In Janeites, Nancy Mayer responded to my post about Austen’s pun on Wickham not ‘taking orders’ from Darcy, but Edmund taking them from his father, as follows: “It is rather a convoluted way of speaking to say one was a subordinate because one took orders. A waiter takes orders, most underlings obey or disobey orders. They don't take them. Taking orders had a specific meaning outside a commercial establishment were people can order a meal or a bed. men in the military don't take orders, they obey them-- or not/ They are given orders; they receive orders; but they don't take orders.”
Nancy, I believe it is undeniable that in common parlance today, the verbs “taking”, “obeying”, and “following” are virtually identical synonyms of each other, when their object is the noun “orders”! You could find a plethora of modern examples online in fifteen minutes of Googling, as I just did, sometimes with two of those verbs used interchangeably in the same paragraph.
Let me give you an example in the military context. In the Wikipedia article for “Command Hierarchy”, we read: “The concept of chain of command also implies that higher rank alone does not entitle a higher-ranking service member to give commands to anyone of lower rank. For example, an officer of unit "A" does not directly command lower-ranking members of unit "B", and is generally expected to approach an officer of unit "B" if he requires action by members of that unit. The chain of command means that individual members TAKE ORDERS from only one superior and only give orders to a defined group of people immediately below them.”
But the more relevant question is whether “taking orders” in that hierarchical military sense was common parlance in the Regency Era. For starters, here are two examples from right before JA lopt and cropt P&P:
A letter to Lord Castlereagh (1808): “therefore, to give them every desirable effect, I would have the militia officers stand next to the officers of the line, and TAKE ORDERS from them.”
The Literary Panorama (1809): “ Col. Gordon proved that exchanges between officers were always laid before his majesty: the exchange in question, had been so. On the 23d he TOOK ORDERS for it from the commander-in-chief, who submitted it to his majesty on the 24th…”
It took me two minutes after finding those examples, to find an even better one, because taken from a hierarchical, but non-military, context. In 1789 there was the great debate in Parliament about whether the Prince of Wales should be appointed Regent for the “mad” King George IIII; and if appointed, what sort of restrictions should be placed on the Prince’s powers as Regent. Of course the Regency didn’t occur in 1789, because the King recovered sufficiently---but we all know that it eventually did, in 1810.
Anyway, the following is an excerpt from the official report of a speech by Edmund Burke during that debate, on the topic of a certain “right hon. gentleman” (I didn’t scroll back far enough to find his name and title), who Burke believed had slighted the Prince by not consulting him before convening the Privy Council, when the King was disabled and therefore not in a mental state to be asked to convene it himself:
“…The right hon. gentleman had talked of etiquette, denied all consciousness of guilt, and called for the proof. If they had been accusing the right hon. gentleman of a crime, they must have had recourse to the laws; but, it was a want of civility and good manners, where both were so eminently due, that they were charging him with, and that charge was easily made out. The right hon. gentleman had said, that to treat the Prince with disrespect, was to treat his Majesty with disrespect; the right hon. gentleman was, in that opinion, correct, since those who injured the Prince of Wales, undoubtedly injured the King. That fact being admitted, what were they then to think of the right hon. gentleman's not having consulted the Prince of Wales on the subject of convening the Privy Council, and the measures to be taken therein. The right hon, gentleman had declared, that the King’s servants were not to TAKE ORDERS FROM THE PRINCE, but to consider him as any other member of the council. Was the man, he would ask, to be regarded as showing the necessary degree of respect and civility to the Prince of Wales, who, because he was not by law bound to TAKE ORDERS FROM HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS, therefore chose to pass him by without notice. In what a peculiar situation did his Royal Highness stand! A grievous calamity had fallen on his family, and he had thereby lost the protection of a father, who, if in a state of capability, would have guarded him from the insolence of his servants. There was an evident and a gross want of attention and want of humanity in the right hon. gentleman's conduct; since in the case of an affliction having befallen the father, who, he would ask, ought to be consulted as to what was necessary to be done, so soon as the eldest son?…” END QUOTE
Why the above example is especially apt to both the Wickham and the Edmund examples, is because it refers (twice) to a man of lower status “taking orders” from a man of higher status, outside a military context. And Darcy is like a “prince” in the microcosm of P&P, as is Sir Thomas in MP. So because it has long been clear to me that Jane Austen (like Shakespeare) never met a pun she didn’t like, I think she intended her sharp readers to recognize the pun on the “taking” of “orders” from two of her autocratic characters, Mr. Darcy and Sir Thomas-- each of them the kind of man, as Mr. Bennet aptly put it, to whom he “should never dare refuse anything, which he condescended to ask.”
