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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

P.S. re the Lesbian Vibe Between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park

Following up on my two recent posts about the lesbian subtext of Mansfield Park....

....I have engaged in a couple of friendly adversarial rounds on this topic with my good friend Diana Birchall in Austen-L.

Here is the first of those rounds:

Diana: "Actually, reading what you say about the lesbian subtext, I agree with most of it."


Diana: "I can't buy the Rozema-ized view of Fanny and Mary C. "doing it." "

But in the Rozema film, they don't "do it" at all! There is just a strong erotic mood projected in the theatrical scene and also in the wet clothes scene, with ambiguous touching.  In my opinion, Rozema exactly captures the charged ambiguity of those scenes in the novel text.  It's Henry and Maria whom Rozema shows as "doing it", and I think that is completely justified by the real subtext in the novel. I think Rozema shows a Mary who is ready, willing and even eager to get it on with Fanny, but Fanny is just....Fanny, and so nothing actually happens beyond the charged atmosphere.

Diana: "I disagree that Fanny is sexually attracted to Mary, I don't think she is one bit,... "

Then that is where we must agree to disagree, because I strongly believe that the text implies Fanny's unconscious attraction at several places scattered through half the novel. By my own "scale" of sureness, I rate this subtext very high--i.e., as close to certain as a subtext can be.

Diana: "...but I very much like what you say about Mary trying "to stoke the libidinal fires in Fanny as high as possible, the better to soften Fanny up for brother Henry, when he makes his charm assault." That makes perfect sense, and is very good."

Again, excellent!

Diana: "But I don't think serpentine Mary succeeds with Fanny."

Well, in my estimation, Mary doesn't succeed in achieving physical union with Fanny, but she comes damned close to stealing Fanny's heart and soul without Fanny's being aware of what is happening. It's the greatest achievement in the novel, in my opinion, the gossamer delicacy of their complicated relationship, it shimmers with ambiguity and rich depths subliminally explored.  Love-hate does not begin to describe it, from Fanny's perspective --it's more of a rainbow of shades of feeling, positive and negative. In some ways, Mary is the only person in the novel who really understands and genuinely empathizes with Fanny's suffering. But of course, Mary's darker side tends to negate her good side. A masterpiece of characterization.

Diana: "I did read Mentxaka's article very carefully and found much to admire. It's possible that the problem is merely semantic here. There are all sorts of subtle possible variations and implications, that slapping a "lesbian" label onto what's being discussed is unfortunate, misleading and sensational. "

Glad you enjoyed her article, I think her writing and her analysis are both firstrate. As for the label, I'm afraid I must disagree with you again, I think "lesbian" describes it perfectly, and I see nothing whatsoever that is sensationalized about it--I think it's lovely that JA managed to hide a subliminal non-physical homoerotic lesbian relationship in plain sight in the center of her novel. Just an amazing achievement.

Ironically, the real sins of many ideology-driven lesbian literary studies, which have tried to fit many inappropriate fictional texts into a lesbian Procrustean bed, have obscured the fact that this specific lesbian subtext in MP is entirely real and entirely intentional  on JA's part, and is, as Mentxaka so UN-jargonically explains, all over the place in the text of the novel, requiring only the translation of wordplay into actual literal meaning. 

And here is the second round between me and Diana this morning:

Diana:  "Yes please! I am sick to death of the banging away at the tired old lesbian interpretations."

Diana, lesbian interpretations of the novels themselves, based on close reading of the texts of the novels themselves, are neither tired nor old. Now that i see what I see in the texts of P&P, MP, and Emma, vis a vis lesbian subtext, It is an appalling reflection of the critical homophobia that prevailed exclusively until the late Seventies, and still is firmly in place, that it took so long for such interpretations to pop up at all. And look at how cuckoo Austenworld went when Terry Castle dared to suggest that JA might possibly maybe have had some lesbian orientation in her personal life---that says so much more about the mentality of those responding critics than it does about Castle or her suggestions.

And as to choosing between heterosexual and homosexual interpretations of the novels, it is my central claim that Austen does not ask her readers to choose between them! Instead, like the acute and honest human naturalist that she was, she gives the knowing reader both of those realities in the same text, like a figure/ground image---as if to say, in so many words, both of these readings are possible, so when you go about your business in the world, don't assume either one automatically as a default interpretation of woman in your world like Charlotte Lucas or Mary Crawford, because both such types of women are out there in the world, and you need to be acute and aware in order to determine which one might apply in a given real world instance.

And finally, as to your choice of words, "banging away", well....I will leave it to the Freudians to figure that one out....  

Diane:  "Yes, it's a good catch of Arnie's that the lesbian-associated Sneyd name is introduced in a Mary Crawford scene, and I do agree that Jane Austen made some subtle touches to indicate that Mary Crawford, trying to seduce Fanny over to her brother's side, used some serpentine wiles. She also may have been making Sapphic allusions in that conversation to pique and interest the sophisticated Tom, whom at that point she would still consciously like to attract. The allusions would go completely over Fanny's head. Mary is the temptress of the book, and definitely a poisoned apple, but I think Fanny resists her and staunchly supports a starched (and unquestionably heterosexual) morality."

