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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pain and pleasure in the fearless intercourse between siblings in Jane Austen’s (and Tolstoy's) fiction

Diana Birchall, in the context of a discussion in the Janeites group about the intimate sororal relationship between Jane and Elizabeth in P&P, brought forward this famous quotation from Chapter 24 of Mansfield Park, describing Fanny’s intense joy at being reunited after several years at Mansfield Park, with brother William:

"An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connexion can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. “

It’s worthwhile to put the above passage in context—here is the passage that immediately precedes it:

“Excepting the moments of peculiar delight, which any marked or unlooked-for instance of Edmund's consideration of her in the last few months had excited, Fanny had never known so much felicity in her life, as in this unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend who was opening all his heart to her, telling her all his hopes and fears, plans, and solicitudes respecting that long thought of, dearly earned, and justly valued blessing of promotion; who could give her direct and minute information of the father and mother, brothers and sisters, of whom she very seldom heard; who was interested in all the comforts and all the little hardships of her home at Mansfield; ready to think of every member of that home as she directed, or differing only by a less scrupulous opinion, and more noisy abuse of their aunt Norris, and with whom (perhaps the dearest indulgence of the whole) all the evil and good of their earliest years could be gone over again, and every former united pain and pleasure retraced with the fondest recollection.”

Please note in particular how Fanny’s reunion with William, joyous as it is, places second in the hierarchy of Fanny’s greatest felicities, behind the occasional instances of Edmund’s unexpected “consideration”. Other than for the spicy soupcon of the narrator’s (suggestive, but slyly deniable) references to “fearless intercourse” and “united pain and pleasure” (which would work really well in the copy of an ad by a dominatrix for high-class S&M services), this is a description of an ideal of deep but chaste brother-sister love.

We’re surely intended to be immediately reminded of Mrs. Norris’s argument to Sir Thomas back at the start of the novel, responding to his concern about an incestuous romance arising between Fanny and one of the Bertram boys in the event she were to be brought to live at Mansfield:

“Do not let us be frightened from a good deed by a trifle…You are thinking of your sons—but do not you know that, of all things upon earth, that is the least likely to happen, brought up as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters? It is morally impossible. I never knew an instance of it. It is, in fact, the only sure way of providing against the connexion. Suppose her a pretty girl, and seen by Tom or Edmund for the first time seven years hence, and I dare say there would be mischief. The very idea of her having been suffered to grow up at a distance from us all in poverty and neglect, would be enough to make either of the dear, sweet-tempered boys in love with her. But breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister."

Glenda Hudson used “precious remains” (from Diana’s quotation) about the powerful trauma required to cause a sibling divorce) in the title of her 1989 article about sibling love in P&P, linked here:    Not surprisingly, the bulk of her discussion was about the bond between Eliza and Jane, so you might want to read it apropos of this recent thread of discussion.  Hudson , a decade later, wrote a whole book, Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction, in which, as the title indicates, she broadened her discussion considerably, to include the loaded word and topic “incest”.

And that brings me to the serendipity of Diana’s bringing that quotation forward, at the very moment that I’ve been posting about Andrew Davies’ controversial depiction---in at least four scenes, by my latest count, through 3 episodes, with one remaining to be viewed--of explicit incest between Anatole and Helene in War and Peace.

As I’ve already argued, I’m totally in accord with Davie’s interpretation, and am also now completely certain that Tolstoy was strongly focused on the incestuous connection between Henry and Mary Crawford, not least because of the startling parallel between Mrs. Norris’s above quoted speech about cousins in close proximity, and the discussion of the dangers of “voisinage” in “cousinage” early in War and Peace, regarding Nikolai Rostov and his poor orphaned cousin Sonya.

The latest clue I’ve now seen for the first time (it’s eons since I read War and Peace in high school, and I remembered nothing about any of this) is the way Helene repeatedly panders Natasha to Anatole, in exactly the same way that Mary does with Fanny vis a vis Henry. Sure, there are plot motifs which repeat in literature, but the parallels here are clustered and very specific, far beyond the possibility of random coincidence.

And it isn’t just Anatole and Helene –it’s Nikolai and Sonya, too, and also, but on a much much subtler level, Natasha and Nikolai, as I suggested in my original post about War and Peace. Tolstoy was clearly just as engrossed with the murky boundaries of sibling love as Austen had been, and so it was entirely natural that Mansfield Park in particular would be a touchstone for him on this theme.

And so I don’t think it’s at all accidental that Jane Austen used the strong and marriage-related word “divorce” to refer to the rupture of a sibling bond. She was well aware that, in the real world of her time—including very possibly in her own family of origin, considering her very close bond with Frank in particular—there were all too often de facto incestuous “marriages” between siblings. Just recall perhaps the most famous of them from JA’s lifetime---Fanny Burney’s brother James and sister Sarah who actually eloped and cohabited for several years. Anielka has long argued that the Burney family is a key allusive subtext for Mansfield Park, and I, as you might guess, agree with her, and this is a key portion of that subtext.

And it’s not just in Mansfield Park in JA’s canon, but that’s a topic for another post.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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