In that regard, it’s very interesting to look at the contrast between Wickham and Edmund, on opposite ends of that spectrum –Wickham repeatedly does as he pleases, and seems to take particular pleasure in not only defying Darcy’s demands, but in actively interfering with Darcy’s goals. But, regarding Edmund, that brings me back to the meaning I ascribe to Jane Austen’s reference to her next novel (i.e., MP), which would be on the subject of “ordination”. I assert that JA was hinting that it would be a novel about all the ways that people give and take orders in a personal context—sometimes explicitly, but sometimes by implication. And, for me, Edmund Bertram is Austen’s poster child for taking orders of both kinds.
Edmund repeatedly and slavishly follows his father’s orders throughout the novel (transgressing only once, when his lust for Mary overwhelms his obedience to his father, and he joins the rehearsals of Lovers Vows). But at times, he goes even further, and repeatedly acts as if he were his father’s agent, authorized to act as a procurer of women. Two examples leap out.
First, we have this tete-a-tete between Fanny and Edmund after Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua:
“I suppose I am graver than other people,” said Fanny. “The evenings do not appear long to me. I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies. I could listen to him for an hour together. It entertains me more than many other things have done; but then I am unlike other people, I dare say.”
“Why should you dare say that?” (smiling). “Do you want to be told that you are only unlike other people in being more wise and discreet? But when did you, or anybody, ever get a compliment from me, Fanny?
Go to my father if you want to be complimented. He will satisfy you. Ask your uncle what he thinks, and you will hear compliments enough: and though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time.”
Such language was so new to Fanny that it quite embarrassed her.
“Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny--and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!---and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle’s admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman.”
“Oh! don’t talk so, don’t talk so,” cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of…”
Note how Edmund, entirely on his own initiative, abruptly turns from an emotionally neutral discussion about how the Bertram family mood has changed now that Sir Thomas has returned. First, he suggests that Fanny was fishing for a compliment from him, an unprovoked snide attack -what a major jerk! Then Edmund goes from tacky to repulsive (even dangerous), when he applies his university skills in rhetoric to hijack the conversation in a series of “logical” steps. First he segues to his father as the best source of compliments for Fanny; then he names his father as the repeated source of intrusive sexualized comments about Fanny’s current, attractive womanly figure. Despite Fanny’s repeated nonverbal reactions showing how uncomfortable he’s making her, he barrels on, and then, to cap it all, blames the victim. In Edmund’s world, when a young woman grows up, it is she who must accept that she’ll become a target of lascivious comments by dirty old men—who are ten times dirtier when they come from her uncle, and a hundred times worse when he’s been her virtual father for a decade, and in whose home she still lives (in terror)!
This is, I assert, Edmund taking implicit orders from his father. Of course I’m not suggesting that Sir Thomas gave an explicit order to Edmund to speak to Fanny to make her more accepting of Sir Thomas’s lewd comments. Sir Thomas doesn’t have to, because Edmund, like the good little soldier/courtier he is, senses his prince/general’s wishes, and takes action to implement them, without any explicit order given.
Second, when Henry Crawford makes his move on Fanny, there is Edmund once again acting in the capacity of procurer, but this time on behalf of another man, Henry, and this time after having taken explicit orders from his father:
“A day, and a very early day, was actually fixed for the Crawfords’ departure; and Sir Thomas thought it might be as well to make one more effort for the young man before he left Mansfield, that all his professions and vows of unshaken attachment might have as much hope to sustain them as possible.
