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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What’s on Fanny’s head? I’ll “Othello” you what!

This post is a followup to the part of my second, longer post in this thread begun by Diane on Monday, in which I extrapolated from MP to Shakespeare:

“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.”

Apropos my comment that “we also think of Desdemona listening to Othello’s war stories”, I only realized yesterday that the most significant part about Gibraltar in particular being the place where William Price was put off by the “queer fashion” of the ladies he observed, is that it fits like a glove with the following Austen family history factoid, which I dredged up from my old files when I searched for “Gibraltar” and “Othello” together --- and which now takes on startling new significance when held up alongside that passage in MP:

"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"
(Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, 93).

In a nutshell, I am certain it is not random or coincidental that the Chapter 24 scene in MP mentions Gibraltar and also evokes Othello, given that Frank Austen (who has often been suggested by Austen scholars as a model for William Price, Fanny’s beloved sailor brother) just happened to see the first act of Othello at Gibraltar of all places! It also just so happens that the particular scene in Othello which is evoked by this scene in MP takes place in Act 1 (Scene 3), and so it would have been part of the play that Frank Austen actually witnessed before he left. For easy reference, here’s the relevant part of Shakespeare’s scene, when Othello has been accused by the racist father Brabantio of bewitching Desdemona:

FIRST SENATOR  But, Othello, speak: Did you by indirect and forced courses Subdue and poison this young maid's affections? Or came it by request and such fair question As soul to soul affordeth?

OTHELLO  I do beseech you, Send for the lady to the Sagittary, And let her speak of me before her father: If you do find me foul in her report, The trust, the office I do hold of you, Not only take away, but let your sentence Even fall upon my life.

DUKE OF VENICE  Fetch Desdemona hither.

OTHELLO Ancient, conduct them: you best know the place.
Exeunt IAGO and Attendants
And, till she come, as truly as to heaven I do confess the vices of my blood, So justly to your grave ears I'll present How I did thrive in this fair lady's love, And she in mine.

DUKE OF VENICE Say it, Othello.

OTHELLO  Her father loved me; oft invited me; Still question'd me the story of my life, From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes, That I have passed. I ran it through, even from my boyish days, To the very moment that he bade me tell it; Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents by flood and field Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach, Of being taken by the insolent foe And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence And portance in my travels' history: Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle, Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven It was my hint to speak,--such was the process; And of the Cannibals that each other eat, The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders….

And now here’s the part that resonates most strongly with William telling Fanny his war stories:

OTHELLO (continued) This to hear Would Desdemona seriously incline: But still the house-affairs would draw her thence: Which ever as she could with haste dispatch, She'ld come again, and with a greedy ear Devour up my discourse: which I observing, Took once a pliant hour, and found good means To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart That I would all my pilgrimage dilate, Whereof by parcels she had something heard, But not intentively: I did consent, And often did beguile her of her tears, When I did speak of some distressful stroke That my youth suffer'd. My story being done, She gave me for my pains a world of sighs: She swore, in faith, twas strange, 'twas passing strange, 'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful: She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd That heaven had made her such a man: she thank'd me, And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her, I should but teach him how to tell my story. And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake: She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd, And I loved her that she did pity them. This only is the witchcraft I have used: Here comes the lady; let her witness it.
Enter DESDEMONA, IAGO, and Attendants

DUKE OF VENICE I think this tale would win my daughter too. Good Brabantio, Take up this mangled matter at the best: Men do their broken weapons rather use Than their bare hands….    END QUOTE

The above Shakespeare connection to MP now makes it very clear that JA alluded to this scene in Othello in both MP and Persuasion, her two naval novels. But there’s one big and obvious difference between these two Othello allusions. In Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove and Captain Wentworth are unrelated, and so the obvious romantic vibe between them fits perfectly with the obvious romantic vibe between Othello and Desdemona – it does not jar the reader, and it constitutes a kind of ironic variation on Shakespeare by Austen – i.e., in Othello, Othello and Desdemona actually do marry, but it does not end well for either of them. So the allusion seems to suggest that had Wentworth and Louisa actually gotten married, perhaps it would not have ended well either, because Wentworth would have grown jealous of Louisa’s outgoing free spirit and behavior? At any rate, the allusion doesn’t subvert what is already present in the commonly understood storyline of Persuasion.

