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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jane Austen blows the whistle on Sir Thomas, the sexual predator of Mansfield Park

In Janeites, a list member wrote the following in response to my claim that Sir Thomas Bertram sexually abuses various female members of his family at Mansfield Park:  
“Please give examples of quotes that readers understood to be indications of abuse. It's not whistleblowing if no one can hear the whistle.”

My reply:  lend Jane Austen your ear, and you’ll hear her whistle very clearly…..  ;)

First and foremost, as Patricia Rozema (in my view correctly) made explicit in her 1999 film adaptation what was already implied everywhere in MP by JA, the central fact of the novel is that Sir Thomas is a slave plantation owner in Antigua. This man spends a lot of time there, and that would tell us a great deal about him, even if we knew nothing else about him. His “profession” already predisposes the alert reader to be suspicious of all his actions, even though most Janeites read MP as if Sir Thomas ran a successful morally defensible business. But that would make Jane Austen a hack writer, who creates a huge implication of something very dark and disturbing, but to no purpose. She is not a hack.

Second, I have often posted about Sir Thomas’s extreme hypocrisy, how his bottom line in life is the bottom line in pecuniary terms---all he cares about is money, even though he pretends to be motivated by Christian morality. That subtext is everywhere in the novel.

And third I have posted a number of times over the past decade about how Sir Thomas is just like Claudius from Hamlet, being confronted with his sins by his son Tom’s “staging” of Lovers Vows—in this case, it’s Sir Thomas’s long-ago sexual misadventures with his sister-in-law, which have resulted in his being visited two decades later by his illegitimate son (Henry Crawford), the proverbial chicken coming home to roost.

But that only sets the stage for the very specific passages in MP which revolve around Fanny’s sexual terror when she is around Sir Thomas, which have all the hallmarks of the PTSD response of a longtime sexual abuse victim. I just quickly collected a sampling of such passages from my prior posts, but there are others, too. (and that’s in addition to what I wrote about earlier, how it’s clear that Mrs. Norris and Maria have obviously been waiting for Sir Thomas to be away for a long while in Antigua in order to find some way of getting Maria out of sexual harm’s way at Mansfield Park):

“The TERROR of his former occasional VISITS TO THAT ROOM seemed all renewed, and she felt as if he were going to EXAMINE her again IN FRENCH and English. “

When you look at this line of narration from slightly off-center, you realize with a sickening jolt that there is a horrible alternative interpretation, in which the “examination” is physical, not academic, and in which “in French” refers not to the French tongue as a language (the French word for language being the same as the French word for a person’s actual tongue) but to an actual tongue---more horribly still, Sir Thomas’s tongue---and you realize further that in 1814, and still even today, the sexual slang meaning, for Brits, of anything sexual that is “in French” is unmistakable—e.g., “the French way”.

Jane Austen knew what that reaction would be too, and she shows it to us in the following scene:

[Cousin Edmund Bertram speaking to Fanny Price] “… (smiling). "Do you want to be told that you are only unlike other people in being more wise and discreet? But when did you, or anybody, ever get a compliment from me, Fanny? Go to my father if you want to be complimented. He will satisfy you. Ask your uncle what he thinks, and you will hear compliments enough: and though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time."
Such language was so new to Fanny that it quite embarrassed her.
"Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle's admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman."
"Oh! don't talk so, don't talk so," cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of; but seeing that she was distressed, he had done with the subject….” END OF QUOTED EXCERPT

Let’s take a quick tally: “He will satisfy you….they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it…the long and the short of the matter…your figure---nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it…harden yourself…” And that awful smile….

Is it any wonder that Fanny is “quite embarrassed” and was “distressed by more feelings than he was aware of”? This scene is one of many which long ago soured me on Edmund Bertram, who, despite his good intentions, always wusses out in the moment of truth—and this is the ultimate moment of truth, when Fanny is most in need of his protection, and he—the definitive representation of the Anglican clergy in Jane Austen’s novels-- just goes AWOL, morally speaking.

And here’s another, even more egregious:

“As she entered, her own name caught her ear. Sir Thomas was at that moment looking round him, and saying, “But where is Fanny? Why do not I see my little Fanny?”—and on perceiving her, came forward with a kindness which astonished and penetrated her, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately, and observing with decided pleasure how much she was grown! Fanny knew not how to feel, nor where to look. She was quite oppressed.”

Caught her ear, or caught her rear? Did you read my post of only a few days ago in which I recounted how I spoke at the JASNA AGM about the 13 times Jane Austen word-played with the word “rear” in MP (the exact same way Shakespeare did with “Lend me your ears”)—it goes far beyond the obviously sexual “rears and vices”. But when you see that same wordplay in the same short paragraph with “penetrated”, “kissing”, “fanny”, along with Sir Thomas ogling Fanny’s body, the collectivity is sickening.

Sir Thomas is a monster, and, as Hannah Arendt famously worded it, it’s the banality of his evil that is so chilling—while many African slaves surely died on his Antigua plantation, at home  in Mansfield Park he lives a more muted version of that same “lifestyle”.

And finally, as I’ve also written in the past, we see men like this in today’s world as well --- Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Jerry Sandusky, to name a couple of infamous names from the present day.

Open your ears, and hear JA’s high pitched “whistle” blowing…..

[and see the PS, below]

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAusten on Twitter

PS: Here is my response to a reply to the above by that same participant in Janeites:


“I remember the movie and thinking that its blowsy-haired Fanny was not like the character in the novel.”

I have always said that this was the one false note in an otherwise brilliant unpacking of many key aspects of the shadow story of the novel. Beware of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

”Even if she herself saw it the way we do (and the words she put in Jane Fairfax's mouth would seem to argue against that view), she would not have expected her readers to assume that a slaveholder was likely also to abuse his children.  Plus, Austen presents nuanced characters rather than caricatures. “

You’ve completely missed the point of Jane’s words, but that is a much bigger topic.

Sir Thomas is not a caricature, because JA brilliantly depicts the veneer of respectability and morality that hypocrites like him presented to the world. He’s very much like General Tilney, but since we see him through Fanny’s eyes, many Janeites can’t see what an ogre he is. This is the quintessence of nuance.

And I left out the biggest clue of all. Right after Edmund panders for Fanny to allow the recently returned Sir Thomas to ogle and fondle her, we read:

"Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle."
"But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?"
"I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther."
"And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like—I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel."
If you cannot hear what Jane Austen is saying via that “dead silence”, then you are missing the essence of Jane Austen’s satire and irony.

“And, good grief, Hannah Arendt was not writing about Sir Thomas Bertram, who would have gone bankrupt if he had murdered all his slaves.”

You’re making my argument for me! Don’t you realize that he WAS having great financial difficulty with his slave plantation, and that was one plausible reason why! It was an economic decision for cruel plantation owners, using terror and abuse to keep his plantation in line, and avoid a slave revolt such as occurred in Haiti.

And what you also may not realize is how mainstream the slavery subtext has become in Jane Austen scholarly circles since Rozema’s 1999 film. There were a handful of articles written on that topic between 1967 and 1999, but since the film blew the roof off the pervasive silence in ordinary Janeites circles, there’ve been many dozen of such articles.

So this is not just Rozema and me.


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