(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


I can no longer stay silent, Janeites & Bardolaters will just have to wait for my next post about Will and Jane, I must exercise my First Amendment rights, come what may. Are you sitting down? 

The real significance of the recent escalation in sheer, unadulterated idiocy that has been belching out of the White House chimney in the past few weeks continues to be missed, and it's my patriotic duty to reveal it. The real issue is Russia, but I'm not talking about petty issues like destroying our democratic governmental and electoral processes. No, I'm talking about really paying attention to history, because you know what they say, right?? "They" say a lot of stuff to Trump, of course, but it's about time we started listening, too!

Remember when the Ruskies' Sputnik launches caught America by surprise in the Fifties, and we were lucky to catch up in the Space Race? Well, what's being missed by all the so-called pundits today is that while America thinks it's getting a leg up on the rest of the world with advances in computers, in particular in Artificial Intelligence, Putin, that sly bear, has been quietly making dramatic advances in the unrecognized but crucial field of Artificial Stupidity.

When we listen to the words (and read the Tweets) coming out of the Oval Office, the West Wing, and (at times), clearly from the Fearless Leader while sitting on The Throne, is it not obvious that the Russians have managed to slip a deadly Artificial Stupidity virus into the air via the a/c ducts?

How else to explain the astonishingly consistent level of stupid s-t pouring out of the White House on an hourly basis?

So, get with it, America, it's time to make sure we keep up with the Russians before we fall fatally behind in Artificial Stupidity!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

John McCain's revenge on Donald Drumpf is now complete indeed

I am certain Jane Austen would have approved of the following creative appropriation of Mr. Darcy's letter after his botched first proposal, had she witnessed politics in the USA during the past 2 years:

"I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on Trump was a strong additional inducement for McCain to surprise everyone, just when the bad guys thought they finally had their evil goal (of destroying ObamaCare, and depriving tens of millions of Americans of decent and affordable medical care) seemingly within their grasp. McCain's revenge on Trump (and all Republicans who have worked with Trump) for trashing McCain's war heroism IS NOW complete indeed."

Jane Austen's Dead Silence: The History of Slavery Subtext in Mansfield Park

Eleven years ago, I submitted the following article to the editor of Persuasions & Persuasions Online, the two JASNA journals, but it was not accepted for publication. In the intervening eleven years, I can't count how many times I have seen articles, whether scholarly or popular, which give credit to Edward Said for being the first scholar to point out what is now commonly referred to as the "slavery subtext" of Jane Austen's third published novel, Mansfield Park. That honor, as you will see as you read along, below, belongs to Avrom Fleishman, who first wrote about that topic a quarter century before Said said what he said (sorry, I couldn't resist)

It was only today, when I read the following in an otherwise brilliant 2014 article about the movie Belle by Prof. Tricia Matthew... " In the twenty years since Edward Said’s focus on the “dead silence” [in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park] in his post-colonial manifesto Culture and Imperialism  scholars and other storytellers are paying more attention to the presence of people in color in historical British narratives.....that it occurred to me that I ought to finally self publish my 2006 article (which I'll update some time in the near future), exactly as I wrote it then, in order to tell the true story of the many twists and turns in the evolution of the idea of Jane Austen's really being focused on English colonial slavery in MP, both literally and also as a metaphor for the servitude of many subtler kinds which are depicted in MP, her least romantic novel.

With that brief intro, then, I give you:

"Jane Austen's Dead Silence: The History of Slavery Subtext in Mansfield Park" (2006) by Arnie Perlstein

