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

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sir Thomas’s Desperate (and Despotic) “Panderous” Measures

Continuing my examination of the multiple allusions to Matthew Chapter 7 in Mansfield Park, in this message I will zero in on the first and very famous verse:

“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. “

I will lay out how the word “measure” is deployed with great subtlety by JA to carry a very specific message about the application of the above-quoted verse to the actions of Sir Thomas (and Henry) vis a vis Fanny (and Maria) in MP. Does JA depiction of the relations between male and female in her world agree, or disagree, with Jesus’s warning that (basically) what goes around comes around? Read on for my answer.

Sir Thomas spends a lot of time in the novel being judgmental of others, laying down lots of rules and restrictions on his children and niece, and in general being the ultimate wet blanket, which they all find oppressive in various ways. I have often commented on the profound hypocrisy of Sir Thomas, and will not repeat all the examples of same, but will focus primarily on his pandering campaign first to tempt, and then to coerce, Fanny to marry Henry Crawford, with a secondary parallel focus on Sir Thomas and Henry vis a vis Maria.

I see Sir Thomas pandering Fanny to Henry as JA’s intentional analogy to the way Pandarus panders _his_ niece Cressida to the very eligible and attractive royal bachelor Troilus in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (which is itself an adaptation of Chaucer’s original, which in turn obviously derives from ancient tales of what Mary Crawford--not coincidentally--refers to as “heathen heroes”). This fits with my earlier assertion that Mary Crawford’s infamous pun on “rears and vices” is actually a veiled allusion to a similar infamous pun in Shakespeare’s play:

Of course Pandarus’s pandering is about as subtle as a jackhammer, whereas JA’s razor sharp irony is at its very best in depicting Sir Thomas’s ponderous euphemistic rationalizations as he deludes himself in a dozen ways into deciding he is doing right by Fanny, even after she gives him her desperate refusal. Never does JA’s narrator come right out and say it, but it is implied in every possible masterful way available in JA’s authorial toolbox that Sir Thomas is a despot who runs roughshod over Fanny’s interests, while patting himself on the back every step of the way that he is taking care of her.

And, by the way, I claim there is also an intentional analogy between Sir Thomas’s measures taken to obtain husbands for his daughter and niece, respectively, and the way Duke Vincentio, for his own inscrutable Machiavellian purposes, subtly panders Isabella to Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and I therefore also claim it is no accident that the word “measure” is used repeatedly in MP in this very specific context, as a bland euphemism for the ugly behaviors deployed in the service of greed-based paterfamilial pandering:

Here are the relevant examples, with my comments interspersed:

Ch. 3: “The necessity of the _measure_ [to go to Antigua] in a pecuniary light, and the hope of its utility to his son, reconciled Sir Thomas to the effort of quitting the rest of his family, and of leaving his daughters to the direction of others at their present most interesting time of life.”

This is the first usage of the word “measure” in the sense of a scheme of action adopted by Sir Thomas with a particular goal in mind.

Ch. 16: “…Can you mention any other _measure_ by which I have a chance of doing equal good?"
And here is a usage by Edmund, ever his father’s son, engaged in his own form of self-deluding rationalization, as he decides to participate in Lover’s Vows despite Fanny’s desire that he not.

Ch. 28: “After a short consideration, Sir Thomas asked Crawford to join the early breakfast party in that house instead of eating alone: he should himself be of it; and the readiness with which his invitation was accepted convinced him that the suspicions whence, he must confess to himself, this very ball had in great _measure_ sprung, were well founded.”
And here it is revealed that his purpose in arranging the Mansfield ball was to pander Fanny to Henry.

Ch. 33: “In spite of his intended silence [about Henry having been rejected by Fanny], Sir Thomas found himself once more obliged to mention the subject to his niece, to prepare her briefly for its being imparted to her aunts; a _measure_ which he would still have avoided, if possible, but which became necessary from the totally opposite feelings of Mr Crawford as to any secrecy of proceeding.”

And here things turn even darker, as the “measure” which Sir Thomas rationalizes here is to give his active cooperation and blessing to Henry’s desire to let the whole house know that he wants to marry Fanny, so that the full force of communal pressure—from Edmund’s servile co-pandering (see the next example, below), to Mrs. Norris’s vicious glares, to Lady Bertram’s self-absorbed raptures--can be brought to bear on and to subtly torture poor Fanny.

Ch. 36: It had been, as he before presumed, too hasty a _measure_ on Crawford's side, and time must be given to make the idea first familiar, and then agreeable to her.

