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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

P.S. re Taking Orders

As a followup to my last message, I did a quick word search on "orders" to flesh out my sense that JA intended a complex pun in regard to that word, and sure enough, I found a mountain of evidence showing that my intuition was on beam.

MP is indeed the JA novel with the most, and also the most varied, references to the word "orders", and they fall into four categories of relationship, each of which carries an interesting resonance for each of the others:

1. The church-clergyman relationship, which of course is the central usage of that word in the novel. I think the pun between the clerical meaning and the everyday idiomatic meaning is most elegantly and brilliantly brought forward in the following exchange:

[Mary]: "It will be the forerunner also of other interesting events: your sister's marriage, and your taking orders."

[Edmund]: "My taking orders, I assure you, is quite as voluntary as Maria's marrying."
While on the surface, this is a perfectly logical and straightforward conversation, there is a simultaneous subliminal undermining of that surface meaning, which turns the straightforward into the serpentine, as we we enter a world of Alice in Wonderland paradox where the "taking of orders" is "voluntary", which seems to me almost to be a parody of the ancient Greek liar's paradox: "This statement is a lie."

And it's not just a clever pun--as always with JA, her puns are thematic. Mary is indirectly, but incisively, questioning whether Edmund, had he been a first born son, would have freely chosen to take clerical orders nonetheless. And Mary bolsters her argument by aligning Edmund's "free choice" alongside Maria's "free choice", and alluding to the pressure that even Maria, the eldest daughter of a baronet, feels to marry a wealthy man.

But there's much more to the taking of orders in MP than just that:

2. The master-servant relationship:

The business of finding a play that would suit everybody proved to be no trifle; and THE CARPENTER HAD RECEIVED HIS ORDERS and taken his measurements, had suggested and removed at least two sets of difficulties, and having made the necessity of an enlargement of plan and expense fully evident, was already at work, while a play was still to seek.

She had some extra visits from the housekeeper, and HER MAID was rather hurried in MAKING UP A NEW DRESS for her: SIR THOMAS GAVE ORDERS, and Mrs Norris ran about; but all this gave _her_ no trouble, and as she had foreseen, "there was, in fact, no trouble in the business."

She was struck, quite struck, when, on returning from her walk and going into the East room again, the first thing which caught her eye was A FIRE LIGHTED AND BURNING. A fire! it seemed too much; just at that time to be giving her such an indulgence was exciting even painful gratitude. She wondered that Sir Thomas could have leisure to think of such a trifle again; but she soon found, from the voluntary information of the housemaid, who came in to attend it, that so it was to be every day. SIR THOMAS HAD GIVEN ORDERS FOR IT.

"If I had known you were going out, I should have got you just to go as far as my house WITH SOME ORDERS FOR NANNY," said she, "which I have since, to my very great inconvenience, been obliged to go and carry myself.

These four usages of the word "orders" in a master-servant situation, scattered across MP, with no apparent connection, are actually intimately connected. MP is the ONLY JA novel with such usages in relations to servants, and they all serve to subliminally echo Mary's persistent attempts to dissuade Edmund from taking clerical orders--in effect, Mary is saying to him, there's nothing masculine or romantic about a clergyman, all you are is a kind of glorified servant, taking orders from a hypocritical church elite, which is rife with corruption from the sins of greed and concupiscence. Mary is, in effect, telling Edmund to "man up", and thereby win the heart of a "real woman".

It begins to explain the power of Mary's siren song, because it is a subtler argument than is often realized--Edmund has felt his pulse race while riding horses with Mary, he has felt his passions stirred as he has listened to her harp---her siren song is the siren song of secular culture, and that secular culture has many genuine allures, not so easily dismissed. A REAL temptation. Mary never makes her own case by attempting to shoot Fanny down--it would never work with Edmund anyway, and it would also be a much inferior case in any event. Much better to acknowledge the positives about Fanny, but, even in doing so, to force Edmund to realize that the heart is a mysterious master, a master whose "orders" are often cryptic, conflicted, and confusing. Love is a great mystery, and Mary is exploiting the mystery for all it's worth.

3. The parent-child relationship:

When her two dances with him were over, her inclination and strength for more were pretty well at an end; and SIR THOMAS, having seen her walk rather than dance down the shortening set, breathless, and with her hand at her side, GAVE HIS ORDERS FOR HER SITTING DOWN entirely.
And of course, one of the other central themes of the novel is the authority of the parent, most dramatically crystallized in the great scene when it is FANNY who defies authority, and refuses to marry Henry Crawford--so JA is again challenging us to refine our moral judgments, and to realize that sometimes it IS the right thing to defy authority.

4. The Admiralty-HMS relationship:

And they think SHE WILL HAVE HER ORDERS in a day or two.

She is gone out of harbour already; three days before we had any thought of it; and I do not know what I am to do about Sam's things, they will never be ready in time; for SHE MAY HAVE HER ORDERS TOMORROW, perhaps.

I should not wonder IF YOU HAD YOUR ORDERS TO-MORROW; but you cannot sail with this wind, if you are to cruise to the westward; and Captain Walsh thinks you will certainly have a cruise to the westward, with the Elephant.

THE THRUSH HAD HAD HER ORDERS, the wind had changed, and he was sailed within four days from their reaching Portsmouth; and during those days she had seen him only twice, in a short and hurried way, when he had come ashore on duty.

In this regard, note the customary reference to ships as "shes", and also that the name of the vessel that will carry William off to sea is the THRUSH, a bird which has poetic connotations of the female, a bird which delights its "masters" with its "song".

Looking at these 4 categories of usage as a totality, I am strongly reminded of Rozema's brilliant point a decade ago, i.e., that MP was an extended meditation on ALL aspects, including most of all the MORAL aspects, of SERVITUDE, and this pun's role in this excerpt crystallizes that theme in a particularly elegant way.

But it's not only MP. I also see this same pun as having previously ALSO been significant in P&P, where the action can be viewed, as in MP, through the lens of Paradise Lost, i.e., as being a struggle between The Son (Darcy) and Satan (Wickham), whom Lydia refers to as "an angel", and of course we all know that Milton's Satan is so interesting a character precisely because he refuses, to the bitter end, to TAKE ORDERS!:

[Darcy writing to Lizzy] My excellent father died about five years ago; and his attachment to Mr Wickham was to the last so steady, that in his will he particularly recommended it to me to promote his advancement in the best manner that his profession might allow, and, IF HE TOOK ORDERS, desired that a valuable family living might be his as soon as it became vacant.....His own father did not long survive mine, and within half a year from these events Mr Wickham wrote to inform me that, HAVING FINALLY RESOLVED AGAINST TAKING ORDERS, he hoped I should not think it unreasonable for him to expect some more immediate pecuniary advantage, in lieu of the preferment by which he could not be benefited."

[Lizzy echoing Darcy, speaking to Wickham]: "I _did_ hear, too, that there was a time, when sermon-making was not so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared YOUR RESOLUTION OF NEVER TAKING ORDERS, and that the business had been compromised accordingly."
If, for a moment, we read the pun in the idiomatic, rather than the clerical sense, we are strongly reminded of what JA wrote about the character of Don Juan in her 9/15/13 letter to CEA, barely eight months after P&P was published:

"Fanny [Knight] and the two little girls... revelled last night in Don Juan, whom we left in hell at half-past eleven. ... The girls... still prefer Don Juan, and I must say that I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting character than that compound of cruelty and lust."

I think that Lizzy Bennet for a while also found Wickham an "interesting character", and part of the attraction, surely, was the apparent defiance of the arrogant and imperious exercise of power and authority.


P.P.S.: As a final wink to the reader, there is actually a FIFTH category of usage of the word "orders" in MP, which points to JA's lifelong (and Fanny's novel-long) interest in botany, and in particular, Linnaean classification--it is the only time when this category appears, and it is when Edmund is explaining to Fanny why he would not miss the Miss Owenses, with whom he had spent time while away from Mansfield Park:

“Yes, very well. Pleasant, good–humoured, unaffected girls. But I am spoilt, Fanny, for common female society. Good–humoured, unaffected girls will not do for a man who has been used to sensible women. THEY ARE TWO DISTINCT ORDERS OF BEING. You and Miss Crawford have made me too nice.”

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