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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jane Austen had Strauss-Kahn’s Number 200 Years Ago

In hindsight, I am disappointed in myself that it took me over two months to realize that there are numerous disturbing parallels between the real-life Strauss-Kahn rape allegations in NYC and also in France, and the strong hints (in the subtext of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, Mansfield Park) that Sir Thomas Bertram has sexually abused his powerless little niece Fanny Price during her childhood.

In both instances, we have a very powerful man-- a “Master of the Universe” in Tom Wolfe’s terms---who clearly feels he has the “droit du seigneur”, the privilege of free access to the bodies of powerless women in his vicinity—a vicious, appalling combination of unfettered narcissism and primitive misogyny, which bursts out with impunity when opportunity arises.

But there are more specific, coincidental parallels which make the linkage almost uncanny (although even I, in singing Jane Austen’s praises, do not claim she had precognition in addition to literary genius!):

Strauss-Kahn is of course French, and so there is an eerie resonance of his nationality to the following line from Mansfield Park, in which the narration describes Fanny Price’s feelings as she hears the heavy footstep of her uncle approaching the door to her refuge, the East Room:

“The terror of his former occasional visits to that room seemed all renewed, and she felt as if he were going to examine her again IN FRENCH and English. “

In the normative reading of this passage, Fanny, who is then 18, is having a flashback to her earlier teen years, when Sir Thomas would visit her room and quiz her on her knowledge of French language, which she was being taught by the family governess, Miss Lee. And she is also trembling with fear that Sir Thomas will summon her to face Henry Crawford, at which point she will have to endure the necessity of turning down his marriage proposal, even though strong punishment will likely rain down on her head as a result.

But when you look at this line of narration from slightly off-center, you realize with a sickening jolt that there is a horrible alternative interpretation, in which the “examination” is physical, not academic, and in which “in French” refers not to the French tongue as a language (the French word for language being the same as the French word for a person’s actual tongue) but to an actual tongue---more horribly still, Sir Thomas’s tongue---and you realize further that in 1814, and still even today, the sexual slang meaning, for Brits, of anything sexual that is “in French” is unmistakable—e.g., “the French way”.

Jane Austen was an inveterate punster, as I have demonstrated a thousand times in this blog, and almost always her puns are NOT gratuitous or merely salacious, but conceal substantive moral content. I am inclined to think this pun among her very best, in the savage anger concealed in her wit in this instance. The phrase “in French and English” carries with it the idea that Sir Thomas’s abuse of Fanny will not cease with one form of physical violation, but will also include an additional one for good measure.

No wonder that Patricia Rozema, in her 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, and Barbara Karolina Seeber, in her 2000 book, have depicted Sir Thomas Bertram as a depraved sexually abusive monster!

And the uncanniness of the parallel to Strauss-Kahn’s case goes even further. His accuser, an African immigrant working in the US, is a maid in a luxury hotel, a modern version of the servants in Jane Austen’s era. Like some of those servants, she is black, which of course also corresponds to the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park, in which Sir Thomas ogles Fanny upon his return from an extended trip to his slave plantation in Antigua. That is why Rozema’s Tom Bertram has been driven to alcoholism and dissolution by the trauma of having witnessed his father’s raping African slaves.

And finally, and perhaps most disgusting, we have the predictable massive attack—even from Strauss-Kahn’s own wife, who must know what sort of man he is--on the character and credibility of the victim, Strauss-Kahn’s accuser. We can only imagine the even more vicious and perhaps even violent consequences which would have fallen on Fanny Price’s head had she dared to break the silence and expose Sir Thomas’s sexual abuses of her to the rest of the Bertram family.

Jane Austen knew what that reaction would be too, and she shows it to us in the following scene:

[Cousin Edmund Bertram speaking to Fanny Price] “… (smiling). "Do you want to be told that you are only unlike other people in being more wise and discreet? But when did you, or anybody, ever get a compliment from me, Fanny? Go to my father if you want to be complimented. He will satisfy you. Ask your uncle what he thinks, and you will hear compliments enough: and though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time."

Such language was so new to Fanny that it quite embarrassed her.

"Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle's admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman."

"Oh! don't talk so, don't talk so," cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of; but seeing that she was distressed, he had done with the subject….” END OF QUOTED EXCERPT

Let’s take a quick tally: “He will satisfy you….they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it…the long and the short of the matter…your figure---nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it…harden yourself…”

Is it any wonder that Fanny is “quite embarrassed” and was “distressed by more feelings than he was aware of”? This scene is one of many which long ago soured me on Edmund Bertram, who, despite his good intentions, always wusses out in the moment of truth—and this is the ultimate moment of truth, when Fanny is most in need of his protection, and he—the definitive representation of the Anglican clergy in Jane Austen’s novels-- just goes AWOL, morally speaking.

So, as I said, Jane Austen had Strauss-Kahn’s number 200 years ago, because this is the oldest story in the world, going back to the Stone Age—where it ought to have been left!---the sexual abuse of powerless women by powerful men. Somewhere Jane Austen is watching Strauss-Kahn’s case, and is hoping that times have changed just enough so that at least one Master of the Universe will be properly punished, and the silence of the Bertrams will no longer be perpetuated.

Cheers, ARNIE

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