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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Nabokovian Gravity of Jane Austen’s Subtle Relative Puns in Mansfield Park

In the first enacted scene of MP in Chapter 1, we read an exchange between Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas about the pros and cons of having Fanny grow up in the Bertram household around Tom and Edmund:

 “…But breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister.”
“There is a great deal of truth in what you say,” replied Sir Thomas, “and far be it from me to throw any fanciful impediment in the way of a plan which would be so consistent with the RELATIVE SITUATIONS of each.

On the surface, Sir Thomas, by “relative situations”, refers to Tom and Edmund being higher-born Bertrams, whereas Fanny is a lower-born Price, relative (or compared) to the “situations” (within the family hierarchy) of her cousins. But the pun arises from the subject which is being discussed --- the Bertram boys and Fanny are, literally, “relatives” by reason of that same “situation”! So, Fanny is, in effect, a relatively low relative!

This especially reminds me of the pun I recently wrote about in Emma, (which I found after my fellow Austen sleuth Diane Reynolds noted the pun involving “reign” and “rain” in Mr. Elton’s charade):

“The weather continued much the same all the following morning; and the same loneliness, and the same melancholy, seemed to reign at Hartfield—but in the afternoon it cleared..” 

This is truly the high art of hiding in plain sight. But, back to MP-- here’s the best part -- Austen revisits this identical pun at the very end of the novel, in Chapter 48, again with Sir Thomas, again thinking about a subordinate female relative (but this time, his daughter, Maria). This makes, in effect, a literal pair of punning “bookends” on the word “relative”!:

“As a daughter, he hoped a penitent one, she should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their RELATIVE SITUATIONS admitted; but FARTHER than that he could not go. 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.”

This passage requires more thought to decipher accurately than the first one. What exactly is Sir Thomas thinking? On the surface, it seems to me, he’s thinking of the totality of the relative disparity in both power and respectability between a father (and that’s why I also put the word ‘farther” in all caps!) with supreme familial authority who believes himself to be morally upright, on the one hand, and a daughter, Maria, who is in a weak and disgraced situation, relative to his, as an adulterous wife in need of his mercy to bail her out and, in his mind, to give her a courtship reboot. And the pun arises, as in Chapter 1, from the same subject being discussed – i.e., Sir Thomas and Maria are, obviously, in a “relative situation”, because they are father and daughter – they are relatives who are relatively different in power and morality!

And, the following sentence about Maria having destroyed her own character further subtly emphasizes the parallel to the Chapter 1 passage, because the “bridge too far” for Sir Thomas would be to follow Mrs. Norris’s advice and receive Maria back home, thereby giving her a second shot at landing a rich husband under his sponsorship. He clearly is thinking of the contrast between the success of his having introduced Fanny into his own family in Chapter 1, and the misery he might cause if he sponsored Maria as an eligible belle to be introduced into another man’s family in the aftermath of Chapter 48!

Great stuff, right?

After a bit of online searching, I cannot find any prior sighting of this pun in the usual databases, and that is, perhaps, not surprising, given that Austen does nothing to telegraph this pun, to make it obvious. And actually, what I love about Austen’s puns -- which I have found are everywhere in her writing -- is that she invariably shows impeccable tact and taste in her paranomosia. She never pushes them in the reader’s face, or overdoes them – and yet, like the best crossword puzzle clues, once you see them, you groan and smack your forehead, because they were always there, hiding in plain sight.

My favorite from her letters, which I first spotted in July 2008, is this LOL gem:
“As for Mr Floor, he is at present rather low in our estimation”
What makes it great is that it is invisible to those with a blind eye for puns, such as Deirdre Le Faye, whose Biographical Index entry for “Mr. Floor” in her 4th edition still reads, as it did in her 3rd:  
"Tradesman in Southampton--perhaps a dyer?"
She may as well have included an entry for “Santa Claus”: “Itinerant Peddler & p/t Chimney Sweep”!

And even when Austen, on rare occasion, does explicitly flag a pun, as she does with Mary Crawford’s infamous “rears and vices”, Austen, through Mary’s teasing voice, explicitly winks at it – so as to invite the reader to try to interpret its cryptic meaning – and in this case, I’ve long maintained that Mary has a deadly serious message hidden beneath the smile – she’s hinting to Fanny at the ‘price’ William will pay (for his promotion) – he’ll have to offer up his “rear” to satisfy the “vices” of Admiral Crawford’s circle.

A Possible Sighting After All?

Even though I didn’t find any explicit prior scholarly sighting of JA’s pun on “relative” before myself, I have my suspicions that I’ve been preceded in this discovery by a sharp elf who read MP many decades ago. I refer to none other than Vladimir Nabokov, who, it is well known, was rather over-the-top and Shakespearean in the frequency and elaborateness of his own punning. For example, Humbert Humbert refers to Lolita (real name Dolores Haze) as “my dolorous and hazy darling”. Throughout the entire novel, in fact, Humbert (and perhaps also Nabokov?) reveals himself as too clever by half in his narcissistic compulsive, ticcing wordplay.

What I find intriguing is that, in his famous lecture on MP, Nabokov actually quotes and briefly discusses the above Chapter 1 speech by Sir Thomas, as he describes how Austen sometimes achieves “characterization through directly quoted speech”:
“A good example is to be found in Sir Thomas’s speech: [the first “relative situations” quotation]. He is speaking of the plan to have his niece, Fanny, come to Mansfield Park. Now, this is a ponderous way of expressing himself…”

Surprisingly, even though Nabokov’s eye is sensitive enough to catch the awkward ponderousness of Sir Thomas’s speech pattern, he seems to fail to spot the pun, and therefore seems to fail to realize that Sir Thomas’s awkward syntax also provides a better set-up for the “relative situations” pun.

Bu what if Nabokov didn’t miss that pun after all? I was already aware, from research I had last worked on in 2015, that MP is a key allusive source for Lolita, including a punning connection relative (ha ha) to the word “grave”. For example:
“…[Lolita’s] mother was hospitalized, that the situation was GRAVE, that the child should not be told it was GRAVE…”
Per Jessie Thomas Lokrantz, in her dissertation The Underside of the Weave: Some Stylistic Devices Used by Vladimir Nabokov (1973), Humbert and the readers know that Charlotte is already dead and therefore a new meaning is given to the word ‘grave’. The irony of the situation is emphasised by using the word twice.”

Nabokov repeats “grave’ and ‘gravity’ (and even “gravel”) many times in Lolita ---and guess what?  the words “grave” and “gravity” are also used much more frequently in MP than in all of Austen’s novels (except for S&S, which comes close) -- and the main reason is that these particular words are used most often to describe Sir Thomas in MP, and Colonel Brandon in S&S, respectively.

I suggest this is part of a delicate mosaic of wordplay, by which Nabokov is connecting Humbert Humbert, his witty pedophile, to Sir Thomas Bertram, the ponderous patriarch (and I claim, also, pedophile) of Mansfield Park. In 2015, I went through a number of echoes of MP that I see in Lolita, which suggest that Nabokov recognized the darkest, Rozema-esque subtext of MP, with Sir Thomas as a sexual predator, long before anyone else.

In that vein, I close with an extended quotation from Lolita, which discusses the legal aspects of the ambiguous relationship between Humbert and Lolita – reminding us once again of that Chapter 1 tete a tete between Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris. That ambiguous relationship, you’ll recall, involves a middle aged man who assumes the role of a quasi-father to a pubescent girl– and, also as I claim re Sir Thomas as well as Humbert, sexually abusing his young vulnerable, manipulable “relative”. Just think about how Sir Thomas responds when he returns to Mansfield after a long absence, and takes pointed notice of Fanny’s body.

As always, Humbert is waxing verbosely (albeit with a style that utterly eludes Sir Thomas) about his one and only topic – Lolita. Note the word that he focuses on, and see if you also spot the other winks at Jane Austen that I believe Nabokov hid in this passage -- two ‘easter eggs’ of appreciation to the author (and that author’s heroine) who particularly inspired him in writing Lolita:

“At this point I have a curious confession to make. You will laugh--but really and truly I somehow never managed to find out quite exactly what the legal situation was. I do not know it yet. Oh, I have learned a few odds and ends. Alabama prohibits a guardian from changing the ward's residence without an order of the court; Minnesota, to whom I take off my hat, provides that when a RELATIVE assumes permanent care and custody of any child under fourteen, the authority of a court does not come into play. Query: is the stepfather of a gaspingly adorable pubescent pet, a stepfather of only one month's standing, a neurotic widower of mature years and small but independent means, with the parapets of Europe, a divorce and a few madhouses behind him, is he to be considered a RELATIVE, and thus a natural guardian? And if not, must I, and could I reasonably dare notify some Welfare Board and file a petition (how do you file a petition?), and have a court's agent investigate meek, fishy me and dangerous Dolores Haze? The many books on marriage, rape, adoption and so on, that I guiltily consulted at the public libraries of big and small towns, told me nothing beyond darkly insinuating that the state is the super-guardian of minor children. Pilvin and Zapel, if I remember their names right, in an impressive volume on the legal side of marriage, completely ignored stepfathers with motherless girls on their hands and knees. My best friend, a social service monograph (Chicago, 1936), which was dug out for me at great pains from a dusty storage recess by an innocent old spinster, said "There is no principle that every minor must have a guardian; the court is passive and enters the fray only when the child's situation becomes conspicuously perilous." A guardian, I concluded, was appointed only when he expressed his solemn and formal desire; but months might elapse before he was given notice to appear at a hearing and grow his pair of gray wings, and in the meantime the fair demon child was legally left to her own devices which, after all, was the case of Dolores Haze. Then came the hearing. A few questions from the bench, a few reassuring answers from the attorney, a smile, a nod, a light drizzle outside, and the appointment was made. And still I dared not. Keep away, be a Mouse, curl up in your hole. Courts became extravagantly active only when there was some monetary question involved: two greedy guardians, a robbed orphan, a third, still greedier, party. But here all was in perfect order, and inventory had been made, and her mother's small property was waiting untouched for Dolores Haze to grow up. The best policy seemed to be to refrain from any application. Or would some busybody, some Humane Society, butt in if I kept too quiet?”

Did you see them?

“My best friend, a social service monograph (Chicago, 1936), which was dug out for me at great pains from a dusty storage recess by an innocent old spinster, said "There is no principle that every minor must have a guardian; the court is passive and enters the fray only when the child's situation becomes conspicuously perilous."

That “innocent old spinster” would be Jane Austen, the (anything but) innocent old spinster, whose “monograph” Nabokov “dug out at great pains from a dusty storage access”; and Fanny Price, whose self-protective motto at Mansfield Park could have been “Keep away, be a Mouse, curl up in your hole.” – and hope that neither Sir Thomas nor Henry Crawford will make a hole in your heart!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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