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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, May 9, 2013

P.S. re "I know nothing of the Miss Owens."…. “how can one care for those one has never seen?” And Then There Were…Two

As I often do, I was just rereading the post I sent earlier today under the above the Subject Line (minus the P.S., of course)…..

….looking for errors/typos that might require correction or explanation. Instead what my review led me to do was to take a closer look at the text in Mansfield Park which immediately followed the passage in Chapter 29 which I had quoted in that previous post. And that quickly induced me to write this followup post, focused on the extraordinary, mysterious, infinitely enigmatic Mary Crawford.

Before I quote that additional text from Chapter 29, though, I want to state unequivocally that Mary Crawford has now become my favorite Austen character in terms of the enjoyment I derive from reading her dialog. For her combination of high intelligence, quick wit, brilliant sense of humor, unpretentious erudition, psychological penetration, empathy, poetic flair, and (most of all) bravery to speak inconvenient truth to power, she is unparalleled among all of JA’s literary creatures.

My admiration for Mary’s powers of expression has been growing gradually over the past few years, but it was only today that some threshold was passed in my mind, and I realized, from my close study of what Mary says to Fanny near the end of Chapter 29, that JA must have lavished extraordinary care on the dialog she wrote for Mary (and also, less so, on the verbiage in Mary’s letters to Fanny), breathing into Mary the peak of expressive perfection of what must have been JA’s own extraordinary gifts as a speaker of words. Because how could Mary speak with such an obvious abundance of gifts, if her creator did not first possess those exact same gifts?

Now, is Lizzy Bennet Mary’s equal? Lizzy is pretty hard to top, but I’d say that while Lizzy has a remarkable gift for spontaneous expression, Mary is clearly a much better educated and more sophisticated and insightful young woman than Lizzy, and her speech consistently reflects that superiority. And lets’s say this, I bet the two of them would have had a great time conversing with  each other, there’d be constant gales of laughter erupting out of their sharp repartee, and I bet Lizzy would be a quick study to pick up some hints from Mary in that regard.

And that is part of the challenge of reading Mansfield Park---how not to be utterly seduced by Mary, exactly as Edmund is for most of the novel, entranced by both the music of her speech and her harp (which we can’t hear, of course, but I bet she was an extraordinarily sensitive harpist)? How not to allow Mary’s siren song to put one’s moral critical faculties about her wobbly moral compass on permanent pause?

No wonder so many readers of MP prefer Mary to Fanny, and wish she were the heroine.

Anyway, that qualified encomium finished, let me turn to the rest of that passage, which is filled with interesting tidbits for consideration:   

“….Well, when your cousin comes back, he will find Mansfield very quiet; all the noisy ones gone, your brother and mine and myself. I do not like the idea of leaving Mrs. Grant now the time draws near. She does not like my going."
Fanny felt obliged to speak. "You cannot doubt your being missed by many," said she. "You will be very much missed."
Miss Crawford turned her eye on her, as if wanting to hear or see more, and then laughingly said, "Oh yes! missed as every noisy evil is missed when it is taken away; that is, there is a great difference felt. But I am not fishing; don't compliment me. If I am missed, it will appear. I may be discovered by those who want to see me. I shall not be in any doubtful, or distant, or unapproachable region."
Now Fanny could not bring herself to speak, and Miss Crawford was disappointed; for she had hoped to hear some pleasant assurance of her power from one who she thought must know, and her spirits were clouded again.
"The Miss Owens," said she, soon afterwards; "suppose you were to have one of the Miss Owens settled at Thornton Lacey; how should you like it? Stranger things have happened. I dare say they are trying for it. And they are quite in the light, for it would be a very pretty establishment for them. I do not at all wonder or blame them. It is everybody's duty to do as well for themselves as they can. Sir Thomas Bertram's son is somebody; and now he is in their own line. Their father is a clergyman, and their brother is a clergyman, and they are all clergymen together He is their lawful property; he fairly belongs to them. You don't speak, Fanny; Miss Price, you don't speak. But honestly now, do not you rather expect it than otherwise?"
"No," said Fanny stoutly, "I do not expect it at all."
"Not at all!" cried Miss Crawford with alacrity. "I wonder at that. But I dare say you know exactly—I always imagine you are—perhaps you do not think him likely to marry at all—or not at present."
"No, I do not," said Fanny softly, hoping she did not err either in the belief or the acknowledgment of it.
Her companion looked at her keenly; and gathering greater spirit from the blush soon produced from such a look, only said, "He is best off as he is," and turned the subject.”  END QUOTE

Just read and reread that passage, thinking about what is going through Mary’s mind as she reels off this  succession of short speeches, how quickly she is processing Fanny’s reactions (in that way, very much like Henry Crawford as he works HIS subtle seductions on Fanny), and shifting and turning in response. Especially in that extraordinary final exchange, with Mary’s two interrupted sentences about Fanny’s thoughts and feelings vis a vis Edmund. Mary pays attention to Fanny in a way that no other character in the novel does, and Mary has the powers required in order to understand Fanny’s own riddlingly complex personality.  

And of course, Fanny is no lightweight, as that final paragraph demonstrates. Fanny hopes she does not err in believing Edmund safe from the Miss Owens, and also in trusting Mary with words which, Fanny (rightly) fears, will reveal too much to Mary about Fanny’s deeply closeted personality and soul.

So this whole post is, in a sense, just me saying to all of you, read that passage carefully and see what you get out of it! 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I almost forgot to mention one other point that surely will occur to all Janeites who read the above quoted passage, which is its unmistakable echoing of the following super-famous narration in P&P…

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.  However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

…by Mary’s saying: “Their father is a clergyman, and their brother is a clergyman, and they are all clergymen together He is their lawful property; he fairly belongs to them.”

How JA must have laughed when she wrote those words of Mary’s in 1814, flush with the success of  P&P! Mary’s fertile imagination prompts us to imagine ourselves, for just a moment, in Peterborough (not London as I erroneously wrote in my earlier post) watching Edmund Bertram be seen by the Owen family the same proprietary way Mrs. Bennet sees Mr. Bingley!

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