(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Nanny as Mrs. Norris's Forbidden Bedfellow in Mansfield Park, Part 1: Evidence in the Novel

 In our current Group Read of Mansfield Park in Janeites and Austen-L, after Christy Somer quoted the passage in Ch. 1 about Nanny being offered to bring Fanny to Mansfield Park, there were several comments about Nanny and why the narrator refers to Nanny dropping in unexpectedly on her London cousin as an “attack”.

I chimed  in as follows, based on my previous post about Mrs. Norris’s overhasty reveal to her sister about always keeping a bed for a friend, i.e., Mrs. Norris as a closeted lesbian:

It didn’t occur to me the other night that Nanny might be part of that lesbian subtext, but now I see that she most definitely is, as I will explain, below.

First, the word “attack” is certainly not a positive description of Mrs. Norris’s plan for Nanny to ask her cousin for the favor of providing Nanny with a bed (that word again) in London for a night, so that Nanny can be waiting to collect Fanny there (notice the rhyme) and bring Fanny back to Mansfield Park. In fact, the word “attack” is used a total of13 times in MP (this being the first one), which is nearly half the number of times it is used in the other five Austen novels COMBINED,  so it is a word I believe JA wanted her readers to particularly notice when reading MP. In this instance, this narrative usage seems to attribute that negative description of Nanny’s actions to Sir Thomas—for some reason, he does not like Nanny, and so gratuitously characterizes what would seem to be a generous action on her part, imposing on a cousin in order to help Fanny get to Mansfield Park from London under the secure chaperoneship of a trusted adult, instead as an act worthy of criticism. Sounds like Sir Thomas has some “issues” with Nanny, and what might those issues be? Chapter 3 would seem to give us a big clue in that regard.

Second, JA goes out of her way to put into Mrs. Norris’s mouth a detail about Nanny which can superficially be explained as more of Mrs. Norris’s characteristic self-importance and phony altruism:

“I am not one of those that spare their own trouble; and NANNY shall fetch her, however it may put me to inconvenience to have my chief counsellor away for three days.”

This is the same phony self-importance that Mrs. Elton (she who famously boasts “I always stand up for women”!) expresses when /she /metaphorically also assumes a position of governmental authority:

"I mentioned no /names/, you will observe.—Oh! no; cautious as a minister of state. I managed it extremely well."

And it’s absolutely no coincidence that here in Chapter 1, as she will do again in Chapter 3, Mrs. Norris is very quick and decisive in pushing strongly for Fanny to live at Mansfield Park itself. No one explicitly mentions the White House as a possible living arrangement, but now we can see that after he agrees to Fanny living at Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas, in his characteristic indirect way, keeps obliquely hinting at this, when he voices his worry about Fanny’s getting too much sense of equality with her female cousins, and too much sense of romance with her male cousins, if she lives at Mansfield Park. It’s obvious, when you reflect on it, that had Fanny been placed from the start with the Norrises in the White House, both of those worries would have been completely nipped in the bud, so to speak.

So we now see that Mrs. Norris’s not wanting Fanny to live at her house is not a position that she suddenly arrives at in Chapter 3, after Mr. Norris dies—no, she was on exactly the same page before Fanny even showed up at Mansfield Park, and Mrs. Norris was just as proactive to make sure to situate Fanny at Mansfield Park when she was a young girl as when she was a teenager. And we are also therefore meant to recall the negative reactions of Sir Thomas to Nanny in Chapter 1, when we read Mrs. Norris’s gambit in Chapter 3---it’s a pattern that JA is hammering home early in the novel.

