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

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fanny Price the “Special Victim” of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Mary Crawford the “Detective” who solves Fanny’s “Case” and (almost) wins Fanny’s heart

In the leadup to the JASNA Annual General Meeting to be held in Montreal beginning in less than three  weeks, there’s been a wonderful series of guest posts about MP at Sarah Emsley’s Austen-themed blog . In today’s entry by Laurel Ann Nattress, mistress of,  Lauren Ann commented on the passage at the beginning of Chapter 22 of Mansfield Park when Fanny gets caught in the rain outside the Parsonage:

“This short passage is so telling for me. Mary Crawford is bending Fanny’s will, as she does to so many in the novel. She speaks authoritatively, decisively and officiously to Fanny, dismissing her observation of the rain having let up. “South or north, I know a black cloud when I see it; and you must not set forward while it is so threatening.” Like a spider to the fly, Mary has drawn poor Fanny into her web and made her stay longer than she wants to. When Fanny, the keen observer of nature, and the moral compass of the novel, expresses her opinion of the weather clearing as an exit cue to her hostess, she is dismissed by Miss Crawford, a character who reveals her controlling, selfish, and arrogant nature by stating that she knows a black cloud when she sees one, yet has not looked out the window. Screeching halt! Giant red flag! Austen has cleverly revealed that manipulative Mary and gentle Fanny are as opposite as black and white in their view of the world. Mary knows a black cloud when she sees one, because she is one. Her presence and opposing opinions will continue to dampen her encounters throughout the novel, and Fanny, who sees only the truth before her, will remain true to her own principles and our hearts.” END QUOTE

I respond as follows:

Laurel Ann, your seeing Mary as controlling, manipulative, and selfish toward Fanny is indeed one valid and plausible way of interpreting the interaction between these two young women in Chapter 22 of MP. However, I suggest to you today that an equally plausible, and perhaps an even more emotionally compelling interpretation, of that scene, is one that was implicitly put forward by Rozema in her 1999 film MP--i.e., that Mary in this scene subtly, subversively but benignly COURTS Fanny's blossoming romantic heart, seeking a "romantic friendship" with Fanny. Mary’s end game is not selfish, but is that of any honorable romantic wooer, which is the uniting of two true lovers in “marriage”.

And what makes this interpretation so powerful, I suggest, is that not only is Mary courting Fanny, but it can be clearly discerned if you read between the lines of Chapter 22 from that perspective (just try it and see!), that Fanny's responsive desire for Mary wells up immediately and powerfully, however much Fanny's internalized repression keeps her from conscious awareness of her intense attraction to Mary. There’s a struggle going on in Fanny’s unconscious, as she is both drawn to Mary and yet is also desperate to deny that longing, so Fanny’s mind keeps generating rationalization after rationalization.

I’ll be speaking at the upcoming JASNA AGM about the hidden Shakespeare in Mansfield Park—the plays which other Austen scholars have not detected in the allusive subtext of this most Shakespearean of Austen novels----and one of those hidden allusions to Shakespeare I stumbled across 5 years ago is to the most problematic of the Bard’s “problem plays”, Troilus & Cressida. I’ll never forget how, as I stood at the foot of the stage at the Globe Theatre in London in July 2009 looking up at the performers, I suddenly became aware that the enigmatic Cressida was a key allusive source for both Fanny and Mary in MP!

I first noticed the allusion as the audience erupted in laughter at Cressida’s Freudian slip when she  invites Troilus "the morning after" in Act IV:

CRESSIDA: Did not I tell you? Would he were knock'd i' the head!
[Knocking within]
Who's that at door? good uncle, go and see.
CRESSIDA Come, you are deceived, I think of no such thing  END QUOTE

I not only laughed along with my fellow groundlings at Shakespeare’s crude but hilarious bawdy, but I was also likely the only person in the audience who also heard that scene as a key source for the following even more famous bit of parallel sexual repartee in Mansfield Park:

[MARY CRAWFORD] "....Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now DO NOT BE SUSPECTING ME OF A PUN, I ENTREAT."
Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, "It is a noble profession." END QUOTE

And catching that allusion primed me to also especially notice the scene in T&C when Cressida’s personality famously, temporarily splits into two selves who are at war with each other over whether she should respond to Troilus’s amorous advances or not. I realized instantly that such scene must have been a touchstone for MP—JA had, I was sure, conceived of Fanny and Mary from the start as two halves of a soul fractured by emotional trauma. In that sense, a romantic friendship between Mary and Fanny can be seen as a kind of reuniting of those two selves who have been split off from each other by sexual abuse.

Mary is then, in this interpretation, a young yet sexually experienced bisexual woman, who has intuitively and accurately sensed the sexually repressed Fanny's reciprocal yet totally unconscious and involuntary lesbian attraction. JA artfully conveys Mary's insight into Fanny’s deeply repressed sexual tendencies when JA’s narrator repeatedly plays on Fanny’s being “wet” with over-the-top obvious sexual overtones (which Rozema so famously picked up on):

