FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: @JaneAustenCode
(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Jane Austen’s expanding Mozartean sentences: exactly as many WORDS as are necessary!

Are you one of the many, like me, who know and love the scene in the film Amadeus which picked up on the widely repeated story (whether true or apocryphal) reported, e.g., by Gehring in his 1911 biography Mozart:     “[Mozart’s comic opera] Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio] was represented for the first time on the 16th of July, 1782. Its success was extraordinary, and several numbers were encored. Nevertheless the Emperor said to Mozart, ‘Too fine for our ears, my dear Mozart, and a great deal too many notes.’ To which Mozart replied, ‘Exactly as many notes as are necessary, your Majesty.’ “  END QUOTE

Believe it or not, before the end of this post, I am going to claim a connection between that famous anecdote and the conclusion of my post yesterday about the heretofore unrecognized (as to its pervasiveness) influence of Cowper’s poetically expressed ideas (about the horrors of colonial slavery) on Mansfield Park. In that conclusion, I analyzed what I described as the Cowper-infused poetic ruminations of Fanny Price while on her dreamily romantic Sunday seaside promenade with Henry Crawford:

‘The day was uncommonly lovely. It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea, now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.’

Here is my analysis one more time, before I get to the Mozartean connection I see:
“Austen begins simply enough with a 5-word sentence, as to which we cannot know how much is objective fact about the loveliness of the weather, and how much is the buoyant Fanny’s subjective perception of it. That first sentence is followed by a 4-word statement, which is purely factual: it was “really March” –[and by the way, it’s no coincidence that we are reminded, ironically, of Mary’s much earlier bon mot (“Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”), but this time it’s Fanny who cannot be dictated to by a calendar!] But that factual statement pauses at a semicolon instead of ending with a period. Why? Because the 20-word passage which follows it begins with “but”, and thus constitutes a fanciful poetic negation of the fact of March (winter not quite over) with Fanny’s feeling of April (as if spring had already begun). And that of course corresponds to the “spring” which has thawed Fanny’s heart, after the long cold “winter” of silent, frozen jealousy of Mary’s seemingly limitless power over Edmund.
And then, the passage pauses again, at a second semicolon, but this time the pause is not to negate, but to amplify, what immediately preceded it. And that sets the stage perfectly for JA, in her masterful synthesis of syntax, rhythm, description, and symbolism, to virtuosically extend the remainder of that second sentence for a remarkable additional seventy seven words, filled from one end to the other with subtle poetic description of what Fanny sees and feels! I am reminded of the mastery of the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, who knew how to delay and extend resolution for a seeming eternity, to make that climax all the more satisfying (and all sexual innuendoes are intended, in Fanny’s case!)”

This morning I was happy to awaken to Diane Reynolds’s marvelous response to my overall point about the Cowper in MP, and also to Diane’s independently bringing forward the long sentence in Persuasion which she had mentioned earlier in the week as having caught her sharp eye:


It took me ten seconds to realize, with the kind of excitement that only a hardcore Austen wonk like myself could feel, that this narrative passage in Persuasion was composed by JA with EXACTLY the same expanding, tripartite structure that I had just detected and parsed in Fanny Price’s poetic seaside ruminations, written by JA only two years earlier; and, what made it immeasurably more wonderful, was that it was ALSO a super-long sentence in which the presence of poetry loved by Austen was not only implied (as with The Task in Fanny’s ruminations); the poetic presence in this later-written passage now consisted of two poets JA and Anne Elliot read and loved (i.e., Scott and Byron), whose poems are now explicitly named!

But it gets even better. This latter-written passage is an even more virtuosic three-stage, exponential expansion of the germ of a tiny idea than the above passage in MP. I.e., in the earlier one, the first part is 5 words long, the second 4 words, and then the third, an organic outgrowth of the first two, is twenty times longer than the first two: 77 words. Well, apparently JA was only getting warmed up in MP. In the narrator’s account of Anne’s and Benwick’s sharing poetry faves, JA starts out about twice as long as in the MP Cowperian passage, with the first part at 8 words; then the second at 13 words. But then the third --- again an organic outgrowth of the first two --- is more than twice as long as the comparable third part of the MP passage, coming in at a mind-blowing 172 words!

[And Diane, just reading your latest post as I was getting ready to post this---yes, last year I also mentioned that I loved the dry deflating irony of “moreover, how the Giaour was to be pronounced”!]

So, is it just a coincidence that these passages in MP and Persuasion are so remarkably similar in structure and poetic resonance, with the latter twice as large as the former? I don’t think so!! What this suggests to me is two things for starters, although I’d love to hear other reactions, as surely there is much more to be gleaned from this intriguing parallel:

First, as my Subject Line suggests, I see this as JA, an immortal composer of words, applying a musical compositional technique of expansion that she would’ve encountered repeatedly, and understood and loved as a player of piano music, taken to the highest levels of perfection of sonata form by the musical immortals of the Classical era, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. And just as the expanded sentence is twice as long in Persuasion as in MP, so too are the late sonatas, symphonies, and concertos noticeably longer than those of Mozart and Haydn.

Second, these two poetry-inspired passages make me wonder whether there might have come a time when, reversing Scott’s career trajectory, JA might have begun to write serious poetry, had she lived another decade or two. If so, would she have broken away from the model of line after line of equal length, and instead taken what she was already experimenting with in her prose fiction, and make a daring leap into a new form of poetry, based on the expansionary model I see in those passages?

Finally, with all of the above as preface, I am now ready to respond to what Ellen wrote in response to Diane’s posting of that passage in Persuasion:
“How much of this comes from the reality this is not a finished text. It's not the first or even second draft; let's suppose a ninth. If you look at Sanditon and the canceled chapters of Persuasion, you see these long sentences, packed with thought and feeling ....”

As must be apparent from my “preface”, I couldn’t disagree more with Ellen’s take on JA’s later long sentences (which, Mozart’s imperious Emperor, if he had been a reader, might’ve asserted contained “too many words”) as representing preliminary drafts by JA. I am highly skeptical that they represent raw  ideas as they emerged, Athena-like, from her fertile brain; ideas which, had she been healthy, she’d supposedly have radically altered later so as to make her long sentences much more compact.

No, I believe precisely the opposite is the case. Like Diane in her noting the highly polished nature of those long sentences, I see JA the author, inspired by her delvings into the great poetry coming to her hot off the presses while she was writing her later novels, engaging in some masterful literary alchemy. She was in the process of finding a way of combining what she absorbed from her poetic explorations with her longstanding deep musical sensibility and knowledge, when illness and then death cruelly cut that process short.

And one more relevant point -- beginning with MP, we also know that JA was, for the first time since she became an adult, writing novels from scratch, rather than revising and rerevising what she had written before. That was perhaps a very liberating turning point in her career, emboldening her to begin really experimenting with developing new and varied forms of sentence structure “packed with thought and feeling” (as Ellen does aptly put it). In this way, she was reaching toward accommodating her own steadily continuing maturation as a writer, and, as we can see with 21st century hindsight, pointed the way toward the unimaginably rich expansions in psychological fiction by the likes of James, Joyce, and Nabokov, among many others.

