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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Taking Orders

I've just been mulling over the double meaning of "taking orders" as I see JA using that phrase overtly to refer to becoming a clergyman and covertly to refer to following commands, where the classic example is in the military.

And then I realized how these two seemingly unrelated meanings may have come together in JA's mind in regard to how she perceived the Anglican Church structure in England.

The theory of what it meant to be a clergyman is articulated with great passion and clarity by Edmund Bertram in MP, in his sparring on that subject with the Crawfords, and in his communing on spiritual matters with Fanny. The idealistic image Edmund portrays is a noble one, where the clergyman truly acts as a shepherd to his flock,
teaching by example even more than by advice and counsel, his own daily life intimately wound up with their lives as well.

But look at what actually happens on the ground in MP--Edmund, with his best intentions, is seen, time and again, as a potential force for good who winds up being manipulated and seduced into compromising his noble ideals into a patchwork of rationalizations and ineffectual combat against wrongdoing. In particular, he is utterly helpless in the face of Mary's charms, and he rarely sticks up for Fanny strongly enough to shield her effectively from the likes of Mrs. Norris, and also to some extent from the demands of his father.

Yes, he is kind and attentive to Fanny one on one, that is Edmund at his best, but that's the easy part of the job, if you're not a bad person, and Edmund is not a bad man. But being the pastor of a flock requires a whole lot more in order be effective, and to prevent bad people from having their way with those less powerful.

And Edmund is pretty much the best of the clergymen in JA's fictional worlds. Think about Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton, who just happen to be two characters who, as I have just demonstrated in my prior messages, JA links to the double meaning on taking orders---regardless of their cant and flattery, their behavior tells you what their "missions" are, and that is to garner wealth, suck up to the powerful, and not bother much with the little people, or with true affection in their private lives. Emma sketches a flattering portrait of Harriet, but JA paints an UNFLATTERING
portrait of clergymen in her novels.

And that's precisely where I see the metaphor of "taking orders" taking on a broader meaning in JA's mind. I think she saw the Anglican church as a societal system which in theory was there to implement the Christian message of caring for the poor and the powerless, but which in practice was a vehicle for systematically stifling and ignoring the genuine needs of the poor and the powerless, turning not the other cheek, but a blind eye and deaf ear to injustice, particularly toward women.

And in particular, I believe that JA saw women, even women who were born to economic and social privilege, as being closer in life experience to the economically and socially poor and powerless, because sexism was deeply embedded into the society and the societal structures which implemented and enforced that sexism-and the Anglican church was one of those structures.

And so, regardless of high flown rhetoric in conduct books and sermons, I believe JA saw "taking orders" to become a clergyman as an initiation of a man into the role of "taking orders" from the powers that be, so as to be a foot soldier in the preservation of the status quo, particularly its sexism.

Which is not at all to suggest that JA did not hold strong Christian beliefs. I am certain she did, passionately so, but I think she saw private action by good private lay people of conscience, equally sensitive to the true needs of women as well as men, as the best vehicle for expression of Christian ideals in her real world. She was intensely pragmatic and, as Auden so wisely opined, she was the furthest thing from innocent in terms of seeing the world as it was. She recognized early on that doing good in a world of unfair privileges of all kinds would require great skill, courage, finesse, and, yes, at times, deception and subversion, in order to do justice and kindness to others, and be effective.

Deeds not words shall thunder (where is that line from?) would have been JA's creed, I think.


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