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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

“Long live! Hail, Austen!”: The Julius Seize-Her at the heart of Mansfield Park

In Austen-L and Janeites today, Diane Reynolds wrote: "I love to see art having relevance: Terrific article on a NY staging of Julius Caesar with a Trump-like Caesar...I am reminded of what I used to read in graduate school of the dangerous political ground "Roman" plays used to tread on in the early 17th century. This is apropos to Austen as she loved Shakespeare..."

Diane, as I know you know, Austen’s love of Shakespeare is universally acknowledged by mainstream Austen scholars, because the explicit references to Shakespeare in Mansfield Park are so strong that even those diehards who otherwise remain skeptical of the breadth and depth of JA’s literary knowledge cannot avoid the fair import of this exchange:

“It will be a favourite, I believe, from this hour,” replied Crawford; “but I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”
“No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree,” said Edmund, “from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent.”

As perhaps you don’t recall, Diane, in October 2014 I gave a talk about the "Shakespeare in Mansfield Park"  at the JASNA AGM in Montreal, and then repeated it for the Portland JASNA chapter later in 2014. In that talk, I spoke about a great deal of previously unrecognized evidence I found in MP, of JA’s knowing, and alluding to, many Shakespeare plays “pretty thoroughly” indeed; including, notably among the heretofore unrecognized allusions in MP, several thinly veiled winks at Julius Caesar. Of course, the explicit allusion to Shakespeare’s most famous Roman play in MP has been noted, but always in passing, on the way to other, supposedly more significant allusions. I.e., “How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be'd and not to be'd, in this very room, for his amusement!” has always been read as a bit of background, evidence of how Shakespeare was read aloud in family salons as  practice in elocution. But what if that was actually a clue to a web of implicit allusions as well?

Those latter allusions include what I find to be the most audaciously groanworthy pun in all of JA’s writing, which I found several years ago hiding in plain sight in this passage in Chapter 40 of MP:

“Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself. In this occupation she hoped, moreover, TO BURY some of the recollections of Mansfield, which were too apt to SEIZE HER mind if her fingers only were busy; and, especially at this time, hoped it might be useful in diverting her thoughts from pursuing Edmund to London, whither, on the authority of her aunt's last letter, she knew he was gone.”

The clue I’ve given is in the words I capitalized (or, to borrow Shakespeare’s pun, Capitol-ized):


The Shakespeareans amongst you will recognize the source of my pun in this pun-drenched exchange:

LORD POLONIUS That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.
HAMLET  What did you enact?
LORD POLONIUS  I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i' the CAPITOL; Brutus killed me.
HAMLET  It was a brute part of him to kill so CAPITAL a calf there. Be the players ready?

But back to Jane Austen’s “TO BURY…CAESAR”. That of course points unmistakably to the universally famous opening of Mark Antony’s eulogy for his fallen leader who aspired to godhood:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears (or, as Mary Crawford would say, your rears)  
I come TO BURY CAESAR, not to praise him.

So, have I already convinced some of you that this “to bury Caesar” I see in MP is one of the passages that the description of the Bertrams’ elocution practice was pointing to? Even if so, surely some others among you will think I’m out too far on a limb with this one. But blessed are the skeptics, because they require more evidence --- and fortunately, I’ve got lots more!

First, I assure you that this is the single, solitary usage of that exact Caesar-homophone “seize her” in all six Austen novels, as well as in her juvenilia, fragments, and letters. And so, given the uniqueness of that phrase in the Austen canon, don’t you find it suspicious that it just happens to have Antony’s “to bury” (a usage which appears four times in MP, but only once in any of JA’s other novels, hence is also nearly unique to MP) right before it in the same sentence?! What are the odds of that happening randomly in the Austen novel which openly celebrates Shakespeare repeatedly, and which even refers explicitly to mourning over the body of Julius Caesar? Vanishingly small!

But where, the punctilious amongst you might then ask, is the “I come…not to…” part of Antony’s great line? It seems untidy of Jane Austen to fail to cover that base. Well, we need only look a bit more than a single chapter later, at the very start of Chapter 42, to find the verbiage which perfectly brackets Chapter 40’s “TO BURY…SEIZE HER”:

“The Prices were just setting off for church the next day when Mr. Crawford appeared again. HE CAME, NOT to stop, but TO join them; he was asked to go with them to the Garrison chapel, which was exactly what he had intended, and they all walked thither together.”

