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

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sir Thomas Bertram “so unintelligibly moral, so infamously tyrannical”

In response to my most recent post in Austen L about Sir Thomas Bertram's Biblically, mythologically huge & burning wrath at the performance of Lovers's Vows at Mansfield Park, Christy Somer wrote the following:

"...And Mr. Yates’s perception of him reveals a bias slightly fractured into what some might interpret as ambiguity: "He had known many disagreeable fathers before, and often been struck with the inconveniences they occasioned, but never, in the whole course of his life, had he seen one of that class so unintelligibly moral, so infamously tyrannical as Sir Thomas."
This "that class so unintelligibly moral, so infamously tyrannical" what opens the door for some conjecture, and to view Sir Thomas very negatively."

I responded as follows:

Christy, thank you _very_ much for spotlighting that passage. I had not paid attention to it before. I immediately found the two couplets of adverb and adjective (“unintelligibly moral” and “infamously tyrannical”) quite intriguing, and checked to see if either had been published prior to JA's writing MP. This proved a very fruitful exercise, as you will see, below.


“unintelligibly moral” yielded no hits in Google Books other than, of course, in Mansfield Park itself! Upon reflection, this is not surprising, because the couplet is an oxymoron. The typical phraseology would be “_intelligibly_ moral”, referring, e.g., to some aspect of the good which was readily graspable as such by an ordinary person.

However, JA never missed a chance for topsy-turvy phraseology for satirical purposes, and surely Yates’s description of Sir Thomas is quite satirical---Yates is euphemistically suggesting that Sir Thomas’s moral wrath is unintelligible, i.e., it makes no sense.

In that satirical regard, perhaps you were, as I was, immediately reminded of _another_ passage in a JA novel:

[Catherine]: “…I cannot speak well enough to be _unintelligible_."
[Henry] "Bravo! An excellent satire on modern language."

I can only echo Henry Tilney’s praise of Catherine, and similarly applaud Yates’s “unintelligibly moral” bon mot, but also add that I believe that Yates’s satire, unlike Catherine’s, was conscious and intentional—evidence for his intentionality is provided in the next part of this post.


The other couplet, “infamously tyrannical”, is even more interesting than the first. I submit that it is no coincidence that I found the following passage in Cobbett's Weekly Political Register for 02/23/1811 (i.e., only two years before JA began writing MP), under the caption “Summary of Politics”. In this article, William Cobbett rebuts claims regarding "the liberty of the press" by a letter-writer using the pseudonym "Publicola". In the below-quoted excerpt, Cobbett was sarcastically disputing Publicola’s grand claims for the very positive societal effects of a free press:

"...there is another part of this Letter, which is still more likely to lead to mischievous consequences. I allude to the passage, where the writer pronounces a general eulogium on the Liberty of the Press, and ascribes to it what does by no means belong to it, thereby confusing the not ions of the reader, setting his mind upon the wander, and, which is still worse, causing him to believe, that there is a great deal of Liberty of the Press where there is no such thing. The author says, that "we owe every thing to the Liberty of the Press; and that our arts, our sciences, and our learning, have all sprung from this source." I wonder that he had not added the grass and the grass and the trees….
What, for instance, had the Liberty of the Press to do with the discoveries of Newton, or with the logic of Locke, or with any of the discoveries and inventions in mechanics, in chemistry, in agriculture, in manufactures, in navigation, or in war? … What had the Liberty of the Press to do with all, or with any of, these things?——It is not true, that we owe any of the arts and sciences to the Liberty of the Press. The French and the Germans surpass us in most of the arts and sciences. There are very few in which they do not greatly surpass us; and, have they had such a great deal of the Liberty of the Press?
This question is a home one. It is one that must be answered; or the position must be abandoned….
But I am satisfied, that it is a very great mistake to suppose that the Liberty of the Press is, by such means, raised in the estimation of the public; for, if our arts, our sciences, and our every thing good proceed from the Liberty of the Press, how will the public reason upon the subject of any Attorney General's prosecutions for libel? Will they not say,"Aye, very true, that is a little hard; but yet, they leave us a great deal of Liberty of the Press; for any man may cultivate the arts and sciences. Yes, yes; we have, after all, a great deal of good out of this Liberty of the Press, which gives us all our arts and sciences, and we see them flourish exceedingly, and, of course, we have a pretty fair share of the Liberty of the Press."
Now, I put it to the reader, whether this is not the course of reasoning, to which Publicola's position, if adopted, must inevitably lead? And, then I ask him, if it be possible for any, the very bitterest, foe to freedom, and especially to the Liberty of the Press, to suggest any thing more likely to do it mischief? If this notion be adopted, I really see very little reason to complain of what was done by the infernal Court of Star Chamber; for they very freely suffered any man to write about the arts and sciences as much as he pleased…..The Court, that INFAMOUSLY TYRANNICAL Court of Star Chamber, whose proceedings so materially assisted in bringing Charles the First to the block, and some of the members of which Court came to the same end themselves; even that succession of insolent and inexorable tyrants, even that Court, which it was one of the greatest and most glorious works of our forefathers to overthrow; even that gang of unjust and base ruffians in power, freely, very freely permitted any man to write upon such subjects; very freely indeed…” END QUOTE

So, it seems that Yates is revealing by his phraseology that he is actually an avid follower of Cobbett’s opinions, and is not the foppish airhead that most Janeites believe him to be. One more example of how JA plays with subjectivity, and leads the reader down the garden path by filtering the reader’s access to other characters through the mind of the heroine. Fanny being so decidedly acquiescent (with one notable exception) to Sir Thomas’s will, she would not be reading Cobbett, and she would not approve of Mr. Yates one little bit—but JA hints to us that Yates _did_ read Cobbett, and that JA herself _did_ approve of Yates.

Yates is in effect drawing an analogy, with Mansfield Park standing in for England as a whole, and with Lover’s Vows as a dramatized political essay purveying “unsex’d female”, “Jacobin” rabble-rousing views. Yates is criticizing the despotic Sir Thomas’s crackdown on “liberty of the press” within the confines of Mansfield Park, and the phrase “infamously tyrannical” very specifically equates Sir Thomas with the infamous Star Chamber of English history, which was designed to bring to secret justice those too powerful to be tried in ordinary courts, such as, as Cobbett notes, even Charles I himself.

By the way, Cobbett was apparently a very interesting and not-easily-pigeonholed pundit, as you can readily gather from his Wikipedia entry:

What makes Cobbett’s apparently negative comments about liberty of the press extraordinary is the following factoid about Cobbett’s personal circumstances at the precise moment that he wrote the above essay:

“Cobbett was found guilty of treasonous libel on 15 June 1810 after objecting in The Register to the flogging at Ely of local militiamen by Hanoverians. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment in infamous Newgage Prison. While in prison he wrote the pamphlet Paper Against Gold, warning of the dangers of paper money, as well as many Essays and Letters. On his release a dinner in London, attended by 600 people, was given in his honour, presided over by Sir Francis Burdett who, like Cobbett, was a strong voice for parliamentary reform.”

Cobbett was apparently a true curmudgeon and free-thinker, who had the intellectual integrity to argue against excessive praise for the very freedom which he had been denied, resulting in his writing the above quoted piece while imprisoned for libel!

Just the kind of level headed, seeing-both-sides sort of pundit that I think JA would have loved to read, for precisely that rare quality of integrity.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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