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

Friday, March 2, 2012

Everything's RELATIVE in Mansfield Park (just ask Lord Byron and one of the "higher" Roman emperors---Caligula!)

The subconscious works in mysterious but wonderful ways, as Jane Austen knew two centuries ago, and as I learned for the _thousandth_ time an hour ago. I was expressing my views online about the recent spate of (shall we say) impolite humor that has been projected into American political discourse of late, centering on a topic that Jane Austen was perpetually and passionately interested in--contraception---indeed, it was the closest thing to a hobby horse that can be ascribed to JA, as I have opined countless times before in these groups during the past 3 years, precisely because it was an era in which the majority of English gentlewomen were ordered by every authority in their world to be fruitful and multiple....exponentially, and the only other option was, as JA famously suggested, separate beds!

Anyway, I pointed out to some like-minded friends that I actually considered Rush Limbaugh to be higher on the moral scale than the seemingly much more moderate opinionator, Mitt Romney, because, whatever else might be said about Rush Limbaugh, he can hardly be described as a hypocrite, as he brazenly and openly cavorts far beyond the boundaries of political correctness, especially when he speaks about feminism. He thumbs his nose at the very notion of civility, compromise, and gentlemanliness, and, most important, his position does not sway with the latest political breezes. He is what he is--vile as that may be to many such as myself---but what he is has not changed much over the past two decades. Whereas it is a truth universally acknowledged by Americans from all across the political spectrum, that Mitt Romney has a problem with consistency, to put it mildly, particularly, of late, in regard to his positions on moral issues pertaining to women's bodies, as his opponents put him on the spot about this repeatedly.

That is all prelude to my ultimate point, which is that after I expressed my opinion about Limbaugh vis a vis Romney as follows.... "...Actually, Limbaugh has one saving grace Romney lacks--he is not a hypocrite, at least he does not pretend to be a decent person!" friend replied that he had a hard time associating Rush Limbaugh with the word "grace". And then I could not resist immediately retorting with "Everything is relative, as Einstein (and Lord Byron) once said "

As I reflected on my little pun, and thought about Lord Byron and the well known allegations of incest with his half sister, my mind naturally turned to Mansfield Park, which is the Austen novels most often associated with incest, what with Mary and Henry, Fanny and William, Sir Thomas and his sisters-in-law, and above all, the concerns explicitly expressed about Fanny and her male cousins by Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas at the beginning of the novel. And most disturbing of all, there are also, for those who are not faint of heart, concerns expressed by myself and others regarding Sir Thomas's troubling relationship with all the females in the "harem" at Mansfield Park, including in particular with his daughters and......Fanny herself.

And so, apropos my little bit of wordplay on "relative", I became _very_ curious to see how JA used the word "relative" in MP, to see whether she had punned on "relative" in order to subliminally raise the issue of incest. Read on, gentle reader, and see how my subconscious has once more led me, by its usual serpentine path, to another blooming branch of Jane Austen's endlessly and sapiently fruitful Tree of Knowledge.

But briefly, before turning to the five usages of the word "relative" I found in MP, I will first point out what perhaps has already occurred to some of you who are particularly attuned to JA's vocabulary--i.e., even though today in 2012 we use the word "relative" to colloquially describe a family member, and only use the word "relation" in a more formal or legalistic context, that was _not_ the case in JA's time--there are a goodly number of usages of the word "relation" in MP, which are _all_ used the way we use "relative" today.

But, conversely, the four usages of "relative" in MP are, at first blush, used by JA _not_ to refer to family members, but instead with the innocuous meaning "pertaining". However, as you will see, it is clear that JA was fully aware of the family meaning of the word "relative" as well, but she chose to make that secondary meaning _subliminal_ , and to saturate the word "relative" with heavily incestuous overtones.

ONE: First this famous passage in Chapter 1, which is, as I have already pointed out, explicitly on the subject of incest, as Fanny comes to live at Mansfield Park where she will grow up in close proximity to Tom and Edmund:

[Mrs. Norris] "But breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister."
"There is a great deal of truth in what you say," replied Sir Thomas, "and far be it from me to throw any fanciful impediment in the way of a plan which would be so consistent with the RELATIVE situations of each...."

Is the normally super-serious Sir Thomas unleashing his own inner punster, by hinting that Fanny's relationship to Tom and Edmund is closer than that of first cousins on the maternal side? I say "Yes!"