But the parallel to Act 1, Scene 3 of Othello in MP is very different. It should raise eyebrows among Janeites, because it suggests that William Price, with his war stories, was, however unwittingly, thereby wooing his own sister Fanny! And the risqué allusion fits perfectly (and disturbingly) with that suspicious verbiage about “fearless intercourse” and in particular Fanny’s passionate emotional response (“the glow of Fanny’s cheek, the brightness of her eye, the deep interest, the absorbed attention”) which I noted in my previous post. It all points very strongly to a romantic, even sexual, mood as between brother and sister.

Very early in the novel, Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris angst over the danger of Fanny growing up in the same house as her cousin Edmund, because it may eventually generate incestuous romantic sparks. But nobody seems terribly concerned about the other side of the coin of Fanny leaving Portsmouth and coming to Mansfield Park at age eight. I.e., when Fanny leaves her family of origin at age 8 and never returns, it means that when William shows up at Mansfield Park, she has not seen her brother for an entire decade while she has been away and he has been at sea. Therefore they are, in a real sense, like strangers meeting as adults for the first time, since they last saw each other when she was just a child, not even close to puberty. And yet they share intense early childhood memories. That seems like a potent cocktail, which to me carries at least an equal amount of risk of undesirable incestuous entanglement as between Fanny and Edmund.

But that’s just the fictional side of the ledger--- by JA’s tagging this particular scene with such incestuous overtones to her actual brother Frank, it raises the same question in real life – was JA thereby somehow pointing to strong romantic feelings that she felt as a teenager for Frank, especially if there was a similar long gap in years between when he first went out to sea at age 10 (I believe that was the age he left?) and when she next saw him in person?

Now, I don’t for a moment suggest that such feelings were ever acted on, only that JA has given a covert, but very strong, even unmistakable hint –which would only have been visible to Austen family and close friends-- in this regard. I begin to see a larger pattern with her in these covert winks at real life, because this is much the same question that circles over the concealed pregnancies and infant transfers I see in S&S, P&P, and Emma –was the Anna Weston à Ann Awe-ston àAnna Austen word game a reflection of actual Austen family history, or just a kind of wish fulfilment? As I’ve noted several times in the past few years, my thinking has evolved toward seeing them as only the latter. I would imagine JA is far from the only writer of fiction who used that fiction, in part, as a vehicle for expressing concealed wishes or fantasies.

I will note that I also recall that Ellen has previously suggested that there were strong feelings between Frank and Jane – and I myself have believed for nearly a decade now that Frank was the Austen brother with whom JA felt the strongest platonic emotional bond. And with that, I will leave off on this point for now, and cover two other points before I close.

First, a small point – my identifying the above scene as a veiled allusion by JA to Frank Austen and herself fits perfectly with previous identification of an overt allusion to her sailor brothers later in MP. I.e., when you know that brother Charles served on the Endymion, and brother Frank served on the Canopus, the passing references to both of those vessels named in MP confirm that JA meant to tip her hat to both of them. But now, with the Othello scene, we see a great deal more than a sisterly tip of the hat to the national service of her two sailor brothers.

And that leads me to my second remaining point, which also relates to Frank Austen vis a vis MP.


Why did Frank Austen leave that Gibraltar performance of Othello early? Here’s Frank’s own explanation in that same letter that Southam referred to:

“The last evening of our stay at Gibraltar we went, after dining with the General, to see Othello performed by some of the officers of the garrison. The theatre is small, but very neatly fitted up; the dresses and scenery appeared good, and I might say the same of the acting could I have seen or heard anything of it; but, although I was honoured with a seat in the Governor's box at the commencement of the performance, yet I did not long profit by it, for one of his aide-de-camps, happening to be married, and his lady happening also to come in during the first scene, I was obliged to resign my situation, happy to have it in my power to accommodate a fair one. The play was Othello, and by what I have been able to collect from the opinions of those who were more advantageously situated for seeing and hearing than myself, I did not experience a very severe loss from my complaisance. I believe the Admiral was not much better amused than I was, for, at the expiration of the first act, he proposed departing, which I very readily agreed to, as I had for some time found the house insufferably close and hot. I hardly need add that the evening was not quite so productive of pleasure to me as the last theatrical representation I had witnessed, which was at Covent Garden some time in the beginning of February last, when I had the honour of being seated by a fair young lady, with whom I became slightly acquainted the preceding year at Ramsgate.”

