I have written on numerous occasions in the past about my discovery, in September 2006, that the “Mrs. Pole” who wrote the following brilliant opinion about Mansfield Park….
"There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A----'s works -- they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman -- most Novellists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high Life; some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are NOT EXPERIMENTALLY ACQUAINTED with what they describe, but here it is quite different. Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a manner which clearly evinces the Writer to belong to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates…"
…was not only the illegitimate daughter of an earl, she earned her place in history by becoming, as a middle-aged widow, the last wife of the then-elderly Erasmus Darwin, and therefore ultimately the step-grandmama of one of the greatest “experimenters” in history, Charles Darwin!
I have written several posts about her over the years, including my belief that she was a node in a network of highborn female admirers of JA’s writing, which can be readily retrieved with the search function at this blog. However, today I bring Mrs. Pole aka Elizabeth Darwin to your attention for her brilliant subtle insight into the pervasive meaning of the word “acquaintance” in Mansfield Park, in a way I never before previously noticed. As you will see, “acquaintance” actually is a kind of chain upon which hangs all the major themes of the novel, like so many brilliant pearls!
To begin, then, I point you to where she writes “most Novellists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high Life; some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are NOT EXPERIMENTALLY ACQUAINTED with what they describe, but here it is quite different. Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a manner which clearly evinces the Writer to belong to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates."
I was strikingly reminded of Mrs. Pole’s opinion this morning while reading the following passage in Chapter 11 of MP (while researching yet another, closely related Austen topic I will be blogging about later this week)—the key word to watch for is, as you realize by now, “acquainted”:
"It is the same sort of thing," said Fanny, after a short pause, "as for the son of an admiral to go into the navy, or the son of a general to be in the army, and nobody sees anything wrong in that. Nobody wonders that they should prefer the line where their friends can serve them best, or suspects them to be less in earnest in it than they appear."
"No, my dear Miss Price, and for reasons good. The profession, either navy or army, is its own justification. It has everything in its favour: heroism, danger, bustle, fashion. Soldiers and sailors are always acceptable in society. Nobody can wonder that men are soldiers and sailors."
"But the motives of a man who takes orders with the certainty of preferment may be fairly suspected, you think?" said Edmund. "To be justified in your eyes, he must do it in the most complete uncertainty of any provision."
"What! take orders without a living! No; that is madness indeed; absolute madness."
"Shall I ask you how the church is to be filled, if a man is neither to take orders with a living nor without? No; for you certainly would not know what to say. But I must beg some advantage to the clergyman from your own argument. As he cannot be influenced by those feelings which you rank highly as temptation and reward to the soldier and sailor in their choice of a profession, as heroism, and noise, and fashion, are all against him, he ought to be less liable to the suspicion of wanting sincerity or good intentions in the choice of his."
"Oh! no doubt he is very sincere in preferring an income ready made, to the trouble of working for one; and has the best intentions of doing nothing all the rest of his days but eat, drink, and grow fat. It is indolence, Mr. Bertram, indeed. Indolence and love of ease; a want of all laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble of being agreeable, which make men clergymen. A clergyman has nothing to do but be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine."
"There are such clergymen, no doubt, but I think they are not so common as to justify Miss Crawford in esteeming it their general character. I suspect that in this comprehensive and (may I say) commonplace censure, you are not judging from yourself, but from prejudiced persons, whose opinions you have been in the habit of hearing. It is impossible that your own observation can have given you much knowledge of the clergy. You can have been PERSONALLY ACQUAINTED with very few of a set of men you condemn so conclusively. You are speaking what you have been told at your uncle's table."
"I speak what appears to me the general opinion; and where an opinion is general, it is usually correct. Though I have not seen much of the domestic lives of clergymen, it is seen by too many to leave any deficiency of information."
"Where any one body of educated men, of whatever denomination, are condemned indiscriminately, there must be a deficiency of information, or (smiling) of something else. Your uncle, and his brother admirals, perhaps knew little of clergymen beyond the chaplains whom, good or bad, they were always wishing away."
"Poor William! He has met with great kindness from the chaplain of the Antwerp," was a tender apostrophe of Fanny's, very much to the purpose of her own feelings if not of the conversation.
