misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Mansfield Park: de-centered retrofitted back stories of Maria Bertram

Dear friends and readers,

On Austen-l and Janeites, the suggestion was made that Maria Bertram became pregnant during the time of the play-acting of Elizabeth Inchbald's Lover's Vows. After all at Sotherton Henry Crawford didn't need a key; Maria plays a woman who has a son out of wedlock, with Henry as that long-lost illegtimate son who acts as her sexual lover.

Here is the suggestion: part one

The value of mediating this:  thinking about what is and is not presented/suggested/closed the door on in Austen's MP -- and in the end defending -- defending Maria Bertram (see comment on sadism towards Maria in MP).

My first reaction:

Ingenious and they do fit the parallel: Agatha is a woman who has a child out of wedlock. And it does fit the character of Agatha in Inchbald's play as adapted from Kotzebue. But one can press analogies too far

Character matters and is central to these novel so too situations. The situation in the play is not that of the novel.

Maria is an upper class aggressive young woman, brought up to be full of herself and she has connections through Sir Thomas. We see that Fanny is afraid of her and Tom when she thinks about having to refuse them the morning after Mrs Norris humiliates her in front of the group. Henry Crawford is the careful rake. He is the type who likes to play with people
-- liked Willoughby -- but not get too involved. That's why he likes Maria over Julia. Precisely because she's engaged. Trollope as a type like this in his HKHWR. The situation as outlined did not go on for that long -- in reality long enough to get pregnant for women don't get pregnant that quickly -- Austen's other cases do not follow the shallow stereotype of the girl who has sex once and gets pregnant which is common in novels until the mid-20th century (partly to help exonerate the girl). But had Maria gotten pregnant, she would have gone to her father and told; Henry would have been forced to marry her or make enemies. Henry might have tried to slip away. In either case there would have been no marriage to Rushworth. It would be possible that Maria got pregnant when she went to live with Henry but Austen in her usual hurry to pull down the curtain and frequent discretion (the way she presents Lydia in later marriage at the end) says nothing of this. I assume it didn't happen for it would have been a big punishment indeed. I cannot see Mrs Norris enduring the shame (as she'd see it) of living with Maria and a child out of wedlock. The feeling between them would be like Wharton's Ethan Frome in its close.

The new "back story" as fitted into the MP narrative strikes me as one we might imagine ourselves reading today.

I was told that someone on the list had taken my MP calendar and applied it to this case:

1. The trip to Sotherton was early August
2. Tom Bertram arrived home the end of August
3. Sir Thoma arrived home early to mid October
4. Maria marries Mr Rushworth in early November (before the middle of the month)
-- at which time she would have been at least 3 months pregnant IF she was
pregnant by Henry Crawford
5. Maria sees Henry for the first time after the play fiasco on March 14 at Mrs
Fraser's party in London -- at which time she would have been more than 7 months
pregnant, IF ...
6. Maria & Henry return from having an affair in late April -- more than 8
months pregnant, IF ...
7. Maria & Henry elope at the beginning of May. IF she had been impregnated by
Henry in early August, she should have had her baby by early to mid-May, at the
latest, i.e., within days of eloping, assuming she carried to term.<

I then read Diane R's post modern defense of remaining open to the suggestiveness of Austen's text:

What this discussion has led to in part, and rightly so, is the
question of how we read texts. This has been much on my mind. I am
rigorously trained in scholarship, so I am not blundering into this
and I am not blind to the "edge" quality of imagining Maria pregnant.
However, I also recognize that rigorous training, my own included,
can lead to blindness and that we need fresh eyes, which is why I
value this list and the people on it who range from extraordinary
scholars to new readers.

I went through my undergraduate days as the queen of the New
Critics--everything was close reading and all evidence had to be "in"
the text. I love and value that method of reading--but voila, I
happened to hit graduate school just as a tidal wave of post-
structuralism was slamming down, breaking all the "old ways" into
pieces. It was transforming to discover new ways of approaching a
text. But I digress.

