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

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Amazing Connections Among Mrs. Grant’s “Favourite Sitting-Room”, Dr. Grant’s Unholy Trinity of Last Suppers & Mary’s Passion: Strange Business Indeed!

The following is a series of three posts I wrote in Janeites and Austen L yesterday and today, which are yet another illustration of the amazingly significant hidden interconnections between widely separated passages in Jane Austen novels---in this case, as my Subject Line suggests, Mansfield Park. I present this as a series, to illustrate the process of how insight emerges in such a discovery, not all at once, but in a series of lurching steps toward enlightenment as to more implications.


I just noticed today that there is an unmistakably intentional, but very sly, resonance between the following two passages in Mansfield Park, having to do, I claim, with speculations about Mrs. Grant's unfulfilling sex life--one of them, by the narrator, being implicit, the other, by Tom Bertram, being very explicit:

Ch. 4: Admiral Crawford was a man of vicious conduct, who chose, instead of retaining his niece, to bring his mistress under his own roof; and to this Mrs. Grant was indebted for her sister's proposal of coming to her, a measure quite as welcome on one side as it could be expedient on the other; for Mrs. Grant, having by this time run through the usual resources of ladies residing in the country without a family of children—having more than filled her favourite sitting-room with pretty furniture, and made a
choice collection of plants and poultry—WAS VERY MUCH IN WANT WANT OF SOME VARIETY AT HOME. The arrival, therefore, of a sister whom she had always loved, and now hoped to retain with her as long as she remained single, was highly agreeable; and her chief anxiety was lest Mansfield should not satisfy the habits of a young woman who had been mostly used to London.

Ch. 12: [After Fanny declines Tom's half-hearted invitation to dance with him]
"I am glad of it," said he, in a much brisker tone, and throwing down the newspaper again, "for I am tired to death. I only wonder how the good people can keep it up so long. They had need be all in love, to find any amusement in such folly; and so they are, I fancy. If you look at them you may see they are so many couple of lovers—all but Yates and Mrs. Grant—and, between ourselves, she, poor woman, MUST WANT A LOVER as much as any one of them. A DESPERATE DULL LIFE HERS must be with the doctor," making a sly face as he spoke towards the chair of the latter...

So, isn't it curious that Tom Bertram makes explicit what the narrator of MP only hints at? It raises an outside-the-box take on MP, to think of the complex perspective of the narrator being in some significant way aligned with the perspective of the world-weary, Hamletian Tom Bertram.


Diane wrote: "Arnie, You quote…Tom Bertram from MP…But why should we trust would Tom says about Mrs. Grant? Is he reliable? And why doesn't he mention Yates also having a dull life without a love
interest? That to me seems the significant point. What I am saying is that it would be completely like JA to use Tom's unreliable opinion to mislead us. I do remember at one point you likened Mrs. Grant to Madame Pompadour and suggested she was having an affair with Lord Thomas? Of course, I don't see the earlier narrative about Mrs. Grant being in want of some variety at home as sexual ... odd as that may seem coming from me."

Diane, are you hinting by that last comment that you are.....a desperate housewife yourself?   ;)

But whole point is that the echoing between these two passages separated by a number of chapters, both of them about Mrs. Grant being in want of something to add some spice to her life, is surely intentional on JA's part, and THAT provokes the question: what extra hint did JA mean to convey to those who heard the echo between them?

I think it's crystal clear. The first passage....

"...Mrs. Grant, having by this time run through the usual resources of ladies residing in the country without a family of children, having more than filled her favourite sitting-room with pretty furniture, and made a choice collection of plants and poultry, —WAS VERY MUCH IN WANT WANT
OF SOME VARIETY AT HOME...." catalyzed by the second paragraph, like flipping a light switch, causing the sexual innuendo hidden in the shadows of the first passage to light up like a Christmas tree.

It's a quintessential example of the kind of interchapter veiled allusion of which there are dozens in each of the six novels, like secret two-headed clues embedded all over the place, waiting to be noticed upon
rereadings. To fail to attend to these little two headed textual monsters is to miss some of JA's most telling clues as to her deeper meanings.

Anyway, read this particular two headed beast in that light, that first passage reminds me strongly of Betty Friedan's groundbreaking 1963 catalyst to second wave feminism, The Feminine Mystique, described thusly in Wikipedia:

"The Feminine Mystique begins with an introduction describing what Friedan called "the problem that has no name"—the widespread unhappiness of women in the 1950s and early 1960s. It discusses the lives of several housewives from around the United States who were unhappy despite living in material comfort and being married with children."

