The Lady and Her Harp, the Gentleman's Desire to Work as A Clergyman

I would like to add a couple more remarks to what I argued last night; to wit, that the analogy between a woman like Mary Crawford and a slave woman is false. The reason I come back to this is I'm not sure my analogy between the desire to substitute a Mary Crawford for some male (changing the tires) as opposed to fixing the engine of the car (capitalism, the intense value given to money, property, the kinds of prestige that come from these) was clear.

Mary Crawford we are told has 2000l a year. Where does she get this money? It's probably her cut from rents. Where do these rents come from? In her case we may assume peasants and farmers--the people who she laughs at because they are so ridiculous as not to allow her a cart to carry her harp in. She is irritated they are angry at her. But she is not unwilling to take the cream off the money they make on that hay and must make to pay their rents. If they don't pay their rents, they are evicted. If she doesn't get her harp for a few weeks, she can amuse herself some other way. This episode is important. It's where we see Mary Crawford's idle unthinking place in the system, how it supports her, and how she's irritated when her least whim has to be irrelevant. She measures other people's behavior in terms of how convenient they make it for her, and regards anyone who won't let her buy their acquiescence in whatever she wants as ridiculous.

Mary Crawford is the queen bee of the system. She is surrounded by drones--Tom Bertram, Henry Crawford. Maria would like to be such another queen bee. She lives off the hard labor and virtual misery and destruction of many of the lives of those whose labor and money go to make her existence so pleasant. She never evinces the least distaste for money, for pleasure. She never evinces the least conscience. When Fanny Price brings up her question at Mansfield Park, she is showing some conscience. The other young people are bored to tears.

Mary Crawford sticks at nothing central to the system. Fanny does when she refuses to marry Crawford. Remember Fanny has no income. I'll grant that in Mansfield Park we have no real rebel, and we don't see anyone who is laboring to support these privileged characters. The closest we get to this is William Price, the sailor, and by virtue of her vulnerable position Fanny. Sir Thomas also goes out to Antigua and actually does some hard work. What it is we are not told.

I get excited about this because I find the analogy to be in bad taste, and to me it shows the naivete of anyone who can say this, their innocence. If I were black I'd be indignant, but it's in bad taste for me a white woman who lives--when one looks at the average lives of the couple of billion people on this earth--a privileged existence. I feel that those who identify Mary Crawford as a type with slave woman are showing a total failure of imagination with respect to what slavery was and the privileged existence of upper class women like Mary Crawford--or the other heroines they sometimes bring forward. It's harsh but I'd say such writers write what they do because they are angry at their relative lack of power or money and identify with Mary as one who like them has only a limited amount of power and money. They forget they like she are privileged and are supporting the system in the focus of their anger.

Mary is not sold for sex. She sells herself. She is easy about it, glad to do it. So too that ultimate Queen Bee, Lady Bertram. Mary is looking to be (in effect) such another, to replace Lady Bertram by marrying the eldest son, or when she thinks Tom may be dying, the new eldest son, Edmund. It is Fanny (again) who is in danger of being sold--because Fanny sees marrying for money as selling herself. It is Fanny who protests at least against aspects of the system, and shows some interest in the really vulnerable, misery, destroyed--the slaves, the working people of 19th century England, agricultural and later industrial. Why then do feminists not identify with Fanny? I am puzzled. Is it that they can only identify with someone who is amoral?

I make a point of it because the point is important. The capitalist system is based on absolute injustice and unfairness, and it doesn't much matter which individuals are in charge. It may be that this is how reality is structured (from which genes one gets on up), but that doesn't make it any the more desirable, especially if you are on the receiving end, or are among the vast majority who money controls and who do not control others by access to money.

I agree there is no real rebel against the system in Mansfield Park. One has to wait half a century to hear some voices against in the novel in America and even later to hear some voices against the system in England. There are some earlier lone voices against it. I refer of course to Thomas More's Utopia, but ah that's ironic. Still he gets where the engine is. And why anyone should see in Mary Crawford a symbol of rebellion or oppressed humanity is beyond me. Austen certainly doesn't.

