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

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Sapient Fruit Mary Crawford offers to Fanny.....about the Man of the Field and his brother

Two questions occurred to me late yesterday as I watched tennis on TV, perhaps triggered by my skimming of the last few days of messages in the group about morality in MP, and also from my own thoughts and research:

First...there is wide consensus among many Janeites that one of the most thrilling scenes in all of Austen's novels is in Chapter 32 when Fanny refuses to bow to Sir Thomas' pressure to marry Henry Crawford. My first question is hypothetical--if Henry did _not_ have a sister, and he alone had come to the Parsonage, and Fanny had not had the relationship she had with Mary, would Fanny have found the wherewithal--the spine, if you will--to refuse Sir Thomas?

I believe Fanny would _not_ have, and that without the frequent example of Mary's subversive assertiveness over a period of time, Fanny would have allowed herself to be browbeaten by Sir Thomas into accepting Henry. I claim that Mary taught Fanny the one thing Edmund never taught her--to stand up for herself!

But there is a second question lurking behind the first one--apropos Fanny's feelings...and that second question is--if Henry did not have a sister, etc etc., would Fanny have been aware enough of her love for Edmund to cling to be inspired by it to refuse Sir Thomas?

And, similarly, I believe that Fanny would not been so certain of her feelings for Edmund if she had not had them persistently poked and irritated by Mary's slithering seductively and gracefully around Edmund.

So I claim that Fanny's refusal of Henry Crawford is based on _both_ of these knowings....

My thinking along these lines quickly brought to mind the extensive and complex allusion to Genesis Chapters 2&3 (the Garden of Eden & its aftermath) and Milton's Paradise Lost that JA spread all across Mansfield Park, and I thought in particular of Mary as the serpent who induces Fanny (Eve) to take a bite of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. In this instance, the "fruit" offered by Mary to Fanny has two separate "halves"--one is that Fanny has the human being's inalienable right to decide whom he or she loves, and the other is that Fanny actually loves Edmund.

So in sum, it is my opinion that Fanny _was_ "taught" by Mary to realize that she loved Edmund, and also that she had the right to wait for him, forever if she so chose. And I also believe that JA _did_ intend to raise these two connected questions I've asked, and to drive the reader back into the text of the novel for answers.

Following that line of thought further, I also noticed for the first time the marvelously subtle pun behind the following casually caustic comment by Dr. Grant, which embodies all of the above in a highly pregnant symbol:

"...It is an _insipid_ fruit at the best; but a good apricot is eatable, which none from my garden are."

As far as I can discern from online etymological dictionaries, the words "insipid" and "sapient" _both_ come from the Latin word for "taste", and in that sense are antonyms--an insipid person is, roughly, the opposite of a sapient person. Of course, as Dr. Grant uses the word, he means to refer to taste itself, and not to knowledge, but I am strongly of the opinion that JA very carefully chose that adjective for the one practicing clergyman in the novel to use in delivering this inadvertent one-line theological "sermon" about "fruit" from the "garden"!

And finally, isn't Cain (like Esau later in Genesis) a "man of the field"? I suggest that Henry Crawford _is_ that "man of the field", i.e., a hunter who comes to "Man's field", seeking his prey! In that regard, consider the following excerpts from MP:

Ch. 24: "Henry Crawford had quite made up his mind by the next morning to give another fortnight to Mansfield, and having sent for his _hunters_..."

Ch. 25: "They had been _hunting_ together, and were in the midst of a good run, and at some distance from Mansfield, when his horse being found to have flung a shoe, Henry Crawford had been obliged to give up, and make the best of his way back. “I told you I lost my way after passing that old farmhouse with the yew–trees, because I can never bear to ask; but I have not told you that, with my usual luck—for I never do wrong without gaining by it—I found myself in due time in the very place which I had a curiosity to see. I was suddenly, upon turning the corner of _a steepish downy field_, in the midst of a retired little village between gently rising hills; a small stream before me to be forded, a church standing on a sort of knoll to my right— which church was strikingly large and handsome for the place, and not a gentleman or half a gentleman’s house to be seen excepting one—to be presumed the Parsonage— within a stone’s throw of the said knoll and church. I found myself, in short, in Thornton Lacey.”

The Freudian symbolism of Thornton Lacey, where Henry plans to make Fanny his blushing bride, is, to me, quite apparent.

Ch. 34: "Here Fanny, who could not but listen, involuntarily shook her head, and Crawford was instantly by her side again, entreating to know her meaning; and as Edmund perceived, by his drawing in a chair, and sitting down close by her, that it was to be a very thorough attack, that looks and undertones were to be well tried, he sank as quietly as possible into a corner, turned his back, and took up a newspaper, very sincerely wishing that dear little Fanny might be persuaded into explaining away that shake of the head to the satisfaction of her ardent lover; and as earnestly trying to bury every sound of the business from himself in murmurs of his own, over the various advertisements of “A most desirable Estate in South Wales”; “To Parents and Guardians”; and a “Capital season’d Hunter.” Fanny, meanwhile, vexed with herself for not having been as motionless as she was speechless, and grieved to the heart to see Edmund’s arrangements, was trying by everything in the power of her modest, gentle nature, to repulse Mr. Crawford, and avoid both his looks and inquiries; and he, unrepulsable, was persisting in both."

And there we see Edmund, who of course, is Abel, as he characteristically stands passively by, allowing, even encouraging his "brother" free rein to hunt.

But luckily for Edmund, he is a child of good fortune, and he turns out to be more Adam than Abel, as he does not die in a duel with Henry, but instead finds happiness (however insipid it might turn out to be) in the garden with his little Eve, after the serpents have been banished therefrom to crawl about elsewhere.

Cheers, ARNIE


RosieP said...

The Crawfords are "serpents"? Interesting. There are other cultures that do not regard serpents or snakes as automatically evil. In fact, I do not regard the Crawfords in the same manner.

But why is Western culture the only one that seem to regard snakes as "evil"?

Arnie Perlstein said...

Interesting comment, Rosie! I am certainly no expert on cross cultural symbols of evil, but I can say with confidence that, as I read Genesis, Milton and Jane Austen, the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and in Mansfield Park, is NOT pure evil. The serpent is also the bringer of knowledge, i.e., the serpent brings good AND evil.

Thanks for your comment!