Now, when we reassemble those jigsaw pieces which JA has ever so slightly jumbled in this way, we have “HE CAME…TO BURY…SEIZE HER,…NOT TO” in all its Roman splendor!

That alone is, I think, proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Jane Austen, that known inveterate punster and wordplayer (an obsession she happily shared with Shakespeare), was winking at Julius Caesar in that single, innocuous sentence about Fanny and Susan, which seems the furthest thing from Shakespearean tragedy. But that’s only the outer layer of the onion, it’s time to peel off the next layer to see what else lies in the next one.

Recall that Julius Caesar is not only a tragedy heavily based on an actual biography (by Plutarch) of Caesar’s life and death, but it is also a play, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, written in poetry. So we can readily imagine that Fanny chose Julius Caesar as the “biography and poetry” reading she chose to share with Susan, which narration, filtered through Fanny’s mind, would organically incorporate “bits and scraps” of Shakespeare’s poetic verbiage!

So Jane Austen has indeed touched even more Shakespearean bases as well in that short, seemingly trivial passage. But there’s still one more large Shakespearean base which Jane Austen touched in that allusion, which we find when we reach the third and richest layer of JA’s literary onion. These passages in MP are not just a punning, erudite, literary word game, in which Austen idly shows off her literary knowledge for a tiny coterie of cognoscenti.

Recognizing this allusion turns out to provide a key to interpreting the inner life of one of literature’s most enigmatic protagonists, Fanny Price; who, as I went on to explain in my talk, is at that very instant in the gravest danger of falling head over heels in love with Henry Crawford--i.e., of having a hole made in her heart as Henry brashly predicted he would do two dozen chapters earlier.

It would be tragic indeed, albeit on the small scale of Jane Austen’s two inches of ivory instead of the Roman Empire, if Henry somehow managed to seduce Fanny while she is most vulnerable and trusting (just like Caesar among his seemingly devoted followers, most of all, Brutus). Et tu, Henry, anybody?
So, it is also surely no coincidence that we find the following speech in Act 4, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar, this one spoken by Antony to Brutus:

To paraphrase Darcy, had Henry managed to complete his seduction, and make a hole in Fanny’s nether “heart” as well, and then, having satisfied his perverse freak, chose, Willoughby-like, to run off with Maria, then his degenerate triumph would indeed have been complete, and irreversibly tragic for Fanny. We might even find ourselves, at the end of the novel, also mourning over her body. And doesn’t that go to the essence of why Mansfield Park has always been seen by Janeites in the same light as Bardolaters see Troilus & Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (which also each take a bow in the subtext of MP)?

And so, the onion is now fully peeled (at least, I think that I’ve gotten them all, although I’ve learned that you can’t ever be certain of a complete solution of the literary riddles posed by the Sphinx of Chawton Cottage). But before I close, I will point out one final textual wink, in Antony’s above-quoted reference to Brutus’s “bad strokes”.

Keep that in mind as I now show you the narration at the start of Chapter 19 of MP in which the narrator describes the shock of the return of Sir Thomas to Mansfield Park from Antigua to be confronted by Lovers Vows in rehearsal. That is an episode which I’ve repeatedly claimed was designed by Jane Austen to track, in various ways, the shock experienced by Claudius when confronted with the Mousetrap in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, Hamlet.

And so I am certain that this Shakespearean tragic context is the reason why we find that same unusual word “stroke” also used, as Antony used it, with a very negative connotation:

“How is the consternation of the party to be described? To the greater number it was a moment of absolute horror. Sir Thomas in the house! All felt the instantaneous conviction. Not a hope of imposition or mistake was harboured anywhere. Julia’s looks were an evidence of the fact that made it indisputable; and after the first starts and exclamations, not a word was spoken for half a minute: each with an altered countenance was looking at some other, and ALMOST EACH WAS FEELING IT A STROKE THE MOST UNWELCOME, MOST ILL-TIMED, MOST APPALLING!”

And there, I’ll stop, hoping you have found my musings welcome, well-timed, and thrilling; and allow me to also cry “Long live! Hail, Austen!”, in honor of Mansfield Park, the fourth of her six great strokes of Shakespeare-drenched genius, in which she took on the Donald Trumps of her era, not only in her masterful portrayal of the rich, narcissistic seducer Henry Crawford, but also, on a cloaked level, of that hypocritical, greedy, heartless master of the universe (seen so clearly by Patricia Rozema in her 1999 film), Sir Thomas Bertram.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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