In the realm of sexuality, as depicted in Austen film adaptations, two depictions have drawn the lion's share of controversy during the past few decades, in terms of debates over faithfulness, or lack thereof, to the text of the novels:
1. Colin Firth's wet blouse emerging from the pond at Pemberley in
Davies' adaptation of Pride & Prejudice; and
2. The scene in Rozema's Mansfield Park after the dripping wet Frances
O'Connor is dried off by the extremely helpful Embeth Davidtz.
In a very recent post, I made a case strongly supporting Davies's
depiction of Darcy as actually being too mild in its sexual quotient,
compared to the actual but subliminal saturation of the novel text with
the sexual tension between Darcy and Elizabeth:
In this post today, I bring to your attention a fantastic new scholarly
article about the lesbian subtext in Mansfield Park, and add one little
bit of my own icing to that already delicious cake.
The topic of an intentional lesbian vibe between Mary Crawford and Fanny
Price has been a flashpoint of controversy since Rozema's 1999
adaptation strongly suggested that very same vibe, along with several
other very controversial depictions which I've admired, like Sir Thomas
as slave-abusing monster, and Tom Bertram, as sensitive alcoholic due to
witnessing his father's atrocities.
I have, since 1999, taking my cue from Rozema on all these points, and
then some, and, following up with study of the novel text itself, long
been of the opinion that Rozema was 100% spot-on in her depiction of
this lesbian theme between Fanny and Mary. Here is a link to my most
recent comments on that topic:
So I was thrilled to read, this morning, a new article which provides a
fantastic discussion, in great detail, of that lesbian subtext in
Mansfield Park, by an extremely insightful Austen scholar, with the
complicated name Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka....
" ‘Where She Could Not Follow’ – The Lesbian Subplot in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park"
...which points out several of those characteristic textual "winks" from
Jane Austen, the kind which tell the reader who suspects Jane Austen of
a covert theme, "Yes, it's really there!"
Here is the passage from Chapter 7 of MP which provided Mentzxaka with
the title of her article, and rightly so:
"Having formed [Fanny's] mind and gained her affections, [Edmund] had a
good chance of her thinking like him; though at this period, and on this
subject, there began now to be some danger of dissimilarity, for he was
in a line of admiration of Miss Crawford, which might lead him WHERE
FANNY COULD NOT FOLLOW. Miss Crawford's attractions did not lessen. The
harp arrived, and rather added to her beauty, wit, and good-humour; for
she played with the greatest obligingness, with an expression and taste
which were peculiarly becoming, and there was something clever to be
said at the close of every air. Edmund was at the Parsonage every day,
to be indulged with his favourite instrument: one morning secured an
invitation for the next; for the lady could not be unwilling to have a
listener, and every thing was soon in a fair train. "
The key words, which Mentzaka seized on, and I've capitalized, are
"where Fanny could not follow." The normative reading of those lines is
that Fanny, who loves Edmund, therefore could not feel supportive of
Edmund's growing attraction to Mary.
But the against-the-grain, subversive reading of that phrase is that
Fanny was, like Edmund, _also_ feeling attracted to Mary, but Fanny,
being female in a deeply homophobic society, could not follow him down
that forbidden garden path, i.e., could not acknowledge and approve of
her own growing homoerotic feelings of attraction toward Mary. What
attraction? Well, is it just a coincidence that we read, barely a half
dozen paragraphs earlier at the beginning of Chapter 7, the following:
"Well, Fanny, and how do you like Miss Crawford now?" said Edmund the
next day, after thinking some time on the subject himself. "How did you
like her yesterday?"
"Very well—very much. I like to hear her talk. She entertains me; and
she is so extremely pretty, that I have great pleasure in looking at her."
So...Fanny has great pleasure in looking at Mary, because Fanny is
entertained by Mary's speaking, and, well, gets great pleasure just from looking at the extremely pretty Mary. The plain meaning of these words
suggests a more than purely aesthetic, ethereal appreciation of Mary by
Fanny, it suggests that Fanny experiences a visceral, emotional response
to Mary. A lot, in fact, like the response that Fanny experiences later
in the novel, when Henry Crawford initiates and then sustains his own
charm offensive, seeking to make a hole in Fanny's heart, and damned
near succeeding at it.
The bottom line is that if you read the above quoted passages from
Chapter 7 as if the narrator had previously alerted us to possible
lesbian feelings of Fanny toward Mary, you'd readily read these passages
as strong additional evidence of Fanny's physical attraction to Mary.
Mentxaka also picks up on the lesbian significance of the following
passage in Chapter 18 (which I believe Rozema also picked up on in her
adaptation?), in which Mary asks Fanny to rehearse with Mary, playing a
male role to Mary's female role, in a romantic scene from Lovers Vows:
"...[Fanny] worked and meditated in the East room, undisturbed, for a
quarter of an hour, when a gentle tap at the door was followed by the
entrance of Miss Crawford.
"Am I right? Yes; this is the East room. My dear Miss Price, I beg your
pardon, but I have made my way to you on purpose to entreat your help."
Fanny, quite surprised, endeavoured to shew herself mistress of the room
by her civilities, and looked at the bright bars of her empty grate with
"Thank you; I am quite warm, very warm. Allow me to stay here a little
while, and do have the goodness to hear me my third act. I have brought
my book, and IF YOU WOULD BUT REHEARSE IT WITH ME, I should be so
obliged! I came here to-day intending to rehearse it with Edmund—by
ourselves—against the evening, but he is not in the way; and if he
/were/, I do not think I could go through it with him, TILL I HAVE
HARDENED MYSELF A LITTLE; for really there is a speech or two. You will
be so good, won't you?"
Fanny was most civil in her assurances, though she could not give them
in a very steady voice.
"Have you ever happened to look at the part I mean?" continued Miss
Crawford, opening her book. "Here it is. I did not think much of it at
first—but, upon my word. There, look at that speech, and that, and that. How am I ever to look him in the face and say such things?
Could you do it? But then he is your cousin, which makes all the
difference. YOU MUST REHEARSE IT WITH ME, that I may fancy you him,
and get on by degrees. YOU HAVE A LOOK OF HIS SOMETIMES."
"Have I? I will do my best with the greatest readiness; but I must read the part, for I can say very little of it." etc.....
Fanny is not happy when Edmund interrupts and then quickly takes Fanny's
place in the rehearsal, but is this because Fanny is jealous of Edmund,
or jealous of Mary? or both?
Anyway, you can read Mentxaka's article for these and many more points
supporting her basic claim, but I will add one bit of wordplay which
Mentxaka did not notice, but which actually ties together her
above-described explications of lesbian subtext in Chapter 7 and in
Chapter 18--to wit, when we read in Chapter 7 that "Fanny could not
FOLLOW", and then we get to the rehearsal scenes in the Lovers Vows
episode, we might just realize that there is an additional pun on the
word "follow"---a word which has many shades of meaning in English---one
of them has to do with the theatre, i.e., actors "follow", or take their
cues from, each other's lines in performance.
So, JA, in her characteristic masterful way, has given this subtle
subliminal verbal hint that there is a connection between the scenes in
Chapter 7 and Chapter 18, and that connection is the homoerotic
attraction that Fanny feels toward Mary, that her rigid prudish sense of
propriety does not allow to bubble up into consciousness.
It would not be far-fetched to suggest that JA, in a very Shakespearean way, is implying that gender preference in many people might well be something similar to playing a role in the theatre, a role that can be assumed...and then given up or changed. Food for thought.
And I hope that you have all enjoyed following the c(l)ues to the
lesbian vibe between Mary and Fanny in Mansfield Park!
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