INTRODUCTION: The topic has come up again in Janeites & Austen-L, as it does every few years, about the meaning of “ordination” in the following famous passage in one of the letters Jane Austen wrote in January 1813, in her giddy exultation in the immediate afterglow post publicatum (so to speak) of her “darling child”, Pride & Prejudice: “There are a few Typical errors—& a ‘said he’ or a ‘said she’ would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear—but ‘I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.’—The 2d vol. is shorter than I cd wish—but the difference is not so much in reality as in look, there being a larger proportion of Narrative in that part. I have lopt & cropt so successfully however that I imagine it must be rather shorter than S. & S. altogether.—Now I will try to write of something else;—it shall be a complete change of subject—Ordination….”
It’s well established, and I concur, that ”Now I will try and write of something else”, in the context of P&P’s recent publication, it must be Mansfield Park which shall constitute a complete change of subject. And in that vein, countless Austen scholars have weighed in with interpretations of the word “ordination”.
Not surprisingly, most have opted for some variant of the obvious clerical meaning: i.e., “the action of ordaining or conferring holy orders on someone.” This is what “taking orders” seems to mean in all of JA’s novels, and, given that Jane Austen’s father, and (eventually) two of her brothers were ordained as Anglican clergymen, it is no surprise that in Mansfield Park, the clerical ordination of hero Edmund Bertram is twice a topic of at times strained discussion.
Nearly 7 years ago, I wrote a post http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/06/ps-re-taking-orders.html in which I first pointed out the pun hidden in plain sight in the phrase “taking orders” as repeatedly used in MP. I.e., in Jane Austen’s time as in our own, “taking orders” not only referred to clerical ordination, it also had a common hierarchical meaning. E.g., if Person A gave orders to Person B to take action, Person B would commonly be said to be “taking orders” --- borrowing the terminology, it would seem, from the military, where it is of course a pervasive term of art.
This morning, I revisited my earlier post with the benefit of 7 years of additional insight into JA’s cryptic, punning writing, and I quickly realized, as I’ll explain below, that many of the references to “taking orders” in Mansfield Park point specifically toward Sir Thomas Bertram as an almost Moses-like giver of orders. That interpretation dovetails nicely with the slavery subtext of MP as has been articulated over the last several decades by numerous other Austen scholars as well as myself, as well as by Patricia Rozema in her brilliant 1999 film adaptation of Austen’s most overtly disturbing novel. And, as I’ll explain at the end, the enigmatic Mary Crawford once again, paradoxically and shockingly, can plausibly be seen as a passionate but pragmatic moral whistleblower, subtly calling out not only genteel male barbarism, but also genteel male hypocrisy ignoring same, when she sees it.
DISCUSSION: I begin by noting that Jane Austen’s famous reference to “ordination” in that letter comes a mere two sentences after her even more famous paraphrase of Scott’s “Marmion” in explaining what she expects from her readers re: all the ambiguous pronoun references in P&P: “I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.” This proximity suggests that she meant for CEA to put on her sharp elves cap and use a great deal of ingenuity to figure out whether the term “ordination” was also meant to be ambiguous in its reference – and, for that matter, whether MP’s
“ordination” theme really did constitute a “complete change of subject” from P&P.
“ordination” theme really did constitute a “complete change of subject” from P&P.
That last thought led me to realize that the pun on “taking orders” in both its clerical and hierarchical senses, was not a new gambit at all for Austen in MP, because she had, albeit on a small scale, dipped her quill into that same punny well in two passages about the “taking of orders” in – where else? -- Pride & Prejudice!!
First, in Chapter 35, we read Mr. Darcy’s letter giving his version of how Mr. Wickham resolved against “taking orders” from Mr. Darcy: “My excellent father died about five years ago; and his attachment to Mr. Wickham was to the last so steady, that in his will he particularly recommended it to me, to promote his advancement in the best manner that his profession might allow—and if he TOOK ORDERS, desired that a valuable family living might be his as soon as it became vacant. There was also a legacy of one thousand pounds. His own father did not long survive mine, and within half a year from these events, Mr. Wickham wrote to inform me that, having finally resolved against TAKING ORDERS, he hoped I should not think it unreasonable for him to expect some more immediate pecuniary advantage, in lieu of the preferment, by which he could not be benefited….”
Surely all can see how perfectly the pun works in this instance. And then in Chapter 52, it’s Elizabeth’s turn to echo Darcy, when she fires a satirical barrage at her new, unwelcome brother-in-law Wickham: “I did hear, too, that there was a time, when sermon-making was not so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared your resolution of NEVER TAKING ORDERS, and that the business had been compromised accordingly.”
Could there be a better encapsulation of the way Wickham always reacted to Darcy, than to say that Wickham refused to comply with the imperious orders of his wealthy, powerful “brother”? And does not the word “in-sub-ORD-inate” perfectly describe that dynamic between Wickham and Darcy? Viewed in the light of Mr. Darcy as a man with the power to give “orders” in both the clerical and the hierarchical senses, I suggest that the irony of these two passages could not be sharper.
So, it should not come as a surprise that I found, in the text of MP, that this same punny ambiguity was also present –but, as intimated by JA in her letter to CEA, in MP the pun appears centrally, in expanded scope and variety. Patricia Rozema brilliantly described Mansfield Park as a study of servitude in all its forms, and subordination is close in meaning to servitude, and her Sir Thomas is truly a Gothic horror of a man. And I claim, similarly, that at the heart of Mansfield Park we see enacted the total subordination during Jane Austen’s lifetime of all aspects of English society to the ”orders” (i.e., the commands) of the class of powerful, autocratic, plantation-owning English gentlemen, of whom Sir Thomas Bertram is a quintessential symbol.
As you read the textual excerpts from MP containing variants on the word “order” which I’ve provided as an appendix hereto, please view them all through the lens of that pun, as JA’s way of showing how the Sir Thomases “gave orders” to subordinate institutions of English society, in particular to three of them:
ONE: The mainstream Anglican clergy, most of whom were bought off from raising hell in their sermons about the enormous moral horror of tropical colonial slavery, by blood money: the Sir Thomases gave them each a generous slice of the huge “pie”, baked with African slave blood under the West Indian sun;
TWO: The Royal Navy, whose maritime efforts enabled and preserved not only the flow and control of slave labor to and in the West Indies, it also then protected the commercial transport of the ill-gotten production from those colonies back to England and the rest of Europe; and
THREE: The patriarchy of English husbands, but especially those like Sir Thomas, who didn’t think twice about ordering all the women in their lives (in both England and Antigua) to do their bidding.
Viewed in this light, the theme of “giving and taking orders” in MP is closely akin to the subversive irony I’ve often noted in Henry Tilney’s clueless dismissal of Catherine Morland, when he should’ve applauded her deeper insight into the way things really were in England. All the societal institutions morally charged to be vigilant against the systemic subjugation of married Englishwomen like the late Mrs. Tilney, were asleep at the switch: “Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”
For the remainder of this post, I want to focus on Chapter 11, in which Mary Crawford initiates the topic of Sir Thomas’s imminent return from Antigua. I claim that this chapter, when read against the grain, shows Mary stepping up in heroic fashion, blowing the whistle on the morally corrupt English clergy, symbolized by Dr. Grant, in all his grotesque gluttony and indolence —and throughout we see the repeated pun on “taking orders”:
[Mary] “Your father’s return will be a very interesting event.”
[Edmund] “It will, indeed, after such an absence; an absence not only long, but including so many dangers.”
“It will be the forerunner also of other interesting events: your sister’s marriage, and YOUR TAKING ORDERS.”
“Don’t be affronted,” said she, laughing, “but it does put me in mind of some of the old heathen heroes, who, after performing great exploits in a foreign land, offered SACRIFICES TO THE GODS on their safe return.”
“There is no sacrifice in the case,” replied Edmund, with a serious smile, and glancing at the pianoforte again; “it is entirely her own doing.”
“Oh yes I know it is. I was merely joking. She has done no more than what every young woman would do; and I have no doubt of her being extremely happy. My other sacrifice, of course, you do not understand.”
“MY TAKING ORDERS, I assure you, IS QUITE AS VOLUNTARY as Maria’s marrying.”
“It is fortunate that your inclination and YOUR FATHER’S CONVENIENCE should accord so well. There is a very good living kept for you, I understand, hereabouts.”
….“It is the same sort of thing,” said Fanny, after a short pause, “as for the son of an admiral to go into the navy, or the son of a general to be in the army, and nobody sees anything wrong in that. Nobody wonders that they should prefer the line where their friends can serve them best, or suspects them to be less in earnest in it than they appear.”
“No, my dear Miss Price, and for reasons good. The profession, either navy or army, is its own justification. It has everything in its favour: heroism, danger, bustle, fashion. Soldiers and sailors are always acceptable in society. Nobody can wonder that men are soldiers and sailors.”
“But the motives of A MAN WHO TAKES ORDERS with the certainty of preferment may be fairly suspected, you think?” said Edmund. “To be justified in your eyes, he must do it in the most complete uncertainty of any provision.”
“What! TAKE ORDERS WITHOUT A LIVING! No; that is madness indeed; absolute madness.”
“Shall I ask you how the church is to be filled, IF A MAN IS NEITHER TO TAKE ORDERS with a living nor without? No; for you certainly would not know what to say. But I must beg some advantage to the clergyman from your own argument. As he cannot be influenced by those feelings which you rank highly as temptation and reward to the soldier and sailor in their choice of a profession, as heroism, and noise, and fashion, are all against him, he ought to be less liable to the suspicion of wanting sincerity or good intentions in the choice of his.”
How sharp is the unwitting punny oxymoron of Edmund’s defense of his own phantom autonomy: “MY TAKING ORDERS, I assure you, IS QUITE AS VOLUNTARY as Maria’s marrying.” Mary’s witty and 100% spot-on reply notes the remarkable “coincidence” of Edmund’s so-called choice just happening to closely fit his father’s wishes—and the same was true, for that matter, with Maria, who’d do anything, including marrying Rushworth, to escape from her dreadful father’s house.
And now, in the remainder of Chapter 11, we find the eloquent Mary Crawford speaking for herself, in her radical critique of Dr. Grant, again the symbol of the English clergy’s collaboration in the moral rot of the English colonial slavery system:
“Oh! no doubt he is very sincere in preferring an income ready made, to the trouble of working for one; and has the best intentions of doing nothing all the rest of his days but eat, drink, and grow fat. It is indolence, Mr. Bertram, indeed. Indolence and love of ease; a want of all laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble of being agreeable, which make men clergymen. A clergyman has nothing to do but be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.”
“There are such clergymen, no doubt, but I think they are not so common as to justify Miss Crawford in esteeming it their general character. I suspect that in this comprehensive and (may I say) commonplace censure, you are not judging from yourself, but from prejudiced persons, whose opinions you have been in the habit of hearing. It is impossible that your own observation can have given you much knowledge of the clergy. You can have been personally acquainted with very few of a set of men you condemn so conclusively. You are speaking what you have been told at your uncle’s table.”
“I speak what appears to me the general opinion; and where an opinion is general, it is usually correct. Though I have not seen much of the domestic lives of clergymen, it is seen by too many to leave any deficiency of information.”
“Where any one body of educated men, of whatever denomination, are condemned indiscriminately, there must be a deficiency of information, or (smiling) of something else. Your uncle, and his brother admirals, perhaps knew little of clergymen beyond the chaplains whom, good or bad, they were always wishing away.”
…“I have been so little addicted to take my opinions from my uncle,” said Miss Crawford, “that I can hardly suppose—and since you push me so hard, I must observe, that I am not entirely without the means of seeing what clergymen are, being at this present time the guest of my own brother, Dr. Grant. And though Dr. Grant is most kind and obliging to me, and though he is really a gentleman, and, I dare say, a good scholar and clever, and often preaches good sermons, and is very respectable, ….
[and here’s the kicker]
I see him to be an indolent, selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in everything; who will not stir a finger for the convenience of any one; and who, moreover, if the cook makes a blunder, is out of humour with his excellent wife.
To own the truth, Henry and I were partly driven out this very evening by a disappointment about a green goose, which he could not get the better of. My poor sister was forced to stay and bear it.”
Only a parson’s daughter with eyes wide open (to paraphrase Auden’s great bon mot about JA) could have written such a devastating, spot-on condemnation of the collective failure of the coopted English clergy (even the “good” men like Edmund Bertram who believed themselves to be doing their duty) to fulfill a genuine Christian vision of protecting and defending the poor and the enslaved from abuse to fill the stomachs and coffers of the rich. How awful is the irony that in the process of “taking orders”, there was not a class along the way on the subject of how NOT to “take orders” from evil leaders!
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APPENDIX: Other “Order” passages in Mansfield Park
Ch. 3: The living was hereafter for Edmund; and, had his uncle died a few years sooner, it would have been duly given to some friend to hold till he were old enough for ORDERS.
Ch. 5: “So I should suppose. She has the advantage in every feature, and I prefer her countenance; but I like Julia best; Miss Bertram is certainly the handsomest, and I have found her the most agreeable, but I shall always like Julia best, because you ORDER me.”
“I shall not talk to you, Henry, but I know you will like her best at last.”
Ch. 9: “If Edmund were but IN ORDERS!” cried Julia, and running to where he stood with Miss Crawford and Fanny: “My dear Edmund, if you were but IN ORDERS now, you might perform the ceremony directly. How unlucky that you are not ordained; Mr. Rushworth and Maria are quite ready.”
Miss Crawford’s countenance, as Julia spoke, might have amused a disinterested observer. She looked almost aghast under the new idea she was receiving. Fanny pitied her. “How distressed she will be at what she said just now,” passed across her mind.
“Ordained!” said Miss Crawford; “what, are you to be a clergyman?”
“Yes; I SHALL TAKE ORDERS soon after my father’s return—probably at Christmas.”
….“I do not think you ever will,” said she, with an arch smile; “I am just as much surprised now as I was at first that YOU SHOULD INTEND TO TAKE ORDERS. You really are fit for something better. Come, do change your mind. It is not too late. Go into the law.”
Ch. 11: [See the last section of the body of the above post]
Ch. 14: Fanny seemed nearer being right than Edmund had supposed. The business of finding a play that would suit everybody proved to be no trifle; and the carpenter HAD RECEIVED HIS ORDERS and taken his measurements, had suggested and removed at least two sets of difficulties, and having made the necessity of an enlargement of plan and expense fully evident, was already at work, while a play was still to seek.
Ch. 23: Miss Crawford, who had been repeatedly eyeing Dr. Grant and Edmund, now observed, “Those gentlemen must have some very interesting point to discuss.”
“The most interesting in the world,” replied her brother—“how to make money; how to turn a good income into a better. Dr. Grant is giving Bertram instructions about the living he is to step into so soon. I find HE TAKES ORDERS in a few weeks...”
….The assurance of Edmund’s being SO SOON TO TAKE ORDERS coming upon her like a blow that had been suspended, and still hoped uncertain and at a distance, was felt with resentment and mortification. She was very angry with him. She had thought her influence more.
Ch. 26: The preparations meanwhile went on, and Lady Bertram continued to sit on her sofa without any inconvenience from them. She had some extra visits from the housekeeper, and her maid was rather hurried in making up a new dress for her: SIR THOMAS GAVE ORDERS, and Mrs. Norris ran about; but all this gave her no trouble, and as she had foreseen, “there was, in fact, no trouble in the business.”
Ch. 28: When her two dances with him were over, her inclination and strength for more were pretty well at an end; and SIR THOMAS, having seen her walk rather than dance down the shortening set, breathless, and with her hand at her side, GAVE HIS ORDERS for her sitting down entirely. From that time Mr. Crawford sat down likewise.
Ch. 32: “…And, Fanny” (turning back again for a moment), “I shall make no mention below of what has passed; I shall not even tell your aunt Bertram. There is no occasion for spreading the disappointment; say nothing about it yourself.”
This was an ORDER to be most joyfully obeyed; this was an act of kindness which Fanny felt at her heart. To be spared from her aunt Norris’s interminable reproaches! he left her in a glow of gratitude. Anything might be bearable rather than such reproaches. Even to see Mr. Crawford would be less overpowering.
…A fire! it seemed too much; just at that time to be giving her such an indulgence was exciting even painful gratitude. She wondered that Sir Thomas could have leisure to think of such a trifle again; but she soon found, from the voluntary information of the housemaid, who came in to attend it, that so it was to be every day. SIR THOMAS HAD GIVEN ORDERS for it.
… “If I had known you were going out, I should have got you just to go as far as my house WITH SOME ORDERS for Nanny,” said she, “which I have since, to my very great inconvenience, been obliged to go and carry myself. I could very ill spare the time, and you might have saved me the trouble, if you would only have been so good as to let us know you were going out. It would have made no difference to you, I suppose, whether you had walked in the shrubbery or gone to my house.”
Ch. 34: “A sermon, well delivered, is more uncommon even than prayers well read. A sermon, good in itself, is no rare thing. It is more difficult to speak well than to compose well; that is, the rules and trick of composition are oftener an object of study. A thoroughly good sermon, thoroughly well delivered, is a capital gratification. I can never hear such a one without the greatest admiration and respect, and more than half a mind TO TAKE ORDERS and preach myself. There is something in the eloquence of the pulpit, when it is really eloquence, which is entitled to the highest praise and honour. The preacher who can touch and affect such an heterogeneous mass of hearers, on subjects limited, and long worn threadbare in all common hands; who can say anything new or striking, anything that rouses the attention without offending the taste, or wearing out the feelings of his hearers, is a man whom one could not, in his public capacity, honour enough. I should like to be such a man.”
Ch. 35: “The Miss Owens—you liked them, did not you?”
“Yes, very well. Pleasant, good-humoured, unaffected girls. But I am spoilt, Fanny, for common female society. Good-humoured, unaffected girls will not do for a man who has been used to sensible women. They are two distinct ORDERS of being. You and Miss Crawford have made me too nice.”
Ch. 38: The Thrush went out of harbour this morning. I saw her. It was a beautiful sight. And they think SHE WILL HAVE HER ORDERS in a day or two…”
….“Oh! my dear William, how glad I am to see you. But have you heard about the Thrush? She is gone out of harbour already; three days before we had any thought of it; and I do not know what I am to do about Sam’s things, they will never be ready in time; for SHE MAY HAVE HER ORDERS to-morrow, perhaps...”
….”… I have been to Turner’s about your mess; it is all in a way to be done. I should not wonder if YOU HAD YOUR ORDERS to-morrow: but you cannot sail with this wind, if you are to cruise to the westward; and Captain Walsh thinks you will certainly have a cruise to the westward, with the Elephant….”
…Fanny was very thankful. She could not but own that she should be very glad of a little tea, and Susan immediately set about making it, as if pleased to have the employment all to herself; and with only a little unnecessary bustle, and some few injudicious attempts at keeping her brothers IN BETTER ORDER than she could, acquitted herself very well.
Ch. 39: Before the week ended, it was all disappointment. In the first place, William was gone. The Thrush had HAD HER ORDERS, the wind had changed, and he was sailed within four days from their reaching Portsmouth; and during those days she had seen him only twice, in a short and hurried way, when he had come ashore on duty.
Ch. 46: When Mansfield was considered, time was precious; and the state of his own mind made him find relief only in motion. It was settled that HE SHOULD ORDER THE CARRIAGE to the door in half an hour.