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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Was Phylly Walter (Fanny Price) ambivalent about "acting" on her attraction to Eliza de Feuillide (Mary Crawford)?

In Austen L and Janeites today, Ellen Moody wrote: “I've long wondered but have never mentioned it on line, on my website or blog, much less in print if Philadelphia Walter's refusal to act in the Steventon theatricals in the later 1780s was one of the sources of Fanny's refusal. That I've never seen it mentioned in print suggests to me few read these Austen papers. The terms, the feel  of her refusal, even Mrs Austen's typical semi-comic bullying through insistence on everyone being prosaic and thick-skinned reasonable fits the portrait. Unlike Fanny, Phila could just refuse to show up, but she didn't she came, and I expect she did act -- though grudgingly and Jane Austen saw all this and put it into MP. “

 I responded as follows:

Ellen, your memory is playing tricks with you---you yourself wrote the following two years ago in your blog:  “Philadelphia reminds me of Fanny Price with her insistence she will not play in the play and refusal to come to participate in the Steventon theatricals. She is narrow-minded and often takes the least generous interpretation of whatever Eliza is doing. I have to admit her words remind me of Fanny and Edmund’s worse kind of condescending moralizing, except in Philadelphia it comes across as jealousy. Why did Eliza clung to her? Because finally Philly accepted her and was willing to be closely associated as few were. Very stark and striking is the sudden cessation of the letters to Philly. Precisely with the death of little Hastings.”

But you are not the first to write about this, far from it. Deborah Kaplan wrote the following in her 1994 book Jane Austen Among Women:

“See the letters referring to the Austen family's 1787 theatrical in AP, 123- 29. Philadelphia Walter, assumed by many to be the real-life progenitor of Mansfield Park's Fanny Price, did not object to women acting or to home theatricals. When she turned down the Austens’ invitation to participate in their home entertainment, she may have given feminine propriety as one of her own reasons, but she did not marshal the domestic ideology in the service of a blanket condemnation of genteel women taking acting parts.”

And I myself have extended that basic recognition of Phylly Walter as source for Fanny Price by pointing out four years ago in January 2011 that she was a member of a Jamaica-slave-plantation-owning family:

“Jane Austen's Letter #8: The Mansfield Park Double Connection”

I give a great deal of specific info there that shows how extensive was the allusion to Phylly Walter and Eliza de Feuillide in Mansfield Park –but it occurs to me now to add another strand---given the strong but never-acted-on lesbian vibe that is clearly depicted in MP between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price.... makes me wonder whether Jane Austen saw that sort of  vibe between her two cousins, Eliza and Phylly.

I had previously noticed that pun at work in MP with all the talk about “acting” --- so now I believe that just as JA artfully shows how Fanny is drawn into getting involved in the “acting” of Lover’s Vows ,so too is Fanny drawn dangerously close to “acting” on the strong physical attraction between her and Mary- this of course is brilliantly depicted in the rain-drenched clothing undressing scene in Rozema’s MP.

It seems impossible that members of JA’s family would have failed to see all these connections in MP.


After responding earlier today to Ellen, when I got to my desktop, I searched in my files and found that Deborah Kaplan had been entirely correct in her 1994 assertion that seeing Fanny and Mary as fictional representations of the real life Phylly Walter and Eliza de Feuillide and the fictional Fanny Price and Mary Crawford was a scholarly commonplace.  It was first noted, as best I can tell, by A. Walton Litz, WAY back in 1965, in his book, Jane Austen: A Study of her Artistic Development at P. 117:

"In Eliza's relationship with another cousin, Philadelphia Walter, we find a close// approximation of the relationship between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price, and Eliza's personality reminds us of Mary's high-spirited, flirtatious nature. There can, of course, be no question of a direct portrayal; Eliza Austen was still alive when Mansfield Park was written, and Jane Austen would never have pained her brother with a recognizable portrait. As R.W. Chapman has reminded us, no one in the family thought Mary Crawford a portrayal of Eliza; but any reader of Eliza's letters to Philadelphia Walter will recognize the qualities that Jane Austen emphasized in her fiction, and will realize that the basic problems of Mansfield Park were neither improbable nor foreign to Jane Austen's experience. Whether Jane Austen did or did not have her cousin in mind is much less important than the clear evidence that the dilemma of Mansfield Park was of vital contemporary interest, part of a clash between traditional notions of decorum and a growing emphasis on freedom of expression."

What is fascinating in this excerpt--and I've seen it over a hundred times during the course of my research with over a hundred different Austen scholars--is how Litz first boldly thrusts open the door, and reveals a wonderfully rich treasure trove of real life allusion that clearly undergirds the complex relationship between Mary and Fanny in MP. He seems ready to open the treasure chests, and make meaningful interpretations of what he finds there.

But then, like a disobedient child (at the seder table, he'd be called the "wicked child", because he has raised doubts about authoritative dogmas) caught passing a note in class by a stern teacher (in this case, R.W. Chapman, who "HAS REMINDED US"!), IMMEDIATELY closes the door again by saying, "No, no, it couldn't be an intentional allusion, because we already "know" that Jane Austen would not do that, because it would pain her brother"---even though it has always been clear to me that it was Eliza's death that freed JA to write about Eliza so openly in her fiction.

And then Litz backtracks another step--"Anyway, she could have seen the same stuff elsewhere in her life experience".

And then another step back, closing the door "Anyway, it's not really important, because what matters is the way the fiction theme's unfold themselves, without reference to real life allusive sources."

Just amazing--all this dancing on a head of a pin, in order to avoid bringing the collective wrath of orthodox Austen scholars down on the head of any scholar who dares to suggest that "Yes, Jane Austen WOULD do such a thing--and she did it a thousand times!".

There is this powerful avoidance of Occam's Razor and simply saying, "Given the multiple layers of parallelism, both with the theatricals, and the correspondence, and the West Indian slavery in the family, etc etc, the simplest explanation is that this is an intentional allusion, so let's move past that barrier, and start to think deeply about what it might add to our understanding of MP to know the facts of the real life relationship between Phylly and Eliza, and what it might add to our understanding of the reverse, i.e., my suggestions re a lesbian subtext that Jane Austen was suggesting vis a vis her cousins who were so opposite in character.

And so now I've become interested to go back and read this correspondence (I browsed it years ago) carefully and see what might pop out at me in regard to interpretations that R. W. Chapman and many others might not approve of.

Like Mary Crawford, I will blow the whistle, when it seems appropriate.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter


Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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