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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"To be a renter, a chuser of books!": Fanny Price's (and Jane Austen's) Joy in a Circulating Library

The following passage in Chapter 40 of Mansfield Park is one that I feel safe in asserting is usually sped by without particular notice. The first-time reader who does not know the end of the story is by Chapter 40 in extreme suspense wondering whether Fanny will finally give in to Henry Crawford's romancing, and the closely related question of whether Edmund and Mary will work things out between them. But the casual REreader will _also_ find little in this passage that would seem, at first glance, to add to one's understanding or the enjoyment of the story or its characters, which might have been missed upon first or earlier reading:

"The intimacy thus begun between [Fanny and Susan] was a material advantage to each. By sitting together upstairs, they avoided a great deal of the disturbance of the house; Fanny had peace, and Susan learned to think it no misfortune to be quietly employed. They sat without a fire; but that was a privation familiar even to Fanny, and she suffered the less because reminded by it of the East room. It was the only point of resemblance. In space, light, furniture, and prospect, there was nothing alike in the two apartments; and she often heaved a sigh at the remembrance of all her books and boxes, and various comforts there. By degrees the girls came to spend the chief of the morning upstairs, at first only in working and talking, but after a few days, the remembrance of the said books grew so potent and stimulative that Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none in her father's house; but wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything /in propria persona/, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one's improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself. In this occupation she hoped, moreover, to bury some of the recollections of Mansfield, which were too apt to seize her mind if her fingers only were busy..."

However, I realized only a short while ago, while reading this passage for another purpose, that the careful student of Jane Austen's _life_, as depicted indirectly in her fiction, ought to sit up and take very close notice of this passage, as I just did, upon realizing that this passage actually _begs_ to be interpreted as veiled autobiography about JA's own career as a reader and a writer!

I.e., I think it highly plausible to interpret this passage as JA looking back at two principal phases of her _own_ life history as a reader. Phase one, which ended in 1800, was when JA, like Fanny at Mansfield Park, was limited to books which were already on hand in the home library, supplemented by what I suspect was the rare occurrence of a brother bringing a book home and sharing it with Jane.

Now, I do _not_ mean to suggest that these were lean years in terms of JA's access to great literature, because it is abundantly clear from study of JA's juvenilia that she was already, by the age of 17, extremely well read in a variety of great literary works. However, what I gather from the above passage about Fanny is that things changed dramatically for JA as a reader when she finally had access to _urban_ circulating libraries with a large selection, first in Bath but then, apparently, even more so in Southampton.

So I believe that the move to Bath in 1801, and then the second move later to Southampton in 1806, for all the distress that these moves seem to have caused JA in so many other ways, were nonetheless positive events in _one_ crucial sense for JA, which is that her stints in Bath and Southampton were apparently the first time in her life when JA could not only subscribe to a circulating library, but was able to physically walk to such a library itself, and (repeatedly) pick and choose books entirely on her own unmediated by any decisions on the part of anyone else, especially a brother or a father.

When I read Fanny's full throated joyful but silent (if you will) INburst "To be a renter, a chuser of books!", I hear Jane Austen herself remembering her own exultation when she (who had to wait till her mid-twenties or older) finally experienced that same freedom.

And I suspect that during the 8 years from early 1801 until early 1809, JA took full advantage of that precious freedom, at least to the extent allowed by her limited finances, of access to all the books she wanted to read (and make extracts from, before returning to the circulating library). So that, by the time she finally arrived at Chawton, and got her "room of her own", with the privacy and time to write, her long program of deep and broad literary research had borne rich fruit, and JA was ready to go back to S&S, to go back to P&P, to go back to NA, and to revise them all with the benefit of having steeped her brain in all the books which nourished her already fertile creative imagination. And that opened the door to the wonders of MP, Emma and Persuasion.

All of which makes Patricia Rozema's heretical decision to depict Fanny Price as a secret writer a whole lot _less_ heretical, I think, as this passage from Chapter 40 of MP draws such a powerful parallel between Fanny Price and her creator, Jane Austen.

Cheers, ARNIE
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