen and William Cowper
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