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

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

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