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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Backstory of the Scene-Painter in Mansfield Park

Earlier today, Diana  Birchall posted.....

....the first part of her new story in which she uses her fertile imagination to conjure up a name and a personality for the scene-painter whom Tom Bertram invites to Mansfield Park from London to paint  the backdrops  for the amateur theatrical of Lovers Vows. I really enjoyed her story, and have the following reaction:

Diana, thank you for that pleasing flight of well-crafted fancy, which you managed to tease out of those two very short passages in MP which mention the unnamed Scene-Painter whose artwork never sees the light of theatrical day, thanks to the premature return of Sir Thomas. You got me thinking about that shadowy personage the Scene-Painter, and here are some of the lines of inquiry you inspired me to—which validate your suggestion that one good way to see more deeply into JA’s dark textual corners is by riffing fiction on them:

FIRST:  Behind your witty emulation of one of JA’s memorable comic ensemble scenes (such as the post office discussion in Emma), you’ve implicitly raised a very interesting question-- i.e., what sorts of scenes and images did the Scene-Painter create for the Mansfield Park edition (so to speak) of Lovers Vows?  What allusive subtext did JA create for this peripheral character?

Your having Mr. Rushworth request cherubs in the backdrop for his scenes playing the slimy Count Cassel was not only funny, it was learned as well. Behind the grotesque comedy, you seem to be pointing to the well-established Paradise Lost subtext of this most Biblical of JA’s novels.  In Genesis 3:24 we read of the final human exit from the Edenic wilderness:  So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.  And of course there are also countless references to Cherubim in Milton’s epic inspired by Genesis.

It is hard to read Genesis 3:24 and not recall the various ways that the gates guarding the Sotherton wilderness are circumvented by various transgressors, yet Rushworth, in effect, obeys the Cherubim who guard the gate, and obediently goes to get the key! And it’s fruitful (ha ha) to take this one step further and think of the young soldier Frederick in Lover’s Vows as an avenging cherub who returns to restore his mother (and himself) to the “Eden” whence they were expelled by his father Baron Wildenhaim when Frederick was conceived in sin. So Frederick can then be seen to be both Adam and Cherub, while his father the hypocritical Baron is seen to play three roles in succession—the seductive serpent, the punitive God, and then the reluctant Adam—in the end, Paradise Regained, if you will. I wonder if Kotzebue, Inchbald, and/or Jane Austen herself had any of that in mind?

Anyway, if you tell me that none of that was a conscious allusion on your part, Diana, and that sometimes a Cherub is just a Cherub, I suppose I’ll have to believe you!   ;)

SECOND:  Returning to my longstanding belief that the Lover’s Vows episode in Mansfield Park has its most significant allusive source in the Mousetrap episode in Hamlet, I think we can see the Scene-Painter as a one-man version of the troupe of itinerant players who show up at Elsinore and inspire Hamlet (like Tom Bertram) to spontaneously stage a theatrical mousetrap. 

Diana dramatized Tom’s having invited the Scene-Painter to Mansfield Park, she picked up on the implied portrait of him as an outsider/ theater person, and made comedic hay out of the question of where he will be housed. She thereby prompted me to recall the following very famous exchange in Hamlet:

And now follow me to my third and most out-there speculative reaction to Diana’s story…

THIRD: When Sir Thomas puts the kibosh on the Scene-Painter--both his person and his work-product--in Chapter 20…

“…active and methodical, [Sir Thomas] had not only done all this before he resumed his seat as master of the house at dinner, he had also set the carpenter to work in pulling down what had been so lately put up in the billiard-room, and given the scene-painter his dismissal long enough to justify the pleasing belief of his being then at least as far off as Northampton. The scene-painter was gone, having spoilt only the floor of one room, ruined all the coachman's sponges, and made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied…..”

…I read that last sentence as coming from Sir Thomas’s point of view, and not as an objective account of what really happened. I.e., just as Claudius freaks out while watching the Mousetrap and probably sends the traveling players packing from Elsinore, so too does Sir Thomas reserve special animus for the Scene-Painter, who is treated like a walking Ebola virus!

And as I follow that train of thought, I go immediately to Sir Thomas’s final act of purging Mansfield Park of the infection of Lovers Vows and other dramatic mousetraps for powerful hypocrites like himself:

“…and Sir Thomas was in hopes that another day or two would suffice to wipe away every outward memento of what had been, even to the destruction of every unbound copy of Lovers' Vows in the house, for he was burning all that met his eye...”

BURNING all that met his eye….hmmm…reading that while thinking about all that negativity about the Scene-PAINTER in the same compound sentence, made my mind leap to what at first seems a very tenuous connection:

When Jane Austen was a little baby, the infamous John the Painter was, briefly, the terror of England. And here’s the part of John the Painter’s wild ride that so weirdly reminds me of the Scene-Painter at Mansfield Park:

“At some point after a 1775 return trip to England he developed his scheme of political arson. …striking a blow on behalf of the American revolutionaries…The British dockyards, Aitken believed, were vulnerable to attack, and he was convinced that one highly motivated arsonist could cripple the Royal Navy by destroying ships in the harbours, but more importantly the dockyards and ropewalks used to build, refit and repair the massive Royal Navy.  Despite being a wanted criminal for his other crimes, Aitken travelled freely to several dockyards to determine their vulnerability. …Using his training with mixing chemicals and paint solvents from his trade as a painter, Aitken solicited the help of several others into constructing crude incendiary devices with the intention of burning down the highly flammable buildings in the Royal Dockyards. Over the course of several months Aitken attacked facilities in Portsmouth and Bristol, creating the impression that a band of terrorists was on the loose in England.
...Aitken's exploits, though only marginally successful at causing actual damage, did succeed in generating a significant amount of panic among the British public and government. Unsurprisingly, other fires detected during the same time period were incorrectly attributed to Aitken, fanning the alarm… Eventually, through the help of Sir John Fielding, a description of Aitken and a reward for his capture were posted. Soon after, Aitken was arrested while travelling through the country. …British authorities hanged John the Painter on 10 March 1777 [on] the highest gallows ever to be used in an execution in England. Some 20,000 people reportedly witnessed the hanging. “

What makes this history interesting to me is that Mansfield Park has been recognized by mainstream Austen scholars for a number of years as having in its shadowy subtext various contemporary national and world events relating to revolts and rebellions—Edgeworth’s Grateful Negro, with its slave revolt in the West Indies, the mutinies at Noor and Spithead, the American Revolution---all these insurrections are hinted at in MP. And Mrs. Norris worries about the (supposedly) dangerous “encroachments” of the Jacksons.

 So  maybe, just maybe, that’s John the Painter hiding there behind the backdrop in Sir  Thomas’s room, getting ready to burn the joint down, with the help of the Player King and a cherub or two.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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