Devoney Looser, Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, Mary Crawford, puns, Royal Navy, sex, sexuality
Eighth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
I first met Devoney Looser at the 2005 JASNA AGM in Milwaukee on “Jane Austen’s Letters in Fact and Fiction,” where she and her husband, George Justice, gave a wonderful plenary lecture entitled “Burn This Letter: Personal Correspondence and the Secrets of the Soul.” Today, I’m delighted to share with you her contribution to “An Invitation to Mansfield Park.” Mary Crawford’s joke about “Rears” and “Vices” has inspired many debates over the years, and I’m curious to hear what you think of Devoney’s analysis of this controversial passage.
Devoney is Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850, and British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820, both published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She’s the editor of the essay collection Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism. Her recent publications include a foreword to a special issue on Teaching Jane Austen Among Her Contemporaries (Persuasions On-Line, 2014) and a short piece on Austen as a feminist icon in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
When not reading, writing about, or teaching Jane Austen, Devoney plays roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen, an alter ego that landed her a place in Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites (2013) and won her a theme song (“In the classroom it’s theory / On the track it’s pain”). Follow her on Twitter @devoneylooser and @stonecoldjane.
“Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 6 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006)
To suggest that there is sex in Mansfield Park – at least in the way that recent film and television adaptations tend to – is rubbish. Austen’s Fanny Price is no bosomy sexpot, à la Billie Piper in the 2007 BBC adaptation. The lurid book cover on the print edition of the novel sold as a tie-in with Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film might lead a first-time reader to mistakenly expect passionate kisses narrated on every other page.
That said, there is sexuality (even dangerous, illicit sex) in Mansfield Park, albeit between the lines. The rehearsals for Lovers’ Vows lead to flirtation and forbidden physical contact, both on and off stage. At the visit to Sotherton, couples flout conventional propriety to sneak off together. By the time Maria Bertram Rushworth runs off temporarily with her lover, becoming fodder for newspaper gossip, we’ve had many hints that it could come to this.
Critics have written eloquently on Austen’s treatment of sex and sexuality, most notably Jillian Heydt-Stevenson and Jan Fergus. Disagreements abound, but one crucial line from Mansfield Park tends to get critics the most hot and bothered. The line is Mary Crawford’s, spoken in Chapter 6, in the hearing of many. It’s especially troubling to her suitor, Edmund Bertram.
Edmund, knowing that Mary formerly lived with her admiral uncle, asks about her knowledge of the British Navy. Mary answers him with jocularity, “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” Her attempt at wit isn’t met with laughter; we’re told that Edmund “felt grave” after she spoke.
There’s no doubt that she’s making fun of powerful naval men here. She’s already said that in her uncle’s home, she socialized only with highest-ranking of them. It’s clear by this point in the text that she’s willing to pillory these men for their faults. Just prior to this line, she describes them as invariably bickering and jealous.
It also seems obvious that Mary is indeed making a pun. She does not reference “Rear Admirals” and “Vice Admirals,” as she could have. She says “Rears and Vices,” with the italics serving to emphasize her punctuated, droll delivery and the double meaning of the words. Mary coyly invites her audience of listeners (just as Austen invites her audience of readers) to conclude precisely what she says she doesn’t want to be suspected of – that she’s uttering a pun.
The question for us as readers today is, “Precisely how off-color is her pun?” Is Mary making a joke about powerful old men’s big bums and bad habits (gambling, drinking, gluttony, avarice, and adultery), or is she making a ribald joke about the Navy’s associations with sodomy?
Some argue that it’s unthinkable that Austen could ever have thought about – much less have any character joke about – sodomy. Others see Mary’s lines as unquestionably referencing sexual vices having to do with rear ends. They read them as a dirty joke about anal sex and as proof that Austen’s bawdy, wicked sense of humor – like Mary’s – roils beneath the surface of Mansfield Park. Critics have tried out all positions in between, where Mary’s lines are concerned. Most of us have our own strong opinions about how we ought, and ought not to, read this line. In forming our opinions, we must continue to investigate the larger textual and cultural contexts of Mary’s words.
As readers familiar with the hierarchy of the British Royal Navy in Austen’s era know well, vice admirals and rear admirals were the two ranks that fell just below admiral. Together, these were the three highest titles a naval officer could hold, the rest below consisting of various kinds of commodores, captains, and lieutenants. Rear admiral was usually a title belonging to an older man, often reserved to recognize a naval officer previously passed over for promotion, upon his retirement.
