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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Being Mister…Brandon : How Marianne’s calling him “Mr.Brandon” leads us through the looking glass into the shadow story of Sense & Sensibility


I realized from reading today through Tysoe Hancock’s many letters collected in Chapter 3 of The Austen Papers that I was too quick, a few years ago, in dismissing Le Faye’s assertion that the lugubrious Colonel Brandon was a representation by JA of her Uncle Tysoe Hancock (whom JA never met, but surely had heard about from her cousin Eliza, his [putative] daughter).  At that time, I dismissed Le Faye, because it was (and still is) so clear to me that Colonel Brandon was a representation of Warren Hastings, as to whom JA was well aware of the widespread rumor of his having been her cousin Eliza’s biological father.

But now (call the newspapers!), I recant my criticism of Le Faye on that specific point, because it is now clear to me from slogging through Tysoe’s Hancock relentlessly lugubrious letters, with his focus on clothing designed to comfort and protect his aging, sickly body against the oppressive weather in Bengal, his extreme fatalism and martyrish pronoucements, and even his sending Eliza gold mohrs as collectibles, that these letters were obviously the primary source for the following sarcastic comments by Marianne and Willoughby about Brandon:

"That is to say," cried Marianne contemptuously, "he has told you, that in the East Indies the climate is hot, and the mosquitoes are troublesome."
"He WOULD have told me so, I doubt not, had I made any such inquiries, but they happened to be points on which I had been previously informed."
"Perhaps," said Willoughby, "his observations may have extended to the existence of nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins."

But my reversal on Le Faye on this point does not mean I agree with her that Brandon is only a representation of Tysoe Hancock. I now believe that Colonel Brandon is actually a representation of an amalgamation of at least 3 different Englishmen who spent many years in colonial Bengal:

(1)   Tysoe Hancock, (2) Warren Hastings, AND (3) any one of the many English officers who fought in the Second Anglo-Mysore War.

I include category (3) based primarily on the wonderful article by my good friend Linda Walker in the 2013 Persuasions Online, “Jane Austen, the Second Anglo-Mysore War, and Colonel Brandon’s Forcible Circumcision: A Rereading of S&S”, which I’ve previously touted, and now even more so.

JA did with Colonel Brandon what she did with many (if not all?) of her characters--- she loaded up their psyches, so to speak, with a number of historical and fictional personages who collectively reflect different traits and “baggage” drawn from different historical and literary sources from within a larger class—so that Brandon is the prototypical Englishman in the colonial East Indies, just as Sir Thomas is the prototype for the Englishman in the colonial West Indies, and General Tilney is the prototype for the domineering English husband with money and a desire for a young wife, etc. etc. As in Being John Malkovich, each of these characters has lots of “people” living in his or her “head”, making for additional complexity of character, obviously.

And that would have been the end of the post as I originally intended to present it to you today, if it weren’t for my attention being incidentally caught by the following comments by Linda Walker in her article, comments which wound up opening a wide wormhole straight into the undiscovered country at the heart of the shadow story of Sense & Sensibility—shedding definitive light, for the first time, into the evolution of Mrs. Jennings’s opinions about Elinor’s secret love life during the course of the novel.


Walker article:  “…But then we come across the oddest thing of all about Brandon.  He and Marianne Dashwood have no conversation, no polite social intercourse.  It’s an amazing omission and one turns the pages in disbelief, hunting for what must have been missed.  What other novel exists where a couple meets, courts, and marries throughout the span of 380 pages, without speaking to each other?  But for one sentence.  When Brandon tells those assembled for the excursion to Whitwell that he must call it off, Marianne, dismayed that she will not travel there alone with John Willoughby, calls out to him, “‘But if you write a note to the housekeeper, Mr. Brandon, . . . will it not be sufficient?’”.  In so addressing him, she strips Brandon of his rank.  Nobody else in the novel calls him “Mister.”  END QUOTE

It is a truly Austenian irony that my good friend Linda was wrong on one detail, but even more correct and on-point after my correction, because her discovery turns out to be much more significant than she claimed! Let me walk you through step by step.

