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

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mary Crawford re Fanny Price: Is she queer? Is she out? Am I serious (enough?)

In Austen-L, Ellen Moody wrote the following in response to my recent post...

...about the lesbian dynamic between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: 

[Ellen] "If one were serious about suggesting persuasively that Austen had lesbian tendencies, here are a few of the secondary sources one would begin with(then of course go on to read the women's letters and books about them)...a group of 18th century artists (including Mary Delany and Anna Seward)...Her previous book is about lesbian patterns in 18th century novels, including one on Edgeworth's Belinda and another on Austen's Emma..."  END QUOTE

Ouch! I am pretty sure that Ellen is suggesting, in her inimitably imperious way, that I am the “one” in need of her Caroline-Bingleyesque  “kindly meant” condescension. Specifically, her critique is addressed to my enthusing about Mentxaka's brilliant article about the lesbian subtext of Mansfield Park, and adding in my own usual close reading against the grain of JA's writing, in decoding Jane Austen's shadow stories in her novels. Ellen is telling me that my approach is not serious enough for prime time, academic style. No, what is called for is Ellen's "serious" approach to the subject. see, there’s just one tiny flaw in Ellen’s take on the situation, and it’s one that would, I fear, have Jane Austen herself laughing, because Ellen turns out to be J. Stanier Clarke in this little amateur theatrical. I.e., in the portions of Ellen’s indictment of my approach which I quoted above, Ellen has outdone herself, having managed to hoist herself, not once but twice, on her own petard. Because it is precisely Ellen’s deadly seriousness and lack of imagination that blinds her to what Jane Austen knew, and what Jane Austen  hid in plain sight in the text of Mansfield Park, about contemporary lesbian subtextual writing.

To be brief and explicit. What  Ellen has failed to grasp, in her immersion in the contemporary female writing of JA's era, is that Jane Austen herself was extremely well aware of the lesbian subtext of Anna Seward's poetry! And (here's the best part)...the primary hint that JA gave to her knowing readers, to show this Seward connection, is repeated six times in the following passage in Mansfield Park:

[Tom] “…My friend Sneyd—you have heard me speak of Sneyd, Edmund—his father, and mother, and sisters, were there, all new to me. When we reached Albion Place they were out; we went after them, and found them on the pier: Mrs. and the two Miss Sneyds, with others of their acquaintance. I made my bow in form; and as Mrs. Sneyd was surrounded by men, attached myself to one of her daughters, walked by her side all the way home, and made myself as agreeable as I could; the young lady perfectly easy in her manners, and as ready to talk as to listen. I had not a suspicion that I could be doing anything wrong. They looked just the same: both well-dressed, with veils and parasols like other girls; but I afterwards found that I had been giving all my attention to the youngest, who was not out, and had most excessively offended the eldest. Miss Augusta ought not
to have been noticed for the next six months; and Miss Sneyd, I believe, has never forgiven me."
[Mary] "That was bad indeed. Poor Miss Sneyd. Though I have no younger sister, I feel for her. To be neglected before one's time must be very vexatious; but it was entirely the mother's fault. Miss Augusta should have been with her governess. Such half-and-half doings never prosper. But now I must be satisfied about Miss Price. Does she go to balls? Does she dine out every where, as well as at my sister's?"
"No," replied Edmund; "I do not think she has ever been to a ball. My mother seldom goes into company herself, and dines nowhere but with Mrs. Grant, and Fanny stays at home with her."
"Oh! then the point is clear. Miss Price is not out."    END QUOTE

There’s only one word in that passage that is repeated six times, and that word is “Sneyd”, and why it is a giant hint to the lesbian subtext between Fanny and Mary is that the famous lesbian love interest of Anna Seward, who cast a tragic shadow over Seward’s poetry for decades, went by the maiden name of Honoria Sneyd (that’s the sound of one petard exploding). 
And, what’s more, Honoria Sneyd just happened to marry a guy named Richard
Edgeworth, and thereby became the stepmother of Maria Edgeworth, whom Ellen also mentioned in her indictment of my lack of seriousness as a scholar (second petard explodes).

And, so what we realize is that Mary Crawford and Tom Bertram are not really talking about the Miss Sneyds, but are speaking in code about Fanny Price herself. And the coded question du jour is, which is very much of interest to the bisexual Mary Crawford, "Ïs Fanny Price a lesbian?" (i.e., is she queer? Is she out?)

And that’s only the tip of a very large submerged iceberg of lesbian subtext in Mansfield Park connecting to Anna Seward, which I will unpack another day.

So, if my approach to understanding Jane Austen’s subtext lacks seriousness —and of course, in the good sense of the word “serious”, I claim I am every bit as serious as any conventional literary critic---I would suggest that maybe what is called for in this case is imagination & an outside-the- box method of understanding the shadows of Jane Austen’s novels, a method which apparently is not dreamt of in Ellen’s philosophy of literary criticism.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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