The crucial piece of textual information that we ought to remember in reading Mary’s line is what brings her to Mansfield Park in the first place: her admiral-uncle’s taking a mistress into his London home. His very public act – visible to family, servants, and friends, and therefore fodder for rumor-mongering among all parties beyond – means that Mary can no longer live under his roof. To stay there would be read as her tacit acceptance of his debauched choice. It would make her reputation morally besmirched.
In offering her irreverent pun, then, Mary expresses a jaunty skepticism about the Admiral’s profession, but she’s also taking a jab at his unconventional sexual (and romantic?) choices. She demonstrates a lack of filial piety toward Admiral Crawford that readers might forgive her for, given what we know about his dissolute ways. The Admiral is described by Austen’s narrator as “a man of vicious conduct,” one of the most cutting insults used in all of her novels. Vicious in this context means that he is depraved, immoral, and bad. He is vicious both for his open adultery and for his effectively washing his hands of the care of his unmarried, unprotected niece. He chooses to live in sin with his mistress over dutifully guiding Mary in polite society until she’s safely married off.
Wealthy, powerful men at this time certainly had plenty of adulterous affairs, but they were expected to hide their liaisons. The Admiral could easily have installed his mistress in a separate private residence and visited her there almost as often as he liked, without raising many eyebrows. Later in the novel, he’s described as a man who “hated marriage” and “thought it never pardonable in a young man of independent fortune” (Ch. 30). He flouts convention in relationships out of principle and inclination. Henry Crawford means to be different from his uncle, but he doesn’t manage to hold firm. It’s important to remember that Henry, too, could have carried on a secret affair with Maria, under the nose of her oblivious husband Rushworth. Henry and Maria are unwilling to let it stop there. The viciousness in the Crawford family tended toward the spectacular. This might seem to support a reading in which Mary’s joke should be read in the most outrageous way possible.
But there is one further piece of evidence we ought to consider in reading the “rears and vices” line. The word “vicious” is, of course, from the same etymological root as vice. That connection would probably not have been lost on Austen in writing the novel, using both of these words as she did at such crucial textual moments. The Admiral’s most visible and recent viciousness – that most centrally related to way the plot unfolds – is his illicit heterosexual activities.
The vices that Mary is most likely to have seen under her uncle’s roof (if we are really to believe that she’s seen them at all!) have to do with men’s and women’s sex acts. Men’s copulating with wanton women is the vice that anyone who knew her story – and knew the Admiral’s publicly preferred forms of viciousness – would assume she meant. It’s what Edmund would have believed Mary meant. It’s a dirty joke at the expense of her uncle that simultaneously reveals her own sexual knowingness, by association. Acknowledging that association in polite company would be more than enough to have Edmund feeling grave.
We’ll never know the extent to which Austen associated sodomy with the Navy men, but it seems to me very unlikely that she would have lost an opportunity in these lines to have Mary impugn the full range of vices in which the admiral and his peers indulged, while also making fun of their aging, and perhaps ungainly, rears. Given what the novel reveals – the adultery of the uncle and the attempted reform and adulterous repetition in the nephew – it seems clear that Mary (and Austen, in giving her voice) was making the most pointed reference in her pun to the heterosexual vices of powerful old Naval men, not to the illegal, punishable, same-sex vices of men’s rears. Even if it’s not about sodomy, Mary’s unsuccessful joke is a shocking moment of how forbidden sex undergirds this novel.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Mary Lu Redden, Deborah Yaffe, Julie Strong, and Juliet McMaster. Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the Mansfield Park party!
Jackie Ott said:
Ms Looser, I believe you have ‘hit the nail on the head’ here. Throughout ‘Mansfield Park’ it is apparent that Mary and Henry Crawford were exposed to many activities that polite society would condemn, and were not taught to view them as wrong or inappropriate. Perhaps I, too, am naive as, anytime I have read this passage, I have taken the same meaning as you – a straight out jab at the vices of rear admirals and their kind. Thanks so much for such a well thought out analysis!
I think Devoney has understood JA’s intentions -perfectly. And I agree with all of it. ~~~:-)
My own opinion on this passage has changed over the years. At first I thought it was a rather obvious comment predating “rum, sodomy, and the lash,” but then was convinced by arguments by scholars such as Brian Southam that Austen meant nothing vulgar by it. However, like Devoney, I can’t help thinking that Mary Crawford asking to not be suspected of a pun means that she made one, so there’s something there. This explanation is a good one. Mary (and Austen) were not innocents.
