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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Henry Crawford’s Irresistible Augustinian Confessions

While following up on my recent posts about Mansfield Park alluding to Othello, and also being alluded to by Christopher Isherwood (in a couple of his novels) and Bob Fosse & Company  (in Cabaret), I happened serendipitously upon another small gem of Austenian allusion.

I found it in the following quoted excerpt from “Racial Memory and Literary History” an article by Stephen Greenblatt (the very same, universally acclaimed author of Will in the World , which of course is the litcrit best seller about Shakespeare) in PMLA Vol. 116, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 48-63:

“I want to recall a memorable scene of reading in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. The reading is not private and silent but instead a performance in public, or at least in the semipublic familial sphere defined by the drawing room of an English country house. The shy, sensitive, morally upright heroine Fanny Price has been reading aloud to Lady Bertram, but she has put the book down on hearing approaching footsteps. Edmund Bertram enters in the company of Henry Crawford, the rakish gentleman whose proposal of marriage Fanny recently refused. Fanny dislikes Henry, whose corrupt morals were revealed, in her view, by his highly improper instigation, while the master of Mansfield Park was absent, of amateur theatricals. But though he has been rejected, Henry has not given up his suit, and in the scene in question he pursues it by taking up the book and continuing where Fanny broke off.
The book is an edition of Shakespeare. "She was in the middle of a very fine speech of that man's-What's his name, Fanny?" asks the characteristically lazy-minded Lady Bertram. We might perhaps anticipate from this remark that Fanny has been reading a love scene, from As You Like It or Romeo and Juliet, for example, so that the words Henry recites will continue his courtship, or alternatively from Two Gentlemen of Verona or Cymbeline, so that he will be further exposed as a vain seducer.
But when Crawford opens the book and "by carefully giving way to the inclination of the leaves" finds the passage in question, he sees that the virtuous Fanny has been reading a speech of Cardinal Wolsey's from Henry VIII. This late historical romance is not for us the most familiar or celebrated of Shakespeare's plays, to put it mildly, but it had, in Jane Austen's time, a reputation as a vehicle for great actors. Henry Crawford rises to the occasion, and his reading is brilliant: "The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could al- ways light, at will, on the best scene, or the best speeches of each; and whether it were dignity or pride, or tenderness or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty."

That’s all routine background to most Austen scholars, but now comes Greenblatt’s amazing catch:

“Its effect on Fanny is, at a suitably reduced scale, a bit like the famous effect of the gladiatorial games on Augustine's friend Alypius, who began with his eyes shut and his fingers in his ears and gradually became fascinated to the point of compulsion: Fanny's studied indifference, her distaste for histrionics, her stern resolve not to pay attention break down, as the performance forces itself into her mind and sensibility:  "Not a look, or an offer of help had Fanny given; not a syllable for or against. All her attention was for her work. She seemed determined to be interested by nothing else. But taste was too strong in her. She could not abstract her mind five minutes; she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme." After Crawford finishes, Edmund thanks him, expressing what he hopes are Fanny's "secret feelings" too: "'That play must be a favourite with you,' said he; 'You read as if you knew it well.'" “  Etc etc.  END QUOTE FROM GREENBLATT ARTICLE

I had never heard of Alypius, but I sure knew who Augustine was, and my attention was instantly riveted, because I knew from prior research of my own that there are significant intentional allusions to Augustine in at least two other Austen novels. So it was no great leap for me to quickly suspect that this was a third! I had originally learned about Austen’s interest in Augustine’s Confessions in 2011 from my brilliant Austen scholar friend and lit prof Diane Capitani, who has been working for some time on a book about Austen and Augustine, and who brings a smile to my face every time I see her at a JASNA AGM, when she calls me as a “scamp”! She persuasively argued at the 2011 AGM for the existence of an allusion by JA to Augustine in S&S, and subsequent thereto, I found one in another Austen novel (which I realize now I never publicly wrote about, but now plan to do so in the near future, to complete the picture).

And I also thought about the equally bright Austen scholar Sarah Emsley, who a few years ago wrote Jane Austen and the Philosophy of the Virtues, in which she mentioned Augustine a few times. But when I checked, I found that neither Capitani nor Emsley has ever mentioned Alypius and his “conversion” to vicarious gladiatorial bloodlust; nor could I find any other  scholarly suggestion that Augustine might be lurking in Austen’s allusive shadows in the above described scene, other than Greenblatt.

And in that regard, please note that Greenblatt didn’t actually opine that Austen had intentionally alluded to Augustine’s Confessions. He just noticed “a bit “ of a parallel, as if it were coincidental, and then, after he briefly described what he saw, he moved right along. However, knowing Austen as I do, and especially knowing about those other Augustine allusions, I recognized this as a bona fide allusion in MP that required immediately attention.

First, for some quick historical background, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Alypius:

“Saint ALYPIUS of Thagaste was bishop of the see of Tagaste (in what is now Algeria) in 394. He is also credited with building the first monastery in Africa. He was a lifelong friend of Saint Augustine of Hippo and joined him in his conversion (in 386; Confessions 8.12.28) and life in Christianity. Most of what is known about him comes from Augustine's autobiographical Confessions. He came from an aristocratic family of Thagaste, a small town in the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis. He was a student of Augustine's in Carthage. As ALYPIUS’ friendship with Augustine began to deepen, so did his interest in Manicheism. ALYPIUS admired the Manichees’ strict decrees on chastity, and believed that marriage would interfere with the search for wisdom with his friends. He also studied law, and during his early life went to Rome, where he served as a magistrate. One commonly cited event, from the Confessions (6.8.13) concerns the young ALYPIUS, who had extremely strong moral beliefs, being taken by friends to watch violent Roman games in the arena. He initially resists this, keeping his eyes shut, but he is unable to control himself because of the sounds and eventually succumbs and opens his eyes. To his horror, he finds himself enjoying the spectacle and even invites other friends to come with him later. However, he eventually repents of this and returns to the spiritual fold.

