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

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

‘They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature’: Mary, the ‘well-tempered’ Bennet sister in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (and elsewhere)


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I recently saw Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, and found the following rave review to be spot-on:
https://www.portlandmercury.com/theater/2019/12/19/27663874/miss-bennet-christmas-at-pemberley-review-is-this-how-jane-austen-nerds-fall-in-love  It’s easy to understand why this play has been staged all over the country in both 2018 and 2019, and bids fair to become an annual national holiday tradition. And it didn’t hurt that all the performers in this recently concluded Portland production, but most of all Mary as played by the force of nature known as Lauren Modica, were uniformly excellent.

This is that rare sequel to a beloved original which creates its own independent vivid dramatic reality, and doesn’t rely on frequent winks at highlights from the original for its force and appeal. The winks (as when Mary expresses snarky pride at her piano playing, her playful riposte to the public humiliation she suffers at the hands of her sarcastic father) are few and far between, and are carefully chosen for most telling effect. Lauren Gunderson (who co-wrote this play with Margot Melcon) is justifiably already famous as a very gifted young playwright; and, as a rabid Shakespeare lover, I’m sorry I missed The Book of Will at OSF this past summer, and hope it’ll have another run soon somewhere I can go see it).

Miss Bennet reflects the authors’ canny sense of plot construction and pace, and reliably consistent, even (yes, I’ll say it) Austenesque, sharp wit. And I felt throughout the play, in plot twists like the misdirected love notes, the subliminal presence of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. That demonstrates that Gunderson and Melcon really did their homework – I can’t be offbase in inferring that they recognized (as Sir Walter Scott was the first to suggest 2 centuries ago) Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic comedy as a key source for Austen’s most beloved romantic comedy; and their reboot of that “merry war”, but this time with their own original sparring lovers, Mary and Arthur, is a worthy successor.

In choosing Mary Bennet as their heroine, they avoid the trend of typical P&P fanfic sequels, which apply variations to the original story, with little or no basis in the original text. Instead, Gunderson and Melcon follow in the footsteps of Prof. Steven A. Scott, whose 2002 essay, "Making room in the middle: Mary in Pride and Prejudice”, was the first to make a case that there was more to Austen’s Mary Bennet than met the eye; and then, in 2008, the late Colleen McCullough’s The Independence of Mary Bennet, which presented Mary as a heroine in a sequel that takes her far afield from Longbourn and Pemberley. So, there’s both textual justification and precedent for elevating Mary to the unlikely status as heroine.

I also have a horse in the Alt-Mary race. In 2010, I first presented my own alternative view of Mary, as one cog in what I call the “shadow story” (or alternative fictional universe) of P&P that I claim Austen  deliberately created. The primary means of access (to each of Austen’s six shadow stories) is by reading most of the narration in the novel not as objective reality (as they’re generally read), but as a subjective reality filtered and distorted through the proud, prejudiced and therefore fallible mind of the focalizing heroine. So Eliza Bennet, in that alternative plausible interpretation, is still a smart, but nonetheless essentially clueless, young woman, from one end of the novel to the other.

So I say it’s up to the reader to figure out who the shadow Mary is, by avoiding getting trapped inside Elizabeth’s often jealous, dismissive, uncharitable view of her. And here’s the crux. In the shadow story of P&P, Mr. Darcy does not actually reform and repent from his selfish ways after Elizabeth rejects his first proposal, he merely pretends to do so. And in that dark alternative reality, I see Mary as a feminist, selfless, would-be protector of her elder sister Elizabeth; Mary is (like her creator, Jane Austen, as characterized long ago by Mary Russell Mitford) the “sharp poker” sitting quietly by the fire unnoticed, the sharp eyed observer who sees through Darcy’s sham reformation, and tries her best, albeit unsuccessfully, to warn her all-too-trickable Elizabeth off from his dangerous charms.

So I believe it is Mary who is the unnamed girl at Longbourn, who, when Darcy shows up there for the first time near the end of the novel, and Elizabeth wonders whether he still has feelings for her, whispers in Elizabeth’s ear the line in the novel you never hear in any of the film adaptations:
“The men shan’t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?”

