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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

“very ungrateful”: Fanny’s appalling lack of empathy for Mary—and Mary’s truly Christian response



I’ve been on a Mary Crawford kick all month, as my presentation in Montreal gave special emphasis to Mary’s covertly Shakespearean aura, and to my increasingly firm and documented view of Mary as the most unfairly maligned of all major Austen characters.

In a nutshell, just as it is difficult to see the real Jane Fairfax, because our vision of her character is so strongly blocked by Emma’s relentlessly clueless misunderstanding, jealousy, and lack of empathy, so too is our perception of Mary at least partially obscured by Fanny’s relentlessly clueless fear, jealousy and lack of empathy for Mary.

But…unlike the situation with Jane Fairfax, who almost never speaks, and whose letters we never get to read, we have a number of opportunities to hear Mary speak---including several times when Fanny is not present-- and we also get to read two of Mary’s letters to Fanny. So it is much easier to discern the complexities of Mary’s character than is the case with Jane, IF we can overcome the initial hurdle of being trapped inside Fanny’s head and heart.  

I’ve scoured the Internet and relevant databases for every scholarly analysis of Mary’s character I could find, and in one of them, an obscure, never-cited article from the fringe of Austen scholarship written nearly 40 years ago, I came across a wonderfully on-point bit of textual evidence that, I believe, crystallizes this apparent paradox of Mary being judged harshly by Janeites, even as her behavior is far more like Jesus’s than Fanny’s. Sound crazy? It won’t take me long to show otherwise.

As my Subject Line suggests, this has to do with the descriptor “very ungrateful”—this phrase appears only twice in the entire Austen canon, and you may not be surprised to learn that both of them occur in Mansfield Park. It should not be surprising, because one of the most persistent themes in the novel is that of gratefulness, and Fanny Price is almost always the subject of this theme. We are constantly reminded of Fanny’s vulnerable position at Mansfield Park, and how often she is under pressure to express gratitude for benefits which readers today would consider only her rightful due, and how often she is also under pressure to express gratitude, and to comply in her behavior,  in response to what we today can clearly see as abuse that is inflicted on her.

But there is (at least) one instance where it is not Fanny who is the locus of this theme, but Mary. And, surprise surprise, the one who expresses judgment on Mary for not being grateful is not Mrs. Norris, or Sir Thomas, it’s none other than Fanny herself!: In Chapter 7, we read the following tete-a-tete between Fanny and Edmund, as they debrief Mary’s “rears and vices” pun:

"Well, Fanny, and how do you like Miss Crawford now?" said Edmund the next day, after thinking some time on the subject himself. "How did you like her yesterday?"
"Very well—very much. I like to hear her talk. She entertains me; and she is so extremely pretty, that I have great pleasure in looking at her."
"It is her countenance that is so attractive. She has a wonderful play of feature! But was there nothing in her conversation that struck you, Fanny, as not quite right?"
"Oh yes! she ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished. An uncle with whom she has been living so many years, and who, whatever his faults may be, is so very fond of her brother, treating him, they say, quite like a son. I could not have believed it!"
"I thought you would be struck. It was very wrong; very indecorous."
"And VERY UNGRATEFUL, I think."
"Ungrateful is a strong word. I do not know that her uncle has any claim to her gratitude; his wife certainly had; and it is the warmth of her respect for her aunt's memory which misleads her here….“  

Indeed Edmund is correct that Mary hardly owes a debt of gratitude to her uncle, who has exposed her to behavior that we cannot know precisely, but which has a strong whiff of being a whole lot worse than just an overly quick replacement of a late wife with a young mistress. But Fanny displays an appalling  lack of empathy for what it must have been like for Mary in her uncle’s home after the death of her beloved aunt. Fanny, who was uprooted from her home at a young age, seems not to be moved by the fact that Mary has felt compelled to leave a comfortable home immediately after the death of a beloved aunt.

And modern psychology (which JA anticipated) tells us that we ought not be surprised, because Fanny, as I stated above, is so often a victim of the particularly ugly experience of being abused and then being required to say thank you for that abuse! Fanny not only suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, she judges other victims who don’t “catch” that disease! But now here’s the hidden catch, that tells the alert reader that JA really did portray Mary, albeit covertly, around the edges of Fanny’s biased point of view, as a really good and moral person.

