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

Friday, July 8, 2011

AC Bradley disagrees with Jill Heydt Stevenson (and me) about the humorousness of Mansfield Park

As a followup to my last message in which I claimed that Jane Austen's two eldest Godmersham nieces were often convulsed with laughter while JA read aloud to them from Mansfield Park, it occurred to me to check to see if anyone else had ever connected Mansfield Park to JA's niece's recollections, and that led me right to two scholarly discussions.

First, the following discussion in A.C. Bradley's 1911 essay (written exactly one century prior to today, and nearly exactly one century _after_ JA wrote MP!) in Essays and Studies Volume 2, entitled "Jane Austen":

"...though, like all the novels, it is excellently written, MP is not written with the animation and sparkle of P& regards the tone and matter themselves, we may perhaps say of MP the very opposite of what JA said of the earlier work: 'it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense.' Secondly, MP allows less scope to JA's humour than most, perhaps than any, of her other novels."

Bradley then quotes Marianne Knight's recollection about hearing her Aunt Jane "burst out laughing", and then continues:

"I doubt if this happened very frequently during the composition of MP. There is often ironic humour in the presentment of the story and in the exhibition of Edmund's feelings. Both the Crawfords have themselves a pleasant vein of humour. We smile at Dr. Grant, at Mrs. Rushworth and her son; broadly at Mr. Yates, with wry faces at Mrs. Norris. But we 'burst out laughing' only when we meet Lady Bertram. This again may be inevitable, and, because in keeping, may even be alleged as a merit; but is it not difficult to describe as JA's "best novel" one in which, for however good a reason, JA's humour fails to have full play?"

I have two comments about Bradley's comments:

1. He fails to take into account the chronology I outlined, and Marianne Knight's specific reference to JA reading aloud from her _current_ novel in progress. He is so clear in his own mind that MP could not arouse peals of laughter that he glides right past compelling evidence, right under his nose, for exactly that---an excellent example of the power of an assumption to shape perception.

2. Bradley reveals more about his own psyche as a late-Victorian man than about MP's actual humor quotient, when he identifies Lady Bertram as the one truly LOL character in MP. I find the character of Sir Thomas to be the most laughable in MP--in a negative, Molierian sense, the sense in which one may laugh_ at_ a hypocrite who believes his own b.s.---but Bradley does not even mention Sir Thomas in his essay, and I'd bet that Bradley did not see Sir Thomas in a negative light at all. And the humor I see in Lady Bertram in the novel is in her _intentionally_ playing the role of the indolent wife to a unique perfection, so as to remain safely off her husband's intrusive radar screen. I am laughing _with_ Lady Bertram, not at her.

In stark contrast to Bradley, Jill Heydt Stevenson (who, I am willing to bet, read the above portion of Bradley's essay, and had it in mind when she wrote her chapter on MP) picks up on the same recollections by Marianne Knight, and does not hesitate to strongly connect the laughter to the writing, and reading aloud, of MP, at Godmersham (at p. 137).

[And, I add, since I read JHS's book a few years ago, I realize now that I surely retained in my own memory a seed of this same idea garnered from JHS]

JHS begins her chapter on MP with "Austen found the process of writing MP immensely funny", then quotes that same passage as Bradley quoted, and then goes on:

"Neglecting her 'work', Austen runs off to write down her laughter, laughter that became MP. What was she laughing at? Of all the novels, this seems like the least funny and the most morally earnest work, a text in which self discipline, restraint, and self denial triumph. It seems likely to me that she was laughing at the novel's comic treatment of courtship and erotic material, something an emphasis on its apparent morality and endorsement of sacrifice has obscured. Nobody could argue that much of MP's content is indisputably risque..."

JHS then lists a catalogue of such risque content, segueing soon after into an extended discussion of Mary Crawford's "rears and vices" pun, etc.

I agree entirely with JHS's guess as to what JA found so funny, and I only sharpen it by emphasizing that this laughter is mostly "gallows humor" on JA's part, it is the humor of all the women of JA's era whose bodies constituted the "plantation" over which their husbands and lovers exerted hegemony. However, MP embodies the one weapon of the victim that cannot be confiscated----a satirical sense of humor to laugh _at_ the "lord and master", by depicting him in his full ridiculousness. I imagine JA laughed and laughed hard, but, as with the dark humor of her letters, it is not a light hearted laughter, it has a very sharp edge.

Cheers, ARNIE


mockingbird said...

The only problem with taking a break from doing your own beloved research, and reading someone else's, is it inspires you to revisit old haunts and delve deep anew. Why aren't there more hours in the day.....

Arnie Perlstein said...

But at least we never know the pain of boredom! ;)

mockingbird said...

Ne'er was truer word spoken....