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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Barbara Karolina Seeber's article "Nature, Animals, and Gender in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park & Emma"

After rereading (yesterday) Barbara Karolina Seeber's pioneering analysis of the relationship between Sir Thomas and Fanny in her 2000 book _General Consent in JA: A Study in Dialogism_, I became curious to know what else Seeber might have written about JA, and I quickly found another article which is very similar in its intelligent use of textual examples to illustrate her arguments:

"Nature, Animals, and Gender in JA's MP and Emma" in Literature, Interpretation, Theory, 13, 269-285 (2002).

Here is an abbreviated version of Seeber's introductory paragraph:

"The late 18th and early 19th century saw an increase in moral concern for animals and advocacy of vegetarianism. This history...is intertwined with the radical politics of the period. The debate over 'rights'...explored connections among gender, class, race, and species...[Various contemporary books] all argue for vegetarianism. In the light of these texts and ecofeminist theories, representations of nature and animals in JA's MP (1814) and Emma (1816) invite investigation...MP draws structural parallels between patriarchy, imperialism, and the domination of nature: tree-cutting, hunting, and the domesticating and eating of animals. In Emma, food consumption demarcates class and gender lines."

In case any of you are worried about the "jargon" factor--and I am always jargon-averse---less than 10% of the article is theoretical, it consists almost entirely of textual examples and clearly argued analysis of same. And in several instances Seeber specifically (and to my mind persuasively) rebuts Maggie Lane's rose-colored interpretations of food in Austen novels.

My personal favorite from among Seeber's examples is the following:

"Jane Fairfax 'had yet her bread to earn' (165). Comparing the governess trade to the 'sale [...] of human flesh' (300), she demonstrates an astute awareness of the political ramifications of food. Throughout, her consumption of food is minimal: she 'really eats nothing.' (237). Emma is 'tire[d]" of listening to Miss Bates's description of 'exactly how little bread and butter [...] [Jane] ate for breakfast, and how small a slice of mutton for dinner' (168). While Emma is the 'complete picture of grown-up health' (39), Jane's poor health, like Fanny Price's, reflects her marginal social position....."

I love the subtle echo of "bread to earn" in "how little bread and butter", which is classic Austen subliminal textual connectivity. I had noticed that latter quoted passage before, in terms of Jane's not getting enough to eat, but I had not taken full note of Emma's incredibly clueless disregard for Jane's health. Here is the fuller excerpt:

"Jane had spent an evening at Hartfield with her grandmother and aunt, and every thing was relapsing much into its usual state. Former provocations reappeared. The aunt was as tiresome as ever; more tiresome, because anxiety for her health was now added to admiration of her powers; and they had to listen to the description of exactly how little bread and butter she ate for breakfast, and how small a slice of mutton for dinner...."

Emma experiences Miss Bates's anxiety for Jane's health as a "provocation", because, I would suggest, Emma is _not_ entirely callous and lacking in empathy, as might at first be inferred from the above passage. Rather, JA masterfully shows us that on a subconscious level, Emma _does_ have a conscience and _does_ hear what Miss Bates is saying--and Emma s genuinely upset by it. But Emma tries to stuff down this very uncomfortable and destabilizing empathy, and instead her mind turns right back to Emma's multiple jealousies of Jane's accomplishments, and Jane's frustrating unwillingness to satisfy Emma's intrusive nosiness.

In any event, I strongly recommend Seeber's article, it is filled with similar insights and fresh perspectives on JA.

Cheers, ARNIE

[Amended to add the following exchange between me and Diane Reynolds]

"Thanks for the heads up on the Seeber article. I will take a look at that."

You are welcome, Diane, I am sure you will find it as interesting and enlightening as I did.

"To switch gears, I have been thinking about your comments about Sir Thomas and Fanny. I have long found Sir Thomas a mystery, largely because the terror and dread Fanny and the Bertram children seem to experience toward Sir Thomas is not born out by action by him that we see in the text. "

Read the chapter in Seeber's book about this very subject, and then add my gloss from yesterday vis a vis that specific line in MP that I focused on yesterday, and you will have a very good start, but of course, go ahead and reread the rest of the novel in that light as well!

We have the same sort of question here in MP as in Hamlet--the _degree_ of the emotion of the character (Fanny in MP, Hamlet in Hamlet) seems extreme and out of proportion in response to the (apparent) cause----Eliot's famous "objective correlative".

Are we dealing with an oversensitive character, or a normal character responding to an extreme cause? _That_ is the question (or, at least, one of the important questions) in _both_ of those great works of literature. Speaking of "terror" and "horror", words which describe Fanny's feelings at several points in MP, think about Hamlet and his hair standing on end!

And there's another character in MP whose emotion seems extreme and out of proportion in response to the (apparent) cause--Sir Thomas himself, in his book-burning, razed-earth response to the production of Lovers Vows---are we dealing with an overreactive character, a character with a strong moral aversion to licentious drama.....or a character feeling guilty about wrongs _he_ has committed previously?

Ay, there's the rub--a connection between Hamlet and Mansfield Park which I have previously written about:

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/02/sir-thomas-as-ghost-of-king-hamlet-and.html

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