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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mary, Sir Thomas, and Jane Austen, all forestalling

I am not quite done yet with JA’s braiding of metaphors relating to horseback riding, taking orders, and spiritual journeys in MP. But I think I have now reached the “punch line”, let’s see what you think. ;)

Recall that I had previously quoted Mary, in Ch. 7, tempting Edmund to give up his plans to take clerical orders, and enter MY wilderness, i.e., become a lawyer instead:

"Now you are going to say something about LAW BEING THE WORST WILDERNESS of the two, but I FORESTALL you; REMEMBER, I have FORESTALLED you."

I was rereading that quotation, when I noticed Mary’s repetition, and wondered what the heck Mary meant by that strange comment. It took me a few minutes with Google to learn that the meaning of the verb “to forestall” as JA was using it is one which has fallen by the linguistic wayside over the past 200 years. I.e., Mary means “to anticipate”, whereas today, the only meaning in use is “to delay or to obstruct”. Basketball fans know what a “stall” is, and everyone has heard and used the expression “stalling for time”.

Anyway, having equestrian puns in my mind, I wondered whether JA might also have intended the reader to think in terms of horses as well—horses do, after all, spend a lot of time in “stalls”, which sounds to me like a shortening of the original word “stables”-- and so I wondered whether JA has Mary repeat that verb, even prefacing it with the admonition “Remember”, in part because JA wants the reader to pause and take a second look at that word, and think about it. And, perhaps much more important, because JA wanted the reader to remember the word “forestall” when it is used later in the novel---which, by some strange coincidence, turns out to be in the final chapter, precisely at the moment when the outcome of the battle for Edmund’s heart, mind, and soul is finally decided, and the winner is Fanny, not Mary. It turns out that JA the author has, in those equestrian passages way back in Ch. 7, indeed “forestalled”, or anticipated, her ending!

I will now turn to the two relevant passages in Chapter 48:

First, in the description of how the Grants come to leave Mansfield Park for greener pastures, so to speak (was English currency, like American dollars, green in color?), we hear:

“Dr Grant, through an interest on which he had almost ceased to form hopes, SUCCEEDED TO A STALL in Westminster, which, as affording an occasion for leaving Mansfield, an excuse for residence in London, and an increase of income to answer the expenses of the change, was highly acceptable to those who went and those who staid.”

Isn’t it curious that the word “stall” has the same meaning in both the clerical and the equestrian context? I think it’s more than curious, I claim that the description of horseback riding in Chapter 7, and specifically Mary’s “forestalling”, are being deliberated echoed by JA 41 chapters later, by the use of that single innocuous- sounding word—“stall”.

Dr. Grant, gluttonous and avaricious, is the epitome of the morally corrupted English clergyman, successfully led (by the nose) to a new “stall” by the “aroma” of an increased income. And so it is entirely fitting karma that in the very next paragraph we hear that this increase in income has apparently accelerated the date of his own final meeting with HIS Maker (and order-giver) “brought on apoplexy and death, by three great institutionary dinners in one week.” It turns out that it was a good thing that Dr. Grant was occasionally driven out by a green goose, because the message seems to be that gluttony plus an UNlimited culinary expense account => a “stroke” of (bad) luck!—and perhaps we are also being slyly shown that Dr. Grant is the kind of creature who resembles Dr. Swift’s Yahoos, i.e., the land where the horses are the evolved species and the humans are lower on the evolutionary scale, may be Jolly Olde England itself!

But the braiding of the equestrian, order-giving, and Paradise-Lost motifs in MP reaches its glorious climax, and zenith---amid a crescendo of faintly audible angelic horns--when we read what amounts to Edmund’s arrival at the Celestial City (and I do believe JA meant to invoke Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as well as Paradise Lost)—I have put in ALL CAPS the words which all contribute to the metaphor of a journey on horseback over a long distance to reach a holy destination:

“Having once SET OUT, and felt that he had done so ON THIS ROAD TO HAPPINESS, there was nothing on the side of prudence TO STOP HIM OR MAKE HIS PROGRESS SLOW; no doubts of her deserving, no fears of opposition of taste, no need of drawing new hopes of happiness from dissimilarity of temper. Her mind, disposition, opinions, and habits wanted no half–concealment, no self–deception on the present, no reliance on future improvement. Even in the midst of his late infatuation, he had acknowledged Fanny’s mental superiority. What must be his sense of it now, therefore? She was of course only too good for him; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them, HE WAS VERY STEADILY EARNEST IN THE PURSUIT OF THE BLESSING, and it was not possible that ENCOURAGEMENT FROM HER should be long wanting. TIMID, ANXIOUS, DOUBTING AS SHE WAS, it was still impossible that such tenderness as hers should not, at times, hold out the strongest hope of success, though it remained for a later period to tell him the whole delightful and astonishing truth. His happiness in knowing himself to have been so long the beloved of such a heart, must have been great enough to warrant any strength of language in which he could clothe it to her or to himself; it must have been a delightful happiness. But there was happiness elsewhere which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope.

Their own inclinations ascertained, there were no difficulties behind, NO DRAWBACK of poverty or parent. It was a match WHICH SIR THOMAS’S WISHES HAD EVEN FORESTALLED. Sick of ambitious and mercenary connexions, prizing more and more the sterling good of principle and temper, and chiefly ANXIOUS TO BIND BY THE STRONGEST SECURITIES all that remained to him of domestic felicity, he had pondered with genuine satisfaction on the more than possibility of the two young friends finding their natural consolation in each other for all that had occurred of disappointment to either; and the joyful consent which met Edmund’s application, the high sense of having realised a great acquisition in the promise of Fanny for a daughter, formed just such a contrast with his early opinion on the subject when the poor little girl’s coming had been first agitated, as time is for ever producing between the plans and decisions of mortals, for their own instruction, and their neighbours’ entertainment.”

I feel like I am watching the finale of The Magic Flute when Tamino and Pamina are united, which is a long long way from Don Giovanni going down in flames for his refusal to take orders.

And note, JA sneaks that word“forestalled” in there again for good measure, this time in Sir Thomas's thoughts, to “bind” the whole metaphorical matrix together.

What we have then, in Chapter 48, is the climax of a Tale of Two Clergymen—Dr. Grant, who takes the wrong road, and strokes out. Edmund, who turns back from the road to hell, and winds up with “heaven’s best gift”.

The only proper reaction to such a metaphorical edifice like this as JA created is, I suggest, AWE.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: I have received several private responses from friends who are knowledgeable about horseback riding (I know nothing about it), who tell me that the progression Mary makes so quickly in her riding is NOT surprising to them, and therefore it is not, in and of itself, definitive proof that Mary is lying. But I nonetheless still agree with Anielka that Mary was lying, mainly because it’s the oldest trick in the courtship manual; it is, in fact, precisely the advice given by the caustically sarcastic narrator in Ch. 14 of NA: “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

PPS: As icing on the metaphorical layer cake, I had dared to hope to find out that "forestalling" (and also, when I thought about it, “drawback” might turn out to be equestrian terms, perhaps describing complicated maneuvers involving stopping the horse suddenly, or drawing back on the reins. But I must report the truth, and the truth is that I found no evidence of same.

What I did find might, however, be of interest to those who enjoy hearing about the lost meanings of words. The Domestic Encyclopedia of 1804 stated that forestalling was, in JA’s day, actually the name of a CRIME: "the buying of, or bargaining for, corn, cattle, or other merchandize, in its passage to fairs, or markets, for sale, with an intent to dispose of them again at an advanced price", a crime punishable by imprisonments of increasing lengths for repeated offense, ultimately leading to forfeiture of all property and standing in the pillory to boot!

This criminal statute existed despite the words of the great Adam Smith, who, writing in the year JA was born, described forestalling in The Wealth of Nations as a form of wholesaling which was actually all to the good of the larger economy, as it would enable farmers to remain fully capitalized, by the introduction of the middleman, or wholesaler, who would then make his profit by selling to retailers.

Cheers, ARNIE

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