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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

FE FI FO FUM, I hear the heavy step of Fanny's UN-cle (and of General Tilney’s slow pacing & receding steps)

In Mansfield Park, Chapter 11, we read Edmund Bertram (or as this speech to Fanny marks him, a Pandar-in-Training) pushing cousin Fanny Price to accept unacceptable ogling by her uncle:

"...Go to my father if you want to be complimented. He will satisfy you. Ask your uncle what he thinks, and you will hear compliments enough: and though they may be chiefly on your person, you must put up with it, and trust to his seeing as much beauty of mind in time."
Such language was so new to Fanny that it quite embarrassed her.
"Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle's admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman."
"Oh! don't talk so, don't talk so," cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of..."

It occurred to me this morning to compare the above passage to the following passage in Northanger Abbey, Chapter 13, describing the end of Catherine Morland’s visit to the Tilney residence in Bath:

"The general attended her himself to the street-door, saying everything gallant as they went downstairs, admiring the elasticity of her walk, which corresponded exactly with the spirit of her dancing, and making her one of the most graceful bows she had ever beheld, when they parted. Catherine, delighted by all that had passed, proceeded gaily to Pulteney Street, walking, as she concluded, with great elasticity, though she had never thought of it before...."

Now, how to account for the extreme difference in reaction in two parallel situations, i.e., in both we have an 18 year old girl receiving compliments on her beauty from a much older man? I.e., why does Fanny freak out inside while Catherine gets an extra skip in her stride? I suggest to you that the explanation is simple and powerful--- Catherine has no history of being sexually abused, but Fanny does.


Catherine, who has grown up in the country in a family with two parents apparently of the same age, surrounded by similar families, is unfamiliar with the “normal” (but awful) social custom of men 3 times the age of young women coming on sexually to them. And so Catherine doesn't even realize that the General is coming on inappropriately to her, she just takes him at face value, and responds innocently and positively to the way the General is making her feel good about herself---she really thinks he is a benign charming father figure who admires her in a chaste way, and who is implicitly expressing approval of her as a suitable object of his son’s desire. In this, Catherine is extremely naïve.

But if Catherine had realized the General was coming on to her (as is, by the way, suggested in the 1980s NA film adaptation), and saw him for who he really was---i.e., a vile, sadistic, money-grubbing lecher, then Catherine, with her firm and unerring base of uncommonly common sense (or, as we say in Yiddish, tsechl), and her innate and unerring sense of right and wrong, would have been shocked and appalled at the unnaturalness of it.

But even though she never does realize he was hitting on her in Bath, when she’s at the Abbey, Catherine’s sharp intuition does eventually kick in and tell her there is something very bad about this man, specifically in the way he deals with women. Although she  consciously attaches her fear of him to his treatment of his dead wife, I believe Catherine on some subliminal level feels danger to herself from this cruel and vicious man masquerading as a benevolent country squire.

And now I’ve reached the part of the tale of Catherine and the General which is disturbingly parallel, and yet in one crucial sense very different, from the tale of Fanny and Sir Thomas (and yet both are, as my Subject Line suggests, disturbingly close to the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk). It’s in the way these men walk.

First, observe how JA, in Chapter 23 of NA, very subtly foregrounds General Tilney’s slow tread as something ominous:

“Catherine's blood ran cold with the horrid suggestions which naturally sprang from these words. Could it be possible? Could Henry's father—? And yet how many were the examples to justify even the blackest suspicions! And, when she saw him in the evening, while she worked with her friend, SLOWLY PACING the drawing-room for an hour together in silent thoughtfulness, with downcast eyes and contracted brow, she felt secure from all possibility of wronging him. It was the air and attitude of a Montoni! What could more plainly speak the gloomy workings of a mind not wholly dead to every sense of humanity, in its fearful review of past scenes of guilt? Unhappy man! And the anxiousness of her spirits directed her eyes towards his figure so repeatedly, as to catch Miss Tilney's notice. "My father," she whispered, "OFTEN WALKS about the room IN THIS WAY; it is nothing unusual."

When you first read NA, it sounds like a throwaway detail. But upon RE-reading, it sounds a subtle echo of the scene in Catherine’s bedroom three chapters earlier, shortly after her arrival at the Abbey, when we read the following about Catherine’s dark and stormy night:

“A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. Catherine trembled from head to foot. In the pause which succeeded, A SOUND LIKE RECEDING FOOTSTEPS and the closing of a distant door struck on her affrighted ear.”

