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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mansfield Park’s Allusion to the Bastille Leitmotif in Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1762)

Writing my immediately preceding post about The Flying Books of Morris Lessmore has prompted me to expand upon my earlier post about the Bastille allusion hidden in plain sight in Mansfield Park…

.....which relates directly to what Maria says to Henry:

""...unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. 'I cannot get out,' as the starling said." As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate: he followed her...."

What none of the many Austen scholars who have described the allusion to Sterne's Sentimental Journey (1762) have noted, to the best of my knowledge, is that the context in which the starling yearns for freedom is the very same Bastille (albeit 27 years before it was stormed in 1789) that JA covertly alluded to in MP. As you read the first person account by Sterne's alter ego, Yorick, think about how it relates to the subliminal image of the Bastille as it plays out in Mansfield Park, and then read my additional comments which immediately follow this extended quotation, which is Yorick, as English tourist, considering the possibility of being imprisoned in the Bastille for want of a passport:

"....Eugenius, knowing that I was as little subject to be overburden’d with money as thought, had drawn me aside to interrogate me how much I had taken care for; upon telling him the exact sum, Eugenius shook his head, and said it would not do; so pull’d out his purse in order to empty it into mine.—I’ve enough in conscience, Eugenius, said I.—Indeed, Yorick, you have not, replied Eugenius.—I know France and Italy better than you.—But you don’t consider, Eugenius, said I, refusing his offer, that before I have been three days in Paris, I shall take care to say or do something or other for which I shall get clapp’d up into the BASTILLE, and that I shall live there a couple of months entirely at the king of France’s expense.—I beg pardon, said Eugenius, dryly: really I had forgot that resource.
Now the event I treated gaily came seriously to my door. Is it folly, or nonchalance, or philosophy, or pertinacity—or what is it in me, that, after all, when La Fleur had gone down-stairs, and I was quite alone, I could not bring down my mind to think of it otherwise than I had then spoken of it to Eugenius? —And as for the BASTILLE; the terror is in the word.—Make the most of it you can, said I to myself, the BASTILLE is but another word for a tower—and a tower is but another word for a house you can’t get out of.—Mercy on the gouty! for they are in it twice a year—but with nine livres a day, and pen and ink and paper and patience, albeit a man can’t get out, he may do very well within—at least for a month or six weeks; at the end of which, if he is a harmless fellow, his innocence appears, and he comes out a better and wiser man than he went in.
I had some occasion (I forget what) to step into the courtyard, as I settled this account; and remember I walk’d downstairs in no small triumph with the conceit of my reasoning.—Beshrew the /somber/ pencil! said I vauntingly—for I envy not its powers, which paints the evils of life with so hard and deadly a coloring. The mind sits terrified at the objects she has magnified herself, and blackened: reduce them to their proper size and hue, she overlooks them—’T is true said I, correcting the proposition—the BASTILLE is not an evil to be despised—but strip it of its towers—fill up the fossé—unbarricade the doors—call it simply a confinement, and suppose ’t is some tyrant of a distemper—and not of a man, which holds you in it—the evil vanishes, and you bear the other half without complaint.
I was interrupted in the heyday of this soliloquy, with a voice which I took to be of a child, which complained “it could not get out.”—I look’d up and down the passage, and seeing neither man, woman, or child, I went out without further attention.
In my return back through the passage, I heard the same words repeated twice over; and looking up, I saw it was a starling hung in a little cage.—“I can’t get out—I can’t get out,” said the starling.
I stood looking at the bird: and to every person who came through the passage it ran fluttering to the side towards which they approach’d it, with the same lamentation of its captivity.—“I can’t get out,” said the starling.—God help thee! said I, but I’ll let thee out, cost what it will; so I turn’d about the cage to get to the door; it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces.—I took both hands to it. The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the trellis, press’d his breast against it, as if impatient.—I fear, poor creature! said I, I cannot set thee at liberty.—“No,” said the starling—“I can’t get out—I can’t get out,” said the starling.
I vow I never had my affections more tenderly awakened; or do I remember an incident in my life, where the dissipated spirits, to which my reason had been a bubble, were so suddenly call’d home. Mechanical as the notes were, yet so true in tune to nature were they chanted, that in one moment they overthrew all my systematic reasonings upon the BASTILLE; and I heavily walk’d up-stairs, unsaying every word I had said in going down them.
Disguise thyself as thou wilt, still, slavery! said I—still thou art a bitter draught! and though thousands in all ages have been made to drink of thee, thou art no less bitter on that account.—’T is thou, thrice sweet and gracious goddess, addressing myself to LIBERTY, whom all in public or in private worship, whose taste is grateful, and ever wilt be so, till NATURE herself shall change—no /tint/ of words can spot thy snowy mantle, or chymic power turn thy scepter into iron—with thee to smile upon him as he eats his crust, the swain is happier than his monarch, from whose court thou art exiled—Gracious heaven! cried I, kneeling down upon the last step but one in my ascent, grant me but health, thou great Bestower of it, and give me but this fair goddess as my companion—and shower down thy miters, if it seems good unto thy divine providence, upon those heads which are aching for them." END QUOTE

An additional irony is that the starling was taught his litany by an English owner, but the French people who now hear him cannot understand him.

And then, after posting the above, Diane Reynolds made the following serendipitous comment in Austen L in a thread about the incest theme in Mansfield Park:

"The incest--and more broadly parentage--theme interests me because it was so prevalent in the 18th century literature JA knew. She would have known, I imagine, that Sterne dropped hints that Tristram was Yorick's, not Mr. Shandy's, son. And JA with her sense of fun and play, would have loved working these ideas into her stories. "

That prompted me to reply to her as follows:

Diane, as you will recall, I was just writing yesterday about the Bastille references in Sterne's Sentimental Journey which I believe JA was invoking in Mansfield Park-----and of course, the protagonist of Sentimental Journey is that same Yorick. But I hadn't considered Yorick's presence in SJ as also being connected in JA's mind to Tristram's suspicious paternity--but I think you're absolutely right, that is an additional angle JA would have worked into Mansfield Park as well!

And I am sure you also recall Jane Austen's early and continuing interest in Tristram Shandy and in particular his paternity: [re Uncle Toby's Annuity--I personally think Tristram himself is Uncle Toby's "annuity", and it's interesting that there is a racial undertone in this reference in Letter 39]

Diane: "Further, if Mary and Henry are Creole children of Sir Thomas, how do we know that? We know they have dark hair and eyes and that Henry is described as quite black, or words, to that effect, but couldn't that simply mean dark haired?"

There are benign, safe, proper interpretations of pretty much every one of JA's innuendoes, hints, allusions, etc. Why should these be any different? Of course JA knew that she was writing ambiguously here. I have believed since 2006 that the Crawfords are meant to be seen as Creoles, because it fits so well with all the rest of the enormous Antiguan black hole that exerts its unseen gravity on the story of Mansfield Park.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

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