And there is that word again, as Edmund reflects on how to back up his father’s campaign. But then Fanny stands firm against this coordinated assault, and that leads Sir Thomas to more desperate (and despotic) measures—and that word is used twice more, as follows:

Ch. 37: “This scheme was that she should accompany her brother back to Portsmouth, and spend a little time with her own family. It had occurred to Sir Thomas, in one of his dignified musings, as a right and desirable _measure_; but before he absolutely made up his mind, he consulted his son….When he had really resolved on any _measure_, he could always carry it through; and now by dint of long talking on the subject, explaining and dwelling on the duty of Fanny's sometimes seeing her family, he did induce his wife to let her go; obtaining it rather from submission, however, than conviction, for Lady Bertram was convinced of very little more than that Sir Thomas thought Fanny ought to go, and therefore that she must.”

And all of the above is prelude to the spectacular finale of this subliminal playlet on the motif of “measure”, when the narrator, whose voice is coated so thickly with irony that it practically drags on the ground from the weight of it:

Ch 48 (the final chapter). “That punishment, the public punishment of disgrace, should in a _just measure_ attend his share of the offence is, we know, not one of the barriers which society gives to virtue. In this world the penalty is less equal than could be wished; but without presuming to look forward to a juster appointment hereafter, we may fairly consider a man of sense, like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret: vexation that must rise sometimes to self–reproach, and regret to wretchedness, in having so requited hospitality, so injured family peace, so forfeited his best, most estimable, and endeared acquaintance, and so lost the woman whom he had rationally as well as passionately loved.”

It requires some work to comprehend exactly what is being said here, but the bottom line is that men who participated in adultery were _not_ held accountable by social, legal, and cultural institutions.

Here is what Jennifer Kelsey, author of a very interesting book about the covert feminism of a great deal of 18th century women’s writing which I just discovered entitled _ A Voice of Discontent: A Woman’s Journey Through the Long Eighteenth Century_ (2009)—and which includes a fantastic chapter on the subject of fallen women and the way numerous women writers of the day, from Mary Hays to Mary Wollstonecraft, decried the double standard which this passage in MP addresses--- had to say after quoting the above passage from MP:

“In other words, in the world, at that time, one had to rely on man being punished by his conscience alone, and of course privately hoping that he would receive his just deserts in the after life!”

Indeed, then, JA’s narrator, in her incredibly elliptical way, was saying that the first verse of Matthew 7, the aura of which subliminally blankets that entire passage, was _not_ in force in JA’s England, at least when it came to the horrible mistreatment of women by men—both the fathers and the suitor--in regard to courtship, marriage, and sexuality!

But, was JA satisfied with this status quo? I say, “Absolutely not!”, not only based on the veiled allusion to Matthew 7, but also based on Mary Crawford’s prescient take on all of this, way back in Chapter 11. Mary, who as I have often written in this blog, despite her own real failings, nonetheless has the saving grace of repeatedly exposing the ugly truths that everyone else at Mansfield Park is at great pains to be silent about, and/or to rationalize, speaks the truth on behalf of her creator quite openly about self-interested hypocritical parental tyranny:

[Mary to Edmund] “Your father’s return will be a very interesting event.”

“It will, indeed, after such an absence; an absence not only long, but including so many dangers.”

“It will be the forerunner also of other interesting events: your sister’s marriage, and your taking orders.”


“Don’t be affronted,” said she, laughing, “but it does put me in mind of some of the old heathen heroes, who, after performing great exploits in a foreign land, offered sacrifices to the gods on their safe return.”

“There is no sacrifice in the case,” replied Edmund, with a serious smile, and glancing at the pianoforte again; “it is entirely her own doing.”

“Oh yes I know it is. I was merely joking. She has done no more than what every young woman would do; and I have no doubt of her being extremely happy. My other sacrifice, of course, you do not understand.”

“My taking orders, I assure you, is quite as voluntary as Maria’s marrying.”

“It is fortunate that your inclination and your father’s convenience should accord so well. There is a very good living kept for you, I understand, hereabouts.”

Amen, Mary. Mary sees through all the pretense, and tells it like it is, both as to Sir Thomas’s “sale” of Maria to the Rushworths, and also as to Edmund’s far more benign compliance with his father’s wishes. And I claim that this is the true unmasked opinion of Jane Austen about this awful iniquity, she was indeed a devout Christian who believed that what Jesus said in Matthew 7 was the way things _should_ be in this world, and not only in the next one.

Cheers, ARNIE

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