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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)

Mansfield Park, 2007To 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.

Mansfield Park, 1999Wealthy, 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!