Ellen Moody and the Inconvenience of Other People's Need to Bring the Hay In On the same train of thought I'd like to add that Edmund Bertram in seeking to do something to earn his keep (as he says in his idiom) is seeking to do it honorably. This is where I see the religious angle of the book coming in. I'd also like to add a few words on the passage in Austen's letters where she uses the word "ordination" and on one possible interpretation of Sir Thomas's hard work at Antigua. First on Edmund's desire to become a clergyman: religion in Austen's novels is not a matter of a mystic belief. It is rather a kind of practical highly moral behavior, self-sacrificing, altruistic. Edmund proposes to go our among his parishioners--who of course will be largely those people who bring in the hay--and help them, talk to them, soothe them, teach them. Mary Crawford sneers at him for this desire. He will not wear a fancy uniform; no-one in society in London will admire him, nay more he will not make enough to get into the right society. At every turn she mocks his ambition as no ambition at all. Well if we define ambition as worthy only if it gets the glittering prizes most of the people in the society are greedy for because these attract the envy of others, yes Edmund lacks ambition. But he has something better. Like Fanny he's willing to--within the system--act to do some good, to be useful to others. He is willing to work. He says when Mary attacks him because he's choosing his profession because he knows he has connections and will be preferred (by his father), he says well this is what others do. He means yes everyone is somewhat corrupt, but at least in the profession he chooses given his serious and retiring personality--and his scholarly interests (he's the reader who taught Fanny to read, who appreciates what she reads). he will do what good he can. So like his father he works or is willing to. He also is willing to live within his income. Ironically put I'd say because Edmund's not willing to be a careless playful drone, to play all the day with his lady, this Queen Bee says she's not sure he's the male for her. Small virtues, but virtues nonetheless and they are part of the theme of "ordination" and the seriously religious strain of the novel. On that quotation from the letters which has now come under discussion I'd say the line is ambiguous. It's not clear what Austen meant. She refers to MP earlier in her letters without any reference to ordination. In the letter in which the word occurs and those near it she seems to be referring to MP and asking not only for information about ordination but Northampton, hedgerows, and excuses herself for using real names of ships for her Portsmouth sequence. On Sir Thomas's work at Antigua I'd like to repeat and expand on the idea we have no idea exactly what work made Sir Thomas so drained, fagged, exhausted. I doubt it was from trying to control his slave-drivers (the overseers) from abusing the property (the slaves), but maybe it was from having to manage such a sordid and terrible system, at least that's the sense I get from Sir Thomas's intensely relieved behavior when he comes home to having to do no more than manage his steward, his bailiff, his books, visit his tenants, and generally manage an agricultural world of which he's boss. I have read a a few books about slavery generally as it was practiced in the West Indies. Trollope has a book (would you believe?), and once a long time ago I began a project on Aphra Behn, and of course she's got a novel based on what she saw of slavery, Oroonoko, and, as I learned, the novel actually pretties up the horror if anything. I suspect we are to see the somewhat dim but upright and well-meaning and overtly religious Sir Thomas (remember his defense of religion as a profession to Henry Crawford) as partly sorrowing and harrowed by having himself to try to make everyone live in a civilized fashion--since that's the way most money is often made, civilized meaning not too much sex, not too much beating, torturing, not overtaxing the property in order to satisfy the appetites of the slavedrivers. When slave revolts occurred, they were often locally directed at those who run the plantations. This is not to excuse Sir Thomas; it is to try to understand the realistic and somewhat sympathetic portrait of the dense, class-conscious man who is not as wealthy as once he was, and comes home having seen more of the world than he ever wanted to see. I agree with Penny he's not that improved; his real improvement occurs at the close of the novel when his eyes are opened to his mistakes vis-a-vis his children and Mrs Norris, Austen's partial portrait of her avaricious mean-minded aunt, Mrs Leigh-Perrot who did use what wealth she had to try to control the lives of her Austen heirs. Ellen Moody

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