Sir Thomas was most cordially anxious for the perfection of Mr. Crawford’s character in that point. He wished him to be a model of constancy; and fancied the best means of effecting it would be by not trying him too long. Edmund was not unwilling to be persuaded to engage in the business; he wanted to know Fanny’s feelings. She had been used to consult him in every difficulty, and he loved her too well to bear to be denied her confidence now; he hoped to be of service to her, he thought he must be of service to her; whom else had she to open her heart to? If she did not need counsel, she must need the comfort of communication. Fanny estranged from him, silent and reserved, was an unnatural state of things; a state which he must break through, and which he could easily learn to think she was wanting him to break through.
“I will speak to her, sir: I will take the first opportunity of speaking to her alone,” was the result of such thoughts as these; and upon Sir Thomas’s information of her being at that very time walking alone in the shrubbery, he instantly joined her.”
The above makes it clear that Edmund consciously approaches Fanny on false pretenses. He was tasked (a request more like an order) by his father to change Fanny from rejecting to accepting Henry’s romantic addresses, and Edmund immediately formulates a strategy and tactics for accomplishing it. Weasel that he is, he chooses to abuse the fiduciary trust of his long relationship with Fanny, by coming, Iago-like, in the guise of a sympathetic ear. And note how devious he is, when he employs a classic bait and switch.
First, here’s the bait, when he initially sounds like he is giving his blessing to Fanny’s rejection of Henry:
“I am come to walk with you, Fanny,” said he. “Shall I?” Drawing her arm within his. “It is a long while since we have had a comfortable walk together.”
She assented to it all rather by look than word. Her spirits were low.
“But, Fanny,” he presently added, “in order to have a comfortable walk, something more is necessary than merely pacing this gravel together. You must talk to me. I know you have something on your mind. I know what you are thinking of. You cannot suppose me uninformed. Am I to hear of it from everybody but Fanny herself?”
Fanny, at once agitated and dejected, replied, “If you hear of it from everybody, cousin, there can be nothing for me to tell.”
“Not of facts, perhaps; but of feelings, Fanny. No one but you can tell me them. I do not mean to press you, however. If it is not what you wish yourself, I have done. I had thought it might be a relief.”
“I am afraid we think too differently for me to find any relief in talking of what I feel.”
“Do you suppose that we think differently? I have no idea of it. I dare say that, on a comparison of our opinions, they would be found as much alike as they have been used to be: to the point—I consider Crawford’s proposals as most advantageous and desirable, if you could return his affection. I consider it as most natural that all your family should wish you could return it; but that, as you cannot, you have done exactly as you ought in refusing him. Can there be any disagreement between us here?”
“Oh no! But I thought you blamed me. I thought you were against me. This is such a comfort!”
“This comfort you might have had sooner, Fanny, had you sought it. But how could you possibly suppose me against you? How could you imagine me an advocate for marriage without love? Were I even careless in general on such matters, how could you imagine me so where your happiness was at stake?”
“My uncle thought me wrong, and I knew he had been talking to you.”
“As far as you have gone, Fanny, I think you perfectly right. I may be sorry, I may be surprised—though hardly that, for you had not had time to attach yourself—but I think you perfectly right. Can it admit of a question? It is disgraceful to us if it does. You did not love him; nothing could have justified your accepting him.”
Fanny had not felt so comfortable for days and days.”
And now that he has successfully induced Fanny to let her guard down, here comes the switch, beginning with an unexpected undoing of all the supportive words he has just said: “So far….”:
“So far your conduct has been faultless, and they were quite mistaken who wished you to do otherwise. But the matter does not end here. Crawford’s is no common attachment; he perseveres, with the hope of creating that regard which had not been created before. This, we know, must be a work of time. But” (with an affectionate smile) “let him succeed at last, Fanny, let him succeed at last. You have proved yourself upright and disinterested, prove yourself grateful and tender-hearted; and then you will be the perfect model of a woman which I have always believed you born for.”