Linda claimed that there was only one sentence in S&S where Brandon is called “Mr. Brandon”, in Marianne’s complaint to him about his calling off the excursion to Whitwell. However, as I quickly verified on a hunch that JA would not have presented such a mystery without giving more clues as to its meaning, there is actually a second sentence where he is called “Mr. Brandon” , and it’s more interesting. As Chapter 20 of S&S begins, we read:

“As the Miss Dashwoods entered the drawing-room of [Barton] park the next day, at one door, Mrs. Palmer came running in at the other, looking as good humoured and merry as before. She took them all most affectionately by the hand, and expressed great delight in seeing them again.
"I am so glad to see you!" said she, seating herself between Elinor and Marianne …”

So JA makes sure we know that Mrs. Palmer is sitting right next to both Elinor and Marianne, but then, for the next several minutes of dialog, Marianne is completely silent, as Elinor politely makes small talk with the insipid, verbally incontinent Mrs. Palmer, with Mr. Palmer, Lady Middleton and Sir John adding  a sentence here and there. It’s easy to forget that Marianne is still there, but in fact she is, right next to Mrs. Palmer, the entire time—for a reason that will shortly become clear to those with eyes to see!

Next, Elinor takes charge of the conversation…

“Elinor was again obliged to decline [Mrs. Palmer’s] invitation; and by changing the subject, put a stop to her entreaties. She thought it probable that as they lived in the same county, Mrs. Palmer might be able to give some more particular account of Willoughby's general character, than could be gathered from the Middletons' partial acquaintance with him…”

…which shortly leads to Mrs. Palmer’s interjecting:

“…I know why you inquire about [Willoughby], very well; your sister is to marry him. I am monstrous glad of it, for then I shall have her for a neighbour you know."

When Elinor asks for Mrs. Palmer’s source for this gossip, Mrs. Palmer promptly names Colonel Brandon, and then we come at last to the second mention of “Mr. Brandon” in S&S:

[Elinor] "And what did the Colonel say?"
[Mrs. Palmer] "Oh—he did not say much; but he looked as if he knew it to be true, so from that moment I set it down as certain. It will be quite delightful, I declare! When is it to take place?"
"MR. BRANDON was very well I hope?"
"Oh! yes, quite well; and so full of your praises, he did nothing but say fine things of you."
"I am flattered by his commendation. He seems an excellent man; and I think him uncommonly pleasing."
"So do I.—He is such a charming man, that it is quite a pity he should be so grave and so dull. Mama says HE was in love with your sister too.— I assure you it was a great compliment if he was, for he hardly ever falls in love with any body."
"Is Mr. Willoughby much known in your part of Somersetshire?" said Elinor. …”

Notice that I only attributed the first two statements to their obvious speakers, Elinor and Mrs. Palmer. Then someone inquires after Mister Brandon, but who is the unidentified speaker? Since both Mrs.Palmer and Elinor have been calling him “Colonel” Brandon all along in this conversation, it seems very unlikely that it’s Elinor—but if not Elinor, then it must, by default, be Marianne—There is  no one else present who has a sister with whom Mrs. Jennings (Mrs. Palmer’s “Mama”) would think that Brandon was in love!

Now, stop and think about that---if it’s Marianne to whom Mrs. Palmer is responding, saying “Mama says HE [meaning, Brandon] was in love with your sister too”---that can only mean that Mrs. Jennings believes that Brandon is in love with ELINOR!

I’ll wager most Janeites have never, despite many rereadings, picked up on that alternative, masked meaning. And it’s easy to see why. The  conversation leading up to Mrs. Palmer’s report (of Mrs. Jennings’s assertion) was about Marianne being secretly engaged to Willoughby. So JA, diabolically clever, has tempted her unsuspicious readers to assume without thinking that it must be Elinor who refers to “Mr. Brandon”, too, in which event Mrs. Palmer’s reply would be still be on the subject of Marianne’s lover. And that is clearly how Elinor understands it. But I say that Elinor is wrong.

