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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

That sweetness so essential to a wife’s worth that sometimes is absent: Mary & Henry’s two tete-a-tetes in Mansfield Park

If I had to choose a single aspect of Jane Austen’s literary technique as the most foundational, yet also the most non-obvious, one, it would have to be her choosing to tell the story of her novels almost exclusively from the point of view of the heroine. The rationale for my choice—when a story is told almost exclusively from one character’s point of view, and yet is narrated in third, not first, person, it allows an ingenious, sly author like Jane Austen to create fundamental ambiguity in an infinite number of ways, i.e., she can put the aware reader to the test of determining, on every page of all six novels, whether the narration should be understood to be objective or subjective. And that ambiguity also accounts, in part, for the extraordinary REreadability of JA’s novels.

But the most significant benefit of JA’s extraordinary use of point of view is that it allowed her to inobtrusively create her double story structure---i.e., consistent “objective narration” interpretation yields the overt story that every Janeite knows, whereas consistent “subjective narration” interpretation involves the reader looking behind the heroine’s subjective (and therefore potentially unreliable) point of view, and to find the shadow story lurking at the corners of the heroine’s field of vision.

As an important corollary of the above, in these six novels where nearly all of the scenes described include the presence of the heroine, the very rare scenes from which the heroine is absent must be of extraordinary interest. I’ve previously written about the tiny handful of tete-a-tetes which do not include the heroine, scenes which occur early in a JA novel….
…in which characters whom I call “policy-makers” (Fanny & John Dashwood, Sir Thomas & Mrs. Norris, Knightley & Mrs. Weston, and Sir Walter & Mr. Shepherd) discuss matters which affect the future of the heroine. These scenes open doors into the motivations and concerns of those other major characters, and yet, anyone who has closely read those scenes knows that for every bit of insight they provide into those other characters’s minds, they raise five questions about them—JA teases us with those scenes, repeatedly making us wonder what those characters mean by what they say to each other when the heroine is not around.

Perhaps the most blatant example of that sort of teasing occurs in the following exchange between Knightley and Mrs. Weston:

"I dare say," replied Mrs. Weston, smiling, "that I thought so then;—but since we have parted, I can never remember Emma's omitting to do any thing I wished."
"There is hardly any desiring to refresh such a memory as that,"—said Mr. Knightley, feelingly; and for a moment or two he had done….”

Obviously, these two characters know exactly which memory it is of Emma “omitting to do any thing Mrs. Weston wished” prior to the wedding that Knightley gets so emotional about---they each know what her smiling “then” and his feeling “that” refer to; but, unless I am asleep at the switch, I believe there is no clear clue as to what they mean. So, following Chekhov’s famous aesthetic dictum about the rifle that must eventually be fired, JA must have wanted her readers at some point to start searching through the rest of the novel for clues which may let us in on the secret of what Knightley remembered.

Which brings me to the main subject of this post. I don’t recall ever previously noticing the parallelism between those early-in-the-novel tete-a-tetes, on the one hand, and the extended tete-a-tete between Mary and Henry, about Fanny, in Chapter 30 of MP, in which Henry surprises Mary with his announcement that he plans to marry Fanny, on the other. And, to make it a bit more complex, Chapter 30 is not a stand-alone affair, it is clearly a bookend to a shorter tete-a-tete between those same Crawford siblings, also talking about Henry and Fanny,  which occurs about a month earlier in the novel’s chronology, in Chapter 24. In that earlier conversation, Henry announces to Mary his intent to play the heartless rake and make a hole in Fanny’s heart. That sets the stage for Mary’s great surprise when Henry announces to her, such a short time later, that he has changed course 90 degrees, and now plans to play the unfamiliar role of Faithful Mate rather than his habitual role of Seducing Rake.

With that prelude, I heartily recommend to you all the exercise of rereading just those two tete-a-tetes between Mary and Henry---nearly every line of narration and dialog in them has subtle meanings to be parsed, and it is the most extended window we get in MP into the depths and mysteries of these two enigmatic protean characters. We are reading what they say, and some of what they are thinking and feeling, unfiltered or clouded by whatever judgments and reactions Fanny might have had, had she been a fly on the wall overhearing them.

And yet, as I just illustrated with the above-quoted Knightley example, more questions are raised in these two scenes than are answered. For example, when we read Mary, who has just made an incorrect guess as to Henry’s purpose in his secret mission to London, saying….

"Well, well, I am satisfied. I know now to whom it must relate, and am in no hurry for the rest. Fanny Price! wonderful, quite wonderful! That Mansfield should have done so much for—that you should have found your fate in Mansfield!...”

…I believe we are meant by JA to wonder how Mary was going to finish “That Mansfield should have done so much for—“. 

Was she going to say “Fanny”, as a reflection on the sharp irony of Fanny’s being brought to Mansfield at age 8 having finally brought a great benefit to Fanny, after a decade of being ignored, intimidated, and/or abused by most everyone in the Bertram clan? That would fit with Mary’s consistent empathy for Fanny throughout the novel.

Or, was Mary going to say “you”, referring to Henry getting a great benefit from coming to Mansfield Park, but then she quickly rephrases because she’s afraid Henry will take that the wrong way and so Mary tactfully tries to avoid ruffling his pride, by using the vague word “fate”?

Or, was Mary going to say ”us”?---i.e., was this a hint that JA tantalizes us with, as to a possible motivation for the Crawfords coming to Mansfield Park in the first place? I.e., does this tell us that they showed up out of  the thin blue air at Mansfield Park, rather like Satan cruising in from Pandaemonium and pulling into the Garden of Eden, with nefarious intent? Did they show up wanting, perhaps out of a desire for revenge for wrongs in the past, to have something done for them? Or are they like Frederick in Lover’s Vows, who returns to the place of his birth to see his mother, and winds up discovering that he is the  illegitimate son of the local squire, Baron Wildenhaim, who finally marries Frederick’s mother Agatha?

All of those possibilities exist by virtue of that dash---but then, this is not surprising, because I learned to read behind JA’s dashes from Emma--- indeed one could write “a long note” (as Emma might have said, about Miss Bates’s many incomplete sentences ending in dashes) speculating about how Miss Bates was going to end each of those sentences.

For today, I have one very specific textual question as to MP Chapter 30--I wonder if nay of you will have any better luck than I in interpreting the meaning of the end of the following passage, when Mary and Fanny discuss Fanny:

“Fanny's beauty of face and figure, Fanny's graces of manner and goodness of heart, were the exhaustless theme. The gentleness, modesty, and sweetness of her character were warmly expatiated on; that sweetness which makes so essential a part of every woman's worth in the judgment of man, that though he sometimes loves where it is not, he can never believe it absent.”

Does that last part mean that every marrying man believes that his wife is sweet, even though men sometimes love and marry women who are actually not sweet at all? And am I correct that “sweetness” is a euphemism for “compliant”? Or something else? And, perhaps interesting question, who is the one of the two Crawfords who voices this somewhat cynical view? I am pretty sure it’s Mary, it has that same ring of her numerous acute psychological observations, and it seems spoken from a woman’s point of view, with a very refined sense of irony. I.e., is it Mary throwing a subtle barb at Henry’s attachment, tenuous as it may be, to Maria Bertram Rushworth, who is not at all sweet?

Lots of mystery in that passage which I had previously blown by the first 20 times I read Chapter 30, but now I find myself utterly engrossed in these miniature mysteries.

I welcome any thoughts on any of the above, particularly that last question.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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