Devoney Looser said:
Thanks, Mags, Christy, and Jackie, for these kind works and for adding to the conversation. I do think there are many things here about which intelligent people may disagree, and I’m always happy to hear alternative points of view.
Kind WORDS. And work!
Misty Gale Anderson said:
Wonderful piece, Devoney! While you know I agree, and have even ventured to queer the dynamic of the novel (not in relation to the Admiral’s “vices” but to Mary and Fanny) I never cease to be amazed at the overwhelming anxiety that talking about sex in Austen can provoke. You made this argument with grace, clarity, and admirable restraint!
And of course I should have referenced Southam’s work here as well, in Jane Austen and the Navy (2000). For those who want to read more on this subject, see also Jillian Heydt-Stevenson’s provocative, thoughtful book, Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History (Palgrave, 2005), and Jan Fergus’s fine essay, “Sex and Social Life in Jane Austen’s Novels,” reprinted many places, most recently in George Justice’s W. W. Norton edition of Austen’s Emma (2011),
Thanks, Devoney -I’ve not read Fergus’s essay.
But I have read Southam’s book (very informative); & also, quite a bit of JHS’s ‘Unbecoming Conjunctions’.
However, JHS’s ideas fly well “beyond any thing” I can find reasonably harmonizing within the moral ethics & propriety I’ve always strongly sensed as substantially framing & supporting Jane Austen’s fictional writing.
I am glad to see someone allow that there were other vices than sodomy around. The words rear and vice lend themselves to puns . rears and vice are also involved in heterosexual sex. It is very likely that the uncle wasn’t too careful about protecting Mary from things to which she shouldn’t have been exposed.
If Mary had meant sodomy, Edmund would have looked horrified and not grave. He would have been immediately disenchanted.
Referring to the crime of sodomy would have been far worse than a mere breach of decorum. Knowledge of sodomy by an unmarried woman was an acknowledgement of corrupt morals far worse than calling adultery “folly.”
Many commentators do not appear to understand quite how serious it was among genteel families. That s also the reason I don’t think Jane Austen would have referred to such practices, for which men were hanged from the yardarm.
I’m in complete agreement with you, Nancy. ~~~~~:-)
Sarah Emsley said:
I agree, too, Nancy — if Edmund had thought she meant sodomy, his reaction would have been much more extreme.
Like almost everyone I’ve heard talk about this before now, I used to think that Mary was referring to sodomy. Now, however, I think this interpretation says more about us than it does about Austen and Mary Crawford.
I once read a web page by someone who believed it was referring to flagellation, a common punishment back then, and one that was openly joked about in the press with cartoons, etc. That would have been a more acceptable reference for a lady like Austen to be making, and the argument made sense to me. (I wish I could find the page again so that I could tell you more about it.)
Now, however, Dr. Looser has given us a more thorough and thoughtful analysis and I find myself changing my mind about this once again! I’m going to print this out so that I can continue to reference it since this comment of Mary’s comes up in every conversation about her. Thank you for your post!
I think this may be the article you were referring to:
“Jane Austen Prefers the Lash to Sodomy” -google it!
Thanks for pointing this out, both of you! Really interesting. I’m not sure I’m convinced either, but I’m grateful for another possibility for further research.
Thank you for this excellent and interesting post. Jane Austen was raised with an intimate acquaintance of two very different worlds, wasn’t she? Of course one could argue today that the clergy and the navy were not so very different in their morals, but we do get the impression that Jane Austen’s own experience with the clergy, in her family, might have been more positive (… “if not a little dull,” we can hear Mary saying…)
Mary’s comment on rears and vices is another piece of my ‘evidence’, that Jane was identifying most with Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. The flippant remark ‘of Rears and Vices I saw enough’ is certainly something Jane, herself, would have said, just perhaps not at the dinner table and in front of someone she wished to impress. Or perhaps she actually did something similar, and lived to regret her lively tongue?
This echoes Jane’s own famous comments toward the end of Mansfield Park:
‘LET other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.’
Or, in other words, ‘of vice I have had enough.’
Curiously, it is that very vice that people most like to highlight, fabricate, amplify, and make movies of in Jane’s works. (I truly wish they would come out with a better version of Mansfield Park!)