What exactly was the problem with the performance of Othello at Gibraltar? Was it dissatisfaction with the acting, or with the play itself? I cannot tell from what Frank writes, can you? However, I do suspect that Frank may have had a strong reason he was not fully self-aware of for leaving. I.e., perhaps, as with Claudius watching the play in Hamlet, what Frank saw and heard onstage sounded a chord uncomfortably close to painful real life feelings of guilt.

Frank has, by the end of Act 1, just watched the above-quoted scene in which Desdemona falls in love with Othello because of his bravery in war at sea. Frank Austen’s late October 1806 letter goes on to reveal the following regarding Frank’s feelings on another much more significant point than a play, which I’ve waited till now to surprise you with. The letter also reveals how Frank fretted at being stranded by fate so near and yet so far away from what was going on during the time period over which he wrote it --the epic, climactic, forever-famous Battle of Trafalgar:

“As a national benefit, I cannot but rejoice that our arms have been once again successful, but at the same time I cannot help feeling how very unfortunate we [meaning his ship, the Canopus] have been to be away at such a moment, and by a fatal combination of unfortunate though unavoidable events to lose all share in the glory of a day, which surpasses all which ever went before, is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience, but as I cannot write on that subject without complaining, I will drop it for the present till time and reflection have reconciled me a little more to what I know is now inevitable.”

So it seems quite plausible to me that perhaps the main reason why Frank couldn’t bear to watch more than one act of the play, was because it only reminded Frank of what he was so painfully regretting missing – how could he bear to watch, in that moment, one of his officer colleagues, playing Othello, give the above-quoted speech describing how he covered himself in war glory, and thereby won a rich beautiful heiress’s hand, when Frank was powerless to do the same. Ouch! In fact, major ouch!

And look at the ironic reversal of that reality in Mansfield Park –when we read about William Price’s account of “the imminent hazards, or terrific scenes, which such a period at sea must supply”, we must think about the contrast with Frank Austen’s relegation to the sidelines of British naval history – his being spending “a period at sea” in the Mediterranean turned out NOT to supply the opportunity for Frank to shine in that great battle .

And so it seems that JA, perhaps with a touch of added irony, put this scene in a novel that she knew Frank would of course read eight years after the Battle of Trafalgar. When Jane gave Frank his copy, was Frank reminded of what happened back then? It’s hard to tell from the reaction he gave, which JA, tellingly, placed as the very first one among all the opinions she collected about MP:

"We certainly do not think it as a whole, equal to P. & P. — but it has many & great beauties. Fanny is a delightful Character! and Aunt Norris is a great favourite of mine. The Characters are natural & well supported, & many of the Dialogues excellent. — You need not fear the publication being considered as discreditable to the talents of it's Author."  F. W. A.”

“Fanny is a delightful character?” Does Frank recognize that Fanny is Jane? Is he including that scene between William and Fanny when he refers to the excellent dialogues? Frank didn’t give away much of what he really felt--- but then, that’s par for the course, because sister Jane certainly worked in sly and mysterious ways, especially in the way she wove family and national reality together in the subtext of her fiction.

[Added at 9:47 pm the same day, showing my reply to the extraordinary reply I received from Diane Reynolds to the above post:

Diane wrote: “Arnie, An interesting post. “


D: “I have actually been thinking a lot about the sexual excitement Fanny shows around William--the glow in the cheek and the bright eye--but from a different angle. I don't know why I didn't see this before, but it's Henry observing Fanny's love, her deep, deep feelings, for William, that ratchets up his own passion. He was interested in Fanny before William showed up, if only because she was the only thing available, pretty and didn't like him (a challenge), but it's after he sees her and William together that he really gets interested and decides to marry her.”

I absolutely agree on all points, except I don’t believe he ever intends to marry her, he intends to make her desperate to marry him – whether he would then actually marry her, well…..

D: “This fits perfectly with Rene Girard's "mimesis of desire" theory, which says that a man or a woman falls in love with someone only AFTER they seem someone else fall in love with that person. Not only does Fanny manifest love for William but he for her and Henry watches from outside that magic circle. He envies and wants in. I would say he is in love with both William and Fanny and Fanny is, as you might say, the magic key in.”

Beautifully put! The parallel that occurred to me a long while ago was the cynical, degenerate Count Maximilian von Heune in Cabaret, who seduces Sally Bowles, only for her to be totally shocked when Brian, the young man she really cares for, subsequently reveals to her that he has already slept with the Count, too! Fosse and his collaborators memorably capture the spirit of that triangle in Two Ladies:

I haven’t read the Isherwood original Goodbye to Berlin, or the intermediate play I Am a Camera, but from the following, seemingly excellent synopsis of Isherwood…
…I’d guess that the character of the Count, as he is presented in Fosse’s film musical, is an amalgam and extrapolation from a few of Isherwood’s characters. Whether Isherwood had Austen on his radar screen, it's an interesting question to pursue...

D: “Girard connects to Shakespeare too, as in his A Theater of Envy, Girard uses Shakespeare (esp MSD) to prove his "mimesis of desire" theory. I looked to see if there was a chapter on Othello in the book: there is. I haven't read it but I will.

Let us know when you do.

D: “Henry has a great a deal of envy--meaning a strong desire to be--William. Henry wishes it wasn't all handed to him, that he could go and be a sailor like William, to have to make it on his own. He feels this longing, this lack, almost palpably, at least when William is in front of him. Helping William get his commission, independent of wooing Fanny (again, there seems to be a bit of a homoerotic thing going on there too, as perhaps there between with Edmund and Henry, Henry seems to be the erotic signifier in the novel--they are always going out shooting those pheasants together) but to get back to William, helping William is a way for Henry to live vicariously through William. Wanting to marry Fanny would also in a strong sense be becoming William: Henry wants Fanny's feelings directed at him and to be part of them.”

Such an interesting spin! In part, it sounds like you’re suggesting that, sorta like Milton’s Satan, Henry’s extraordinary power over others is a mask for his own profound insecurity and lack of self-esteem. My preliminary reaction is that your reading is very plausible and valuable, but it’s not the whole story – I believe it’s also possible that Henry has recognized long before that the most effective way to seduce others is to conform his chameleonic personality to provide the perfect complement to the fantasies and needs he wishes to seduce – he is psychological Silly Putty, with an infinite capacity to alter his apparent character --- and so, he could equally plausibly be playing that role for William, leading the young sailor to believe he wishes he were him, because that’s what it takes to make a hole in William’s heart.

D: “And, of course, what this underscores  is Henry's own love of Mary ... this is a book fraught with layer upon layer of incest themes.”

Again, 100% agree!

D: “Also, to rush on, perhaps there's a bit of Frank in Henry--or a bit of Henry Austen in Henry, if we're reading biographically? Did Henry--who of course married a cousin very similar to Mary Crawford--envy Frank his naval career as Frank might have envied Othello his exploits?”

Wonderful, creative speculations! I’ll keep them in mind, I have a hunch they’ll lead somewhere good!

D: “What's also fascinating is that the novel in this instance tracks Jameson's contention in The Political Unconscious that the vitiated upper class (Henry) feeds on the creativity and energy bubbling up from the classes below (William and Fanny (Fanny has moral energy and a rich interior life, both of which Henry seems to lack).”

Interesting yet again!

D: “That would be Othello too, I think, if I remember correctly, a person who works his way up. I wonder if there are any Othello echoes in this novel?”

You obviously mean, other than William and Fanny as Othello and Desdemona. Yes, that was exactly what I was thinking about in the aftermath of writing my post --- Henry C. is really Iago, who was one of Milton’s sources for his Satan.

D: “We know from Emma that Austen will simply weave Shakespeare into her text without necessarily pointing to it, so I wonder if that happens here?”

Of course! It’s not just Emma, it’s all the Austen novels –I’ve collected allusions to about 2/3 of Shakespeare’s plays in them, and some of the plays echo through pretty much all six! ]

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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