"I have been so little addicted to take my opinions from my uncle," said Miss Crawford, "that I can hardly suppose—and since you push me so hard, I must observe, that I am not entirely without the means of seeing what clergymen are, being at this present time the guest of my own brother, Dr. Grant. And though Dr. Grant is most kind and obliging to me, and though he is really a gentleman, and, I dare say, a good scholar and clever, and often preaches good sermons, and is very respectable, 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."
"I do not wonder at your disapprobation, upon my word. It is a great defect of temper, made worse by a very faulty habit of self-indulgence; and to see your sister suffering from it must be exceedingly painful to such feelings as yours. Fanny, it goes against us. We cannot attempt to defend Dr. Grant."
I think you can readily guess what I infer from comparing Mrs. Pole/Darwin’s favorable comment about Jane Austen’s insightful acquaintance with the English gentry, with the vigorous debate between Edmund and Mary as to whether Mary has demonstrated an insightful acquaintance with the Anglican clergy which she so eloquently condemns, or has instead, as Edmund suggests, merely been parroting her uncle’s presumably sacrilegious opinions.
Jane Austen, among the greatest studiers of character in the history of literature, like her great admirer, Charles Darwin in his own field, understood the vital importance of actual observation—as opposed to uncritical acceptance of dogma—in the search for truth and wisdom about all of nature, including the human sector.
And reading about “acquaintance” in that passage in turn immediately reminded me of another even more famous passage in MP in the same vein, this one earlier, in Chapter 6:
"Do you know anything of my cousin's captain?" said Edmund; "Captain Marshall? You have a large ACQUAINTANCE in the navy, I conclude?"
"Among admirals, large enough; but," with an air of grandeur, "we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post-captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us. Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal: of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me ACQUAINTED with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat."
Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, "It is a noble profession."
"Yes, the profession is well enough under two circumstances: if it make the fortune, and there be discretion in spending it; but, in short, it is not a favourite profession of mine. It has never worn an amiable form to me."
Edmund reverted to the harp, and was again very happy in the prospect of hearing her play.
Clearly, JA means for us to link these two passages separated by only 5 chapters, both passages containing Mary Crawford’s deliberately provocative and harsh satirical judgments on two of England’s most sacred cows, the British Navy and the Anglican Clergy. And in both cases, a key point under consideration is the degree of Mary’s acquaintance with the institutions she so roundly condemns—I personally think Mary nails it in both cases, because she is a keen observer of moral corruption & hypocrisy.
And that’s when it occurred to me that these two passages are connected by this thread of judgment based on personal or experimental acquaintance to a third passage, in Chapter 14 of MP, in which it is Inchbald’s controversial play, Lover’s Vows, and beyond it, more generally the theatre itself, which are on trial, with Edmund and Maria this time being the opposing advocates. The key question of personal acquaintance is raised yet again, with Maria this time claiming acquaintance with Lover’s Vows in her advocacy for it.
It is a sharp and wonderful irony that this debate is hijacked by Mrs. Norris, who proceeds to give detailed testimony which bears implicitly but strongly on yet another hot-button contemporary moral issue about another sector of English society, i.e., the working poor, with Mrs. Norris’s comments making it clear that her own acquaintance with the likes of the Jacksons has taught her that the poor are dangerous would-be encroachers on the “rightful” privileges of the rich:
In a few minutes Mr. Bertram was called out of the room to satisfy some doubts of the carpenter; and being accompanied by Mr. Yates, and followed soon afterwards by Mr. Rushworth, Edmund almost immediately took the opportunity of saying, "I cannot, before Mr. Yates, speak what I feel as to this play, without reflecting on his friends at Ecclesford; but I must now, my dear Maria, tell you, that I think it exceedingly unfit for private representation, and that I hope you will give it up. I cannot but suppose you will when you have read it carefully over. Read only the first act aloud to either your mother or aunt, and see how you can approve it. It will not be necessary to send you to your father's judgment, I am convinced."