Jane Austen chose Mansfield Park as the base for her story, whereas another writer might have found the ‘vicious’ Admiral’s home more exciting as a backdrop. Austen’s book was about choices we make, and how they affect us and those we love. For the choices she had in mind for her lead characters, Mansfield Park was a fitting setting. Interestingly, the two most lethal to the atmosphere of Mansfield, Maria and her aunt, are in the end, locked away in a sort of infernal torment of isolation with each other, forever cut off from Mansfield.
But Mary Crawford, for all her worldly sophistication, had tired of vice and excess. It is not what she wanted. She actually craved the peace of Mansfield Park, but she wanted just a little bit of a rogue for a husband. (Perhaps like Jane?) More wealth wouldn’t have hurt, either. Interestingly, a favorite male Austen hero is Henry Tilney, a clergyman, but at only one remove from two very roguish men—his father and his brother.
I certainly agree that we can be forbearing with Mary in her (what seems now to be) slight jokes at her uncle’s expense. Her life in that home, with such a selfish man, must have been dreadful. (one likes to fondly imagine he was away at sea most of the time.)
Well, of my own words ‘I have had enough!’ Thank you again for your thought provoking post.
Sarah Emsley said:
I think one of the things that makes MP so interesting is that Austen is able to identify with both Fanny and Mary. Good point about her knowledge of the two different worlds of the navy and the clergy — both gave her great material for her work.
Arnie Perlstein said:
Look at what is going on immediately before Mary makes her infamous pun–they’re talking about the possibility of William’s early promotion. Since Mansfield Park is a place where the truth is never spoken aloud about what goes on “offstage” (like, e.g., Sir Thomas’s slave plantation in Antigua), Mary, who is actually a whistleblower, is trying to warn Fanny, in code that Fanny, alas, does not understand, that William will be forced to pay a VERY dear “price” for his promotion in the navy.
This was Jane Austen revisiting her even more obvious sodomy pun about sex as the price paid to power in her Sharade about James I and his “Carr Pet” in her History of England written by her at age 16.
And it is also Jane Austen’s homage to Shakespeare’s pun in exactly the same vein when Troillus smiles after Cressida invites him to “come again into [her] chamber.”
For more details on all of the above, just search “rears and vices” at my blog:
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
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Arnie Perlstein said:
And I meant to also add:
In the following post at my blog on 12/12/12….
…I pointed out that Frank Austen, at age 79, paid his own homage to Mary Crawford’s whistleblowing pun when he wrote the following in his famous letter to Susan Quincy Waterston:
“I may as well mention two small mistakes you made in the direction of your letter—the first is that MY SECOND NAME IS WILLIAM, tho’ I can well believe my signature is as likely to be read M. as W.—the other is that I am not a VICE Admiral, having for the last 3 years attained the higher RANK of Admiral. I wish I could believe that in the change of RANK I had left EVERY VICE BEHIND.”
Then Paula Byrne apparently picked up on my catch in her 2013 Austen bio when she quoted that same passage, and then commented: “Startlingly, here [Frank] seems to be remembering his sister’s most questionable joke, concerning ‘Rears and Vices’ in the British navy. “
This was a careful and detailed post and I learned much from reading it. I’ve not thought about this quote before – amazing what you can miss even after several readings of MP – and I’m torn between the possible interpretations. It seems to me that we should never short Austen’s shrewd hard-headedness. OTOH, it is hard to see how Mary C can have uttered an intentional pun dealing with homosexuality and not lost Edward immediately.
Just taking a flyer here: is it possible the narrator knew very well what additional implications there could be from “rears and vices” but decided that Edmund couldn’t imagine that Mary C knew the worst implications of what she was saying?
when I say, “worst implications,” I mean, according to the social mores of the time.
Hobbie DeHoy said:
That’s an interesting thought. Mary might have meant something that Edward was too dense or fastidious to understand. She may have felt safer saying it, if she realized that nobody at that dinner table would really get it, in the “I dare say she did not understand me” tradition of Emma. Still, she is skating very close to the edge of what might get her permanently uninvited from the Mansfield estate.
Lady T said:
Mary’s bawdy comments during this portion of the book are,in my opinion, part of the beginning of the “country mouse,city mouse” dynamic that she sets up with Edmund.
We the reader get a heads-up on Mary’s mindset during talks with her sister Mrs. Grant but Edmund as well as Fanny are introduced to her manner of speaking as she finds and assuming that those around her would share in her views of the world such as her pique over not having a cart easily obtainable for that harp of hers!
