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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"t-O TELL O-f races" in Mansfield Park (and Othello)

In followup to my post yesterday....   ...about the allusion to Shakespeare's Othello that I see in Austen's Mansfield Park  that I've been discussing with Diane Reynolds in Austen-L, I have this to add:

Diane, I awoke today with a few more observations that occurred to me, in reply to your wonderful post yesterday evening:

First, as to the following exchange between us:

Diane: “That would be Othello too, I think, if I remember correctly, a person who works his way up. I wonder if there are any Othello echoes in this novel?”
Me: “You obviously mean, other than William and Fanny as Othello and Desdemona. Yes, that was exactly what I was thinking about in the aftermath of writing my post --- Henry C. is really Iago, who was one of Milton’s sources for his Satan.”

I did a little Googling and found that Nicholas Potter, a modern editor of Othello, quoted Samuel Johnson’s reply to Boswell regarding the moral of Othello:

“JOHNSON: “In the first place, Sir, we learn from Othello this very useful moral, not to make an unequal match…” …The word Johnson uses links him directly with one of his greatest fans, JA. The dreadful consequences of ‘unequal matches’ are made evident in her novels.”

Potter then went on:
“Lieutenant Price of MP is not Othello, and Fanny’s mother is not smothered, but there is an instructive comparison to be drawn…”

At that instant, Potter was tantalizingly close to grasping the presence of Othello in MP, but he didn’t quite make it there –it did not occur to him to take a look at the unequal match that might have happened between Henry and Fanny, or the one that actually does happen between Edmund and Fanny. JA, who indisputably knew Boswell’s bio of Johnson, was surely aware of Johnson’s opinion about Othello, and I now connect those dots, and speculate that JA, in MP, did indeed intentionally address the theme of unequal marriage in several of the relationships depicted.

While it is not clear what Johnson had in mind as “unequal” about the marriage of Othello and Desdemona, at least a part of it must have been race --- Othello’s being black is, as I noted in my previous post, what the racist Brabantio luridly talks about, and also is what Iago incites Rodrigo with as well.

Now…think about how the subject of race lurks just beneath the surface of MP at several points. How Henry Crawford is described as “black”, Mary as “brown”, and we of course have Sir Thomas as the owner of a plantation in Antigua where the back-breaking, horrific labor is provided by African slaves.

When you look at the allusion to Othello through that lens, especially with William Price being strikingly paralleled to Othello, it strongly suggests that JA was bringing her sharp readers’s attention to how race played a role in MP, with Fanny’s attraction to her own brother William, but also with Fanny’s eventual attraction to the “black” Henry Crawford.

And now for a  few additional details that came to my mind:

In MP in Chapter 14, we read the following re the selection of a play for the home theatrical:

“…they wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first-rate, and three principal women. All the best plays were run over in vain. Neither Hamlet, nor Macbeth, nor Othello, nor Douglas, nor The Gamester, presented anything that could satisfy even the tragedians…”

As I argued in my breakout session presentation at the 2014 JASNA AGM in Montreal, the three Shakespeare plays named in that passage, seemingly in passing, all actually occupy a notable place in the allusive subtext of Mansfield Park –from the Hamletian way in which Tom Bertram stages a “mousetrap” with Lovers Vows in order to expose his father’s sordid past when Daddy returns from Antigua; to the three WARD/WEIRD sisters who orbit around the same sun, Sir Thomas; to what I’ve just been saying about William Price as Othello, Fanny as Desdemona, and Henry as Iago.

These three Shakespeare tragedies (as well as several other Shakespeare plays--Troilus & Cressida, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Titus Andronicus, Henry VIII, etc.) are not really “in passing” at all in MP –that throwaway listing of plays under consideration fit JA classic M.O. for hiding hints about her allusions in plain sight in the text of her novels!

And finally, speaking of Tom Bertram setting his father for a moral comeuppance up via home theatrical, and hints hidden in the text of MP, here’s are a couple of them, tucked away in a small passage of narration in Chapter 12:

“Sir Thomas was to return in November, and his eldest son had duties to call him earlier home. The approach of September brought tidings of Mr. Bertram, first in a letter to the gamekeeper and then in a letter to Edmund; and by the end of August he arrived himself, to be gay, agreeable, and gallant again as occasion served, or Miss Crawford demanded; tO TELL Of races and Weymouth, and parties and friends, to which she might have listened six weeks before with some interest, and altogether to give her the fullest conviction, by the power of actual comparison, of her preferring his younger brother.”

“to tell of races” ---not only is the name “Otello” (as in Verdi’s Italian spelling which matches the Italian setting) hidden in “to tell of”, I believe we’re being alerted by the pun on “races” that the brown-skinned Miss Crawford (who may be biracial) has, I believe, demanded that Tom confront Sir Thomas not only with his having sired illegitimate children in every direction on different Ward sisters, but also with having sired a couple of biracial children in Antigua—those being Henry and Mary themselves, the proverbial chickens coming home to roost --- in which case Tom is going to “tell” his father “of the “races” of two more of his children!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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