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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, April 25, 2014

"Poor animal" & Mansfield Park: The Striking Parallels Between The Mansfield Case in 1772 England & The Nonhuman Rights Project in 2014 New York

[Added May 28, 2015: Since writing the below post, there's been some big developments, so after you read my post, check out both of these links for the latest in Steve Wise's quixotic question for justice for nonhuman animals:

Jane Austen would be cheering him on]

Purely by chance, the revival this week of discussion in Janeites and Austen-L about the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park coincides with a real life, modern, intentional echoing of the 1772 Somerset case (aka the Mansfield case, because decided by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield aka William Murray) involving the dawn of legal rights for another class of oppressed individuals.

To wit, it is my privilege to report to you today the fruition of longstanding efforts by my good friend, Steve Wise, THE world's leading animal rights lawyer, and how his quest relates to the theme of servitude and denial of natural rights in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

That Steve is the world’s leading animal rights lawyer probably sounds like the gross exaggeration of a partial friend, but when you read this article which will be the cover story of this coming Sunday NY Times Magazine....
…and watch this mini-documentary…
…and go to this Facebook page…. will see that i am just being factual about my buddy. And he is my buddy, as it so happens, because of the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park, so in a sense, Jane Austen introduced us!

Steve and I became friends in July 2006, because he had just published a nonfiction book called Though the Heavens May Fall a few months earlier.... which he recounted the fascinating, dramatic history of the Somerset/Mansfield case, which, as we’ve been discussing here, was the first great judicial decision that declared slavery illegal on English soil, even though, hypocritically, it did not ban slavery in the English colonies! But it was the beginning of the end of that mass slavery, even though the slave trade didn’t end till 1808, and the actual colonial slavery didn’t end till decades later still. The abolitionists, led by the charismatic Clarkson and many others, never flagged in their high goal.

Anyway, I reached out to Steve personally because I was in the summer of 2006 first intensively researching the slavery subtext of MP. After reading Margaret Kirkham’s speculation (in her way-ahead-of-its-time book, Jane Austen, Feminism & Fiction) that the title “MANSFIELD Park” was chosen by JA because of that 1772 case, I naturally wanted to learn more about the circumstances of the case, and Steve’s was the best book among those I found on the topic. And then I noticed in the jacket flap that Steve just happened to live 15 minutes away from me in Broward County, Florida, so I found his phone number, reached out, and we became great ftf friends, and still are!

Anyway, that’s all background to my post today. As the above linked NY Times Magazine article indicates, Steve is now an overnight sensation after 20 years of hard work creating the Nonhuman Rights Project....
…and he has all along been acutely aware of the history behind his forward-thinking quest for certain nonhuman animals (such as cetaceans, higher primates, and elephants) to be granted legal personhood.

Although Steve is not a Janeite (I’ve been working on him since 2006, and he has recently begun to read Pride & Prejudice, so there’s hope for him still!), his approach is very Austenian in its profound grasp of the decisive importance of subjective point of view in determining perception of “reality”.

I.e., just as, in 1772, it seemed “obvious” to most white Europeans that enslavement of black Africans in American colonies was one normal and appropriate foundation for the English economy, so too does it seem “obvious” today to most human beings that the complete denial of rights to sentient highly evolved nonhuman animals is not a problem, as long as those animals are not subject to extreme physical abuse.

Steve recognizes that he is looking for a massive paradigm shift in moral thinking, a leap perhaps even bigger than the one that took a major step forward in 1772 in England, which caught JA’s eye.

And how exactly does this relate to Jane Austen’s novels? Discussions in these groups about abolitionism in JA’s era often turn to questions of what seemed normal and moral to ordinary people of that time, in terms of whether slavery was a profound evil that needed to be eliminated.

I firmly agree with Diane Reynolds that it is inconceivable that Jane Austen thought slavery was a good thing, or even a necessary evil—that would make her a kind of split personality sociopath, who could be extremely sensitive to the rights of people in one context, and yet oblivious to their rights in others. That’s not the Jane Austen I know.

