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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fancy Dancing in Mansfield Park

The recent thread I started in Janeites and Austen L about who dances with the Miss Bingleys, and whether Jane Bennet asks Bingley to prod Darcy to ask Lizzy to dance, at the Meryton assembly, has brought to my mind another instance of wallflowers at a dance in an Austen novel, which is itself a very interesting variation on that theme. Of course I am talking about Tom Bertram vis a vis Fanny Price:

"...[Fanny's] [l]istening and wondering [about Henry Crawford's flirting with Maria and Julia] were all suspended for a time, for Mr. Bertram was in the room again; and though feeling it would be a great honour to be asked by him, she thought it must happen. He came towards their little circle; but instead of asking her to dance, drew a chair near her, and gave her an account of the present state of a sick horse, and the opinion of the groom, from whom he had just parted. Fanny found that it was not to be, and in the modesty of her nature immediately felt that she had been unreasonable in expecting it. When he had told of his horse, he took a newspaper from the table, and looking over it, said in a languid way, "If you want to dance, Fanny, I will stand up with you." With more than equal civility the offer was declined; she did not wish to dance. "I am glad of it," said he, in a much brisker tone, and throwing down the newspaper again, "for I am tired to death. I only wonder how the good people can keep it up so long. They had need be /all/ in love, to find any amusement in such folly; and so they are, I fancy. If you look at them you may see they are so many couple of lovers—all but Yates and Mrs. Grant—and, between ourselves, she, poor woman, must want a lover as much as any one of them. A desperate dull life hers must be with the doctor," making a sly face as he spoke towards the chair of the latter, who proving, however, to be close at his elbow, made so instantaneous a change of expression and subject necessary, as Fanny, in spite of everything, could hardly help laughing at. "A strange business this in America, Dr. Grant! What is your opinion? I always come to you to know what I am to think of public matters." END QUOTE

In revisiting this passage, I was reminded of what I had forgotten, i.e., that Fanny, at first, is actually very eager to dance with Tom. Not because she is attracted to Tom, but because she is genuinely caught up in the excitement of a dance, and she recognizes that he is her only likely chance of getting asked. But then, when he enters and does _not_ ask her right away, her balloon of anticipation immediately deflates, her self-effacing program kicks in in its place, and she flips completely to the other side. The window of opportunity has closed, and so now she declines, because she has realized from Tom's delay, and then his wishy-washy offer to dance, that his heart is not in it at all. Even Fanny has her pride, and indeed, who would want to accept such an invitation?

Of course, this all fits with the notion that Tom is gay, a topic we have discussed in the past, and so, in a sense, Tom's dance back-handed invitation is, I'd assert, a metaphor for his courtship behavior in general (and JA has often exploited the metaphor of dance for courtship, in several of the novels)---Tom goes through the motions, but his heart is definitely not in it, and that is why he is not yet married, even though he is an extremely eligible bachelor. And it also makes me wonder about why JA would then have Knightley echo Tom Bertram in this regard:

"Enscombe however was gracious, gracious in fact, if not in word. [Frank's] wish of staying longer evidently did not please; but it was not opposed. All was safe and prosperous; and as the removal of one solicitude generally makes way for another, Emma, being now certain of her ball, began to adopt as the next vexation Mr. Knightley's provoking indifference about it. Either because he did not dance himself, or because the plan had been formed without his being consulted, he seemed resolved that it should not interest him, determined against its exciting any present curiosity, or affording him any future amusement. To her voluntary communications Emma could get no more approving reply, than, "Very well. If the Westons think it worth while to be at all this trouble for a few hours of noisy entertainment, I have nothing to say against it, but that they shall not chuse pleasures for me.—Oh! yes, I must be there; I could not refuse; and I will keep as much awake as I can; but I would rather be at home, looking over William Larkins's week's account; much rather, I confess.—Pleasure in seeing dancing!—not I, indeed—I never look at it—I do not know who does.—Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward. Those who are standing by are usually thinking of something very different." END QUOTE

But I digress--let's return to the above passage from Mansfield Park. Please note below, that while Tom does not suffer any explicit censure from anyone else for this bit of dodging on his part, he almost suffers karmic consequences, when it appears that he has instead been "dragooned" by Mrs. Norris into a rubber of whist with her, Dr. Grant, and Mrs. Rushworth:

"My dear Tom," cried his aunt soon afterwards, "as you are not dancing, I dare say you will have no objection to join us in a rubber; shall you?" Then leaving her seat, and coming to him to enforce the proposal, added in a whisper, "We want to make a table for Mrs. Rushworth, you know. Your mother is quite anxious about it, but cannot very well spare time to sit down herself, because of her fringe. Now, you and I and Dr. Grant will just do; and though /we/ play but half-crowns, you know, you may bet half-guineas with /him/." END QUOTE

But Tom thinks very fast on his feet:

"I should be most happy," replied he aloud, and jumping up with alacrity, "it would give me the greatest pleasure; but that I am this moment going to dance." Come, Fanny, taking her hand, "do not be dawdling any longer, or the dance will be over."

Fanny was led off very willingly, though it was impossible for her to feel much gratitude towards her cousin, or distinguish, as he certainly did, between the selfishness of another person and his own.

"A pretty modest request upon my word," he indignantly exclaimed as they walked away. "To want to nail me to a card-table for the next two hours with herself and Dr. Grant, who are always quarrelling, and that poking old woman, who knows no more of whist than of algebra. I wish my good aunt would be a little less busy! And to ask me in such a way too! without ceremony, before them all, so as to leave me no possibility of refusing. /That/ is what I dislike most particularly. It raises my spleen more than anything, to have the pretence of being asked, of being given a choice, and at the same time addressed in such a way as to oblige one to do the very thing, whatever it be! If I had not luckily thought of standing up with you I could not have got out of it. It is a great deal too bad. But when my aunt has got a fancy in her head, nothing can stop her." END QUOTE

Aside from this example of Tom's narcissism, as he complains about Mrs. Norris's game-playing, when he should be acknowledging that he was hoist on his own petard of game-playing, that leads to perhaps the most interesting question in this little pas de trois (is there such a thing?) among Tom, Fanny and Mrs. Norris----i.e., whether Mrs. Norris's invitation to Tom to play whist was _itself_ an intentional "dance step" on Mrs. Norris's part, cleverly designed precisely in order to maneuver Tom into actually "taking the lead" (you see how readily the dance metaphor adapts itself to social maneuvering), get off his butt, and actually dance with Fanny.

Why would Mrs. Norris engage in this sort of game, which seems on its face to be for Fanny's benefit, and therefore seems totally out of character for Mrs. Norris, who normally delights in _denying_ privileges to Fanny?

Well, I am reminded of something Anielka Briggs wrote a while back in which she presented another textual example (what was it? I can't recall now) in which Mrs. Norris can also be seen as acting for Fanny's benefit, in a way that _also_ seems totally out of character for Mrs. Norris.

Perhaps these are part of the same long-range dance choreographed by Mrs. Norris, with Fanny as her unwitting "tiny dancer"?

Cheers, ARNIE

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