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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mary Crawford the Zen Mistress of Mansfield Park

My last post was largely about the landscape ha-ha in Mansfield Park as a veiled allusion by JA to Troilus’s laughing “Ha! Ha!” when hears a crude sexual meaning in Cressida’s invitation to him to “come again into her chamber”. In the aftermath, I decided to revisit the broader symbolic significance of the ha-ha in MP, and a couple of new wrinkles emerged which I’d like to share, including one that I’ve hinted at in my Subject Line.
First, I noticed this time around something I hadn’t noticed before--while most Janeites who know Mansfield Park well are familiar with Maria Bertram’s famous complaint…
“Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, THAT HA-HA, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. 'I cannot get out,' as the starling said."
… most don’t connect it to Mary Crawford’s speech near the end of the previous chapter:
After sitting a little while Miss Crawford was up again. "I must move," said she; "resting fatigues me. I have looked across THE HA-HA till I am weary. I must go and look through that iron gate at the same view, without being able to see it so well."
It’s easy to whiz right by Mary’s comments without a pause, but when you stop and really read and think about Mary’s little speech, it ought to make you shake your head. What in the world is she really saying? The only Austen scholar I can find who has ever looked closely at that specific speech and commented on it specifically is Inger Sigrun Brodey who in the 1995 Persuasions made these  comments in her article entitled “Papas and Ha-has”:

“…The central fixture …is a ha-ha. It is the sight of this ha ha and the gate belonging to it which elicits from Mary Crawford [that] memorable response…It is worth noting here that Mary recognizes the perversity of her own desires: that what she gains in relief from a feeling of oppression she will lose in actual view or prospect.”

Yes indeed, it is the seeming perversity of Mary’s comments that is puzzling—why would sitting make one tired? Why would changing one’s place so as to obstruct one’s panoramic view be a better way to look at a landscape?

It occurred to me as I read her take that Brodey, while correctly identifying that speech as one worthy of critical notice, nonetheless erred in taking Mary too literally. Mary’s logic may seem perverse, but what if it has a higher purpose? I instantly recalled the comment that Lizzy Bennet makes to sister Jane near the end of P&P, which I have often cited as evidence of a Buddhist perspective, based on enlightenment via paradox, taken by Jane Austen:

"But why should you wish to persuade me that I feel more than I acknowledge?"
"That is a question which I hardly know how to answer. We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing. Forgive me; and if you persist in indifference, do not make me your confidante."

In other words, you cannot teach the really valuable lessons of life to others in a linear way, wisdom is not effectively transferred via lecture. Far better is the teacher who provokes the student to arrive at his or her own insight, by means of a well chosen paradox, which jars the student out of the complacency of an “objective” viewpoint, and leads the student past the “ha-ha” of a long-held safe opinion or attitude,  into the dangerous “wilderness’ of a radical new understanding.

And at that very moment, I reached a fresh perspective on Mary’s puzzling, paradoxical comments, not only about resting as fatiguing and obstructions as facilitating one’s experience of the picturesque, but also various things she says to Fanny, or in Fanny’s presence, including this famous bit of  “nonsense” which Mary says to Fanny right before her whopper about resting being fatiguing:

"I am really not tired, which I almost wonder at; for we must have walked at least a mile in this wood. Do not you think we have?"
"Not half a mile," was his sturdy answer; for he was not yet so much in love as to measure distance, or reckon time, with feminine lawlessness.
"Oh! you do not consider how much we have wound about. We have taken such a very serpentine course, and the wood itself must be half a mile long in a straight line, for we have never seen the end of it yet since we left the first great path."
"But if you remember, before we left that first great path, we saw directly to the end of it. We looked down the whole vista, and saw it closed by iron gates, and it could not have been more than a furlong in length."
"Oh! I know nothing of your furlongs, but I am sure it is a very long wood, and that we have been winding in and out ever since we came into it; and therefore, when I say that we have walked a mile in it, I must speak within compass."
"We have been exactly a quarter of an hour here," said Edmund, taking out his watch. "Do you think we are walking four miles an hour?"
"Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch."

What I realize now is that Mary has quietly taken on the project of teaching Fanny what is really worth knowing, by the correct method, which is the “not teaching” that is the hallmark of Zen Buddhist practice. Mary, like Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movie series, is teaching Fanny that when the game is rigged against you, as life was rigged against women in their world, then the only option is to break all the rules, to subvert the game, which lacks moral legitimacy and so is deserving of subversion!

Mary, in short, is like Oscar Wilde, delighting in instructive paradoxes. And the proof that her project is a success is that in the end of the day, Fanny gets what she wants, and in particular, when it is all on the line, Fanny stands up to the mighty oppressive power of her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram.

I think this could the starting point for more profitable ruminations in the same vein, but I will leave those for another day, unless any of you wishes to pick up the skein and carry it in a direction of your choice.

My final comment for now is that if (and I believe it to be so) Eliza Hancock Austen was a source for the character of Mary Crawford, then it tells me that Jane Austen must have really been grateful to her   “outlandish cousin”  for jarring Jane into deeper psychological awareness, and also perhaps for giving Jane the courage to be herself as a woman and as a writer---and, given that I also believe there is a strong lesbian vibe between Mary and Fanny, as I have written on a number of occasions during the past few years, that makes me really wonder about the relationship between Jane and Eliza when nobody else was around.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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