She has what she no doubt thinks of as a “sophisticated” way of looking at things,even though it’s obvious at times that Edmund is uncomfortable with her manner of speaking and doesn’t take her materialism seriously, despite her repeated proclamations that money solves most problems and London sets the tone for society.
His preference for small town life(granted-not a pun,I insist-a rather well off small town from his vantage point) and the clergy vs. Mary’s wanting to marry a suitable someone who can mingle well in society and yet be a person she actually cares about is what makes the sparks fly between them. Even if Mary meant to allude to sodomy(or simply to the improper actions of men like her uncle), her wink and nudge at the dinner table was enough to announce a shake-up in the languid conversations at Mansfield Park.
Sarah Emsley said:
Edmund and Mary both try so hard to make each other say and do what fits with their own image of what the ideal mate would be. It’s fascinating to see their continuing blindness to each other. Thanks, everyone, for all your comments. I’m so glad you enjoyed Devoney’s wonderful post.
Very, very true about Edmund & Mary’s shared error – which makes them keep trying to be together and makes it (nearly) impossible for them to see they can’t be together.
This is a wonderful analysis of Mary’s pun. I think that Austen is doing some very intricate work here in showing how sophisticated Mary’s wit is, and how charming she is (and how charming she knows she can be), and yet how murky is her reading of Edmund and Fanny’s characters. Mary sparkles, and she often picks up on external cues of social distress (hence her rising several times to Fanny’s aid in group settings), but her awareness of moral cues is far less acute. Mary drops a few more bon mots about the navy after her pun, seeming not to realize that Edmund is not impressed with her style, and it falls to him to change the subject. Edmund is still thinking about this enough later to bring it up with Fanny, so it’s possible that Mary could have completed her conquest of him much sooner if she’d been a bit more circumspect in conversation.
And thank you, thank you, for calling out the movie versions of Mansfield Park. Such a lot of schlock. Has any Austen character been so theatrically misrepresented as Fanny Price?
Sarah Emsley said:
Wouldn’t it be nice to have an adaptation that at least tries to capture Fanny Price’s character, without assuming that she has to be radically transformed in order to appeal to a movie audience?
I really like the way you’ve put this: “her awareness of moral cues is far less acute.” That’s just superb! Thanks very much for taking time to comment. Looking forward to more conversation on MP, with Sarah’s expert hosting.
Nora Nachumi said:
What a wonderful piece, Devoney! You actually made me sympathize with Mary Crawford (which I do rarely). I also take the point that the pun signals Mary’s difficulty reading moral cues. However, to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, I wonder whether the pun’s significance resides not in its meaning but in the fact that it can be interpreted several ways. After all, much of what Mary says or does in the novel is interpreted differently by various characters (especially by Fanny and Edmund).
josephine Ross said:
I am the writer of the letter to the London Sunday Telegraph of February 200l which appeared under the editor’s headline “Jane Austen prefers the lash to sodomy”..I made the same point in my 2002 book “Jane Austen, A Companion”, published by John Murray (her own publisher) in England and Rutgers University Press in the US. It is, quite simply, inconceivable that, in a work of light fiction aimed primarily at a young, female readership, Jane Austen would have made any kind of allusion to homosexual anal penetration – an act then considered so foully perverted as to carry the death penalty. Mary’s risque pun unquestionably refers to the fashionable Regency taste for whipping: a daringly improper topic for a lady’s joke, but as a practice, legal, widespread, and known to any schoolgirl who ever glanced in a print shop window at the popular cartoons of the day, in which birches and buttocks featured frequently. Of course Jane Austen was not a prude ; but – for her to mention buggery? The same Jane Austen who writes to her sister in a letter of 7 January, l807, that she has just returned a novel by Mme de Genlis to the library half-read, because : “We were disgusted in twenty pages, … It has indelicacies which disgrace a pen hitherto so pure.” Respectfully, I can only say, as Henry Tilney does to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, “Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable”j Josephine Ross
Arnie Perlstein said:
If there’s one thing that I believe it safe to say Mansfield is not, is a piece of “light fiction” — it is the opposite—a profound, troubling, brilliant, at times darkly funny, at other times tragically sad, masterpiece, that has raised a thousand different, often contradictory, reactions from its readers over 2 centuries.
