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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 12, 2016

What’s on (and in) Fanny Price’s head?: the hidden meaning of her “queer fashion”

Diane Reynolds just started an interesting thread in Janeites & Austen-L as follows:

"If we've discussed this before, I've forgotten, but I just read this passage in Mansfield Park and wonder what Fanny is wearing on her head. William has just come for a visit: 

“Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing. But with William and Fanny Price it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness, wounded by no opposition of interest, cooled by no separate attachment, and feeling the influence of time and absence only in its increase.
An affection so amiable was advancing each in the opinion of all who had hearts to value anything good. Henry Crawford was as much struck with it as any. He honoured the warm-hearted, blunt fondness of the young sailor, which led him to say, with his hands stretched towards Fanny’s head, “Do you know, I begin to like that queer fashion already, though when I first heard of such things being done in England, I could not believe it; and when Mrs. Brown, and the other women at the Commissioner’s at Gibraltar, appeared in the same trim, I thought they were mad; but Fanny can reconcile me to anything”; and saw, with lively admiration, the glow of Fanny’s cheek, the brightness of her eye, the deep interest, the absorbed attention, while her brother was describing any of the imminent hazards, or terrific scenes, which such a period at sea must supply.
It was a picture which Henry Crawford had moral taste enough to value. Fanny’s attractions increased—increased twofold; for the sensibility which beautified her complexion and illumined her countenance was an attraction in itself. He was no longer in doubt of the capabilities of her heart. She had feeling, genuine feeling. It would be something to be loved by such a girl, to excite the first ardours of her young unsophisticated mind! She interested him more than he had foreseen. A fortnight was not enough. His stay became indefinite.”

After I replied and pointed out five reasons why it had to be William Price, and not Henry Crawford, who stretched his hands towards Fanny’s head and commented on Fanny’s “queer fashion”, Diane both agreed and persisted:  "It makes sense that William said this [about Fanny’s ‘queer fashion’], and this is yet another example of Austen's long and ambiguous sentences, but I still wonder what is on Fanny's head. "

Good for you, Diane, for persisting, you prompted me to take a second look, and I think you’ll be pleased with my further reply today. But first my reply to Elissa (Schiff), who wrote: "Happily for us these two centuries later, it was what was *in* her female characters’ heads and not on them that JA really concerned herself with."

Indeed, Elissa, what was in their heads was what mattered most,’s the catch -- I believe JA often revealed aspects of what was in their heads by means of all sorts of seemingly trivial details, such as, in this instance, what was on their heads, as you’ll see, below. Now on to my main argument.

To begin, I acknowledge that once we properly identify the speaker of “queer fashion” as William, there does not appear to be any reason to delve deeper. It seems as if JA's subtly delivered point is that ANY fashion, even fashion that would not raise any eyebrows in ordinary gentle society --- whatever particular fashion it is that Fanny and the Gibraltar ladies wore on their heads --- would have been hard for the unsophisticated, female-company-deprived William to wrap his head around, so to speak. He’s a bit of a rube, who’s been at sea too long to know any better, so what to him is a “queer fashion” is to more sophisticated eyes simply smart, admirable fashion.

But…your instincts in pushing this point were spot-on, Diane, as I said, because I now know that JA did intend to subtly remind her very alert readers of another passage --one 19 chapters earlier in the novel --- which I found by “cheating” -- I word-searched in MP for “bonnet”, and was transported as if on a magic carpet, back to the following scene in Chapter 5, shortly after the Crawfords show up:

‘And Fanny,what was she doing and thinking all this while? and what was her opinion of the newcomers? Few young ladies of eighteen could be less called on to speak their opinion than Fanny...The notice which she excited herself, was to this effect. “I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price,” said Miss Crawford, as she was walking with the Mr. Bertrams. “Pray, is she out, or is she not? I am puzzled. She dined at the Parsonage, with the rest of you, which seemed like being out; and yet she says so little, that I can hardly suppose she is.” Edmund, to whom this was chiefly addressed, replied, “I believe I know what you mean, but I will not undertake to answer the question. My cousin is grown up. She has the age and sense of a woman, but the outs and not outs are beyond me.”

So far so good, but now we come to the point, which we find in Mary’s further reply to Edmund. When viewed through the lens of William’s comment on Fanny’s “queer fashion”, it suddenly lights up like a Christmas tree:

“And yet, in general, nothing can be more easily ascertained. The distinction is so broad. Manners as well as appearance are, generally speaking, so totally different. Till now, I could not have supposed it possible to be mistaken as to a girl’s being out or not. A girl not out has always the same sort of dress: A CLOSE BONNET, FOR INSTANCE; looks very demure, and never says a word. You may smile, but it is so, I assure you; and except that it is sometimes carried a little too far, it is all very proper. Girls should be quiet and modest.”

I suggest that it’s no coincidence that Mary speaks about “a close bonnet” while considering the puzzle of whether Fanny is “out” or not. And “looks very demure, and never says a word”—well, that describes Fanny to a tee, doesn’t it? And now, Mary’s comments become oddly prescient of what is to come in Chapter 24:

“The most objectionable part is, that the alteration of manners on being introduced into company is frequently too sudden. They sometimes pass in such very little time from reserve to quite the opposite—to confidence! That is the faulty part of the present system. One does not like to see a girl of eighteen or nineteen so immediately up to every thing—and perhaps when one has seen her hardly able to speak the year before. Mr. Bertram, I dare say you have sometimes met with such changes.”

I note in passing that I suspect Mary here of advocating for a propriety that she herself does not really subscribe to, but that is beside my point, which is that when we leap forward 19 chapters (and 4 ½ months later), we find that, surely in honor of the special occasion of William’s arrival at Mansfield Park, Fanny has indeed passed “from reserve to quite the opposite”. William’s comment alerts us that Fanny has, at least for that scene, put away her usual “close bonnet”, and is now wearing some sort of grownup lady’s head fashion, which is what William finds so queer. His memories are of Fanny looking very very different when he last saw her so long before, that is part of the “queerness” for him. But also, to his unsophisticated eyes, Fanny now queerly resembles one of those ladies whose looks made him uneasy him in Gibraltar during his stay there on his way back to England from the Mediterranean.

And, as to passing from reserve to its opposite, as I’ll show you shortly, that is also what is unleashed in Fanny by William’s arrival at Mansfield Park. But first, let’s read the rest of the general debate between Edmund and Mary in Chapter 5 about how young women display themselves, and think about it as veiled specific commentary on Fanny’s emergence—her “coming out”—as a woman in Chapter 24:

“The error is plain enough,” said the less courteous Edmund; “such girls are ill brought up. They are given wrong notions from the beginning. They are always acting upon motives of vanity, and there is no more real modesty in their behaviour before they appear in public than afterwards.”
“I do not know,” replied Miss Crawford hesitatingly. “Yes, I cannot agree with you there. It is certainly the modestest part of the business. It is much worse to have girls not out give themselves the same airs and take the same liberties as if they were, which I have seen done. That is worse than anything—quite disgusting!”
“Yes, that is very inconvenient indeed,” said Mr. Bertram. “It leads one astray; one does not know what to do. The CLOSE BONNET and DEMURE AIR you describe so well (and nothing was ever juster), tell one what is expected; but I got into a dreadful scrape last year from the want of them…”

My point is that Jane Austen has slyly appointed William Price as her unwitting messenger, to whisper to the sensitive reader that Fanny, by her alteration of dress and attitude, has revealed that she is now “out” and therefore in the courtship game, whether she admits it to herself or not. And so when we read, in Chapter 24, about Henry noticing “the glow of Fanny’s cheek, the brightness of her eye, the deep interest, the absorbed attention, while her brother was describing any of the imminent hazards, or terrific scenes, which such a period at sea must supply", we don’t think “demure”, we think of a striking alteration in Fanny, at least during that scene, to being expressive, alive, passionate.

We think of the passionate Louisa Musgrove in the salon at Uppercross falling in love with Wentworth while he tells his war stories. And doesn’t that parallel add a decidedly incestuous whiff to William’s and Fanny’s “fearless intercourse” in the Mansfield Park salon?  But…we also think of Desdemona listening to Othello’s war stories.  Uh-oh…is this a suggestion that William might be another one of Sir Thomas’s plantation by-products? Or that Fanny is going to meet an unhappy end? Keep in mind that to the first time reader of MP, all these possibilities are in play as they go.

[Added 12/13/16: I now think the most significant part about Gibraltar being the place William Price talks about is the following true-life Austen-family factoid: 
"Francis Austen attended a performance of Othello by the officers of the Gibraltar garrison while he waited before Trafalgar for his ship to be provisioned, but left at the end of the first act" (Southam, Navy, 93).
So it's not a coincidence that this scene in MP mimics the scene in Othello after all! JA clearly does mean to have her readers recall Othello, a troubling allusion]

And that leads me to my final, more speculative observation about two other curious details in that Chapter 24 passage:

In Henry Crawford’s jaded, degenerate approach to women, his vow to make a hole in Fanny’s “heart” is a thinly veiled reference to Fanny’s hymen. I now suggest that, in the same sense, when we’re told that William gestures towards Fanny’s “head”, JA is playing that same sly game of sexual innuendo, as if William were instead pointing to Fanny’s maidenhead ---which, now that Fanny has in effect come “out”, becomes vulnerable to Henry’s predation, as we will see during the next 22 chapters thereafter.

It’s as if JA saw young English gentlewomen as forest animals who hid from their predators in safe dens, but eventually were tempted to come “out”, and then were exposed to danger. As with Willoughby, it is no accident that at various times in the novel we hear about Henry Crawford’s love of the hunt. And so we can think about Henry’s idle romantic pursuit of both Maria and Julia as amusing decoy maneuvers by him, when the prey he is really focused on---because Maria and Julia are no fun and no challenge, they both get “caught” by him too easily --- is Fanny. And when it comes to stalking Fanny, Henry must play the long game, over a period of months, in order to lure his prey close enough for him to pounce.

The other curious detail I notice is in William’s referring to Fanny’s “queer fashion” – it is, I suggest, no accident that, among the only three other usages of “queer” in MP, there is one only a few paragraphs earlier than the “queer fashion” usage we’ve been discussing, in that same Chapter 5, when Mary and Henry discuss Fanny:

“Her brother gave only a smile to this accusation, and soon afterwards said, “I do not quite know what to make of Miss Fanny. I do not understand her. I could not tell what she would be at yesterday. What is her character? Is she solemn? IS SHE QUEER? Is she prudish? Why did she draw back and look so grave at me? I could hardly get her to speak. I never was so long in company with a girl in my life, trying to entertain her, and succeed so ill! Never met with a girl who looked so grave on me! I must try to get the better of this. Her looks say, ‘I will not like you, I am determined not to like you’; and I say she shall.”

Given all the gay and lesbian subtext that I and others have seen in MP, especially between Fanny and Mary on one side of the ledger, and between Henry and William (“rears and vices”) on the other, I think William’s reference to Fanny’s “queer fashion” is another ventriloquistic hint from Jane Austen the author, in that regard.

So, what’s in your heads about all of the above?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Unknown said...

I can't follow you all the way to incest, but I LOVE the point about Fanny's new look! Brilliant! She is no longer wearing the "close bonnet" that of course William would have seen. I love it. -Kristin

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks, Kristin! :)