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Friday, September 10, 2010

The Two Sir Thomases

The eternal question of the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park, as focused on the enigmatic figure of Sir Thomas Bertram, baronet and lord of Mansfield Park, has arisen yet again in the Janeites group, and here are some of my comments in that discussion:

The central theme of my entire theory about Jane Austen is that there were two social realities perceived by people in her time---the one that was "normal", i.e., approved by court, church, government, and literary establishment, which was grotesquely biased against women in dozens of important ways--even as women were having it pounded into their heads that this was really for their own benefit; BUT also the one that saw the hypocrisy and injustice of "the system", but which was demonized as "Jacobin", "unsex'd females", etc etc, and effectively silenced, prevented from reaching with an overt message the very audience-women--who were being treated as children at best. Those voices were not from the 21st Century, they were JA's contemporaries, the visionaries and Quixotes who dared to say that the Emperor's clothes were made out of slave-picked cotton.

That is why JA wrote all her novels to be anamorphic--two stories each--in each novel, the "normal" reality takes prominence, and it is difficult to read against the grain in order to see the other reality-but that other reality is definitely there, and was intentionally placed there by JA.

As I have mentioned several times, the slavery subtext of MP was the subject of SIX of the 70 presentations at the Chawton House conference, saying things that started getting written about by scholars in the Eighties, and which I started talking about in these groups back in the summer of 2006. Now it has become the mainstream of Austen scholarly criticism, a huge shift in only two decades. And Rozema's film opened a lot of eyes in that respect. This is not anachonism, this is recovery of genuine, but suppressed history.

Sir Thomas is in my opinion the quintessence of JA's double-portraiture of the English gentleman-husband---he is a hero in his own mind, but an awful hypocrite viewed from the other end of the telescope--an end that JA held up for the reader, just as much as she held up the normal end.

As with the discussion of perspectives at Beechen Cliff, JA was creating a panorama of English life, with these two contradictory portraits layered on top of one another.

It is interesting that Sir Thomas Bertram's being just like so many other fathers of Jane Austen's time is presented as evidence that JA took a positive attitude toward the status quo of her time. It won't be long before I publicly make my argument at the JASNA AGM that will prove that JA took a VERY negative attitude toward that sexist status quo. It turns out that the novel which most perfectly and simply exemplifies my claims is Northanger Abbey, and the marriage of General Tilney and Mrs. Tilney is the epicenter. Hiding in plain sight. A massive amount of powerful, convergent evidence. I believe it will change the way many Janeites see this question we are debating.

JA was a romantic AND a pragmatist, but above all a quiet rebel who, like Fanny Price, acted (by apparent nonaction), to bring about the "reformation" of Mansfield Park (England) from the inside, invisibly--the only way it could be done without the reformer being smashed to bits by a vicious reactionary suppression. If you can't beat 'em, then (appear to) join 'em, even as you're laughing at, and, slowly but surely, undermining their unjust and immoral power.

JA was 100% of her era--she was a little bit Mary Wollstonecraft, a little bit Mary Hays, a little bit Godwin, a little bit Charlotte Smith, a little bit Radcliffe, a little bit Granville Sharp, a little bit Clarkson---these are not the names of 21st century feminists, these were all major figures of whom JA was WELL aware as she was growing up---but she, being a genius, figured out how to WRITE a better "mousetrap"--in the Hamletian sense---than any of them--and ultimately, over the course of centuries, she has played her important role in helping to change the world, quietly but very effectively. She did not live to see the effects of her work, but I am confident she'd be very pleased if she could.

There are obviously radically different views of JA in this group. Those are mine, those who disagree with me are entitled to yours. It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out over the coming years.

Cheers, ARNIE

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