Of course, Friedan was talking about a variety of problems of married American women in 1963, one of which was a lack of sexual fulfilment. And I hear in the wry tone of the MP narrator a strong hint that Mrs. Grant was in want of variety in ways which even having a sister around would not satisfy. And note the sly sexual pun that JA adds, hinting that Mrs. Grant's "sitting room", (like Cressida's "chamber" that she invites Troilus to "come into again")....

....was not really "filled up" by Dr. Grant. And that's precisely where Tom's explicitly sexual comment comes into play.

Besides Friedan's nonfiction book, I am also reminded of Masters of Sex, which of course can be seen, in part, as a dramatization of American marriage at the very moment Friedan wrote her great book. Mrs. Masters and Mrs. Grant have a lot in common.


Get ready for another (previously unexploded) bombshell about what we might aptly call the "strange business" with Mrs. Grant's (sexually metaphorical) "favourite sitting-room", and other matters hinted at in my Subject Line, all of which I came upon during my routine followup searches this morning.

The process of my further illumination in this regard began when I learned that ANOTHER Austen scholar had previously, way back in 2006, come up with the following identical sexual interpretation of the narration about Mrs. Grant in Chapter 4:

Persuasions Online Volume 27, 2006
"Sex, Debility, and Lady Bertram: Lover or Loafer?" by Pauline Beard

"...Finally, we come to the married childless women in Mansfield Park, Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Norris.  Mrs. Grant, described as being one “to love and be loved” (469), is clearly not being sexually loved enough.  Her husband, Dr. Grant, an “indolent, stay at-home man” with a penchant for “drinking claret every day” (47), seems to prefer eating to any other activity, and his wife panders to her husband’s fondness for food, especially “butter and eggs” (31). The narrator tells us that “having by this time run through the usual resources of ladies residing in the country without a family of children; having more than filled her favourite sitting-room with pretty furniture, and made a choice collection of plants and poultry, [Mrs. Grant] was very much in want of some variety at home” (41).  FOR "VARIETY", ONE COULD READ SEXUAL ACTIVITY sadly lacking in Mrs. Grant’s life, and her energy and liveliness show the very real need of other activity to fill that void.  When Dr. Grant dies of apoplexy brought on by “three great institutionary dinners in one week” (469), the void is filled (perhaps) by living with her half-sister, the morally bankrupt Mary Crawford...."

Pauline (whom I know, and who has written other insightful outside the box articles about JA as well) does not mention Tom's comment about Mrs. Grant's deadly dull sex life, so she seems not to have consciously noticed that textual interconnection. But I will have to ask her whether she thinks she had what I call a Trojan Horse Moment, i.e., did she subconsciously connect the textual dots without realizing it?  For me, the process of illumination was as I wrote yesterday, i.e., it was only after I conscious noticed the link to Tom's comment, that the Chapter 4 narration’s sexual meaning became obvious. I have found a thousand times that JA always thoughtfully provided multiple textual doors and wormholes opening into her shadow story submerged plotlines!

Anyway, here's the further bombshell. When I read Pauline's final comments about what I playfully will call Dr. Grant's Unholy Trinity of Last Suppers (which by the way occur about a month after Good Friday, and so I wonder if JA constructed her plot’s hidden calendar so that one of his institutionary dinners occurred on a post-Easter Anglican feast day?), I had another epiphany about a SECOND interchapter parallel ALSO about Mrs. Grant’s sex life!  

I.e., just as the narrator in Chapter 4 refers to Mary's arrival at the parsonage as a remedy for Mrs. Grant's malaise upon moving in there, so also is Mary involved in a strikingly similar role right after the Grants leave the parsonage:

“Mrs. Grant, with a temper to love and be loved, must have gone with some regret from the scenes and people she had been used to; but the same happiness of disposition must in any place, and any society, secure her a great deal to enjoy, and she had again a home to offer Mary; and 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; for Mary, though perfectly resolved against ever attaching herself to a younger brother again, was long in finding among the dashing representatives, or idle heir-apparents, who were at the command of her beauty, and her 20,000, any one who could satisfy the better taste she had acquired at Mansfield, whose character and manners could authorise a hope of the domestic happiness she had there learned to estimate, or put Edmund Bertram sufficiently out of her head.”