So, what happy serendipity, Diane, that you brought forward that Persuasion sentence at the exact moment when I had just parsed out that passage in MP. I say, now the fun can really begin. Can anyone else bring forward some other comparably long sentences from any of JA’s fiction from MP onward, so we can see how it relates to the poetic pattern I’ve outlined.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Friday, May 5, 2017

The poetry hidden just beneath the MANSFIELD Judgment as source for the title of MANSFIELD Park

In 1983, Margaret Kirkham shook a few foundational pillars of conventional Austen studies when she wrote the following section of her book Jane Austen, Feminism & Fiction:    “The title of Mansfield Park is allusive and ironic, but the allusion in this case is not to philosophical fiction like Emile nor to the theatre, but to a legal judgment, generally regarded as having insured that slavery could not be held to be in accordance with the manners and customs of the English. In this title, in making Sir Thomas Bertram a slave-owner abroad, and in exposing the moral condition of his wife in England, Jane Austen follows an analogy used in [Wollstonecraft’s] Vindication between the slaves in the colonies and women, especially married women, at home.…Clarkson [in a famous book likely read by Austen] goes over the history of the anti-slavery movement and refers to a particularly famous legal judgment, which established that slavery was illegal in England. This was the Mansfield judgment, given by the Lord Chief Justice of England in 1772, in a case concerning a black slave, James Somerset…[C]ounsel for [Somerset argued to Lord Mansfield that it] “was resolved [in an Elizabethan-era judgment] that England was too pure an air for slaves to breathe in…and I hope, my lord, the air does not blow worse since—I hope they will never breathe here; for this is my assertion, the moment they put their feet on English ground, that moment they are free.’  Lord Mansfield found in favour of Somerset, and, by implication, of this view of English air.”

In regard to Kirkham’s pioneering observations, two additional points are relevant to my topic today:

First, as some Janeites may be aware, Patricia Rozema acknowledged Kirkham’s 1983 book as a key inspiration for Rozema’s subversive 1999 film adaptation of MP ---which even today remains extremely controversial for several reasons, but perhaps most of all for its depiction of Sir Thomas Bertram as a slave-raping brute, the witnessing of whose monstrous crimes in Antigua drives his artistic, sensitive heir Tom into a nearly fatal downward spiral of despair.

Second, many Janeites have enjoyed Belle, the 2013 film adaptation of Paula Byrne’s imaginative biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the biracial niece of Lord Mansfield himself. It has been recognized by a handful of Austen scholars for two decades, that the real-life Belle in several crucial ways occupied an uncannily similar status and position in the household of Lord Mansfield as the fictional Fanny Price did in Sir Thomas’s residence.

With that preface, I’d now like to bring forward some additional evidence, which I hope any doubters among you will find persuasive to tip the scale in favor of Kirkham’s still not universally accepted claim that the primary evidence that the Mansfield Judgment was meant by JA to inform the story and moral theme of her most problematic novel is right there in the first word of its title.

Here’s my new stuff: it is a fact universally acknowledged that William Cowper’s famous poem The Task was an allusive source for Mansfield Park. After all, Fanny Price names Cowper explicitly when she quotes from Book One of The Task in the following passage in MP, provoked by Mr. Rushworth’s boasts about his proposed “improvements” at Sotherton:

“…There have been two or three fine old trees cut down, that grew too near the house, and it opens the prospect amazingly, which makes me think that Repton, or anybody of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down: the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill, you know,” turning to Miss Bertram particularly as he spoke. But Miss Bertram thought it most becoming to reply—“The avenue! Oh! I do not recollect it. I really know very little of Sotherton.”
Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him, and said in a low voice—“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”
He smiled as he answered, “I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.”

Regarding those ill-fated avenues of trees, here’s the full stanza of the Cowper passage Fanny recalled and, as you will see, very aptly quoted:

“The folded gates would bar my progress now,   [i.e., the gates to the Sotherton wilderness]
But that the lord of this enclosed demesne,   [Mr. Rushworth]
Communicative of the good he owns,           (Mr. R’s boasting]  
Admits me to a share: the guiltless eye
Commits no wrong, nor wastes what it enjoys.
Refreshing change! where now the blazing sun?
By short transition we have lost his glare,
And stepped at once into a cooler clime.  [seeking refuge from heat, just as at Sotherton]
Ye fallen avenues! once more I mourn
Your fate unmerited, once more rejoice
That yet a remnant of your race survives.
How airy and how light the graceful arch,
Yet awful as the consecrated roof
Re-echoing pious anthems! while beneath,
The chequered earth seems restless as a flood
Brushed by the wind.  So sportive is the light
Shot through the boughs, it dances as they dance,
Shadow and sunshine intermingling quick,
And darkening and enlightening, as the leaves
Play wanton, every moment, every spot.”

So, you ask, what does that have to do with the Mansfield Judgment? Only everything, as I’ll now begin to explain. Some of you know that Cowper was in his own lifetime a prominent sympathizer with the cause to abolish the widespread slavery throughout the British Empire, and not merely that tiny portion of that global barbarism that incidentally occurred in England itself, which the Mansfield Judgment had barred in 1772.

But I’ll bet you didn’t know that Cowper virtually quoted, verbatim, the famous, crucial language from the Mansfield Judgment in The Task! Just read the following passage from Book Two of The Task:

I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earned.
No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart’s
Just estimation prized above all price,
I had much rather be myself the slave
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.
We have no slaves at home—then why abroad?
And they themselves, once ferried o’er the wave
That parts us, are emancipate and loosed.
SLAVES CANNOT BREATHE IN ENGLAND; IF THEIR LUNGS
RECEIVE OUR AIR, THAT MOMENT THEY ARE FREE,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.
That’s noble, and bespeaks a nation proud
And jealous of the blessing.  SPREAD IT THEN,
And let it circulate THROUGH EVERY VEIN
OF ALL YOUR EMPIRE; that where Britain’s power
Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.

So, for those of you who are still uncertain about the title Mansfield Park being derived from Lord Mansfield’s famous 1772 judgment in the Somerset case: Kirkham suggested it was no coincidence that Jane Austen, in choosing a “title” for her novel (about the family of a man of power who owned property in the slaving colony of Antigua) included the same name, Mansfield, as the “title” (as opposed to the surname, Murray) of the Chief Justice who authored the famous anti-slavery Judgment in 1772 which bears his “title” in the history books.

I now ask you, was it coincidence that Jane Austen also explicitly alluded in Mansfield Park to a passage in a famous poem, The Task, which contained another passage only one Book later in that same poem, which virtually repeated the famous language of the legal holding in the Mansfield Judgment? No, Occam’s Razor suggests that such a double coincidence is infinitely less likely than the obvious alternative – i.e., that Jane Austen knew exactly what she was doing, and, indeed, she meant for her readers, who (like her) loved Cowper’s socially conscious poetry, to recognize that Lord Mansfield was the common denominator in JA’s novel title and Fanny’s allusion to Cowper’s famous poem.