“Oh! never, never, never! he never will succeed with me.” And she spoke with a warmth which quite astonished Edmund, and which she blushed at the recollection of herself, when she saw his look, and heard him reply, “Never! Fanny!—so very determined and positive! This is not like yourself, your rational self.”
“I mean,” she cried, sorrowfully correcting herself, “that I think I never shall, as far as the future can be answered for; I think I never shall return his regard.”
“I must hope better things. I am aware, more aware than Crawford can be, that the man who means to make you love him (you having due notice of his intentions) must have very uphill work, for there are all your early attachments and habits in battle array; and before he can get your heart for his own use he has to unfasten it from all the holds upon things animate and inanimate, which so many years’ growth have confirmed, and which are considerably tightened for the moment by the very idea of separation. I know that the apprehension of being forced to quit Mansfield will for a time be arming you against him. I wish he had not been obliged to tell you what he was trying for. I wish he had known you as well as I do, Fanny. Between us, I think we should have won you. My theoretical and his practical knowledge together could not have failed. He should have worked upon my plans. I must hope, however, that time, proving him (as I firmly believe it will) to deserve you by his steady affection, will give him his reward. I cannot suppose that you have not the wish to love him—the natural wish of gratitude. You must have some feeling of that sort. You must be sorry for your own indifference.”
Fanny carefully resists, so Edmund proceeds, very methodically, to work on Fanny from various other angles, until we finally reach the end of this very long tete-a-tete (one of the longer ones in JA’s novels) and the reader can assess whether Edmund has succeeded in fulfilling the orders he took from his father:
“…Her feelings were all in revolt. She feared she had been doing wrong: saying too much, overacting the caution which she had been fancying necessary; in guarding against one evil, laying herself open to another; and to have Miss Crawford’s liveliness repeated to her at such a moment, and on such a subject, was a bitter aggravation. Edmund saw weariness and distress in her face, and immediately resolved to forbear all farther discussion; and not even to mention the name of Crawford again, except as it might be connected with what must be agreeable to her….”
In those last words, JA subtly makes clear that Edmund knows his mission is not yet fulfilled, but he must wait for more favorable opportunities when he can work on Fanny in other ways, to induce her to take her uncle’s orders. And that brings me to my final point today: it has often been noted, by Austen scholars and amateur Janeites alike, that one of the most thrilling moments in all of Austen’s fiction comes when the creepmouse Fanny Price shocks everyone, including perhaps herself, by standing up to Sir Thomas Bertram, and refusing to take his orders! As you reread the following memorable passage, do so with fresh eyes, thinking about Jane Austen having decided at the start of composing MP to make its central theme that of “ordination”, i.e., the giving/taking of orders—and how well she fulfilled her own plan:
“Am I to understand,” said Sir Thomas, after a few moments’ silence, “that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?” “Yes, sir.” “Refuse him?” “Yes, sir.” “Refuse Mr. Crawford! Upon what plea? For what reason?” “I—I cannot like him, sir, well enough to marry him.”
“This is very strange!” said Sir Thomas, in a voice of calm displeasure. “There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach. Here is a young man wishing to pay his addresses to you, with everything to recommend him: not merely situation in life, fortune, and character, but with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to everybody. And he is not an acquaintance of to-day; you have now known him some time. His sister, moreover, is your intimate friend, and he has been doing that for your brother, which I should suppose would have been almost sufficient recommendation to you, had there been no other. It is very uncertain when my interest might have got William on. He has done it already.”
“Yes,” said Fanny, in a faint voice, and looking down with fresh shame; and she did feel almost ashamed of herself, after such a picture as her uncle had drawn, for not liking Mr. Crawford.
“You must have been aware,” continued Sir Thomas presently, “you must have been some time aware of a particularity in Mr. Crawford’s manners to you. This cannot have taken you by surprise. You must have observed his attentions; and though you always received them very properly (I have no accusation to make on that head), I never perceived them to be unpleasant to you. I am half inclined to think, Fanny, that you do not quite know your own feelings.”
“Oh yes, sir! indeed I do. His attentions were always—what I did not like.”
Sir Thomas looked at her with deeper surprise. “This is beyond me,” said he. “This requires explanation. Young as you are, and having seen scarcely any one, it is hardly possible that your affections—”
He paused and eyed her fixedly. He saw her lips formed into a no, though the sound was inarticulate, but her face was like scarlet. That, however, in so modest a girl, might be very compatible with innocence; and chusing at least to appear satisfied, he quickly added, “No, no, I know that is quite out of the question; quite impossible. Well, there is nothing more to be said.”
But Sir Thomas was not honest, because he kept badgering Fanny a while longer, and then came this conclusion of their tete-a-tete, when he lowered the hammer a final time:
“Sir Thomas came towards the table where she sat in trembling wretchedness, and with a good deal of cold sternness, said, “It is of no use, I perceive, to talk to you. We had better put an end to this most mortifying conference. Mr. Crawford must not be kept longer waiting. I will, therefore, only add, as thinking it my duty to mark my opinion of your conduct, that you have disappointed every expectation I had formed, and proved yourself of a character the very reverse of what I had supposed. For I had, Fanny, as I think my behaviour must have shewn, formed a very favourable opinion of you from the period of my return to England. I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence. But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse; that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you, without even asking their advice. You have shewn yourself very, very different from anything that I had imagined. The advantage or disadvantage of your family, of your parents, your brothers and sisters, never seems to have had a moment’s share in your thoughts on this occasion. How they might be benefited, how they must rejoice in such an establishment for you, is nothing to you. You think only of yourself, and because you do not feel for Mr. Crawford exactly what a young heated fancy imagines to be necessary for happiness, you resolve to refuse him at once, without wishing even for a little time to consider of it, a little more time for cool consideration, and for really examining your own inclinations; and are, in a wild fit of folly, throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honourably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again. Here is a young man of sense, of character, of temper, of manners, and of fortune, exceedingly attached to you, and seeking your hand in the most handsome and disinterested way; and let me tell you, Fanny, that you may live eighteen years longer in the world without being addressed by a man of half Mr. Crawford’s estate, or a tenth part of his merits. Gladly would I have bestowed either of my own daughters on him. Maria is nobly married; but had Mr. Crawford sought Julia’s hand, I should have given it to him with superior and more heartfelt satisfaction than I gave Maria’s to Mr. Rushworth.” After half a moment’s pause: “And I should have been very much surprised had either of my daughters, on receiving a proposal of marriage at any time which might carry with it only half the eligibility of this, immediately and peremptorily, and without paying my opinion or my regard the compliment of any consultation, put a decided negative on it. I should have been much surprised and much hurt by such a proceeding. I should have thought it a gross violation of duty and respect. You are not to be judged by the same rule. You do not owe me the duty of a child. But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude—”
He ceased. Fanny was by this time crying so bitterly that, angry as he was, he would not press that article farther. Her heart was almost broke by such a picture of what she appeared to him; by such accusations, so heavy, so multiplied, so rising in dreadful gradation! Self-willed, obstinate, selfish, and ungrateful. He thought her all this. She had deceived his expectations; she had lost his good opinion. What was to become of her?
“I am very sorry,” said she inarticulately, through her tears, “I am very sorry indeed.”
“Sorry! yes, I hope you are sorry; and you will probably have reason to be long sorry for this day’s transactions.”
“If it were possible for me to do otherwise” said she, with another strong effort; “but I am so perfectly convinced that I could never make him happy, and that I should be miserable myself.”
Another burst of tears; but in spite of that burst, and in spite of that great black word miserable, which served to introduce it, Sir Thomas began to think a little relenting, a little change of inclination, might have something to do with it; and to augur favourably from the personal entreaty of the young man himself….”
Indeed, Fanny has shown “that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence”, and we all cheer her for it! Fanny’s refusal to “take orders” from her uncle to marry Henry, despite Sir Thomas’s cold fury at her refusal, could not be in sharper contrast with cousin Edmund’s craven attempts to fulfill his father’s reprehensible orders: crimes which must forever condemn Edmund to the dreaded purgatory of being the least admirable and least romantic of the six Austen heroes.
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