But, alas, Elizabeth by then has had her resistance so thoroughly shattered by Darcy’s relentless manipulations and stage management, including her “unplanned” visit to Pemberley, and his “accidentally” meeting her there,  and so she does desperately, even cravenly, want Darcy, and is deaf to Mary’s whispered warning.

As you might have guessed by now, there are a dozen other major differences between the great love story of P&P that everybody knows and loves, and the shadow story of that same novel that I believe was Austen’s greatest cautionary tale. But the shadow story is also a love story--- although n a very different way, in that it centers not on Mary, but on another unlikely heroine - Charlotte Lucas  (who, notably, is utterly absent from Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley) and her undying, highly romantic love for her beloved, Elizabeth! But that is another story……. ;)

So although Gunderson’s and Melcon’s vision of Mary is a departure from the normative reading of Mary, it is not the Mary of the shadow story I see. Let’s call it an “upgrade” of the Mary of the overt story. Nonetheless, I don’t hold that as a flaw at all, because (as I said at the start) Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is an authentic, successful work of sophisticated romantic comedy entirely in its own right! In other words, it would be great theater to watch and enjoy even if Pride and Prejudice had never been written --- although, of course, it would surely not be selling out theaters around the country if not for its unique pedigree!

As to that independent reality of Miss Bennet, perhaps the best aspect for me was that this sequel to Pride and Prejudice presented us with an organic family dynamic that is convincingly enacted by the ensemble. That Mary and Arthur are both engrossed by the theories of Lamarck which preceded Darwin’s, in regard to the effect of the environment on heredity, is, it is clear, a metafictional wink by the authors at the complex family ecosystem which they have successfully set spinning onstage.

[SPOILERS follow for the ending of Miss Bennet, although not shocking spoilers, for those who have not seen the play yet]


[SCROLL A LITTLE MORE]


The end point of that evolutionary process is reflected as the curtain falls on the unexpected, heart-warming harmony that prevails among Lydia, Mary, Jane, and Elizabeth, and the men who belong to the latter three. Lydia comes around to wanting to be a real sister, and in a surprisingly plausible way; and Elizabeth and Lydia show newfound respect and admiration for Mary.

So it is not only that Mary emerges from the wings of Austen’s novel to take center stage. It’s that we also see her as the catalyst who sparks this positive revolution in the Bennet family. This new Bennet family happy ending brings to mind a bit of wit in P&P about Lady Catherine --- she who would, by self-profession, have been “a great proficient” in music:
“…whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into HARMONY and plenty.
In short, Gunderson and Melcon are skilled enough as theatrical “composers” that they did not need to scold their characters into plenty of familial harmony, because that harmony arises organically, as it does in Austen’s original, through an artfully constructed chain of plausible character interactions.

One last point, which I hinted at in my Subject Line, before I close. Being a hardcore pun-nerd, I was particularly struck by one early exchange between Mary and her future husband, Arthur, which I now quote here (no, I don’t have perfect recall, I found an online version of the play text in Google Books!). This is the moment when the leading man haltingly begins to court the leading lady:

ARTHUR: ….And. That is to say…I do hope to hear more from you. You are so very full of SONG.
MARY: Sometimes I am. And sometimes I am full of things much less pretty.
ARTHUR: You see to me…enough of.. prettiness.
MARY: I mean my TEMPER. I know I have one and I have yet to learn how to MANAGE it.
ARTHUR: The Beethoven’s a good start.
She smiles.
MARY: You are wittier than you think, Mr. de Bourgh.
ARTHUR: I don’t know if one can take credit for unconscious wit.
MARY: And yet people take credit for things far less compelling.

While watching, I asked myself why Mary smiled, and what “wit” Arthur was so modest about? Upon quick reflection, I found this to be a subtle pun, as Mary’s struggle to manage her own “temper” surely relates to the ‘well tempered clavier’ that Mary repeatedly plays during the play, during her Beethovenian struggles with her tumultuous feelings. (Here’s a link to a great explanation of what this musical term means: https://www.piano tuners.org/edfoote/well_tempered_piano.html  )

That got me thinking…when I got home, I checked, and saw that the word “temper” is a subtle but pervasive keyword (get it?) in P&P (as it is in all of Austen’s novels --- not surprising given that there are major characters who play the piano in 4 of the canonical 6!), in that it refers to the contrasting tempers of certain characters, most notably the unforgiving temper of Mr. Darcy, versus the easy, pliant tempers of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley.