But that’s not all I’ve got for you today. As an unexpected bonus of this line of inquiry, I happened to notice something strangely familiar about the final five lines of the Cowper stanza in Book One, which I quoted, above, which occur only a few lines after Fanny’s “fallen avenues”. Here they are again:

                                         So sportive is the light
Shot through the boughs, it dances as they dance,
Shadow and sunshine intermingling quick,
And darkening and enlightening, as the leaves
Play wanton, every moment, every spot.

Does that passage ring any Mansfield Park bells for you, as it does for me? If not, here’s a giant hint.

Just the other day, Diane Reynolds responded to my rhetorical question “Does any other author break the rule forbidding writing overly long sentences so regularly and so deliciously as Jane Austen? I've never yet regretted the exercise of parsing out the meaning of a challenging sentence?” as follows:

“Arnie sent me this quote for other reasons, but it stopped me in my tracks and reminded me of why I read Austen:   

Look back and forth a few times between those five lines from Cowper’s poem, and that excerpt of narration in MP – Cowper’s perceptions and effusions upon viewing his forest landscape are subtly but unmistakably echoed by Fanny’s perceptions and effusions during her Sunday Portsmouth seaside promenade with Henry Crawford. But whereas Cowper’s meditations are his solitary pleasure, Fanny’s reflect, remarkably, that she has somehow come to feel deeply simpatico with Henry. He has, in a very short time period, morphed in her eyes from predatory rake to poetic soulmate. Or, more aptly in poetic terms, the gleeful dancing of the waves seems to reflect the gleeful dancing of Fanny’s heart, which somehow beats stronger despite the “hole” that Henry has (so to speak) made in it!

And so you see that it was my delving into the larger context of Fanny’s Cowper’s explicit quotation from The Task that unexpectedly led me to see its implicit bookend in that narration about Fanny’s Portsmouth promenade. I believe there is no reasonable doubt that Fanny’s reverie is meant to be understood as having been inspired by those 5 lines of Cowper. Her internal prose poetry about the seascape that enthralls her is infused with the nature-loving spirit of Cowper that she has imbibed (perhaps at times while “lolling” in the corner of Lady B’s “sofa”?) from reading (or even memorizing) favorite passages in The Task, such as that single stanza that, we now see, provided her with not one but two separate inspirations.

And how utterly fitting it is that Fanny’s retentive poetic memory (recall her gushing to Mary about the wonders of the faculty of memory) should hearken back to that exact same stanza she had quoted from earlier. But oh! what a complete reversal of mood and feeling in Fanny between her explicit quotation of Cowper and her implicit one! Her former sadness for Cowper’s fallen avenues –driven by her jealousy of Mary-- has been replaced by joy for the glistening beauty of the sea –driven by Henry’s persistent, effective attentions.

And how perfectly ironic that Fanny’s hostility toward Henry’s would-be “improvements” of Sotherton by cutting down trees, has been completely displaced by Henry’s apparent “improvement” as a moral being. As with his earlier spell-binding readings of Shakespeare, Henry knows that the path to Fanny’s heart is through her love of great poetry. And so, if I were to adapt Mansfield Park one day, I’d be sure to have Henry quote those five lines of Cowper to Fanny during that Sunday seaside stroll.  

Which brings me nearly to the end of this post, but I do want to followup on Diane’s original suggestion, and look more closely at the structure of JA’s long sentence in that seaside scene, to get an even better sense of how deeply informed it was by Cowper’s poetry. Let’s put on poetry-reading spectacles, and see if we can divine some of the subtle techniques of Jane Austen the sneaky prose poet:

‘The day was uncommonly lovely. It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea, now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.’

Austen begins simply enough with a 5-word sentence, as to which we cannot know how much is objective fact about the loveliness of the weather, and how much is the buoyant Fanny’s subjective perception of it. That first sentence is followed by a 4-word statement, which is purely factual: it was “really March” –[and by the way, it’s no coincidence that we are reminded, ironically, of Mary’s much earlier bon mot (“Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”), but this time it’s Fanny who cannot be dictated to by a calendar!] But that factual statement pauses at a semicolon instead of ending with a period.

Why? Because the 20-word passage which follows it begins with “but”, and thus constitutes a fanciful poetic negation of the fact of March (winter not quite over) with Fanny’s feeling of April (as if spring had already begun). And that of course corresponds to the “spring” which has thawed Fanny’s heart, after the long cold “winter” of silent, frozen jealousy of Mary’s seemingly limitless power over Edmund.

And then, the passage pauses again, at a second semicolon, but this time the pause is not to negate, but to amplify, what immediately preceded it. And that sets the stage perfectly for JA, in her masterful synthesis of syntax, rhythm, description, and symbolism, to virtuosically extend the remainder of that second sentence for a remarkable additional seventy seven words, filled from one end to the other with subtle poetic description of what Fanny sees and feels! I am reminded of the mastery of the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, who knew how to delay and extend resolution for a seeming eternity, to make that climax all the more satisfying (and all sexual innuendoes are intended, in Fanny’s case!)

Many have noted the relatively paucity of physical description in JA’s fiction, especially as to the details of the appearance of her characters; but if any passage in the Austen canon shows that she was completely capable of writing the most poetical, evocative descriptions of the natural world when she wanted to, it must be this sentence. And most important in this, JA does not insert a passage of lyrical description to show off her poetry-writing ability – this is utterly thematic, it reflects the mind of Fanny Price, the great lover of poetry, and, as I suggested above, it shows the reversal of feeling she has gone through, without the necessity of JA’s narrator heavy-handedly explaining that Fanny had undergone a profound shift.  

And so, putting all of the above together, we find yet another remarkable achievement by Jane Austen, one among a thousand comparable achievements in her six novels, in her seamless integration of all these seemingly unrelated aspects of her novel—from its title to its literary and historical allusivity, to its subtle characterization and prose poetry. What Janeite’s heart would not dance in glee to witness this miraculous literary panorama?


Cheers, ARNIE

Monday, May 1, 2017

Why (and how) I reread Austen: in order to get to the other side….of her broad context!

An interesting thread arose in Janeites & Austen-L yesterday, prompted by a post by Ellen Moody:  
“I've been finding much comfort and strength lately in rereading Emma once again. She herself is this privileged person but she does have numerous burdens which many of us might share or have analogous experiences of and she endures them with a mostly good temper. Like Virginia Woolf (who I've been reading lately and is much influenced by Austen) I could do less with the plot (though this sounds ridiculous) and more development of the inner center of characters like Emma and Jane Fairfax, less caricature of Miss Bates, but that later would be another book.  (There is equivalent of Miss Bates in Mrs Dalloway, a Miss Killman, and the heroine Clarissa is hard put to endure her.)  Here's a question in this direction: why do we (those of us who do) keep rereading her?”

