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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

“What a difference a vowel makes!”: The revolutionary French Gothic terror of Mansfield Park

Last week, Diana Birchall had an excellent flash of insight regarding the scene in MP when Fanny is disappointed that the Sotherton chapel did not feel more “awful” to her, suggesting that Fanny was having a Catherine Morland moment, expecting the "awful" - meaning the Gothic. I heartily endorsed Diana’s suggestion then, and today I found an even more striking parallel between the Gothic expectations of Fanny and those of Catherine. And, it turns out, that parallel is the key which unlocks the creaking door to an entire unsuspected dark room drenched with covert Continental Gothicism in MP.

And I know my posts often run long, but those who do not read through to the end of this one will miss the MOST horrid part of all! ;)

First, look at the following two Gothic-tinged passages in tandem, and it will be obvious that JA had one in mind when she wrote the other:

MP, Ch. 30:
Nearly half an hour had passed, and [Fanny] was growing very comfortable, when suddenly the sound of A STEP in regular APPROACH was HEARD; a heavy step, an unusual step in that part of the house: it was her uncle’s; she knew it as well as his voice; she had TREMBLED at it as often, and began to TREMBLE again, at the idea of his coming up to speak to her, whatever might be the subject. It was indeed Sir Thomas who OPENED THE DOOR and asked if she were there, and if he might come in. THE TERROR of his former occasional visits to that room seemed all renewed, and she felt as if he were going to examine her again in FRENCH and English.

NA, Ch. 28:
At that moment Catherine thought she heard [Eleanor’s] STEP in the gallery, and listened for its continuance; but all was silent. Scarcely, however, had she convicted her fancy of error, when the noise of something moving close to her DOOR made her start; it seemed as if someone was touching the very doorway — and in another moment a slight motion of the lock proved that some hand must be on it. She TREMBLED a little at the idea of anyone’s APPROACHING so cautiously; but resolving not to be again overcome by trivial appearances of alarm, or misled by a raised imagination, she stepped quietly forward, and OPENED THE DOOR. Eleanor, and only Eleanor, stood there.

At my talk in Portland exactly one month from today, I will be speaking about JA’s covert Gothic of the ordinary English paterfamilias--- General Tilney and Sir Thomas being JA’s most vivid examples of these “ordinary” English fathers and husbands who inspire “terror” in members of their family. In other words, I will be showing that JA was covertly telling her readers that the Gothic horrors of Radcliffe et al were not silly at all, but rather were sophisticated coded representations of the mundane horrors of everyday English family life—the quite tyranny of the English father and husband-- horrors which nobody spoke openly about, but which every English wife and daughter was painfully aware of, but had to keep silent about.

And it’s no accident, therefore, that MP and NA are far and away the two Austen novels which have the heaviest aura of Frenchness hovering over them. Not because, as many Janeites have blithely assumed, JA was some sort of jingoistic English xenophobe, but because JA (emulating Radcliffe) used the everyday English bigotry against the French, a bigotry she mocked in the character of John Thorpe, as a mask for her own covert but vehement critique of not so jolly olde ENGLAND itself.
In NA, the Frenchness is there on the surface. Many of the Gothic novels Catherine reads take place in dark corners of France, Switzerland or neighboring Germany and Italy. John Thorpe makes a snide xenophobic joke about Fanny Burney D’Arblay and her émigré French husband. General Tilney burns the midnight oil writing pamphlets warning of the dangers posed by the English dupes of the evil and fearsome French Jacobins.

But in MP the Frenchness is both more sly and also more extensive, and most of it, curiously, is focused on Mary Crawford.

