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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Representations of the Austen Family in Mansfield Park

In Janeites and Austen L, Diane Reynolds wrote the following earlier today:

"I find it interesting that James died only a few years after Jane Austen and that Henry knew by autumn, 1817 that James was, in fact, dying. I wonder if it was a similar malady, given that the Addison disease diagnosis for JA is speculative. Henry does sound like Mary Crawford ..."

Yes, Diane, Henry Austen does sound like Mary Crawford when he licks his chops at the prospect of another person's death giving him a benefit, but otherwise, the better fit, to me, for Henry Austen is Edmund Bertram, not Mary Crawford.

Edmund, as I have often written, is very much a self-deceiving hypocrite and spineless weasel, and it is in fact he who _actually_ benefits from the death of another clergyman, which allows him to suddenly and conveniently succeed to a lucrative living. And, also like Henry Austen's deathly fantasy, it is not a stranger who dies, it is someone well known to him--Dr. Grant, the longtime clergyman at Mansfield Park, and the _brother_ (in law) of the woman Edmund wanted to marry.

And here's the best (or worst) part---the woman Edmund wanted to marry is of course Mary Crawford, who is, as everyone knows, strongly modeled on Eliza Hancock Austen, Henry Austen’s  first wife, who died just before JA began to write Mansfield Park! (and, as I've suggested before, that means Admiral Crawford is modeled on Warren Hastings!)

So, no wonder Henry Austen made such a big deal in his Biographical Notice that Jane Austen did not have real people in mind when she wrote her characters--it was his life most of all which was on display in MP!

Jane Austen was a true mentalist, she had everyone around her pegged...

Speaking of which, I was thinking some more about the two Mrs. Norrises, and realized how it relates to this modeling of MP's characters on the Austen family:

Who are the two Mrs. Norrises?

First, the bad one we all know; and

Second, the good one of whom Anielka Briggs gave the world its first glimpse a few years ago.

Then I, two weeks ago, added another significant wrinkle, and some strong textual underpinning,  to that glimpse, when I wrote, in relevant part, about Mrs. Norris channeling the good Cottager's Wife from Lover's Vows, when Mrs. Norris chimes in to pressure Fanny to play that very same part:

"If we merely go by the words she speaks and their apparent literal meaning, then Mrs. Norris is being horrible to Fanny, trying to make her feel guilty about something that should be Fanny’s perfect right as a young adult with a mind of her own; i.e., not to perform in a play if it would be upsetting for her to do so, as would clearly be the case here.
But…if we go by the effect of what Mrs. Norris says, it takes on a whole different meaning. Or, put another way, in light of Michael Chwe’s new book Jane Austen Game Theorist, what if we look at Mrs. Norris as being concerned only with the outcome or end she achieves for Fanny, regardless of the means Mrs. Norris has to employ, thinking outside the box, in order to achieve it.
In this case, the effect of Mrs. Norris’s intervention is immediate and decisive. The rest of the family backs off at once, and leaves Fanny in peace. And then they don’t revisit it again for a while—and then, only re-present the request to Fanny in a blunted form that Fanny actually can tolerate—even though she never does wind up having to do it at all—but I think Fanny has Tom to thank for that, not Mrs. Norris.
So in the end of the day, in a strange way, Mrs. Norris has “saved” Fanny—and is willing not only to be thanked for it ten thousand times, but to be thought of very badly by the rest of the family for her ogre-like behavior toward Fanny.
And doesn’t that make Mrs. Norris a great deal like the selfless, generous Cottager’s Wife in Lovers Vows? And that, I suggest, is exactly what Jane Austen was “telling” us by having Mrs. Norris speak the very same words that Cottager’s Wife spoke! And then adding to the juicy covert irony of it all, by having Mrs. Norris echo Cottager’s Wife in the very words Mrs. Norris speaks which enable Fanny to avoid playing the role she so desperately seeks to avoid playing, that of Cottager’s Wife!" END OF QUOTE FROM MY OWN PRIOR BLOG POST

And that brings me to the Austen family business in all of this---this dichotomy between two alternative versions of Mrs. Norris can be related directly to the Austens in a very intriguing way.

First, the bad Mrs. Norris is Mary Lloyd Austen, who marries a clergyman, and abuses Fanny Price (representing Anna Austen) the girl who is brought under her care at a young age.


Second, the good Mrs. Norris is Jane Austen, who is unmarried, who occasionally says bad things about her niece (again, Anna Austen), but who does it for that niece's benefit--as I have previously suggested, JA several times wrote judgmental things about Anna Austen in letters to Fanny Knight, but JA did this so that Fanny would not be jealous of Anna, and therefore Fanny, the heiress, would be nicer to Anna when Jane was dead and could no longer watch out for Anna.

Boy, Jane Austen's acumen, imagination and foresight were all unsurpassed!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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