I just attended the JASNA AGM held in Montreal over this past weekend, which celebrated the bicentennial of Mansfield Park. I had a great time, as I have had nearly every time. I’ve missed only one out of the ten AGMs held since I joined JASNA and began attending them in 2005.
If you are a true Janeite, there is nothing in the world to replicate this experience of being in the presence of about 700 people, most of who are also true Janeites, talking in equal parts about all things Jane but also making friends with people who are mostly (as you might expect) some good combination of smart, good sense of humor, and attentive to emotional nuance.
I was one of the unusually large number of Breakout Session presenters this year (and major kudos to Elaine Bander and her AGM crew in beautiful Montreal for opening things up and allowing so many more first or second time presenters to have their/our brief moment in the sun). I was not disappointed in any of the talks I saw, and the Plenary addresses were all excellent as well—in fact, I’d have to rate it my favorite AGM so far, by a small edge over the 2008 AGM about Emma held at the other end of Canada, in even more beautiful Vancouver.
This was the blurb for my presentation that I gave on Saturday:
“How many times have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be’d and not to be’d”:
Scholars have long recognized Mansfield Park’s debts to Shakespeare’s Lear, Henry VIII, All’s Well, As You Like It, and Measure for Measure. However, Austen’s pervasive, faux-throwaway textual hints (e.g., this presentation’s title) also subtly and complexly allude to a tragic quartet: Titus, Troilus, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet….and also to a fifth Shakespeare play I reveal at the end of my talk. These freshly-sleuthed allusions illuminate dark corners of Austen’s famously opaque, ambiguous characterizations, shedding new light on the perplexing moral quandaries this multifariously Shakespearean novel generates.”
I will at some point in the next month begin to post about some of the specific material I covered in my Breakout Session, but in the interim, I do want to mention a particularly striking pulling-together that occurred for me as a happy byproduct of my feverish preparations for my talk during the preceding week.
Specifically, from my intense focus on the Shakespeare that permeates Mansfield Park , I first became aware of how intricately and profoundly connected that Shakespearean subtext is to the Miltonian subtext (specifically Paradise Lost) that also permeates every corner of Mansfield Park. Which of course is not surprising, when you realize that Milton must have been just as brilliant a Shakespeare scholar as Jane Austen was—which is to say, top of the line, far superior to Samuel Johnson, who missed the boat in a major way about a great deal of what Shakespeare was up to.
But then a major light bulb went on in my head when I came across a striking fact that I previously never knew, i.e., that Paradise Lost was a major but mostly covert allusive source for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman! She actually repeatedly uses imagery from Milton’s great epic in a satirical way, turning it on its apparent head.
I realized, and then quickly verified to my own satisfaction, that Jane Austen had indeed demonstrated repeatedly in her novels, that she picked up, in a very approving way, on Wollstonecraft’s Satanic subtext, by veiled allusions which included, without limitation:
LUCy FERrars being the LUCIFER who covertly manipulates the other characters of S&S so as to bring about the romantic pairings we see at the end of the novel.
Charlotte LUCas being the LUCIFER who pulls off exactly the same covert tour de force in P&P, despite the covert opposition of Mary Bennet, whom I identified back in 2010 as the Satanic whisperer who unsuccessfully tries to warn Elizabeth of the danger of marrying Mr. Darcy.
Mary Crawford who is the Satanic siren who unsuccessfully seeks to deter Fanny from marrying Edmund, with Mary’s Zen Buddhist/Mary Magdalenish aphorisms which, as with Mary Bennet’s quotations, all reveal a hidden iceberg of significant allusion when properly understood.
Last but not least, the Satanic subtext I don’t recall ever noticing before in the “courtship” charade of Emma! Jocelyn Harris had written in 2009 about the Wollstonecraft subtext of Emma, but in my opinion, Jocelyn did not grasp the correct significance of that subtext. In particular, she did not realize that Wollstonecraft’s protofeminist “heresies” were symbolically represented in the “ courtship” charade!
I.e., she did not realize that Jane Austen chose to code the secret answer “Prince of WHALES” to that charade in no small part because Charles Lamb’s poem “The Triumph of the Whale”, and Cruikshank’s caricature connected to same which I use as the image at the top of my blog, are (as Susan Allen Ford detected back in 2005, when Colleen Sheehan first submitted her article on this secret answer to Persuasions Online), BOTH having as a key allusive subtext the crash-landed whale that is Satan in Paradise Lost!
I see Miss Bates as the secret Satan of Emma, who has fallen far from her early high status, but still quietly but defiantly rebels against the oppression imposed on the women of Highbury by Mr. Knightley and his minions, and successfully saves niece Jane Fairfax from marriage against her will, and finds a safe home for Jane’s illegitimate child with Mrs. Weston.
And final wonderful touch, which I alluded to in my Subject Line---I also realized that Jane Austen’s covert depiction of Mary Wollstonecraft as a good Satan is actually a rebuttal—indeed a demolition--- of the abhorrently misogynistic satirical poem, Unsex’d Females by Polwhele. It came out in 1798 after Mary Wollstonecraft died in agony after a botched childbirth, and savagely attacked her reputation. Polwhele felt astonishingly strong personal venom toward Wollstonecraft, as we can see in his Preface:
“Miss Wollstonecraft does not blush to say, in an introduction to a book designed for the use of young ladies, that, "in order to lay the axe at the root of corruption, it would be proper to familiarize the sexes to an unreserved discussion of these topics, which are generally avoided in conversation from a principle of false delicacy; and that it would be right to speak of the organs of generation as freely as we mention our eyes or our hands." To such language our botanizing girls are doubtless familiarized: and, they are in a fair way of becoming WORTHY DISCIPLES OF MISS W. If they do not take heed to their ways, they will soon exchange the blush of modesty for the bronze of impudence.”
What a vicious creep Mr. Polwhele must have been! And do you also hear the echo of our discussions only 2 months ago, when we were trying to interpret Jane Austen’s cryptic reference (in an 1801 letter) to a Bath acquaintance Mr. Pickford as being as “raffish” as a “disciple of Godwin”.
Given that JA wrote that letter only a couple of years after Polwhele’s notorious poem was published, now I see that JA was also thinking of Polwhele’s derisive use of that term to describe followers of Wollstonecraft’s ideas, as well as of Mary Hays’s proudly calling herself a “disciple of Godwin”.
Of course Godwin and Wollstonecraft, the deliberately unmarried parents of Mary Shelley, the future author of Frankenstein , were inextricably linked in the public consciousness. And this all only reaffirms my belief that for Jane, to be a “raffish” “disciple of Wollstonecraft” was a badge of highest honor, a badge that Jane Austen proudly hid in plain sight in her novels.
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