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

Saturday, August 9, 2014

“Crawford…Mr. Crawford…Crawford": A Quintessential Example of My Jane Austen Documentary Hypothesis

I just noticed something extraordinary in Chapter 34 of MP, after reading John Mullan's incisive, interesting discussion of variants in the narrator's naming of characters in JA's novels. Chapter 34 is the scene at Mansfield Park when Henry and Edmund discuss the art of the sermon after Henry reads chameleonically from Shakespeare, and thereby mesmerizes Fanny in spite of herself.

What I noticed--and it appears to be 100% consistent throughout Chapter 34--is that when the narration seems to be written from Fanny's point of view, Henry Crawford is invariably referred to as "Mr. Crawford", which is how Fanny addresses Henry when speaking to him---but when the narration seems to be from Edmund's point of view, Henry is invariably referred to by the narrator exactly as Edmund addresses Henry, which is simply as "Crawford"---and there must be a dozen such naked Crawfords, if you will, in Chapter 34, which subliminally, collectively, but silently screams out to the careful reader exactly when we are actually in Edmund's head, and not in Fanny's, during a not insignificant portion of Chapter 34.

You may be reminded of JA’s famous epigrammatical description of the narration of P&P in her letter to CEA:

“There are a few Typical errors–& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear–but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’”

Well, the unspoken corollary of JA’s playful and totally ironic description of her “typical errors”  is the following” “a ‘thought he’ or a ‘thought she’ would sometimes make the Narration more immediately clear—but, etc. etc.”  JA wants her  readers to stay on their  toes, and to be alert to clues in the text which can actually take the place of heavy-handed descriptions of who thought what.

The following short excerpt from Chapter 34 illustrates this perfectly---watch the narrator's flip-flop-flip of naming Henry, and how it tells us  whose mind we are inhabiting as we go:

[Edmund observing Fanny being mesmerized by Henry's reading aloud]
Here Fanny, who could not but listen, involuntarily shook her head, and CRAWFORD was instantly by her side again, entreating to know her meaning; and as Edmund perceived, by his drawing in a chair, and sitting down close by her, that it was to be a very thorough attack, that looks and undertones were to be well tried, he sank as quietly as possible into a corner, turned his back, and took up a newspaper, very sincerely wishing that dear little Fanny might be persuaded into explaining away that shake of the head to the satisfaction of her ardent lover; and as earnestly trying to bury every sound of the business from himself in murmurs of his own, over the various advertisements of "A most desirable Estate in South Wales"; "To Parents and Guardians"; and a "Capital season'd Hunter."

[back in Fanny's head]
Fanny, meanwhile, vexed with herself for not having been as motionless as she was speechless, and grieved to the heart to see Edmund's arrangements, was trying by everything in the power of her modest, gentle nature, to repulse MR. CRAWFORD, and avoid both his looks and inquiries; and he, unrepulsable, was persisting in both.

"What did that shake of the head mean?" said he. "What was it meant to express? Disapprobation, I fear. But of what? What had I been saying to displease you? Did you think me speaking improperly, lightly, irreverently on the subject? Only tell me if I was. Only tell me if I was wrong. I want to be set right. Nay, nay, I entreat you; for one moment put down your work. What did that shake of the head mean?"

In vain was her "Pray, sir, don't; pray, Mr. Crawford," repeated twice over; and in vain did she try to move away. In the same low, eager voice, and the same close neighbourhood, he went on, reurging the same questions as before. She grew more agitated and displeased.

"How can you, sir? You quite astonish me; I wonder how you can—"

"Do I astonish you?" said he. "Do you wonder? Is there anything in my present entreaty that you do not understand? I will explain to you instantly all that makes me urge you in this manner, all that gives me an interest in what you look and do, and excites my present curiosity. I will not leave you to wonder long."

In spite of herself, she could not help half a smile, but she said nothing.

"You shook your head at my acknowledging that I should not like to engage in the duties of a clergyman always for a constancy. Yes, that was the word. Constancy: I am not afraid of the word. I would spell it, read it, write it with anybody. I see nothing alarming in the word. Did you think I ought?"

"Perhaps, sir," said Fanny, wearied at last into speaking—"perhaps, sir, I thought it was a pity you did not always know yourself as well as you seemed to do at that moment."

[shift back to Edmund's point of view right here]
CRAWFORD, delighted to get her to speak at any rate, was determined to keep it up; and poor Fanny, who had hoped to silence him by such an extremity of reproof, found herself sadly mistaken, and that it was only a change from one object of curiosity and one set of words to another. He had always something to entreat the explanation of. The opportunity was too fair. None such had occurred since his seeing her in her uncle's room, none such might occur again before his leaving Mansfield. Lady Bertram's being just on the other side of the table was a trifle, for she might always be considered as only half-awake, and Edmund's advertisements were still of the first utility.

"Well," said CRAWFORD, after a course of rapid questions and reluctant answers; "I am happier than I was, because I now understand more clearly your opinion of me...." 

So much for the lazy notion of pervasively "objective" narration in JA's novels. In fact, there is very very little truly & unambiguously objective narration in JA's novels--and the actual pervasiveness of subtly subjective narrative is the bedrock of JA's brilliant and endlessly varied manipulation of point of view----which, as I've maintained a hundred times, is at the heart of how JA was able to make so much of her narration fundamentally ambiguous, and thereby leave space for construction of coherent, alternative fictional realities--her shadow stories.

And I realized as I was just rereading the above post that, if this single rule of thumb (or should I say, rule of tongue?)  is systematically applied throughout all of JA’s novels, I believe it will help uncover a number of other passages scattered throughout  JA’s novels just like the one I quoted, above, from Chapter 34 of MP, in which the point  of view shifts, nonobviously and briefly, away from the heroine, to one of the other characters, and then back again.

And it also just occurred to me that this interpretive rule came to me, because of my longtime familiarity with another, very famous rule in which the alternation of narrative naming of characters provides a crucial clue to disentangling the source of the different bits of otherwise inextricably interwoven textual excerpts.

And my Subject Line tells you exactly what that other rule is—it  is the so called Documentary Hypothesis…
…which describes the way that Biblical scholars were first able to disentangle several different sources of the text of Genesis, Exodus, and parts of other Hebrew Bible books, going solely by whether God was referred to as Yahweh or Elohim.

And given that all my research has shown JA to be as close and insightful a reader of the Bible as she was of Shakespeare, Milton, Richardson and dozens of other previous authors, I believe JA was herself familiar with the early versions of the Documentary Hypothesis which were in print and in the intellectual air of England during her lifetime.  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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