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

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Fanny Price the guilty eavesdropper: Pollock's Law is still (arguably) universally valid!

 Much has been made over the years about Pollock's Law, which was described several years ago as follows:

"One of the most often cited memes in the history of Austen scholarship was first stated in 1860 by Sir William Frederick Pollock (2d Bart.), a passionate Janeite whose grandfather was saddler to King George III, and whose writer brother Walter Herries Pollock was a close friend of Wilde, Kipling, Stevenson, and other famous authors. Pollock’s article published in Fraser’s Magazine included this influential praise of JA’s authorial scruples:  
“Miss Austen never attempts to describe a scene or a class of society with which she was not herself thoroughly acquainted. The conversations of ladies with ladies, or of ladies and gentlemen together, are given, but no instance occurs of a scene in which men only are present.”

I've previously argued that the principal reason for Pollock's Law is not the commonly accepted one (that Jane Austen did not wish to write what she had never witnessed, i.e., men talking alone), but that over 90% of her dramatized scenes in all six novels involve the heroine--and this near universal principal of limiting dramatized scenes to those in which the heroine is right there observing and listening, was JA's way of preserving ambiguity in two key aspects:

1. Ambiguity as to what is reported (via letters written, or speeches spoken, by characters other than the heroine) to have happened outside the heroine's presence, so as to admit of more than one plausible
interpretation thereof. Frank Churchill's long letter near the end of Emma, which constitutes the entirety of Chapter 50, is the quintessential example of a report by a character other than the heroine, which may or may not be accurate as to its various reported offstage events.
2. Ambiguity as to what is narrated while the heroine is present, insofar as the same question is repeatedly raised as to the narration in such scenes--are we reading an OBJECTIVE report of what is really happening, or a SUBJECTIVE report of what the heroine believes is happening?

That's all background to what I want to say today, which has to do with the one clear exception to Pollock's Law that I am aware of having ever been identified (the earliest such catch I see online being
by Ellen Moody, in Janeites, in 1999). It is the scene in Chapter 3 of Mansfield Park when Sir Thomas chastises Tom for his profligacy, resulting in Edmund having to wait to get a living.

I now believe that a plausible case can be made that even that dramatized scene involving only Sir Thomas and Tom does not violate Pollock's Law after all! And I get to that inference, via resonance from  two other scenes in MP, as I will now unfold to you.

The first such later scene I now bring forward, in Chapter 34, is undramatized but is summarized in narration, and it involves Sir Thomas ostensibly alone with one of his sons---but this time, it's Edmund, not Tom, right after Edmund has returned to Mansfield Park after a stint away at school:

"...After dinner, when [Edmund] and his father were alone, [Edmund] had Fanny's history; and then all the great events of the last fortnight, and the present situation of matters at Mansfield were known to him.
Fanny suspected what was going on. They sat so much longer than usual in the dining-parlour, that she was sure they must be talking of her; and when tea at last brought them away, and she was to be seen by Edmund again, she felt dreadfully guilty. He came to her, sat down by her, took her hand, and pressed it kindly; and at that moment she thought that, but for the occupation and the scene which the tea-things afforded, she must have betrayed her emotion in some unpardonable excess...."

What dawned on me for the first time today, after reading that scene countless times before, is that Fanny has very likely been eavesdropping during the latter half of Sir Thomas's lengthy tete a tete with Edmund!
As usual, having had this outside-the-box thought, as I read the above quoted dialog, I found the "bread crumb" that supports it----"...she felt dreadfully guilty...." 

The question is, what does Fanny feel dreadfully guilty about? Most readers just assume that she feels
dreadfully guilty about her taking up too much of Edmund's and Sir Thomas's valuable time, because Fanny sees herself as being unworthy of  that attention. And that is certainly a plausible inference, because it fits nicely with our being shown in a variety of ways that Fanny is horrified at receiving attention, in part because she feels herself unworthy of it.

But an equally, and I think much more interesting possibility, is that Fanny, having grown very nervous and impatient waiting ("They sat so much longer than usual in the dining parlour, that she was sure they
must be talking of her"), cannot help herself, and so she goes to the door of the dining parlour and eavesdrops until "tea at last brought them away, and she was to be seen by Edmund again..." If she had
eavesdropped, that would certainly account for her feeling "dreadfully guilty" two minutes later when Edmund came out and spoke to her. And the freshness of her "crime" would also account for her fear that she might "betray her emotion in some unpardonable excess" when Edmund then spoke to her, and told her all about his conversation with his father. We’ve all been there in our own lives, having to pretend that we have not heard something which we actually just heard shortly before! And so, in this alternative reading, the task Fanny would then have would be to conceal that she already had heard many of the things he was reporting to her of his meeting with his father, and act as if she had no idea what he was going to tell her!