What I do believe is that JA was appalled at colonial slavery, and its genocidal horrors, but she was also outraged at the way that women’s legal and moral rights were for the most part utterly ignored and trivialized in her society. That she was outraged at the latter does NOT mean that she equated the magnitude of the evil between the systematic but lower grade abuse of millions of Englishwomen in everyday life, and the murderous exploitation of millions of African slaves on plantations. She knew the difference, but her particular cause was women’s rights, and she knew it was a worthy one, especially because there were not many public figures advocating for freeing women from their insidiously invisible form of servitude to men.

Steve at one point in one of his interviews was asked why animal rights are so important in a world where so many human rights are still being trampled in many parts of the world. And his answer is that he is appalled at those human rights abuses, but there are already many advocates for those human victims, but there has never been an effective, motivated, well organized, legally sophisticated campaign in human history to defend the rights of nonhuman animals, and that is HIS chosen task.

And back to Jane Austen for another round---as Patricia Rozema so brilliantly put it after she made her groundbreaking version of Mansfield Park in 1999, this novel is above all a multifaceted meditation of every shade and nuance of servitude in human social relations, in particular the hypocrisy of those like Sir Thomas Bertram, who pride themselves on their moral rectitude and superiority, even as they are rotten to the moral core under the surface.

And, in that regard, I have long believed that Fanny Price is in part a representation of  the biracial Dido Elizabeth Belle (who by the way is the subject of a new independent film, Belle), the great niece of Lord Mansfield depicted in this famous Zoffany painting along with her cousin, a woman whom JA met and talked to at Godmersham…..
..and that Lord Mansfield was therefore represented by Sir Thomas Bertram. This illustrates that even the man who was capable of doing good on a mass scale (although, as Steve’s book recounts, Lord Mansfield waffled for a long time before rendering that decision), was also in his personal life a kind of hypocrite who did not fully embrace the implications of his own, famous legal decision. I.e., he treated his white great niece differently than his biracial great niece. And that is quintessential Austen ironical territory, the rationalizations that people make to justify moral inconsistencies in their own behavior and attitudes.

And finally, apropos animal rights, we all know that JA, having grown up in the countryside, was well acquainted with all manner of domesticated animals, and she often compared women to beasts of burden, most notably her beloved niece, Anna Austen Lefroy, whom she famously referred to as a “poor animal” because she was pregnant for the second time in as many years since getting married.

I believe that JA would have been a supporter of my friend’s project, had it been in process during her lifetime. The sad truth of human history is that these moral paradigm shifts seem to always be long overdue and painful. It has taken two centuries for many of the changes regarding women’s rights, that JA clearly yearned for, to be significantly implemented. And even in 2014, there is still a LONG way to go before we reach true gender equality.

I sure hope Steve does not have to wait 2 centuries for his great dream to become real.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Startling Inter-Novel Validation in Emma for Mrs. Norris as a Closeted Lesbian in Mansfield Park

For those who have taken my previous three posts about Mrs. Norris as a closeted lesbian in Mansfield Park with some major lumps of salt, I’ve just retrieved from my own blog archives a post by me last year, which did not come to mind for me at first when I was writing  these latest posts about Mrs. Norris, but which now takes on dramatic new meaning in light of them.

I will just quote the relevant discussion from my 2013 post, and then comment briefly on it at the end:   

“…revisiting Mrs. Elton’s wordplay on “as you like it”, my eye was caught by something  else Mrs. Elton says in that same passage:

“I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here,—probably this basket with PINK RIBBON. Nothing can be more simple, you see. And Jane will have such another. There is to be no form or parade—a sort of gipsy party.”

Although it warrants a whole blog post of its own, I will only briefly outline the color coded connection between Mrs. Elton’s pink bonnet, on the one hand, and the following two passages:

Sense & Sensibility  Ch. 38: “I am monstrous glad of it. Good gracious! I have had such a time of it! I never saw Lucy in such a rage in my life. She vowed at first she would never trim me up a new bonnet, nor do any thing else for me again, so long as she lived; but now she is quite come to, and we are as good friends as ever. Look, she made me this BOW to my hat, and put in the feather last night. There now, YOU are going to laugh at me too. But why should not I wear PINK RIBBONS? I do not care if it IS the Doctor's favourite colour. I am sure, for my part, I should never have known he did LIKE IT better than any other colour, if he had not happened to say so. My cousins have been so plaguing me! I declare sometimes I do not know which way to look before them." 


