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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sir Thomas’s Penetration

In a couple of posts in this blog nearly five months ago, I revealed an interpretation I had originally made privately back in 2006, which is that Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua to find his children rehearsing Lovers Vows was meant by Jane Austen to be a representation (literally a re-presentation in a modern setting) of the Mousetrap play-within-a-play scene in Act III of Hamlet. Here are links to my earlier posts:

In essence, in those posts, I described Sir Thomas, in the shadow story of Mansfield Park, as the morally corrupt “king” who is confronted by his son Tom (Hamlet in this scenario) with a play, Lovers Vows, which depicts Sir Thomas’s secret sins—including, but not limited to, the sin of siring illegitimate children outside marriage on the sisters of his wife! Sir Thomas is the “Big Mouse” whose conscience his son seeks to catch, albeit not very successfully.

But this morning, I was prompted by serendipity to see another side of Sir Thomas’s sins in yet another allusion to Hamlet in Mansfield Park. Because the argument is long, I will break it up into two posts. In this first post, I will fully unpack the significance of Sir Thomas’s “penetration” in Chapter 19 of Mansfield Park, and then in my _second_ post, I will return to make the argument for that second Hamlet allusion in Mansfield Park. I will conclude that second post by showing how Jane Austen was the greatest of Shakespearean critics-far surpassing Samuel Johnson in that regard-but this has heretofore been unrecognized, because all of her interpretations of Shakespeare are folded into the shadows of her novels! And Exhibit A will be her spectacular insight into the hidden dramatic structure of Hamlet!


I had posted last night about Jane Austen’s covert sexual innuendoes in various of her novels using the word “penetration”, and I gave the following textual example from Mansfield Park:

“As she entered, her own name caught her ear. Sir Thomas was at that moment looking round him, and saying, “But where is Fanny? Why do not I see my little Fanny?”—and on perceiving her, came forward with a kindness which astonished and penetrated her, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately, and observing with decided pleasure how much she was grown! Fanny knew not how to feel, nor where to look. She was quite oppressed.”

I pointed out how disturbing this passage is, as Sir Thomas ogles Fanny without regard to how awful he is making her feel.

An anonymous commenter in my blog (perhaps one of you in these online Austen groups?) then wrote the following response:

“Regarding the remark by Sir Thomas to Fanny you quote regarding the sexualized dual meanings --Fanny's name actually goes very well with the famous rears and vices wise crack by Mary Crawford, does not it? (Or maybe I should not say wise CRACK in this context.) Anyway, JA basically reports that Sir Thomas has been away and pinches his niece's fanny (or Fanny's behind) when he comes back. Sir Thomas is behind hand in more than one way, it appears, when it comes to Fanny. Am I right?”

And I was startled, because I had not previously consciously noticed any suggestion in that textual excerpt that Sir Thomas does anything more than incidentally touch Fanny’s body (perhaps gently grasping her arms in a half-embrace) while kissing her. But then, I reread that passage, and was astounded to see _why_ “Anonymous” wrote what (s)he wrote:

“….on perceiving her, [Sir Thomas] came forward with a kindness which astonished AND PENETRATED HER, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately…”

Do you see the syntactical/grammatical ambiguity in that bit of narration? Look at it a few times, paying particular attention to the all caps portion, and maybe the “rabbit” will turn into a “duck” spontaneously? But if not, read on….

Everybody always has read that sentence as meaning that Sir Thomas’s kindness not only astonished Fanny, it also penetrated her, i.e., deeply affected her. The noun “kindness” is, in that reading, the subject of the verb “penetrated”.

However….it is equally possible to read that sentence as meaning that Sir Thomas’s kindness astonished her, but that Sir Thomas himself (not his kindness) penetrated her. I.e., that the noun “Sir Thomas” is the subject of the verb “penetrated”!

This is the kind of sentence that college English courses strive to drum out of their students, to get them to make their writing clear and unambiguous. But of course the poet creates the exceptions to the rule, and here I am certain, from the context, that Jane Austen has deliberately created this ambiguity, in order to hide that very disturbing second interpretation in plain sight.

JA wanted some of her readers to be caught up short, and to momentarily wonder, what does this mean? But then, upon further review, to breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Oh, my, that was sloppy of her!—and of course she would never have meant to suggest such an awful thing!”
But…she also wanted some of her readers _not_ to feel relief, but instead to realize that this was not sloppiness at all---and then get even more disturbed, wondering whether it was possible that Sir Thomas had really crossed that boundary and had touched Fanny in a very inappropriate way.

Notice that we hear that “Fanny knew not how to feel, nor where to look. She was quite oppressed.”

Yes, this could be the reaction of a shy girl who feels acute embarrassment at receiving a compliment on her sexy looks. But it could also be the reaction of a girl who has just been sexually invaded by either a sexual kiss (my vote) or what “Anonymous” suggested (which seems too far, but is certainly not absurd, given Sir Thomas’s two references to “my little Fanny” and “my dear Fanny”).

And note that the traumatizing effect of this incident reported in Chapter 19 lingers in Fanny’s mind and heart. Here is what the dreadfully insensitive and clueless Edmund—practically channeling Cressida’s pandering uncle Pandar from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida--says to Fanny in Chapter 21:

“…Go to my father if you want to be complimented. He will _satisfy you_. Ask your uncle what he thinks, and you will hear compliments enough: and though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time.”
Such language was so new to Fanny that it quite embarrassed her.

“Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny— and that is _the long and the short of the matter_. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—_and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle_. If you cannot bear an uncle’s admiration, what is to become of you? _You must really begin to harden yourself_ to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman.”

“Oh! don’t talk so, don’t talk so,” cried Fanny, _distressed by more feelings than he was aware of_; but seeing that she was distressed, he had done with the subject…..” END QUOTE
Notice that excerpt “Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of…” Of course, the normative reading is that Fanny loves Edmund and cannot tell him, and is distressed by this. But given that Edmund has just been talking about how much Sir Thomas admires Fanny’s figure, this cannot help but remind Fanny (and the reader who saw the ambiguity of “penetration” in Chapter 19) of how Fanny has been publicly French kissed and/or groped by her uncle not long before! The horrifying point is that if her love for Edmund must remain secret, how much more the imperative that she keep silent and not object to her uncle’s molesting her!

And how extraordinarily apt, and telling, that the conversation between Edmund and Fanny immediately turns to that very subject, silence--- but of course, Edmund insensitively gets it all backwards, as is so characteristic of him:

“Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.”

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?”

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like— I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”

“Miss Crawford was very right in what she said of you the other day: that you seemed almost as fearful of notice and praise as other women were of neglect…” END QUOTE

Could Edmund be more clueless? Here he is first telling Fanny she has to be silent and accept her uncle’s intrusions, and then, in the very next breath, he criticizes her for being too silent about another loaded subject, her uncle’s slave plantation!

And under “Anonymous’s” and my alternative interpretation of the scene where Sir Thomas greets Fanny, she has every reason to be “fearful of notice” and every reason to feel compelled to be silent about the “slavery” she endures at Mansfield Park, a form of sexual subjugation which every one in the house, but most of all the cowardly, obtuse Edmund, keeps silent about.
And that is, I assert, the advocacy at the core of Mansfield Park. I do believe that JA condemned the English colonial slavery system of which Sir Thomas is obviously a representative, but as she wrote Mansfield Park in 1813, at least there had been a courageous public opposition to slavery, which had achieved a first victory in the Mansfield decision in 1772, and then a major victory in the ending of the slave trade in 1809. The end was in sight, albeit the horizon was still decades away, and much suffering would continue for those actually enslaved during that time.

But, cruel, centuries-long, inhuman _and_ horrific as that system was, at least it did not enjoy the luxury of silence from its critics. However….in contrast, I believe that JA was furious that there was _no_ public opposition to the _domestic_ slavery that continued in England during every minute of JA’s too-short life—the slavery of the ordinary English gentlewoman—whether wife, daughter, niece, or aunt---living on the “plantation” of the ordinary English gentry family. There was no Mansfield case for the ordinary Englishwoman—in fact, ironically, the real life Lord Mansfield had a real life version of Fanny Price—half servant, half poor relation--famously living in his own home! And no legislative end to the slave trade—women in Austen’s England continued to be “bought, sold and transported” at the whim of their masters, i.e., their fathers and husbands.

And what savage irony, that we have Edmund, in this scene, as the arch-apologist for that domestic slavery, insensitively advocating, in an almost jovial tone, for Fanny to get with the program and enjoy all the wonderful benefits of being, in so many words, a domestic slave!
This is exactly the same dynamic I have spoken about as being present in Northanger Abbey, where Henry Tilney is, for most of the novel, angry at his father for his father’s many sins, but Henry lacks the courage and self-awareness to take action, until he receives inspiration and enlightenment from Catherine which empowers him to take decisive action against his father.

And that is also exactly the same allusion, to Hamlet—as I described in my talk about Mrs. Tilney’s death in childbirth at the Portland AGM, Henry Tilney is Hamlet, his dead mother is the ghost of King Hamlet, and his father is King Claudius.

And that brings me to the end of Part One of this matrix involving Mansfield Park and Hamlet. The serendipity I initially referred to, arose in examining Sir Thomas’s unwelcome touching of his dearest Fanny upon his return from Antigua, and in my realizing that it was not only the Mousetrap of Act III of Hamlet that was reenacted in Sir Thomas’s being confronted with his sins in a performance of Lovers Vows, but it was also the Ghost scenes of Act ONE of Hamlet that were _also_ reenacted in Sir Thomas’s return to Mansfield Park!

So for that discussion, follow me…..

Cheers, ARNIE


Anonymous said...

Arnie, In reading your post again on the subject of Fanny's slave status. I heartily agree with your assessment and wonder whether previous critics have focused on Fanny as a slave-victim. In short, the slavery theme in MP isn't primarily about the Antigua kind. In fact, I have come to believe that the Antigua kind of African chattel slavery is only referenced in MP for contrast with the psychological kind, represented by Fanny Price.

Now, let me ask regarding this slavery theme: Fanny has been staying at Portsmouth. When Edmund tells Fanny in a letter that Sir Thomas wants her to bring Susan to Mansfield with her, and that he (Sir Thomas) knows Fanny will understand why, what does this signify? A slave trade?

Remember, Fanny is the one who, ironically, asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade. Edmund, covering for his father as he always does, explains that he would have answered, but the others seem bored. Hmmm...

Arnie Perlstein said...

First, please let me know who you are, I like real names...

Second, yes, I am far from the first to suggest the slavery motif as being primarily a metaphor, rather than the actual colonial slavery. There is a rich body of criticism out there by now. And Rozema's film picks up on this nicely, too.