Check out this famously painful passage in Chapter 15, when Tom is pressuring Fanny to play Cottager’s Wife:

"You must excuse me, indeed you must excuse me," cried Fanny, growing more and more red from excessive agitation, and looking distressfully at Edmund, who was kindly observing her; but unwilling to exasperate his brother by interference, gave her only an encouraging smile. Her entreaty had no effect on Tom: he only said again what he had said before; and it was not merely Tom, for the requisition was now backed by Maria, and Mr. Crawford, and Mr. Yates, with an urgency which differed from his but in being more gentle or more ceremonious, and which altogether was quite overpowering to Fanny; and before she could breathe after it, Mrs. Norris completed the whole by thus addressing her in a whisper at once angry and audible—"What a piece of work here is about nothing: I am quite ashamed of you, Fanny, to make such a difficulty of obliging your cousins in a trifle of this sort—so kind as they are to you! Take the part with a good grace, and let us hear no more of the matter, I entreat."
"Do not urge her, madam," said Edmund. "It is not fair to urge her in this manner. You see she does not like to act. Let her chuse for herself, as well as the rest of us. Her judgment may be quite as safely trusted. Do not urge her any more."
"I am not going to urge her," replied Mrs. Norris sharply; "but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her—VERY UNGRATEFUL, indeed, considering who and what she is."
Edmund was too angry to speak; but Miss Crawford, looking for a moment with astonished eyes at Mrs. Norris, and then at Fanny, whose tears were beginning to shew themselves, immediately said, with some keenness, "I do not like my situation: this place is too hot for me," and moved away her chair to the opposite side of the table, close to Fanny, saying to her, in a kind, low whisper, as she placed herself, "Never mind, my dear Miss Price, this is a cross evening: everybody is cross and teasing, but do not let us mind them"; and with pointed attention continued to talk to her and endeavour to raise her spirits, in spite of being out of spirits herself. By a look at her brother she prevented any farther entreaty from the theatrical board, and the really good feelings by which she was almost purely governed were rapidly restoring her to all the little she had lost in Edmund's favour.
Fanny did not love Miss Crawford; but she felt very much obliged to her for her present kindness; and when, from taking notice of her work, and wishing she could work as well, and begging for the pattern, and supposing Fanny was now preparing for her appearance, as of course she would come out when her cousin was married, Miss Crawford proceeded to inquire if she had heard lately from her brother at sea, and said that she had quite a curiosity to see him, and imagined him a very fine young man, and advised Fanny to get his picture drawn before he went to sea again—she could not help admitting it to be very agreeable flattery, or help listening, and answering with more animation than she had intended.
The consultation upon the play still went on, and Miss Crawford's attention was first called from Fanny by Tom…” END QUOTE

In my JASNA AGM talk, I pointed out what I originally blogged about in May of this year, which is the pointed irony of Mrs. Norris tracking, word-for-word, the veiled Shakespearean allusion to Hamlet’s famous pessimistic speech (“What a piece of work is man”) spoken by Cottager’s Wife in Lover’s Vows, the very character whom Mrs. Norris is pressuring Fanny to play!

But it’s Mrs. Norris’s referring to Fanny as “very ungrateful” that I am focused on today—and look at who steps up to defend and console Fanny—it’s not Edmund (whom Fanny thinks is “too angry to speak” but, truth be told, he just fails to step up once again when Fanny is subjected to abuse), it’s Mary!

And the double irony is that we are reminded of Chapter 7, when Fanny, faced with a choice as to whether to judge Mary for her pun about her uncle, elects to judge and fault Mary, leaving it to Edmund to point out the strong mitigating circumstances.  

So, if that’s not turning the other cheek on Mary’s part, I don’t know what is! Even though Mary was not present when Fanny rendered judgment on her privately, Mary is no dope, and she surely readily inferred from what must have been Fanny’s shocked nonverbal reaction to Mary’s “rears and vices’ pun that Fanny had put a negative spin on it.

And yet, in the moment of truth, Mary not only did not retaliate, by piling on Fanny, she actually was the only one in the room brave and moral enough to defend and take care of Fanny in that very traumatic situation.

And, there’s one final turn of the moral screw—because, as I have argued repeatedly, Mary’s “rears and vices’ pun, properly understood, was the only way Mary could warn Fanny that William’s promotion in the navy was going to come at a very high “price” in that Admiral Crawford and his Danteseque circle of admirals were going to subject William’s “rear” to their “vices”! And that’s what JA is reminding us of, when Mary inquires, while consoling Fanny after Mrs. Norris’s nasty attack, if Fanny had heard lately from William at sea. But again, Fanny is clueless, she is unaware of what Mary is actually up to.

So, in both instances, Mary was actually defending Fanny and William the underdogs—in the first case, she gets blamed for it by Fanny, but at least in the second instance Fanny, in spite of herself, begins to soften toward Mary, and deservedly so.

So, putting this all together, Mary’s behavior in both instances is what we would expect from a highly evolved moral being, willing to suffer pain to help the helpless, even willing to help someone who does not understand her—the most Christian of actions, if we follow Jesus’s actual words and not what many of the powerful hypocrites, like Sir Thomas, who acted in his name only in the world of the novel and JA’s real world as well.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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