And so, with that Bachian pun in mind, I had to laugh at the following early assessment of Mr. Darcy by Elizabeth Bennet as she learns about him from Mr. Wickham, which I now read with new eyes:

“I should take him, even on my slight acquaintance, to be an ILL-TEMPERED man.”

I.e., not a “well-tempered” man at all! And that’s another way of stating the fork in the road that divides the paths to the overt story and the shadow story. In a nutshell, the question is whether Darcy’s character will be, or not be, brought into harmony after Elizabeth rejects him the first time, or will it instead remain in dark dissonance.

Given the profundity of the musical metaphors that echo throughout the entirety of P&P (most of all in the salon at Rosings when Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s merry war of words about her piano playing and his people skills reaches a peak), we can also read, with new, admiring eyes, Elizabeth’s earlier, sarcastic snap judgment on her sister:

‘They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature’

When we recognize that it was Jane Austen herself who was usually deep in the study of these same endlessly fascinating subjects, including most of all the difficulty of knowing the hearts of other people and ourselves, it is fitting that we see Mary as a self-portrait more in harmony with her creator than her more flamboyant sister Elizabeth.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Nabokovian Gravity of Jane Austen’s Subtle Relative Puns in Mansfield Park



In the first enacted scene of MP in Chapter 1, we read an exchange between Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas about the pros and cons of having Fanny grow up in the Bertram household around Tom and Edmund:

 “…But breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister.”
“There is a great deal of truth in what you say,” replied Sir Thomas, “and far be it from me to throw any fanciful impediment in the way of a plan which would be so consistent with the RELATIVE SITUATIONS of each.

On the surface, Sir Thomas, by “relative situations”, refers to Tom and Edmund being higher-born Bertrams, whereas Fanny is a lower-born Price, relative (or compared) to the “situations” (within the family hierarchy) of her cousins. But the pun arises from the subject which is being discussed --- the Bertram boys and Fanny are, literally, “relatives” by reason of that same “situation”! So, Fanny is, in effect, a relatively low relative!

This especially reminds me of the pun I recently wrote about in Emma, (which I found after my fellow Austen sleuth Diane Reynolds noted the pun involving “reign” and “rain” in Mr. Elton’s charade):

“The weather continued much the same all the following morning; and the same loneliness, and the same melancholy, seemed to reign at Hartfield—but in the afternoon it cleared..” 

This is truly the high art of hiding in plain sight. But, back to MP-- here’s the best part -- Austen revisits this identical pun at the very end of the novel, in Chapter 48, again with Sir Thomas, again thinking about a subordinate female relative (but this time, his daughter, Maria). This makes, in effect, a literal pair of punning “bookends” on the word “relative”!:

“As a daughter, he hoped a penitent one, she should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their RELATIVE SITUATIONS admitted; but FARTHER than that he could not go. Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not, by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man’s family as he had known himself.”

This passage requires more thought to decipher accurately than the first one. What exactly is Sir Thomas thinking? On the surface, it seems to me, he’s thinking of the totality of the relative disparity in both power and respectability between a father (and that’s why I also put the word ‘farther” in all caps!) with supreme familial authority who believes himself to be morally upright, on the one hand, and a daughter, Maria, who is in a weak and disgraced situation, relative to his, as an adulterous wife in need of his mercy to bail her out and, in his mind, to give her a courtship reboot. And the pun arises, as in Chapter 1, from the same subject being discussed – i.e., Sir Thomas and Maria are, obviously, in a “relative situation”, because they are father and daughter – they are relatives who are relatively different in power and morality!

And, the following sentence about Maria having destroyed her own character further subtly emphasizes the parallel to the Chapter 1 passage, because the “bridge too far” for Sir Thomas would be to follow Mrs. Norris’s advice and receive Maria back home, thereby giving her a second shot at landing a rich husband under his sponsorship. He clearly is thinking of the contrast between the success of his having introduced Fanny into his own family in Chapter 1, and the misery he might cause if he sponsored Maria as an eligible belle to be introduced into another man’s family in the aftermath of Chapter 48!