Mansfield Park Ch. 19:   Mrs. Norris was by no means to be compared in happiness to her sister. Not that she was incommoded by many fears of Sir Thomas's disapprobation when the present state of his house should be known, for her judgment had been so blinded that, except by the instinctive caution with which she had whisked away Mr. Rushworth's PINK SATIN CLOAK as her brother-in-law entered, she could hardly be said to shew any sign of alarm….”
Suffice to say that the previous speculations of some Janeites (including myself) about what Nancy Steele means about pink being her Doctor’s  “favourite colour” , and  of other Janeites (also including myself) about Mr. Rushworth’s pink satin cloak are implicated.

In that regard—and this is really amazing---I only realized yesterday that Mrs. Norris’s “instinctive caution” can be interpreted in an ENTIRELY different way than as fear of Sir Thomas becoming aware of the Lovers Vows preparations, i.e., as her concern that Sir Thomas might realize that Mr. Rushworth’s choice of pink was symbolic of an important preference that would anger the very conservative and  probably quite bigoted Sir Thomas already concerned about the bona fides of his eldest daughter’s marriage to him, and his ability and/or desire to fulfill his conjugal duties.

All of which makes me wonder why Sir Walter Elliot did not pun on the theme of a pink admiral…   ;)”

So, back now in April2014… I am now able to connect the dots between my earlier catch of Mrs. Norris’s hasty concealment of Mr. Rushworth’s flaming pink cloak, and Mrs. Norris hasty reframing of her comments to Lady Bertram about always  having a bed available for a friend. In both cases, Mrs. Norris is desperately trying to prevent the “king” of Mansfield Park and his SI.e., Maria may well be marrying a gay man, and Mrs. Norris is lesbian carrying on a covert lesbian lifestyle at her residence only a stone’s throw from the Bertram family mansion nearby.

And…even more validating of my claims----in one of my recent posts I pointed out that Mrs. Elton’s claim that she “stands up for women” could reasonably be seen as a declaration of lesbian pride, and now I connect that to her fantasy of a “gipsy party” with Jane, complete with “pink ribbon” on her basket, in part also invoking the thinly veiled lesbian dynamic between cousins Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, the very play that Mrs. Elton winked at in the immediately preceding sentences of her “pink bonnet” speech:

“That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day: -- but AS YOU LIKE. IT is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing...."

And, last but not least, when I view the above Mrs. Elton lesbian-tinged comments together with Frank Churchill’s misdirections  about visiting Jane which I showed were in the same vein as Mrs. Norris’s misdirections about always having a bed for a friend, which were censored out of the second edition of MP published at pretty much the same time as the  first edition of Emma, in 1816, I see JA covertly but  defiantly reinforcing the lesbian subtext of Mrs. Norris’s secret life via both Mrs. Elton’s more deceptively coded and ambiguous lesbian comments and Frank’s forbidden liaisons with Jane, as if to say,in the same tone as we heard in JA’s last poem, “Winchester Races” that she will NOT be silenced as to what she cares about most passionately, and same sex love is one of those topics that will survive in her writing, censors be damned!

And that was, I conclude, “as Jane Austen liked it”!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Nanny as Mrs. Norris's Forbidden Bedfellow in Mansfield Park, Part 2: Evidence in the Diary of a Real life "Mrs. Norris"

In followup to my immediately preceding post....

...13 years ago, during a group read in Janeites of Amanda Vickery's A Gentleman's Daughter, Diana Birchall wrote the following, and the ALL CAPS portions of this passage (about real people from JA's era) take on an almost unbelievable additional meaning in light of my latest claim re Mansfield Park re Mrs. Norris and her apparently intimate relationship with her "chief counsellor" Nanny.