Diane Reynolds replied to Ellen: "I wanted to pick up on Ellen's question of why we reread Austen. I dip into her novels frequently, and I think the chief reason I reread her is that she constantly surprises me: some detail or vignette I had never paid attention to--or not paid attention to in a long time--will suddenly jump out at me and delight or perplex me. "

And I then chimed in as follows:
“And I’ll echo you, Diane, and add that it never ceases to astound me that this still happens for me, even  after 25,000 hours of studying JA's writing! The only difference is that now the things I see for the first time are no longer isolated odds and ends; the new catches are invariably connected to earlier ones. And sometimes a new wrinkle in a given passage piles on top of one in that same passage that I first saw 7 years earlier; and together the two undergo a sea-change into something richer and stranger still.

Put another way, her novels are huge, complex jigsaw puzzles (like the one Mr. Woodhouse works on with Mrs. Weston while Emma et al are on their outing); but now, after 12 years, I regularly find pieces that fit snugly into other pieces in the Big Picture of the puzzle. It’s impossible to quantify the pleasure that this activity provides to me on a daily basis.

Our 2 year grandson has just mastered the 4 little 12-piece jigsaw puzzles I bought him 2 months ago, as to which at first he had not the slightest clue how to get started. Today he can do each of them in less than a minute, because he now understands the few basic principles of puzzle-solving (straight edges outside, matching colors and shapes, etc). With Jane Austen's fiction, I get the exact same joy that he does in putting his puzzles together, now that I've mastered the rules of solving JA's novel-puzzles that I’ve figured out over time! They are easy to describe, yet they are the building blocks for dazzling complexity – so we might call them the “DNA” of Jane Austen’s writing (here are four of the most significant rules):

Rereading the same passage from a different point of view can yield a shockingly different meaning, which was intended by Jane Austen to be detected upon re-reading;

Puns and sentence structure can generate deliberate ambiguities, allowing two plausible interpretations of the same scene, both of which were intended by Jane Austen to be detected upon re-reading;

Unusual turns of phrase or character/place names may point to earlier works of literature or history which shed light on the scene in Austen’s novel in which they appear, allusions which were intended by Jane Austen to be detected by knowledgeable readers; and

These alternative meanings are not disconnected from each other; rather, they cohere in order to yield a second, alternative version of the overall story—I call that the “shadow story”, which (you guessed it) were intended by Jane Austen to be detected by her puzzle-solving readers!


Diane also wrote: "Sometimes when I read one of the novels it as if I have put new "spectacles" on and am reading it a new way, as if it is a new book."

As you know, Diane, I’ve believed since my early 2005 epiphany (triggered by first hearing of Leland Monk’s 1990 suggestion that Frank Churchill murdered his aunt Mrs. Churchill) that there is indeed another book inside each of the six Austen novels.


Diane: "It's a pleasure too that the stories are so familiar I can plunge it at whatever scene or part catches my fancy and be instantly oriented."
https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif
Again, Diane, you and I are on the same page, so to speak. The truth is that I haven't read any of the six Austen novels (or even more than a few chapters) straight through in about 10 years! Instead, and as you so aptly put it, I've taken a few thousand dives into the six novels at different spots, and have endlessly enjoyed the process, each time, of retrieving a few more pearls from the Austenian deep (to paraphrase Titania in her famous speech in A Midsummer Nights Dream which just happens to have the acrostic “O, Titania” in it!), which neither I nor anyone else had ever seen before.

In that way, rereading for me is a very different process from, say, relistening for the umpteenth time to a favorite great piece of music, such as a Mozart piano concerto (compared so fruitfully by Robert Wallace to Austen’s novels several years ago). I must listen to that concerto from start to finish without a pause, or my pleasure is reduced; whereas with a Jane Austen novel, I, like you, Diane, know each story inside and out, and so my primary delight is in seeing little pieces of the story in a fresh light and then fitting those new understandings into the Big Picture.

And it’s a special gift, which I also receive occasionally from my unrelenting efforts, when one new little piece alters the entire Big Picture in some profound and pervasive way. It’s the reverse of the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back”—instead, it’s a small detail that somehow functions as a “key” which unlocks the door to an entirely new gestalt. For example, when I realized last year that Mrs. Norris wanted to live alone in the White House on the Mansfield Park estate so that she could always have a bed available for a “friend” (i.e., female lover), it changed the way I saw Mrs. Norris’s motivations in the entire rest of the novel!


Diane: "…earlier in the year my husband and I were puzzling over how we might diagram a very long sentence in Persuasion, one we had never before had noticed was so long. We never did get out a big sheet of paper to diagram it completely, but we did discuss it."

Which one, if you don't mind my asking? I love them too! Indeed, does any other author break the rule forbidding writing overly long sentences so regularly and so delightfully as Jane Austen? I've never yet regretted the exercise of pausing for 10-30 minutes to painstakingly parse out the meaning of one of her challenging compound sentences. As my late father said after he obliged me by reading a few chapters of P&P for the first time in his long life (he was 90 at the time so I wasn't expecting him to read the whole thing!). His very astute observation was that Jane Austen's writing demanded slow, careful reading, or else a great deal of meaning and beauty would be missed. When rereading quickly in order to keep up a steady pace to get through an Austen novel in a short time period, it is all too easy to unconsciously skim over a complex passage which would require time to parse out carefully. And, sharp elf that Austen was, she tempts the reader to do exactly that, especially (as I will note below) with the long “boring” speeches of Miss Bates in Emma.

Aside from Diane, Jane Fox also got in the act, when she wrote the following response to Ellen:
“One of the reasons I've reread her novels so often is that the prose pulls me in and along. I think when talking about more complex stuff, we forget about the beauty of her writing. I do not find this grace her earlier writings. I cannot analyze what it is about her writing (as opposed to plot, characters, and so on) that makes it so appealing. Can someone else explain? Is it the rhythm of the sentences? The vocabulary? The length (or shortness) of the paragraphs?”

Jane, in my view it’s a no-brainer that all of JA's novels are filled from one end to the other with exquisite passages that should delight any connoisseur of the English language. However as I’ve commented in the past, there's something EXTRA special about the writing in Emma - the fever in her mind that Emma describes when she thinks of herself as an imaginist is, I believe, JA's sly way of slipping in a wink at her own exuberance at the red heat of creativity that ignited her mind when she wrote Emma, especially the speeches of Miss Bates.

 JA was clearly drunk (or better, high) on words, in the exact same way Shakespeare must’ve been especially high on words, words, words, when he wrote the characters of Hamlet and Falstaff - an ecstasy of genius, epitomized in Falstaff’s egotistical (yet accurate) self-portrait:
Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me: the brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not
able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only
witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.
Those who read Emma and skim quickly through Miss Bates's speeches to get to “the good stuff” are like those who don't pay close attention when Falstaff jokes about seemingly vulgar nothings in the Henriad - you're missing JA's greatest "poetry", and you’re missing the cream of her wit, thinly disguised as a seeming inability of Miss Bates to speak to the point!