And, just in case we might have missed these very early hints, JA makes sure to “ping” us with one more very suggestive mention of Nanny, more than half the novel later, in Chapter 32, when we read:

"If I had known you were going out, I should have got you just to go as far as my house with some orders for NANNY," said she, "which I have since, to my very great inconvenience, been obliged to go and carry myself. I could very ill spare the time, and you might have saved me the trouble, if you would only have been so good as to let us know you were going out. It would have made no difference to you, I suppose, whether you had walked in the shrubbery or gone to my house."
 "I recommended the shrubbery to Fanny as the driest place," said Sir Thomas.
 "Oh!" said Mrs. Norris, with a moment's check, "that was very kind of you, Sir Thomas; but you do not know how dry the path is to my house. Fanny would have had quite as good a walk there, I assure you, with the advantage of being of some use, and obliging her aunt: it is all her fault. If she would but have let us know she was going out but there is a something about Fanny, I have often observed it before—she likes to go her own way to work; she does not like to be dictated to; she takes her own independent walk whenever she can; she certainly has a little spirit of secrecy, and independence, and nonsense, about her, which I would advise her to get the better of."

What’s very revealing here is that Mrs. Norris’s complaint about Fanny not having volunteered herself as a messenger provides her with an innocent rationale for why Mrs. Norris herself had to make a special trip to her house in order to carry “some orders for Nanny”. Hmm….

Haven’t we seen this same misleading gambit before in another of JA’s novels? In her next novel, JA would present us with another character, Frank Churchill, who cleverly justifies a walk to a certain destination—the Bates residence--with an explanation which we later learn was a cover story for the ulterior motive for choosing that destination in particular:

“A reasonable visit paid, Mr. Weston began to move.—"He must be going. He had business at the Crown about his hay, and a great many errands for Mrs. Weston at Ford's, but he need not hurry any body else." His son, too well bred to hear the hint, rose immediately also, saying, "As you are going farther on business, sir, I will take the opportunity of paying a visit, which must be paid some day or other, and therefore may as well be paid now. I have the honour of being acquainted with a neighbour of yours, (turning to Emma,) a lady residing in or near Highbury; a family of the name of Fairfax. I shall have no difficulty, I suppose, in finding the house; though Fairfax, I believe, is not the proper name—I should rather say Barnes, or Bates. Do you know any family of that name?"
 "To be sure we do," cried his father; "Mrs. Bates—we passed her house—I saw Miss Bates at the window. True, true, you are acquainted with Miss Fairfax; I remember you knew her at Weymouth, and a fine girl she is. Call upon her, by all means."
"There is no necessity for my calling this morning," said the young man; "another day would do as well; but there was that degree of acquaintance at Weymouth which—"
"Oh! go to-day, go to-day. Do not defer it. What is right to be done cannot be done too soon. And, besides, I must give you a hint, Frank; any want of attention to her /here/ should be carefully avoided. You saw her with the Campbells, when she was the equal of every body she mixed with, but here she is with a poor old grandmother, who has barely enough to live on. If you do not call early it will be a slight."
The son looked convinced….”

Frank protests way too much about needing to be convinced to go there, as we all recognize upon rereading. Now we can see that this was not JA’s first foray into such a plot element---it’s the same exact game being played by Mrs. Norris, both concealing a romantically-charged liaison with a forbidden partner. With Frank, we can all agree that JA did this on purpose, because Frank’s secret relationship with Jane is revealed at the end of the novel. However, due to its explosiveness, JA obviously was not going to overtly reveal that Mrs. Norris has been a lesbian all along.

No, the same reason why I believe JA was pressured to omit Mrs. Norris’s too-revealing admission about always keeping a bed for a friend in the second edition of MP, is what pushes JA to leaves this subtext about Mrs. Norris’s lesbianism to be found only by the sharp elves who have a great deal of ingenuity themselves.

And speaking of sharp elves, I now wonder if I should add to my growing list of praises for Nora Ephron for her many astute Austenian subtexts in /You’ve Got Mail/, one more, this one about NANNY Maureen being subtly revealed as a lesbian in a quintessentially Austenian way a few
scenes before the explicit reveal:

It appears more and more to me that Nora Ephron was one of the sharpest elves we had in Austenworld.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: