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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, June 18, 2010

Almost PURELY governed

In Austen L, Maria wrote the following about Mary Crawford:

“The "...almost purely governed..." feels more general than particular to me as well; and there are instances throughout our acquaintance with her where we do see that there are really good feelings manifesting.”

I responded as follows:

Maria, I did not recall the passage you were quoting in regard to Mary Crawford, and I hadn’t previously ever attended to the exquisite phrase “almost purely governed”. In isolation, it struck me very drolly, acidly funny, a prototypical Austenian irony. It has that perfect pitch of absurd paradox which we see so often in JA’s narration---in particular, when she wants to sound like she is saying one thing, but is actually completely undercutting, with a razor-sharp blade of irony, the superficial meaning.

Here is the passage you were recalling regarding Mary Crawford’s intervention after Mrs. Norris verbally savages Fanny:

“Edmund was too angry to speak; but Miss Crawford, looking for a moment with astonished eyes at Mrs. Norris, and then at Fanny, whose tears were beginning to shew themselves, immediately said, with some keenness, “I do not like my situation: this _place_ is too hot for me,” and moved away her chair to the opposite side of the table, close to Fanny, saying to her, in a kind, low whisper, as she placed herself, “Never mind, my dear Miss Price, this is a cross evening: everybody is cross and teasing, but do not let us mind them”; and with pointed attention continued to talk to her and endeavour to raise her spirits, in spite of being out of spirits herself. By a look at her brother she prevented any farther entreaty from the theatrical board, and the really good feelings by which she was almost purely governed were rapidly restoring her to all the little she had lost in Edmund’s favour. Fanny did not love Miss Crawford; but she felt very much obliged to her for her present kindness; and when, from taking notice of her work, and wishing _she_ could work as well, and begging for the pattern, and supposing Fanny was now preparing for her _appearance_, as of course she would come out when her cousin was married, Miss Crawford proceeded to inquire if she had heard lately from her brother at sea, and said that she had quite a curiosity to see him, and imagined him a very fine young man, and advised Fanny to get his picture drawn before he went to sea again—she could not help admitting it to be very agreeable flattery, or help listening, and answering with more animation than she had intended.”

First, I just have to comment on the beginning of that passage—I also just paid attention for the first time to that line: “Edmund was too angry to speak”—Um, I’d say, rather, “Edmund was too much of a WUSS to speak”—that narration is Fanny’s instantaneous “love is blind” idealization of Edmund, giving him the benefit of the doubt on what an objective observer would characterize as his plain and totally unsatisfactory failure to man up and defend his defenseless cousin from a vicious broadside from Mrs. Norris.

Second, as to Mary’s intervention, that is the one instance in the novel when the narrator seems to be saying that Mary is really a good person after all, because she seems to belt a moral home run right out of the park, by saying precisely the right thing at the right moment after Fanny has been leveled by a vicious jab to the solar plexus by Mrs. Norris. But then, that word “almost”, as the group archive tells me that Edith has pointed out in the past, completely undoes the “purely”!

I think the importance of that word “almost” is magnified by how well it fits with the context of what is happening at that moment in the story, which is Henry’s courtship of Fanny. Seen in that light, we can see that Fanny is the target of a veritable fusillade of “false advertising” worthy of a Super Bowl ad blitz for a particularly toxic product like a Big Mac with supersized fries and soft drink, and Mary’s kind rescue of Fanny is just one part of it..

Look at how Mary quickly follows up with several additional actions which closely resemble the way Henry C. suddenly makes so nice toward Fanny in support of his courtship of her, and then (as I posted the other day) Sir Thomas joins in with a sudden uptick in kindness and attention toward Fanny, what with providing Fanny’s East room with a fire, and not telling Mrs. Norris about Fanny’s initial refusal to consider Henry C’s as a prospective husband.

There is something particularly vile and IMPURE about manipulation and oppression masquerading as generosity and kindness, especially when it is a masquerade which rises to the level of an entire cast of characters in a play, as it were, with all three of these manipulators working in concert with one goal—to make a hole in Fanny’s heart, to push her to marry Henry Crawford against her will, her heart, her conscience, and her desire. Mrs. Norris (the “bad cop”) does not mask her ugliness, but it is necessary to identify everyone in the precinct house, including the cops who have gone “undercover”!

And speaking of “purity”, as in “almost PURELY governed”, that is a word which receives much more attention in MP than in any other JA novel, and surely that is not surprising, given that MP is the novel most explicitly concerned with the moral and the spiritual.

In Chapter 28, we see a second passage where the word “pure” pertains to Mary in an ironic way:

Well, then," replied Miss Crawford, laughing, "I must suppose it*/ /*[i.e., Henry going with William to London] to be PURELY for the pleasure of conveying your brother, and of talking of you by the way."

Mary is laughing, I say, because she knows that Henry has his ulterior motive in mind to force Fanny into feeling gratitude toward him, and that laugh does not say much for Mary’s good intentions toward Fanny. Mary may defend Fanny against Mrs. Norris, but she does everything in her power to render Fanny DEFENSELESS against Henry! And there is NOTHING pure about Henry’s intentions toward Fanny, and Mary is EXPLICITLY aware of this, as it was she he was speaking to about making a hole in Fanny’s heart!

Mary, like Sir Thomas, is a panderer, and it only mitigates Mary’s sin a bit to take note that she has entered into this “career” as a result of herself having been a victim, at a young age, of a similar gambit on the part of an adult she thought she could trust, i.e., the Admiral. So Mary playing the role of “Pandarus” in MP resonates deeply with the parallelism I have mentioned in the past between the character of Mary and the character of Cressida in Shakespeare’s deeply cynical play,where the “commodity” for “sale” at a very low “price” is Cressida.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Troilus asks this pointed question to his fellow Trojans: "Why keep we [Helen]? the Grecians keep our aunt: Is she worth keeping? why, she is a pearl, Whose PRICE hath launch'd above a thousand ships, And turn'd crown'd kings to merchants."

It seems to me that Fanny’s “price” hath launch’d at least several gambits by these cynical manipulators who surround her, and if any fictional character was, metaphorically speaking, a “crown’d king” turned “merchant”, it is Sir Thomas!

And in Chapter 35, we have yet another passage where the word “pure" pertains to Mary, and this one fits with my interpretation of Edmund as a moral coward of great magnitude, as Edmund, speaking to Fanny, puts this truly absurd spin on Henry’s attentions toward Fanny:

“It does him the highest honour; it shews his proper estimation of the blessing of domestic happiness and PURE attachment.”

The only possible reaction to this would be to stick a flaming torch of flame in Edmund’s face, to wake him up, like Indiana Jones, from the deep trance he has fallen into under Mary’s spell because he drank the hot blood, he listened to her siren song. And that is what eventually happens by the end of the novel, Tom’s illness and Mary’s reaction to it function as that flaming torch…..but not till Fanny has served her lengthy “hard labor” sentence at Portsmouth.

So, Maria, with all due respect and with acknowledgment of the varied bits of evidence you adduced in your subsequent message that Mary is not so bad as she seems, I think that she IS as bad as she seems—she’s just not as bad as Henry.

She’s bad the way Sir Thomas is bad—unlike Henry, neither Mary nor Sir Thomas takes a malicious delight in planning to ruin other people’s lives for sport---but I think JA is saying that there is evil which revels unashamedly in itself, and there is evil which rationalizes itself as being moral, and the greatest harm to the innocent occurs when both sorts of evil join forces.

And needless to say, I am no fan of Edmund Bertram, whose culpability is not that far below that of Mary or Sir Thomas, in my eyes—it’s just that Fanny forgives him, and so therefore do most readers of the novel.

Cheers, Arnie

P.S.: Apropos the word “pure”, JA does show Fanny thinking that word a LOT in terms of her own moral deliberations—Fanny is the only one at Mansfield Park who even questions the moral purity of her own actions and feelings, and we hear about it repeatedly:

Chapter 16: It would be so horrible to [Fanny] to act [in Lover's Vows] that she was inclined to suspect the truth and PURITY of her own scruples;*/ /*and as she looked around her, the claims of her cousins to being obliged were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them.

Chapter 20: With a PURER spirit [than Julia’s malice] did Fanny rejoice in the intelligence [that Henry C had left MP].

Chapter 32: For the PURITY of her intentions*/ /*[in refusing Henry, Fanny] could answer, and she was willing to hope, secondly, that her uncle's displeasure was abating, and would abate farther as he considered the matter with more impartiality, and felt, as a good man must feel, how wretched, and how unpardonable, how hopeless, and how wicked it was to marry without affection.

Chapter 44: [Fanny] could just find selfishness enough to wonder whether Edmund _had_ written to Miss Crawford before this summons [back to MP] came, but no sentiment dwelt long with her that was not PURELY affectionate and disinterestedly anxious.*//*

Chapter 44: Without any particular affection for her eldest cousin, her tenderness of heart made her feel that she could not spare him, and the PURITY of her principles added yet a keener solicitude, when she considered how little useful, how little self-denying his life had (apparently) been.

Chapter 48: All that followed was the result of [Maria’s] imprudence; and [Henry] went off with her at last, because he could not help it, regretting Fanny even at the moment, but regretting her infinitely more when all the bustle of the intrigue was over, and a very few months had taught [Henry], by the force of contrast, to place a yet higher value on the sweetness of [Fanny’s] temper, the PURITY of her mind, and the excellence of her principles.

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