"We see things very differently," cried Maria. "I am PERFECTLY ACQUAINTED with the play, I assure you; and with a very few omissions, and so forth, which will be made, of course, I can see nothing objectionable in it; and I am not the only young woman you find who thinks it very fit for private representation."
"I am sorry for it," was his answer; "but in this matter it is you who are to lead. You must set the example. If others have blundered, it is your place to put them right, and shew them what true delicacy is. In all points of decorum your conduct must be law to the rest of the party."
This picture of her consequence had some effect, for no one loved better to lead than Maria; and with far more good-humour she answered, "I am much obliged to you, Edmund; you mean very well, I am sure: but I still think you see things too strongly; and I really cannot undertake to harangue all the rest upon a subject of this kind. There would be the greatest indecorum, I think."
"Do you imagine that I could have such an idea in my head? No; let your conduct be the only harangue. Say that, on examining the part, you feel yourself unequal to it; that you find it requiring more exertion and confidence than you can be supposed to have. Say this with firmness, and it will be quite enough. All who can distinguish will understand your motive. The play will be given up, and your delicacy honoured as it ought."
"Do not act anything improper, my dear," said Lady Bertram. "Sir Thomas would not like it.—Fanny, ring the bell; I must have my dinner.—To be sure, Julia is dressed by this time."
"I am convinced, madam," said Edmund, preventing Fanny, "that Sir Thomas would not like it."
"There, my dear, do you hear what Edmund says?"
"If I were to decline the part," said Maria, with renewed zeal, "Julia would certainly take it."
"What!" cried Edmund, "if she knew your reasons!"
"Oh! she might think the difference between us—the difference in our situations—that she need not be so scrupulous as I might feel necessary. I am sure she would argue so. No; you must excuse me; I cannot retract my consent; it is too far settled, everybody would be so disappointed, Tom would be quite angry; and if we are so very nice, we shall never act anything."
"I was just going to say the very same thing," said Mrs. Norris. "If every play is to be objected to, you will act nothing, and the preparations will be all so much money thrown away, and I am sure that would be a discredit to us all. I do not know the play; but, as Maria says, if there is anything a little too warm (and it is so with most of them) it can be easily left out. We must not be over-precise, Edmund. As Mr. Rushworth is to act too, there can be no harm. I only wish Tom had known his own mind when the carpenters began, for there was the loss of half a day's work about those side-doors. The curtain will be a good job, however. The maids do their work very well, and I think we shall be able to send back some dozens of the rings. There is no occasion to put them so very close together. I am of some use, I hope, in preventing waste and making the most of things. There should always be one steady head to superintend so many young ones. I forgot to tell Tom of something that happened to me this very day. I had been looking about me in the poultry-yard, and was just coming out, when who should I see but Dick Jackson making up to the servants' hall-door with two bits of deal board in his hand, bringing them to father, you may be sure; mother had chanced to send him of a message to father, and then father had bid him bring up them two bits of board, for he could not no how do without them. I knew what all this meant, for the servants' dinner-bell was ringing at the very moment over our heads; and as I hate such encroaching people (the Jacksons are very encroaching, I have always said so: just the sort of people to get all they can), I said to the boy directly (a great lubberly fellow of ten years old, you know, who ought to be ashamed of himself), 'I'll take the boards to your father, Dick, so get you home again as fast as you can.' The boy looked very silly, and turned away without offering a word, for I believe I might speak pretty sharp; and I dare say it will cure him of coming marauding about the house for one while. I hate such greediness—so good as your father is to the family, employing the man all the year round!"
Nobody was at the trouble of an answer; the others soon returned; and Edmund found that to have endeavoured to set them right must be his only satisfaction.
And then, word searching led me to a fourth passage in MP, this one in Chapter 33, about acquaintance with the most elusive issue of all, love:
Nothing was omitted, on his side, of civility, compliment, or kindness, that might assist the plan. Mr. Crawford's steadiness was honoured, and Fanny was praised, and the connexion was still the most desirable in the world. At Mansfield Park Mr. Crawford would always be welcome; he had only to consult his own judgment and feelings as to the frequency of his visits, at present or in future. In all his niece's family and friends, there could be but one opinion, one wish on the subject; the influence of all who loved her must incline one way.
