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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 20, 2013

Answers to my Quiz About Jane Austen’s Veiled (and heretofore totally unsuspected) Allusion: The Devil to Pay in Mansfield Park

Yesterday, I presented five clues about a covert literary allusion to the Devil hiding in plain sight in one of Jane Austen’s novels, an allusion which I had never detected before (nor, as far as I can tell, has any Austen scholar). I wrote: “This allusion to the Fallen Angel, like the Lucy Ferrars wordplay, is not Biblical (or Miltonic). But it goes to the heart of the Austen novel in which that allusion occurs, and it is a beautiful thing, hiding in plain sight like all of JA's best allusions.”

Now here are the hints I gave, each followed by my answers:

HINT ONE: Jane Austen sneaked the exact title of the Source into the text of the novel in which she alluded to the Source. And, what’s more, she placed that title at the most thematic point possible, to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was not a coincidence. That is of course, exactly what JA did with her sneaking “as you like. It” into Mrs. Elton’s pastoral speech in Emma.

ANSWER ONE: In Chapter 46 of Mansfield Park, we read:
“Her father read his newspaper, and her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual, while the tea was in preparation, and wished Rebecca would mend it; and Fanny was first roused by his calling out to her, after humphing and considering over a particular paragraph: "What's the name of your great cousins in town, Fan?"
A moment's recollection enabled her to say, "Rushworth, sir."
"And don't they live in Wimpole Street?"
"Yes, sir."
“Then, there’s THE DEVIL TO PAY among them, that’s all! There” (holding out the paper to her); “much good may such fine relations do you. I don’t know what Sir Thomas may think of such matters; he may be too much of the courtier and fine gentleman to like his daughter the less. But, by G—! if she belonged to me, I’d give her the rope’s end as long as I could stand over her. A little flogging for man and woman too would be the best way of preventing such things.” 

The title is The Devil to Play, a 1731 ballad opera written by Charles Coffey, with a bit more about same here:

And by the way, JA, with her meticulous attention to small details, has Mr. Price utter this expression, “the devil to pay”, because this expression became common among sailors like Mr. Price, referring to the horribly onerous task of applying black-colored tar (“paying”) to a difficult-to-reach part (the “devil”) of a ship.

HINT TWO: Jane Austen also mentioned the exact title of the Source, and in a favorable light, in a letter she wrote precisely when she had just finished writing that same novel, even though her letter does not connect the Source to that novel.

ANSWER TWO: In Letter 98 dated 3/5/14, written by JA (staying with Henry at Henrietta Street), we read:  “We are to see The Devil to Pay to-night. I expect to be very much amused.”

And note that by March 8, 1814, Jane Austen must have already completed the writing (and possibly also the proofreading?) of Mansfield Park, which was actually published a scant four months later, in July, 1814.

HINT THREE: The Source has a character, Mr. X, who is an abusive, wife-beating, alcoholic husband, whose favorite domestic weapon against his victimized wife, Mrs. X, is a strap.

ANSWER THREE: Of course, in the above-quoted passage in Chapter 46 of MP, the title of Coffey’s play is actually spoken aloud by Fanny’s father, followed immediately by Mr. Price’s expression of a fondness for flogging those who, in his estimation, deserve harsh punishment.

The chances of the allusion to Coffey’s opera title being a coincidence are thus reduced to zero. Jane Austen clearly meant for her readers (especially those in London who might well have gone to see The Devil to Pay during its recent run there) to recognize the allusion and its strong thematic resonance, which goes far far beyond a mere covert insertion of the play’s title into the text of the novel.

HINT FOUR: The Source has a character Mrs. Y who disrespects a male relative authority figure, and as a direct result is exiled for a short period of time from her life of relative ease in Mr. Y’s home to a life of privation in the home of the abusive Mr. X, which teaches her to value her life of ease with Mr. Y when she is suddenly returned to his home.

