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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Edmund, pluralism, forming minds, favorite heroes

My recent post about Edmund Bertram...

...yielded some interesting fruit, in the form of several interesting responses from Diane Reynolds, Diana Birchall, and Nancy Mayer, to which I respond as follows:


Diana wrote: "Diane (and Arnie), I am no partial defender of Edmund, but you may be just a trifle too harsh! There's no certainty that he kept the living of Thornton Lacey when he removed to Mansfield, is there? Austen says: "to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living, by the death of Dr. Grant, occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience. On that event they removed to Mansfield..."
He may have then sought a curate for Thornton Lacey, or sold the living to someone. "

Diane replied: "However, while I had always thought Edmund keeps the income at Thornton Lacey, it is possible that the "increase" mentioned merely comes from the MP living being bigger. Great catch, Diana, which shows once again how careful we have to be reading "dear Jane! " "

Given that Edmund made such a big deal halfway through the novel (as I quoted) about the vital importance of a hands-on, local clergyman in a small rural community, I think it's significant that JA at the end of the novel leaves Edmund's clerical choices so teasingly ambiguous--it seems clear to me that JA, having raised this question so pointedly, wants _us_ to ask this question (just as Fanny asks about slavery)---and... as with so many other aspects of this disturbing novel, most of all the slavery question, JA does _not_ want us to be certain of our answers, which could be innocent and worthy, but also could be guilty and horrible.

Chekhov famously opined about storytellers who have an obligation to readers to answer questions raised by the introduction of seemingly tangential story elements. I think JA was as sensitive as Chekhov to this subject, but her pervasive strategy for dealing with such things was to seize and embrace--indeed to foreground and accentuate-- ambiguity, so as to challenge readers to work to figure out answers, by grappling with that ambiguity. Why? Because real life is ambiguous, in a thousand ways. Humans therefore need practice in dealing with ambiguity.

Nancy wrote: "Don't forget that Austen's own father and brother were pluralists. her father needed the money to support his daughters.....I don't think she was opposed to pluralism. It was what put jam on her bread."

I haven't forgotten for a second, quite the contrary, Edward Cooper and Theo' Cooke were not the only country clergymen whom JA satirized and put under a moral microscope---her favorite target on the topic of clerical hypocrisy was brother James, and her father was also not immune. I think that what JA was most opposed to was hypocrisy--spouting worthy platitudes, while quietly doing exactly the opposite--that is why Auden famously wrote that next to JA Joyce was an innocent as grass. JA well understood that it was necessary, as I believe Diane recently wrote, to follow the money.


Diana wrote: "But [Edmund] is the one who forms Fanny's mind ("her mind in so great a degree formed by his care, and her comfort depending on his kindness"), and it is he who encourages her when she asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade"

That's just it, Diana--he gives her the tools to think critically, but then the student far surpasses the master, both in terms of insight _and_ (much more important) in terms of "kahones"--Fanny walks the walk--most of all, when she politely but firmly stands up to Sir Thomas like a Regency Era Gandhi----while Edmund only talks the talk.

Diana wrote: "I do love your phrase "he becomes Mansfield educated through and through!" And I do agree that Edmund is self-serving...his fine morality and great kindness to Fanny goes only so far as the borders of his infatuation for Mary Crawford."

What is sad for Edmund is that _his_ mind has been formed by SIr Thomas, and Sir Thomas is the king of hypocrisy. The difference between them is that Sir Thomas is much older, and he has been unrestrained for decades from acting on his impulses. After all, Lady Bertram has not played the restraining, civilizing role for him that, say, Lady Elliot played for Sir Walter. Plus, his moral sense has been utterly corrupted by money and power.

That's why JA makes sure to let us know that Sir Thomas _smiles_ a little smile when he banishes Fanny to Portsmouth--over the years, he has become a sadist, and he enjoys wielding power over others, especially women.


Diana wrote: "And don't forget that Jane Austen herself said that Mr. Knightley and Edmund Bertram were her favorite male characters!"

Diana, I wrote about that a month ago:

My bottom line was that if JA did in fact say that her favorite heroes were "Edmund Bertram and Mr. Knightley; but they are very far from being what I know English gentlemen often are…..", then that latter part of the sentence was exactly like one of those passages in P&P which Kishor Kale wrote about some years ago, i.e., they can be plausibly read in two _opposite_ ways. And that ambiguity is precisely the way I assert JA depicted Edmund (and Mr. Knightley for that matter)--either they are the best of gentlemen, or else they are men believing their own b.s. but who in their behavior do _not_ live up to the ideals they so forcefully assert in words.

Cheers, ARNIE

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