Everything was said that could encourage, every encouragement received with grateful joy, and the gentlemen parted the best of friends.
Satisfied that the cause was now on a footing the most proper and hopeful, Sir Thomas resolved to abstain from all farther importunity with his niece, and to shew no open interference. Upon her disposition he believed kindness might be the best way of working. Entreaty should be from one quarter only. The forbearance of her family on a point, respecting which she could be in no doubt of their wishes, might be their surest means of forwarding it. Accordingly, on this principle, Sir Thomas took the first opportunity of saying to her, with a mild gravity, intended to be overcoming, "Well, Fanny, I have seen Mr. Crawford again, and learn from him exactly how matters stand between you. He is a most extraordinary young man, and whatever be the event, you must feel that you have created an attachment of no common character; though, young as you are, and LITTLE ACQUAINTED WITH the transient, varying, unsteady nature of LOVE, as it generally exists, you cannot be struck as I am with all that is wonderful in a perseverance of this sort against discouragement. With him it is entirely a matter of feeling: he claims no merit in it; perhaps is entitled to none. Yet, having chosen so well, his constancy has a respectable stamp. Had his choice been less unexceptionable, I should have condemned his persevering."
"Indeed, sir," said Fanny, "I am very sorry that Mr. Crawford should continue to know that it is paying me a very great compliment, and I feel most undeservedly honoured; but I am so perfectly convinced, and I have told him so, that it never will be in my power—"
"My dear," interrupted Sir Thomas, "there is no occasion for this. Your feelings are as well known to me as my wishes and regrets must be to you. There is nothing more to be said or done. From this hour the subject is never to be revived between us. You will have nothing to fear, or to be agitated about. You cannot suppose me capable of trying to persuade you to marry against your inclinations. Your happiness and advantage are all that I have in view, and nothing is required of you but to bear with Mr. Crawford's endeavours to convince you that they may not be incompatible with his. He proceeds at his own risk. You are on safe ground. I have engaged for your seeing him whenever he calls, as you might have done had nothing of this sort occurred. You will see him with the rest of us, in the same manner, and, as much as you can, dismissing the recollection of everything unpleasant. He leaves Northamptonshire so soon, that even this slight sacrifice cannot be often demanded. The future must be very uncertain. And now, my dear Fanny, this subject is closed between us."
The promised departure was all that Fanny could think of with much satisfaction. Her uncle's kind expressions, however, and forbearing manner, were sensibly felt; and when she considered how much of the truth was unknown to him, she believed she had no right to wonder at the line of conduct he pursued. He, who had married a daughter to Mr. Rushworth: romantic delicacy was certainly not to be expected from him. She must do her duty, and trust that time might make her duty easier than it now was.
And then, JA cannot resist bringing the subject of art into this orbit of acquaintance, in Chapter 34:
"That play [Henry VIII] must be a favourite with you," said he; "you read as if you knew it well."
"It will be a favourite, I believe, from this hour," replied Crawford; "but I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets ACQUAINTED WITH WITHOUT KNOWING HOW. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately."
"No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree," said Edmund, "from one's earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent."
"Sir, you do me honour," was Crawford's answer, with a bow of mock gravity.
Of course, Henry does not really mean this at all, there is nothing osmotic about his acquaintance with Shakespeare, he clearly has studied Shakespeare with great care, and shows this, in the darkest way possible, by emulating in a variety of ingenious ways the techniques of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic manipulators, Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Claudius, and Cassius.
And finally, JA closes the clasp of the necklace of “acquaintances” in MP in Chapter 48, fittingly in this novel about family, with a meditation on parenthood, and the necessity for studying one’s own children if one wishes to understand and raise them well:
“Bitterly did [Sir Thomas] deplore a deficiency which now he could scarcely comprehend to have been possible. Wretchedly did he feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters without their understanding their first duties, OR HIS BEING ACQUAINTED with their character and temper.
And now I hope you all are better acquainted with how Mrs. Pole/Darwin really was herself intimately acquainted with the deepest meanings of Mansfield Park—and, I dare to speculate, perhaps was also intimately and personally acquainted with Jane Austen herself!
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