From time to time, we Janeites amuse ourselves talking about topics on the edges of the stories told in the novels, as opposed to the familiar central themes and characters. One such peripheral topic which I have seen addressed a few times over the years is “secondary characters we hear about but never actually see or hear”. Probably the unseen Austen characters who gets the most Janeite attention are Mrs. Churchill and Mr. Perry, because they’re each mentioned so often and by several of the main characters—we almost feel as if we know them, even though our knowledge is second-hand, and we have strong feelings and opinions about them.
But, at the other end of the spectrum, I cannot recall any discussion of several members of one family whom we only hear about, second-hand. In Chapter 29 of Mansfield Park, we read the following about four members of the unseen Owen family:
“[Mary’s] vexation did not end with the week. All this was bad, but she had still more to feel when Friday came round again and brought no Edmund; when Saturday came and still no Edmund; and when, through the slight communication with the other family which Sunday produced, she learned that he had actually written home to defer his return, having promised to remain some days longer with his friend. If she had felt impatience and regret before—if she had been sorry for what she said, and feared its too strong effect on him—she now felt and feared it all tenfold more. She had, moreover, to contend with one disagreeable emotion entirely new to her—jealousy. His friend Mr. OWEN had sisters; he might find them attractive. But, at any rate, his staying away at a time when, according to all preceding plans, she was to remove to London, meant something that she could not bear. Had Henry returned, as he talked of doing, at the end of three or four days, she should now have been leaving Mansfield. It became absolutely necessary for her to get to Fanny and try to learn something more.
She could not live any longer in such solitary wretchedness; and she made her way to the Park, through difficulties of walking which she had deemed unconquerable a week before, for the chance of hearing a little in addition, for the sake of at least hearing his name.
The first half-hour was lost, for Fanny and Lady Bertram were together, and unless she had Fanny to herself she could hope for nothing. But at last Lady Bertram left the room, and then almost immediately Miss Crawford thus began, with a voice as well regulated as she could—"And how do you like your cousin Edmund's staying away so long? Being the only young person at home, I consider you as the greatest sufferer. You must miss him. Does his staying longer surprise you?"
"I do not know," said Fanny hesitatingly. "Yes; I had not particularly expected it."
"Perhaps he will always stay longer than he talks of. It is the general way all young men do."
"He did not, the only time he went to see Mr. OWEN before."
"He finds the house more agreeable now. He is a very—a very pleasing young man himself, and I cannot help being rather concerned at not seeing him again before I go to London, as will now undoubtedly be the case……Was his letter a long one? Does he give you much account of what he is doing? Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?"
"I only heard a part of the letter; it was to my uncle; but I believe it was very short; indeed I am sure it was but a few lines. All that I heard was that his friend had pressed him to stay longer, and that he had agreed to do so. A few days longer, or some days longer; I am not quite sure which."
"Oh! if he wrote to his father; but I thought it might have been to Lady Bertram or you. But if he wrote to his father, no wonder he was concise. Who could write chat to Sir Thomas? If he had written to you, there would have been more particulars. You would have heard of balls and parties. He would have sent you a description of everything and everybody. How many MISS OWENS are there?"
"Three grown up."
"Are they musical?"
"I do not at all know. I never heard."
"That is the first question, you know," said Miss Crawford, trying to appear gay and unconcerned, "which every woman who plays herself is sure to ask about another. But it is very foolish to ask questions about any young ladies—about any three sisters just grown up; for one knows, without being told, exactly what they are: all very accomplished and pleasing, and one very pretty. There is a beauty in every family; it is a regular thing. Two play on the pianoforte, and one on the harp; and all sing, or would sing if they were taught, or sing all the better for not being taught; or something like it."
"I know nothing of the Miss OWENS," said Fanny calmly.
"You know nothing and you care less, as people say. Never did tone express indifference plainer. Indeed, how can one care for those one has never seen?...” “ END QUOTE
So, in a nutshell, Edmund is staying in London with the family of his university school friend, Mr. Owen; and Mary Crawford—has she guessed Fanny’s secret love for Edmund?--- is bloodlessly probing and poking tiny rapiers into Fanny’s vulnerable virginal heart, which is every bit as jealous of the Miss Owens as Mary’s tougher, battle-scarred heart.
Mary keeps pushing Fanny for details about the Miss Owens, Fanny resolutely stonewalls, but in short order, by the end of the above passage, Mary has succeeded in provoking from Fanny the closest thing to a rude response: "I know nothing of the Miss Owens," said Fanny calmly.
But the last word in this particular round belongs to the resourceful Mary, who uses her considerable wit and sense of humor in decoding and restating Fanny’s reply as if Fanny had responded rudely after all. Mary might as well have said, “Fanny doth protest too much”. Mary has exposed, to Fanny if not to anyone else in the room, Fanny’s caring very much indeed about the Miss Owens, despite (indeed, because of) never having seen them. Fanny, just like Mary, desperately wants to know more about these three unseen young women, one of whom might well be winning the heart of Edmund Bertram at that very instant.
I conclude this post by giving an explanation for the third, cryptic part of my subject line, which read “And then there were two”. I mean by this to echo one of the titles of Agatha’s Christie’s famous novel of multiple murder in a mansion, And Then There Were None. Why? Because of two names which appear in Christie’s novel:
The name of the host who ostensibly invites all the guests:
Ulick Norman Owen == U.N. Owen = Unknown
And the name of the fishing trawler which picks up the message in a bottle from the mastermind:
The Emma Jane
I first identified that latter covert allusion to Jane Austen—which needs no explanation!--by Agatha Christie eight years ago, but it was only this morning that I recognized that Dame Agatha had probably also picked up on JA’s wordplay in MP, in naming the Owen family, the family of which Fanny Price “know[s] nothing”, i.e., a family un-“Owen” to Fanny!
In Mansfield Park, it turns out Mary’s and Fanny’s jealousy of the Miss Owens was unfounded, because by the time we reach the last stages of the novel, there are only two women still in the running for Edmund’s heart, Fanny and Mary. Hence, “and then there were two”. And finally, I am reasonably certain that Agatha Christie smiled when she read the following description of Mr. Grant’s unfortunate demise:
“Mary had had enough of her own friends, enough of vanity, ambition, love, and disappointment in the course of the last half-year, to be in need of the true kindness of her sister's heart, and the rational tranquillity of her ways. They lived together; and when Dr. Grant had brought on apoplexy and death, by three great institutionary dinners in one week, they still lived together…”
Of all readers of Mansfield Park, Dame Agatha would have understood Jane Austen’s textual message in a bottle, i.e., that Mary had assured the continuing domestic tranquility of her sister by quietly getting rid of the person most likely to continue disturbing same, as Mary herself had described chapters earlier:
“I see him to be an indolent, selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in everything; who will not stir a finger for the convenience of any one; and who, moreover, if the cook makes a blunder, is out of humour with his excellent wife. To own the truth, Henry and I were partly driven out this very evening by a disappointment about a green goose, which he could not get the better of. My poor sister was forced to stay and bear it."
Okay, so Doctor Grant did not need to be punished for a murder he had gotten away with, but I can’t help but ascribe to Mary a willingness to take matters into her own hands, just like Mr. U.N. Owen did.
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