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

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mansfield Park: Jane Austen's Problem Novel

It has become a cliche of Austen scholarship to refer to Mansfield Park in particular as Jane Austen's "problem novel", echoing the term "problem play" which first entered scholarly discourse in the 1890's, and which has in modern times been used a thousand times to refer to the Shakespearean comedies (as categorized in the 1623 First Folio) which do not fit comfortably within the definition of comedy---Measure for Measure (MFM), All's Well That Ends Well (AWTEW), and Troilus and Cressida (T&C).

Curiously, all three of those plays are seen as having been written after all the other Shakespearean comedies and more or less around the same time as Hamlet, which to many is the ultimate "problem play". And I suspect that the roots of the modern colloquial meaning of a "problem" as a bad thing to be fixed in some way arose out of a mathematical analogy, in the sense of something which is puzzling or mysterious in some way which must be "solved" in order to understand its meaning.

Anyway, back to Mansfield Park as JA's problem novel, a small handful of Austen scholars, such as Sarah Emsley and Marcia Folsom, have noted certain parallels between the very unsatisfying ending of Mansfield Park, which is about as unromantic as you can get, and the equally unsatisfying endings of MFM (with the famous out-of-nowhere "proposal" by the Duke to Isabella which has generated a dozen different stage interpretations of how to present Isabella's silent response) and AWTEW (which of course has a "hero" named Bertram who bears in various ways a disturbing resemblance to Edmund Bertram).

What I wish to add to the mix is merely to pull that scholarship together, and now add to it other additional layers I have been talking about in recent blog posts, such as the striking parallelism between MFM for Measure and Mansfield Park in alluding to Matthew 7's first verse about the karma of judgments and measures of justice, and Mary Crawford's "rears and vices" pun as an allusion to Cressida's "come into my chamber" unintentional pun, and other parallels, and to conclude from this what I think is obvious, which is that Jane Austen was very consciously pointing toward Shakespeare's problem plays when she was very consciously writing her own problem novel!

And to me the greatest significance of this insight is what it tells us about the allusive sources for the characters in Mansfield Park, including:

MFM's Machiavellian Duke Vincentio as a source for Sir Thomas Bertram;

MFM's Isabella, AWTEW's Helena and T&C's Cressida ALL as sources for Fanny Price;

T&C's Helen as a source for Mary Crawford;

Angelo and Bertram as sources for Edmund Bertram;

MFM's Lucio as a source for Henry Crawford;

among others.

And most of all, what is to many the most disturbing part of MFM and AWTEW, i.e., the so called "bed tricks" wherein the extremely flawed "heroes" are tricked into having sex with a different woman than they intend to, a trick which results in the "hero" being corralled into marriage most unwillingly! What in the world might this mean in the context of Mansfield Park? (or perhaps, JA's other novels as well?) I think, a great deal.

I claim that the reader who is sensitive to this matrix of Shakespearean allusion receives an enormous helping hand from JA in "solving" the "problem" that is Mansfield Park, these allusions are like "assumed postulates" in a logic problem, which assist the solver in his or her task.

Cheers, ARNIE


Anonymous said...

Let me add a comment about Shakespeare in MP in case it has not been noted by other readers. In the scene where Crawford and others are talking about Shakespeare, and alluding to the play Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey is mentioned two times. When you go to Wikipedia -- or maybe it should be Dickipedia in this instance -- you find that Wolsey in real life could be Exhibit 1 in Luther's case against the church. Wolsey, bishop of York and several other sees, not only never lived there, he dropped dead on the way back from his only visit to York. His concubines and illegitimate offspring were seemingly openly acknowledged. One of the reforms of Trent, implicitly validating Luther's protest, was to require bishops to actually reside among their flocks. This dovetails nicely with the conversation in MP about pastors living in their parish. Surprisingly, this policy for clergy is endorsed by Sir Thomas, who expects Edmund to live at Thornton-Lacey to better look after his parishioners.

Shakespeare doesn't mention him, but St Thomas More stands in vivid contrast to such as Wolsey. Both worked for Henry VIII. Guess which one was the man for all seasons.

Anonymous said...

In case it has not been noticed before, let us add this little datum to the case against Sir Thomas Bertram, plus a conjecture, also against him, regarding his project to get Fanny to accept Crawford.

1. End of Ch 19, Sir Thomas is called out of the room. The butler returns to the room shortly after and tells Fanny: “Sir Thomas wishes to speak with you, ma’am, in his own room.”

Fanny complies, with trepidation, and finds herself alone with Henry Crawford, renewing his suit. Sir Thomas has vanished.

Fanny has been warned by Sir Thomas to expect another interview with Crawford even though she has now firmly declined his proposal two times. But who would have guessed that Sir Thomas would stoop to such a cheap trick in arranging this interview. To recruit the butler in a stunt like this? To duck out of the room? Is this the conduct of a man of probity and honor? A gentleman? How can we think so?

Learning as I have to accept any praise of Sir Thomas by JA as contempt that only sounds like praise, that is, as rebuking irony, I am not surprised by his underhanded ruse here. It's just that I had not noticed it before, and in the plainest view, too. It is so cheap. So comically low.

