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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The letter’s the thing to reveal the banal evil of Sir Thomas, the “thrifty” Merchant of Mansfield Park

The latest edition of the print Persuasions (Volume 38, 2016) arrived from JASNA in my mailbox last week, and I skimmed it for literary ore which I might mine for more jewels from the Austenian depths. One article popped out at me right away, because of its tantalizing title: “The Source for the Theatricals of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: A Discovery” by Sayre Greenfield. When I read it, it did not disappoint, as Greenfield’s discovery provides me with unexpected, dramatic validation of my longstanding claim that beneath the surface of Mansfield Park lurks the “ghost” of Hamlet ---the play, that is. Read on if you dare and learn what has not been previously dreamt of in the philosophy of mainstream Austen studies.  😉

Greenfield’s article begins as follows:   “The major literary source for the private theatricals in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park lies in an article reprinted in magazines from 1788 to 1789. It is a letter purportedly from one Abraham Thrifty, who returns home to find his family well on its way to staging Hamlet in his house. The letter, as it appears in The Lady’s Magazine for June, 1789, includes the following passage:   
“Would you believe it, sir, that during an absence of six weeks in the country, my house has been metamorphosed into a theatre, absolutely into a theatre, sir. My dining-room, which unfortunately for me is large, and consequently fit for the purpose, was the audience part of the house, and the adjoining room, by the demolition of the partition, was converted into a stage and dressing-room, by the demolition of the partition, was converted into a stage and dressing-room. I know not how much it will cost to have matters put to rights again, for they have made a prodigious large hole in the centre of the floor of the lesser room (now the stage) which I find was intended for the preternatural accommodation of a ghost.”
The resemblance to MP does not stop with the story of a paterfamilias who goes on a trip and returns to find his house rearranged and his family amidst rehearsals….”   END QUOTE FROM GREENFIELD

In the remainder of his clearly written article, Greenfield methodically lays out a variety of persuasive bits of evidence for his claim that the imaginary Abraham Thrifty’s letter was indeed a major source for the theatricals episode in MP. This evidence includes, in particular, 3 contemporaneous real life analogues:
the 1789 Austen family Steventon theatricals;
the 1789-90 Austen brothers’ publication of The Loiterer, which consisted of Abraham Thrifty-like imaginary letters, including the famous Sophia Sentiment epistle which many Austen scholars (myself included) believe was ghostwritten by the 13 year old Jane Austen; and
an inset story within JA’s own 1790 juvenilia “Love and Freindship”.

Greenfield clearly did his homework, and so I urge all who are interested in MP to read his article (which I believe won’t be accessible through any online database till later this year) if you can get your hands on a print copy of it. Before I get to my own fresh contribution to this scholarly mix, I must give two quick shoutouts to other earlier Austen scholars:

First, in regard to the resonance of The Loiterer with the Thrifty letter, please note the 1997 Persuasions article by Emily Hipchen...
…in which Hipchen persuasively demonstrated that the theatricals episode in Mansfield Park had deep roots in The Loiterer –in particular in the very same Letter #12 in The Loiterer that Greenfield mentioned in his 2017 article twenty years later! It is the one with ABRAHAM Steady (same idea as Thrifty) as the letter-writing father complaining about the chaos inflicted on his daughters by one of the strolling players who comes to their locality (as if the Player King ran off with Ophelia instead of staging the Mousetrap at Hamlet’s request!).

So, Hipchen was already there in 1997 showing how The Loiterer Letter #12 was a forerunner to the private theatricals episode in MP, a discovery that is dramatically validated by Greenfield’s 2017 claim that The Loiterer Letter #12 must have been inspired by the first 1788 version of the Thrifty letter, because the version in the Lady’s Magazine was not published till June 1789. All of which makes me wonder about who exactly was the author of that Lady’s Magazine June, 1789 variant of the Abraham Steady letter --- given that it was written around the same time as the Sophia Sentiment letter, I would not at all be shocked to one day learn that the 13 ½ year old Jane Austen herself wrote it!

Second, the scholarly digging of Julie Wakefield (author of the “Austen Only” blog) proves that there was also at least one real life amateur theatrical that Jane Austen was also very specifically pointing to in MP. Here’s what I wrote in 2014 about Wakefield’s 2004 blog post in this regard:

“In 2004, Julie Wakefield, then part of the Republic of Pemberley team, wrote an extraordinary post (no longer accessible online) in which she summarized the essential facts of the adulterous elopement of young Lady Derby (wife of the 12th Earl of Derby) with the rakish 3rd Duke of Dorset, and then concluded:

“Can you not see the parallels with the plot of Mansfield Park? Is it not possible for the Earl of Derby to be the role model for Mr Rushworth? Lady Betty the prototype for Maria? The Duke of Dorset Henry Crawford? The stories certainly have many other echoes of each other…The Wonder by Centilivre; the use of “Richmond House” (it was at Richmond of course, where Henry Crawford stayed while paying court to Mrs Rushworth). And finally the association with Mrs. Inchbald. And remember this all took place but two years after Jane Austen’s brother performed The Wonder in their theatre/barn with the dashing cousin Eliza. You may draw your own conclusions but I feel sure JA knew of this scandal (her theatrically obsessed brothers would surely have talked about it. They must surely have read all about it.) and she included it all (or rather, elements of it) in Mansfield Park. I can't be certain but the coincidence of circumstance and names are compelling to me. But I remind you all (before you all jump down my throat) that all we can do is name possibilities, however tempting they may seem..;-)”
[And then my personal favorite from her argument]: “However, the Earl of Derby refused to grant her a divorce. Indeed, when he heard of rumours circulating about the possibility that he would divorce Lady Derby to enable her and the Duke to be married, the Earl of Derby stated: ”Then, by God, I will not get a divorce; I will not give her the opportunity of using another man so ill as she has done me”

I cannot tell from her having quoted that real life statement by the Earl of Derby, whether Julie W realized consciously that Jane Austen was alluding to that statement when she wrote the following description of Sir Thomas Bertram’s thoughts about his daughter Maria, the “Lady Derby” of the novel, in Chapter 48 of Mansfield Park:  “Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not, by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man's family as he had known himself.”
That’s such a close paraphrase, it’s virtually a quotation of the real life Earl’s famous statement!

MY OWN GLOSS ON GREENFIELD’S DISCOVERY                                                                                                                     

After making his case for the “what” of the covert allusion to Abraham Thrifty by JA in MP, Greenfield gives his explanation of the “why”, culminating in this statement:  
“Of course, Austen is also writing social commentary [regarding Gisborne’s and More’s conduct-book warnings about the ‘infecting influence’ of drama], but if we recognize her source not as Gisborne’s treatise but Thrifty’s letter, we can better grasp that even in Mansfield Park, Austen is writing comedy, an understanding of the novel often obscured….Thrifty’s tale of his return to his stage-struck house…[was] well-aged, too, fermenting two-and-a-half decades before she uncorked its wit.” END QUOTE

My purpose today is to start from where Greenfield left off, and to demonstrate two additional, and to me, crucial allusive meanings hidden in plain sight in JA’s theatricals episode in MP, which point back to two key aspects of Abraham Thrifty’s letter which Greenfield did not quite reach. I.e., while I believe he was spot-on in asserting that JA looked to the Thrifty letter for comic inspiration, it was a much darker sort of comedy than Greenfield adverted to, as you shall see, below:


Greenfield made only a few passing references to the explicit winking at Hamlet in the Thrifty letter, without noting any particular significance in the specific play enacted, either for the letter or for Mansfield Park. My key point is that it was not random that Hamlet was the play which Thrifty’s family chose to enact in his absence. I knew this, because, when I saw the references to Hamlet (and, after locating the full text of the Thrifty letter online, I found there are many scattered through it), my eyes widened. Why?

Because of what I first noticed in 2006, while listening to Marcia McClintock Folsom’s presentation at the JASNA AGM in Tucson, when I first realized that Lovers Vows functions as a “Mousetrap” for Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park –i.e., when Sir Thomas returns unexpectedly from Antigua and stumbles upon Lovers Vows being rehearsed in his inner sanctum, he is in precisely the same situation as Claudius finds himself while watching The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet – In both cases, a son has staged a performance closely resembling his father’s crimes, in order to catch his father’s conscience – and that is exactly what I (aided by Rozema’s brilliant 1999 film adaptation) see Tom Bertram having done to his father. And this was all, I claim, entirely intentional on Jane Austen’s part, a reflection of how much her own literary constitution and instincts were rooted in Shakespeare.

I spoke at great length on this very topic as a breakout speaker at the 2014 JASNA AGM in Montreal, including my pointing out that Lovers Vows itself is riddled (so to speak) with numerous veiled references to Hamlet. The duo of Kotzebue/Inchbald meant to remind the audience of Shakespeare’s Claudius when Baron Wildenhaim is confronted with the evidence of his past sin when his illegitimate son Frederick shows up and rescues his mother, whom the Baron has heartlessly abandoned. Because Lovers Vows is a comedy, albeit a dark one, all seems to end well—and the same may be said of MP as well.

Suffice for today to point out that when we put all of the above together, I am able to add an additional layer to the dazzling layer cake of allusion that is MP; or more aptly, another thread in her rich allusive tapestry, which enacts the salutary effect of the theater in catching the conscience of the audience. Rather than being an “infection”, as Gisborne and More warned, I believe that Jane Austen considered theatre (and, for that matter, its sister artform, novels) to be the most powerful moral DISinfectant. She understood that by engrossing her readers in a compelling fictional reality mirroring their own lives, she could illuminate her readers’ foibles to themselves. And that is the principal reason why I believe she (like Kotzebue and Inchbald, and also like the clever anonymous author of the Abraham Thrifty letter) paid these respects to the greatest conscience-catcher of all, Hamlet.


Greenfield also notes in passing that the name “Abraham Thrifty” had been used ¾ of a century earlier in a 1711 Spectator letter of complaint by an imaginary middleclass merchant. It turns out that the Spectator
letter provided more than a name, it provided the model for the latter Thrifty’s Philistine complaint – his nieces will not leave him be, despite his businessman’s utter lack of interest in the life of the mind:

“…unless I fall in with their abstracted Idea of Things (as they call them) I must not expect to smoak one Pipe in Quiet. In a late Fit of the Gout I complained of the Pain of that Distemper when my Niece Kitty begged Leave to assure me, that whatever I might think, several great Philosophers, both ancient and modern, were of Opinion, that both Pleasure and Pain were imaginary Distinctions, and that there was no such thing as either in rerum Natura. I have often heard them affirm that the Fire was not hot; and one Day when I, with the Authority of an old Fellow, desired one of them to put my blue Cloak on my Knees; she answered, Sir, I will reach the Cloak; but take notice, I do not do it as allowing your Description; for it might as well be called Yellow as Blue; for Colour is nothing but the various Infractions of the Rays of the Sun. Miss Molly told me one Day; That to say Snow was white, is allowing a vulgar Error; for as it contains a great Quantity of nitrous Particles, it might more reasonably be supposed to be black. In short, the young Husseys would persuade me, that to believe one's Eyes is a sure way to be deceived; and have often advised me, by no means, to trust any thing so fallible as my Senses. What I have to beg of you now is, to turn one Speculation to the due Regulation of Female Literature, so far at least, as to make it consistent with the Quiet of such whose Fate it is to be liable to its Insults; and to tell us the Difference between a Gentleman that should make Cheesecakes and raise Paste, and a Lady that reads Locke, and understands the Mathematicks.”

That’s exactly what we find when we read the 1789 letter (see ppg 290-293 in the following URL)….   That latter Abraham Thrifty, like his earlier namesake, is the quintessential man of business who has no appreciation whatsoever for the theater. His cluelessly Philistine anti-theatrical rant is epitomized in the following two excerpts, both of which evidence the handiwork of the expert satirist who created this character:

Hamlet was the play fixed upon, and the parts were divided among my family and my clerks, as far as they would go. A ghost was borrowed from a neighbour, and Laertes and Polonius came on purpose from Putney-heath to be killed on the occasion. The music between the acts was to have been performed by such of the actors as died early in the play, assisted by others not immediately on the stage. Polonius was first fiddle, assisted by the two grave-diggers, and Ophelia (one of my daughters) entertained the company with slow music on the piano forte at her own funeral. As to their dresses, I must say Hamlet (my nephew) was by far the most characteristic, as the young rogue is not out of mourning for his father, who was, like myself, a plain plodding merchant, and would as life have seen Jack turn a bailiff’s follower as prince of Denmark. The king, a fine stupid looking man my Dutch clerk, and the lords of the court, had decorated this cloaths with embossed paper and foil, and, black faces excepted, seemed very happy imitators of the chimney-sweeps on May-day. The ladies, unquestionably, would have been dressed most royally. Every thing ws ready for representation. Hamlet and Laertes had practiced with foils for some days before, determined to exhibit a good fencing scene. The ghost’s armour was complete, and consumed near a whole quire of lead-coloured paper—the ruler from the desk in the counting-house was employed as truncheon—Ophelia was to go mad with straw from one of the packages in the warehouse; and, the morning of my arrival, a hamper of earth, proper to fill a grave, was brought from Whitechapel-mount.”

This sort of droll irony, repeatedly deflating the details of Shakespeare’s great tragedy by filtering through the lens of Thrifty’s benighted eyes with his mundane, cost-conscious observations, was, I believe, clearly inspirational to Jane Austen’s much more sophisticated irony and satire in the same vein. In particular, I see Abraham Steady as a direct inspiration for Mrs. Norris acting as self-appointed watchdog for cost-cutting in staging Lovers Vows, while she skims her own take off on the side!

And now for the climax of the 1789 Abraham Steady letter:

“Lords in real life may be very good lords upon the stage, but it is a severe affliction for men in trade to see their clerks become kings, and their porters diggers of graves. Such, sir, is the force of example. I wish there was a law that no person should play the fool, unless he first proved that he had a clear independent estate, free from all encumbrances, and was no-wise concerned in business—or, rather, sir, that all mankind would study to act the part of honest men on the stage of life, and leave tyrants, murderers, Grecian kings, and Danish ghosts to be personated by those whose profession it is to amuse the public.”

And so, the comic “amusement” provided by Mansfield Park is of the sharpest and bitterest flavor, as Jane Austen portrays the greed, hypocrisy, and cluelessness of Sir Thomas Bertram, as I’ve written about many times since 2010---and reminds us of Claudius, Baron Wildenhaim, and yes, even the two Abraham Thriftys, all of whose idea of “thrift” is the heartless cruel subjugation of all human feeling and decency to the almighty pound.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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