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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Scene-Painter in (and of) Mansfield Park

Diana Birchalls replied to my previous post:  “Arnie, I'm so glad you liked my story, but I'm laughing at your inventiveness in attributing allusions and subtext to a LIVING writer (me!) that I know I never meant! “

Diana, I know I’m on the right track when I make you laugh – and in that regard, you should know that Mary Crawford, who I think is JA’s wittiest character (even more than Elizabeth Bennet, because I think Mary’s wit has more depth supporting it), is my role model. ;)


Diana also wrote: “When the cherubs popped into my mind it had nothing whatever to do with Paradise Lost, which I have not revisited since a Milton course in college forty years ago.  I simply thought that meaty fat little cherubs would be a very funny thing for heavy pink-cloaked Mr. Rushworth to be wanting in his scenery. You are very learned on the subject, yourself, and incredibly ingenious, but I have to confirm to you, since you ask - yes, in this case, a cherub is just a cherub!”

And I’ll promptly pass that ci-garish news on to my ghostly and not very cherubic friend, Sigmund.  ;)

I also want you to know that your inventive juxtaposition of cherubs with Lovers Vows serendipitously led me to take what has turned out to be a further fruitful line of scholarly inquiry since yesterday. I.e., I have found strong evidence that it is not a coincidence that two of the major allusive sources for Mansfield Park are (1) Milton’s Paradise Lost and (2) Kotzebue/Inchbald’s Lovers Vows. It may seem like these are apples and oranges, and just happen to be the principal subtexts, respectively, of the Sotherton wilderness episode and the Lovers Vows theatricals episode; but I can show that these allusions are actually strongly but covertly connected in a very surprising and thematically significant way-it’s way too complicated to explain at present, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m in your debt for (however unintentionally) leading me in that off-the-beaten-trail direction!


Diana also wrote: “It's very clever too, your relating my scene to Hamlet ("will you see the players well bestowed?"), but again, nothing could have been farther from my mind in writing the scene, than Hamlet.”

Thank you, and I believe you on that point as well. What is particularly satisfying about it, is that the idea of the Scene-Painter as a theatrical intruder/interloper came to you not via awareness of the Hamlet allusion in MP, but as a rational inference by you based solely on the “harms” attributed to his brief presence in MP. It’s a great example of how JA’s literary (and historical) allusions are never just there as a superficial, heavy-handed show of literary erudition--rather, they’re always subtle, and supported by an infrastructure of tiny bits of verbal “deal board”—they are earned, if you will—and are therefore solid and able to support thematic weight.


Diana also wrote: “The "John the Painter" reference is most interesting, and I can't say if it was in Jane Austen's mind or not, but it certainly wasn't in mine, as I'd never heard of it before.”

Understood—but mark my words, don’t be surprised if sometime something will “ignite” somewhere else in JA’s writing which also connects improbably to the notorious arsonist John the Painter—till then, it will sits there as an intriguing, off-the-wall possibility of an allusion.


And now, before I finish, I will add a fourth insight that I have derived from this brief but intensive study of the Scene-Painter in MP inspired by Diana’s wonderful little  dramatization. During my research, I came across a thorough, fascinating summary of the history of theatrical scene-painting, going back to Renaissance Italy—it’s in the January 30, 1875 issue of All The Year Round, the periodical founded by Charles Dickens, and owned in 1875 by his son Charles, Jr., and here is the URL if you want to read the whole thing:

The article is entitled “Paint and Canvas” and while it’s relatively short, it’s still too long to quote in full here. But I will give you a couple of excerpts which relate to my fourth insight about the Scene-Painter in MP:

“…Vasari relates that he conducted Titian to see certain works of Peruzzi, of which the illusion was most complete. The greater artist "could by no means be persuaded that they were simply painted, and remained in astonishment, when, on changing his point of view, he perceived that they were so."
… [Ben] Jonson, describing his Masque of Blackness, performed before the court at Whitehall, on Twelfth Night, 1605, says, "for the scene was drawn a landscape, consisting of small woods, and here and there a void place, filled with huntings; which falling, an artificial sea was seen to shoot forth, as if it flowed to the land, raised with waves, which seemed to move, and in some places the billows to break, as imitating that orderly disorder which is common in nature…Thus represented, the scene behind seemed a vast sea, and united with this that flowed forth, from the termination or horizon of which (being the head of the state, which was placed in the upper end of the hall) was drawn by the lines of perspective, the whole work shooting downwards from the eye, which decorum made it more conspicuous, and caught the eye afar off with a wondering beauty, to which was added an obscure and cloudy night piece, that made the whole set off. So much for the bodily part, which was of Master Inigo Jones's design and art."
… It will be remembered that Mr. Puff in the Critic giving a specimen of "the puff direct" in regard to a new play, says: "As to the scenery, the miraculous powers of Mr. De Loutherbourg are universally acknowledged. In short, we are at a loss which to admire most, the unrivalled genius of the author, the great attention and liberality of the managers, the wonderful abilities of the painter, or the incredible exertions of all the performers." Shortly after his arrival in England, about 1770, De Loutherbourg became a contributor to the exhibition of the Royal Academy…. Turner when, in 1808, he was appointed Professor of Perspective to the Royal Academy, is said to have taken up his abode at Hammersmith in order that he might be near De Loutherbourg, for whose works he professed cordial admiration. The old scene-painter's bold and strong effects, his daring treatment of light and shade, his system of colour, bright even to gaudiness, probably arrested the attention of the younger artist, and were to him exciting influences. Upon De Loutherbourg's landscapes, however, little store is now placed; but, as a scene-painter, he deserves to be remembered for the ingenious reforms he introduced. He found the scene a mere "flat " of strained canvas extending over the whole stage. He was the first to use "set scenes" and "raking pieces." He also invented transparent scenes with representations of moonlight, sunshine, firelight, volcanoes, etc., and obtained new effects of colour by means of silken screens of various hues placed before the foot and side lights. He discovered, too, that ingenious effects might be obtained by suspending gauzes between the scene and the spectators. These are now, of course, but commonplace contrivances: they were, however, distinctly the inventions of De Loutherbourg, and were calculated to impress the playgoers of his time very signally. To Garrick, De Loutherbonrg rendered very important assistance, for Garrick was much inclined to scenic decorations of a showy character, although as a rule he restricted these embellishments to the afterpieces, and for the more legitimate entertainments of his stage was content to employ old and stock scenery that had been of service in innumerable plays. …”

Reading the above made me realize that JA, who, it is already well established, knew a great deal about visual art and the picturesque, was probably also pretty sophisticated in her knowledge of what a Scene-Painter actually did---and what she didn’t know, sister Cassandra, the accomplished visual artist, surely did.

We know JA really loved the theatre, so of course she’d have been attentive not merely to the words spoken in a play, but also to the backdrops, the staging, i.e., the totality of a performed play. Were she and CEA members of the crew in those Steventon theatricals when she was 12-13 years old—did she also play appropriately small roles as well? I guess so!

What I know for sure is that she really would have had a backstory in mind for the Scene-Painter. I imagine that Tom Bertram would have had his Scene-Painter friend avoid busy, distracting backdrops, in favor of subtler, targeted images.

But more important, as I stepped back one level further, away from the Lover’s Vows production itself, I meditated on scene-painting as a metaphor for narration in a novel. I thought about JA’s minimalist narrative artistry, in which she deliberately omitted a great deal of general physical description that clutters up the narration of so many other novelists, in favor of a number of precise, targeted visual images (like, e.g., Robert Ferrars’s toothpick case, or the colors of the faces of the sailors observed by Sir Walter, etc.) which reveal character in a visual flash.

And what especially caught my eye in the above quoted 1875 article about scene-painting was the description of the kinds of subtle illusions that were already being achieved by the likes of De Loutherberg, using gauze, screens, perspectives, etc. It reminded me of two passages in JA’s novels, one of them the various reference to the ha-ha in the Sotherton wilderness in MP, and the other Henry Tilney’s lecture on visual aesthetic techniques that sails right over poor Catherine’s head:

“In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape….”

I suggest to you that Jane Austen was very conscious of herself as a literary scene-painter and landscape designer par excellence, using words instead of paint or trees, and she was particularly skilled and innovative in creating novelistic versions of the ha-ha at Sotherton and the side-screens and perspectives described by Henry and utilized by scene-painters like de Loutherberg. She knew how to create illusions via words, to lead her readers down the garden path of superficial interpretation, making them think they understood exactly what they were seeing, but also providing subtle clues to her close readers enabling them to assume alternative perspectives from which her novels could be perceived very very differently.

And I would never have walked down that particular path of interpretation if Diana had not invited me to notice the Scene-Painter of Mansfield Park.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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