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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Suspiciously Learned Mary Crawford

By chance today, I stumbled upon something very interesting and unexpected in regard to Mary Crawford's "Rears and Vices" pun, in the writings, of all places, of Hannah More!

In a 2004 book chapter by the conservative Austen scholar Alistair Duckworth, entitled "Manners in JA's Novels", Duckworth very astutely describes a covert allusion by Jane Austen to a lengthy (74 ppg) 1791 screed by Hannah More entitled "An Estimate of the Religion of the Fashionable World".

JA very cleverly demonstrates that Edmund has read this polemic by Hannah More very carefully, as Edmund covertly alludes to it not once but twice.

The first allusion is one that Duckworth detects, when Edmund retorts to Mary's suggestion in Chapter 7 that he give up the clergy for the law:

“Go into the law! With as much ease as I was told to go into this wilderness.”

“Now you are going to say something about law being the worst wilderness of the two, but I forestall you; remember, I have forestalled you.”

“You need not hurry when the object is only to prevent my saying a bon mot, for there is not the least wit in my nature. I am a very matter–of–fact, plain–spoken being, and may blunder on the borders of a repartee for half an hour together without striking it out.” END OF QUOTE FROM MP CHAPTER

As Duckworth points out, this is Edmund tagging the following comment by More:

"prudent skepticism has wisely studied the temper of the times, and skilfully felt
the pulse of this relaxed, and indolent, and selfish age. It prudently accommodated itself to the reigning character, when it adopted sarcasm instead of reasoning, and preferred a sneer to an argument. It discreetly judged, that, if it would now gain proselytes, it must show itself under the bewitching form of a profane bon-mot; must be interwoven in the texture of some amusing history, written with the levity of a romance, and the point and glitter of an epigram; it must embellish the ample margin
with some offensive anecdote or impure allusion, and decorate impiety with every loose and meretricious ornament which a corrupt imagination can invent. It must break up the old, flimsy system into little mischievous aphorisms, ready for practical purposes; it must divide the rope of sand into little portable parcels, which the shallowest wit can comprehend, and the shortest memory carry away." END OF QUOTE FROM MORE

Could it be more obvious that this is an intentional allusion on JA's part? It is as if the character of Mary Crawford has been crafted to fit More's description down to every detail.

Edmund's second allusion to More's polemic against what she sees as atheistic amorality is one that Duckworth misses, because it is hiding so plainly in sight, in the title of More's piece which I cited above. Edmund may as well be More herself as he says:

"I have no jealousy of any individual. It is the influence of _the fashionable world_ altogether that I am jealous of. It is the habits of wealth that I fear."

That is More's argument to a tee, wherein she sees the gravest danger of the lifestyle of the fashionable world not being an intellectual adherence to a scholarly sort of atheistic nonbelief, so much as a pragmatic, unreflective moral downfall, in which one bad behavior leads to another, in an endless slide down a slippery moral slope toward dissipation and vice.

Edmund to the end sees Mary as a reed in the wind, and not as a dogmatic skeptic about religion, conventional morality, in particular in regard to female sexuality.

However, that is precisely where i part ways with both More and Duckworth, and where I believe JA does as well, to wit: even though Mary often presents herself as if she is spontaneously spouting all sorts of irreverent aphorisms in an unreflective way, I believe JA gives us a great deal of subtle evidence supporting the notion that Mary is actually quite well-read on the topic of morality, and indeed has read More's screed herself! So that Mary at times seems to actually be consciously playing the role of the dissolute high society city jade, as a cover for some very pointed and accurate criticism of male privilege, such as, e.g., her uncle the admiral and his circle of powerful male cads (or more modernly colloquially, jerks).

And this is not, you will recall, Mary's only literary allusion. Recall that she points to the Doge of Venice, and to Browne's imitations of famous writers (and Browne by, I suggest, no coincidence, was implicitly alluded to by More in that very same 1791 polemic)--Mary is actually widely read in the free thinkers of the 18th century, and displays it subtly.


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