Thanks for what you do acknowledge as to Mary, but as to Fanny I say instead that she actually goes into a kind of homophobic panic when she begins to find herself attracted to Mary as more than just a platonic friend. And that is the engine that fuels Fanny's frantic attempts to stuff down what she is feeling toward Mary, far far away from conscious awareness. This is Freud 101, the war inside Fanny Price between her awakening sexuality, which is not exclusively focused on either male or female, on the one hand, and her fierce, unforgiving homophobic superego, an internalization of the worst aspects of Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas, on the other.

Viewed through that lens, I consider that a brilliant literary achievement on JA's part, and about a century ahead of its time in the timeline of world literature.

Diane: "I certainly don't buy that some whiffs of lesbian subtext attached to Mary's wiles or Emma's immature relationship with Harriet, indicate that Jane Austen's own orientation was anything other than heterosexual. As for the evidence of her life, to choose not to marry, to have beloved women friends as the closest people in one's life, only indicates to me that (as with many of my friends) marriage didn't happen for her. There are indications in other women authors' lives that they were sexually drawn to women (such as Louisa May Alcott saying she had been in love with so many pretty girls) but no evidence of this exists in Austen, and quite a good deal to show that, at least in youth, she was attracted to and excited by men. The modern feminist academic portrayal of her as a bluestocking with women friends and therefore part of a literary lesbian community I don't buy either: bluestocking, women friends, yes; lesbian-oriented, no sign of it in my eyes. I think Martha Lloyd was more interested in recipes than the love that dare not speak its name. None of the arguments have convinced me, and if that makes me an old pussycat Janeite who thinks she's really a sweet tea cozy romantic novelist, well, I'm not, I only choose not to twist things around for the sake of literary and political fashion. "

Diana, you will also search in vain in my recent comments, and in Mentxaka's article, for more than a word or two by either her or me as to Jane Austen's own sexual orientation. Both Mentxaka and I were heavily and exclusively focused on the actual words in the text of MP itself, and in showing how those words beg to be readily be interpreted to be pointing to a heavy lesbian sexual tension between Mary and Fanny, which, as far as I can discern, was never acted physically.

Having said that, personally, at this moment, I think that there was some real sexual tension in the air between JA and Martha Lloyd, and also between JA and Ann Sharp, that might well have been consummated physically at some point. After all, JA was a living breathing woman, why would anyone assume that she was content to live out her life without ever experiencing sex with another person? It seems a ridiculous assumption to me.

But we'll truly never know for sure one way or the other, so I stake my position at the very safe assertion that at the very least JA paid enormous and careful attention to lesbian (and, to a lesser extent, also gay) attraction, showing herself to be a fair reporter of the total social reality she witnessed in the field in her world, and courageously refusing to omit any significant part of that human comedy because it was considered a terrible breach of the homophobic standards set by the powers that were. Not my Jane Austen.

And I am sure we will have a few more rounds to go between we have exhausted the topic.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.  And here is some more from Austen L, between me and Nancy Mayer:

Nancy: "Women have  lived celibate lives ever since the beginning of time. There are many to day who are celbate from choice  who are no even in a religious order. Men have voluntarily given up  sexual intercourse as well. There are also those who are not highly sexed and  do not feel strong sexual attraction to either men or women. One can live without physical sex. "

Nancy, my point was that any a priori assumption about JA one way or the other, based on the skimpy facts available, is ridiculous.  I do not assume that JA was a practicing lesbian, and I do not assume that she was a practicing celibate for life.

I do however take strong notice of all the lesbian subtext in her novels, and also of the lesbian subtext in her letters, which I and others have commented on during our group read of the letters, and so that makes me tilt somewhat toward the notion that JA was very much involved in a lesbian subculture, and so that would tilt me further toward thinking she did engage in lesbian sex at some times or other during her life, especially after taking up residence in 1809 at Chawton Cottage, where such sexual behavior could have been discreetly and conveniently pursued.

Just think about the following scene in Chapter 26  of Emma:

"The appearance of the little sitting-room as they entered, was tranquillity itself; Mrs. Bates, deprived of her usual employment, slumbering on one side of the fire, Frank Churchill, at a table near her, most deedily occupied about her spectacles, and Jane Fairfax, standing with her back to them, intent on her pianoforte. "

What if this is a veiled representation of scenes that might have occurred at Chawton Cottage, when Cassandra unexpectedly returned to the cottage, and found Mrs. Austen slumbering by the fire, Martha occupied with Mrs. Austen's spectacles, and JA herself standing by her pianoforte?  Food for thought!

You, on the other hand, do seem to assume from the get-go that JA was celibate, because it would be so horrifying to conventional sensibilities to imagine that she was not.  That doesn't strike me as a very objective or scientific approach to the actual data.

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