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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 24, 2010

The pleasures Fanny had not known before

Christy Somer just wrote the following quoted response to Diana Birchall in the Janeites group, and I responded as follows:

Christy: “Perhaps I did made a mistake and was reacting more to how Arnie was interpreting [Diana’s] comments ...It is only that for me, the natural sensuality with goes along with nature and spring (and the language used is very biologically accurate) does not follow that Fanny Price, at that moment, is also having sexual fantasies -which is what I thought you meant. Again perhaps I confused Arnie's comments with yours, and I will be sure to read more carefully and keep the comments much more in their separate places.” END QUOTE

For the sake of clarity, and not to press [Christy] to agree in any way, I would like to explain my brief comment on Diana’s post regarding Fanny’s “Persephonic” (not to be confused with quadraphonic) experience of nature.

Here is what Diana wrote, after quoting the narration about Fanny’s thoughts and feelings, in the specific context of looking back at her long exile in Portsmouth (which exile, like the novel itself, is soon to end---the passage is in Chapter 45) away from her beloved countryside, and also the broader context of Diana and I discussing Fanny as a greensick girl, a term of art from that time to describe a pubescent teenaged girl experiencing her sexual maturation into a woman.

“Very odd passage, that. All that blooming imagery, the sexuality of "warmest divisions" and the glory of his woods - another of Fanny's unsettling effusions of the sort that so put Mary Crawford off, earlier. Mary knows so much more of the world and sexuality, yet I sense she is somewhat embarrassed by Fanny's unabashed, unembarrassed Pan-like gushings; she listens to them unmoved. Fanny may be more "greensick" than Mary - for she is ardently in love, while Mary attends to Edmund as she attends to nature…[i.e., not very much]”

To which I responded: “Indeed, that is classic JA euphemistic sexual innuendo.”

Christy, you inferred from my comment that I was suggesting that Fanny was having sexual fantasies, and that is what I want to clarify, as I did not give you, or anyone else, much to go on in those few words of mine. I hope that, when fully explained by me, what I have to say will feel less unpleasant to you, but even if not, at least I will be clear about what I am actually saying. And I will also be curious to hear Diana’s (and anyone else’s) reaction to the following as well.
First and foremost, I do NOT claim that Fanny was consciously having sexual fantasies--about Edmund, or Henry, or anyone else for that matter. But I DO claim that JA, as author, most definitely intentionally embedded a strong but subliminal aura of female sexuality into that passage. How to reconcile this seeming contradiction?

Let’s look at that passage again, and I will ALL CAP what I think are the relevant words and phrases, and then give my interpretation of what I see as JA’s purpose:

"It was sad to Fanny to lose all the PLEASURES of spring. SHE HAD NOT KNOWN BEFORE what PLEASURES she had to lose in passing March and April in a town. SHE HAD NOT KNOWN BEFORE how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her. What animation, both of BODY and mind, she had derived from watching THE ADVANCE OF THAT SEASON which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and seeing its increasing beauties from the earliest flowers in the WARMEST DIVISIONS of her aunt’s garden, to the OPENING of leaves of her uncle’s plantations, and the GLORY OF HIS WOODS. To be losing such PLEASURES was no trifle…”

The key phrase for me--which, you will note, JA, with her unerring poetic sense, repeats for subtle emphasis--- is “She had not known before”. This tells us that Fanny, being a sensitive self-observer, has really been struck by the realization, trapped in the dismal Price residence, that her memory of the country landscape has come alive and has become charged for her recently, in a way she had not previously noticed. I see no reason to doubt the accuracy of Fanny’s memory in this regard, and I would guess that you don’t, either.

Of course, part of the cause of these strange new feelings is as Fanny explains them to herself, i.e., they are the result of her being in exile in a dirty, smelly, unpleasant city for a very long time. And of course the applicable cliché is that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

But I claim that there is a SECOND cause of this new and unexpected experience, a cause of which Fanny is UNAWARE, one which is in addition to the fondness caused by absence. But even if Fanny is unaware, it’s a cause of which JA very much wants to make US, the readers, aware—which is that Fanny is now a woman, no longer a girl, and part of being a young woman is having strong sexual feelings.

Plus, in addition to the normal process of sexual awakening, Fanny has, during the previous year, been through a tumultuous cavalcade of emotions and experiences relative to her heart and libido---the presence of the Crawfords has truly been, for Fanny, an unwelcome and unsought-after bite of the apple of sexual experience. She has for the first time in her life been subjected, not once but repeatedly, over a period of months, to situations which would cause any young woman in love to experience strong feelings of sexual jealousy, combined with the absolute powerlessness, due both to circumstances and also her own personality, to express her own love for Edmund.

Fanny is exquisitely sensitive, poetically inclined, highly intelligent, verbally proficient, and yet, also, sexually naïve and repressed. She is very complicated indeed, and those who think of her only as a “prig” reveal only their own insensitivity to her complexity.

And so I claim that JA filters this narration through Fanny’s rich interior world, including the distinct yet unacknowledged sexual feelings that are aroused in Fanny by her reflections back on Mansfield Park. And the point is that Mansfield Park is not only a landscape, it is also, for her who lives as much in memory as she does in the present, the man she so deeply loves who is inseparable in her mind from that PLACE! Edmund is like Mary in the shrubbery, an inseparable part of the sexually charged landscape in the “transparencies” of Mansfield Park that Fanny sees in her mind’s eye, and feels in her heart of hearts.

I see nothing salacious or leering in Fanny’s feelings, I see nothing salacious or leering in JA’s writing---quite the opposite—it is just one of hundreds of examples in the text of the novel that the famous criticism of JA voiced by Charlotte Bronte was completely and profoundly inaccurate—here we indeed have the subtle “bonny beck” of Fanny Price, the whole person, not just her thoughts but her feelings, including her sexual feelings, and the Gestalt is a beautiful thing!


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