As further evidence that Marianne is the more plausible speaker of “MISTER Brandon” in Chapter 20, note also that while Elinor later in the novel unequivocally states  “Colonel Brandon's character as an excellent man, is well established",  whereas the speaker of “Mister Brandon” in Chapter 20 hedges her bets, and says only that Mr. Brandon seems an excellent man. As Hamlet famously says, I know not “seems”—“seems” is a loaded, significant word in JA’s lexicon, and in this case, I hear that “seems” as Marianne passive-aggressively expressing hostility, disrespect, and suspicion about Brandon.

But this is only the beginning of unpacking this textual jigsaw puzzle. Anyone who knows S&S well has probably already been reminded by my above comments of the motif of Elinor and Brandon as a romantic couple—it’s not a strange or obscure notion within the fictional world of S&S, quite the contrary. After all, that idea is the punch line of the famous misattribution joke that is enacted in Chapter 40 of S&S, when Mrs. Jennings and Elinor go in circles for quite a while—like in a Shakespearean comedy climactic revelation scene, or when Tevye and Lazar Wolf confuse Tevye’s daughter with a prized cow in Sholem Aleichem’s story---Elinor believes they’re talking about Edward marrying Lucy, but Mrs. Jennings believes they’re talking about Elinor marrying Brandon! More on that scene below.  

In short, then, the passage in Chapter 40 is at best ambiguous, and the less plausible interpretation of the two by far is the one in which Elinor, inexplicably, one time out of dozens in the novel, is taken to refer to Brandon as “Mr. Brandon”. Yet that less plausible interpretation is the only one that has previously ever been taken by any Austen scholar who has looked at this question, as far as I can tell—and that is obviously because it never occurred to anyone before me that “Mr. Brandon” was a clue that it might be Marianne speaking about Mr. Brandon to Mrs. Palmer!

For example, here’s William Baker’s reading in his 2008 Critical Companion to Jane Austen:  “Mrs. Palmer’s source of information concerning Marianne’s supposed engagement is Colonel Brandon, whom she met in the fashionable London area of Bond  Street. The source surprises Elinor, and Mrs. Palmer admits that she perceived from Brandon’s looks that he confirmed the engagement. Mrs.Palmer adds, “Mama says he was in love with your sister too”-she uses the past tense. The narrative reveals that Brandon continues to love Marianne. Her next remark…followed by a question from Elinor concerning Willoughby, on rereading, reveals Willoughby’s fickleness and Brandon’s constancy, and the possibility of  a previous ‘love’ affair. “ END QUOTE

And, ironically, Baker also has no idea that he has stumbled across a bookend to that comic passage in Chapter 40, which he independently describes as follows:  “Mrs. Jennings’s ‘deception’ that ‘the Colonel only marries [Elinor] for the sake of  giving ten guineas to Mr. Ferrars!’ is corrected by the end of the chapter.” In addition to Baker, Moreland Perkins, in Reshaping the Sexes in S&S, waxes rhapsodically about the hilarious comedy of that Chapter 40 scene, and also quotes from Stuart Tave on that scene, without either of them having the slightest idea that it was not sprung by JA on the reader out of the blue in that late chapter.

But why I am even more excited about this discovery is that, as I will show you, below, it is clear that in Chapter 20, a full 20 chapters earlier than that comic scene, we are already being subtly clued in by JA that Mrs. Jennings (Mrs. Palmer’s “Mama”) already thinks Elinor and Brandon are secretly engaged!
As it turns out, JA subtly hints at this rumor of Elinor and Brandon as a romantic couple no less than three times in the novel—but JA only brings the cat out of the bag, and overtly—indeed, emphatically--springs her carefully constructed gag, in that great comic scene in Chapter 40.