TWO: And now here is the second passage, in Chapter 19, right after Sir Thomas returns from Antigua and brings the amateur theatrical production of _Lover's Vows_ to a screeching halt:

"And then [Sir Thomas] would have changed the subject, and sipped his coffee in peace over domestic matters of a calmer hue; but Mr. Yates, without discernment to catch Sir Thomas's meaning, or diffidence, or delicacy, or discretion enough to allow him to lead the discourse while he mingled among the others with the least obtrusiveness himself, would keep him on the topic of the theatre, would torment him with questions and remarks RELATIVE to it, and finally would make him hear the whole history of his disappointment at Ecclesford. Sir Thomas listened most politely, but found much to offend his ideas of decorum, and confirm his ill-opinion of Mr. Yates's habits of thinking, from the beginning to the end of the story; and when it was over, could give him no other assurance of sympathy than what a slight bow conveyed."

What could this passage have to do with incest? Well, only everything! Is not one of the objections that was raised to Kotzebue's play (in the original even more so than in Inchbald's English translation) not only about the Baron's having knocked up Agatha a generation earlier, but also that the scenes between Frederick and his mother, as played by Henry and Maria, were _way_ too suggestive of incestuous (specifically, Oedipal) themes for a morally proper person's comfort?

THREE: And how about this passage in Chapter 37, right after the Crawfords leave Mansfield Park, and just before Fanny is exiled to Portsmouth by Sir Thomas:

"[Edmund's] good and [Mary's] bad feelings yielded to love, and such love must unite them. He was to go to town as soon as some business RELATIVE to Thornton Lacey were completed—perhaps within a fortnight; he talked of going, he loved to talk of it; and when once with her again, Fanny could not doubt the rest."

Here there is something pointedly mysterious about "some business relative to Thornton Lacey"--what exactly is it that Edmund will be doing there? It has that aroma of something untoward (reminding me of the even more ambiguous comment by Tom Bertram about the "strange business in America". Is it perhaps something that Edmund might not wish to be explicit about with Fanny, perhaps even something to do with Henry Crawford himself, something reminiscent of the "price" William paid to Henry for his promotion?

More and more, I get the feeling that Henry Crawford in MP is like the Luciferian Maximilian in Cabaret, or like Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, or like Milton's Satan himself-- a man of polymorphous sexual appetites who must seduce _everyone_, male and female, who crosses his path!

FOUR: in Chapter 41, Henry has just suddenly shown up at the Price residence in Portsmouth, and the following passage becomes very disturbing when we realize that this is when Henry first meets the very young and _very_ impressionable _Susan_ Price:

"For Fanny, somewhat more was related than the accidental agreeableness of the parties he had been in. For her approbation, the particular reason of his going into Norfolk at all, at this unusual time of year, was given. It had been real business, RELATIVE to the renewal of a lease in which the welfare of a large and—he believed—industrious family was at stake. "

Besides the chilling idea of Henry being set loose upon Susan (a point which gets developed shortly thereafter in the Portsmouth episode), somehow I also get the idea that the large and industrious family we are hearing about here is a coded reference to none other than the Bertram family itself!

FIVE: And last but not least, here in Chapter 48, the final chapter of the novel-the bookend, if you will, to the discussion in Chapter 1 about Fanny and her male cousins--- we have Sir Thomas's ultimate and decidedly and Collinsianly unforgiving thoughts about Maria:

"As a daughter, he hoped a penitent one, [Maria] should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their RELATIVE situations admitted; but farther than /that/ he could not go. Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not, by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man's family as he had known himself."

If, as I believe it to be the case, the reason, in the first place, that Maria has married Rushworth so precipitously, and has also thrown herself repeatedly at Henry, is that Sir Thomas's ominously heavy tread has brought him to _Maria's_ sleeping quarters not long before he leaves for Antigua, then this passage takes on a chilling subtextual patina of the deepest hypocrisy, as Sir Thomas looks everywhere except into his own heart to find the root causes of the moral sickness of Mansfield Park. Which makes him, in my book, a thousand times worse that Henry Crawford, who, like Rush Limbaugh, is patently and unrepentantly a sinner, whereas Sir Thomas, like too many of those who would wage war on women's reproductive rights, is guilty of the even worse sin of hypocrisy.

So, in MP, everything really _was_ "relative"!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I forgot to add the reason why I mentioned Caligula in my Subject Line, but the mere sight of his name was hint enough for many of you, I am sure. I.e., Caligula is infamous as the Roman Emperor (and by the way, he was "higher", i.e., earlier in time, than Severus, and so he would have been one of the emperors whose names were memorized by Maria and Julia) who had incestuous "relations" (every pun intended!) with not one, not two, but _three_ of his sisters (two of whom, by the way, were named "Julia"!). So, I think that the references back to the ancient Romans in MP , in particular, the emperors, is in part yet another way of JA's pointing to the incest theme in MP!

P.P.S.: And I am sure that Lord Byron and his half sister (and for that matter, Williams Wadsworth and _his_ sister) were all part of the mix in JA's imagination as well!

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