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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tom Bertram's Dancing and Studying myself to death

The topic of Tom Bertram's possibly being a closeted gay man being discussed in Janeites led me to take a closer look at certain comments Tom makes to Fanny at Mansfield Park during the first ball:

"[Tom] came towards their little circle; but instead of asking her to dance, drew a chair near her, and gave her an account of the present state of a sick horse, and the opinion of the groom, from whom he had just parted."

I think this is meant to suggest that Tom and the groom have been doing a good deal more than exchanging opinions about that sick horse--sounds like a very convenient excuse, in fact.

And we might therefore fairly infer more than a straightforward meaning in Tom's immediately ensuing rant, which somehow seems like an overreaction completely out of proportion to the circumstance of passing time in tedious dancing at a country ball:

"When he had told of his horse, he took a newspaper from the table, and looking over it, said in a languid way, “If you want to dance, Fanny, I will stand up with you.” With more than equal civility the offer was declined; she did not wish to dance. “I am glad of it,” said he, in a much brisker tone, and throwing down the newspaper again, “for I am tired to death. I only wonder how the good people can keep it up so long. They had need be _all_ in love, to find any amusement in such folly; and so they are, I fancy. If you look at them you may see they are so many couple of lovers—all but Yates and Mrs. Grant—and, between ourselves, she, poor woman, must want a lover as much as any one of them. A desperate dull life hers must be with the doctor,” making a sly face as he spoke towards the chair of the latter"

Indeed the mandatory "dance" of the sexes would tire a closeted gay man to death, and would, after a number of years, justifiably feel like complete folly to him. And surely Tom is not merely referring to purely emotional needs not being met when he refers to Mrs. Grant--and so perhaps Tom's suspicion of Dr. Grant's lack of husbandly attention-giving is based on more than Dr. Grant's preoccupation with his next meal of food. And, as I reflect upon it further, I personally would not be completely surprised if Henry Crawford, ever attentive to such things, did not ALSO notice his sad half-sister's woeful lack, and, ever ready to be of service in such matters, to somehow find a remedy for it.

And I also wonder if the resonance to the following passage from another fictional universe holds anything like the same veiled significance THERE that I am suggesting Tom's rant does in MP:

""Very well. If the Westons think it worth while to be at all this trouble for a few hours of noisy entertainment, I have nothing to say against it, but that they shall not choose pleasures for me. Oh! yes, I must be there; I could not refuse; and I will keep as much awake as I can; but I would rather be at home, looking over William Larkins's week's account; much rather, I confess. Pleasure in seeing dancing! not I, indeed -- I never look at it -- I do not know who does. Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward. Those who are standing by are usually thinking of something very different."

William Larkins's week's account....the sick horse and the groom.......hmmm......

And which all combine to make the following suggestion by Mrs. Norris sound like "strange business" indeed:

“My dear Tom,” cried his aunt soon afterwards, “as you are not dancing, I dare say you will have no objection to join us in a rubber; shall you?”

The last thing on the planet that Tom wants to do is join Aunt Norris in a "rubber"--as he demonstrates, he'd even rather go through the motions of 'dancing' with poor neglected Fanny than do that!

And isn't there an interesting resonance in Tom's asking Fanny to dance, to a later moment, also involving dancing, in that same other fictional universe:

"In another moment a happier sight caught her -- Mr. Knightley leading Harriet to the set! Never had she been more surprised, seldom more delighted, than at that instant. She was all pleasure and gratitude, both for Harriet and herself, and longed to be thanking him; and though too distant for speech, her countenance said much, as soon as she could catch his eye again."

And that resonance is only expanded when we consider all the speculation that has been generated in the past in JA-related discussions about Mr. Elton's "end of an old pencil, the part without any lead."

JA sure did a whole lot of dancing around some things..................

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: Just for fun, after thinking about Tom Bertram whining about being "tired to death" of dancing, dancing, dancing, I did a word search in JA's novels of the phrase "to death", just to see what came up, and here are the results, for the amusement of those who, like me, like to see the way JA played with certain phrases throughout her novels, especially those involving breathlessness, exaggeration and hyperbole, which lend themselves so readily to irony, such as "to death":

EMMA TO HARRIET, Chapter 10: "I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me TO DEATH."

FRANK TO MRS. WESTON, Chapter 27: "[My aunt] says I fidget her TO DEATH; and Miss Woodhouse looks as if she could almost say the same.

Apropos the recent thread about Reginald Hill's "Poor Emma", I must say that I never noticed before that this seemingly throwaway comment by Frank has a distinctly strong resonance to Hill's story (where Frank "assists" Knightley in choking on food, a la Dr. Grant), and also to Lelank Monk's 1990 article which was the first explicit suggestion in print that Frank did more than fidget his aunt to death at Windsor!

SOME BODY participating in the Donwell Abbey strawberry scene, Chapter 42: Morning decidedly the best time -- never tired -- every sort good -- hautboy infinitely superior -- no comparison -- the others hardly eatable -- hautboys very scarce -- Chili preferred -- white wood finest flavour of all -- price of strawberries in London -- abundance about Bristol -- Maple Grove -- cultivation -- beds when to be renewed -- gardeners thinking exactly different -- no general rule -- gardeners never to be put out of their way -- delicious fruit -- only too rich to be eaten much of -- inferior to cherries -- currants more refreshing -- only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping -- glaring sun -- tired TO DEATH -- could bear it no longer -- must go and sit in the shade."

My personal vote is that it is Jane F. who, due to her "interesting condition", is forced to gasp out those last four phrases....

TOM TO FANNY, Chapter 12: "I am glad of it," said he, in a much brisker tone, and throwing down the newspaper again, "for I am tired TO DEATH.

CATHERINE TO HENRY, Chapter 3: We are sadly off in the country; not but what we have very good shops in Salisbury, but it is so far to go -- eight miles is a long way; Mr Allen says it is nine, measured nine; but I am sure it cannot be more than eight; and it is such a fag -- I come back tired TO DEATH.

ISABELLA TO CATHERINE, Chapter 16: Charles Hodges will plague me TO DEATH, I dare say; but I shall cut him very short.....The friends were not able to get together for any confidential discourse till all the dancing was over; but then, as they walked about the room arm in arm, Isabella thus explained herself: "I do not wonder at your surprise; and I am really fatigued TO DEATH.

NARRATOR, Chapter 10: [Charles Hayter] had even refused one regular invitation to dinner; and having been found on the occasion by Mr Musgrove with some large books before him, Mr and Mrs Musgrove were sure all could not be right, and talked, with grave faces, of his studying himself TO DEATH.

I think that last sentence is my personal favorite of the bunch, maybe because I am myself often accused of STUDYING JA's novels and letters TO DEATH, and also of my alleged breathlessness, hyperbole, and exaggeration, and also because my writing about JA seems to tire a number of Janeites TO DEATH!

But, as Diana often quotes Emma, and as, I believe, JA herself anticipated reactions to her writing by her readers:

"One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."

This is, I think, true of the Janeite world, in a hundred ways, even more so than in the rest of the world at large. ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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