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

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!”
“ ‘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 indefinite 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

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