2. I will conjecture that Sir Thomas further abuses the butler in this Crawford scheme shortly after as well. Crawford is talking with Fanny -- bullying her really -- about preaching. Fanny wants to be rescued from his bullying and notices that the tea things are delayed. Then finally comes the butler et al. in a "solemn procession" of urns and cakes and Crawford has to relent. I have to wonder whether Sir Thomas is acting behind the scenes here, working with Baddalee, to delay the tea procession to allow Crawford time to work his charms on Fanny.

Beginning of this same chapter tells us on Sir Thomas' return to Mansfield that he "confides" in the butler. Indeed. Poor Baddelee.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Anonymous (and I would love to know your name), the Henry VIII allusion in Mansfield Park was brilliantly identified and analyzed by Marcia Folsom in Volume 28 (2006) of the print Persuasions. But you've added a wonderful gloss on a side of the allusion that Marcia did not get to.

Nicely done!

Cheers, ARNIE

Arnie Perlstein said...

I don't know if the second Anonymous is the same person, but I suspect it might be, as the second comment is just as sharp as the first.

Yes, I was aware of Sir Thomas's cheap trick, he does a series of cheap and mean spirited tricks in a concerted campaign to force Fanny to accept Henry, and maybe the worst part is that sometimes Sir Thomas actually gets a kick out of it, we hear that he smiles or the like. There is a sadistic element, which would fit the character of a man who spent his entire adult life running a slave plantation in the West Indies.

Cheers, ARNIE

Anonymous said...

You have pointed out Sir Thomas' sadistic qualities. For better or for worse, he was the character who first sexualized Fanny. Fanny was the little sister/cousin/niece, completely asexual according to the people around her. No one noticed her. Sir Thomas, who, as you say, ran a plantation of slaves, probably looked upon his niece by marriage as someone on his plantation, someone he "owned" almost like livestock and was permitted by society to take certain liberties by marrying her off. He basically points out to the entire world how she has "filled out" (modern day "ick" word that all pre-teens girls today have to suffer with)It is Sir Thomas who decides that she may be "out" in society... ready to procreate. Strangely, the only other person to see Fanny as a sexual being is Fanny herself. Even at 10 years of age, she is in love with her cousin. Does anyone think that she does not already know that she wishes to marry him from the first time that she sees him?
Okay, now for my practical blue collar comments: Fanny is about surviving. She cannot give into her sexual feelings as her mother did. She is not rich like Mary or Maria and if she is seduced by Henry or the like, she will be cast out of society; she does not have an income to rely on. She is dead set on Edward's survival as well. In order for EDWARD to survive, he too, has to resist his sexual feelings. Fanny realizes that he does not have the fortune of son #1, that his personal happiness is wrapped up in being a minister, and that he cannot give in to Mary or he will become nothing but coxcumbe (?) married to a wealthy socialite.
Fanny's enemy/Sir Thomas is also her "friend," as gross as that is to her. He is the only one who sees her as marriageable; Henry catches on, but only in order to seduce, most likely, and to dump, Fanny.

When you first read Mansfield Park, and you are female, it is hard to take what appears to be an attitude against female sexuality. sexuality. Fanny is repressed and Mary appears to be a cliche seductress. Oh God, another "Eve" character to hit us over the head with. Yes, I see, we did cause the fall of Man, even Jane seems to think so. Later, I am thinking that Jane might be congratulating Fanny on how to survive sexual politcs so that she does not become the used and abused. Mary would liberalize things for us women; Fanny is more a realist and simply survives without "falling." Though Edward realizes Fanny to be necessary to his survival, I am not sure that he sees her EVEN right before marriage, to be a sexual being like Mary. Hence the non-romantic feel to the ending.

Arnie Perlstein said...

More wonderful comments, I agree in all respects. Why don't you identify yourself, Anonymous?

Cheers, ARNIE

Anonymous said...

Arnie, I wrote the items about Wolsey and Sir Thomas's cheap trick, but not the one about Fanny's sexuality which followed. This latter post I admire as you do, and only wish I had written it. Sorry. :)

I posted a few times last summer on my dawning perception that Sir Thomas is maybe not such a great guy. And I exchanged with you a few times about my jocose Top Ten Reasons Why Sir Thomas is Overrated.

I have left off JA for while and now returning to MP I find I can easily run up my complaints about this mam to 20 easily, and leave aside the fact that he is a slave master.

Your comments referencing St Thomas Aquinas caught my eye and just had to comment, but about Sir Thomas instead. :)

Are you meaning to suggest that JA read St Thomas Aquinas? It would be amazing if she did, from several points of view.

Best, Ed Boyle

Arnie Perlstein said...

Yes, Ed, of course I remember you and your sharing with me a profound mistrust of Sir Thomas (although I also remember that there was some question upon your departure from Janeites as to whether Ed Boyle is really your name, a controversy you could dispel by actually giving some independent evidence that you are who you say you are).

In any event, I surely will not disagree with your comments which coincide with mine on this subject.

Cheers, ARNIE

Arnie Perlstein said...

I've noticed a sudden uptick in hits on this particular post today, and I cannot discern what is causing it--if anyone else reads this post after following a link, would you please be so kind as to mention what that link was, exactly????

Many thanks, and looking forward to hearing more comments...

Cheers, ARNIE