What’s that about? I suggest that upon RE-reading of NA, after having also read MP, the sensitive reader will connect the dots among all these seemingly unrelated passages which are actually united by the hidden common theme of a predatory elder father figure in a position of trust, the sound of whose slow ominous approach on foot to a girl’s private space is ominous and dangerous.

But…in Catherine’s case, what is ominous never actually becomes damaging, because, lucky girl, she has no idea that there are two sharp and benevolent elves at the Abbey (you can guess who I mean) watching out for her, protecting her. Somehow, they stand quiet vigil hovering over Catherine, both when she goes to Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom, and then outside the guest bedroom where Catherine sleeps, at all times so as to keep watch for, and then subtly, by their presence, foil, any dangerous private approach to Catherine by their predatory father; and then these two eventually find a clever way (through Henry’s secret diplomacy with John Thorpe) to trick the General into believing that Catherine is not rich and therefore not really that attractive after all. Because the General, like Mr. Elton, always follows the money, not his pygmy heart (or even another, lower organ of his body, which has been known to motivate male courtship behavior).


In closing, I return to poor Fanny---as I suggested at the start, perhaps the feelings which so distress Fanny when her uncle compliments her, are so different from Catherine’s because they are based on a long history of actual prior experience, which rationally make her fear her uncle’s attention to her body. I.e., what if she finds her uncle's ogling, sexualized compliments---as if he were sizing up a young slave girl at the pier in Antigua---so distressing, in part because in the past they've been backed up by distressing behavior on Sir Thomas’s part toward Fanny?  

That is exactly what I think is the cause, and in support of that claim, I will now show you how JA sought to induce her readers pick up on this theme---i.e., I suggest that fear of molestation by Sir Thomas is the additional, hidden reason why Fanny freaks out inside again (11 chapters after Edmund panders Sir Thomas to Fanny) in the following scene:

"Having so satisfactorily settled the conviction her note would convey, she could not but be astonished to see Mr. Crawford, as she accidentally did, coming up to the house again, and at an hour as early as the day before. His coming might have nothing to do with her, but she must avoid seeing him if possible; and being then on her way upstairs, she resolved there to remain, during the whole of his visit, unless actually sent for; and as Mrs. Norris was still in the house, there seemed little danger of her being wanted.
She sat some time in a good deal of agitation, listening, trembling, and fearing to be sent for every moment; but as no footsteps approached the East room, she grew gradually composed, could sit down, and be able to employ herself, and able to hope that Mr. Crawford had come and would go without her being obliged to know anything of the matter.
Nearly half an hour had passed, and she was growing very comfortable, when suddenly the sound of a STEP IN REGULAR APPROACH was heard; A HEAVY STEP, an unusual step in that part of the house: it was her uncle's; she knew it as well as his voice; she had trembled at it as often, and began to tremble again, at the idea of his coming up to speak to her, whatever might be the subject. It was indeed Sir Thomas who opened the door and asked if she were there, and if he might come in. The terror of his former occasional visits to that room seemed all renewed, and she felt as if he were going to examine her again in French and English."

There’s the textual echo of the passage of Catherine hearing receding footsteps at the Abbey which make her tremble, and we know who Catherine suspects of all manner of horrid misdeeds-----the General!

And finally, how about Fanny’s fear that Sir Thomas will wish to “examine her again in French and English?” Examine her? in French? That combination sounds really creepy, as “examine” is a perfect word to describe the way an older lecher ogles a young girl---and where have we recently heard that same conceit of teaching “French” to a young woman as a code for sex? Oh, JA’s Letter 26 to Martha Lloyd, which I’ve been presenting more and more evidence in support of  its being a complex sexual innuendoes fully intended by JA:   "With such a provision on my part, if you will do yours by repeating the FRENCH GRAMMAR, and Mrs Stent will now and then EJACULATE some wonder about the COCKS and hens, what can we want?"

So, it’s no “wonder” that Fanny freaks out when she hears her uncle's heavy step, she really does fear that he is going to examine her in French! Today, they have a word for the terror that Fanny feels at that moment---they call it PTSD---Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: For two earlier glimmerings on my part of parallels between Sir  Thomas and General Tilney, check out these posts of mine from 2010 and 2013, respectively.

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