In Elizabeth Jenkins's biography, Jane Austen Jenkins quotes the whole of the passage Maria Bertram alludes to as a way of expressing her feelings about the iron gates of Sotherton. Literary allusions don't simply add another dimension to a book; they provide a kind of "coded statement," a way of concisely adding a whole slew of thoughts and emotions which the reader is invited to "bring over" from his or her reading of the work alluded to. Jenkins's preface to the quotation can also suggest that one way Maria "reads" the iron gates is as a symbol of her lack of choices, the constraining environment she finds herself in; we may look over her shoulder and find in her deep passions which Henry Crawford is preying upon and playing with. Thus Elizabeth Jenkins:
"Jane Austen's own manner of writing being what it is, the most interesting consideration connected with her reading is perhaps that she had in the background of her consciousness such work as Sterne's, so wild, so elusive and, above all, so trembling with sensitive humanity, as is that passage from A Sentimental Journeywhich occurred to her in Mansfield Park when Maria Bertram, looking through the iron gates, exclaims: 'I cannot get out, as the starling said.' It is Sterne's attempt to reason away the horrors of imprisonment. 'As for the Bastille, the terror is in the word--Make the ost of it you can, I said to myself. The Bastille is but another word for a tower:--and a tower is but another word for a house you can't get out of... I was interrupted in the heyday of this soliloquy with a voice which I took to be that of a child, which complained: 'it could not get out,'...and looking up, I saw it was a starling hung up in a little cage. I stood looking at the bird, and to every person who came through the passage, it ran fluttering towards the side which they approached it, with the same lamentation of its captivity--'I can't get out,' said the starling. God help thee!--said I--but I'll let thee out,cost what it will; so I turned the cage about to get at the door; it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces... The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the trellis, pressed his breast against it...--I fear, poor creature, said I, I cannot set thee at liberty.--'No,' said the starling; 'I can't get out--I can't get out.' I vow I never had any affections more tenderly awaked... Mechancial as the notes were... in one moment they overthrew all my systematic reasonings upon the Bastille, and I heavily walked upstairs, unsaying every word I had said in going down them" (Jenkins, Jane Austen[NY: Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1949], pp 40-1).
The "wild, the elusive, the trembling with sensitive humanity" is in Austen; we have a way of mostly recognizing it in her romantic heroines, like Marianne, Jane Fairfax, Anne Elliot, but I would maintain if we looked at the full context within which Austen wrote her books and actually _knew_ the original works she often eludes to, we would find these qualities in not wholly unexpected places if we think about it. Fanny is a creature of Radcliffian fantasies; in those chapters where we are taken to look at her nest of comforts, her love of the landscape and star-gazing, her books, we catch the inner woman who has learned to remain hidden altogether, such is her vulnerability and disadvantage. To see Austen's Elinor in the context of the Elinor of Sophia Lee's The Recess and with her sister the epistolary novel by Edgeworth, Letters of Julia and Caroline is to come into the erotic realm Sense and Sensibility continually plays upon. Julia is the Marianne-like runaway, but her story resembles Maria Bertram's, and Maria Bertram's desire to get out, her frustration that she cannot, the likening of Bastille to tower to house to a stifling world is not so far from Austen herself's sense of her choices, her confinement as is usually supposed.
To this Karen Kwast responded:
Ellen Moody quotes: "...that passage from A Sentimental Journey which occurred to [Jane Austen] in Mansfield Park when Maria Bertram, looking through the iron gates exclaims: 'I cannot get out, as the starling said.' "
The impression I got, from editors notes (never read Sterne), was that once the bird was released, being raised in a cage, it was unable to cope and eaten by a cat before the end of the day. A nasty prophesy of Maria's fate by Henry. Is this just a fabrication, Ellen, do you know?
And in answer to her comments I wrote:
RE: Maria and the Starling
The day before yesterday in response to my quotation from Elizabeth Jenkins's comments on Maria's allusion to Sterne's starling, "'I cannot get out,'" as Maria stands before the locked iron gates, Karen Kwast wrote:
"The impression I got, from editors notes (never read Sterne), was that once the bird was released, being raised in a cage, it was unable to cope and eaten by a cat before the end of the day. A nasty prophesy of Maria's fate by Henry. Is this just a fabrication, Ellen, do you know?"
