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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sir Thomas Bertram’s disturbingly “injudicious” particularity…toward his nubile female relations!

It’s been nearly eight years since I first began writing about both Sir Thomas Bertram and his all too compliant son Edmund, of course in Austen’s Mansfield Park, as both bearing a disturbing resemblance to Pandarus from Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida, with the 18 year old Fanny forced to play the role of Cressida. First she is ogled by her uncle upon his return from Antigua, and then, shortly thereafter, he attempts in effect to sell her to Henry Crawford, until she haltingly but bravely objects to being treated as a inanimate commodity without a say in the matter of her entire future life.

For example, in this post…  …I wrote the following:

“In Mansfield Park, Chapter 21, we read Edmund Bertram (or as this speech to Fanny marks him, a Pandar-in-Training) pushing cousin Fanny Price to accept unacceptable ogling by her uncle:

"... 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..."

It occurred to me this morning to compare the above passage to the following passage in Northanger Abbey, Chapter 13, describing the end of Catherine Morland’s visit to the Tilney residence in Bath:

"The general attended her himself to the street-door, saying everything gallant as they went downstairs, admiring the elasticity of her walk, which corresponded exactly with the spirit of her dancing, and making her one of the most graceful bows she had ever beheld, when they parted. Catherine, delighted by all that had passed, proceeded gaily to Pulteney Street, walking, as she concluded, with great elasticity, though she had never thought of it before...."

Now, how to account for the extreme difference in reaction in two parallel situations, i.e., in both we have an 18 year old girl receiving compliments on her beauty from a much older man? I.e., why does Fanny freak out inside while Catherine gets an extra skip in her stride? I suggest to you that the explanation is simple and powerful--- Catherine has no history of being sexually abused, but Fanny does….”

However, it was not until this morning that I realized that Sir Thomas’s ogling of Fanny could have been predicted by a close reader of the following passage in Chapter 2 of MP, in which we are introduced to Bertram family dynamics when Fanny first arrives at Mansfield Park:

“The young people were all at home, and sustained their share in the introduction very well, with much good humour, and no embarrassment, at least on the part of the sons, who, at seventeen and sixteen, and tall of their age, had all the grandeur of men in the eyes of their little cousin. The two girls were more at a loss from being younger and in greater awe of their father, who addressed them on the occasion with RATHER AN INJUDICIOUS PARTICULARITY. But they were too much used to company and praise to have anything like natural shyness; and their confidence increasing from their cousin’s total want of it, they were soon able to take a full survey of her face and her frock in easy indifference.
They were a remarkably fine family, the sons very well-looking, the daughters decidedly handsome, and all of them well-grown and forward of their age, which produced as striking a difference between the cousins in person, as education had given to their address; and no one would have supposed the girls so nearly of an age as they really were. There were in fact but two years between the youngest and Fanny. Julia Bertram was only twelve, and Maria but a year older.”

While relatively innocuous interpretations of what is meant by Sir Thomas’s “injudicious particularity” are not implausible (e.g., Deidre Lynch’s 2016 annotation: “[It] suggests that he has discomfited his daughters by singling them out for attention or has spoken with excessive minuteness (another sense of particularity) about how he expects them to behave toward their little cousin…”), it is clear to me that Jane Austen also meant for her careful rereaders to notice the disturbing resonance of that ambiguous passage in Chapter 2 ---- in which Sir Thomas can all-too-plausibly be understood to be making very pointed comments about his 12- and 13-year old daughters’ early-blossoming figures --- with Sir Thomas’s explicit ogling of the 18-year old Fanny’s late-developing female body which, as I’ve argued many times, Edmund appallingly tries to blame on the victim, Fanny, in Chapter 21. That we hear of Maria’s and Julia’s lack of “natural shyness”, that they compare themselves to Fanny in physical appearance, and that we then immediately hear that they are “decidedly handsome”, all point to Sir Thomas’s injudiciousness being that of having no proper sexual boundaries with his own nubile young daughters (reminding us of yet another disturbing parallel between Sir Thomas and a powerful man in the news today, besides those I have pointed out previously).

As always seems to be the case with Jane Austen’s fiction, it took perhaps my twentieth reading of that passage over twenty years to notice what had slipped right past me the first nineteen times. That is partly my bad, but it’s also the result of Mansfield Park’s drily ironic narrator being especially delicate and discreet when describing the most disturbing matters. It’s as if it really was Jane Austen herself speaking: a worldly wise and mature woman, who, as Mitford famously observed, quietly observed everything around her, was too polite --- or careful as to deniability--- to be explicit, but made sure she gave just enough data so that a sharp-eyed reader could fill in the blanks of what was deliberately left implicit.

I never realized till this moment how much Jane Austen meant it when she famously wrote, at the end of MP:  “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”   Now I see that this oft-quoted line is not just about leaving out almost all of the details of what happens in the rushed, unromantic ending of the novel; it’s reminding us, looking ahead to the next rereading, that it has been that way from the very first page, so keep an eye out for the guilt and misery which has not been dwelt on, but which has nonetheless been given just enough emphasis not to be ignored.

Still skeptical? Then, before I close, let me show you a few other passages in MP, in which the word “particularity” has that same subtly suggestive connotation of sexuality:
Chapter 12: “I dare say he did, ma’am. Mr. Rushworth is never remiss. But dear Maria has such a strict sense of propriety, so much of that true delicacy which one seldom meets with nowadays, Mrs. Rushworth—that wish of avoiding PARTICULARITY!...”

Chapter 32: “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.”

Chapter 36: [Fanny to Mary] “…As to your brother’s [i.e., Henry’s] behaviour, certainly I was sensible of a PARTICULARITY: I had been sensible of it some little time, perhaps two or three weeks; but then I considered it as meaning nothing: I put it down as simply being his way, and was as far from supposing as from wishing him to have any serious thoughts of me….”

And so, when I think of Sir Thomas’s little smile when he is getting ready to exile Fanny to Portsmouth, to teach her to renounce her “disgusting” “independence of spirit”, and now think about how Fanny is only Sir Thomas’s latest family victim, it makes me “quite hate him” even more than before.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

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