As I suggested, above, in this comment thread, I believe Mary Crawford is making this broad, very dirty pun, not just gratuitously for shock value, but because she is a whistleblower—she wants Fanny to understand that William is going to have to pay a very high price for his promotion in the navy, in terms of sexual favors that will have to be granted to Admiral Crawford. Mary can’t just say this openly in the Bertram household, so she finds a way to say it in code. Alas, Fanny does not “get” the code.
I also suggest that your certainty that Jane Austen would never have included any reference to male-male sex in her novels is cast into very serious doubt by her blatant reference to James I and his “pet” Carr in the Sharade she wrote at age 16 in her History of England. Mary’s pun is mild in comparison to the Sharade’s punch line:
YOU TREAD ON MY WHOLE.
So, when I consult my sense of the probable, it’s clear to me that Jane Austen did intend to refer to (coerced) male–male sex.
Cheers, ARNIE PERLSTEIN
josephine Ross said:
It was good to read yours, Annie. But I MUST clarify – the term “light fiction” has no connection whatever with my opinion of MP . : I too think it one of the greatest and most profound works in English literature: This , again, is a question of historic context .”Light fiction” is a classification it is the category, and market, in which Jane Austen was ASSUMED by her contemporaries to be writing – not least, by the male literary establishment. Remember her own publisher John Murray’s initial response to another of her works of timeless genius, Emma? – on receiving the ms he sent it off to his reviewer, asking casually if he had “a mind to review this”, adding, “it wants incident and romance, does it not? ” ( And that too is not my opinion, though I often quote it!)
Arnie Perlstein said:
I of course agree that she was perceived by most sexist readers as “merely” writing domestic fiction for ladies to read, but think about that. I suggest to you that Jane Austen enjoyed playing with that sexist perception, she was the mistress of faux modesty, she dealt with masculine arrogance in her usual way–by irony.
So when Mary says “Do not be suspecting me of a pun”, wink wink, that is not merely fiction, that is metafiction, it is, simultaneously, Jane Austen challenging her readers by foregrounding the pun, making sure that the pun will be examined by any alert reader, to determine what is up–is there a pun, and if so, what does it mean? COULD Jane Austen really have hidden such an explosive pun in plain sight in this novel in which grave and serious morality is expressed all over the place?
And it’s when the reader takes Jane Austen seriously, and the pun is read IN CONTEXT, as I’ve been saying, that you realize that Mary did not just drop her bon mot on the group out of nowhere, it has to do with William Price.
And this sort of witty, jocular “saying what others are thinking but don’t want to say out loud” comment by Mary is totally in character for her–five chapters later, she says the following:
“It will be the forerunner also of other interesting events: your sister’s marriage, and your taking orders.”
“Don’t be affronted,” said she, laughing, “but it does put me in mind of some of the old heathen heroes, who, after performing great exploits in a foreign land, offered sacrifices to the gods on their safe return.”
By speaking cryptically, Mary gets to safely blow the whistle on the many hypocrisies of the Bertram family.
And similarly, Jane Austen gets to safely blow the whistle on the many hypocrisies in HER world as well.
josephine Ross said:
Erratum! – many apologies, Arnie: I’m having keyboard problems, and among other recent errors I just mistyped your name. I’m so sorry – cheers,J.
Arnie Perlstein said:
I didn’t even notice, Jo, (if I may), but thank you anyway.
josephine Ross said:
Thank you for your latest, Arnie. I stand absolutely by my guns (military probably, rather than naval metaphor, this time) but have to add, in support of my point about changing social context, I”m glad my English grandmothers aren’t alive to read this exchange. Modest loathings wouldn’t be in it. (Though on reflection, it’s ok, because they wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what either of us, but most of all you, could possibly be talking about.) Jo
Arnie Perlstein said:
All’s fair in literary criticism and war, as someone ought to have said…. 😉
I suggest to you that Jane Austen was writing her overt stories for your English grandmothers, and her shadow stories for the sharp elves who suspect her of all manner of literary legerdemain, on another. Two stories for the price of one.
We’ve both expressed our opposing points of view, I can leave it at that.
And speaking of suspecting Jane Austen of much more than meets the eye at first,….your name rang a distinct bell for me, and I went back in my old files and confirmed that I have something I found in 2006 which may be of particular interest to you.