In 1979, Warren Roberts was probably not the first to note that Mary was in no small part a representation of JA’s cousin Eliza. But Emily Auerbach was the first, writing in 2004, to provide an excellent analysis of many of the French connections to Mary Crawford, at p. 181 et seq of Searching for Jane Austen:

“Some of Mary Crawford’s remarks also sound like those attributed to Austen’s flamboyant, Frenchified cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, who used private theatricals to flirt with Austen’s brothers and remarked, ‘I always find that the most effectual mode of getting rid of temptation is to give way to it.’ Austen has MC drop into conversation phrases such as menus plaisir, esprit de corps, adieu, bon vivant, and lines passionees. In contrast, the plain speaking very English Edmund insists that he cannot produce a bon mot, rejecting the sparkling but empty repartee of Parisian wits. Yet Austen herself dots her fiction and her letters with French phrases…At the same time, Austen links the witty MC to the decadence and selfishness of French culture by having Mary compare herself to the narcissistic Doge in the court of Louis XIV. In addition, Mary’s insistence that her brother’s adulterous relationship with Maria is just a moment’s etouderie suggests a thoughtlessness consistent with this character who is ‘careless as a woman and a friend.’.. …Like the apocryphal story of Marie Antoinette suggesting that the poor eat cake, MC has no compunction against demanding a cart for transporting her harp even if farmers need it for the harvest..”

Auerbach does a great job here, but she does not suspect that there is even more of an agenda behind all of this textual winking at Mary’s Frenchness, than the depiction of Mary’s corrupted Frenchified character.

First, to Auerbach’s examples, I add several more subliminal suggestions of Frenchness that JA scattered in MP.

In the earliest chapters of MP, we hear that Maria and Julia “could not but hold [Fanny] cheap on finding that she had but two sashes, and had NEVER LEARNED FRENCH” but that “Miss Lee [then] taught [Fanny] FRENCH…”

Then the Crawfords show up at MP, and Mary says to Fanny: “If you can persuade Henry to marry, you must have THE ADDRESS OF A FRENCHWOMAN. All that English abilities can do has been tried already.”

And while waiting for Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua, we hear JA’s sense of the absurd at its most piquant, which would have warmed the shivering heart of Mr. Woodhouse, when the narrator tells us “Still Mrs Norris was at intervals urging something different; and in the most interesting moment of his passage to England, WHEN THE ALARM OF A FRENCH PRIVATEER was at its height, she burst through his recital with the proposal of soup.”

Then in Chapter 22, in that same Parsonage scene I’ve been writing so much about of late, where, as Auerbach noted, Mary likens herself to the Doge of Genoa at Versailles, we also have Mrs. Grant’s “tambour frame”, which, as I suggested previously, points to the epitome of Frenchness, Mme de Pompadour, mistress of the French King.

But my personal favorites are two allusions in MP to the era of the Bastille and the guillotine, hiding in very plain sight in the text----first in that same mock-Gothic scene I quoted, above, when Fanny trembles as she hears Sir Thomas’s heavy tread—I can almost hear him quietly muttering “Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an English GIRL!”—when we hear Fanny’s fearful thoughts:

“….THE TERROR of his former occasional visits to that room seemed all renewed, and she felt as if he were going to EXAMINE HER AGAIN IN FRENCH and English.”

“The terror”sounds like a joking reference only, but this is actually a very deliberate, and totally serious, allusion to the guillotinings of The Terror. Think about what Fanny is feeling at that moment—she sees Sir Thomas as the jailer sent to retrieve Fanny from her “prison cell”, and lead her out to what feels like an execution to Fanny—awaiting her, she fears, is Henry Crawford, the executioner who has pledged to make a ‘hole’ in her ‘heart’, which, as JHS so rightly suggested, is thinly disguised code for a very different sort of “beheading”, i.e., a defloration---truly a Gothic horror for Fanny, her worst nightmare!

And that is not all---here is an allusion that is even more audaciously paraded by JA, describing Fanny’s reactions to Mary Crawford’s letters from London to Fanny in Portsmouth:

“…Mary’s next letter was after a decidedly longer interval than the last, but [Fanny] was not right in supposing that such an interval would be felt a great relief to herself. Here was another STRANGE REVOLUTION OF MIND! She was really glad to receive the letter when it did come. IN HER PRESENT EXILE from good society, and distance from everything that had been wont to interest her, a letter from one belonging to the set where her heart lived, written with affection, and some degree of elegance, was thoroughly acceptable.”

So what’s being pointed to by JA in MP by all of this is nothing less than the French Revolution itself, with both its terrors of savage destructive passions unleashed, like slaves in uprising burning down a plantation, but also with the ideals of equality which inspired the revolution in the first place—and all of it with JA’s usual special attention to the horrors inflicted on women in her world.

That would be enough….but I have one last goodie to lay on you, which gives all of this French subtext in MP a roman a clef aspect as well. If I may channel Mary Crawford for a moment, this is, I claim, the crème de la crème of the French subtext of MP.

In April 1811, JA met a genuine historically important personage, the Count d’Antraigues [JA characteristically misspelled his name “d’Entraigues” in her letters describing that encounter], the day after a London musical soiree to which the Count and his wife were invited, but were unable to attend. A musical soiree which DID include a HARPIST, in case you were wondering--JA goes on at length about the harpist in her letter describing that evening. A soiree thrown by---who else??--brother Henry and cousin Eliza! Did JA, perhaps attending her first high society soiree in the Vortex of Dissipation, by any chance wear the topaz chain given to her by her sailor brother, but with a chain provided by Eliza? The mind reels at the very real possibility that this DID occur…..

Anyway, back to the Count d’Antraigues--he was a bona fide international man of mystery long before Austin Powers, a man who—and I think JA was well aware of it ---moved in the highest levels of international spying, and he was murdered under very suspicious circumstances in London in 1812. JA finished writing Mansfield Park in 1813. Hmm…..

And now perhaps some of you with a good memory have guessed where I’m going with this, based on ANOTHER post I wrote two weeks ago, about the suspicious circumstances of the one death reported at the END of MP. Having no idea of any connection of D’Antraigues to MP before today, I suggested, as you will recall for entirely different reasons, that Mary Crawford and Mrs. Grant may well have poisoned DR. GRANT at his final dinner!

Yes, I am suggesting that the "bon vivant" Dr. Grant and the "man of great information & taste" [as per JA in her letter] Count d’Antraigues were united in JA’s mind, a union she memorialized by means of some very creative wordplay, in that the name “Grant” is entirely “disguised” within the name “d’ANTRaiGues”!

And, as always, there is ANOTHER wordplay hint, another wink of JA’s eye, to let the reader who has gotten this far that this is not a figment of imagination. When Mary Crawford says about Mr. Yates, who plays yet ANOTHER EUROPEAN NOBLEMAN, Baron Waldenheim, in Lover’s Vows: ‘What a difference a vowel makes!”, what does this mean?
In the overt context of the novel, Mary is punning on the alteration of the word “rAnts’ to “rEnts”—and, by the way, making another cynical point about mercenary greed in English life-- but I suggest that the vowel change JA is referring to is not only like the spelling mistake—or was it an intentional change?—of the “A” to “E” in the Count’s name as spelled in her letters, but ALSO is referring to the two “A’s” in “d’AntrAigues”. I.e., if the first “A” is changed to “I” and the second “a” is deleted as superfluous, that gives us the very interestingly altered surname “d’Intrigues”—and everything the world knew then, and knows even more today, about the Count’s life, is that “intrigue” was, as the saying goes, his MIDDLE name, as well as, it turns out, his surname! ;)

And if you think I am suggesting some connections between these various intrigues swirling around in JA’s real life, to those swirling around in MP, then I plead guilty as charged of suspecting JA of fowl play (or at least some monkey business) in the following paragraph, a final salute to the recently (and permanently) exiled and departed Count, in the guise of describing Maria’s elopement with Henry:

“All that followed was the result of [Maria’s] imprudence; and he went off with her at last, because he could not help it, regretting Fanny even at the moment, but regretting her infinitely more when all the bustle of THE INTRIGUE was over…”

Cheers, ARNIE

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