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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, September 22, 2014

My "AHA!" HA-HA moment about Fanny Price, Mary Crawford AND Maria Bertram as the THREE Faces of Cressidas in Mansfield Park

This post is in followup to my post a few days ago about Fanny Price & Mary Crawford, in which I asserted that these two young women, while seemingly diametric opposites in personality (one the ultimate moralizing Shrinking Violet, the other the ultimate relativist Big Mouth), were intended by JA to be seen by the Shakespeare-savvy reader as the two Cressidas who briefly war with each other, just before Cressida decides to sleep with Troilus. 

That allusion by JA, I further claimed, leads to seeing Mary and Fanny metaphorically as two sides of the same female soul, a soul split apart by familial abuse that each of them has suffered during their respective youthful lives, with Mary yearning to be "reunited" to Fanny, a yearning that ultimately is NOT fulfilled.

Well, today, I noticed another very sly wrinkle to that same veiled allusion in Mansfield Park to the two Cressidas in Shakespeare's play, which makes me add Maria Bertram to the list of Cressidas in MP, thus bringing us to a total of THREE, hence my Subject Line!

First, to recap, I noticed 5 years ago that the following notorious and controversial passage in MP....

[MARY CRAWFORD] "....Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough.

Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, "It is a noble profession."


...was a veiled but, to me, unmistakable allusion to the following less well known passage in Troilus & Cressida:

CRESSIDA: Did not I tell you? Would he were knock'd i' the head!
[Knocking within]

Who's that at door? good uncle, go and see.




CRESSIDA Come, you are deceived, I think of no such thing END QUOTE

I.e., I say that Mary Crawford is intentionally channeling Cressida's apparent sexual Freudian slip, because we know that Mary does very much "mean naughtily" in her broad wink at her uncle's dissolute circle of admirals, and their abusive practices (which, Mary thereby tries, unsuccessfully, to warn Fanny, gravely endanger William Price's sexual integrity).

But it was only this morning that I had another "Aha!" moment about JA winking at Cressida's and Troilus's bawdy exchange--now i see that JA winked at it a second  time in Mansfield Park, and my realization was like coming upon an actual ha-ha and seeing the hidden depths that had only a moment before been invisible. I.e., this allusion I will be unpacking the rest of this post is one of Jane Austen's most inspired literary ha-has!

And here it is, Chapters 9 & 10, i.e., only a few chapters after Mary's very naughty pun, when the young people arrive at the gates of the Edenic wilderness at Sotherton:

Ch. 9:

"A few steps farther brought them out at the bottom of the very walk they had been talking of; and standing back, well shaded and sheltered, and LOOKING OVER A HA-HA into the park, was a comfortable-sized bench, on which they all sat down.

"I am afraid you are very tired, Fanny," said Edmund, observing her; "why would not you speak sooner? This will be a bad day's amusement for you if you are to be knocked up. Every sort of exercise fatigues her so soon, Miss Crawford, except riding."

"How abominable in you, then, to let me engross her horse as I did all last week! I am ashamed of you and of myself, but it shall never happen again."

"Your attentiveness and consideration makes me more sensible of my own neglect. Fanny's interest seems in safer hands with you than with me."

"That she should be tired now, however, gives me no surprise; for there is nothing in the course of one's duties so fatiguing as what we have been doing this morning: seeing a great house, dawdling from one room to another, straining one's eyes and one's attention, hearing what one does not understand, admiring what one does not care for. It is generally allowed to be the greatest bore in the world, and Miss Price has found it so, though she did not know it."

"I shall soon be rested," said Fanny; "to sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment."

After sitting a little while Miss Crawford was up again. "I must move," said she; "resting fatigues me. I have LOOKED ACROSS THE HA-HA till I am weary. I must go and look through that iron gate at the same view, without being able to see it so well."


Ch. 10:

[Maria] "Naturally, I believe, I am as lively as Julia, but I have more to think of now."

[Henry] "You have, undoubtedly; and there are situations in which very high spirits would denote insensibility. Your prospects, however, are too fair to justify want of spirits. You have a very smiling scene before you."

"Do you mean literally or figuratively? Literally, I conclude. Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, THAT HA-HA, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. 'I cannot get out,' as the starling said." As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate: he followed her. "Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!"

"And for the world you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth's authority and protection, or I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited."

"Prohibited! nonsense! I certainly can get out that way, and I will. Mr. Rushworth will be here in a moment, you know; we shall not be out of sight."

"Or if we are, Miss Price will be so good as to tell him that he will find us near that knoll: the grove of oak on the knoll."

Fanny, feeling all this to be wrong, could not help making an effort to prevent it. "You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram," she cried; "you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown; you will be IN DANGER OF SLIPPING INTO THE HA-HA. You had better not go."

Her cousin was safe on the other side while these words were spoken, and, smiling with all the good-humour of success, she said, "Thank you, my dear Fanny, but I and my gown are alive and well, and so good-bye."

Do you hear the echo? Troilus says "Ha, ha!" and the above passages in MP refer to the ha-ha (technically, the
recessed landscape design element that created a vertical barrier between parts of the Sotherton wilderness while preserving views). So my "Aha!" moment was in realizing that JA meant for her Shakespeare-savvy reader to hear Troilus's laughter in these two dialogs about the Sotherton ha-ha.

Of course, I do not claim to be the first to seeing a sexual meaning in the Sotherton ha-ha.  It was Jill Heydt-Stevenson, in 1999, who launched the first really successful, widely publicized scholarly attack on that part of the Myth of Jane Austen which claimed that there was no sexual innuendo in JA's novels. In JHS's article, which she fittingly entitled "Slipping into the Ha-Ha", she brilliantly unpacked the over the top Freudian symbolism of the sexually drenched innuendoes implicit in not only the obvious iron gate and key, but also the ha-ha, the sexual meaning of which is not at first obvious, but which is, upon further consideration, even more powerfully sexual--after all, a woman's vagina is very much like a landscape ha-ha, in that a significant portion of the land within the wilderness comprises hidden depths, with two parallel borders, depths which are not visible from a distance, but which can be fully perceived once the gate is opened with an appropriate key, and the observer is standing in the right spot, and with the right perspective. I mean, really---could this  innuendo be more sexual?

And now look again at the passage in Troilus & Cressida, which ALSO involves a personification of a non-human physical object--a chamber, or living space, as a symbol for the vagina, which, as Troilus's laughter makes explicit, is a "chamber" into which a man may "come" and then, after a while, "come again". 

John Wiltshire has eloquently written about how Jane Austen did not slavishly allude to Shakespeare, she "recreated" (in both the sense of a new creation, and also of artistic play) Shakespeare, and this is a perfect example. This is the very opposite of the kind of heavy-handed obvious allusion that many literary scholars seem to consider
as the only ones "proven" to be intentional, and therefore worth noticing--this allusion hides in plain sight, like a ha-ha! It is obvious only to the reader who recognizes JA's winks as intentional, has an    "Aha!"  moment, and then explores, from a fresh perspective, the relevant passages in Mansfield Park and in Troilus & Cressida, and then puts the pieces together, and recognizes the full significance of this hidden parallelism.

But please also note that JA played fair with the reader, and added one other wrinkle as an insurance policy, another textual portal through which the reader's attention to the parallel might be drawn. JA has Mary add the part about not suspecting her of a pun, because this is exactly what Cressida, in different words, does in her embarrassed (yet titillated?) response to Troilus's crudely sexual laughter.

And that brings us to Maria Bertram as the third Cressida of MP. In Shakespeare, Cressida is torn between keeping her virtue intact or giving her body to the man she has secretly yearned for, and then she is the butt of laughter when he jilts her not long after. And isn't that exactly what goes on with Maria Bertram vis a vis Henry Crawford during the course of their forbidden relationship? That ha-ha gives Maria a feeling of restraint and hardship, and so she does allow Henry to slip into HER ha-ha, only to be jilted by him in the end as well. 

And, in closing, to those who claim I have exaggerated the significance of all of the above, you should have by now suspected my reply, which echoes Troilus: 

Ha, Ha!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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