And now here is a translation of the actual (and apparently famous) passage described by both Greenblatt and Wikipedia:

“[Alypius], not forsaking that secular course which his parents had charmed him to pursue, had gone before me to Rome, to study law, and there he was carried away incredibly with an incredible eagerness after the shows of gladiators. For being utterly averse to and detesting spectacles, he was one day by chance met by divers of his acquaintance and fellow-students coming from dinner, and they with a familiar violence haled him, vehemently refusing and resisting, into the Amphitheatre, during these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: "Though you hale my body to that place, and there set me, can you force me also to turn my mind or my eyes to those shows? I shall then be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them." They, hearing this, led him on nevertheless, desirous perchance to try that very thing, whether he could do as he said.
When they were come thither, and had taken their places as they could, the whole place kindled with that savage pastime. But he, closing the passage of his eyes, forbade his mind to range abroad after such evil; and would he had stopped his ears also! For in the fight, when one fell, a mighty cry of the whole people striking him strongly, overcome by curiosity, and as if prepared to despise and be superior to it what so ever it were, even when seen, he opened his eyes, and was stricken with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to behold, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he upon whose fall that mighty noise was raised, which entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of a soul, bold rather than resolute, and the weaker, in that it had presumed on itself, which ought to have relied on Thee.
For so soon as he saw that blood, he therewith drunk down savageness; nor turned away, but fixed his eye, drinking in frenzy, unawares, and was delighted with that guilty fight, and intoxicated with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the man he came, but one of the throng he came unto, yea, a true associate of theirs that brought him thither. Why say more? He beheld, shouted, kindled, carried thence with him the madness which should goad him to return not only with them who first drew him thither, but also before them, yea and to draw in others. Yet thence didst Thou with a most strong and most merciful hand pluck him, and taughtest him to have confidence not in himself, but in Thee. But this was after.
But this was already being laid up in his memory to be a medicine hereafter….”

And now, here is the full text of the paragraph in which Fanny undergoes that exact same involuntary seduction:

“Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford—fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken. Then she was shrinking again into herself, and blushing and working as hard as ever; but it had been enough to give Edmund encouragement for his friend, and as he cordially thanked him, he hoped to be expressing Fanny’s secret feelings too.”

It then occurred to me to check to see whether and how Jane Austen used the word “confession” in MP, and whether any such usage(s) might be connected in some way to the above quoted passage in Chapter 34, in which Fanny is “converted”, in spite of her strong scruples and resistance, to what we might call “Henry Crawfordism”. And wouldn’t you know it, only a few paragraphs later, we read this:

“Edmund had already gone through the service once since his ordination; and upon this being understood, he had a variety of questions from Crawford as to his feelings and success; questions, which being made, though with the vivacity of friendly interest and quick taste, without any touch of that spirit of banter or air of levity which Edmund knew to be most offensive to Fanny, he had true pleasure in satisfying; and when Crawford proceeded to ask his opinion and give his own as to the properest manner in which particular passages in the service should be delivered, shewing it to be a subject on which he had thought before, and thought with judgment, Edmund was still more and more pleased. This would be the way to Fanny’s heart. She was not to be won by all that gallantry and wit and good-nature together could do; or, at least, she would not be won by them nearly so soon, without the assistance of sentiment and feeling, and seriousness on serious subjects.
“Our liturgy,” observed Crawford, “has beauties, which not even a careless, slovenly style of reading can destroy; but it has also redundancies and repetitions which require good reading not to be felt. For myself, at least, I must CONFESS being not always so attentive as I ought to be” (here was a glance at Fanny); “that nineteen times out of twenty I am thinking how such a prayer ought to be read, and longing to have it to read myself. Did you speak?” stepping eagerly to Fanny, and addressing her in a softened voice; and upon her saying “No,” he added, “Are you sure you did not speak? I saw your lips move. I fancied you might be going to tell me I ought to be more attentive, and not allow my thoughts to wander. Are not you going to tell me so?”
“No, indeed, you know your duty too well for me to—even supposing—”
She stopt, felt herself getting into a puzzle, and could not be prevailed on to add another word, not by dint of several minutes of supplication and waiting. He then returned to his former station, and went on as if there had been no such tender interruption…”

So here we have Henry Crawford making a second sneak attack on Fanny’s already breached defenses, moving from Shakespeare to another weak point of Fanny’s, Anglican liturgy. Now, all Janeites know Henry to be about as sincere in belief in Christianity as Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s Iago! And yet actually has the audacity to play the role of penitent sinner (sorta reminds us of Augustine, right?) and to  say, with perfectly simulated mock humility, “I must CONFESS being not always so attentive [to Anglican liturgy] as I ought to be”. And, master manipulator that he is, he takes a quick “glance at Fanny”, as if actually worried that he will thereby lose her good opinion which he plays as if it means the world to him to have it. And then, observing that he has successfully pulled yet another involuntary reaction from Fanny—more holes in the dike, if you will---he pounces again, but in the most delicate and smooth way, such that “she stopt, felt herself getting into a puzzle” --- or should we rather say, Henry’s velvet trap? Confess, indeed!!!!

And for today, I will stop there, so I can get this post out this evening, but I hope this will be the beginning of another interesting thread, as others hopefully react to this.


Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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