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

Monday, July 29, 2013

Jane Austen’s & Fanny Price’s Remembrances of Hamlet & Tom Bertram

In my post last night….

…..among other things, I posted about Tom Bertram as the “Hamlet” of Mansfield Park, and in the followup post thereto which I’ll finish tomorrow, I will write, among other things, about Tom as the “Rhyming Butler” of Lovers Vows, who is himself based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In the interim, though, two related points:

First a correction of one point in my post yesterday---after further Googling, I learned that I am not the first scholar to take note of Mrs. Norris having practically quoted Cottager’s Wife verbatim—that honor belongs to Julian Wilmot Wynne, who, in 1998 wrote the following in his chapter about Mansfield Park in his book Jane Austen and Sigmund Freud: an interpretation:

“...the exchange with Edmund which ends with [Mrs. Norris’s] reflection on Fanny’s dependent situation,  starts by her exclaiming ‘What a piece of work here is about nothing": the formula appears anodyne until or unless we notice it is an almost exact replica of the (first) line in the part Fanny is asked to play in Lovers' Vows: ' "here's a piece of work indeed about nothing!...”

However, as best as I can tell at the moment (I am waiting to receive a copy of his book from ILL, and the snippets I can read online are not conclusive), Wynne did not realize the Hamletian significance of that particular passage---a non-realization which is very ironic, given that Wynne did make an excellent Hamletian catch elsewhere in Mansfield Park, which I’ll describe shortly, below.

Second, it seems I just can’t escape from Tom Bertram, because, even when not looking for more about him, I’ve just found some more significant goodies about him, which warrant their own post.

So I begin with some quick background:

A little over a year ago, I posted about Tom in what, at the time, appeared a totally non-Shakespearean light….

…. under the Subject Line  “ ‘principally by Tom’: Tom Bertram, Closet Embroiderer” .

In that post, in a nutshell (not to be confused with Hamlet’s infinitely spacious, imaginary nut shell), I took note of something curious about Tom buried just beneath the surface of the following passage in Chapter 16 of Mansfield Park:

"It would be so horrible to [Fanny] to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples; and as she looked around her, the claims of her cousins to being obliged were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them. The table between the windows was covered with work-boxes and netting-boxes which had been given her at different times, principally by Tom; and she grew bewildered as to the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced."

Specifically, I suggested that the reference to the numerous embroidery-oriented gifts passed by Tom (the only donor, and the only gifts, to be specifically identified)  to Fanny as hand-me-downs , was evidence--- when viewed alongside other previously noted aspects of Tom’s characterization--- of his being gay or bisexual. My claim was greeted with skepticism by some.

Well, an hour ago, while following up on various Hamletian echoes in the text of Mansfield Park, I came across two new textual clues in rapid succession—one that I recognized as Hamletian from the start, the other that came into focus as having Hamletian aspects, upon examination, and the latter of which greatly bolsters my claim as to Tom Bertram’s sexuality.

First, I realized that the reference to “all these kind remembrances” in the above-quoted passage in Mansfield Park is itself a veiled allusion by Jane Austen to Ophelia’s returning certain gifts to Hamlet--which Ophelia, like Fanny, calls “remembrances”---because he has soured on her:

Ophelia doesn’t want to keep Hamlet’s love-gifts because, as he makes crystal and painfully clear, he doesn’t love her any more. But she chooses not to be direct, and instead opts for the word “re-deliver”, in order to frame her return of gifts as a sort of repayment, as of a debt, rather than the truth, so as to salvage some pride in the aftermath of Hamlet’s cruel jilt.  

Now, what might JA have meant by this particular veiled Shakespearean allusion? There is that same harmonious parallel between Hamlet and Tom that I’ve been fleshing out since yesterday, but the parallel hits a very discordant note in the seeming mismatch between Fanny and Ophelia! After all, Tom has not jilted his little cousin! The incestuous overtones in Mansfield Park are between Fanny and Edmund, and between Fanny and William. And, conversely, the jilter in Mansfield Park is Henry Crawford, and the jiltee is Maria Bertram. But Fanny and Tom---no way, no how, it just doesn’t work, romantically speaking. Tom has never been even remotely hinted as having feelings for Fanny, or vice versa.