So you see now why I say that Linda Walker was even more correct than she realized. First, this latter usage tells us for sure that the “Mr. Brandon” in Chapter 13 was not a typo overlooked by JA while proofreading S&S for publication—because it surely is no coincidence that the only two times Brandon is so named, Marianne is the mostly likely speaker in both instances! More important still, it shows that Marianne apparently is consistent throughout most of the novel in her apparent aversion to according to Brandon the respect of acknowledging him for military service to his country, respect that every other character accords him when not (as is the case with Sir John) calling him “Brandon”, as men in JA’s novels often call or refer to their male friends. And that of course goes to the heart of the longstanding dissatisfaction among a strong minority of Janeites, including myself, who have always found the Marianne-Brandon marriage less than heartwarming.

And most of all, it shows that JA has provided the reader with a carefully choreographed trail of subtextual bread crumbs leading up to Chapter 40, which I  will now chart  for you. And when I am done, those readers who believe that JA did not engage in this sort of authorial chicanery, tricking her readers, will, I think, be very hard pressed to explain away the delicate palimpsest that JA has woven around this plot point.

To begin that trail of bread crumbs, all Janeites know and love the joke early in the novel centered around “the letter F”.  In Chapter 12 we read:

“Margaret's sagacity was not always displayed in a way so satisfactory to her sister. When Mrs. Jennings attacked her one evening at the park, to give the name of the young man who was Elinor's particular favourite, which had been long a matter of great curiosity to her, Margaret answered by looking at her sister, and saying, "I must not tell, may I, Elinor?"
This of course made every body laugh; and Elinor tried to laugh too. But the effort was painful. She was convinced that Margaret had fixed on a person whose name she could not bear with composure to become a standing joke with Mrs. Jennings.
Marianne felt for her most sincerely; but she did more harm than good to the cause, by turning very red and saying in an angry manner to Margaret,
"Remember that whatever your conjectures may be, you have no right to repeat them."
"I never had any conjectures about it," replied Margaret; "it was you who told me of it yourself."
This increased the mirth of the company, and Margaret was eagerly pressed to say something more.
"Oh! pray, Miss Margaret, let us know all about it," said Mrs. Jennings. "What is the gentleman's name?"
"I must not tell, ma'am. But I know very well what it is; and I know where he is too."
"Yes, yes, we can guess where he is; at his own house at Norland to be sure. He is the curate of the parish I dare say."
"No, THAT he is not. He is of no profession at all."
"Margaret," said Marianne with great warmth, "you know that all this is an invention of your own, and that there is no such person in existence."
"Well, then, he is lately dead, Marianne, for I am sure there was such a man once, and his name begins with an F."
Most grateful did Elinor feel to Lady Middleton for observing, at this moment, "that it rained very hard," though she believed the interruption to proceed less from any attention to her, than from her ladyship's great dislike of all such inelegant subjects of raillery as delighted her husband and mother. The idea however started by her, was immediately pursued by Colonel Brandon, who was on every occasion mindful of the feelings of others; and much was said on the subject of rain by both of them. Willoughby opened the piano-forte, and asked Marianne to sit down to it; and thus amidst the various endeavours of different people to quit the topic, it fell to the ground. But not so easily did Elinor recover from the alarm into which it had thrown her. “

So, Marianne has clearly made the mistake of telling big-mouth Margaret about Elinor’s love for Edward, and the clues Margaret provides (a future curate at Norland with a name beginning with “F”) make it clear to all present, including in particular to Mrs. Jennings, that it is Edward Margaret is hinting at. JA thereby also lets us know that this is when Mrs. Jennings forms her first judgment as to the identity of Elinor’s lover.  But notice also, for future reference, that Brandon is only too quick to help put the kibosh on this subject—this will turn out to be relevant.

