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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fanny the blameless vestal and Eloisa of Mansfield Park and Portsmouth

After sending the message I sent earlier today about the Protean Mary Crawford as a representation of the many faces and lives of Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, my mind was alive with implications, and also with recollections of connections to other material I had previously found regarding Mary C as Eliza H deF A.

One recollection was of a pair of messages I sent in Janeites back in December, 2007, in which I posed a question, and then answered it. Now I have revisited those messages, and see so much more in it than I did three years ago, and want to share my fresh insights.

Here is the question I posed in 2007:

What major motion picture released since 2000 and having as one of its stars a performer who was also a star in a Jane Austen adaptation, also has as its title a very unusual and memorable phrase which is included in its entirety in a letter written by Eliza de Feuillide? We might also deduce from a comment in one of JA's own letters that the phrase was one which JA would herself have known and savored, perhaps even as a result of aesthetic conversations with her elder cousin Eliza. I am pretty certain that such conversations must have occurred at various times during JA's formative years, because Eliza, like JA, was apparently a sophisticated reader of Shakespeare. Here is what Eliza had to say in her May 7, 1784 letter to Phylly Walter that led me to that inference: "It is still the fashion to translate or rather murder, Shakspear; Romeo & Juliet, Lear, Macbeth & Coriolanus have successively made their appearance on the French stage, in my opinion they make but an uncouth figure in their foreign attire."

My answer to that trivia question was _Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind_, of course from the poem “Eloisa to Abelard_ written by JA’s “infallible” Alexander Pope, and I then explained as follows:

“In Eliza de Feuillide's letter dated July 25, 1785, she was writing to her (and also JA's) cousin, Phylly Walter, about the pros and cons of a nun's life, and, perhaps surprisingly to those who have an image of Eliza as having been a wild amoral individual, Eliza wrote: "...I make no doubt there is here & there, but only here & there, a Recluse to be met who enjoys the Serenity of Mind which must result from a perfect indifference to the World, a freedom from all its Cares, & the elevating (tho' mistaken) idea of having made the most acceptable of all sacrifices to her Maker & the brightest rewards awaiting her in another world, for all She has given up in this; such a frame of mind is too difficult to attain, for more than one in a thousand to compass it, but I look upon her to be a fortunate being to whom may be applied the charming Lines:

'How HAPPY is the blameless Vestal's LOT The World FORGETTING by the World FORGOT Eternal SUNSHINE of the spotless mind Each Prayer accepted, & each Wish resign'd.'

I then went into a brief further discussion of the correspondence and relationship between Phylly Walter (“Fanny Price”) and Eliza (“Mary Crawford”) which I won’t repeat here.

What I want to write about now is about Pope's poem, and also what Eliza wrote about Pope’s poem, because I am now certain that JA herself, in MP, subtly alluded to Pope’s famous poem, especially the stanza quoted by Eliza, and also to Eliza’s ideas about same (which I believe Eliza must have shared with JA around the time of the Steventon theatricals, when the very precocious young teen JA would have been drawn like a moth to the flame of her charismatic, much older, and obviously cultured and sophisticated cousin Eliza). I believe that in MP we have two remarkable representations, linked by the language of Pope’s poem and other markers, of Fanny Price, the “blameless Vestal” and Eloisa of Mansfield Park, and her solitude in two utterly opposite settings, one very like heaven, the other very like hell.

But first I want to point out two of JA’s textual “bread crumbs” which alone might be coincidental, but in the context of what I say, below, distinctly point toward Pope’s poem:

In Chapter 8, the ride from Mansfield Park to Sotherton is described as follows:

“Wednesday was fine, and soon after breakfast the barouche arrived, Mr. Crawford driving his sisters; and as everybody was ready, there was nothing to be done but for Mrs. Grant to alight and the others to take their places. The place of all places, the envied seat, the post of honour, was unappropriated. TO WHOSE HAPPY LOT WAS IT TO FALL?” */ /*[As it turns out, Julia’s]

Then in Chapter 20, after Sir Thomas has returned from Antigua to discover the Lover’s Vows production in gestation and has aborted it, we read:

“Sir Thomas saw all the impropriety of such a scheme among such a party, and at such a time, as strongly as his son had ever supposed he must; he felt it too much, indeed, for many words; and having shaken hands with Edmund, meant to try to lose the disagreeable impression, and FORGET HOW MUCH HE HAD BEEN FORGOTTEN HIMSELF as soon as he could, after the house had been cleared of every object enforcing the remembrance, and restored to its proper state.

