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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fanny Price's Poetic Soul: Her Two Misquotations of Scott's Lay of the Last Mistrel

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 (mis)quotation:

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 sleuth out.

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 transparencies.

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 neighbourhood?

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 creating.

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 spun.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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