Next, we have that scene in Chapter 20 when Marianne calls Brandon “Mr. Brandon”, and lo and behold, things have already shifted, such that we know for certain (from Mrs. Palmer’s quoting her “Mama”) that Mrs. Jennings has already shifted her opinion as to the identity of Elinor’s lover from Edward to Brandon.  But since Elinor is not listening carefully, she does not realize this, and continues to believe that Mrs. Jennings sees her and Edward as “a thing”.

And that also tells us something else—Janeites have speculated for a very long time as to Colonel Brandon’s Christian name. So, if Mrs. Jennings has shifted over to believing that Margaret Dashwood was somehow hinting at Brandon as Elinor’s secret lover, then does this mean that Brandon’s first name begins with an “F”. Would that make him Francis, or Fergus, or Frederick?  Food for thought! ;)

But  back on track, our proper understanding of the passage in Chapter 20 makes the following passage in Chaper 21 that much more interesting and revelatory of secrets:

“To do [Sir John] justice, he did every thing in his power to promote their unreserve, by making the Miss Steeles acquainted with whatever he knew or supposed of his cousins' situations in the most delicate particulars,—and Elinor had not seen them more than twice, before the eldest of them wished her joy on her sister's having been so lucky as to make a conquest of a very smart beau since she came to Barton.
"'Twill be a fine thing to have her married so young to be sure," said she, "and I hear he is quite a beau, and prodigious handsome. And I hope you may have as good luck yourself soon,—but perhaps you may have a friend in the corner already."
Elinor could not suppose that Sir John would be more nice in proclaiming his suspicions of her regard for Edward, than he had been with respect to Marianne; indeed it was rather his favourite joke of the two, as being somewhat newer and more conjectural; and since Edward's visit, they had never dined together without his drinking to her best affections with so much significancy and so many nods and winks, as to excite general attention. The letter F—had been likewise invariably brought forward, and found productive of such countless jokes, that its character as the wittiest letter in the alphabet had been long established with Elinor.
The Miss Steeles, as she expected, had now all the benefit of these jokes, and in the eldest of them they raised a curiosity to know the name of the gentleman alluded to, which, though often impertinently expressed, was perfectly of a piece with her general inquisitiveness into the concerns of their family. But Sir John did not sport long with the curiosity which he delighted to raise, for he had at least as much pleasure in telling the name, as Miss Steele had in hearing it.
"His name is Ferrars," said he, in a very audible whisper; "but pray do not tell it, for it's a great secret."
"Ferrars!" repeated Miss Steele; "Mr. Ferrars is the happy man, is he? What! your sister-in-law's brother, Miss Dashwood? a very agreeable young man to be sure; I know him very well."
"How can you say so, Anne?" cried Lucy, who generally made an amendment to all her sister's assertions. "Though we have seen him once or twice at my uncle's, it is rather too much to pretend to know him very well."
Elinor heard all this with attention and surprise. "And who was this uncle? Where did he live? How came they acquainted?" She wished very much to have the subject continued, though she did not chuse to join in it herself; but nothing more of it was said, and for the first time in her life, she thought Mrs. Jennings deficient either in curiosity after petty information, or in a disposition to communicate it. The manner in which Miss Steele had spoken of Edward, increased her curiosity; for it struck her as being rather ill-natured, and suggested the suspicion of that lady's knowing, or fancying herself to know something to his disadvantage.—But her curiosity was unavailing, for no farther notice was taken of Mr. Ferrars's name by Miss Steele when alluded to, or even openly mentioned by Sir John.”

When you read the above passage, keep in mind that Mrs. Jennings must be there at Barton Park, but she is silent exactly in that paradoxical moment when Elinor finds herself wishing Mrs. Jennings would meddle! Since we know from the “Mr. Brandon” passage in Chapter 20 that Mrs. Jennings has already moved on to seeing Brandon as Elinor’s secret lover, it tells us that Mrs. Jennings has NOT informed Sir John of that shift in her thinking, which means that Mrs. Jennings is a whole lot more discreet than Elinor gives her credit for! Plus, of course, this Chapter 21 scene shows us once again that Elinor misinterprets Mrs. Jennings’s silence-in fact, she’s downright bewildered by it! So Elinor speculates that Mrs. Jennings is asleep at the gossip switch, or else perversely just not wanting to chime as she was previously wont to do. Another one of Elinor’s mistakes, she should have given Mrs. Jennings credit for considerable discretion and restraint in that moment!

And now look at the following passage in Chapter 32, which, when read through this lens, provides very strong evidence of Mrs. Jennings’s belief that Elinor and Brandon have a secret engagement: 

“[Brandon’s] chief reward for the painful exertion of disclosing past sorrows and present humiliations, was given in the pitying eye with which Marianne sometimes observed him, and the gentleness of her voice whenever (though it did not often happen) she was obliged, or could oblige herself to speak to him. THESE assured him that his exertion had produced an increase of good-will towards himself, and THESE gave Elinor hopes of its being farther augmented hereafter; but Mrs. Jennings, WHO KNEW NOTHING OF THIS, who knew only that the Colonel continued as grave as ever, and that she could neither prevail on him to make the offer himself, nor commission her to make it for him, began, at the end of two days, to think that, instead of Midsummer, THEY would not be married till Michaelmas, and by the end of a week that it would not be a match at all. The good understanding between the Colonel and MISS DASHWOOD seemed rather to declare that the honours of the mulberry-tree, the canal, and the yew arbour, would all be made over to HER; and Mrs. Jennings had, for some time ceased to think at all of Mrs. Ferrars. “

So, when that last sentence is properly decoded, the reader confirms what we learnt sub rosa in Chapter 20, i.e., that Mrs. Jennings long ago gave up her initial guess that Elinor and Edward were secretly engaged---whereby Elinor would eventually have become “Mrs. Ferrars”  “some time” before—and instead Mrs. Jennings had by then come to the conclusion that Elinor’s secret “beau” was the Colonel!

And then, immediately after that, in Chapter 33, it is not surprising to see another domino fall in this sequence--when John Dashwood--probably on the authority of Mrs. Palmer (much like Darcy relying on Sir William Lucas, Lady Catherine on Mr. Collins, and General Tilney on John Thorpe)  nauseates Elinor and the reader with his selfish “generosity” about  Brandon as a great match for her, because it gets him (John) off the moral financial hook!

“After staying with them half an hour, [John] asked Elinor to walk with him to Conduit Street, and introduce him to Sir John and Lady Middleton. The weather was remarkably fine, and she readily consented. As soon as they were out of the house, his enquiries began.
"Who is Colonel Brandon? Is he a man of fortune?"
"Yes; he has very good property in Dorsetshire."
"I am glad of it. He seems a most gentlemanlike man; and I think, Elinor, I may congratulate you on the prospect of a very respectable establishment in life."
"Me, brother! what do you mean?"
"He likes you. I observed him narrowly, and am convinced of it. What is the amount of his fortune?"
"I believe about two thousand a year."
"Two thousand a-year;" and then working himself up to a pitch of enthusiastic generosity, he added, "Elinor, I wish with all my heart it were TWICE as much, for your sake."
"Indeed I believe you," replied Elinor; "but I am very sure that Colonel Brandon has not the smallest wish of marrying ME."
"You are mistaken, Elinor; you are very much mistaken. A very little trouble on your side secures him. Perhaps just at present he may be undecided; the smallness of your fortune may make him hang back; his friends may all advise him against it. But some of those little attentions and encouragements which ladies can so easily give will fix him, in spite of himself. And there can be no reason why you should not try for him. It is not to be supposed that any prior attachment on your side—in short, you know as to an attachment of that kind, it is quite out of the question, the objections are insurmountable—you have too much sense not to see all that. Colonel Brandon must be the man; and no civility shall be wanting on my part to make him pleased with you and your family. It is a match that must give universal satisfaction….
...I remember Fanny used to say that [Marianne] would marry sooner and better than you did; not but what she is exceedingly fond of YOU, but so it happened to strike her. She will be mistaken, however. I question whether Marianne NOW, will marry a man worth more than five or six hundred a-year, at the utmost, and I am very much deceived if YOU do not do better. Dorsetshire! I know very little of Dorsetshire; but, my dear Elinor, I shall be exceedingly glad to know more of it; and I think I can answer for your having Fanny and myself among the earliest and best pleased of your visitors."
Elinor tried very seriously to convince him that there was no likelihood of her marrying Colonel Brandon…”