Some of you will no doubt consider the uncanny parallels set forth below between real life and fiction, as merely a coincidence, or JA being psychic, because her depiction of Mrs. Norris so eerily tracks aspects of the real life of Mrs. Elizabeth Shackleford.  For me, the parallels are so specific  and so uncannily apt that I conclude that somehow JA had access to, or at least a secondhand report about, Elizabeth Shackleford’s real life diary about poor Nanny Nutter, who sounds like a real life combination of both Nanny, and also Fanny Price, both of whom Mrs. Norris took possession of at a young age.  

Either way, it’s pretty mindblowing, and my assertions about something more personal going on between  Mrs. Norris and Nanny than just a mistress-servant relationship add a whole additional layer of complexity to the literary  “cream cheese” recipe served up below:

"Mrs. Shackleton's diaries are full of laments about the difficulties of keeping servants. "Nobody left as a woman servant in this house. God help me what will become of me," she wrote in 1780. She was so desperate to keep competent people that she overlooked cases of drunkenness and insolence -
"Immaculate delicacy was a luxury she could not afford," Vickery writes. THE MISTRESS-SERVANT RELATIONSHIP WAS COMPLEX AND PARADOXICAL, COULD BE FOND AND INTIMATE, or distant and antagonistic. The case of NANNY NUTTER, WHO SLEPT IN HER MISTRESS'S BED, was given many trinkets, yet KEPT RUNNING AWAY and being brought back by her father. Mrs. Shackleton AT TIMES REFERRED TO HER SERVANTS WITH CONDESCENDING SENTIMENTALITY, especially in her later years ("she was poor and came to me WHEN I WAS DESOLATE & QUITE WITHOUT HELP"), but more usually expected gratitude, CONSIDERING HER SERVANTS BEHOLDEN TO HER....
...Yet in Elizabeth Shackleton's household there is much evidence that THE MISTRESS HERSELF DID SOME WORK HERSELF (no doubt especially when servants were unavailable), and certainly she was never relieved of the burden of ACTIVE SUPERVISION IN ORDERING HER HOUSEHOLD...At times it sounds as if SHE IS DOING LABORIOUS TASKS HERSELF ("I wash'd all the China Pots & c in the Store room...we scowered all the Pewter")...
...She was actively concerned in the running of the home farm, notes all the rhythms of the farming year, and OVERSAW HER BUTTER SALES, the trade of which was worth the annual wages of two or three maidservants....There is no suggestion that she prepared food on a routine basis (we may remember Mrs. Bennet assuring Mr. Collins that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen), although ONCE SHE OFFERED HER HUSBAND A SPECIAL CREAM CHEESE MADE BY HERSELF as a peace offering - and we can recall an occasion in Jane Austen's fiction when cream cheese was given a similar importance and significance: MRS. NORRIS TOOK A BEAUTIFUL LITTLE CREAM CHEESE AND ITS RECIPE as her chief prize from her day at Sotherton!"  END QUOTE FROM DIANA

To which I add these following additional Mrs. Norrisesque tidbits which I have pulled from Vickery’s original 1993 publication of her findings:

“To Mrs. Shackleton’s horror, Susy Smith was discovered dispensing fine white sugar for the servants’ tea in 1771 and the cook-housekeeper Molly Vivers was surprised drinking full cream milk in 1772. The expropriation of illegitimate perquisites threatened both Elizabeth Shackleton’s authority and her good housekeeping, a dual challenge made explicit in a note of 1779:
‘Found Betty Crook making coffee and breaking white sugar to drink with it. Servants come to a high hand. What will become of poor housekeepers?”
…An entire diary is devoted to the career of an adolescent maid, Nanny Nutter…”

And finally I found this anecdote which is utterly Norrisesque from this 2009 web article:  
“One of [these servants] she calls Nanny Nutter and virtually adopts from the age of 12, but she runs away and ends up as a neighbour’s chambermaid. Shackleton writes in her diary (Vickery discovered 39 of them) that she’s ‘an ungrateful, lying girl’. Nanny Nutter cannot answer back because she was most probably illiterate.”

Ungrateful, lying girl—need I say more?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter