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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.
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

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