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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cinderellas Presuming to Wear The Magical White Gown of Privilege in Letter 29, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey

Six months ago, I had a brief exchange with Diane Reynolds about the following passage in Jane Austen's Letter 31:

"...soon afterwards a party of fine ladies issuing from a well-known commodious green vehicle, their heads full of Bantam cocks and Galinies, entered the house -- Mrs. Heathcote, Mrs. Harwood, Mrs. James Austen, Miss Bigg, Miss Jane Blachford."

At that time, Diane asked: "Is the "fine ladies" phrase ironic? Why would their heads be full of "Bantam cocks" (outside of phallic reasons)? " and I replied: "Diane, as with Letter 24 written only 10 weeks earlier, with its memorable turn of phrase "Mrs. Stent will now & then _ejaculate_ some wonder about the _Cocks_ & Hens, what can we want?", I think that the phallic reason is pretty clearly the principal reason for JA's above quoted poultry fantasy--I think the existence of two such usages so close in time, so close in verbiage, so blatant, makes it doubly unlikely that either was an accidental or innocent reference. It sounds like JA's typical ironic raillery, with a ribald edge, JA's exuberant imagination swept up by the bustle and energy of five women bursting out of a large carriage, descending on the Steventon Rectory, and surely this burst of visiting from friends that JA notes in the ensuing sentences is the result of the impending big move to Bath. Now, whether JA perceived each of these visitors as indulging in some covert Schadenfreude, or were genuinely coming to say goodbye, who knows..... Aside from the ribaldry and the explosion of visitors, one more point occurs to me. That phraseology "heads full of" sounded awfully familiar, so I searched, and found that the phrase "head full of" was a favorite of JA's, always in a satirical way, with characters obsessed with something trivial, dangerous, or scandalous..." END QUOTE

Today, I have sleuthed out an expansion on that dark image I drew then of five fine ladies descending on the Steventon Rectory in Mrs. Eltonesque gaiety, enjoying Schadenfreude at the helpless sadness of JA and CEA in being exiled from the Eden of Steventon, pretty much with only the clothes they were wearing. The key to my expansion is the image of a "white gown" as used by Jane Austen as a metaphor for presumption vs. denial of female privilege, in not one, but _three_ other places in her writing.

First, I was reminded of another exchange I had had, about _seven_ months ago, with Diane, regarding another passage, i.e., the first sentence in Letter 29:

"As you have by this time received my last letter, it is fit that I should begin another; & I begin with the hope, which is at present uppermost in my mind, that you often wore a white gown in the morning, at the time of all the gay party's being with you....".

At the time, Diane commented: "I read too much forced jocularity to interpret her as genuinely happy about the move. She begins with a joke about C's wearing a white gown in the morning as what is uppermost in her mind, when, of course, what is uppermost is the move" and I replied: "I wouldn't call it forced jocularity, I'd call it thinly veiled sarcasm." Diane also commented: "How distressing this must have been is hinted at for me in her line: "the prospect of spending future summers by the Sea or in Wales is very delightful." " and I responded to that comment as follows: "You just made me realize something very very peculiar (and very very funny!) about that comment---- think about the second charade in Emma, which refers to the "Monarch of the SEA"---what are two of the secret answers to that charade? Colleen Sheehan's (the "Prince of Whales") and Anielka's ("Leviathan"). Do you get the joke? "in Wales" === > "in Whales"! As in the kind of "delight" that Jonah experienced during his Biblical sea excursion!But what does this wordplay mean in the context of Letter 29? I would say that it fits perfectly with your notion of JA feeling powerless, swept along by "waves" stronger than she can resist, which leave her no choice but to hope that the whale/Leviathan spits the Austens out into a comfortable "Bath"(tub)!...."

What I did not realize as I wrote the above seven months ago, is that the seemingly typical jokingly histrionic hope "uppermost in [JA's] mind" that CEA "often wore a white gown in the morning, at the time of all the gay party's being with" CEA, was actually highly symbolic and deadly serious wordplay by JA---what JA is saying in code, as I will momentarily show, is that JA, writing from Steventon to CEA at Godmersham, hopes that CEA is not being demeaned by treatment as a poor, dependent female relation, who is not allowed to wear the "white gown" of privilege, like the other fine ladies!

Exhibit A of that coded meaning of a "white gown" is found in Mansfield Park, where Mrs. Norris makes a sadistic career out of tormenting Fanny, including in this instance her subtle reminder of Fanny's inferior status during the ride to Sotherton: "That Mrs. Whitaker is a treasure! She was quite shocked when I asked her whether wine was allowed at the second table, and she has turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns. Take care of the cheese, Fanny. Now I can manage the other parcel and the basket very well."

In a 1988 Persuasions article, Judith Terry explains Mrs. Norris's meaning: "The admonitions on female servants’ attire are numerous, Dr. Trusler’s remarks being typical: “being gaily drest, in gauze and ribbands, is always a blemish on her character, she will be thought to dress for the men more than for a place.”When Mrs. Musgrove refers to Jemima as “fine-dressing” it is no term of approval.Mrs. Norris is delighted to find that the housekeeper at Sotherton had “turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns.”This again is a question of “fine dressing”; the accessibility of washable cotton was still so recent that the white gowns it made possible were reserved to the upper classes.Ladies’ maids were criticized most often.Traditionally, mistress handed down cast-offs to maid, but the practice was deplored in all books of instruction, since it encouraged servants to ape their betters.Jonas Hanway advised selling the cast-offs rather than wearing them.__"

So Mrs. Norris, by juxtaposing that news item about the dismissed servants at Sotherton with orders to Fanny to perform menial services not asked of Maria or Julia, is warning Fanny, without having to be explicit, that Fanny must not presume herself rising in status because she has been allowed to be of the party to Sotherton--in the end of the day, the wicked "stepmother" is making clear, Fanny is just another version of a servant, who must take care of the cheese.

And we know that the acutely sensitive Fanny hears Mrs. Norris's symbolic warning, and the CInderella symbolism is brought to the fore, when later on, Fanny is given a white gown to wear to the Mansfield ball, but she worries about the implications:

"Now I must look at you, Fanny," said Edmund, with the kind smile of an affectionate brother, "and tell you how I like you; and as well as I can judge by this light, you look very nicely indeed. What have you got on?"

"The new dress that my uncle was so good as to give me on my cousin's marriage. I hope it is not too fine; but I thought I ought to wear it as soon as I could, and that I might not have such another opportunity all the winter. I hope you do not think me too fine."

"A woman can never be too fine while she is all in white. No, I see no finery about you; nothing but what is perfectly proper. Your gown seems very pretty. I like these glossy spots. Has not Miss Crawford a gown something the same?"

Fanny expresses her worries (twice) that it is too fine, but Edmund gives his blessing to Fanny wearing the white gown of privilege, and so Fanny, like Cinderella at the ball, is permitted to be happy, if only for one magical evening.

And it is not just in JA's Letter 29 and in MP that we see this coded usage of "white gown", the third instance is in Northanger Abbey, and it is very droll:

"Mrs. Allen," said Catherine the next morning, "will there be any harm in my calling on Miss Tilney today? I shall not be easy till I have explained everything."

"Go, by all means, my dear; only put on a white gown; Miss Tilney always wears white."

Translation: For all that Mrs. Allen seems to many to be an empty headed fashionista, what she is saying to Catherine, in shrewd code, is that Catherine should be sure to assert her own equal status with Eleanor Tilney, by wearing the same white gown of privilege that Eleanor, the de facto mistress of the great Northanger Abbey, _always_ wears.

In addition to the pleasure of seeing this poignant message in these three heretofore never connected passages in JA's writing---two from novels and one from a letter---I assert that this is a quintessential example of the Jane Austen Code---how JA was consistent over a long period of time (Letter 29 being written in early 1801, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Northanger Abbey, begun around the same time as Letter 29 was written, but last revised as late as 1816) in her usage of coded symbolism--and always, always, about the plight, vulnerability, and forced helplessness of the English gentlewoman lacking financial resources, whether it be Fanny Price as the niece/servant of Mansfield Park, or CEA & JA, as the aunts/servants of Godmersham Park, or as the evictees from Steventon like the Dashwood sisters, who must endure the gloating of the privileged vultures who swoop in for some easy pickins' from the "carcass" of the Austen family at Steventon.

Oh, if only JA and CEA could have avoided turning into permanent pumpkins at the end of the "ball", unlike Fanny and Catherine, who each endure a brief banishment before being magically restored to their white gownishness.

Cheers, ARNIE

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