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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Not Baddeley Done: Jane Austen’s White Spaces & Her Radical Narrative Ambiguity

 

In Janeites & Austen-L, Diane Reynolds, one of my best partners in crime in peering beneath the light, bright and sparkling surface of Jane Austen’s novels, responded as follows to my recent posts about Baddeley the butler of Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, and his “twin”, the Rhyming Butler of Lovers Vows, the play that is (almost) performed at Mansfield Park, and also the screen-painter who was creating the backdrops for that aborted production:

Diane: "Thanks for compiling all the butler information from MP in one spot. I had not thought about the butler or the scene painter, for that matter, at all. I noted on my blog about Diana's other writing as well, that, as Kenneth Johnston writes, Austen invites us to fill in the gaps or white spaces of her stories."



Diane: "Thanks for compiling all the butler information from MP in one spot. I had not thought about the butler or the scene painter, for that matter, at all. I noted on my blog about Diana's other writing as well, that, as Kenneth Johnston writes, Austen invites us to fill in the gaps or white spaces of her stories."

I respond as follows.

Indeed, Diane, Jane Austen invites us to actively fill in those gaps by giving us hints that these are not merely accidental, unintended, meaningless gaps, but are intentional and meaningful.

Your comment made me realize that these threads about the scene-painter and the butlers of  Mansfield Park are actually part and parcel of a much larger and more fundamental aspect of Jane Austen’s fiction, which has long been a special focus of mine.

To wit, I claim that the primary reason why Jane Austen focuses point of view in her novels almost exclusively in the minds of her primary heroines (Catherine, Elinor, Elizabeth, Fanny,   Emma & Anne), is so that JA can thereby inobtrusively create narration which is totally ambiguous, i.e., it can be read as largely objective, describing what “really” happens, OR as largely subjective, describing what the heroine believes is really happening, even if what is “really” happening may be quite different.

And now I see how the gaps or white spaces, as Johnston so aptly describe them, fit in perfectly with that overall authorial strategy of ambiguity. I.e., for all that JA is universally famed and admired, by scholarly and amateur Janeites alike, as the great fictional realist of ordinary life, these gaps or white spaces are, ironically, the MOST realistic aspects of JA's fiction!

How so? Because, when we each construct the story of our own individual lives, assuming the role of hero or heroine in our own minds, we inevitably overemphasize details of the lives of some of those around us, and we also underemphasize or ignore details of the lives of some others living in close proximity to us.

And so, since Mansfield Park is told mostly from Fanny Price's point of view, it is additionally ironic that she, who is almost a servant herself at MP during her childhood there, is surprisingly inattentive to the lives of the actual servants there, like Baddeley. If we hear almost nothing about their lives, it is because Fanny does not notice them. And we receive further indirect but powerful evidence of that ignoring of her social inferiors, when we travel with Fanny back to Portsmouth, and we learn by listening to the narrative inside Fanny’s head that she is appalled and nauseated by the lower class family life she spent her first 8 years in.


Diane also wrote: "I find the butler particularly interesting, because it indicates once again that Austen had imagined her world out beyond the boundaries of the novel. Of course, Mrs. Grant and Baddeley would be arch enemies--she would constantly be trying to "sponge" from the Mansfield larder and he would be constantly holding her at bay. We can imagine Austen having them face off and then deleting those scenes as not essential to her story."

I heartily agree with the first part of that, Diane, but I strongly disagree with your last sentence --- if JA ever wrote those other scenes, which I strongly doubt, she'd have deleted them not because they were inessential, but because their being in the novel would’ve undermined the subjectivity of the narration, i.e., the irony of Fanny the quasi-servant ignoring the inner life of the actual servants would have been lost.

It never seems to occur to Fanny, in fact, that her future might well turn out to be the same as Mrs. Norris's--a maiden aunt/cousin living out her life in close proximity to the man she loves, who is married to another woman--it's pretty obvious that Mrs. Norris wishes she had become Lady Bertram instead!

So, that all makes Fanny's blindness to the rivalry between Baddeley and Mrs. Norris even more interesting and realistic--it shows that Fanny, who in her own unique way is every bit as clueless as Emma, is as prone to pride and prejudice as her cousins.

Again, that's NOT “Baddeley” done on JA's part, it's really DONE WELL!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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