Nabokov's Lecture on Mansfield Park

Susan Wong asks if anyone has read Nabokov's lectures on MP. Well it just so happens I did this evening, and they are remarkable. I was reading them because I am interested in how he corrects and further works out the chronology for MP as originally constructed by Chapman and MacKinnon. What I like is how Nabokov shows that Austen's use of a concise determinate calendar for her novels is not just some icing on the cake, some further artifice or device which creates verisimilitude, but is intrinsic to the nature of her art and to how she structures her works.

However, since we are on MP and have come to Sotherton I thought I might share a bit of what he does with these chapters. First I love the epigraph to the discussion which is quoted by Bowers:

"In my academic days I endeavored to provide students of literature with exact information about details, about such combinations of details as yeild the sensual psakr without which a book is dead. In that respect, general ideas are of no importance. Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy's attiude toward adultery, but in order to enjoy Tolstoy's art the good reader must wish to visualize, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago. Here diagrams are most helpful. Instead of prepetuating the petentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors shoudl prepare maps of Dublin... without a visual perception of the larch labyrinth in Mansfield Park that novel loses some of its stereographic charm..."

Well in the lecture there is a full-scale diagram of the gardens and house and wilderness at Sotherton. If only I could post it...

I can however post what he calls the three teams and I would call the three sets of dancers which comprise the escapade in the wilderness. He divides them into three:

"1. Edmund, Mary Crawford, and Fanny;
2. Henry Crawford, Maria Bertram, and Rushworth;
3. Julia, who outdistances Mrs Norris and Mrs Rushworth in her search for Henry Crawford.
Julia would like to wander about with Henry; Mary would like to stroll with Edmund, who would like that, too; Maria would love to walk with Henry; Henry would love to walk with Maria; at the tender back of Fanny's mind there is, of course, Edmund."

He then says: "The whole thing can be divided into scenes;" I'd call it phases of an intricate dance where one set replaces another:

"1. Edmund, Mary, and Fanny enter the so-called wilderness, actually a little wood, and talk about clergymen... They reach a bench after Fanny asks to rest... [here I'd say we should look to see the precise moment she asks to rest; it comes just after a tender moment between Mary and Edmund];
2. Fanny remains alone on the bench while Edmund and Mary go to investigate the limits of the wilderness. She will remain on that rustic bench for a whole hour [in my investigations I have discovered you can actually work out consistent time schemes within individual days and nights at certain traumatic or highly comic points in an Austen novel];
3. The next team walks up to [Fanny], composed of Henry, Maria, and Rushworth;
4. Rushworth leaves them to go back to fetch the key of the locked gate. Henry and Miss Bertram remain but then leave Fanny in order to explore the farther grove.
5. Miss Bertram and Henry Crawford blimb around the locked gate and disappear into the park, leaving Fanny alone.
6. Julia-the avante-garde of the third group--arrives on the scene, having met Rushworth returning to the house, talks to Fanny, and then climbs through the gate, 'looking eagerly into the park'...
7. Fanny is again alone until Rushworth arrives, panting with the key to the gate [I love the way they both sigh together in their agreement that they were just fine without the Crawfords].
8. Rushworth lets himself into the park, and Fanny is alone again.
9. Fanny decides to go down the path taken by Mary and Edmund and meets them coming from the west side of the park where the famous avenue runs.
10. They go back towards the house and met the remnants of the third team, Mrs Norris and Mrs Rushworth, about to start" (1980 Harvest paperback, Lectures on Literature, pp 27-8).

Nabokov provides the sections of lines from Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel which Fanny alludes to while she looks at the chapel in disappointment:

Full many a scutcheon and banner, riven,
Shook to the cold night-wind of heaven...
The moon on the east oriel shone,
Through slender shafts of shapely stone,
By foliaged tracery combined...
The moon beam kissed the holy pane,
And threw on the pavement a bloody stain...
The sate them down on a marble stone
A Scottish monarch slept below..." (pp 25-6).

Nabokov is particularly good on the image of Fanny as abandoned, alone, forgotten, the neglected dependent heroine (which he says is a typical central heroine or hero for the 19th century British novel). I call this the leaving-Fanny-flat theme. For example he examines the exquisite depiction of Fanny's emotions as she waits for the pony Edmund has taken on top of the hill. Fanny's eyes look out at a landscape which is beautiful (and which our eyes take in as such), but she concentrates on smaller moral or psychological details which tear at her, such as Edmund's hand holding Mary's. She cannot but feel the one who is outside all the enjoyment (a state Maria will share with her with much less grace on the night Edmund and Julia go to the Grants), and we feel this with her, but her sadness is given a peculiar comic charm by comments like "if she were forgotten the poor mare should be remembered." Anne Elliot has similar moments but the kind of sweet comedy appropriate to the younger heroine is not available to the 27 year old woman gone haggard and afraid to join in. Fanny is simply not considered.

Nabokov traces the structure development of MP showing how skillfully and unobstrusively Austen moves from one sets of events into another. He is however best on the earlier parts of the novel. He finds the Portsmouth episode to be a falling off because it uses epistolary methods. Now there I cannot agree at all, but it will have to wait until we get there. Here in brief I will say the middle portion of the novel contains the powerful scene between Fanny and Sir Thomas which is as good as anything Austen ever wrote, and is perhaps the strongest scene emotionally in the novel; Portsmouth itself is brilliant in its details, mood, realism, all sorts of things. It is both unforgettable to someone who has read it and leaves us morally-speaking very uncomfortable because it is so unsentimental about family feelings. But I will stop here.

Ellen Moody

To this Elvira Casal replied with another paragraph from Nabokov's lectures which showed he had a masculine discomfort with Austen's novels:

"In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room. In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port. We had to find an approach to Jane Austen and her Mansfield Park. I think we did find it and did have some degree of fun with her delicate patterns, with her collection of eggshells in cotton wool. But the fun was forced. We had to slip into a certain mood; we had to focus our eyes in a certain way" (63).

Liking or disliking an author's work has to do with personality and personal taste. I admire Nabokov for being able to recognize Austen's merit even though he didn't respond positively to her subject matter.

Elvira Casal

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Page Last Update 30 January 2003