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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Fanny Price’s Portsmouth Ecstasy & Agony, her voyage back to Mansfield Park (& Woolf & Joyce, too)

It is a truism of Austen studies that there is a minimum of visual description in the six novels, compared to the fiction of most other great authors. Beyond the obvious explanation that the building blocks of Austen’s fictional worlds are primarily invisible feelings, thoughts, and moral judgments, I also see a subtler, second reason for that paucity of visuals: we see each Austenian fictional world through the eyes and minds of the main heroine; and so, unless that heroine is struck by a particular visual detail, we don’t read about the rest of her visual field, so we don’t learn visual details that another author’s omniscient narrator might describe, in order to set a scene.

Austen’s minimalist visual narration has the effect of making her visual details, when provided, especially memorable. Just think of Mrs. Musgrove’s “fat sighings” on the sofa, Edward Ferrars’s cutting scissars, and the tarnished silver lock on the great chest in Catherine’s room at the Abbey.

Perhaps the most memorable example of rare Austenian narration with lots of visual detail is the extended narrative tableau in Chapter 43 of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth arrives at Pemberley with the Gardiners. She is overwhelmed -- almost, it seems, to the point of climax -- by the cumulative effect of all she sees, both inside and out. As has been noted before, as she rides and/or walks along, the boundary in Elizabeth’s mind’s eye between Pemberley and its master seems to melt away, until they are fused into one awesome object of idolatry.

Much less noticed, however, is another, much shorter, yet strikingly similar Austenian scene, also with extraordinary visual detail driven by the heroine’s romantic ecstasy. In Chapter 42 of Mansfield Park. I suggest that exactly the same internal process is at work as with Elizabeth at Pemberley, but this time it is Fanny Price for whom the picturesque waterfront panorama from the Portsmouth ramparts becomes fused with the person (and, more minutely and tellingly, the supportive, gentlemanlike arm) of Henry Crawford:

“The day was uncommonly lovely. It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright SUN, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea, now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them. Nay, had she been without his ARM, she would soon have known that she needed it, for she wanted strength for a two hours' saunter of this kind, coming, as it generally did, upon a week's previous inactivity. Fanny was beginning to feel the effect of being debarred from her usual regular exercise; she had lost ground as to health since her being in Portsmouth; and but for Mr. Crawford and the beauty of the weather would soon have been knocked up now.
The loveliness of the day, and of the view, he felt like herself. They often stopt with the same sentiment and taste, leaning against the wall, some minutes, to look and admire; and considering he was not Edmund, Fanny could not but allow that he was sufficiently open to the charms of nature, and very well able to express his admiration. She had a few tender reveries now and then, which he could sometimes take advantage of to look in her face without detection; and the result of these looks was, that though as bewitching as ever, her face was less blooming than it ought to be. She said she was very well, and did not like to be supposed otherwise; but take it all in all, he was convinced that her present residence could not be comfortable, and therefore could not be salutary for her, and he was growing anxious for her being again at Mansfield, where her own happiness, and his in seeing her, must be so much greater.”

As I’ve often noted, it’s no accident that this scene occurs at the same point in the story arc of Mansfield Park as Elizabeth’s first seeing Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Austen meant for readers (like brother Henry Austen, who admired Henry Crawford) to recognize that parallel, aided by such visual cues, which open a window into the heart of her heroine, by letting us see the world through her rose-colored glasses.
I go further still, in suggesting that the alert first time reader of Mansfield Park who knows nothing of the actual ending, but has previously read Pride and Prejudice, would be as shocked as Fanny when she not long afterwards finds out that Henry has run off with Maria. The equivalent would’ve been Eliza finding out, shortly after her abrupt departure from Pemberley, that Darcy had run off with Anne de Bourgh or Caroline Bingley!

I suspect that Jane Austen deployed this game of inter-novel cat and mouse, as part of her larger agenda as a new kind of didactic fiction writer – to cross up readerly expectations, and keep readers on their toes; not out of a perverse delight in tricking readers, but because in real life a prudent single woman should be ready for either turn of the romantic screw, good or bad. Romantic appearances, especially the appearance of major reform in the flawed character of a rich, handsome, spoiled man, can be very deceiving. Which brings me to the point which actually prompted me to write this post today. I hadn’t previously noticed that Austen actually provides two overtones to Fanny’s Portsmouth ramparts rhapsody, before she sets off the bomb which is Henry and Maria’s shocking matrimonial fracas.

First, in the immediately ensuing Chapter 43, look at what Mary Crawford writes to Fanny:  "I have to inform you, my dearest Fanny, that Henry has been down to Portsmouth to see you; that he had a delightful walk with you to the dockyard last Saturday, and one still more to be dwelt on the next day, on the ramparts; when the balmy air, the sparkling sea, and your sweet looks and conversation were altogether in the most delicious harmony, and afforded sensations which are to raise ecstasy even in retrospect. This, as well as I understand, is to be the substance of my information….”  Mary (perhaps with Henry’s authorization?) is making sure to revive and refresh Fanny’s memory of her magical moments hanging on Henry’s arm, the more to keep that loving feeling alive (or rather, keep the hole open) in Fanny’s heart.

And then, three chapters later, in Chapter 46, we get what I now recognize to be the parodic bookend of Fanny’s ramparts ecstasy--- Fanny’s agony as she gazes, frozen in horror, at the hellish ‘landscape’ of the Price household:   “She was deep in other musing. The remembrance of her first evening in that room, of her father and his newspaper, came across her. No candle was now wanted. The sun was yet an hour and half above the horizon. She felt that she had, indeed, been three months there; and the sun's rays falling strongly into the parlour, instead of cheering, made her still more melancholy, for sunshine appeared to her a totally different thing in a town and in the country. Here, its power was only a glare: a stifling, sickly glare, serving but to bring forward stains and dirt that might otherwise have slept. There was neither health nor gaiety in sunshine in a town. She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father's head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca's hands had first produced it…"

Note Austen’s brilliant stroke, in raising all these subtle echoes of the ramparts scene, but with each visual element now connected to the opposite feeling: the sun, which had earlier created “dancing” shafts of fire on the moving water, is now ‘only a glare’; the ‘ever-varying hues of the sea’ have now been replaced by ‘a mixture of motes floating in thin blue’; etc. [Christina Denny, in her 2014 Persuasions Online article, “‘Delighted with the Portsmouth Scene’: Why Austen’s Intimates admired Mansfield Park’s Gritty City”, noted both of these opposing passages, but did not connect them thematically]

Rather than telling the reader that Fanny’s ecstasy has turned to agony, Austen shows this via Fanny’s visual imagery. And how true to character is it, that Fanny, who, like Anne Elliot, is a connoisseur of romantic poetry, turns her feelings into poetry. And, in that precise regard, Geoff Chapman wrote the following in Janeites in May 2000:
“I think the quote below is blank verse, and I have lineated it thus:
She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust;
and her eyes could only wander from the walls marked by her father's head,
to the table cut and notched by her brothers,
where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned,
the cups and saucers wiped in streaks,
the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue...” 

For the remainder of this post, I now turn to later authors who I see as reacting to the above. First, I suspect that James Joyce, writing a century after Mansfield Park, had Fanny’s ecstasy and agony both in mind, when he wrote the following clashing visual imagery in Chapter 1 of Ulysses, reflecting Stephen Dedalus’s tortured, mixed feelings about his late mother. I see Stephen as emulating Fanny Price’s poetic conflation of water in a bay with water in a bowl.

[Buck Mulligan] mounted to the parapet again and gazed out over Dublin bay, his fair oakpale hair stirring slightly.
—God! he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks! I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look.
Stephen stood up and went over to the parapet. Leaning on it he looked down on the water and on the mailboat clearing the harbourmouth of Kingstown.…The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.”

And, speaking of great 20th century writers reacting to Fanny’s clashing visual impressions, it is no secret that Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (rewritten by her many times before she published it in 1915, three years after Ulysses), explicitly alludes to Persuasion in a conversation among Mrs. Dalloway, her husband, and Woolf’s tragic heroine, Rachel Vinrace. However, Mansfield Park also lurks in Woolf’s shadows, as flagged in the Janeites group six years ago by our very own Elissa Schiff: 
Virginia Woolf's first published novel (1914), The Voyage Out, which many think her most "Austen-like" satiric novel in style, has many, many specific references and allusions to Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price in heroine Rachel, their social "situations," includes the vapid Allans and Elliots among the characters, and has specific mention of Shakespeare in the text.”

What I noticed, and perhaps was one of the allusions Elissa saw, is the striking echo of Fanny’s ecstasy on the Portsmouth ramparts, on one hand, and the following passage in The Voyage Out, on the other:

“…[Rachel] was overcome by an intense desire to tell Mrs. Dalloway things she had never told any one—things she had not realised herself until this moment.
"I am lonely," she began. "I want—" She did not know what she wanted, so that she could not finish the sentence; but her lip quivered. But it seemed that Mrs. Dalloway was able to understand without words.
"I know," she said, actually putting one arm round Rachel's shoulder. "When I was your age I wanted too. No one understood until I met Richard. He gave me all I wanted. He's man and woman as well." Her eyes rested upon Mr. Dalloway, leaning upon the rail, still talking. "Don't think I say that because I'm his wife—I see his faults more clearly than I see any one else's. What one wants in the person one lives with is that they should keep one at one's best. I often wonder what I've done to be so happy!" she exclaimed, and a tear slid down her cheek. She wiped it away, squeezed Rachel's hand, and exclaimed: "How good life is!" At that moment, standing out in the fresh breeze, with the sun upon the waves, and Mrs. Dalloway's hand upon her arm, it seemed indeed as if life which had been unnamed before was infinitely wonderful, and too good to be true.
Here Helen passed them, and seeing Rachel arm-in-arm with a comparative stranger, looking excited, was amused, but at the same time slightly irritated….”

Why did Woolf elect to sound this striking echo of Fanny’s besotted visual impressions (inspired by Henry) in Rachel’s passionate moment with Clarissa? Is Dick Dalloway a sexually ambiguous Henry Crawford? Is Rachel Vinrace a Fanny Price torn among feelings for Edmund, Henry….and Mary?
Woolf famously complained about what was left unstated in Austen’s fiction, and I’ve long thought this was pointing to traumatizing incest. But now, based on the above, I’m convinced that fluidity in sexual orientation is also a significant thematic linkage of Rachel to Fanny, each a heroine on a voyage of sexual self-discovery. And, most troubling speculation of all: did Woolf mean to hint that Fanny’s voyage back to Mansfield Park, to a conventional heterosexual marriage to Edmund, was a kind of early death?

Cheers, ARNIE

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