And now, for completeness, here is the climactic portion of the comic scene in Chapter 40 when Mrs. Jennings is finally disabused of her erroneous belief about Elinor and Brandon:

"Well, my dear," she cried, "I sent you up the young man [Edward]. Did not I do right?—And I suppose you had no great difficulty—You did not find him very unwilling to accept your proposal?"
"No, ma'am; THAT was not very likely."
"Well, and how soon will he be ready?—For it seems all to depend upon that."
"Really," said Elinor, "I know so little of these kind of forms, that I can hardly even conjecture as to the time, or the preparation necessary; but I suppose two or three months will complete his ordination."
"Two or three months!" cried Mrs. Jennings; "Lord! my dear, how calmly you talk of it; and can the Colonel wait two or three months! Lord bless me!—I am sure it would put ME quite out of patience!—And though one would be very glad to do a kindness by poor Mr. Ferrars, I do think it is not worth while to wait two or three months for him. Sure somebody else might be found that would do as well; somebody that is in orders already."
"My dear ma'am," said Elinor, "what can you be thinking of?— Why, Colonel Brandon's only object is to be of use to Mr. Ferrars."
"Lord bless you, my dear!—Sure you do not mean to persuade me that the Colonel only marries you for the sake of giving ten guineas to Mr. Ferrars!"
The deception could not continue after this; and an explanation immediately took place, by which both gained considerable amusement for the moment, without any material loss of happiness to either, for Mrs. Jennings only exchanged one form of delight for another, and still without forfeiting her expectation of the first.”

And finally, speaking of being prone to such “deceptions”, look at Elinor’s candid self-assessment back in Chapter 17 and read it with fresh eyes:

"I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes," said Elinor, "in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than
they really are, and I can hardly tell why or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge."
"But I thought it was right, Elinor," said Marianne, "to be guided wholly by the opinion of other people. I thought our judgments were given us merely to be subservient to those of neighbours. This has always been your doctrine, I am sure."
"No, Marianne, never. My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or to conform to their judgment in serious matters?"

Do you see that JA was winking at you already in Chapter 17, smiling to herself at the dramatic evidence of  Elinor’s cluelessness that she was going to hint at for 23 chapters, before revealing it explicitly in Chapter  40. She gives us several experimental examples showing just how such a mistake can survive for a long time, even in the face of repeated presentations to the heroine of important evidence. She  shows us again and again that Elinor (exactly like Emma in her novel!) is repeatedly unable to escape from the prison of her subjectivity and inflexible point of view, and see what she doesn’t expect/want to see.

And finally, when you assemble these textual jigsaw pieces, it becomes a laser beam that zips us right through the looking glass into an alternative reality, the shadow story of S&S!  And a key part of  that readerly journey is realizing that JA has gone to a great deal of authorial trouble to repeatedly, at several separated stages of the novel, to keep revisiting Mrs. Jennings’s belief in and propagation of  the (false) rumor that Elinor and Brandon are secretly engaged. Now, why why why would she do this, in addition to giving us an example of Elinor’s cluelessness? Aye, as Mrs. Jennings might have said, there’s the rub! And there’s  a topic for a future post!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Not Baddeley Done: Jane Austen’s White Spaces & Her Radical Narrative Ambiguity


In Janeites & Austen-L, Diane Reynolds, one of my best partners in crime in peering beneath the light, bright and sparkling surface of Jane Austen’s novels, responded as follows to my recent posts about Baddeley the butler of Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, and his “twin”, the Rhyming Butler of Lovers Vows, the play that is (almost) performed at Mansfield Park, and also the screen-painter who was creating the backdrops for that aborted production:

Diane: "Thanks for compiling all the butler information from MP in one spot. I had not thought about the butler or the scene painter, for that matter, at all. I noted on my blog about Diana's other writing as well, that, as Kenneth Johnston writes, Austen invites us to fill in the gaps or white spaces of her stories."

