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Friday, February 26, 2016

Millenium Hall lesbian subtext in Austen, especially Mansfield Park: A very FLAT business, I am sure!



In Janeites and Austen L today, Ellen Moody wrote: “One final work, Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall shows single lives for women which include happiness. A number of spinster characters. Most fully developed Miss Louisa Mancel. Kittredge is her most cheerful in this section: she likes the story of Mancel enormously. Mancel's beauty was definite problem since she had no money, and she moves from destitution to well-off several times; mostly she solves her problem of self-support by servitude (Kittredge's word) in a great house. No Downton Abbey here. She takes society's view of herself and is willing to come down and live with low status without apparent repining. Her great virtue of self-control: she controls how she shows herself, escapes persistent sexual harassments: she's a lady's maid. …Self control and a true friendship with Miss Melvyn and some luck carries her over her deep unhappiness in her situation (hidden from all this unhappiness). The friend marries and becomes Mrs Morgan, Miss Mancel moves nearby (gets another job) but Mr Mancel cannot bear this competition; he insists his wife give up the friend altogether. To me strangely Kittredge suddenly sides with him! …So now her refusal to talk about lesbianism comes in. Scott was lesbian, this is a lesbian relationship in covered up; by not admitting this or talking of it, the whole story is skewed. Only if we admit this is an intense lesbian relationship can we really say the husband is understandable – and in a way Mrs Morgan married him on false terms. Admit the lesbianism too and we could say Mrs Morgan has been so repressed she doesn't understand what she is – Emma Donoghue and Lisa Moore's books deny that the women could know. At any rate we'd be in reality world; Kittredge has strangely here not been willing to say what is happening. Her inference is Scott is saying there are worse things than remaining unmarried because Mrs Morgan is now bullied and isolated and she mentions how Hayley in his cruel book on old maids warns women if you don't marry your friends will and have to cut you off and out when they have children. Probably Kittredge wants to keep our minds on heterosexuals as the generality, but lesbians were there and complicate the picture of who stayed unmarried. Fast forward to today: in cases of husband abuse it's common for the man to have behaved with harsh jealousy and isolated her from family and friends. At any rate the husband dies and they open Millenium Hall. And then of course acts of generosity towards spinsters abounds. But this is allegory. Galesia's story is closer to the reality; and Miss Mancel and Mrs Morgan before Mr Morgan dies.” END QUOTE FROM ELLEN MOODY

I agree completely with Ellen when she writes “So now [Kittredge’s] refusal to talk about lesbianism comes in. Scott was lesbian, this is a lesbian relationship in covered up; by not admitting this or talking of it, the whole story is skewed. Only if we admit this is an intense lesbian relationship can we really say the husband is understandable – and in a way Mrs Morgan married him on false terms. Admit the lesbianism too and we could say Mrs Morgan has been so repressed she doesn't understand what she is – Emma Donoghue and Lisa Moore's books deny that the women could know. At any rate we'd be in reality world; Kittredge has strangely here not been willing to say what is happening. Her inference is Scott is saying there are worse things than remaining unmarried because Mrs Morgan is now bullied and isolated and she mentions how Hayley in his cruel book on old maids warns women if you don't marry your friends will and have to cut you off and out when they have children. Probably Kittredge wants to keep our minds on heterosexuals as the generality, but lesbians were there and complicate the picture of who stayed unmarried….”

But I take Ellen’s above comments a giant (but justified) step farther. I wrote back in 2008 about how strongly I agree with Jocelyn Harris in her claim in A Revolution Beyond Expression (2006) that Persuasion contains a significant veiled allusion to Millenium Hall. At that time, I also argued that there is an even more significant allusion to Millenium Hall in Mansfield Park as well:
“They are contained in the inset story entitled "The History of Mrs. Trentham", and involve a young girl, Harriot Trentham who at age 8 upon the remarriage of her previously widowed father winds up in the care of her rich maternal grandmother, who was already the caretaker of Harriot's four slightly elder cousins, a boy and three girls. Sound vaguely familiar? Then how about this: ‘As their grandmother was rich, there had been a strong contention among them for her favour, and they could not without great disgust see another rival brought to the house. Harriot was extremely handsome and engaging. The natural sweetness of her temper rendered her complying and observant...Had Miss Alworth and Miss Denham [two of Harriot's cousins] been much younger, Harriot would not have passed unenvied. Every day increased their dislike to her...and they let no opportunity escape of making her feel the effects of their little malice. Their hatred to her produced an union among themselves; for the first time they found something in which they all agreed...."
I think you get enough of a taste there to realize that JA reproduced a not too distant replica of that home in Mansfield Park. But there's more, remember, there is one boy cousin in the mix:
"Master Alworth [the boy cousin], by being thus kept at home, had frequent opportunities of observing the malice of his sister and Miss Denham against Harriot....His fondness for Harriot soon made him beloved by her, and as she found little pleasure in the society of her other cousins, she sought his company...Master Alworth was far enough advanced in learning to assist his favourite, and from him she received instruction with double pleasure...Thus beloved by her grandmother and Mr. Alworth, and hated and traduced by her female cousins, Harriot lived till she was 16....when Mrs. Alworth judged it proper that her grandson should go abroad...He had no objection to the scheme but what arose from his unwillingness to leave Harriot...To be deprived of his society was losing the chief pleasure of her life, and her best guardian against her enemies. Mrs Alworth...hope to see an happy union arise from it....but the two friends themselves had not extended their views so far. Bred up like brother and sister, a tenderer degree of relation had not entered their thoughts...."
I think any commentary by me on that passage would be utterly superfluous, it has so obviously been tracked by JA in Fanny and Edmund....but there's still more----Harriot discourages a suitor, Mr. Parnel, because Harriot is patiently waiting for her cousin to realize he loves her. So that suitor then marries her cousin. But then, by various circumstances, Harriot's cousin realizes that she was not Mr. Parnel's first choice, and you can just imagine what ensues. Chaos.
…What I am really struck by, once again as I skimmed parts of Millenium Hall, is how intelligent and subtle it is. Clearly Sarah Scott was one brilliant woman, and it is extraordinarily easy to imagine how JA, whenever in her life it was when she first heard about Sarah Scott, and read this book, would have been enthralled from the first page onward. This was a book written by a woman who, by a combination of good fortune and her own considerable gifts, had lived a good life in a relationship that had many of the earmarks of a long term committed lesbian relationship (just go to Wikipedia to read about Sarah Scott's life), and was able to both write 'the best fiction" (to paraphrase Cousin Elliot), and to implement her utopian ideas in a very pragmatic way just outside Bath (where perhaps JA visited sometime before Scott died in 1795).”

And I would add today, with the better perspective I’ve gain in the last 8 years, that it’s utterly clear to me from all of the above that the lesbian subtext in JA’s novels (particularly, Charlotte Lucas in love with Elizabeth in P&P and Mary Crawford in love with Mary in MP) drew significantly on a number of prior literary sources, but none more than Scott’s Millenium Hall. I hadn’t thought about Charlotte Lucas before I read this part of Ellen’s post:

“Only if we admit this is an intense lesbian relationship can we really say the husband is understandable – and in a way Mrs Morgan married him on false terms. Admit the lesbianism too and we could say Mrs Morgan has been so repressed she doesn't understand what she is”

That is exactly what I’ve been saying about P&P, and so I can paraphrase Ellen as follows – i.e., that Charlotte marries Collins on false terms (unless he too is gay, in which event, they are a mutual marriage of pure convenience), and Elizabeth Bennet is so repressed that she doesn’t understand what she is.

And…I conclude this post with a quote from George Haggerty’s excellent 1992 article which is the first I can find to claim a lesbian subtext in Millenium Hall:

…The popular and well distributed text Satan’s Harvest Home, or the Present State of Whorecraft, Adultery, Fornication, Procuring, Pimping, Sodomy, and the Game at Flatts…(1749), for example, offers in its almost pornographic fervor a different picture of 18th century attitudes toward female sexuality… a description of male effeminacy…proceeds to a diatribe against sexual transgression….After cataloguing a variety of sexually transgressive females, for instance, he turns his attention to Sappho:
“…What does [Sappho] do then? Not content with our Sex, begins Amours with her own, and teaches the Female World a new sort of Sin, call’d the Flats, that was follow’d not only in Lucian’s Time, but is practis’d frequently in Turkey, as well as in Twickenham at this day.”
…the “Flats” is taught rather than ‘caught’. Partridge tells us that flats is the slang term for false playing cards or counterfeit money. Also current, slightly later according to Partridge, is the use of the term flat-cock to describe a woman, ‘for one of two possible anatomical reasons”, and flat-f---k for ‘simulated copulation by a pair of women: lesbian.”
It is interesting that flats include a sense both of cheating and deception as well as female homosexuality.  …a flat-f----k is no f----k at all, from a male perspective….”

Out of curiosity, I checked Mansfield Park for the word “flat”, and found the following very interesting passage in Chapter 6:

“Mr. Bertram set off for————, and Miss Crawford was prepared to find a great chasm in their society, and to miss him decidedly in the meetings which were now becoming almost daily between the families; and on their all dining together at the Park soon after his going, she retook her chosen place near the bottom of the table, fully expecting to feel a most melancholy difference in the change of masters. It would be a very flat business, she was sure.

So, in this passage which refers to the departure of the heir to the Bertram fortune, and the effect this will have on Mary, who had clearly tipped her cap at him while he was there, it sure ain’t a coincidence, in light of Haggerty’s excellent catch of the slang lesbian meaning of “flat”, that we read Mary thinking about where to turn her amorous attentions, and there is a pointed reference to it being “a very FLAT business”. And that’s exactly when I see Mary’s courtship of Fanny begins!

A very flat business, I am sure, as well!

So, thanks to Ellen for prompting me to revisit Millenium Hall today, and to make my own understanding of its lesbian subtextual role in MP more complete.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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