An argument has come up that it is somehow wrong to challenge
traditional readings, because they have lasted for almost 200 years in
the case of Austen. This struck me, because it's the same argument
used against challenged traditional church wisdom--1,000 years of
"tradition" is held up to justify practices such as excluding women
from ordained ministry in some denominations. Tradition is important,
of course, but it's not the most important thing. If there's one
insight post-structuralism has given us, it's that texts have
traditionally been badly misread, because they've been read through
the eyes of usually (male), white, elite Europeans. We recognize now
that one's "social location" influences how we understand a text. We
have to respect tradition but also acknowledge that tradition has
often been absolutely dead wrong and in deadly ways, and in ways
influenced by unconscious prejudices "outside" a text. For example, we
traditionally refer, in both Judaism and Christianity, to a male God,
God the Father, and yet there are instances in the Old Testament of
God referred to as having a womb, breasts, giving birth--feminine
divine attributes. Tradition labels God as masculine: that tradition
can and should be challenged because for a 1,500 years or more it has
damaged women's lives. More "out there," The Da Vinci Code is, as we
know, based on hints in the New Testament text that Jesus might have
been married to Mary Magdelene. Do I believe this? No. In the end that
argument collapses for me. But I can't not see the hints. The point
is, tradition is not the last word.

Ellen offers a thoughtful reading of MP and the issue of Maria
Bertram, based on reason and not emotion. I happen to disagree for
reasons I will outline below, but this first leads to reader response
theory and how difficult it is to read New Critically, because as
someone noted, in defending the late revelation of Mrs. Weston's
pregnancy, not everything that happens every day of a character's
lives is spelled out in a novel--we are left to construct much of the
meaning ourselves. So as we have learned from reader response theory,
"in" is a metaphor--there is no "in" in a text in a literal way--what
would we do, slice the pages to onion skin thickness to try to find a
physical inside? Of course not. We know the "in" we're talking about
is the metaphoric  "in" of how we take the words in a text and combine
them in our minds with our own understanding of how the world operates
to create a meaning, that we then back up with quotes from a text that
"prove" what we believe is "in" the text.

So I am constructing meaning and Ellen is constructing meaning. Not
all constructions of meaning are the same: some are better informed
than others. Post structuralism is NOT the great leveler. Hopefully,
our conversations help us refine our understandings and make them
better as we interact with each other. :)

I try to tease out the issue of sexual activity and pregnancy in these
texts because there are so many suggestive hints that pop out and hit
me and pile up. (I would never have thought in this line if Arnie
hadn't started on it, but OK ...). On one level, I want this whole
thing to go away, but it won't. It keeps "popping" for me in
unexpected places, and being intellectually honest, I have to
acknowledge that reality.

Ellen doesn't necessarily like the word suggestive but it's a word
that we have for a reason, and it's the best I can come up with now.

I agree that character is central to these novels.

I disagree that Maria would have gone to her father were she pregnant.
The novel makes clear that the children are "shut down" around and
afraid of the father; there's a classic "generation gap." They hide
their lives from the father, with the help of Mrs. Norris--the text
says this. Parental blindness is one of the themes of the novel and,
as in P &P, a character flaw that JA explores and excoriates. Further,
Maria has been raised in a family that cares about appearances. She is
mortified when Henry leaves without a marriage proposal. I would argue
that it is, in fact, how we read today to imagine that a pregnant
Maria could confide in her father. What seems more plausible is that
she would confide in Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Norris would get right
behind the "rush" marriage, as she is so invested in it to begin
with.  IMHO, Maria would absolutely rush into a face saving marriage
rather than confide in her father. Mrs. Rushworth would "Rush" to save
her "worth" (ie, not be the damaged goods of a single, pregnant woman).

I also don't assume that JA would not use the single sex act leading
to pregnancy as a plot device; it is, imo, hagiography to dismiss
something as somehow "too cheap" for Jane--she constantly appropriates
commonplace tropes and makes them her own.

I do see it as just punishment for Mrs. Norris to endure the shame of
having to (finally) raise a child (!) and one that is illegitimate. I
think it would be a fitting a acknowledgement too of her ultimate
powerlessness as a widowed woman, who, no matter how much she has
sponged and saved, probably in the end doesn't have much money (it
would be completely typical of JA that Mrs. Norris' poor-mouthing,
which we dismiss, is in fact the truth) and very few choices once the
Bertrams sour on her.

Finally, Ellen's apt phrase-- a "careful rake," jumps out at me. I
agree that Henry is a "careful" rake, which is what makes the running
off with Maria at the end, and at the worst possible moment in terms
of all his plans, so perplexing to me. I see him as a cold-blooded
snake. Wickham would run off with Lydia; would someone has calculating
and hard as Henry rush off with a woman we know he despises? Austen
tells us it is piqued pride, and that fits with a fallen Satan/Milton
theme, but it still nags at me. There's something we're not seeing ...
is it the pregnancy? Does he rush her off because she is threatening--
herself angry--to reveal that he is the father? That would seem out of
character for her, but not if she is miserable and thinks she can
"will" her way into the marriage she wants. He could calculatingly
"ruin" her such that any credibility she might have is destroyed, and
then go on his way (That would be Satanic and in character, and also a
form of pride--she won't win He is, I believe, a disciplinarian at
heart). But this is a placeholder and very much a construction. I am
not satisfied.

