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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mansfield Park, Marital Perfection, A Pipe of Tobacco, Stepford Wives, and Rosemary's Baby

" It would be odd to have Mary admiring a perfect wife and being ironic about a rotten husband in the same sentence, but it's possible."

Diana, it would be odd if we were not reading a genius-level ironist, but we are! Don't you see, you've actually captured the essence of Mary's brilliant and very dark joke right there--this apparently "unbecoming conjunction" only takes on its proper ironic meaning only when these two incongruous statements, which JA has placed side by side in the same sentence, prompt the reader to ask, why WOULD JA do such a thing?

Asking that question leads straightaway to the answer---Mrs. Grant and Sir Thomas are both symbolic representations of the inseparable, mutually interlocking gears of the "clockwork orange" known as Regency Era marriage, as Mary Crawford (and, I believe, at least half the mind of JA herself) cynically sees it--the "perfect" wife/doormat IS the "perfect" partner in a very sad lifelong dance with a "perfect" husband/tyrant!

Look at the examples you yourself have cited of Mrs. Grant's perfect wifeliness--these are situations in which Mrs. Grant shows enormous patience and forbearance living with her gluttonous, selfish, cynical, hypocritical husband! What a tragic picture of wifely "perfection" Mrs. Grant really is! And the implication, which Mary, tactfully, does not make explicit--because, after all, she knows she cannot get away with openly speaking ill of Sir Thomas to Fanny---is that Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram are another "dancing" marital couple--yes, they are dancing somewhat different steps, but all to the same tune of husbandly privilege.

And so Mrs. Grant, married to a prototypical MCP English husband, is HARDLY the most reliable source for opinions about what constitutes a good husband. Compared to Dr. Grant, Sir Thomas DOES (at least on the surface) appear like Hyperion next to a satyr--virile, powerful, masculine, deliberate, polite, RICH, and handsome. Mrs. Grant is one of those women who probably thinks she drew the short straw in winding up with her own husband, rather than Sir Thomas.

Mrs. Grant is actually a perfect portrait of one of Maria Edgeworth's "Grateful Negroes" in the marital context--a house slave who feels privileged and honored by the "kindly" attentions a strong master. What lifelike portraits of wives JA drew in her novels!

And, by the way, you also gave a SECOND big clue that Mary's ironic stance toward Sir Thomas is based on a full understanding of the man and his entire life, not merely the way he behaves toward his children. You reminded us of Mary's satirical quips about Tobacco, which were what prompted Mrs. Grant's paean to Sir Thomas's majestical awesomeness. Let's look at what MARY actually says about Sir Thomas: "Sir Thomas is to achieve many mighty things when he comes home,” said Mary, after a pause. “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. I will parody them—Blest Knight! whose dictatorial looks dispense To Children affluence, to Rushworth sense. Will not that do, Mrs. Grant? Everything seems to depend upon Sir Thomas’s return.” dictatorial looks" "Blest Knight"---Could Mary be more clear that she sees Sir Thomas not as he wishes to be seen, but as he really is?

And look at the text of Browne's very short parodic poem, which Mary then further parodies" /A Pipe of Tobacco:/ /In Imitation of Six Several Authors/:

Blest leaf! Whose aromatic gales dispense To templars modesty, to parsons sense: So raptured priests, at famed Dodona’s shrine Drank inspiration from the steam divine. Poison that cures, a vapour that affords Content more solid than the smile of lords : Rest to the weary, to the hungry food, The last kind refuge of the wise and good. Inspired by thee, dull cits adjust the scale Of Europe’s peace when other statesmen fail. By thee protected, and thy sister, beer, Poets rejoice, nor think the bailiff near. Nor less the critic owns thy genial aid, While supperless he plies the piddling trade. What though to love and soft delights a foe, By ladies hated, hated by the beau, Yet social freedom, long to courts unknown, Fair health, fair truth and virtue are thy own : Come to thy poet, come with healing wings, And let me taste thee, unexcised by kings.

This is itself Browne's parodic sendup of a poem about a great statesman who will bring justice to a corrupt world. But Mary's parody shows that Sir Thomas's "great business" is really all about greed and power on a very personal scale--getting connected to other rich and powerful people. is also no accident that the title of Browne's collection of satirical poems refers to the TOBACCO grown in the mid-Atlantic American states, which, along with the West Indies's SUGAR, are the two great cash crops of the New World, the original twin bases on which the young economies of the warm-weather English colonies were founded, are they not? Mary is reminding us of ALL of Sir Thomas's hypocrisies and corruptions.