But…it’s also for sure that Jane Austen means to raise this echo in the reader’s mind. It’s a puzzlement… until we take Tom out of the picture here, romantically speaking, and instead focus just on Fanny as Ophelia. As I promised, above, I will tell you now that Julian Wilmot Wynne made the following catch regarding yet another parallel between Fanny and Ophelia, besides their shared “remembrance” passages:

“Edmund’s remark ‘We all talk Shakespeare’ is, we shall see, more than JA’s theatrical wink, but there are other echoes of famous lines. Fanny is told “you do not quite know your own feelings” cf
Polonius “I must tell you You do not understand yourself so clearly (Hamlet 1.3)…”

It is Sir Thomas who says that to Fanny in Chapter 32, as he begins his relentless, cruel campaign to pressure her into marrying Henry Crawford. He cannot conceive how she could not feel love and gratitude toward Henry, and so he begins, with characteristic narcissism, by simply telling Fanny she really does love Henry after all—Uncle knows best!

And note now how nicely that aligns alongside Polonius’s advice to Ophelia, before Hamlet breaks up with her. Polonius is just like Sir Thomas in his crude attempt to override his daughter’s feelings about an ardent suitor, even as he gives her the opposite advice, i.e., he warns Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s “lovers vows”, whereas Sir Thomas pushes Fanny to trust Crawford’s “lovers vows:

And guess what, not long after, Polonius does a uey, and does not hesitate to order Ophelia to come on to Hamlet, in order to find out whether Hamlet is really crazy. So Polonius and Sir Thomas are two men of power who would have absolutely no trouble understanding each other—being a daughter or a niece to one of them is not a good spot to find yourself in!

So…does that end discussion re the allusion by Jane Austen to “remembrances”?  Actually, not. I think there’s another piece, which I saw after further reflection, and rereading of the quoted passage in Chapter 16. I realized that an additional interpretation had been carefully prepared by Jane Austen all along. Even though (characteristically) she never dots the “i”, she expects her readers to do so, and to figure these connections out via close reading and rereading, and taking her textual hints and knots seriously enough to really spend time to properly and satisfyingly unravel them. And that’s what I did.

The other answer is right there in the beginning of the quoted paragraph:

“It would be so horrible to [Fanny] to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples…”

Fanny is still feeling great pressure to perform in Lovers Vows, and an extremely strong feeling of obligation to Tom in particular, because she knows that it is Tom who is the driving force behind the production of Lovers Vows (just as Hamlet is the “stage director” of The Murder of Gonzago at Elsinore). And it was only three chapters earlier that she was subjected to all the intense pressure I described in my preceding post, instigated by Tom’s insistence that it be she who must play Cottager’s Wife.

So, to tie this double-sided first allusion in an elegant bow, it is in fact Tom, as the Hamletian Impresario of Conscience Catching Theatre, to whom Fanny feels indebted, and wonders whether the proper item for her to “re-deliver” to him is her performance in Lovers Vows—and as we learn in the very next chapter, she does wind up deciding to repay her old debts to him, even though her uncle’s return prevents the “repayment” from being made!

(pause for a break…)

Now, I promised you a second allusion for the price of reading one blog post, and so here it is now, and it won’t take long at all. It’s one I found, quite ironically, while searching for a particular Hamletian word in Mansfield Park (which I’ll write about tomorrow). That search led me (coincidentally, or perhaps planned by Jane Austen?) to a passage in Chapter 2, which I now recognize as the bookend to the one in Chapter 16 about the netting-boxes and the work-boxes which comprised Tom’s “remembrances” to Fanny:

Chapter 2: “Edmund was uniformly kind himself; and she had nothing worse to endure on the part of Tom than that sort of merriment which a young man of seventeen will always think fair with a child of ten. He was just entering into life, full of spirits, and with all the liberal dispositions of an eldest son, who feels born only for expense and enjoyment. His kindness to his little cousin was consistent with his situation and rights: he made her SOME VERY PRETTY PRESENTS, and laughed at her.”

It’s that last sentence, in which we learn that Tom Bertram, even as a teenager, was making “some very pretty presents” to Fanny. It fits like a glove with the passage about the netting- and work- boxes.

So...why would Jane Austen go to the trouble of giving these two hints as toTom Bertram’s feminine side, fourteen chapters apart, if it wasn’t significant to her? I suggest it was very significant to her, because these were two key parts of her delicately “embroidered” portrait of Tom as gay or bisexual.

In fact, it has all the telltale signs of a subliminal portrait by Jane Austen, who was the grande dame of such productions! I’ve unearthed so many of them over the past decade, so I have come to recognize her M.O. 

Let’s put it this way: a hack writer would have simply told the reader that Tom was gay; a lesser writer of merit would have placed these two hints in the same paragraph, so that the reader would have to be inattentive not to connect them. But Jane Austen operated according to her own rules, so she placed them fourteen chapters apart, and connected them both to Hamlet to boot, and left all the connections completely implicit, because she was the greatest novelist in history, that’s why!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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