But back to Jane Fox’s original questions—can Austen’s writing be analyzed on a technical level so as to point to patterns of verbal rhythm, vocabulary, and/or sentence structure which function as a kind of artistic fingerprint, that tells us “Jane Austen alone could have written this”? I’ve read many scholarly attempts to get to the essence of the genius of Austen’s writing style, but none comes to mind which does more than grasp isolated pieces of it.

My brilliant high school friend, the composer, conductor and pianist Rob Kapilow, has made the centerpiece of his career his “What makes it great” series of live presentations over the past several decades, in which he uses his deep musicological knowledge to expose (to music lovers without musicological knowledge) the essence of the greatness of different composers. As a great example of Robert’s body of work, listen to this 6-minute segment on the PBS New Hour from a few years ago, in which Rob reveals the essence of the greatness of the song “Over the Rainbow”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbKEB1v8McA   I aspire, one day soon, to replicate, in the realm of Austen and Shakespeare, Rob’s very high level of jargon-free demystification and illumination of great art.

And finally, Nancy Mayer responded to my comment about my no longer rereading Austen’s novels from start to finish as follows:
I think that rereading pieces and chunks of the works leads to interpreting things out of context. It is the same way people misinterpret the Bible and misuse Shakespeare. Quite often a passage takes on an entirely different meaning when read outside of context.”

Nancy, as you so regularly do, you’ve disagreed with me in a way that (of course, in my opinion) is simultaneously very wrong on the surface, and yet very helpful on a deeper level, in providing (however inadvertently) the suggestion to elaborate on a key aspect of my initial point. In this case, you’ve massively begged the question of what “context” means, when speaking about a novel. Your comment suggests that for you, context is limited to the immediate vicinity of the sentence or paragraph being interpreted, informed by the entire preceding text of the novel. And it’s certainly true that popping into a passage in the middle of an Austen novel by a reader who does not know the story of a novel very well is a fraught enterprise, in which misunderstanding is a grave danger.

But for me, “context” has a much broader meaning, when it comes to really great fiction, such as Austen’s. As one example among several, how many times have I found, often with the assistance of a computer word search, that several, seemingly unrelated passages scattered through one of Austen’s novels are actually linked together thematically by the common presence of an unusual key word or phrase – and when those scattered passages are lined up next to each other, lo and behold, we find out that Jane Austen has carefully written each of them so as to collectively illuminate each other, and leave the diligent reader  with the reward of a startling new meaning.

Now, Jane Austen wrote her novels nearly two centuries before it became possible to locate those linked passages at one keyboard stroke – but the practice of compiling concordances in which disparate passages containing the same word or phrase began before Jane Austen was born, so she could well have hoped that if she achieved great fame as a writer, her novels would one day be “concordanced”, enabling her re-readers to access those connections. In any event, those widely separated textual connections have been there the past two centuries, patiently awaiting recognition and understanding – and so I toss your own  challenge back at you, and suggest that it is you who has been blind to important “context”, for all your sequential full-novel rereadings. Whereas I paid my dues by doing my sequential readings earlier in my Austen reading “career”, and now I have the luxury of gaining additional context in other ways. More context is better than less, isn’t it? And the key question becomes, how to identify broader context intended by a given author, and distinguish it from broader context that the author never dreamt of.

And by the way, speaking of Biblical interpretation, two of the greater practitioners thereof, Robert Alter and Richard Eliot Friedman, were great early influences on my method of interpreting Austen's writing, as I spent much fruitful time during the years 1998-2000 reading their scholarly takes on the Hebrew Bible, which relied on spotting exactly those same sorts of long distance connections between widely separated passages in the Biblical texts. In fact, Friedman's greatest achievement, embodied in his scholarly masterpiece, The Hidden Book in the Bible, was to show that at the core of the Hebrew Bible was a single masterwork, now lost in the mists of history, in which the David saga is seen as Part Two of to the Part One consisting of the stories of the patriarchs mostly contained in Genesis and Exodus. As Crocodile Dundee might have said had he been a Biblical scholar, "Now THAT'S context!"

To conclude, Nancy, I take your statement "Quite often a passage takes on an entirely different meaning when read outside of context”, suggesting this is a bad thing, and presume to amend it as follows:
“Quite often a passage takes on an entirely different meaning when read outside of its immediate context….and that is exactly what the author intended, so make sure you don’t miss it!”

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Mary Crawford’s enigmatic “air of grandeur” in Mansfield Park

All Janeites know the scene in S&S when Elinor first speaks to Marianne about her feelings for Edward:

"I do not attempt to deny," said she, "that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem, that I like him."
Marianne here burst forth with indignation— "Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment."

In the novel, we next read Elinor’s convoluted, rationalizing speech about those feelings, but Emma Thompson’s film version shortens Elinor’s reply to one sentence, before giving Marianne an effective comic turn not present in the novel text:

Elinor: “Very well. Forgive me. Believe my feelings to be stronger than I have declared but further than that you must not believe.
Marianne is flummoxed but she rallies swiftly and picks up her book again.
Marianne: 'Is love a fancy or a feeling?' Or a Ferrars?
Elinor: Go to bed!
Elinor blushes in good earnest. Marianne goes to the door.
Marianne: (imitating Elinor) 'I do not attempt to deny that I think highly of him greatly esteem him! Like him!'

Marianne’s mocking speech in Elinor’s voice, spoken by Kate Winslet, is one of many wonderful small alterations that Thompson makes to JA’s first published novel, to universal acclaim. After all, S&S arguably required same, because it contains much less of the kind of memorable repartee that is found in many places in her much more theatrical, enacted second published novel, P&P.

The primary reason I mention all of the above, however, is not in relation to either S&S or P&P, but because of something I noticed for the first time yesterday in JA’s third published novel, Mansfield Park. I.e., I recognized with surprised delight that Mary Crawford actually engages in a mocking imitation in the voice of another person in the novel’s actual text -- an imitation which, as far as I can tell after checking various online sources, has never been noticed before, at least by any published Austen scholar, or in either Janeites or Austen-L.  