Another issue, and one I need to take another look at--and this too
arises from Ellen's contention that MP is a rework of an earlier
epistolary novel, and has some big gaffes in it. I don't want to
believe this either, especially as so many of the details are so
carefully worked out in a minute  ways. But it is possible that JA
bludgeoned character to get to her denouement and Henry was
sacrificed. But that simply doesn't satisfy either.

so I replied at length tonight:

I'm writing this without having read all the postings today. I admit I read just Diane's carefully,.skimmed Diana B's and looked at a few of the others. It's 11 pm where I live and I've got to go to bed tonight. Today I spent doing two lectures for Monday as tomorrow my husband and I are gong to a play in mid-Virginia, a rare opportunity to see Marston's Malcontent.  This week I've been working on my review of a book of which a good deal is in French, first rearranged a paper on film adaptations of Anthony Trollope's novels so that the 1st 8 pages became the last 8 and then, this not being enough to please whatever God was in charge, cut it by 10 pages I yearn to return to my book on Austen movies.

I retitled the thread on Maria to fit a perspective on MP which would be open to considering how the text does lend itself to a depiction of a pregnancy  -- even if it's not in the text. In the same way there are details in Emma which lend themselves to considering that Frank and Jane Fairfax had sex all the way (and thus a pregnancy is possible) -- even if it's not in the text.  What there is in Emma is a clandestine engagement between Frank and Jane as there is in S&S a breaking of propriety and taboos between Marianne and Willoughby -- though as she says there was no engagement. 

I agree with Diane that the readings of eighteenth century literature and Austen in particular which Christianize these texts as Victorian and turn her into a variant of 20th century Christianity are wrong. Austen is pre-Victorian, and if her novels are decorous and restrained and discreet, that is not true of many of the equally respectable novels of her day, e.g., Genlis's. In many of these, the French more commonly than the English but the English too (and the French were translated into English and read widely) heroines get pregnant and there's clandestine sex, adultery, for that matter abduction, rape, suicide, infanticide. Scott's fictions abound in these -- although presented decorously, discreetly.

Diane pointed out how rich the symbols are in the play-acting section of the novel as well as the Southerton one.There is much sexual innuendo, not only from the parallels of the text -- which put Henry and Maria in an incestuous relationship and this was understood on the stage (Frederick is Agatha's long-lost illegitimate son) -- but the allusion to Stern's bird ("I can't get out ...).  Rushworth lacks a key and Henry doesn't need one.

Putting aside the reality that Austen was a maiden woman dependent on her relatives who clearly overlooked her writing, we can ask what is gained by seeing the openness of the text to sexual interaction between Maria and Henry.  Yes surely while Fanny sat on that bench those long hours, Maria and Henry were laying somewhere (or sitting) on the grass, probably what's called today heavy-petting if not more. What's gained is human reality, a depth of passion and betrayal -- the same is gained by seeing the same thing occurring between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill and (to a lesser extent as they were not engaged) Marianne and Willoughby at Allenham.

I remember long ago the paper Edith Lank's sister did tongue-in-cheek, showing that Emma can support a reading where either Miss Bates and Mr Woodhouse are Harriet Smith's parents or Miss Taylor and Mr Knightley.  What that showed was how suggestive is the narrative and somehow unlimited -- also how implicitly sexualized. Tony Tanner has a long essay on the sexuality in Emma -- others since have noted its implicit lesbian feel, and the vicarious heterosexual sex (Emma enjoying sexual feeling by having Mr Elton chase Harriet as her substitute).

What would be gained by retrofitting a pregnancy between the time of Henry Crawford's leaving and Maria's marriage to Rushworth. To see the suggestiveness and unlimited quality or nuances of MP.  I would say it's highly unlikely for the reason I mentioned: Henry didn't want to get involved. He wouldn't go all the way with Maria as he didn't want her. When we are told that he did elope with Maria in long because "in the end he couldn't help himself." it does resemble what happened to Wickham. Maria had made such a egregious spectacle of herself and probably was so overt and forceful and hysterical, he was pushed into it. Not that she's pregnant -- there is no hint of that -- there are hints that Mrs Weston is pregnant from the time of the Crown Ball. It is true that Maria could have gotten pregnant during the time of her living with Henry. There's no hint of it in the text. I think that's because Austen shuts the text down in that last chapter She says it's unfair that Maria should be punished and not Henry, but punish her she does by imagining no future for her.  We leave her with Mrs Norris and that's that.  This is just what is done to Eliza Williams. We see no baby and she is dismissed from the text as ruined in the country.

We may today want to write a sequel and dislike this narrow dismissal but the text gives us no more.  The movies try to push these texts. In 2008 S&S we are shown Eliza with a baby and Colonel Brandon feeling for her nephew (who is also Willoughby's son).  Maybe the next film MP will give us a glimpse of Maria's later life where she and Mrs Norris split and and (with or without an allowance from Sir Thomas) Maria returned to life in London.

To me though we can also ask, why did Austen not make Maria pregnant at the end of the book. She didn't.  Why did she write the fiction suggestively but go no further. One pragmatic author-centered answer from the letters we have is Austen was not keen on pregnancy and knew it was no picnic, endangered the woman's life and limited her opportunities for enjoyment for herself ever after. She herself never married and clearly didn't envy pregnant women.

One of the reactions I have to all this impregnating of Austen's heroines is it's the opposite of modernity for them, cutting off all independence, all opportunity for them, turning them in short into cows like Lady Bertram -- for Austen characterizes her as a kind of cow -- easing herself in the grass (her couch) all the livelong day.  It's the last thing I wish on any of them,especially without a husband with a good income, who loves them thoroughly and will provide servants and (even better) after two or three at most, leave them alone.

Another reason could be that Austen is herself just not thinking that way as a maiden woman. As George Eliot never fully imagined Daniel Deronda as a Jewish man (so forgot it seems he would be circumsized) so Austen might not put this sort of thing in her text because 1) it would hurt her reputation once it got about she was author, she'd be thought of as unchaste in her mind, oversexed; 2) she was herself restricted or repressed in what she could allow herself to imagine, enter into.

We see this in her depiction of men, especially older men. Older men can be as sexy as younger ones, more so perhaps, just as roue. There's a Dickensian innocence and virtue about Mr Weston, Mr Musgrove. Not so Sir John Middleton and we are given hints Mr Bennet could have had affairs but he wasn't the type (preferred his books and to go on walks). Sir Thomas feels somehow more vigorous and alive to sex (his reaction to Fanny all grown up) but we are not told anything that he did at Antigua or elsewhere for that matter. He seems stern and self-controlled.

Diane's point of view opens the text for us to ask questions about Austen, about her era, about why she presented what sex she did, and what sex she didn't, the choices she made. Not all of the answers are to Austen's credit as a mature woman -- not that I blame her at all for her dependence on her relatives, her probably chaste state (and therefore bodily innocence when it comes to sexuality with men) nor even the repressed point of view her mind might have. This shows the limitations of her texts.  But some bring home to us the connection of her novels with the more strongly sexualized ones of her era: the 18thc century novel unlike the 19th century one delved frankly into sex and rape and she partcipates in this in her sequences at Sotherton, play acting, the abductions, the secret engagement of Frank and Jane (and their meetings). Since she was a literary genius, she goes far in suggestiveness and I'd say we have enough even just with these hints to see that say Frank Churchill would be a demanding ruthless husband sexually, Henry Crawford a promiscuous one, self-centered, and strongly aggressive, competitive. Not good husband material.  Like Mr Knightley I think Jane Fairfax deserved better. I breath a sigh of relief for Fanny getting Edmund even if he's a bit dense and she's already pregnant, poor animal (as Jane might say where we to see Fanny ten years and several babies later).

We might all remember all three of Austen's sisters-in-law died in childbirth or of exhaustion. What a horror. what pain. What blood.  We might also remember the man was the supreme boss of the house, owned the property, his wife subject to him so if you (as Austen says in one letter) it's a bad business marrying without affection _on both sides_ and without a real competence.

Much better -- and more enjoyable in life -- to turn to the magazines of fashion that Jennifer Jones tells us women were reading for the first time in large numbers and look at the beautiful hats they could dream of having -- or make for themselves.

Keira Knightley in a Gainsborough hat: the insignia of the studio that made costume gothics in the 1930 through 60s, it's modelled on a hat Gainsborough dreamed up for and painted on Mrs Siddons's head.

Ellen Moody
Tags: costume drama, epistolary novels, jane austen novels, women's art, women's novels

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