Great stuff, right?

After a bit of online searching, I cannot find any prior sighting of this pun in the usual databases, and that is, perhaps, not surprising, given that Austen does nothing to telegraph this pun, to make it obvious. And actually, what I love about Austen’s puns -- which I have found are everywhere in her writing -- is that she invariably shows impeccable tact and taste in her paranomosia. She never pushes them in the reader’s face, or overdoes them – and yet, like the best crossword puzzle clues, once you see them, you groan and smack your forehead, because they were always there, hiding in plain sight.

My favorite from her letters, which I first spotted in July 2008, is this LOL gem:
“As for Mr Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation”
What makes it great is that it is invisible to those with a blind eye for puns, such as Deirdre Le Faye, whose Biographical Index entry for “Mr. Floor” in her 4th edition still reads, as it did in her 3rd:  
"Tradesman in Southampton--perhaps a dyer?"
She may as well have included an entry for “Santa Claus”: “Itinerant Peddler & p/t Chimney Sweep”!

And even when Austen, on rare occasion, does explicitly flag a pun, as she does with Mary Crawford’s infamous “rears and vices”, Austen, through Mary’s teasing voice, explicitly winks at it – so as to invite the reader to try to interpret its cryptic meaning – and in this case, I’ve long maintained that Mary has a deadly serious message hidden beneath the smile – she’s hinting to Fanny at the ‘price’ William will pay (for his promotion) – he’ll have to offer up his “rear” to satisfy the “vices” of Admiral Crawford’s circle.


A Possible Sighting After All?

Even though I didn’t find any explicit prior scholarly sighting of JA’s pun on “relative” before myself, I have my suspicions that I’ve been preceded in this discovery by a sharp elf who read MP many decades ago. I refer to none other than Vladimir Nabokov, who, it is well known, was rather over-the-top and Shakespearean in the frequency and elaborateness of his own punning. For example, Humbert Humbert refers to Lolita (real name Dolores Haze) as “my dolorous and hazy darling”. Throughout the entire novel, in fact, Humbert (and perhaps also Nabokov?) reveals himself as too clever by half in his narcissistic compulsive, ticcing wordplay.

What I find intriguing is that, in his famous lecture on MP, Nabokov actually quotes and briefly discusses the above Chapter 1 speech by Sir Thomas, as he describes how Austen sometimes achieves “characterization through directly quoted speech”:
“A good example is to be found in Sir Thomas’s speech: [the first “relative situations” quotation]. He is speaking of the plan to have his niece, Fanny, come to Mansfield Park. Now, this is a ponderous way of expressing himself…”

Surprisingly, even though Nabokov’s eye is sensitive enough to catch the awkward ponderousness of Sir Thomas’s speech pattern, he seems to fail to spot the pun, and therefore seems to fail to realize that Sir Thomas’s awkward syntax also provides a better set-up for the “relative situations” pun.

Bu what if Nabokov didn’t miss that pun after all? I was already aware, from research I had last worked on in 2015, that MP is a key allusive source for Lolita, including a punning connection relative (ha ha) to the word “grave”. For example:
“…[Lolita’s] mother was hospitalized, that the situation was GRAVE, that the child should not be told it was GRAVE…”
Per Jessie Thomas Lokrantz, in her dissertation The Underside of the Weave: Some Stylistic Devices Used by Vladimir Nabokov (1973), Humbert and the readers know that Charlotte is already dead and therefore a new meaning is given to the word ‘grave’. The irony of the situation is emphasised by using the word twice.”

Nabokov repeats “grave’ and ‘gravity’ (and even “gravel”) many times in Lolita ---and guess what?  the words “grave” and “gravity” are also used much more frequently in MP than in all of Austen’s novels (except for S&S, which comes close) -- and the main reason is that these particular words are used most often to describe Sir Thomas in MP, and Colonel Brandon in S&S, respectively.