“Fanny, having been sent into the village on some errand by her aunt Norris, was overtaken by A HEAVY SHOWER close to the Parsonage; and being descried from one of the windows endeavouring to find shelter under the branches and lingering leaves of an oak just beyond their premises, was forced, though not without SOME MODEST RELUCTANCE on her part, TO COME in. A civil servant she had withstood; but when Dr. Grant himself went out with an umbrella, there was nothing to be done but to be very much ashamed, and to get into the house as fast as possible; and to poor Miss Crawford, who had just been contemplating the dismal rain in a very desponding state of mind, sighing over the ruin of all her plan of exercise for that morning, and of every chance of seeing a single creature beyond themselves for the next twenty-four hours, the sound of a little bustle at the front door, and the sight of Miss Price DRIPPING WITH WET in the vestibule, was delightful. The value of an event on A WET DAY in THE COUNTry [think of how we pronounce the first syllable of  “country”] was MOST FORCIBLY brought before her. She was all alive again directly, and among the most active in being useful to Fanny, in detecting her to be WETTER THAN SHE WOULD AT FIRST ALLOW, and providing her with dry clothes; and Fanny, after being OBLIGED TO SUBMIT to all this attention, and to being assisted and waited on by mistresses and maids, being also obliged, on returning downstairs, to be fixed in their drawing-room for an hour while THE RAIN CONTINUED, the blessing of something fresh to see and think of was thus extended to Miss Crawford, and might carry on her spirits to the period of dressing and dinner.”

And then we have Fanny, whose principal objection to staying longer at the Parsonage is not some worthy purpose, but merely is Fanny’s vague paranoid, self-denying belief, internalized by Fanny after a decade of sadistic oppression by Mrs. Norris. Fanny cannot help fighting against the happiness she is feeling at the Parsonage with Mary and Mrs. Grant, a happiness that Fanny believes she does not deserve. She does not feel entitled to spend a few pleasant hours on a rainy day, free from the duties of a domestic servant, free to relax and be pampered by two cultured women who cater to her every unspoken creature comfort, and (most important) make her feel welcome and noticed as a person.

Recall that at Mansfield Park, in Chapter 22, Fanny still remains a non-identity, a cipher, and so she requires a great deal of subtle coaxing in order to feel safe and entitled enough to actually show her real self to others, and not to keep it locked up in her books and transparencies in the attic which has been her refuge. So, does this make Mary’s tricking Fanny into staying longer an act of selfishness, or an act of mercy? Food for thought!

Plus there’s one more layer to this intricate emotional web, which demonstrates another facet of JA’s astonishingly modern psychological insight—it is not just Fanny who has survived a childhood of abuse, it is also Mary—that circle of perverted admirals that her uncle took part in, was no picnic to spend one’s later teenaged years among, you can be sure. Mary is a victim, too, just as surely as Fanny is, even if Mary’s reaction to being abused is so very different from Fanny’s-each has found a very different strategy for survival—Fanny by hiding in the attic, Mary by hiding in plain sight.

My wife and I have become fans during the past year of the long running TV show "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit", and I imagine Mary having acutely observed Fanny’s situation at Mansfield Park for a period of time, exactly the way that the empathic and savvy SVU detective Olivia Benson, played so powerfully and convincingly by Mariska Hargitay, quickly intuits the psychology of the varied victims of sexual crimes whom she tries to protect from abuse. Much of the drama and satisfaction of watching that show is that we believe we are seeing a truthful and healing process enacted for us, when Benson repeatedly finds ways to induce the victims, who are most often young women or children, to trust her, when they have never before trusted anyone, because they were betrayed and abused by those who were supposed to care for them.

And here’s the most telling parallel---what makes Olivia Benson so uniquely qualified to serve as a Special Victims detective, is that she herself was the victim of abuse, and was a child born of rape. It is because she has suffered, and has turned her suffering in the noblest of directions, that she can repeatedly connect to the victims of the awful crimes Benson seeks to solve.  

And that’s how I see Mary Crawford in Chapter 22. I see Mary as having seen right through the abuse that Fanny suffers at Mansfield Park on a daily basis, and then Mary courageously intervenes on Fanny’s behalf, in a very subversive but decisive manner. Unlike Edmund, that spineless self-deluder, who NEVER steps up to defend Fanny from abuse by Mrs. Norris, Mary finds a way to get Fanny away from that abuse, and keep her away, and encourage Fanny to spread her heart’s wings for the first time and fly.

So, yes, Mary is undeniably manipulative in that scene in Chapter 22, but, as with SVU Detective Benson, it is a benign and helpful form of manipulation, one that is necessary under the pragmatic exigencies of the situation, in order to induce a victim to gain the courage and trust necessary to begin to demand an end to abuse and oppression.

But of course it’s not exactly the same, because Benson does not fall in love with the crime victims she seeks to protect and get justice for, whereas Mary is more complicated even than that, she seeks her own fulfillment from Fanny.

Viewed in that prudential light, Mary is a heroine, not a villain—and, like Cressida, a tragic heroine, because in the end Mary does not wind up with Fanny, she is maneuvered out of that outcome by the actions of third parties.

But as I said at the beginning, the above analysis does not nullify Laurel Ann’s interpretation, it only shows that there are two very different ways of validly interpreting that scene in Chapter 22. And how brilliant of Jane Austen to create both of these interpretations with equal power and validity, so that, like the two Cressidas in Shakespeare’s problem play, they are both there for the reader to find. In this way,  I argue, JA, like Shakespeare, showed that life is deeply ambiguous, and it is possible to look at the same scene and see two very different possible realities, and so we must learn to dig deeper, to keep probing until we determine which reality is closer to the truth.

We must learn not to be so overpowered by our first impressions of a scene that we fail to keep probing for alternative explanations for what we (think we) see. Beneath every overt story we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels, there is a shadow story waiting to be discovered, if we only are willing to come into Jane Austen’s chamber of literary illusion—and you are free to think as naughtily as you like about that.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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