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

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Roman Emperors in Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre

The other day, I wrote about Mansfield Park’s veiled allusion to the storming of the Bastille... a followup to my expansion of Kathryn Sutherland’s 1992 article about Charlotte Bronte’s complex allusion to Mansfield Park in Jane Eyre:

Today, I wish to bring forward a particularly fine example of the specificity of Bronte’s allusiveness to Mansfield Park in a way that is actually strikingly reminiscent of Jane Austen’s own art of allusion, i.e., the textual “bread crumb” that is left by the hinting author so as to validate for the literary sleuthing Hansel and Gretel that this is indeed an intentional allusion, and that it is worth the reader’s while to stay on the trail, because soon they will reach “home”, i.e., the benefit of noting the covert allusion in all its nuances.

And this example I am bringing forward today will, I believe, lay utterly to rest any reasonable reservations some of you might still have as to the validity of Sutherland’s claims of an intentional allusion by Bronte to MP in Jane Eyre—claims which by the way, were first sent out into the world, albeit in undeveloped form, by Avrom Fleishman in his “Mansfield Park: A Reading” way back in 1967, as Sutherland herself acknowledges in a footnote—and you all know I have the greatest admiration for Fleishman’s seminal chapter:.

Anyway, with that brief intro, look at the following passage from Sutherland’s article:

“Jane [Eyre] herself has been from childhood a more critical reader of history than Fanny Price. Skilled in recognizing its permanent informing power relations of oppressor/victim and master/slave, she resents and questions their constraints on her own behavior. The tyrant of her young life, her cousin John Reed, is not merely a "wicked and cruel boy," but "like a slave- driver . . . like the Roman emperors!" She explains, "I had read Goldsmith's History of Rome, and had formed my opinion of Nero, Caligula, &c. Also I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud" (1, 8). Like Plutarch, Jane imaginatively constructs parallels that wilfully flout history's declared impartiality; but pressed to the ideological justification of revolution, Jane's examples are doubly dangerous.”

Here is the actual passage from Chapter 2 of Jane Eyre, in which the young Jane is being abused by her cruel cousin John Reed, with the full encouragement of the maid Abbot:

“What were you doing behind the curtain?” he asked. “I was reading.” “Show the book.”
I returned to the window and fetched it thence.
“You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mama’s expense. Now, I’ll teach you to rummage my bookshelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years. Go and stand by the door, out of the way of the mirror and the windows.”
I did so, not at first aware what was his intention; but when I saw him lift and poise the book and stand in act to hurl it, I instinctively started aside with a cry of alarm: not soon enough, however; the volume was flung, it hit me, and I fell, striking my head against the door and cutting it. The cut bled, the pain was sharp: my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded.
“Wicked and cruel boy!” I said. “You are like a murderer—you are like a slave-driver—you are like the Roman emperors!” I had read Goldsmith’s History of Rome, and had formed my opinion of Nero, Caligula, &c. Also I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud.”

It is not clear from Sutherland’s analysis whether she realizes that the above passage is actually a direct and obvious allusion to a parallel passage in Mansfield Park. I have already given away the game in my Subject Line, but even I had not done so, now that I have set things up, I am certain many of you would have already recalled it. It is a passage involving the young Fanny Price not long after _her_ arrival as a poor dependent of her cousins’ family, a passage in which a contrast between cousins is foregrounded in regard to knowledge gained from reading, especially reading of history:

“As [Fanny’s] appearance and spirits improved, Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris thought with greater satisfaction of their benevolent plan; and it was pretty soon decided between them that, though far from clever, she showed a tractable disposition, and seemed likely to give them little trouble. A mean opinion of her abilities was not confined to them. Fanny could read, work, and write, but she had been taught nothing more; and as her cousins found her ignorant of many things with which they had been long familiar, they thought her prodigiously stupid, and for the first two or three weeks were continually bringing some fresh report of it into the drawing-room. "Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?"
"My dear," their considerate aunt would reply, "it is very bad, but you must not expect everybody to be as forward and quick at learning as yourself."
"But, aunt, she is really so very ignorant!—Do you know, we asked her last night which way she would go to get to Ireland; and she said, she should cross to the Isle of Wight. She thinks of nothing but the Isle of Wight, and she calls it the Island, as if there were no other island in the world. I am sure I should have been ashamed of myself, if I had not known better long before I was so old as she is. I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns!"
"Yes," added the other; "and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the heathen mythology, and all the metals, semi-metals, planets, and distinguished philosophers." “ END QUOTE

The multiple parallels of situation and detail, by themselves, are sufficient to confirm the allusion to the sensitive reader. However, the “bread crumb” which must be visible to every reader is the explicit reference to “the Roman emperors” in both passages!

There is much more that could be said in followup to the above, starting with the opposite way that the same motif is handled in Jane Eyre as opposed to Mansfield Park, but I will leave this for now as a prime example of how Fleishman and Sutherland were spot-on, and that Charlotte Bronte was lyin’ through her teeth when she wrote dismissively about Jane Austen’s fiction in her famous letters to Henry Lewes.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

Nancy Mayer responded to the above in Janeites:
"Considering that most children who received a decent education studied the Roman emperors, and because the study of Rome and even of Christian martyrs was not uncommon, don't you think that is a very tiny bread crumb , indeed, on which to base a charge that Charlotte Bronte was a liar?"

Nancy, my first impulse in responding to the above was to spell out for you in great explanatory detail the half dozen _clustered_ story elements which together and in concert constitute the strongest possible parallelism between the scene in Chapter 2 of Jane Eyre and the scene in Chapter 2 of Mansfield Park, both of which include the explicit reference to "the Roman emperors". But then I thought, you (and any other close reader) are perfectly capable, all by yourself, of spotting those same half dozen parallels (indeed, I already made several of them explicit in my post), they are quite obvious.

In fact, I am hard pressed to think of an implicit allusion by a later writer to Jane Austen which is more powerful and obvious than this one, because it has _everything_ in parallel. Such implicit allusions don't get any more obvious than this one.

So, if you profess skepticism about this one, then I infer that you are likely going to profess skepticism about every single implicit allusion ever made by any writer to any other writer's writing and/or life.

If you stick to that position, then you are by such an approach throwing away 90% of all the allusions made by writers to other writers, and 99% of the most interesting allusions made by writers to other writers. And you'd be invalidating not only my research, which is so outside the mainstream of academic literary criticism in many other ways, but also the research of a few _thousand_ thoroughly mainstream literary scholars.

So, I invite you to play devil's advocate and to pretend to make my argument for me about the parallels between the Jane Eyre scene and the Mansfield Park scene, and see what happens! You might be surprised to find out it's something you might want to do again sometime!