And I remind you, Somersett, the plaintiff in the Mansfield case, was a HOUSE slave, whose master was bewildered as to why his favorite and "beloved" slave did not wish to accompany him back to Virginia! The same way Sir Thomas is bewildered by what happens at the end of MP.

And I have argued previously that Lady Bertram in the shadow story is not really the indolent drug addict she seems, she has actually adopted a canny strategy for surviving in marriage to a Master of the Universe who believes God, the King, and the Anglican Church all gave him the power to have things exactly the way he wants them in every way. Among other things, Lady Bertram's chronic indolent lolling about with her pug is probably the main reason why she ceased to give birth to children after only bearing three--an amazingly small family for the wife of a baronet. No need for her to constantly plead "I have the head-ache, Sir Thomas"--that message is on perpetual loop, all he has to do is look at her to know that he needs to look elsewhere. No wonder Sir Thomas notices Fanny's figure!

But back to Mary's attitude toward Sir Thomas. If you miss all of the above crucial background context of Mary's positive statements to Fanny about Sir Thomas, it is easy to beg the most important question, which is, how sincere is Mary REALLY being when she praises Sir Thomas to Fanny? Has Mary's opinion about Sir Thomas REALLY shifted so strongly, or is Mary, who is nearly as adept a manipulator as her brother, playing her own supporting role in a play co-written by Sir Thomas and Henry Crawford, a play whose "climax" will have huge consequences for Mansfield Park--will Mary be successful in insidiously sapping Fanny's resolve not to take lover's vows with Henry, i.e., not to marry Satan (he who has assumed a very pleasing shape in the form of Henry) himself? I believe that JA deliberately leaves the reader's answer to this question as ambiguous as possible.

Just as with "rears and vices", Mary does not try very hard to conceal her sarcasm, she is actually, AT TIMES, the most powerful truth teller in the novel, mostly in situations when she is "outing" hypocrites and scoundrels---she is herself a hypocrite and a scoundrel, so in a way she is like an informant in a Mafia movie--a rogue who feels a compulsion to tell the rest of the world the horrible truth about her rogue-compatriots--she does not turn away from the Dark Side, but she at times is honest about who her "teammates" really are. So the fact that Mary is corrupt in regard to her own behavior, this does NOT mean that she is incapable of exposing the corruption of others, like Sir Thomas! I get the feeling about her that her conscience is crippled, not strong enough to regulate her own behavior, but strong enough to speak the horrible truth about the corruption of other wrongdoers. And so her referring to Sir Thomas as "perfect" is exquisitely ambiguous, poised on the knife's edge between irony and truth.

So, I would argue that all of the above background suggests that Mary very possibly REMAINS Mrs. Grant's antagonist in a great debate about English husbands, and in all events it is very clear to me that Mary has no interest in herself becoming another Stepford Wife like Mrs. Grant (and it's no accident that Margaret Atwood not long ago referred to The Stepford Wives in discussing her feminine dystopic masterpiece, The Handmaid's Tale, and it's also no accident that--as I recently mentioned in response to a post by Ellen--Atwood's Lady Oracle draws strong inspiration from the most feminist aspects of Northanger Abbey).

Finally, it also makes me wonder whether Ira Levin who wrote The Stepford Wives, also had Mansfield Park in the back of HIS mind when he wrote Rosemary's Baby, another tale in which a group of evil mature adults, assisted by a young morally weak husband, work very hard (and very successfully) to induce a virtuous young woman to conceive a child with Satan.



RosieP said...

Just as with "rears and vices", Mary does not try very hard to conceal her sarcasm, she is actually, AT TIMES, the most powerful truth teller in the novel, mostly in situations when she is "outing" hypocrites and scoundrels---she is herself a hypocrite and a scoundrel, so in a way she is like an informant in a Mafia movie--a rogue who feels a compulsion to tell the rest of the world the horrible truth about her rogue-compatriots--she does not turn away from the Dark Side, but she at times is honest about who her "teammates" really are.

It's a pity that Mary Crawford failed to pinpoint or draw out the hypocritical behaviors of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram.

Arnie Perlstein said...


That is a very interesting issue you raise, Rosie, thanks for posting it here.

I would say that Mary is well aware of Edmund's moral flabbiness, but the last thing Mary is going to do is to speak about it to him, because she is too busy USING it to her advantage, as she sings her Siren's Song in his ears in order to break down his resistance completely.

As for Fanny, what hypocritical behaviors do you see in her, which you think Mary should expose? I would suggest that Mary is, analogously as with Edmund, working on Fanny, to bring her over to a cynical point of view on the world, a world in which morality is futile.