And...that brings me back to that original dramatized scene in Chapter 3, when Sir Thomas speaks to Tom, in a scene which the narrator takes pains to alert us is occurring when Fanny is 15, and therefore JA inobtrusively conveys the crucial data to us that Fanny is at that moment a young lady fully capable of understanding adult conversations, rather than the girl of eight whose arrival at Mansfield Park is described in the previous chapter:

"...There was another family living actually held for Edmund; but though this circumstance had made the arrangement somewhat easier to Sir Thomas's conscience, he could not but feel it to be an act of injustice,
and he earnestly tried to impress his eldest son with the same conviction, in the hope of its producing a better effect than anything he had yet been able to say or do.
"I blush for you, Tom," said he, in his most dignified manner; "I blush for the expedient which I am driven on, and I trust I may pity your feelings as a brother on the occasion. You have robbed Edmund for ten, twenty, thirty years, perhaps for life, of more than half the income which ought to be his. It may hereafter be in my power, or in yours (I hope it will), to procure him better preferment; but it must not be
forgotten that no benefit of that sort would have been beyond his natural claims on us, and that nothing can, in fact, be an equivalent for the certain advantage which he is now obliged to forego through the
urgency of your debts."
Tom listened with some shame and some sorrow; but escaping as quickly as possible, could soon with cheerful selfishness reflect, firstly, that he had not been half so much in debt as some of his friends; secondly, that his father had made a most tiresome piece of work of it; and, thirdly, that the future incumbent, whoever he might be, would, in all probability, die very soon."

So I now think that Jane Austen very deliberately hinted at the 18-year old Fanny's eavesdropping in Chapter 34, so as to eventually cause some REreaders of MP to pause while reading the above passage in Chapter 3, and to wonder whether the 15 year old Fanny has been eavesdropping on Sir Thomas's stern lecturing of Tom! One might call this a basic survival strategy on Fanny’s part, using her invisibility to covertly gather intelligence of family matters of great personal interest to Fanny, which otherwise might never be (accurately) disclosed to her.

And one other final bit of evidence I discern is that last sentence, describing Tom's state of mind right after he has escaped "as quickly as possible". The word "reflect" normally would refer to what Tom THINKS to himself about his father's criticisms, but it also can quite plausibly refer to what Tom may have SPOKEN to Fanny right afterwards--especially if he had come upon her outside Sir Thomas's room!

Think I am reaching too far? Well, then, finally, consider yet one scene other than the above one in Chapter 3, in which Tom is similarly subjected to what he experiences as unjust parental pressure,
and how he handles that. It is at the end of Chapter 12:

"Fanny could listen no farther. Listening and wondering were all suspended for a time, for Mr. Bertram was in the room again; and though feeling it would be a great honour to be asked by him, she thought it
must happen. He came towards their little circle; but instead of asking her to dance, drew a chair near her, and gave her an account of the present state of a sick horse, and the opinion of the groom, from whom
he had just parted. Fanny found that it was not to be, and in the modesty of her nature immediately felt that she had been unreasonable in expecting it. When he had told of his horse, he took a newspaper from
the table, and looking over it, said in a languid way, "If you want to dance, Fanny, I will stand up with you." With more than equal civility the offer was declined; she did not wish to dance. "I am glad of it,"
said he, in a much brisker tone, and throwing down the newspaper again, "for I am tired to death. I only wonder how the good people can keep it up so long. They had need be all in love, to find any amusement in such folly; and so they are, I fancy. If you look at them you may see they are so many couple of lovers—all but Yates and Mrs. Grant—and, between ourselves, she, poor woman, must want a lover as much as any one of them. A desperate dull life hers must be with the doctor," making a sly face as he spoke towards the chair of the latter, who proving, however, to be close at his elbow, made so instantaneous a change of expression and subject necessary, as Fanny, in spite of everything, could hardly help laughing at. "A strange business this in America, Dr. Grant! What is your opinion? I always come to you to know what I am to think of public matters."
"My dear Tom," cried his aunt soon afterwards, "as you are not dancing, I dare say you will have no objection to join us in a rubber; shall you?" Then leaving her seat, and coming to him to enforce the proposal, added in a whisper, "We want to make a table for Mrs. Rushworth, you know. Your mother is quite anxious about it, but cannot very well spare time to sit down herself, because of her fringe. Now, you and I and Dr. Grant will just do; and though we play but half-crowns, you know, you may bet half-guineas with him."
"I should be most happy," replied he aloud, and jumping up with alacrity, "it would give me the greatest pleasure; but that I am this moment going to dance." Come, Fanny, taking her hand, "do not be dawdling any longer, or the dance will be over."
Fanny was led off very willingly, though it was impossible for her to feel much gratitude towards her cousin, or distinguish, as he certainly did, between the selfishness of another person and his own.
"A pretty modest request upon my word," he indignantly exclaimed as they walked away. "To want to nail me to a card-table for the next two hours with herself and Dr. Grant, who are always quarrelling, and that poking old woman, who knows no more of whist than of algebra. I wish my good aunt would be a little less busy! And to ask me in such a way too! without ceremony, before them all, so as to leave me no possibility of refusing. That is what I dislike most particularly. It raises my spleen more than anything, to have the pretence of being asked, of being given a choice, and at the same time addressed in such a way as to oblige one to do the very thing, whatever it be! If I had not luckily thought of standing up with you I could not have got out of it. It is a great deal too bad. But when my aunt has got a fancy in her head,
nothing can stop her." "

What we see in this scene is Tom feeling grievously put upon by Aunt Norris's urging him to play cards with her, Mrs. Rushworth, and Dr. Grant for two interminable hours----and how does he respond? He turns to Fanny, both as an escape valve to get away from the dreaded card game, and also to vent his spleen to his cousin, who happens to be the greatest of listeners. And his vented spleen in Chapter 12 sounds A LOT like his spleen in Chapter 3, doesn’t it, especially the part about his being “tired to death”, which is pretty much what he “reflects” about his father making “so tiresome a piece of work of it”.

And it is for all these reasons, then, that I now assert that Pollock's Law is still (arguably) universally valid after all!!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitte

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