The other day, I began looking into the allusions to Sir Walter Scott's famous and wildly successful 1805 poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, in Chapter 9 of Mansfield Park, when the heroine Fanny Price and her cousin Edmund Bertram are entering the chapel at Sotherton, the great estate of the Rushworth family:
"They entered. Fanny's imagination had prepared her for something grander
than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion:
with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany,
and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family
gallery above. "I am disappointed," said she, in a low voice, to Edmund.
"This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing
melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions,
no banners. No banners, cousin, to be 'blown by the night wind of heaven.'
No signs that a 'Scottish monarch sleeps below.'"
"You forget, Fanny, how lately all this has been built, and for how
confined a purpose, compared with the old chapels of castles and
monasteries. It was only for the private use of the family. They have been
buried, I suppose, in the parish church. There you must look for
the banners and the achievements."
"It was foolish of me not to think of all that; but I am disappointed." END QUOTE
What's particularly interesting here, and I suspected as much, is how JA
tweaks the text she alludes to, by changing a word here, a word there. I
knew that it would be worth the effort to unravel the tangled threads of
this allusion, and I hope you all will agree.
First, here are the transformations from Scott's original to Austen's
Full many a scutcheon and banner riven,
SHOOK TO the COLD night-wind of heaven,
Around the screenëd altar's pale;
No banners, cousin, to be 'BLOWN BY by the night wind of heaven.'
I.e., Scott's banners shake in the cold night wind, while Austen's are
blown in (no temperature specified) the night wind.
Then, as Deb pointed out, Scott's "A Scottish monarch SLEPT below"
becomes Austen's "No signs that a 'Scottish monarch SLEEPS below.'"
Factually speaking, Jane Austen did exactly this sort of slight
misquotation over and over and over again in her novels and also, as I
recall, in the letters, too. I haven't gone back to collect them all in
one place (yet), but I am certain there are between a half dozen and a
dozen of them altogether.
Now, JA could (as the conventional wisdom would assert) have simply been
misremembering slightly, and was not concerned with 100% exactness of
quotation, as it was--so the conventional wisdom would
suggest---irrelevant to the telling of her stories.
As always, I have the same initial response, which is that Jane Austen
was obsessively meticulous about the tiniest of details, in regard to
all aspects of her writing, including most of all the hidden calendars
which undergird the action of all her novels. So why would she suddenly
lapse into slovenly workmanship in her quotations? And as these
misquotations occur in pretty much all the novels, it is also not
convincing to suggest that these errors are the work of the printers,
errors which JA for some mysterious reason overlooked while
proofreading--even though literary quotations would, you'd think, be the
parts of the text that JA would be most vigilant in correcting!
And as it happens, I suggest that there's an extra reason for
asserting that errors in quotation of famous lines from literature would
not be accidental in JA's writing. JA lived just before the advent of
the mass publishing era, a time when great libraries were rare, and lots
of literati routinely memorized significant quantities of the literary
canon as part of their classical education.
So an error in a line in Scott's very famous (and relatively short) poem
would be a particularly egregious error, the kind that would make a
knowledgeable reader wince in embarrassment for JA's carelessness.
Is that your Jane Austen? It's sure not mine! What I see, again, is JA
playing literary possum, adopting the persona of a female writer who
could not be expected to be quite up to the task of exact quotation, as
a male writer could be expected to be. After all, the writer is only a
lady, what do you expect?
That's my Jane Austen, a snake in the literary grass, smiling to
herself at her ability to run free under the radar of the men reading
her novels, who underestimate her abilities.
But now on to the substance of these two misquotations from Scott's
poem. My previous analysis of all those examples of misquotations, a
list to which I now add these two linked misquotations, has long since
shown me that these seemingly "trivial" "errors" are always anything
but--they are actually precisely calibrated alterations, designed to
function as clues to some concealed meanings that the reader is meant to
So, in this case, what could these alterations of Scott's poem mean?
Here's an opening shot on them.
First, Fanny's recall of Scott's lines in Stanza 10 represents a clear
neutralizing of Scott's powerful imagery. Scott's banners shaking to the
cold wind sound very ominous, as though the banners were quaking in
fear--and then add to that the image of shivering in the cold. Totally
spooky Gothic atmosphere, that is the overwhelming mood of that portion
of Scott's poem whence the quotations are both taken.
But from Fanny's version, one gets none of that sense of the ominous and
fearful. Indeed, one could imagine a night wind of heaven (as opposed to
hell) as being pretty benign, unthreatening, even balmy---sort of like a
flag blowing in the breeze at a night game in a baseball stadium. No big
deal, simply an object of sensual and visual beauty, like one of Fanny's
So, Fanny seems to be ambivalent about her "Catherine Morland Moment"
(as Diana put it), and therefore blunts her initial yearning toward the
Gothic by diluting the Gothic from dense soup into very thin gruel, so
to speak. Quintessential behavior for the deeply repressed Fanny. So
far so good, we can see a thematic basis for the changing of words.
As for the misquotation from Stanza 12, that is really interesting, when
you think about it--by turning Scott's "slept" into "sleeps", it brings
the reader away from Scott's tale, which harks back to the distant
history of Scotland, to the "present" time in MP, i.e., during the
action of the novel--and it leads to the very interesting
question---who, among the characters of MP, might fit the description of
a currently sleeping monarch? This turns out to be a very fruitful
line of inquiry.
Of course, the first candidate would be Mrs. Bertram, who seems to sleep
her way through most of the novel! At least, that is, until she is
confronted with the crisis of Tom's near-fatal illness and Maria's
elopement with Crawford! But during the Sotherton visit, Lady Bertram is
still in her standard half-comatose mode.
But wait---isn't Sir Thomas the first person you'd think of as a
"monarch" in MP? So, is Fanny's poetic imagination thinking of him, at
the time of the Sotherton visit, "sleeping" (shades of Eve in Milton's
Paradise Lost) far far away in Antigua, unsuspecting, while the
"serpent" Henry Crawford insinuates his way into Sir Thomas's eldest
daughter, Maria Bertram's....heart?
But wait again. Fanny is making these quotations while in the chapel at
Sotherton, not Mansfield Park--so what about Mrs. Rushworth, who, after
all, is the reigning "monarch" of Sotherton? Does Fanny see her as also
sleeping while Crawford, right under Mrs. Rushworth's nose, so to speak,
does his devilish work, which will ultimately lead to the destruction of
her son's marriage to Maria? And....Mrs. Rushworth is also a widow,
just like the Lady of Branksome Castle, the vengeful widow who sends
Delomaine on his scary nighttime mission to retrieve the wizard's magic
book, in order to exact her revenge!
And, while we're imagining Fanny imagining Mrs. Rushworth, let's see
whether we can map more of Scott's poem onto Mansfield Park. Is there
some sort of backstory between the Rushworths and the Bertrams, unknown
to Fanny but well known to the elder generation (including Mrs. Norris,
of course), which involved the same kind of Montague-Capulet family feud
that is the spine of Scott's poem? That would turn the carefully
choreographed courtship of Maria Bertram by Mr. Rushworth into an act
with the potential to stir up long buried antagonisms---the proverbial
sleeping dogs, if you will--between two great families in the
Now I think, we're getting pretty close to what JA was about when she
had Fanny misquote Scott...... All of these readings have some sense.
But, speaking of sleeping dogs, two other interpretations also spring
to my mind upon further examination, which bring all of my
interpretations full circle back upon themselves, in the kind of dense
web of allusion that JA, the master literary craftsperson, revelled in
First, focusing on the slept/sleeps transformation from Scott's Stanza
12, we repeatedly read in MP about how Fanny cries herself to
sleep--sleep in her attic seems at various times to be Fanny's only safe
haven during much of the action of the novel. So, it makes it
interesting that Fanny recalls a line of Scott's involving sleeping.
And taking that same line of inquiry one step further, there are two
usages of the word "slept" (Scott's past tense, i.e.) in all of MP, and
both of them, remarkably--indeed, extraordinarily---do not refer to a person sleeping, as would be expected in a realistic novel, written in
JA's famously coolly rational, temperate prose, but to feelings or perceptions anthropomorphized, as if we were reading......poetry!:
Ch. 16: "He went; but there was no reading, no China, no composure for
Fanny. He had told her the most extraordinary, the most inconceivable,
the most unwelcome news; and she could think of nothing else. To be
acting! After all his objections—objections so just and so public! After
all that she had heard him say, and seen him look, and known him to be
feeling. Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent! Was he not
deceiving himself? Was he not wrong? Alas! it was all Miss Crawford's
doing. She had seen her influence in every speech, and was miserable.
THE DOUBTS AND ALARMS as to her own conduct, which had previously
distressed her, and WHICH HAD ALL SLEPT WHILE SHE LISTENED TO HIM, were
become of little consequence now. This deeper anxiety swallowed them up.
Things should take their course; she cared not how it ended. Her cousins
might attack, but could hardly tease her. She was beyond their reach;
and if at last obliged to yield—no matter—it was all misery now."
So Fanny's doubts and alarms about whether she herself should act in
Lovers Vows are seen by her as having "slept"!
And now, the other usage of "slept" in MP:
Ch. 46: "She was deep in other musing. The remembrance of her first
evening in that room, of her father and his newspaper, came across her.
No candle was now wanted. The sun was yet an hour and half above the
horizon. She felt that she had, indeed, been three months there; and the
sun's rays falling strongly into the parlour, instead of cheering, made
her still more melancholy, for sunshine appeared to her a totally
different thing in a town and in the country. Here, its power was only a
glare: a stifling, sickly glare, serving but to bring forward STAINS AND
DIRT THAT MIGHT OTHERWISE HAVE SLEPT. There was neither health nor
gaiety in sunshine in a town. She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in
a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls,
marked by her father's head, to the table cut and notched by her
brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups
and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in
thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy
than even Rebecca's hands had first produced it. Her father read his
newspaper, and her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual,
while the tea was in preparation, and wished Rebecca would mend it; and
Fanny was first roused by his calling out to her, after humphing and
considering over a particular paragraph: "What's the name of your great
cousins in town, Fan?" "
Note that in both of these passages, we are deeply internal inside
Fanny's mind and heart, as she is lost in reverie in both instances.
Both are moments of great distress for Fanny, during which she feels
betrayed or beset by her feelings and perceptions--in the former case,
her doubts and alarms about acting in the play are almost like fierce
dogs protecting a mythical castle, in the latter the filth of her
ancestral home attacks her like sleeping dogs awakened into fierce attack.
Fanny Price is a lover of poetry, and JA, with her extraordinary gift
for weaving allusions into the innermost fabric of her characters's
souls, demonstrates, without ever using the word "poetry", how deeply
poetic Fanny's soul really is.
And, needless to say, perhaps, after all of the above, it tells us of
the depths of Jane Austen's own poetic soul, that she would respond to
Scott's poem in such a rich, complex, suggestive, even audacious way,
and yet, leave only two "winks" on the surface of her text, which must
be recognized as wormholes into the web of poetic allusion that JA has
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Thursday, January 24, 2013
Fanny Price's Poetic Soul: Her Two Misquotations of Scott's Lay of the Last Mistrel
Posted by Arnie Perlstein at 12:03 PM
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