Don’t you see? As Pauline Beard rightly picked up, Mrs. Grant’s “temper to love and be loved” also has a sexual connotation, but I think it’s even more outside-the-box than merely a non-specific allusion to her  sexual frustration. This entire passage, which goes on and on about Mary’s continuing uninterest in her male suitors is, I claim, directly connected to what Rozema hinted at in her 1999 film, and what I and Aintzane Legarreta have written about more recently, i.e., about Mary Crawford being, if not lesbian, at least bisexual! In MP, JA’s novel that is filled from one end to the other with incestuous overtones of every possible permutation, and I claim that I have now found yet another one, i.e., the more than sisterly attachment between Mary and Mrs. Grant! 

Read in this vein, the “better taste” that Mary acquired at Mansfield would include a taste for same sex love. And since Mary could not have her primary same-sex love object, Fanny, she must settle, as was perhaps already a fait accompli at the Parsonage, for the sexual love of her half-sister—what JA makes sure we take note of, is  that men were not welcome guests invited to “come into” Mary’s “chamber”.

Now, Nancy, don’t get me wrong---if we take this sexual subtext seriously, and I do, this is not just (as some might suggest) a foolish or leering sexual mockery on JA’s part. I believe JA intended Mary’s and Mrs. Grant’s sexual stories, when fully understood, to be poignant ones, about their struggles to live an authentic sexual life undercover, in a society that would never tolerate open expression of same.

And…this also connects to my longstanding assertion that Dr. Grant’s death was not accidental – once Mary and Mrs. Grant take up permanent residence together, I suspect that Tom Bertram, when and if he heard the news, would have smiled cynically and pointed out  that this was indeed some very “strange business” indeed, and that there was no longer any need for the “beard” of a husband, especially a bon vivant  who went  berserk over the preparation of a goose!

ADDED 12:30 EST 5/24/14: 

In Janeites, Nancy Mayer wrote re the above:

"This actually is a well reasoned idea with logical connections. The fact that I don't believe that the words are meant to refer to sexual connections doesn't detract from the fact that this time Arnie's interpretation is more possible than most of his."

Nancy, I will gratefully take that praise even with the "actually". I only hope that your good opinion of my abstruse lucubrations, once earned, will henceforth be kept by me--at least as to some of my best stuff--forever. ;)

I would also like to briefly add some explanation, by analogy, of why I believe you found this particular interpretation of mine more plausible than most of my previous ones. You tell me if you agree. The analogy to a crossword or sudoku puzzle is instructive. In solving diabolical levels of both of those kinds of puzzles, a hobby (and mental discipline) which I have long been addicted to, I often find that once I've clawed and struggled my way to filling in a critical mass of the puzzle blank boxes, a tipping point is then reached, after which I can race through the remainder of the puzzle, going faster and faster as I near the end.

Why does this happen? Because then I have a much clearer perspective on the remaining unsolved clues, in one or more of the following respects: I've filled in some of the letters in a given answer; By solving one of the long answers, I've discovered the overall theme of the entire puzzle, that gives me a big leg up on solving the remaining long answers; and My subconscious mind has been working on some of the trickiest clues long enough to realize the pun, skewed perspective, or less common meaning of a given word.

For me, I reached that tipping point in my Austen research project about 2 years ago, when I began to notice that clues I had detected at different times were beginning to fit together, and portions of the jigsaw puzzle (a metaphor I believe JA intended to apply to the gradual discovery of her coherent shadow stories) were starting to connect TO EACH OTHER! all my friends who've been urging me the past 6 years to just finally finish the damned book already, my intuition has told me to keep at it. And I've been rewarded for my stubbornness, because today I am, on a daily basis, finding higher quality stuff than I found 6 years ago on a weekly basis, and 3 years ago on a biweekly basis. In revisiting topics I once thought I had exhausted, I am connecting and building larger and larger shadow narrative structures, which are more and more convincing even to hardened skeptics like Nancy.

In this instance of my latest posts about Mrs. Grant, discovering the connected subtext of those 2 passages about her being in want of variety/a lover, led me almost immediately to the 2 passages pointing to Mary as a sexual partner for Mrs. Grant, which in turn connected to my longstanding findings about Mary being an undeclared lesbian suitor for Fanny's affections. Each of those pieces of the puzzle are less convincing standing alone, than they are when assembled as a coherent whole. Or so it all seems to me from my perspective.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter