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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

FOLLOWING the c(l)ues to the Lesbian Vibe Between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park

In the realm of sexuality, as depicted in Austen film adaptations, two depictions have drawn the lion's share of controversy during the past few decades, in terms of debates over faithfulness, or lack thereof, to the text of the novels:

1. Colin Firth's wet blouse emerging from the pond at Pemberley in Davies' adaptation of Pride & Prejudice; and

2. The scene in Rozema's Mansfield Park after the dripping wet Frances O'Connor is dried off by the extremely helpful Embeth Davidtz.

In a very recent post, I made a case strongly supporting Davies's depiction of Darcy as actually being too mild in its sexual quotient, compared to the actual but subliminal saturation of the novel text with the sexual tension between Darcy and Elizabeth:

In this post today, I bring to your attention a fantastic new scholarly article about the lesbian subtext in Mansfield Park, and add one little bit of my own icing to that already delicious cake.

The topic of an intentional lesbian vibe between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price has been a flashpoint of controversy since Rozema's 1999 adaptation strongly suggested that very same vibe, along with several other very controversial depictions which I've admired, like Sir Thomas as slave-abusing monster, and Tom Bertram, as sensitive alcoholic due to witnessing his father's atrocities.

I have, since 1999, taking my cue from Rozema on all these points, and then some, and, following up with study of the novel text itself, long been of the opinion that Rozema was 100% spot-on in her depiction of this lesbian theme between Fanny and Mary. Here is a link to my most recent comments on that topic:

So I was thrilled to read, this morning, a new article which provides a fantastic discussion, in great detail, of that lesbian subtext in Mansfield Park, by an extremely insightful Austen scholar, with the complicated name Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka....

" ‘Where She Could Not Follow’ – The Lesbian Subplot in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park"

...which points out several of those characteristic textual "winks" from Jane Austen, the kind which tell the reader who suspects Jane Austen of a covert theme, "Yes, it's really there!"

Here is the passage from Chapter 7 of MP which provided Mentzxaka with the title of her article, and rightly so:

"Having formed [Fanny's] mind and gained her affections, [Edmund] had a good chance of her thinking like him; though at this period, and on this subject, there began now to be some danger of dissimilarity, for he was in a line of admiration of Miss Crawford, which might lead him WHERE FANNY COULD NOT FOLLOW. Miss Crawford's attractions did not lessen. The harp arrived, and rather added to her beauty, wit, and good-humour; for she played with the greatest obligingness, with an expression and taste which were peculiarly becoming, and there was something clever to be said at the close of every air. Edmund was at the Parsonage every day, to be indulged with his favourite instrument: one morning secured an invitation for the next; for the lady could not be unwilling to have a listener, and every thing was soon in a fair train. "

The key words, which Mentzaka seized on, and I've capitalized, are "where Fanny could not follow." The normative reading of those lines is that Fanny, who loves Edmund, therefore could not feel supportive of Edmund's growing attraction to Mary.

But the against-the-grain, subversive reading of that phrase is that Fanny was, like Edmund, _also_ feeling attracted to Mary, but Fanny, being female in a deeply homophobic society, could not follow him down that forbidden garden path, i.e., could not acknowledge and approve of her own growing homoerotic feelings of attraction toward Mary. What attraction? Well, is it just a coincidence that we read, barely a half dozen paragraphs earlier at the beginning of Chapter 7, the following:

"Well, Fanny, and how do you like Miss Crawford now?" said Edmund the next day, after thinking some time on the subject himself. "How did you like her yesterday?"

"Very well—very much. I like to hear her talk. She entertains me; and she is so extremely pretty, that I have great pleasure in looking at her."

So...Fanny has great pleasure in looking at Mary, because Fanny is entertained by Mary's speaking, and, well, gets great pleasure just from looking at the extremely pretty Mary. The plain meaning of these words suggests a more than purely aesthetic, ethereal appreciation of Mary by Fanny, it suggests that Fanny experiences a visceral, emotional response to Mary. A lot, in fact, like the response that Fanny experiences later in the novel, when Henry Crawford initiates and then sustains his own charm offensive, seeking to make a hole in Fanny's heart, and damned near succeeding at it.

The bottom line is that if you read the above quoted passages from Chapter 7 as if the narrator had previously alerted us to possible lesbian feelings of Fanny toward Mary, you'd readily read these passages as strong additional evidence of Fanny's physical attraction to Mary.

Mentxaka also picks up on the lesbian significance of the following passage in Chapter 18 (which I believe Rozema also picked up on in her adaptation?), in which Mary asks Fanny to rehearse with Mary, playing a male role to Mary's female role, in a romantic scene from Lovers Vows:

"...[Fanny] worked and meditated in the East room, undisturbed, for a quarter of an hour, when a gentle tap at the door was followed by the entrance of Miss Crawford.
"Am I right? Yes; this is the East room. My dear Miss Price, I beg your pardon, but I have made my way to you on purpose to entreat your help."
Fanny, quite surprised, endeavoured to shew herself mistress of the room by her civilities, and looked at the bright bars of her empty grate with concern.
"Thank you; I am quite warm, very warm. Allow me to stay here a little while, and do have the goodness to hear me my third act. I have brought my book, and IF YOU WOULD BUT REHEARSE IT WITH ME, I should be so obliged! I came here to-day intending to rehearse it with Edmund—by ourselves—against the evening, but he is not in the way; and if he /were/, I do not think I could go through it with him, TILL I HAVE HARDENED MYSELF A LITTLE; for really there is a speech or two. You will be so good, won't you?"
Fanny was most civil in her assurances, though she could not give them in a very steady voice.
"Have you ever happened to look at the part I mean?" continued Miss Crawford, opening her book. "Here it is. I did not think much of it at first—but, upon my word. There, look at that speech, and that, and that. How am I ever to look him in the face and say such things? Could you do it? But then he is your cousin, which makes all the difference. YOU MUST REHEARSE IT WITH ME, that I may fancy you him, and get on by degrees. YOU HAVE A LOOK OF HIS SOMETIMES."
"Have I? I will do my best with the greatest readiness; but I must read the part, for I can say very little of it." etc.....

Fanny is not happy when Edmund interrupts and then quickly takes Fanny's place in the rehearsal, but is this because Fanny is jealous of Edmund, or jealous of Mary? or both?

Anyway, you can read Mentxaka's article for these and many more points supporting her basic claim, but I will add one bit of wordplay which Mentxaka did not notice, but which actually ties together her above-described explications of lesbian subtext in Chapter 7 and in Chapter 18--to wit, when we read in Chapter 7 that "Fanny could not FOLLOW", and then we get to the rehearsal scenes in the Lovers Vows episode, we might just realize that there is an additional pun on the word "follow"---a word which has many shades of meaning in English---one of them has to do with the theatre, i.e., actors "follow", or take their cues from, each other's lines in performance.

So, JA, in her characteristic masterful way, has given this subtle subliminal verbal hint that there is a connection between the scenes in Chapter 7 and Chapter 18, and that connection is the homoerotic attraction that Fanny feels toward Mary, that her rigid prudish sense of propriety does not allow to bubble up into consciousness.

It would not be far-fetched to suggest that JA, in a very Shakespearean way, is implying that gender preference in many people might well be something similar to playing a role in the theatre, a role that can be assumed...and then given up or changed. Food for thought. 

And I hope that you have all enjoyed following the c(l)ues to the lesbian vibe between Mary and Fanny in Mansfield Park!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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