I’ll tell you about that speech by Mary shortly, but first let me say that I find Mary Crawford to be the wittiest of all of Austen’s characters; even more so than Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Bennet, or Lady Susan, who are the three other Austen characters who I’ve seen mentioned as most deserving to be ranked in that rarefied category. Above all, Mary, like her creator, dearly loves a pun, as all Janeites know from Mary’s famous, totally disingenuous denial of making what appears to be a very scandalous pun indeed:

“Fanny would rather have had Edmund tell the story, but his determined silence obliged her to relate her brother’s situation: her voice was animated in speaking of his profession, and the foreign stations he had been on; but she could not mention the number of years that he had been absent without tears in her eyes. Miss Crawford civilly wished him an early promotion.
“Do you know anything of my cousin’s captain?” said Edmund; “Captain Marshall? You have a large acquaintance in the navy, I conclude?”
“Among admirals, large enough; but,” with an air of grandeur, “we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post-captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us. Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal: of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”
Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, “It is a noble profession.”
“Yes, the profession is well enough under two circumstances: if it make the fortune, and there be discretion in spending it; but, in short, it is not a favourite profession of mine. It has never worn an amiable form to me.”  “  END QUOTE

In previous posts, I’ve repeatedly suggested the error of the universal belief among Janeites that Mary’s account of a sexually transgressive circle of admirals is a gratuitous salacious non sequitur, a faux pas which Mary blurts out and then perhaps instantly regrets. I see a very different Mary in that scene, one who uses the mask of a careless wit to give her safe cover to blow a serious moral whistle. I.e., I see Mary as trying to alert Fanny to the “price” William has already paid, or will shortly pay, for the naval promotion he has just received courtesy of the “generosity” of Henry Crawford and his admiral (but not admirable) uncle. That “price” will be the submission of William’s body to the carnal lusts of Uncle Crawford (and maybe of the polymorphously sexual Henry Crawford, who wished to make holes in hearts everywhere he turned).

And that brings me to the point: can you spot, in that passage, the part where Mary mockingly speaks in the voice of another person, in exactly the same manner as Kate Winslet’s Marianne Dashwood mockingly imitates her sister’s unconvincing denial of feelings of love for Edward? Hint: as my Subject Line suggests, it is the very words which Mary speaks “with an air of grandeur”!

Now I hope you see that JA has hidden in plain sight a narrated stage direction that alerts us that Mary adopts an air of grandeur, to alert her audience that she’s speaking not for herself, but in the voice of one of the “we” of admirals who “know little of the inferior ranks”! And, if you read Mary’s entire speech through on this point, it rapidly becomes clear that the conventional reading of Mary’s seemingly snobbish identification with her uncle’s circle of admirals becomes utterly untenable. Why would Mary speak, unironically, in the first person plural, as if she were just another one of the admirals who sneered at post-captains, and then spend the rest of her speech drily critiquing those same admirals for their many foibles? It would turn Mary into a kind of multiple personality, which of course is absurd.

And, as if that were not enough, Mary herself states later, without a trace of irony: “I have been so little addicted to take my opinions from my uncle”. So the last thing she is going to do is to think of herself as part of any “we” with her uncle and his cronies, let alone the “us” in the next line: ““Post-captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us.“ 

What is, upon such close examination, obvious, is that Mary is actually mocking the pretentious snobbery of admirals like her uncle who think themselves far superior as people to post-captains --- conveniently ignoring the fact that many of those same admirals were once post-captains themselves! I’m reminded of both Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood in S&S, both of whom I’ve long suspected of coming from humble origins; but then, upon achieving rank via marriage, became the most cruel and zealous defenders of privilege against those less fortunate, who uncomfortably remind them of their own former impecunious selves. And I believe JA makes this clear at the end of S&S, when it becomes apparent that the power of both of these pretenders will be usurped by the most accomplished social climber of all, Lucy Ferrars (Lucifer).

But back to Mary – I say she is either mocking admirals who wish to forget where they came from; or, even worse, those who did not even rise through the naval ranks, but reached the level of admiral without having earned that advancement the hard and proper way, i.e., via service at sea, but instead were given it by nepotism or other preferential treatment. And if that uncomfortably reminds us of William Price, who (like both of JA’s real life sailor brothers) might one day himself rise to the rank of admiral if he lives long enough? Well, then that might also be on Mary’s fertile satirical mind, too.

But, some of you will now object, I’ve veered far offcourse from JA’s actual intentions – why can’t it be that JA in this scene is simply showing us Mary as a snob about hierarchical status? And so maybe Mary really is just borrowing her uncle’s feathers, claiming to be special because of his elevated status? After all, you might add, shortly after that scene, we read how Mary is appalled when she first learns that Edmund intends to take orders and become a country clergyman. Isn’t that the final proof that she’s just a snob?:

“If Edmund were but in orders!” cried Julia, and running to where he stood with Miss Crawford and Fanny: “My dear Edmund, if you were but in orders now, you might perform the ceremony directly. How unlucky that you are not ordained; Mr. Rushworth and Maria are quite ready.”
Miss Crawford’s countenance, as Julia spoke, might have amused a disinterested observer. She looked almost aghast under the new idea she was receiving. Fanny pitied her. “How distressed she will be at what she said just now,” passed across her mind.
“Ordained!” said Miss Crawford; “what, are you to be a clergyman?”
“Yes; I shall take orders soon after my father’s return—probably at Christmas.”
Miss Crawford, rallying her spirits, and recovering her complexion, replied only, “If I had known this before, I would have spoken of the cloth with more respect,” and turned the subject.

Fanny certainly infers that Mary is a snob, but that doesn’t make it an accurate perception of Mary. I suggest instead that a different, more complex picture of Mary’s character emerges when, at her next opportunity, Mary pursues this very same topic of a career in the clergy with Edmund:

“At length, after a short pause, Miss Crawford began with, “So you are to be a clergyman, Mr. Bertram. This is rather a surprise to me.”
“Why should it surprise you? You must suppose me designed for some profession, and might perceive that I am neither a lawyer, nor a soldier, nor a sailor.”
“Very true; but, in short, it had not occurred to me. And you know there is generally an uncle or a grandfather to leave a fortune to the second son.”
“A very praiseworthy practice,” said Edmund, “but not quite universal. I am one of the exceptions, and being one, must do something for myself.”
“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse before him.”
“Do you think the church itself never chosen, then?”
Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation, which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”
“The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the office nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.”
You assign greater consequence to the clergyman than one has been used to hear given, or than I can quite comprehend. One does not see much of this influence and importance in society, and how can it be acquired where they are so seldom seen themselves? How can two sermons a week, even supposing them worth hearing, supposing the preacher to have the sense to prefer Blair’s to his own, do all that you speak of? govern the conduct and fashion the manners of a large congregation for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit.”
You are speaking of London, I am speaking of the nation at large.”
“The metropolis, I imagine, is a pretty fair sample of the rest.”
“Not, I should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for our best morality. It is not there that respectable people of any denomination can do most good; and it certainly is not there that the influence of the clergy can be most felt. A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct, which in London can rarely be the case. The clergy are lost there in the crowds of their parishioners. They are known to the largest part only as preachers. And with regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good-breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.”
“Certainly,” said Fanny, with gentle earnestness.
“There,” cried Miss Crawford, “you have quite convinced Miss Price already.”
“I wish I could convince Miss Crawford too.”
“I do not think you ever will,” said she, with an arch smile; “I am just as much surprised now as I was at first that you should intend to take orders. You really are fit for something better. Come, do change your mind. It is not too late. Go into the law.”
“Go into the law! With as much ease as I was told to go into this wilderness.”
“Now you are going to say something about law being the worst wilderness of the two, but I forestall you; remember, I have forestalled you.”
“You need not hurry when the object is only to prevent my saying a bon mot, for there is not the least wit in my nature. I am a very matter-of-fact, plain-spoken being, and may blunder on the borders of a repartee for half an hour together without striking it out.”
A general silence succeeded. Each was thoughtful.” 

