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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Heathen Heroes of Mansfield Park

"Suddenly, all this talk of Dr. Grant's premature or praecox demise (I certainly do believe it was induced by his own gluttony, but then again, perhaps all these rich dinners in a row were scheduled by his wife) put me in mind of Livia, the "exceptionally concerned," micromanaging wife of Augustus Caesar who was believed to have poisoned her fearful husband by painting the, traditionally, plums (a close cousin of apricots) in his favorite private orchard (there is a school that insists the fruit was figs). So the hints of murder and/or premature death may well be wafting through the parks surrounding Mansfield."

Elissa, you are indeed correct in these suggestions, and you do indeed give very interesting aid and comfort to my wicked but sincere suggestion that Mary Crawford and her sister do provide some discreet assistance to Dr. Grant making an early entrance into the world beyond. ;)

I was aware of MP's ancient Roman subtext, but you've reminded me of the fantastic episodes from the great adaptation of Grave's magnum opus, starring Derek Jacobi in the title role, the man who played the role of stuttering fool (like so many of JA's apparent fools) as a defensive survival tactic, and wound up emperor of Rome himself, just as poor little Fanny winds up "empress" of Mansfield Park. And that scene with the poisoned fruit is one of the best!

And perhaps your subconscious recall from reading MP also led you to realize that it is no coincidence at all that we also have the following passages in MP:

[The teenaged Julia and Maria boasting about the alleged superiority of their knowledge vis a vis Fanny]: Yes," added the other; "and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the heathen mythology, and all the metals, semi-metals, planets, and distinguished philosophers."

Purely as a matter of modern pop culture, Severus became emperor of Rome shortly after Commodus (son of Marcus Aurelius, and the villain of the film Gladiator, played by Joaquin Phoenix) was deposed, and I suspect that Severus, who was a Roman general before he was emperor, was a source for Russell Crowe's character.

But, back to JA, it is curious, that it is only in MP among all of JA's novels that we have an explicit allusion to a Roman emperor.

[Mary Crawford, again in her role as teller of truths that others would wish to conceal, pointing out that Maria, in marrying Rushworth, is, in part, sacrificing herself on the altar of her father's relentless ambition for power and wealth]

"Don't be affronted," said she, laughing, "but it does put me in mind of some of the old heathen heroes, who, after performing great exploits in a foreign land, offered sacrifices to the gods on their safe return."

[Edmund and Fanny star gazing]:

“I like to hear your enthusiasm, Fanny. It is a lovely night, and they are much to be pitied who have not been taught to feel, in some degree, as you do; who have not, at least, been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal.” “You taught me to think and feel on the subject, cousin.” “I had a very apt scholar. There’s Arcturus looking very bright.” “Yes, and the Bear. I wish I could see Cassiopeia.” “We must go out on the lawn for that. Should you be afraid?” “Not in the least. It is a great while since we have had any star–gazing.”

And of course Cassiopeia is the mythological queen who tried, in HER lust for power, to sacrifice her daughter Andromeda.

No coincidence in any of this, in a novel written 1800 years after the peak of ancient Rome, to describe ANOTHER great empire also ruled by a man named "Augustus"!

Cheers, ARNIE

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