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Thursday, August 21, 2014

“…the good luck to CAPTIVATE Sir Thomas Bertram…”: Jane Austen’s wickedly satirical pun which opens Mansfield Park



The famous first line of Mansfield Park is:   “About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.”

I just read, in Deresiewicz’s 2007 Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, his excellent catch regarding the above opening sentence of MP:

“ ’Captivate’, that wicked double entendre, points to the thematics of slavery that have been so well discussed of late in the critical literature, but it points first of all to the fact that marriage in this world is, at least initially, a mutual enslavement, a buying and selling of human beings on both sides.”

My only disagreement with Deresiewicz is in his “at least initially”, as I believe that Fanny and Edmund’s marriage is yet another in the queue of marriages and other family transactions which are more “commerce” than love-based.

It also occurred to me to check to see if JA revisited the wonderfully ironic pun on “captivate” elsewhere in MP, which, as Patricia Rozema so brilliantly put it 15 years ago, is JA’s extended meditation on servitude in human interaction, of every variation and gradation. What I found fits very nicely with both Deresiewicz and Rozema.

First, in the second sentence of Chapter 2 (a fitting bookend to the first sentence of Chapter 1), we read:

“Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. “

I had not previously noticed that JA has thereby subtly drawn an ironic contrast between, on the one hand, Miss Maria Ward (aka Lady Bertram) who captivates a man who holds hundreds of other human beings as literal captives, and, on the other hand, Fanny Price, who cannot captivate, but must be content to avoid disgusting her quasi-parents, including that very same captivating Miss Ward.

And then, near the end of the novel, in Chapter 46, we read of the charismatic Henry Crawford, who captivates the eldest daughter of the former Miss Ward, and inducing her to commit  adultery with him:

“Fanny read to herself that "it was with infinite concern the newspaper had to announce to the world a matrimonial fracas in the family of Mr. R. of Wimpole Street; the beautiful Mrs. R., whose name had not long been enrolled in the lists of Hymen, and who had promised to become so brilliant a leader in the fashionable world, having quitted her husband's roof in company with the well-known and captivating Mr. C., the intimate friend and associate of Mr. R., and it was not known even to the editor of the newspaper whither they were gone."

So, bravo to William Deresiewicz for picking up on this subtle, significant textual clue, that JA hid in plain sight in the first  sentence of Mansfield Park, the significance of which could only be apparent on rereading the novel, and therefore already knowing that Sir Thomas owned a slave plantation on Antigua. So, in a real sense, JA  needed to so captivate her readers with their first reading of MP, that they would eventually feel the desire/need to reread it, whereupon that pun would be there at the “front door” of the novel to admit them to a deeper reading of the text.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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