In that first lengthy exchange on the topic, Mary holds her own, and presents a nuanced argument to back up her wish that Edmund not become a country clergyman. She is a cynic, for sure, but she doesn’t sound to me like a mere status hound. After all, law wasn’t exactly a high status profession in JA’s day—recall Uncle Phillips in P&P and Mr. Shepherd in Persuasion. Mary says nothing about any dream that Edmund might one day become Chief Justice, like Lord Mansfield.

What she is micro-focused on is the clergy in particular as a poor career choice. And, in the next lengthy discussion, which is again initiated by Mary, she clarifies her principal objection to Edmund becoming a clergyman: that all evidence suggests that the average country clergyman in England is a lazy, selfish pig like her own brother in law, Dr. Grant. It then makes perfect sense that Mary does not want Edmund to become another Dr. Grant, so she will not find herself in the same trap as her elder sister. Again, a cynical point of view, but at least one that is not founded on status snobbery.

By the way, that last passage, in case you need help finding it, begins when Mary says, “…My other sacrifice, of course, you do not understand.” And Edmund replies, “My taking orders, I assure you, is quite as voluntary as Maria’s marrying.” And it ends with this memorable exchange:

“…I wish you a better fate, Miss Price, than to be the wife of a man whose amiableness depends upon his own sermons; for though he may preach himself into a good-humour every Sunday, it will be bad enough to have him quarrelling about green geese from Monday morning till Saturday night.”
“I think the man who could often quarrel with Fanny,” said Edmund affectionately, “must be beyond the reach of any sermons.”

And so, I conclude by reiterating my claim that Mary assumes an air of grandeur in order to mockingly portray the kind of admiral who thought themselves better than post-captains. And how characteristic it is of Mary to make her point wittily and subtly –and, speaking of her making a satirical point by imitation, it is, I assert, no coincidence whatsoever that, a few chapters later, we read the following:

“Sir Thomas is to achieve many mighty things when he comes home,” said Mary, after a pause. “Do you remember Hawkins Browne’s ‘Address to Tobacco,’ in imitation of Pope?—
     Blest leaf! whose aromatic gales dispense
     To Templars modesty, to Parsons sense.
I will parody them—
     Blest Knight! whose dictatorial looks dispense
     To Children affluence, to Rushworth sense.
Will not that do, Mrs. Grant? Everything seems to depend upon Sir Thomas’s return.”

As I’ve written about not that long ago, what Mary does here is to do her own additional satirical imitation of Browne’s satirical imitation of Pope’s original work --- so, that passage shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that satirical imitation is part of Mary’s satirical toolkit, making it that much more likely that Mary had engaged in satirical imitation earlier in the novel.

And, if we expand our search to include all of JA’s novels, we find the following passage in Northanger Abbey, which involves (what else?) the imitation of the “air” of another character:

“Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humoured, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well.

And also, how even more characteristic it is of Jane Austen to make that same point, via her creature Mary Crawford, the enigmatic, riddling character who I believe most closely mirrored her creator’s default mode of erudite, witty, satirical irony. We may even look upon that entire mocking, punning, riddling speech by Mary which ends with her infamous rears and vices pun as a kind of prototype of the riddling, enigmatic riddles and charades of Chapter 9 of Emma – if you will, an earlier Austenian Rosetta Stone.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Saturday, April 8, 2017

“Ordination” & the pun on “taking orders” in Mansfield Park, Pride & Prejudice, & Sense & Sensibility

I would like to add some additional comments to my two earlier posts in this “ordination” thread. In those earlier posts….
Wickham never ‘took orders’ from Darcy…but Edmund DID ‘take orders’ from Sir Thomas!” http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2017/04/wickham-never-took-orders-from-darcybut.html
&
“ ‘Ordination’ in Mansfield Park: Edmund took Sir Thomas’s orders….but Fanny refused to!”
…I basically argued that by referring to the subject of “ordination” in her late January, 1813 letter, Jane Austen was pointing to the clever, thematically significant punning she deployed in both P&P and MP. I.e., JA riffed off the double meaning (extant in 1814) of “taking orders” –both the clerical sense of ordination as an Anglican clergyman, and the military/colloquial sense of following/obeying commands.

Diana’s mention of Edge’s 1962 article prompted me to go back into my old files, whence I retrieved and reread it, as well as a second article, from 1965, which responded to Edge: “Ordination and the Divided House at Mansfield Park” by Joseph W. Donohue, Jr. ELH, 32/2 (June ‘65), 169-178. I’ll now explain how I agree with one important claim by Edge, and another by Donohue, but I put them together to arrive at a very different explanation of JA’s meaning than either of those earlier Austen scholars arrived at.

First, I agree with Edge’s ingenious resolution of the seeming paradox of JA having begun writing MP in 1811, yet referring to MP and writing of “a complete change of subject” in 1813. Edge points to several other passages in JA’s letters in which she used a similar transitional sentence. Thus, argues Edge, the topic of “ordination” in MP was a new subject within the four corners of her letter. Edge goes on to speculate plausibly that JA had asked Cassandra a technical question about the process of ordination that Edmund goes through during the novel. So far so good.

Second, I agree with the spirit of Donohue’s response to Edge, insofar as Donohue looks behind the superficial meaning of “ordination”, and takes the word metaphorically:     “Critics of Mansfield Park delight in quoting from Jane Austen's letter of 29 January 1813 to her sister Cassandra. " Now I will try to write of something else," she says, " & it shall be a complete change of subject-ordination. . . .'1The considerable controversy engendered by this supposed declaration of subject shows little sign of resolution. My interpretation of ordination is not an attempt to settle the argument, based as it is on an ambiguous and perhaps untrustworthy text. Instead, my purpose is simply to offer a definition of the word which, in its application to the novel, goes beyond the literal fact of Edmund's ordination as a clergyman. The problem of a disordered society and the possibility of its being restored to order is, I propose, the kind of ordination with which Jane Austen tasks herself in Mansfield Park. The problem she attacks is most serious, and she spends the greater part of her book in delineating it, with much attention paid to the folly and misery of her characters. But, like the true comic artist, she is pre-eminently concerned with health, not with disease. If her method appears almost unduly moralistic and condemnatory, it also clearly reflects a desire to reestablish social well-being by ostracizing the vicious elements in society and reintegrating the virtuous. Her concern is ultimately not with the exposure of disorder but with the  restoration of order-not with disapprobation but with ordination….” END QUOTE FROM DONOHUE

That brings me to my added comments to my earlier posts. I agree with Edge that JA wrote about “ordination” in Mansfield Park, and I agree with Donohue that JA meant for CEA to take the meaning of “ordination” in MP as a  metaphor----especially, I hasten to add, in the very same letter where JA has, only two sentences earlier, written a similarly metaphorical, cryptic, and global statement about P&P ---“I do not write for such dull elves, etc”--- about the pervasive ambiguity of pronouns (and, by implication, everything else) in P&P!

