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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mary Musgrove's Complaint...and Mrs. Bennet's too!

In Austen-L and Janeites, Diana Birchall wrote:
"My "Mary Musgrove's Complaint" story....

...has now been posted. It's kind of different because I was trying to show that Mary’s complaints, instead of just being funny, might have some basis in medical reality, given the terrible state of medicine and the dreadfully high maternal death rate in those days. A minor obstetrical or gynecological problem today could have been lethal then. And yet, Jane Austen has Mary being quite well and cheerful at the end of Persuasion, which meant I couldn’t depart too far from that!  So it was an interesting exercise..."  END QUOTE

Please read her short story inspired of course by Jane Austen's Persuasion, and then read the following response I wrote to her:

Diana, your fine little story shows that you paid very close attention, as the entire audience did, 3 years ago when Dr. Cheryl Kinney gave her amazing (riveting, hugely entertaining and horrifying at the same time), presentation to the JASNA chapter in Los Angeles about female health issues underlying Jane Austen’s life, times and fiction. Cheryl took us all through the tragic absurdity and pervasiveness of the horrors that faced women every time men got anywhere near women’s bodies, whether as sexual partners or, even worse, doctors!

As I said when I gave my presentation to the group immediately following Cheryl, being the next act after her on the program was very much like being a rock band whose opening act was the Beatles ---there was just no way to match the combination of erudition  and showmanship that Cheryl effortlessly achieved. Truly unforgettable.

Anyway, back to the enigmatic Mary Musgrove and her medical complaints---I am guessing you don’t recall that earlier in 2011, I had written about the compelling validity hidden beneath Mary’s seemingly groundless medical complaints, a conclusion which I arrived at in the aftermath of my JASNA AGM presentation about Mrs. Tilney and the pervasive death-in-childbirth theme of Northanger Abbey. Here is the link to that blog post of mine, which was very much in synch with Dr. Cheryl’s expert medical analysis….
 …and here are my comments in that earlier post which are so resonant with your little story—the context is that I am explaining the subtext behind Henry Tilney’s famous (and entirely Unjustified) rant at Catherine Morland about England as a Christian nation, etc etc:

"And JA was also pointing out that English laws did connive at these atrocities, by stripping wives of all their property, by allowing husbands total control over their sex lives (unless, like Mrs. Bennet, Mary Musgrove, or Lady Bertram, they contrived to have a permanent "headache")..."

So you see it has long been my belief that we hear Mary Musgrove constantly whining, just as we hear Mrs. Bennet constantly complaining about her nerves, because both of these English wives have perhaps in sheer desperation arrived at a conscious and very clever strategy for wifely survival, basically two variants on the theme of “Not tonight, dear, I have a headache”.

In that regard, it’s no accident, I maintain, that there are no babies crawling around the Charles Musgrove household during the action of Persuasion, and there are “only” (by Regency Era standards) two ambulatory and somewhat older children, Charles and Walter, even though Mary is quite obviously still very clearly of childbearing age. So, Mary may complain about Charles hunting all the time, but you may safely infer that part of the reason Charles hunts all day in the fields around Uppercross is that he does NOT get to “hunt” at night when he gets home to Mary! 

And, similarly, it’s no accident that Mrs. Bennet mysteriously stopped having children after Lydia 16 years before the action of the novel begins, and therefore long before she would have reached the safe haven of menopause. And JA makes a point of telling us, right off the bat, that Mrs. Bennet’s “nerves”  began their long acquaintance with Mr. Bennet about 20 years earlier---the inference I take is that it took Mrs. Bennet’s nerves only about 4 years to permanently intervene between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in the bedroom—eventually Mr. Bennet retreated into his library, exactly analogous to Charles Musgrove’s retreat into hunting, in search of intellectual knowledge, since carnal knowledge was no longer an option open to him!

And finally, apropos Persuasion, Diana’s delicate spot of poignant sisterly reminiscence the late Lady Elliot….

“I think I do remember our mother having this,” Mary said after a little while. “The odour brings her back to me.” 
Anne put her hand on Mary’s. “And to me, too,” she said softly, and they sat quietly for a little while, in sisterly silence, enjoying their tea, and lost in thought….

….sparked in me the speculation that, entirely unknown to Anne, her mother Lady Elliot died in childbirth when Anne was a young teenager—a “dirty” secret that was never disclosed to her. And I also believe that the same sort of secrecy shrouded the death of Mrs. Tilney for the same reason, with the young Henry never being made privy to the truth, until his own speculations about Catherine’s Gothic fantasies (which she NEVER explicitly expresses to him) trigger a sudden flash of bitter and upsetting insight in his now grown-up mind, when he reflects back on his mother’s awful death and realizes what he was never told by his father.

So Mary Musgrove’s strategy for surviving the gauntlet of English marriage during the Regency Era turns out to be one her own mother would have benefited from, had she been willing to concoct “medical” excuses for refusing Sir Walter’s amorous advances.

Deadly serious business indeed.

I do want to also rebut to what Ellen wrote in response to Diana’s story:
“To write a good sequel -- a sequel is the kind of continuation or Austen-induced franchise where you stick with the specific characters and situation of Austen's novel -- it seems to me one must find some way to break away from Austen's endings and some of her more egregious justifications of the status quo and attacks on those who protest it.”

Ellen, I fear that your misunderstanding of Jane Austen’s authorial enterprise is so profound that there is no remedy for it—if you are waiting for Jane Austen to reveal her subversive views of her world overtly and without masking it in layers of irony, then you will be waiting for Godot. The sexist, racist, classist, homophobic status quo of Regency Era England may appear to be celebrated (or at least, tolerated) at the end of each of the novels, but to think that reflects Jane Austen’s own views is to miss everything JA really intended to be discernible by irony-attuned readers. And Mary Musgrove and Mrs. Bennet are perfect examples—two wives who are made the object of mockery on the surface of their respective novels, but who can be seen to be much more complex, enigmatic characters beneath the surface, when the reader frees him or herself from the prison of believing that all of JA’s narration is objective.

I.e., just because Elizabeth Bennet sees her mother as a carping fool, and just because Anne Elliot sees her sister Mary as a whining fool, does not necessarily make them so.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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