In your 2000 Companion to Jane Austen, you wrote:
““While kindly, semi-senile Mr. Woodhouse searches his memory for a verse beginning ‘Kitty a fair but frozen maid,’ first published in The Lady’s Magazine in 1762. . . the sly, self-seeking clergyman, Mr. Elton, without telling a direct lie, lets it be thought that his contribution—a charade on the word ‘Courtship’—is his own invention. In fact, like his other offering (a play on the word ‘Woman’), this appears in a 2-volume anthology of 1761….”
In 2006, I quickly determined that you had (reasonably) relied for that last assertion on Margaret Doody’s 1986 article “Jane Austen’s Reading” –but….it turns out the “courtship’ charade in that anthology was NOT the one that Mr. Elton gives to Emma after all!
Perhaps you have read the following, if not, you will find it very interesting, I am sure.
There is much more in Jane Austen’s epistemology than has been dreamt of by your English grandmothers! 😉
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
josephine Ross said:
Well, thank you for that, Arnie – I must check a.s.a.p Just o.ne last word re “Jane Austen and My Grandmothers”: perhaps I shouldn’t have cited them – but did so , not to suggest that she was writing for a dim and prissy readership (they in fact were both feisty and clever women!) but merely to reiterate how much times and mores change. We must never overlook the importance of words such as “delicacy”, “elegance” and “gentlemanlike” in assessing Jane Austen’s moral outlook Even if we assume that her brother was being overly prim when he declared, “She shrank from anything gross”, I’m going to sum up with this:: whipping, ok (just); sodomy, a big no. All best , Jo.
Arnie Perlstein said:
“Well, thank you for that, Arnie – I must check a.s.a.p”
You’re welcome, please do tell me what you think, not just about Margaret Doody’s mistake, but also about how Jane Austen covertly but savagely alluding to George IV as the Prince of Whales –what would your grandmamas think about THAT? 😉
“Just one last word re “Jane Austen and My Grandmothers”: perhaps I shouldn’t have cited them – but did so , not to suggest that she was writing for a dim and prissy readership (they in fact were both feisty and clever women!) but merely to reiterate how much times and mores change.”
But you’re begging the most important question, which is—if there was a majority of gentlewomen in her era who stoically acquiesced in their oppression, I am sure you will acknowledge there was a minority of gentlewomen who did NOT “just go along”, but who were outraged at the unfairness of the system toward women.
So the question is, was Jane Austen one of the sheep, or a pioneer? I say, the latter!
When Henry Tilney unleashes his famous rant about England as a Christian nation where horrors could not happen, I am not alone in reading that ironically, as Jane Austen’s way of saying, “YES, horrors not only happen in England, they are treated like beneficial God-willed positives!”
“We must never overlook the importance of words such as “delicacy”, “elegance” and “gentlemanlike” in assessing Jane Austen’s moral outlook Even if we assume that her brother was being overly prim when he declared, “She shrank from anything gross”,”
What is accurate is that she shrank from gross and heavy handed irony, I think Mary Crawford’s bon mot is an example of the lightness of Jane Austen’s rapier thrusts — the reader’s not being handed certainty on a platter is a sign of JA’s refined irony.
P.S.: I am 100% in agreement with Jill Heydt-Steventon that Mr. Woodhouse’s advanced dementia was the result of tertiary syphilis. –I am sure you’re aware of that strand of research into another key word game in Chapter 9 of Emma.
josephine Ross said:
Codes and subtexts in Jane Austen are not my field, Arnie – so I’ll leave all that to you and your fellow-specialists. Cheers. – J
Arnie Perlstein said:
And cheers back to you, thanks for engaging with me, it’s been fun!
josephine Ross said:
Absolutely! All best, and cheers – J.
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Sarah Ozcandarli said:
I assume that much, if not most, of the sodomy we are talking about would not ocurr between two consenting adults, that exploitation and abuse were more typical than not. I can imagine Jane Austin making a joke about sodomy, though not in her published work, but perhaps in one of the letters Cassandra Austin burnt. However, I do not she would find exploitation and abuse funny.
I think the pun is that so many rear admirals and vice admirals are buttheads, have big butts, and indulge in many venal sins.
Arnie Perlstein said:
Read my exchange with Josephine Ross, immediately above. Mary Crawford is warning Fanny, in code, that the “price” for William’s promotion in the navy will involve him having to allow the Admiral to sodomize him. Not very funny, but then, Mary Crawford’s “jokes”, like Jane Austen’s, are deadly serious.
Jenni Frangos said:
Thanks for a great post, Devoney. I too am of the mind that our fascination with this passage says a lot more about us than it does about Austen, and am grateful for reminders that we need to historicize and contextualize.
