(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mansfield Park, Shakespeare, and Letters 127-130: A Grand Matrix of Briliant, Witty Allusion by Jane Austen

I’ve been…thinking…some more about my last post….

…in which I (1) reiterated my 2009 claim that Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, alluded significantly to Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida (T&C);  and (2) stated my new claim that Olivia Manning, the great 20th century English novelist, was obsessed with Jane Austen; and in particular that Manning picked up on, and covertly extended, JA’s veiled allusion to T&C in MP, in her own novel Fortunes of War.

I just revisited my prior posts about JA’s allusions to T&C, which I linked to in my above post, and am very glad I did, because now for the first time I see how JA’s allusion to T&C in MP is directly connected to JA’s famous allusion to The Merchant of Venice in the following passage in Letter 127:

"I have been listening to dreadful Insanity.--It is Mr. Haden's firm belief that a person not musical is fit for every sort of Wickedness."—I ventured to assert a little on the other side, but wished the cause in abler hands."

I will now walk you through this direct connection between MP and Letter 127 (and the three letters which immediately follow it) via two of Shakespeare’s problem plays, step by step, so you can savor the way it all hangs together so (to use Fanny Price’s word) harmoniously, once it’s laid out for you in the proper sequence.

I will make sense, for the first time, of what has up till now been, for all Austen scholars who have taken note of it, a cryptic, inexplicable literary allusion, but which I will show makes perfect sense, when viewed through the proper literary lens. If you’ll invest the time to read 3,000 of my words, I promise I’ll deliver a compelling explanation in return.

First, here is the relevant passage in MP, in Chapter 11:

“…Fanny turned farther into the window; and Miss Crawford had only time to say, in a pleasant manner, "I fancy Miss Price has been more used to deserve praise than to hear it"; when, being earnestly invited by the Miss Bertrams to join in a glee, she tripped off to the instrument, leaving Edmund looking after her in an ecstasy of admiration of all her many virtues, from her obliging manners down to her light and graceful tread.
"There goes good-humour, I am sure," said he presently. "There goes a temper which would never give pain! How well she walks! and how readily she falls in with the inclination of others! joining them the moment she is asked. What a pity," he added, after an instant's reflection, "that she should have been in such hands!"
Fanny agreed to it, and had the pleasure of seeing him continue at the window with her, in spite of the expected glee; and of having his eyes soon turned, like hers, towards the scene without, where all that was
solemn, and soothing, and lovely, appeared in the brilliancy of an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods. Fanny spoke her feelings. "Here's HARMONY!" said she; "here's repose! Here's what may leave all painting and all MUSIC behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here's what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on SUCH A NIGHT AS THIS, I feel as if there could be neither WICKEDNESS nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by CONTEMPLATING SUCH A SCENE."
"I like to hear your enthusiasm, Fanny. It is a lovely night, and they are much to be pitied who have not been taught to feel, in some degree, as you do; who have not, at least, been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal."
"You taught me to think and feel on the subject, cousin."
"I had a very apt scholar. There's Arcturus looking very bright."
"Yes, and the Bear. I wish I could see Cassiopeia."
"We must go out on the lawn for that. Should you be afraid?"
"Not in the least. It is a great while since we have had any star-gazing."
"Yes; I do not know how it has happened." The glee began. "We will stay till this is finished, Fanny," said he, turning his back on the window; and as it advanced, she had the mortification of seeing him advance too, moving forward by gentle degrees towards the instrument, and when it ceased, he was close by the singers, among the most urgent in requesting to hear the glee again.
Fanny SIGHED alone at the window till scolded away by Mrs. Norris's threats of catching cold. “ 

And now, here is the alluded-to passage in The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, beginning of Scene 1:

Belmont. Avenue to PORTIA'S house. Enter LORENZO and JESSICA

LORENZO: The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
                     When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
                     And they did make no noise, in such a night
                     Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
                     And sigh'd his soul toward the Grecian tents,
                    Where Cressid lay that night.
JESSICA:    In such a night
                    Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dew
                    And saw the lion's shadow ere himself
                    And ran dismay'd away.
LORENZO: In such a night
                     Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
                     Upon the wild sea banks and waft her love
                     To come again to Carthage.
JESSICA:      In such a night
                      Medea gather'd the enchanted herbs
                      That did renew old AEson.
LORENZO:   In such a night
                       Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew
                       And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
                       As far as Belmont.
JESSICA:       In such a night
                        Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
                        Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
                        And ne'er a true one.
LORENZO:    In such a night
                        Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrew,
                        Slander her love, and he forgave it her.
JESSICA:        I would out-night you, did no body come;
                        But, hark, I hear the footing of a man.

So, the structure is that of dueling allusions to unfaithful literary lovers. Lorenzo has induced Jessica to elope with him to Belmont, away from her home with her father, Shylock, and now they wittily trade cynical allusions to unfaithful lovers. After some to and fro, Jessica brings that point home when she refers to untrue vows of faith (i.e., lovers’ vows, which is the title, of course, of the play that will shortly be chosen in Chapter 14 for enactment at Mansfield Park), and Lorenzo counters that this is a slander on HIS lover’s vow to her, which he claims is true, and Jessica then calls off the duel without a victor being decided.

Note that the first (and therefore most prominent) allusion brought forward by Lorenzo is to Troilus & Cressida, and it’s clear from all the other allusions to T&C I’ve detected in MP that JA has taken serious note of T&C’s prominence in this scene.

Edmund does not come off well, as Fanny waxes poetic, but Edmund, dull unpoetic clod that he is, does not respond, in part because of his infatuation with Mary. Edmund’s implicit vows to Fanny, based on their strong shared love of art & nature, are, Fanny realizes, false, because even as he shares appreciation for art and nature with Fanny, he is seduced away by Mary’s siren song (and by the way, Ulysses, also a key character in T&C, is the one who avoids the siren’s song). JA ends her Shakespearean allusion with Fanny sighing for Edmund just as (Lorenzo recalls) Troilus sighing for Cressida.