Diane: "Thanks for compiling all the butler information from MP in one spot. I had not thought about the butler or the scene painter, for that matter, at all. I noted on my blog about Diana's other writing as well, that, as Kenneth Johnston writes, Austen invites us to fill in the gaps or white spaces of her stories."

I respond as follows.

Indeed, Diane, Jane Austen invites us to actively fill in those gaps by giving us hints that these are not merely accidental, unintended, meaningless gaps, but are intentional and meaningful.

Your comment made me realize that these threads about the scene-painter and the butlers of  Mansfield Park are actually part and parcel of a much larger and more fundamental aspect of Jane Austen’s fiction, which has long been a special focus of mine.

To wit, I claim that the primary reason why Jane Austen focuses point of view in her novels almost exclusively in the minds of her primary heroines (Catherine, Elinor, Elizabeth, Fanny,   Emma & Anne), is so that JA can thereby inobtrusively create narration which is totally ambiguous, i.e., it can be read as largely objective, describing what “really” happens, OR as largely subjective, describing what the heroine believes is really happening, even if what is “really” happening may be quite different.

And now I see how the gaps or white spaces, as Johnston so aptly describe them, fit in perfectly with that overall authorial strategy of ambiguity. I.e., for all that JA is universally famed and admired, by scholarly and amateur Janeites alike, as the great fictional realist of ordinary life, these gaps or white spaces are, ironically, the MOST realistic aspects of JA's fiction!

How so? Because, when we each construct the story of our own individual lives, assuming the role of hero or heroine in our own minds, we inevitably overemphasize details of the lives of some of those around us, and we also underemphasize or ignore details of the lives of some others living in close proximity to us.

And so, since Mansfield Park is told mostly from Fanny Price's point of view, it is additionally ironic that she, who is almost a servant herself at MP during her childhood there, is surprisingly inattentive to the lives of the actual servants there, like Baddeley. If we hear almost nothing about their lives, it is because Fanny does not notice them. And we receive further indirect but powerful evidence of that ignoring of her social inferiors, when we travel with Fanny back to Portsmouth, and we learn by listening to the narrative inside Fanny’s head that she is appalled and nauseated by the lower class family life she spent her first 8 years in.

Diane also wrote: "I find the butler particularly interesting, because it indicates once again that Austen had imagined her world out beyond the boundaries of the novel. Of course, Mrs. Grant and Baddeley would be arch enemies--she would constantly be trying to "sponge" from the Mansfield larder and he would be constantly holding her at bay. We can imagine Austen having them face off and then deleting those scenes as not essential to her story."

I heartily agree with the first part of that, Diane, but I strongly disagree with your last sentence --- if JA ever wrote those other scenes, which I strongly doubt, she'd have deleted them not because they were inessential, but because their being in the novel would’ve undermined the subjectivity of the narration, i.e., the irony of Fanny the quasi-servant ignoring the inner life of the actual servants would have been lost.

It never seems to occur to Fanny, in fact, that her future might well turn out to be the same as Mrs. Norris's--a maiden aunt/cousin living out her life in close proximity to the man she loves, who is married to another woman--it's pretty obvious that Mrs. Norris wishes she had become Lady Bertram instead!

So, that all makes Fanny's blindness to the rivalry between Baddeley and Mrs. Norris even more interesting and realistic--it shows that Fanny, who in her own unique way is every bit as clueless as Emma, is as prone to pride and prejudice as her cousins.

Again, that's NOT “Baddeley” done on JA's part, it's really DONE WELL!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter