Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Did Jane Austen embed a puzzle in Mansfield Park?

Some readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of Jane Austen and especially of her third published novel Mansfield Park. This novel came out in 1814 after the first two books, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, which Austen had written a fair bit earlier and then rewrote around this time. So in a way MP was the first book of Austen's mature phase of writing. I spent a lot of time about a decade ago reading Austen, and reading around Austen, which led to a bit of knowledge of the political and social milieu within which she - and her parents' generation - lived and died.

So of couse I knew about Mary Wollstonecraft. This meant that when I met Mary on Twitter (ah, the wonders of modern technology!) we began to exchange ideas and then Mary introduced me to Arnie Perlstein, a man who loves books too and spends time investigating literary puzzles. So this blog post is about a literary puzzle I found in MP all those years ago, but had not yet aired in public. Arnie suggested I write about it so that he could add his views to the debate. If you have any views on this, please leave a comment.

In MP, the unworthy specimen who is Rushworth gets a part in a play that the young people at the country home, Mansfield Park, decide to stage for their own enjoyment while the head of the household, Sir Thomas Bertram, is away looking after his interests in the West Indies. And Rushworth keeps reminding us of the fact. In fact, he reminds us all the time. Not only that but he keeps on telling us that he's got 42 lines to remember - a bit much for the poor sap's limited cranial capacity I would have imagined. But the point is that every few pages Rushworth pops into the narrative and lets us know, again, that he's got 42 lines to memorise.

Right. So, the next thing is: why? Why does Austen make this point so often? Is it just to remind us of the fact that Rushworth is, indeed, an unworthy specimen who probably has trouble remembering his own name when he comes into contact with a fellow member of the human species? Maybe. Or else she's making a point about the number 42. What does the number 42 have to do with Fanny's future, her story? Fanny is, after all, the hero of Austen's masterpiece.

Well, you have to go to Fanny's cold little room to find out. There are three books there. One is an account of the visit to China of England's first diplomatic delegation to the kingdom. There is also a collection of poetry by George Crabbe, who was one of Austen's favourite authors. And there is a collection of issues of the Idler, a periodical that was written for the most part by Samuel Johnson, another of Austen's favourites. If you look in detail at the three, the one that stands out in regard to the number 42 is the Idler. Number 42 was published on Saturday, February 1759 and is signed 'Perdita'.

This issue of the magazine is a reader offering and it talks about the problems a young, marrigeable woman has with her unpleasant father, with whom she lives in a small village in England. 'Perdita' says her topic is "the snares that the bad behaviour of parents extends over the paths of life which their children are to tread after them", one of which is the tendency of parents in England at the time to 'market' their childrens' virtues with a view to an advantageous (economically speaking) marriage. It is this, mostly, that 'Perdita' regrets and in her convoluted (to us) Augustan prose she details her miseries.

The analog in the novel is clear, if not a perfect fit. Not so much Sir Thomas but, instead, his wife's sister, who lives in the large house, Mrs Norris, has an eye to 'marketing' the virtues of Sir Thomas' two daughters among the tribe of eligible bachelors who live nearby. The most eligible of them all, of course, due to his immense personal wealth, is Rushworth. Those who know the novel will know that Rushworth is designed to marry Maria, Sir Thomas' eldest daughter. But the picture is complicated when two strangers arrive in the area. Henry and Mary Crawford are more urbane and knowledgeable than the bumpkin-ish Bertrams. It is their idea to stage a play. To do so they are forced to move Sir Thomas billiard table to make way for a stage and auditorium.

Billiards is a game in which you hit a ball with a cue. Sometimes, you hit a ball with a design to hitting another one so that you can sink it into a pocket. Taking this as a cue, let's look at the name 'Perdita' and see if this can take us further in our quest. The name is indeed famous in English letters because it's the name of the heroine of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale.

Perdita is the lost child in Shakespeare's late play. The play has, furthermore, for a long time been thought of as an allegory encapsulating the lives of Elizabeth Tudor, who would become Elizabeth I, and Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In the play, Perdita is sent into exile in Illyria because Leontes, the King of Sicilia, believes that his wife has been unfaithful to him, and that had led to his wife, Hermione, giving birth to the girl child. So Perdita is raised by shepherds but returns to Sicilia as a young woman, whereupon Hermione comes "back to life" and Leontes repents for his malfeasance. So in a way the play sets right the life of the infamous Henry VIII, and gives back legitimacy to his first wife, also sparing young Elizabeth much of the unease she experienced in her early life due to the complexities of the succession and the counter-Reformation.

In the end, in Austen's novel, it's Fanny who returns, after the hardships brought on by the injection of the Crawfords into the Bertram household - especially given Sir Thomas' absence overseas - and it's Fanny who restores peace to this small world in the face of discord and unease. So there's the analog with Shakespeare's play. Rushworth's "42" leads to the Idler, which leads to A Winter's Tale. All along the chain of reactions that Austen sets off in the novel we are dealing with the hardships of young women in societies that offer them so few options beyond marriage. There's also the themes of loss and redemption - the second often only available through art.

This little puzzle is, I believe, a stunning tour de force of literary subterfuge. It's had critics snookered for centuries. Until now!


Jude the Obscure said...

Dear Happy Antipodean,

Sorry to correct you but Elizabeth Tudor's mother was Anne Boleyn not Catherine of Aragon. Her daughter was Mary Tudor. I do like the puzzle though and think that Jane Austen could well have embedded tales of young women in positions like her own.

The Antipodean said...

Thanks, I've corrected that.

Roberta Wedge said...

So that's why Douglas Adams determined that the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is -- 42. (See The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

I'm happy my Twitter introduction led you to write this. Readers interested in more Austen speculation are invited to turn to the linked "Lost Daughter" essays at A Vindication of the Rights of Mary, in which Mary Wollstonecraft's influences on the later novelist are explored. It seems clear that JA read MW.

Matthew said...

Roberta, if Douglas Adams knew this little secret I'll eat my Oxford Shorter. And there's not question JA read MW; my tweet tells you hwere to look.