Perhaps this too is a bit of a flyer… but:
What if Mary is here repeating a joke that her uncle’s friends have made among themselves in her uncle’s house without quite realizing what she’s alluding to? It’s easy to imagine a bunch of guys calling each other Rears and Vices, hardy har, and quite possible that Mary picks up on the fact that it’s kind of naughty but doesn’t comprehend exactly what they’re referring to. As another commenter points out, she trots this joke out and calls attention to the pun in order to demonstrate her sophistication and wittiness and to show off a bit for Edmund’s sake — and, though she is more worldly and sophisticated than the Bertram family, and though she has surely been exposed to questionable morals in her uncle’s house, as Devoney notes, that doesn’t mean that she knows what she’s saying.
To offer a parallel example, I have a friend who used to used to repeat the “ain’t nothing wrong with a little bingo and cunnilingus” line from /The Nutty Professor/ all the time — we thought it was funny, especially because he usually threw it out as a non-sequitur. But when he mentioned that he had said it to his group of church ladies, someone took him aside and asked if he knew what cunnilingus means — and, well, once informed, he was mightily embarrassed, especially the next time he had to face his church ladies.
Anyway, such an explanation would be in keeping with Edmund’s comments to Fanny, when he describes his final interview with Mary:
“[…] No, hers is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper: in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings; in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did. She was speaking only as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined everybody else would speak. Hers are not faults of temper. She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to any one, and though I may deceive myself, I cannot but think that for me, for my feelings, she would— Hers are faults of principle, Fanny; of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind. Perhaps it is best for me, since it leaves me so little to regret. Not so, however. Gladly would I submit to all the increased pain of losing her, rather than have to think of her as I do. I told her so.” (/MP/, chapter 47)
Edmund wants to believe that it’s not that Mary’s inherently evil, it’s that she’s corrupted by others’ examples and is unaware of that corruption, of how it looks to people outside her London circle. Up until that final interview, Edmund (a clergyman, remember, who takes that responsibility very seriously) has been firm in his conviction that he could “save” Mary from that corrupting influence, that she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t be redeemed. This is, after all, how a man of the cloth would see the world.*
This could also account for why it doesn’t occur to him that Mary’s pun might be a reference to sodomy, which has been mentioned above as well. She just doesn’t know what she’s saying…
*I have to give a shout-out here to Un Joo Christopher, who wrote a paper for my Jane Austen seminar this summer on the dynamic between Edmund and Mary; in this paper and her contributions to class discussion, she was very sensitive to nuance in passages like the one I’ve quoted, as well as to rescuing Edmund from a simple cloud of self-delusion in his desire for Mary. I have to read Edmund a little differently now.
Arnie Perlstein said:
I find remarkable the extent to which you have gone, in an elaborate circular chain of inference, in order to deny the simplest explanation, which is that Mary knows exactly what she is talking about. You would turn her into the Austen character (is it Lady Middleton in S&S?) who uses a multisyllabic word without understanding its meaning. Whereas Mary gives repeated evidence throughout the entire novel of her brilliance, her insight, her compassion, and her courage to speak truth to hypocritical power. That you start from Edmund, who is utterly clueless about everything throughout the novel, as a reliable observer with good insight into Mary’s character, is also remarkable.
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Simon Jones said:
Very well argued but I still incline to think that Austen might intend this to be outrageous as a modern audience might like it to be. She has to mention “rears” in order to mention “vices” and then to let the ambiguity play on the second word.
But did she intend an ambiguity, a pun, in relation to the first? She must have had a great familiarity with naval matters via her brothers. My vote would be that her world view was sufficiently broad to include buggery.
So much sexuality in Mansfield Park!
I was re-reading the passage where Edmund discusses Mary Crawford’s merits with Fanny and then goes further into a realm where, Austen tells us, that Fanny cannot follow.
In other words that Edmund regards Mary also as an object of male sexual attention, that he is sexually aroused by her. That Mary is a good horsewoman and rides well is also dwelt upon. It is all quite steamy stuff, and all the more powerful for being obliquely caught.
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JE Howard said:
My sister, a keen horsewoman, believes that Mary’s joke was not about anatomy at all: rearing is one of the established ‘vices’ in horses. Worth consideration?
Oh wow. I’m not sure I agree with your sister about this, but I love having another facet added to the debate over this phrase. Very interesting. Thank you for letting us know about it.