Deborah Yaffe, an award-winning newspaper journalist and author, has been a passionate Jane Austen fan since first reading Pride and Prejudice at age ten. Her second book, Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom, was published in August 2013. I was fascinated by the book and reviewed it here last fall, and then in January I interviewed Deborah about the series of blog posts she wrote on continuations of Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons.
Deborah holds a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Yale University and a master’s degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford University in England, which she attended on a Marshall Scholarship. She works as a freelance writer and lives in central New Jersey with her husband, her two children, and her Jane Austen action figure. I hope you enjoy reading her post on the well-known scene at Sotherton in which Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford slip past the locked iron gate.
[Henry to Maria:] “Your prospects, however, are too fair to justify want of spirits. You have a very smiling scene before you.”
“Do you mean literally or figuratively? Literally I conclude. Yes, certainly, the sun shines and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, gives me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.” As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate; he followed her. “Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!”
“And for the world you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth’s authority and protection, or I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.”
“Prohibited! nonsense! I certainly can get out that way, and I will. Mr. Rushworth will be here in a moment, you know; we shall not be out of sight.”
“Or if we are, Miss Price will be so good as to tell him that he will find us near that knoll: the grove of oak on the knoll.”
Fanny, feeling all this to be wrong, could not help making an effort to prevent it. “You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram,” she cried, “you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes – you will tear your gown – you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha. You had better not go.”
Her cousin was safe on the other side, while these words were spoken, and smiling with all the good-humour of success, she said, “Thank you, my dear Fanny, but I and my gown are alive and well, and so good-bye.”
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 10 (London: Penguin, 1985)
In every Jane Austen novel, a young woman successfully navigates the perilous journey from the home of her parents to the home of a loving and responsible husband. We know this journey is perilous because, in every Austen novel, this ultimately happy story has its shadowy, minor-key counterpart: the story of a young woman who makes a terrible mistake about men, marriage and sex, and pays the price.
Sometimes this counter-story exists largely in the heroine’s fantasies, like Mrs. Tilney’s Gothic imprisonment in Northanger Abbey or Jane Fairfax’s guilty love for Mr. Dixon in Emma. Sometimes it is real but wholly offstage, like the tragedy of the two Elizas in Sense and Sensibility or the unlucky marriage of Mrs. Smith in Persuasion. And sometimes it remains largely offstage but still plays an important role in the plot, like Wickham’s seduction of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice.
Only in Mansfield Park does Jane Austen allow us to watch the counter-story – the seduction, the fatal mistake, the fall – unfolding in real time. And the scene from Chapter 10 quoted above, in which Henry Crawford persuades Maria Bertram to slip past the locked gate at Sotherton, is the epicenter of the counter-story, the emblematic moment that contains and anticipates the whole.
As Henry, snake-like, tempts Maria into leaving her fiancé behind and accompanying him out of the Edenic wilderness, we know that this literal transgression of geographic boundaries foreshadows the transgression of social boundaries they will soon commit together. We know that Fanny’s alarmed warning – “You will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown; you will be in danger of slipping into the ha–ha” – is a coded reference to the illicit sexual penetration, and the accompanying social calamity, that will eventually occur.
And yet nothing really illicit happens here. We don’t overhear an explicit sexual proposition, witness a stolen kiss, or even notice a semi-accidental brushing of fingertips. All we see is a man and a woman slipping past an iron gate.
How, then, do we know that the stakes are so high? How do we know that Maria’s unwillingness to wait for Rushworth to bring her the key to the gate prefigures her unwillingness to remain faithful to him within the fenced wilderness of marriage?
Partly, of course, we know all this because we are post-Freudian readers, primed to see keys and spikes and tears as sexual codes. How, then, do we know that the pre-Freudian Jane Austen had this metaphorical reading in mind?
We know because she tells us. “You have a very smiling scene before you,” Henry tells Maria. “Do you mean literally or figuratively?” Maria replies. “Literally, I conclude.” But even as Maria insists, disingenuously, on a literal reading of Henry’s flirtatious commonplace, she – or, rather, her creator – is putting us on notice that everything that follows can be read in two ways. Literally? It’s a woman discourteously slipping through a gate. Figuratively? It’s a woman making the mistake about men, marriage and sex that will ultimately destroy her life.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Julie Strong, Juliet McMaster, David Monaghan, and Diana Birchall. Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the Mansfield Park party!