Then after a very brief interlude with Stephano and Laucelot, Lorenzo resumes his wooing, until they are interrupted by Portia and Nerissa’s entrance, and the following is the part that JA alludes to in Letter 127, as I will explain further below:

Exit Stephano
Enter Musicians
[And here is the passage JA alludes to in Letter 127]


I already quoted, earlier in this post, the passage in Letter 127 dated 11/24/15, in which JA has alluded to Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s further verbal jousting. Now I will point you to the passage in JA’s Letter 128, written on 11/26/15, i.e., only two days after Letter 127, which I claim is part and parcel of that same matrix of Shakespearean allusion in MP (published only a year earlier):

“…on the opposite side Fanny & Mr. Haden in two chairs (I believe at least they had two chairs) talking together uninterruptedly. –FANCY THE SCENE! And what is to be fancied next? --Why that Mr. H. dines here again tomorrow. --Mr. H IS READING MANSFIELD PARK for the first time & prefers it to P&P."

So why would JA, vis a vis Mr. Haden, first in Letters 127, be pointing to the latter portion of Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s jousting, and then second in Letter 128, be pointing to MP?  I suggest that JA is jokingly suggesting to CEA (who would have been told long ago by JA about the Shakespearean allusions in MP) that Mr. Haden, the witty, charming apothecary, is being seduced away from JA--who is JA’s true match by reference to wit, mind and soul---by Fanny Knight’s girlish, mindless, soulless physical beauty.

That business about two chairs or one chair is classic JA irony, suggesting that Haden and Fanny are practically sitting on top of each other in the same chair!

And note that Haden has, at JA’s prompting, been reading MP, so that tells us that JA and Haden have been discussing MP already, hence JA’s allusion to MP (via The Merchant of Venice) in Letter 127.  

JA is in effect saying to CEA that she was discussing MP with Haden, and that JA was joking with Haden that he was just like Edmund Bertram, and just like Cressida, inconstant and seduced by superficial charms of a young fool, instead of valuing the soulful companionship of a genius, JA herself.

But there’s even more of Fanny, Edmund and Mary lurking in these Haden references in JA’s letters—look at the following passage in Letter 129, dated 12/2/15, written six days after Letter 28:

“…[Mr. Haden] has never sung to us. He will not sing without a pianoforte accompaniment. Mr. Meyers gives his three lessons a week [to Fanny], altering his days and his hours, however, just as he chooses, never very punctual, and never giving good measure. I have not Fanny's fondness for masters, and Mr. Meyers does not give me any longing after them. The truth is, I think, that they are all, at least music-masters, made of too much consequence and allowed to take too many liberties with their scholars' time.”

 It is not apparent from the text of the letter, but the lessons referred to are not piano lessons. Here’s what the late David Selwyn wrote about Mr. Meyers in _Jane Austen and Leisure_ at ppg. 127-8:

“Fanny [Knight] herself took up the harp later [than the piano]…the stimulus to have lessons was an entirely musical one. On a visit to a friend…in 1814, she heard what she described as ‘delicious harp music’, and the experience made her want to learn the harp herself.…[W]hen spending three weeks in London with Henry Austen…, she took the opportunity to have some lessons from a distinguished player, Philip James Meyer…”  

So, into the mix of the already clear allusion to Fanny’s jealousy of Edmund’s being entranced by Mary’s musical gifts (both singing and playing the harp), let’s add the above---JA harps (ha ha) on Fanny’s harp lessons in the midst of discussing Mr. Haden, because, isn’t it clear, JA is hinting that Mr. Haden is similarly entranced with Fanny Knight’s harp-playing!

And as if all of the above were not enough to seal the deal and satisfy even the most skeptical reader, there is yet one MORE Shakespearean allusion hidden in plain sight in Letter 130, and it is in the description of Mr. Haden that immediately precedes the discussion of Mr. Meyer and his harp lessons:

Those who have attempted to interpret the above passage literally were doomed to failure from the start. Obviously, JA is horsing around, writing sophisticated nonsense about Mr. Haden, and, in so doing, surely echoing the sort of sophisticated horsing around that she and he have been engaging in, every time they meet, to their great mutual pleasure.

Let’s now examine that passage through a Shakespearean lens, and it then comes into clear focus.

But there’s another passage in Shakespeare which does not use the same exact words as JA uses to describe Mr. Haden, but which has exactly the same poetic music and rhythm, and (what a big surprise) we find it in Troilus & Cressida, in Alexander’s description of Ajax:

 JA has (wittily) hijacked Shakespeare’s metaphor of a man as a sort of stew with many ingredients added in, and she makes use of Mr. Haden’s being an apothecary to use “spice” in lieu of “sauce”, which shows how opportunistic her wit is, seizing upon whatever is at hand and shaping it to her witty ends.  

And that is the end of my tale of one part of the vast Shakespearean matrix undergirding Mansfield Park, and how JA alluded to it in Letters 127-130 relative to her interactions with Fanny Knight and Mr. Haden.

This shows how JA’s literary allusions were no sterile show of erudition, JA lived and breathed literature, and saw her own life and world through the lens of literature, hence these private epistolary echoes of her published fiction, all informed by her endless love for Shakespeare’s world of imagination, knowledge, and wit.

So what do you all think about the above?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Late as my comment is, I am thinking of how amazing a person she must have been to know, presuming she let you see a little of her genius. She is sorely underappreciated even now and yet - I wonder how many people even with it all explained, can grasp the breadth and depth of her understanding. I imagine she treasured those few people in her life who could.