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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nabokov's true love for Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and its allusive subtexts

I have previously written here on several occasions about my firm belief that Vladimir Nabokov, while he may have projected to the world—including friends and colleagues--a superficial dislike of Jane Austen's writing, was actually an extremely admiring Janeite, who peered deeply and insightfully into the shadows of Austen’s writing, and who even paid her several veiled homages in his own writing (such as Rachel Trousdale wrote a few years back, about the allusions to Mansfield Park in Ada).

Here are two of my most relevant posts in that regard, as background:

Today I revisit this topic, because I happened to come across a passage in Brian Boyd’s 1991 Nabokov: The American Years, as I was following up on a post I wrote earlier today about Jane Austen’s paired allusions in Mansfield Park to Sir Walter Scott’s poem "Lay of the Last Minstrel" in Mansfield Park:

The passage that caught my eye for the first time today was on P.184 of Boyd’s book:

“In late September 1950, Nabokov launched his new course with Mansfield Park. He had students read the works mentioned by the characters in the novel: Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstrel”, Cowper’s “Task”, some of Johnson’s Idler essays, Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, and of course the play that the young folks rehearse at Mansfield Park, Lovers Vows. He also injected as much historical information as he could into the text. All this literary and historical background seems to have been a way of avoiding Austen herself as much as he could, while instilling in his students the need to read with the utmost precision. For although he tried to disguise it in class, Nabokov could never quite warm to the first writer in his course.” END QUOTE

This strikes me as an ill-suited application of reverse psychology to Nabokov’s teaching decisions, when a straightforward explanation would work perfectly fine. I.e., that Nabokov just loved Austen's writing, and in particular loved her allusive subtexts, and so he brought those allusive subtexts into the classroom, the better to study their meaning in the context of Mansfield Park.

To be more specific, Boyd is saying that Nabokov assigned to his students the task of reading not only Mansfield Park itself, but also several of the explicit or otherwise obvious literary sources alluded to in Mansfield Park, because, by this clever subterfuge, Nabokov could therefore spend as little time as possible actually talking too much about Mansfield Park itself, and instead spend more time about those other writers!

Whereas, the far simpler, more direct explanation is that Nabokov, an author who lived and breathed for literary allusions in his own writing----to an extreme extent even when compared to other great writers ---wanted to get across to his students that Jane Austen was a writer very much like Nabokov himself in this crucial aspect! And what better way for him, the master allusionist, to bring that point home to his students than to discuss Austen’s literary sources in relation to Mansfield Park, and to speculate about what Austen might have meant by inserting all those allusions.

Such as, e.g., the allusive subtext that I began to excavate in my above linked post earlier today, in which I speculate about various meanings that Austen may have intended in Fanny Price's allusions to Scott's poem.

But that's not all. Lucky me, I don't have to ride exclusively on the seat of my own pants on this point----look---here's what Nabokov himself wrote in 1950 in his book Lectures on Literature, in the chapter on Mansfield Park:

P. 25: At Sotherton, Fanny’s romantic conception of what a mansion’s chapel should be like is disappointed by ‘a mere spacious oblong room…..” She is disabused, she says in a low voice to Edmund, ‘This is not my idea of a chapel…’Here Fanny is quoting, though a little loosely, the description of a church from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), canto 2:
[10] Full many a scutcheon and banner riven, Shook to the cold night-wind of heaven…
And then comes the urn of the wizard:
[11] The moon on the east oriel shone, Through slender shafts of shapely stone, By foliaged tracery combined…
Various images are painted on the windowpane and
The moon-beam kissed the holy pane, And threw on the pavement a bloody stain.
[12] They sate them down on a marble stone A Scottish monarch slept below…
Etc. The sunlight pattern of Cowper is nicely balanced by the moonlight pattern of Scott.”END QUOTE

This passage in Nabokov's book demonstrates that he had very carefully considered the meaning of Scott's poem, not in isolation, as a way of thinking solely about Scott, but as Scott's poem functions in the subtext of Mansfield Park. And, being a close reader with insight into Austen's creative processes, as I believe Nabokov was, he came up with several useful insights about JA's allusion to Scott, and even went a step further and connected Austen's Scott allusion to Fanny's Price’s transparencies and to Austen’s allusion to William Cowper’s most famous poem, “The Task”.

Now, does all of that sound like a guy who is doing his best to avoid talking about Mansfield Park by bringing the alluded-to writings of other authors besides Jane Austen? It sounds like just the opposite to me!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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