". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Under The Bright Surface, the Darkness of Jane Austen's Novels's Depths

    . . . .  This is a perceptive essay by a mature reader and literary scholar

Poor Fanny at the bridge of the ha-ha.
who sees a different Jane Austen than did her younger self, one that is far more true to the age in which they were written than the fantasies woven about them these days by so many contemporary female readers.

The author, Mikita Brottman, spends several satisfying paragraphs on Mansfield Park. Something new -- these days, her students, so sensitive to bullying and victimization, feel a deeply personal, sympathetic bond with Fanny Price, so unlike many feminist literary students of my era.

I now see Austen as a very dark writer and Mansfield Park as her darkest work, a book full of sexual repression and unconscious conflict, with no forgiveness or redemption for anyone who dares struggle against the social code. The world of taffeta and lace exists only on the surface; underneath it, these well-bred young women are trapped like rats. 
"Trapped like rats," describes how I've seen almost all the women in Austen's works.

Mary Crawford seduces plays the harp for Fanny's Edmond.
(The single exception may be the most conventional of them all, Emma. But then her cage is the most gilded of Austen's protagonists. She has the least to gain or lose --  by breaking out, with the exception of Mary Crawford, who we are to abhor for stealing Fanny's beloved. *)
At one point, she (Fanny) overhears Maria flirtatiously asking their neighbor, the handsome Henry Crawford, whether he thinks she’s as lively as her sister.
Henry’s reply is ambiguous. “You have a very smiling scene before you,” he observes.
“Do you mean literally or figuratively?” says Maria. “Literally, I conclude. Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.”
Maria Bertram is using a reference to Lawrence Sterne's 1768 A Sentimental Journey to describe her own condition.  Who would have thought that such a superficial privileged pretty young woman could have the knowledge and the intelligence to see the similarities between herself and this incident in Sterne's novel?  Surely such perceptions are confined to darling, bookish, insignificant perfect Fanny, hmmmmm?
. . . . .To give weight to her feeling of being trapped, Maria alludes to an incident in A Sentimental Journey, Laurence Sterne’s 1768 novel. The narrator, Yorick, is visiting the Bastille, thinking that imprisonment there might not be so bad. The prison, he muses, is just a kind of tower, and is a tower really so different from a house you can’t leave? Suddenly, he hears the same words repeated twice over—“I can’t get out—I can’t get out”—and looking up, sees a starling in a little cage. He tries to free the bird, but discovers the cage is locked in such a way that you can’t open it without destroying both cage and bird. All at once, Yorick is brought back to reality. “Mechanical as the notes were, yet so true in tune to nature were they chanted, that in one moment they overthrew all my systematic reasonings …”
Like the starling, Austen’s heroines cannot get out. . . .
Nor does darling rigidly conventional Fanny object to the consequent very real imprisonment abroad of Maria as punishment for breaking out. But she has the very most to lose by breaking out -- until she does and goes home and consaequently performs a 360, proving her very conventional value to the family whose blood daughter really did break out. Fanny's happy ending is the only happy ending a female can achieve -- doing everything according to society's demands.

Neither Austen nor her readers were about to see things the way we see things these days.  And that world was a dreadful, truly dreadful prison for just about all women.
 “The greatest blessing to every one of kindred with Mrs. Rushworth,” thinks Fanny, “would be instant annihilation.”
What does this say about contemporary young readers, one wonders.  That they adore Fanny for suffering, but have no sympathy for a woman who kicked over the traces of what she was condemned to by family and society?  It's as though we have all gone backwards again as a gender, a society and a culture.

The 19th century illustrations of Austen novels, of course, have helped feed that non-reality based, nursery rhyme - fairy tale perception of subsequent generations of fanciful female readers.

Does this not just make you sick?  Mansfield Park and Austen do not deserve this!
*   Only the deluded could really believe that the brilliant, independent Mary Crawford fell even the least little bit for that stick, Edmund.

P.S. Mansfield Park has become my favorite Austen by far.  It shows no mercy.

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