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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mary Crawford paraphrases the Doge (and Jesus): Teaching Fanny to think (way) outside the…cage, by rendering unto Bertram ONLY what is Bertram’s

I am so glad for Laurel Ann Nattress’s recent post (at Sarah Emsley’s Austen-themed blog) about “Mary Crawford: the black cloud of Mansfield Park”, a post which has spawned much discussion:

As my recent posts show, Laurel Ann’s post has prompted me to revisit many of Mary Crawford’s bon mots in MP, and to see them now as all of a piece--even more clearly than before, I see them as the utterances of a subversive Zen master, who finds a way, repeatedly, to teach (while seeming not to teach) her unwitting student, Fanny Price, what IS worth knowing, for a young woman in their world and time. And as my Subject Line states, and you will see before the end of this post, I see that it’s not just Zen Buddhism behind Mary’s covert campaign, it also goes to the heart of Mary’s (and JA’s) radical feminist Christianity.

Specifically and repeatedly, Mary, under the guise of seeming to speak egotistically only about herself, covertly gives her younger friend a subtle education in thinking (way) outside the box (or, to borrow Maria Bertram’s metaphor, the cage)—teaching Fanny the fine art of subverting an oppressive patriarchal regime, of which Sir Thomas Bertram’s reign at Mansfield Park is the quintessential example. As Mary herself puts it, in her witty parody of a famous parody of Pope by Browne:

And this, too:
Blest Knight! whose dictatorial looks dispense
     To Children affluence, to Rushworth sense.

Sir Thomas begins the novel as the unchallenged dictator of Mansfield Park, and yet at the end, in no small part because Fanny summons up the courage to defy Sir Thomas’s pressure to marry Henry, Fanny not only survives, she actually prospers—Sir Thomas’s tyranny has been blunted. I.e., Mary has taught Fanny very well indeed exactly what was worth knowing!

As one of the best examples of that novel-long process of teaching, today I revisit what Mary says to Fanny during one of their frequent strolls in the shrubbery at the Parsonage after Julia and Maria leave Mansfield Park. In that tete-a-tete , we read the following riposte by Mary to Fanny’s rhapsody on nature and memory:

“To say the truth," replied Miss Crawford, "I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it."

Two commenters responded to Laurel Ann’s post by pointing to that very speech and judging Mary harshly for it:

Lady T: “Mary’s blithe attitude towards anything that does not suit her fancy appears again and again in the novel; her “do not bother me with watches” mock debate with Edmund at Sotherton, that “sweets of country living” remark to Mrs. Grant which came not too soon after replying to Fanny about the scenic setting they were in where she compares her disinterest in the shrubbery to that of the Doge.”

Natalia: “It is true that Fanny is not “accomplished” in a way Mary is, but I think she is much more sophisticated. In Chapter 22, when Mary and Fanny take a walk together in the parsonage garden, Fanny tries to engage Mary in a non-trivial conversation, sharing her deep and very interesting reflections. Mary’s only answer “I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it.…” is witty and brilliant, true, but at the same time primitive.”

Blithe, primitive, trivial, narcissistic—I think it fair to say that those comments reflect the overwhelming judgment of non-scholarly Janeites on Mary Crawford’s aphorism. But what about Austen scholars?

Not very different, it turns out, even among insightful and unconventional scholars: 

Colleen Sheehan: “The individual is not limited by nature or God; rather she is, like Mary Crawford or the Doge at the court of Louis XIV, at the center or all existence and poised to become master of all that
surrounds her.”

Emily Auerbach: “…Austen links the witty Mary Crawford to the decadence and selfishness of French culture by having Mary compare herself to the narcissistic Doge in the court of Louis XIV.”

Barbara Britton Wenner: “Now, of course, Mary is commenting on finding  herself in such a rural setting, lacking the excitement  and stimulation of London, but she is  also placing herself as an object in the landscape, much as though she were observing herself as the male landscape  proprietor might observe her. …Mary saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation: her attention was all for men and women.” However, the cure here involves noticing and internalizing the landscape, not simply skimming over it superficially.”

Four years ago, I posted an alternative take on Mary’s speech, pointing out that JA (speaking through Mary) had concealed her own erudition about the actual historical context in which the Doge of Venice had famously uttered the words paraphrased by Mary, history as reported by no less illustrious a historian than Voltaire, regarding the 1685 bombardment of Genoa by Louis XIV:

 “The Republick of Genoa humbled itself still more submissively towards {Louis XIV], than that of Algiers. The Genoese had sold gun-powder and bombs to the Algerines; and had likewise built four gallies for the service of Spain. The King forbad them, by his Envoy St. Olon, one of his Gentlemen in ordinary, to launch those ships, and menaced them with immediate chastisement, if they did not instantly comply with his demand. The Genoese, incensed at this violation of their liberties, and depending too much upon the support of Spain, gave him no satisfaction. Immediately fourteen men of war, twenty gallies, ten bombketches, with several frigates, set sail from the port of Toulon. …They arrived before Genoa, and the ten bomb ketches discharged fourteen thousand 57 shells into the town, which reduced to ashes a principal part of those marble edifices which had intitled this city to the name of Genoa the Proud. Four thousand men were then landed, who marched up to the gates, and burned the Suburb of St. Peter of Arena. It was now thought prudent to submit, in order to prevent the total destruction of the place.
The King exacted that the Doge of Genoa, with four of the principal Senators, should come and implore his clemency in the Palace of Versailles; and lest the Genoese should elude the making this satisfaction, and lessen in any manner the pomp of it, he insisted farther that the Doge, who was to perform this embassy, should be continued in his magistracy…The Doge, apparelled in his robes of state, his head covered with a bonnet of red velvet, which he often took off during his speech, made his submission, the very words and demeanour of which were dictated and prescribed to him by Seignelai. The King gave him audience, sitting and covered: but as in all the actions of his life he joined politeness with dignity, he behaved towards Lercaro and the Senators with as much graciousness as state.  The Ministers treated them with more haughtiness; which gave the Doge occasion to say, "The King captivates our hearts by the manner in which he receives us, but his Ministers set them at liberty again." The Doge was a man of a lively wit. Everyone has heard the reply he made to the Marquis of Seignelai, when he asked him what he found most remarkable at Versailles? “To see myself here," said he. “ 

In 2010, I interpreted Mary Crawford’s accurate paraphrase of the Doge as fitting the context in the Parsonage shrubbery, i.e., as an obliquely defiant statement by Mary in an unacknowledged cold war between her and Fanny over Edmund.

However now I see it in a larger context, i.e., that this is just one among many examples of Mary modeling for Fanny how a woman can defy patriarchal oppression and get away with it. I.e., reading Voltaire’s account carefully shows that the Doge was not a self-indulgent narcissist, but instead was a resourceful rebel, who found a clever non-violent way to refuse to be utterly humiliated and degraded by Louis XIV, and to deny the French king the satisfaction of hearing the Doge’s unqualified verbal submission. Louis could destroy most of Genoa for its defiance of his orders, but he could not force Genoa to be grateful for it. And on top of that, the Doge was perhaps also mocking the saying for which Louis XIV’s remains famous for (allegedly) saying, which is the ultimate in the narcissism of personification:      “L’etat, c’est moi.”   (“France IS me”).

And as I wrote the previous paragraph, I was reminded of the ultimate touchstone for this sort of witty defiance, in which the most famous master of paradox in human history avoids direct confrontation to another tyrant, while at the same time avoiding submitting to that power:  

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.”

There is no doubt in my mind that JA, with her peerless Biblical insight and knowledge, fully intended for the knowing reader of MP to recognize what at first might seem absurd---that Mary, in paraphrasing the Doge, is also emulating Jesus, seeking to jolt her “disciple” Fanny into a new awareness of the power of indirect, subversive resistance to oppression. And the veiled allusion to Jesus  adds sharp irony to Tom Bertram’s faux innocent statement to brother Edmund, who worries what Sir  Thomas will think about their amateur theatrical: “How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be'd and not to be'd, in this very room, for his amusement?”  Just as I have long argued that MP is one extended riff on Hamlet, with Sir Thomas as King Claudius, so too is it an extended riff on Julius Caesar, in which the narcissism of Caesar wanting to be proclaimed emperor of Rome leads to his assassination, and that reflects on the humbling of Sir  Thomas at  the end of MP, his domestic power unchallenged no more.

But back to Fanny’s quiet nonviolent rebellion. In the end, Fanny refuses to render unto her uncle what is NOT his, i.e., her body, mind, heart, soul, and life. And I say, this would never have happened had Mary NOT taught--by not teaching---Fanny to see herself as an autonomous being with the God-given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So, friends, Janeites, and countrymen, I hope I made good use of your lending me your eyes during your reading of this post, and I also hope at least some of you are ready to join me in praising Mary Crawford instead of burying her in condemnation!  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Anonymous said...

Forgive me for commenting anonymously. This moment is such a profound example of how much a reading by someone ignorant of Austen's incredibly rich knowledge and subtle use of allusions to liturature, philosophy, history (and more) is the epitome of shallow.

I find Mary's character exceptionally intetesting and the dismissal of her as vulgar and 'shallow' drives me bonkers. Mary was as much one of Austen's masterpieces as any of her heroines (including Fanny) and I can only wish more people would look past the surface and at least notice the existance of the depth underneath.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Whoever you were, sorry to reply 2 years late! Thank you for your wonderful comment, which I hobvously agree with!