Those are subliminal background to the following, which are the allusions to the “eternal sunshine” stanza in Pope’s poem quoted by Eliza in her letter:

First in Chapter 16, we have the description of Fanny in her MP, Ch. 16:

“The aspect was so favourable that even without a fire it was habitable in many an early spring and late autumn morning to such a willing MIND as Fanny’s; and WHILE THERE WAS A GLEAM OF SUNSHINE she hoped not to be driven from it entirely, even when winter came. The comfort of it in her hours of leisure was extreme. She could go there after anything unpleasant below, and find immediate consolation in some pursuit, or some train of thought at hand. Her plants, her books— of which she had been a collector from the first hour of her commanding a shilling—her writing–desk, and her works of charity and ingenuity, were all within her reach; or if indisposed for employment, if nothing but musing would do, she could scarcely see an object in that room which had not an interesting remembrance connected with it…… To this nest of comforts Fanny now walked down to try its influence on an agitated, doubting spirit, to see if by looking at Edmund’s profile she could catch any of his counsel, or by giving air to her geraniums she might inhale a breeze of mental strength herself. But she had more than fears of her own perseverance to remove: she had begun to feel undecided as to what she _ought_ _to_ _do_; and as she walked round the room her doubts were increasing. Was she _right_ in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for—what might be so essential to a scheme on which some of those to whom she owed the greatest complaisance had set their hearts? Was it not ill–nature, selfishness, and a fear of exposing herself? And would Edmund’s judgment, would his persuasion of Sir Thomas’s disapprobation of the whole, be enough to justify her in a determined denial in spite of all the rest? It would be so horrible to her to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples…”

I claim that the above passage is nothing less than a dramatization by JA of the experience of Eloisa, Pope’s blameless vestal with a spotless mind! We have Fanny creating for herself, in the East Room, a kind of virtual nunnery, a place of solitude, repose, reflection, and spiritual meditation, a place where truly Fanny can both forget the woes of the rest of her world, and the fruitlessness of her unrequited love for Edmund, and in turn be forgotten by Mrs. Norris and others causing her woe!

The absence of a fire is the finishing touch on this image of a celestial heaven, beyond the warm concerns of earthly life, the domain of the angels, touched only by the rays of the eternal sunshine of the bliss of the pure of heart.

Now..contrast that scene to the following one in Chapter 46, describing Fanny’s sitting in the corner at the Price residence in Portsmouth, alone in her thoughts even as she is surrounded by the profane chaos of her birth family---and which happens to be the only other place in the novel where “sunshine” is mentioned:

“ She was deep in other musing. The remembrance of her first evening in that room, of her father and his newspaper, came across her. No candle was now wanted. The sun was yet an hour and half above the horizon. She felt that she had, indeed, been three months there; and the sun’s rays falling strongly into the parlour, instead of cheering, made her still more melancholy, for SUNSHINE appeared to her a totally different thing in a town and in the country. Here, its power was only a glare: a stifling, sickly glare, serving but to bring forward STAINS AND DIRT that might otherwise have slept. There was neither health nor gaiety in SUNSHINE in a town. She sat in A BLAZE OF OPPRESSIVE HEAT, in a cloud of MOVING DUST, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table CUT AND NOTCHED by her brothers, where stood the tea–board NEVER THOROUGHLY CLEANED, the cups and saucers wiped in STREAKS, the milk a mixture of MOTES floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more GREASY than even Rebecca’s hands had first produced it….”

Is this a great work of literature, or the text of a commercial for Fantastik or Formula 409? ;)

Seriously, JA does everything possible to raise in our minds the one word that she does NOT mention explicitly, which is “spot”, as in “spotless mind”!

Is it not clear that this scene, with the glaring setting sun streaming in the obviously west-side window is the nightmare bookend to the ethereal dream of Fanny in the East Room, where Fanny watches the sun RISE?

And in this context I recall Eliza’s letter to Phylly Walter, and the subtle aroma of almost-regret in Eliza’s candid, clear-eyed assessment of her own lack of suitable temperament for the contemplative, removed life of the meditating saint. Is this not the conversation going on, explicitly and implicitly from Chapter 4 of the novel onward, between Fanny and Mary, the two poles, I would argue, of JA’s own Protean personality, each pole pulling her strongly toward it, and JA there, in the middle, maintaining her own delicate balance in the middle between them, somehow reconciling these opposites, and giving us the miracle of her anamorphic stories which have both heaven and hell in the same words.

Before closing, if anyone is skeptical that JA knew Pope’s poem, here is a link for the entire text of Pope’s poem, which, if you read it, makes JA’s allusion to it even more obvious:

Indeed, Pope's poem would have Fanny's FAVORITE poem, because it described her life from top to bottom! She IS Eloisa!

And if you’re also skeptical that JA first heard about Pope’s poem from Eliza, then recall that Mary Crawford says the following words in MP:

“Do you remember Hawkins Browne's 'Address to Tobacco,' in imitation of POPE?—. Blest leaf! whose aromatic gales dispense. To Templars modesty, to Parsons sense…”

Mary thinks of herself as that “blest leaf”, whose “aromatic gales dispense” good things to those privileged to hear her wit and wisdom, but Fanny, in that never-ending subliminal debate that she and Mary carry on throughout the novel, obliquely but unmistakably answers Mary thusly several chapters later:

“In some countries we know THE TREE THAT SHEDS ITS LEAF is the variety, but that does not make it less amazing that the same soil and the same sun should nurture plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence.”

Fanny presents herself as the constant evergreen, in contrast to Mary as the leaf which may be very entertaining, but in the end of the season of courtship, will not be around. And look at how Mansfield Park ends. Mary is the “leaf” that Edmund finally “sheds”, while Fanny, the “evergreen”, is forever planted at Mansfield Park.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S. Emma Thompson's screenplay for S&S2 has Marianne Dashwood making reference to Pope's Eloisa, and surely that fits there as well, but I bet she'd be pleased to hear what I wrote, above.

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