But….I believe that while Donohue was a creative outside-the-box reader, he missed a key clue when he didn’t pick up on the pun on “taking orders”. Had he done so, that might have led him to see both sides of Jane Austen’s nuanced, two-sided attitude toward “disorder” in English society that I see.

I.e., I, like Donohoe, believe JA was certainly no fan of chaotic revolution such as the nihilistic, blade-happy blood lust that the French Revolution devolved into. But I don’t see JA as a defender of the status quo. I think she considered it a tragic missed opportunity that the liberation of the common people from aristocratic oppression was derailed by senseless violence. I believe that her deepest sympathies remained with the ordinary people who suffered under oppression (in England, France, and much of the rest of Europe) by the closely aligned aristocracy and monied interests. So, in that sense, she hated the existing “order”, and approved of the kind of revolution that Jesus started in John 2:14-16:

“And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise.”

I believe Jane Austen, the clergyman’s daughter, had in mind an analogy to that Gospel passage, when she wrote the Lovers Vows episode, a politically progressive (radical) play about the moral corruption of the aristocracy, almost staged in the very same room where Sir Thomas has his billiard table. And besides the “table” in both John and MP, see if you hear the other echo in this passage where Edmund (of course, that weasel!) is the one taking the Pharisaic position:

“If you are resolved on acting,” replied the persevering Edmund, “I must hope it will be in a very small and quiet way; and I think a theatre ought not to be attempted. It would be taking liberties with MY FATHER’S HOUSE in his absence which could not be justified.”
“For everything of that nature I will be answerable,” said Tom, in a decided tone. “His house shall not be hurt. I have quite as great an interest in being careful of HIS HOUSE as you can have; and as to such alterations as I was suggesting just now, such as moving a bookcase, or unlocking a door, or even as using the billiard-room for the space of a week without playing at billiards in it, you might just as well suppose he would object to our sitting more in this room, and less in the breakfast-room, than we did before he went away, or to my sister’s pianoforte being moved from one side of the room to the other. Absolute nonsense!”

Hurrah, Tom! Of course, it’s the phrase “my Father’s house” I was hinting at – it is sharply ironic in MP, as it suggests that Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas’s house, is just like the Temple that has been turned into “an house of merchandise”-- completely taken over by the money-changer Sir Thomas, whereas the “disreputable” Tom is actually Jesus (who, by the way, nearly dies at the end of the novel, but then miraculously comes back to life again). It was his idea to overthrow the “table” of Sir Thomas, with his heartless lust for money, money, money, and his fellow titled fat cats, who turned all of England into “an house of merchandise”, all with the blessing of the clerical elite, who like Edmund, discouraged the English people from “acting” to overthrow that oppression. And this is the same moral Tom Bertram we see in Patricia Rozema's wonderful 1999 Mansfield Park.

So, at the deepest level, I must disagree with Donohue’s conclusion, even as I admire his method. I read MP’s “moral” not as having a happy ending in which the chaos that the Crawfords bring to Mansfield Park, has been exorcised, allowing restoration of order; but as a sad ending about the forces of change (exemplified by whistleblower Mary Crawford) which are beaten back by the craven “taking of orders” by the English clergy (Edmund) from the powerful colonial magnates (Sir Thomas) running the barbaric, monstrous colonial slave system which fueled the British economy.

Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s “J’accuse”, directed at her father, her brother James, and all other English clergymen who weren’t abolitionists, who didn’t stand up for women’s rights, but who instead spent their careers “taking orders” from, and in effect morally laundering the gross sins of, their bosses, upon whom they were financially dependent. Jane Austen intended to send a shiver down the spine of her insightful readers, who could see in Dr. Grant the mirror image of the future Edmund Bertram.

And now I conclude by fulfilling the final promise of my Subject Line, and showing how Jane Austen had already deployed the pun on “taking orders” in S&S in 1811. I read the climax of S&S’s shadow story as an unholy deal being struck between Colonel Brandon and Mrs. Jennings, such that Marianne is given to Brandon as a wife, in exchange for Brandon giving Edward the living at Delaford so that he can marry Elinor. That gives a sinister double meaning to the following four passages in S&S, which I read as Colonel Brandon “giving orders” to Edward, commanding Edward to give up Lucy (which Edward really does not want to do), and instead to go along with the deal and marry Elinor:

[Anne Steele] “…So then [Edward] was monstrous happy, and talked on some time about what they should do, and they agreed he should TAKE ORDERS directly, and they must wait to be married till he got a living….”
[Brandon] ”…[Edward] is not a young man with whom one can be intimately acquainted in a short time, but I have seen enough of him to wish him well for his own sake, and as a friend of yours, I wish it still more. I understand that he intends to TAKE ORDERS. Will you be so good as to tell him that the living of Delaford, now just vacant, as I am informed by this day's post, is his, if he think it worth his acceptance—but THAT, perhaps, so unfortunately circumstanced as he is now, it may be nonsense to appear to doubt; I only wish it were more valuable.—
[Elinor] “…Colonel Brandon, who was here only ten minutes ago, has desired me to say, that understanding you mean to TAKE ORDERS, he has great pleasure in offering you the living of Delaford now just vacant, and only wishes it were more valuable.” 
What she would engage to do towards augmenting their income was next to be considered; and here it plainly appeared, that though Edward was now her only son, he was by no means her eldest; for while Robert was inevitably endowed with a thousand pounds a-year, not the smallest objection was made against Edward's TAKING ORDERS for the sake of two hundred and fifty at the utmost; nor was anything promised either for the present or in future, beyond the ten thousand pounds, which had been given with Fanny.

And, in that very regard, now please read this passage from another outside-the-box interpreter of Austen’s writing, the late Edward Neill, in his 2007 article, 'What Edward promises he will perform': 'How to do things with words' in Sense and Sensibility  in Textual Practice 21/1  Note when Neill picks up on the very same pun on “taking orders” that I’ve been claiming is present in the first three novels JA published, but Neill then gives it a conventional interpretation:

“Acting a part at Barton, Willoughby became his role, for the time being, while Edward Ferrars, not acting a part at Longstaple, found that he had given ‘the performance of a lifetime’ thanks to what Jean Baudrillard has called ‘the indeļ¬nite chaining of simulation’. This phrase is descriptive both of Lucy’s conduct and Edward’s subsequent ‘bad faith’ – avant la lettre, as it were, of his ‘taking orders’ in the ecclesiastical sense. Despite his hang-dog mien, however, Edward’s life choices seem to be dictated by his refusing to do so in the face of his own family's assault on his integrity – he will 'take orders' specifically as a result of his 'taking orders from no one’….  Yet Edward will no doubt from the relevant day forward, his fate (to be) ordained, ‘take orders’ from Elinor Dashwood, whose ethical bearing seems to mime some ‘august and impersonal spirit of social and psychological understanding’…”

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter