We've been discussing Mary Crawford's "rears and vices" pun in the Janeites and Austen-L groups, and I thought I'd bring my latest comment in that thread to this blog as well.
As with so many other aspects of Jane Austen's writing, I have found that,when confronted with a problem of interpretation, it is often wrong to frame questions of interpretation in terms of either one interpretation or another--the better approach is to look for doubleness, and to be prepared for both meanings to be valid. So, I will demonstrate below, that it is a false choice between the homosexual and the heterosexual interpretations of Mary's pun--it is actually BOTH that apply!
First, I continue to assert, and therefore agree with some folks in those other groups, that the pun is in one sense about male sex on Navy vessels. This is made absolutely clear by the FULL context of Mary's joke, a context which is universally ignored by those claiming Mary could not possibly have meant this meaning. I do not claim that this ignoring is intentional, but what happens during every discussion of "rears and vices" that I have ever seen is that Mary's quote is such a magnet for our attention that it draws our eyes away from, and leads us to ignore, the full context. But the fact is that Mary's statement is not some isolated joke by the novel's narrator, it is a statement made by one character in a fully dramatized scene replete with dialog. Here is that full context:
“Miss Price has a brother at sea,” said Edmund, “whose excellence as a correspondent makes her think you too severe upon us.”
“At sea, has she? In the king’s service, of course?”
Fanny would rather have had Edmund tell the story, but his determined silence obliged her to relate her brother’s situation: her voice was animated in speaking of his profession, and the foreign stations he had been on; but she could not mention the number of years that he had been absent without tears in her eyes. Miss Crawford civilly wished him an early promotion.
“Do you know anything of my cousin’s captain?” said Edmund; “Captain Marshall? You have a large acquaintance in the navy, I conclude?”
“Among admirals, large enough; but,” with an air of grandeur, “we know very little of the inferior ranks. Post–captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us. Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal: of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. NOW DO NOT BE SUSPECTING ME OF A PUN, I ENTREAT.”
Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, “It is a noble profession.”
“Yes, the profession is well enough under two circumstances: if it make the fortune, and there be discretion in spending it; but, in short, it is not a favourite profession of mine. It has never worn an amiable form to me.”
Edmund reverted to the harp, and was again very happy in the prospect of hearing her play. END OF EXCERPT
So Mary makes her pun in direct response to Edmund's question about Mary's large acquaintance in the navy, and Edmund's question in turn is directly prompted by a specific discussion about William Price's experiences at sea, in particular the sad fact that he had spent a number of lonely years at sea in foreign stations.
Now, in that context, reread Mary's answer REALLY carefully, and in particular focus on the phrase "I saw enough".
Everybody always reads that as if it refers only to the behavior of the circle of admirals. I.e., to paraphrase, Mary has seen quite enough of the naughty things these darned admirals do, thank you very much.
But there is a second, at least equally plausible meaning of that phrase "I saw enough" that is always ignored, but which actually fits better with the full context of the above excerpt. It can also mean that Mary is explaining that even though she knows very little about what happens on board at sea among post-captains and other inferior ranks, she doesn't need to know details about the rears and vices at sea, because she has already SEEN ENOUGH of rears and vices even among the small circle of land based admirals, to allow her to extrapolate and also know about what happens at sea!
The negative implication of her statement, bringing the world of the ordinary sailor at sea into the picture, is quite logical, this is not a stretch of interpretation. She is saying she does not need to have information about the rears and vices that were occurring at sea, in William's world, the world of ordinary sailors who are in effect exiled far from home in male-only environments in foreign seas. Why does she not need to have that information first hand? Because she could make an informed inference about what goes on at sea based on what she DID see among the admirals, all of whom, we may infer, were once ordinary sailors at sea in their own youth.
And perhaps some of you are now realizing that what this also means is that Mary may very well be hinting that William has participated in that activity at sea. Mary has just listened to Fanny's heartfelt account of William's loneliness, how much he misses his sister and the rest of his family, how much they miss him, etc etc. And Mary, who has seen far too much of the real world, cannot resist the urge to put a tiny pin into Fanny's naive balloon. No wonder Edmund looks grave.
And to those who will respond that we have no reason to link the ordinary sailors to the circle of admirals, the above interpretation is bolstered by Mary's drawing an explicit parallel between the admirals and the inferior ranks: "they are ALL passed over, and ALL very ill used." It's a variant on "Cosi Fan Tutte", they're ALL the same. And, as in Mozart's and Da Ponte's opera, the irony is that even though the "they" is supposed to be the women, it actually turns out to really be the men who are all jealous, narcissistic, primitive, and easily manipulated! Mary Crawford is saying the same thing--the ordinary sailor at sea, the ageing admiral on land, they all do it.
And that also completes my thought and return to my initial comment. I think it is clear that Mary is talking BOTH about homosexual activity at sea, AND also about the heterosexual lechery and depravity of her uncle's circle of admirals, which almost surely involves females being treated as sexual objects in some way. And those females also seem to include Mary herself, hence her desire to get very very far away from her dear old uncle at the first opportunity. No wonder Mary is Mary.
There is no reason to limit Mary's innuendoes to just one sphere. She is in a way a kind of cynical philosopher of the sexual behavior of the male human primate, having involuntarily garnered her knowledge at a young age from experiences which have profoundly jaded and corrupted her spirit, and she is, in one immortal paragraph, summing up and crystallizing her dearly-bought wisdom--they--men---are indeed all the same.
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