ANSWER FOUR: It’s pretty straightforward to see Mr. Price as an echoing of Mr. X--Mr. Jobson in Coffey’s play. We can imagine that Mrs. Price suffers physical and emotional abuse from Mr. Price when he is drunk, exactly as is the case for the poor, virtuous, and long suffering Mrs. Jobson.

But Mrs. Y--Lady Loverule in the play--is like Mrs. Norris (or Edward’s mother, Mrs. Dashwood) but even worse because she does not even attempt to hide her vicious, bestial character. She is cruel, violent, abusive, and literally “loves to rule” over her mild-mannered, good-natured husband, Sir John Loverule, whose late first wife was a good woman, but who appears to have misjudged the character of his second wife when he (as she reminds him) apparently married her for her money.

And that is where the allusion gets really interesting. In The Devil to Pay, it is the Devil (who somehow assumes the character of the Doctor, a local fortune teller who we find out is endowed with  supernatural powers), and not God, who intervenes to make things right in the end.

How? When Lady Loverule abuses him, the Doctor takes revenge in truly Satanic style. He causes Lady Loverule and Mrs. Jobson to change bodies and residence, such that the abusive Mr. Jobson starts abusing Lady Loverule (whom Jobson thinks is his wife), while the saintly Sir John and all of his servants are amazed when Mrs. Jobson (whom everyone believes is Lady Loverule) starts treating everyone really well, like Scrooge is transformed after his night of educative dreams in Dickens.

Then…the Doctor repents of his revenge, and restores both of these women back to their original bodies and situations, and all ends well, because now Lady Loverule has, like Scrooge, seen the error of her horrible ways and will henceforth be a good wife and mistress to her servants. And, similarly, Mr. Jobson has now learned not to abuse his wife.

Now, what’s really interesting--when you view the above action in The Devil to Pay through the lens of Mansfield Park, as Jane Austen clearly intended her readers to do--- is that Fanny Price is clearly like both Lady Loverule and Mrs. Jobson in being transported out of her previous life, to teach her a valuable lesson. But which lesson? Is Sir Thomas Bertram correct that Fanny is demonstrating disgusting pride and ingratitude in refusing to marry Henry Crawford, and does Fanny need to suffer in her home of birth in Portsmouth in order to appreciate the benefits of living at Mansfield Park? That would make her more like Lady Loverule.

Or…is Fanny actually learning that her courageous defiance of Sir Thomas will be rewarded by marriage with Edmund, whom she always wanted to marry, and thus Fanny is like Mrs. Jobson who winds up with a repentant good husband?  

I leave those questions open for discussion, as I think it’s typical Jane Austen, with much ambiguity as to what it all means—or better put, it’s ambiguous because Jane Austen wants to force her readers who recognize the allusion to The Devil to Pay to struggle to make sense of it.

HINT FIVE: The author of the Source is only known today for having written the Source.

ANSWER FIVE: Charles Coffey was known in his time for other musical writing, but as far as I can tell, The Devil to Pay was the only one of his major works that was still being performed during Jane Austen’s visits to London.

However, my eyes did perk up at reading that his 1729 song Ellen A Roon was later sung to new words and became known as Robin Adair—which leads us to the following passage in Emma:

"I do not see much sign of it. She is playing Robin Adair at this moment—his favourite."

And speaking of Emma, I also suspect that Coffey, an Irishman who dedicated The Devil to Pay to the English governor of Ireland, may just have intended some subversive political subtext to be read between the lines of his opera. While ostensibly it is a morality tale about domestic abuse and tyranny undone by a higher power, I think it also works really well as an allegory about England’s abuse of and tyranny over Ireland. And I believe JA, with her totally insincere dedication of Emma to the hateful Prince Regent, would have totally understood Coffey’s subversive meaning in his faux dedication.

One thing’s for sure-Jane Austen felt there’d be the devil to pay if she had made her allusion explicit, so, as was her way, she alluded covertly, yet significantly, to a complex and disturbing source.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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