I suggest this is part of a delicate mosaic of wordplay, by which Nabokov is connecting Humbert Humbert, his witty pedophile, to Sir Thomas Bertram, the ponderous patriarch (and I claim, also, pedophile) of Mansfield Park. In 2015, I went through a number of echoes of MP that I see in Lolita, which suggest that Nabokov recognized the darkest, Rozema-esque subtext of MP, with Sir Thomas as a sexual predator, long before anyone else.

In that vein, I close with an extended quotation from Lolita, which discusses the legal aspects of the ambiguous relationship between Humbert and Lolita – reminding us once again of that Chapter 1 tete a tete between Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris. That ambiguous relationship, you’ll recall, involves a middle aged man who assumes the role of a quasi-father to a pubescent girl– and, also as I claim re Sir Thomas as well as Humbert, sexually abusing his young vulnerable, manipulable “relative”. Just think about how Sir Thomas responds when he returns to Mansfield after a long absence, and takes pointed notice of Fanny’s body.

As always, Humbert is waxing verbosely (albeit with a style that utterly eludes Sir Thomas) about his one and only topic – Lolita. Note the word that he focuses on, and see if you also spot the other winks at Jane Austen that I believe Nabokov hid in this passage -- two ‘easter eggs’ of appreciation to the author (and that author’s heroine) who particularly inspired him in writing Lolita:

“At this point I have a curious confession to make. You will laugh--but really and truly I somehow never managed to find out quite exactly what the legal situation was. I do not know it yet. Oh, I have learned a few odds and ends. Alabama prohibits a guardian from changing the ward's residence without an order of the court; Minnesota, to whom I take off my hat, provides that when a RELATIVE assumes permanent care and custody of any child under fourteen, the authority of a court does not come into play. Query: is the stepfather of a gaspingly adorable pubescent pet, a stepfather of only one month's standing, a neurotic widower of mature years and small but independent means, with the parapets of Europe, a divorce and a few madhouses behind him, is he to be considered a RELATIVE, and thus a natural guardian? And if not, must I, and could I reasonably dare notify some Welfare Board and file a petition (how do you file a petition?), and have a court's agent investigate meek, fishy me and dangerous Dolores Haze? The many books on marriage, rape, adoption and so on, that I guiltily consulted at the public libraries of big and small towns, told me nothing beyond darkly insinuating that the state is the super-guardian of minor children. Pilvin and Zapel, if I remember their names right, in an impressive volume on the legal side of marriage, completely ignored stepfathers with motherless girls on their hands and knees. My best friend, a social service monograph (Chicago, 1936), which was dug out for me at great pains from a dusty storage recess by an innocent old spinster, said "There is no principle that every minor must have a guardian; the court is passive and enters the fray only when the child's situation becomes conspicuously perilous." A guardian, I concluded, was appointed only when he expressed his solemn and formal desire; but months might elapse before he was given notice to appear at a hearing and grow his pair of gray wings, and in the meantime the fair demon child was legally left to her own devices which, after all, was the case of Dolores Haze. Then came the hearing. A few questions from the bench, a few reassuring answers from the attorney, a smile, a nod, a light drizzle outside, and the appointment was made. And still I dared not. Keep away, be a Mouse, curl up in your hole. Courts became extravagantly active only when there was some monetary question involved: two greedy guardians, a robbed orphan, a third, still greedier, party. But here all was in perfect order, and inventory had been made, and her mother's small property was waiting untouched for Dolores Haze to grow up. The best policy seemed to be to refrain from any application. Or would some busybody, some Humane Society, butt in if I kept too quiet?”

Did you see them?

“My best friend, a social service monograph (Chicago, 1936), which was dug out for me at great pains from a dusty storage recess by an innocent old spinster, said "There is no principle that every minor must have a guardian; the court is passive and enters the fray only when the child's situation becomes conspicuously perilous."

That “innocent old spinster” would be Jane Austen, the (anything but) innocent old spinster, whose “monograph” Nabokov “dug out at great pains from a dusty storage access”; and Fanny Price, whose self-protective motto at Mansfield Park could have been “Keep away, be a Mouse, curl up in your hole.” – and hope that neither Sir Thomas nor Henry Crawford will make a hole in your heart!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter