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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Prominent Members

Apropos the current thread in Janeites and Austen L re Brian Southam's article re rears and vices, earlier today I was, for another reason entirely, browsing in Fanny Burney's early journals (edited in 1988 by Lars Troide), when I stumbled across the following amazing passage in the earliest surviving letter (circa 1768, when FB was 16), written to the young Fanny Burney by her stepsister Maria Allen (I don't know how old she was, but I will guess from the tone of the letter, perhaps a bit younger than FB).

Troide discreetly refers to the letter as "slightly indecent", and I'd say he is putting it a little mildly, perhaps you'll agree when you read it.

I added punctuation, to make it easier to follow the almost Joycean flow, but kept all the Creative Capitalization and Bad Spelling, because it is charming, even as it is, in a way, a much less clever and much less creative "sibling" of JA's juvenilia, written only 2 decades later:

"Come Fan, Psa'w, your a good Girl and Ill write to you first,Thats what I will, & I'll say all my clever things to you Miss--and Hetty shant hear One...Ah-ah Well I do Love you dearly for Loving me well Enough to write to me: but I always said Fanny was a very fine Girl indeed and she has proved it. I really Pity your distress, but think the stile you purpose figuring in is great. I have no doubt of your Letters being so Much above our Comprehension, that we shall adore you for A Divinity; for you know People always have a much greater opinion of a thing they dont understand that [sic] what is as plain and as simple as the nose in their faces. Now hetty's Letters and your Papa's--Lord, why they are common, Entertaining, Lively, witty Letters such as dr. Swift might write, or People who prefer the beautiful to the sublime. but you now! Why I dare say will talk of CORPOREAL MACHINES; NEGATION FLUID, MATTER and MOTION and all those pretty things. Well, well, fanny's Letters for my Money--I like your Plan immensely of Extirpating that vile race of beings called man, but I (who you know am clever (VERREE) clever) have thought of an improvement in the sistim. Suppose we were to CUT OF [sic] THEIR PROMINENT MEMBERS and by that means render them Harmless innofencive Little Creatures; We might have such charming VOCAL Music. Every house might be Qualified to get up an opera and Piccini's Music would be still more in vogue than it is & we might make such usefull Animals of them in other Respects. Consider Well this scheme. Liddy raves about Mr Gresham and your silence, but desires her Love to you &c &c &c. I tell you no News. I refer you to my very Entertaining Little history of anecdotes which will arrive in Poland in a short time. You will be amazed at the Brilliancy of Sentment [sic] Elegance of Expression, Depth of thought and reasoning containd in the hole [sic--that I believe is not a 'sic' at all!]. I prepare you lest the surprise should be too great for one of your delicasy of constitution."

I thought about the lewd joke on "their prominent members", and of course my first impulse was to do some quick word searches in JA's novels and letters to see what I might find. Nothing in her letters at all, and as for the novels, no "prominent members" there either. But I did find the following four passages (ALL in MP, not coincidentally, I would argue)--each one more striking (and ominously disturbing, as is so much in MP) than the next. I don't need, I think, to add emphasis to the words of innuendo, of which there are many densely clustered together, for you to follow why I identified them as such:

"Fanny's last feeling in the visit was disappointment: for the shawl which Edmund was quietly taking from the servant to bring and put round her shoulders was seized by Mr Crawford's quicker hand, and she was obliged to be indebted to his more prominent attention."

I forget the rhetorical term for "his more prominent attention", when read metaphorically, but it's a great example of it!

"The intercourse of the two families was at this period more nearly restored to what it had been in the autumn, than any member of the old intimacy had thought ever likely to be again."

That of course refers to the Bertrams and the Crawfords, and is one I had noticed before, for obvious reasons, but I had not previously identified the word "member" as having its own charge in that regard.

The following one is positively creepy.

"Excepting the moments of peculiar delight, which any marked or unlooked-for instance of Edmund's consideration of her in the last few months had excited, Fanny had never known so much felicity in her life, as in this unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend who was opening all his heart to her, telling her all his hopes and fears, plans, and solicitudes respecting that long thought of, dearly earned, and justly valued blessing of promotion; who could give her direct and minute information of the father and mother, brothers and sisters, of whom she very seldom heard; who was interested in all the comforts and all the little hardships of her home at Mansfield; ready to think of every member of that home as she directed, or differing only by a less scrupulous opinion, and more noisy abuse of their aunt Norris, and with whom (perhaps the dearest indulgence of the whole) all the evil and good of their earliest years could be gone over again, and every former united pain and pleasure retraced with the fondest recollection."

The next, and last, one, is, in my subjective opinion, the only one of the four that is, out of local context, genuinely LOL funny, when you think about it with a certain mindset, as I am certain JA herself did when she wrote it:

"But though she had _seen_ all the members of the family, she had not yet _heard_ all the noise they could make."

I could readily imagine that line, in a different context, being uttered by a 21st century standup comedian, as part of a well-constructed joke, and with telling effect. However, when you DO look at the context where it occurs in the novel, and see that this is a description of the Price household, in particular the very ominous Mr. Price, then it immediately ceases to be funny, and it, along with the previous one, are the most disturbing of them all.

I am pointing these out because, as with Mary Crawford's "rears and vices", even though these are all sexual puns, I believe they are meant to be disturbing--Mary says what she says because she means to disturb the false tranquility and morality of Mansfield Park---for all her many flaws, Mary, having been schooled chez the Admiral, has learned to recognize sexual hypocrisy when she sees it, and she is not afraid to point it out, in her inimitable way.

In the same way, I would argue that many of JA's sexual innuendoes are JA's own voice, the disguised voice of the canary in the coal mine, alerting the readers of her novels that the society of which Mansfield Park was symbolic, was a sick and hypocritical society, where the ugly truth was seldom acknowledged--a society in which Sir Thomas Bertram was, as Walter Herries Pollock put it in 1899, little suspecting that I would be quoting him in this message today, a "PROMINENT MEMBER".

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

christy somer said...


I do sincerely hail to Your continued "vim and vigor'd inspirations to keep forwarding on with these vigorously thematic "Emma"-nations~~~~~;-)

I am sure Your upcoming book will bring within it's stead~~~quite a Kaleidoscope ride of a read~~;-)

Regards until next time~~Christy