Since no-one else has answered the question, I thought I'd have a look at a copy of the book I own, which, to my surprize, I find I must have read since I marked it up. Not only was the starling not eaten by a cat before the end of the day, Sterne failed to get it out of the cage, and here is the relevant passage:
"I stood looking at the bird; and to every person who came through the pasage it ran fluttering to the side towards which they approach'd it, with the same lamentation of its capitivity--'I can't get out,' said the starling----God help thee! said I, but I'll let thee out, cost what it will so I turn'd about the cage to get to the door: it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces--I took both hands to it.
The starling as an actual bird then disappears from the narrative as Sterne begins to meditate on what its plight stands for: the starling stands for slavery (there's a bit of evidence for those who think slavery is an important subtext in this novel); it stands for thousands of misery. Sterne carries on quite a while over this, but after a while switches to the idea that bird stands for all who are captive and in misery, especially anyone who has "felt what kind of sickenss of the heart it was which arises from hope deferr'd;" this leads to Sterne imagining a prisoner in a cell, pale, sick, wasted away "with long expectation and confinement," for years never having "seen" the sun, the moon, "the voice of a friend or kinsman," "his children," which prisoner in his dungeon is however lucky enough to have a few small sticks and a rusty nail with which he etches out a calendar above his little pad of a bed and notches each day and night on the walls. Sterne can hear "the chains upon his legs" as he turns "his body to lay his little stick upon the bundle" after notching another day away, and "bursts into tears." Luckily (before Sterne or we do anything desperate) a friend interrupts Sterne, and he goes to sleep.
This friend then buys the bird and cage for Sterne "for a bottle of Burgundy," and Sterne tells how he took the starling with him to Italy and told the story to Lord A who begged the bird from him, and then gave it to Lord B who made a present of it to Lord C whose gentleman sold it to Lord D and so it passes "half round the alphabet." But, says Sterne, no-one understood the bird, for they all "wanted to get in--and my bird wanted to get out."
And this is the last we hear of said starling:
"It is impossible but many of my readers must have heard of him; and if any by mere chance have never seen him--I beg leave to inform them, that that bird was my bird--or some vile copy set up to represent him.
What are we to make of this? Well there is an ancient tradition in fables wherein women are often likened to a bird in a cage, a tradition and identification still with us, as in the familiar Victorian music hall song, "she was only a bird in a gilded cage...." (which I have heard applied to Princess Diana before her divorce). A number of 18th century women poets wrote poems about an imprisoned bird in which the bird stands for how they felt about their lives (Aphra Behn, Henrietta Knightley, Anne Finch, Charlotte Smith, Anne Radcliffe). Sterne's is a virtuoso emotional performance upon this motif, bringing in slavery, personal loss, and someone in a dungeon (shades of the Bastille). We can also think of Fanny whose has felt "the sickness of heart from hope deferr'd" because she loves Edmund, though Austen's Maria's pain is such she marries to get out of the cage Sir Thomas presides over.
But Sterne is too clever to see the paradigm one way: the joke's on the bird he says, for while it wants to get out; everyone else only wants to get in. They know there's nothing out there, or what's out there is as bad as what's in. What's out there beyond the iron gates is as bad as what's inside, maybe much worse. Sotherton's not so bad, says Mrs Norris.
I did however notice another interesting reference Austen could be making: at the close of The Sentimental Journey Sterne meets up with the beautiful peasant girl he has been seeking all along, and her name is Maria. Not only that, but we first see Sterne's Maria sitting all melancholy (well everyone is melancholy in this book) on the road, dressed in white, hair hung loose, with a little dog on her lap. It appears she had a lover and that lover had abandoned her--yes a faithless cruel lover has left her all alone on the road. (So too has her goat deserted.) Tears trickle down her face, and she cries out upon "Sylvio," but as Sterne looks into her eyes he finds she is thinking of her father whom she had betrayed. When Fanny first learns of Maria's running of with Henry the first person she really thinks of, grieves for is Sir Thomas ("there she paused... Penguin Mansfield Park, Ch 46, p 430).
All ends happily for the moment in A Sentimental Journey, for Sterne and Maria go off together, Maria's arm within Sterne's, the dog trotting behind (no it's not a pug).
Was Austen thinking of this Maria too? It seems to me that everytime one goes into a book Austen is alluding to and begins to explore the ramifications and analogies, a novel which had seemed so contained becomes a voice in a widening conversation to which it is meant to apply elusively.