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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, February 24, 2012

"...complaisant as a sister....careless as a woman and a friend...." and careful as a reader

Yesterday in Austen L, Anielka Briggs wrote the following about a passage in Mansfield Park:

"I've remembered that classic phrase: "......Miss Crawford, complaisant as a sister, was careless as a woman and a friend." Apparently Fanny has worked this out (is this what they call referred speech?) by chapter 26. Very damning isn't it? "careless as a woman and a friend". An interestingly non-feminist approach to Mary Crawford's character: implicit is the suggestion that there are standards expected of friends and women and Mary does not strive to meet these. Particularly interesting to suggest that Mary shows a certain approach to life that Austen terms "careless as a woman". Not "careless as a person and a friend" or "careless as a confidante and a friend" or even "careless as an advisor and a friend". What standards does the author suggest Mary has failed to exhibit that Austen does not expect of men? Of course if you replaced it with a homophone "complacent as a sister...careless as a woman and a friend" it also makes an interesting picture of Lady Bertram or either of the other two Ward sisters. "

I found that to be a very interesting question, and I have just spent an enjoyable hour analyzing, and then writing up, all its little twists and turns. To understand this passage properly, I will show below, we need to read the full context, and we also need to be aware of changes in the meaning of words between JA's time and our own. And I don't agree with Anielka's assertion that this passage is non-feminist.

First re context: Mary has just been deploying every ounce of her considerable wiliness in order to maneuver Fanny into accepting the gift of the necklace, even as Mary has (in her Satanic way) first made sure not only that Fanny was aware that Mary had received that necklace from Henry, but also adds the spicy additional and explicit suggestion that Fanny should think of Henry as well as Mary whenever Fanny subsequently wears the necklace--the better to corrupt Fanny with, my dear, in JA's Gothic fairy tale.

I believe this is also the first time I have noticed that Mary maneuvers Fanny out of her moral scruples and into accepting the gift of the necklace, just as Mary and Henry adeptly maneuvered Edmund out of _his_ moral scruples and into agreeing to take a leading role in Lover's Vows several chapters earlier.

Anyway, that is the immediately preceding context to the following passage which includes the phrase you've quoted:

"Fanny dared not make any farther opposition; and with renewed but less happy thanks accepted the necklace again, for there was an expression in Miss Crawford's eyes which she could not be satisfied with. It was impossible for her to be insensible of Mr. Crawford's change of manners. She had long seen it. He evidently tried to please her: he was gallant, he was attentive, he was something like what he had been to her cousins: he wanted, she supposed, to cheat her of her tranquillity as he had cheated them; and whether he might not have some concern in this necklace—she could not be convinced that he had not, for Miss Crawford, complaisant as a sister, was careless as a woman and a friend. Reflecting and doubting, and feeling that the possession of what she had so much wished for did not bring much satisfaction, she now walked home again, with a change rather than a diminution of cares since her treading that path before." END OF CHAPTER 26

Our first task, I suggest, is to infer what expression Fanny discerns in Mary's eye which Fanny "could not be satisfied with". Upon examination, I believe it can only be some sort of subliminal wink of triumph, as Mary has indeed finessed Fanny into accepting the necklace. Mary wants to make sure that Fanny knows that Mary did all of this finessing entirely intentionally, but also with _total_ deniability. I.e., exactly the same way Mary puns about rears and vices, and exactly the same way that JA layers in her own authorial subliminal meanings in her writing, always with total deniability. Anyway, that is why Fanny's thanks to Mary for the gift of the necklace are "less happy" (translating Fanny-ese into English, "less happy" means "furious and miserable"!) than they were three paragraphs earlier, right _before_ Mary sprang her little trap on Fanny.

Then Fanny reflects on Henry's recent wooing of herself, and (correctly) infers what Henry has already explicitly but privately stated to Mary in Chapter 24, i.e., that he wants to make a hole in Fanny's heart, the same way he previously did this with Maria and Julia. It was no fun cheating Maria and Julia of their tranquility, apparently, because it was just way too easy--Henry is the kind of sociopathic misogynist who only gets his jollies from meeting a really tough wooing challenge! But even as Fanny accurately assesses Henry's motives, I would also suggest that she is not fully aware of just how vulnerable she really is to his charms--but _that_ is a digression for another post at another time.

Getting back on track, that point is what brings us to the phrase in question, about Mary's complaisance and carelessness, when Fanny next skeptically mulls over Mary's disclaimer of Henry's having somehow been part of Mary's little plot to yoke Fanny to Henry via the necklace.

Now, I gathered from what Anielka wrote, quoted above, that she was not aware of the Regency Era meaning of the word "complaisant". The word "complaisant" is uniformly used by JA in MP (and indeed, in _all_ of her novels) synonymously with the way we (in the U.S. of today, at least, I don't know about the modern meaning of this word in other English speaking countries) use the word "compliant" (i.e., _obedient_). That's a very different meaning than our contemporary U.S. meaning of "complacent", which can be "overconfident" or (as you suggested vis a vis Lady Bertram) "overly self-satisfied".

So, using the proper Regency Era meaning, Fanny here is first imagining Mary to be _compliant_ to Henry's orders, and then sets that up in her mind as a direct contrast to Mary's _carelessness_ towards another woman, especially another woman who (like Fanny) was Mary's friend. And that brings us to the _other_ word whose meaning has changed since 1814. The word "careless" is used several times in MP, and I understand it to be more or less opposite in meaning to "complaisant"---i.e., if someone gives you an order, one extreme is to be "complaisant" (compliant) and to fulfill the order without question, whereas the other end of the spectrum of response is to be "careless" (deaf or unheeding), and to ignore the order entirely.

And that brings us to the final point, which is the question of how this analysis fits with my central claim of JA's radical feminism. I believe this passage goes to the heart of JA's feminism, as JA has set up a situation rich in irony on that very issue. Here we have Fanny--who spends the entire novel being extraordinarily compliant to the wishes and orders of just about everybody around her, but who also thrills the world with her Jane Eyreian refusal to bow to Sir Thomas's pressure to accept Henry's proposal---seeing _Mary_--she who takes special delight in repeatedly goring sacred cows of every breed, who portrays herself as her own woman free to flout all conventions and to live as she pleases, regardless of what any man might wish--as the one who takes orders from a man like Mary's brother!

JA is once again pushing the reader into the zone of moral relativism and ambiguity, and challenging us to think about what it is to be a woman in a man's world, what it is to be free of the "chains" that men would place on women, and what better way to dramatize that moral dilemma than to show us Mary (if Fanny is correct in her judgment) acting as Henry's willing panderer, and to show us Fanny struggling to stay out of their Satanic clutches, and perhaps finding that she is not as strong as she thinks herself to be.

This is Jane Austen the sophisticated feminist, examining this grey area of female character and moral judgment, and demonstrating the perils of the life paths of _both_ Fanny _and_ Mary. JA invites those readers careful and curious enough to take the time and effort to decode that passage in Chapter 26, to consider this rich problem, because out of wrestling with same will arise the power to choose a middle path between Fanny and Mary, a path with heart and knowledge where women can navigate between the Scylla of Henry Crawford and the Charybdis of Sir Thomas Bertram, and find happiness and fulfillment.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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