For almost two centuries, Mansfield Park has been Jane Austen’s problem novel, in the sense that the term “problem play” is used to describe some of Shakespeare’s plays. Like All’s Well That Ends Well, Mansfield Park defies categorization as either comedy or tragedy. Both are love stories that seem to end well, but not decisively. Austen even flags this parallel by giving her irresolute male hero the surname Bertram from that play; just as, for other reasons, she also gives him the Shakespearean first name Edmund.
Controversy among readers about Mansfield Park goes back a long way, but in recent years, the perennial Fanny Wars have been upstaged by one major controversy: the existence and/or meaning of what may be called the novel’s slavery subtext. This refers to oblique textual references to the real world of slavery and abolitionism, a social issue to which Jane Austen has long been thought by many to have been indifferent.
That controversy has piqued the interest of many readers, but even one familiar with the novel would be hard-pressed to describe all its contours, let alone make an informed decision as to their opinion about it. The flurry of words written on the topic from a range of lay and scholarly (particularly feminist and postcolonialist) perspectives during the past fifteen years is confusing and nearly impenetrable even to an Austen scholar. Ideology has further clouded matters, because some have seized upon its controversial aspects and dismissed the entire subject as an ivory tower confabulation, with little connection to the novel’s text, or meaning for most Austen readers.
One can readily discern why this has happened; the stakes are high. The existence of significant and potentially disturbing slavery references in a novel by the author of  widely cherished love stories, is the hottest of buttons. It goes to the heart of the matter: what is Mansfield Park really about?
Amidst the ideological conflict, insufficient attention has been paid to the prosaic, detail-oriented questions of whether (and, if so, how) that subtext was embedded in the novel by Austen. Periodically, there have been claims of detection of references to slavery in Mansfield Park, and also in Emma, involving character surnames. However, no single example, standing alone, seems truly convincing, and no previous commentator has presented a unifying principle for linking them all as a group that cannot be gainsaid.  
This article claims to be the first definitive intellectual history of the idea of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park. Delightfully, such history turns out to have its own intrinsic interest, filled with the same sorts of ironies, reversals, secrets, near-misses, unintended communications, and suspense that we find in every Austen novel.
The Slavery Text in Mansfield Park
The starting point for study of slavery subtext must be the only two specific instances that everybody acknowledges to be some sort of reference to slavery in Mansfield Park
1. Sir Thomas Bertram has business in Antigua that requires him to spend two years there. Mrs. Norris expresses concern that the loss of income from Antigua may materially adversely affect the high standard of living at Mansfield Park.  (30-34)  It is clearly implied that Sir Thomas’s income from Antigua arises from an enterprise related, directly or indirectly, to the raising of sugar cane on plantations relying on slave labor.
2. Later on, Edmund has just gently chided Fanny for not speaking up more with her father, and Fanny defends herself: “Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?” and adds that her question was met with “such a dead silence”. (196)
The meaning of this exchange has been debated for years, and the cause is obvious: the extraordinary ambiguity of what Brian Southam has called “the silence of the Bertrams”. Their silence may be a reflection of narcissistic boredom; or of horror at a taboo subject explicitly raised; or something else. Austen’s narrator exceeds even her normal coy reticence; she never explains that silence. Given that all the other references in the novel to slavery are oblique or implicit, the reader is left in an information vacuum.
Why would Austen tantalize readers with a pointed reference to the slave-trade, but then leave that reference ambiguous and never subsequently explain it? We cannot imagine such an omission from an author so meticulous with even seemingly trivial details.
So, is Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua merely a Hitchcockian “McGuffin”? A plausible plot device designed to get the cat away for an extended time, so that the naughty mice can have sufficient time to (put on a) play, only to be trapped by the cat in the act? Or is it a Stoppardian inversion, with Antigua the submerged bulk of the iceberg, of which the Mansfield Park action comprises the exposed tip? I suggest that the answer is both, that Austen’s dead silence on this subject is intentional, and that it would have pleased her greatly to have us be brave, follow Edmund’s sensible  advice (which maybe Fanny did, but we never were told), and inquire of it farther. Let us start with the history.    
Nineteenth Century Sources:
With some other authors, we might look to their correspondence to learn about a major literary strategy such as concealing references to large-scale world phenomena like slavery. It’s not so easy with Austen. If she ever explicitly wrote in a letter about subtext in any of her novels, it did not survive. Similarly, the opinions about Mansfield Park that Austen collected upon its publication contain no explicit references to slavery or Antigua. Nor do any nineteenth century writers, fiction or nonfiction, take any explicit notice of it, we find only a couple of vague associations.
Not much to show for an entire century, but this nineteenth century indifference to slavery in Mansfield Park is not surprising. Once Austen’s own generation has died, followed decades later by the end of English colonial slavery itself, any contemporary awareness of allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park has faded as well. The world’s issues with slavery focus on the U.S. Civil War. And so a century and more passes in silence on that subject. It remains for the latter part of the twentieth century for Mansfield Park to begin to yield up its secrets.
On Looking Into Chapman’s Austen
Within ten years after the 1932 publication of R.W. Chapman’s first edition of the Letters, one of them plays a role in the origination of ideas about the slavery subtext. Her January 24, 1813 letter states:
We quite run over with books. She [Mrs. Austen] has got Sir John Carr's Travels in Spain, and I am reading a Society octavo, an Essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written and highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the author as I ever was with Clarkson or Buchanan… (198)
Chapman’s 1932 edition includes the following entry in its “Other Persons, Places, Authors, etc.” appendix, implicitly explaining Austen’s reference to the book by Clarkson which generated her great admiration for him: "Clarkson, Thomas, 1760 – 1846, perhaps Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1808), or more probably Life of William Penn (1813)”  Chapman does not explain why he believes the later book of Clarkson’s would be the more probable reference.
There matters lie until 1942, when Sheila Kay-Smith and G.B. Stern intone that “the shadow which has fallen over Mansfield Park is nothing less than the Evangelical Revival”. (40) They get this idea from an ironically improbable source---Mary Crawford.
In Chapter 40, an impatient Mary sarcastically explains Edmund’s delayed arrival: "There may be some old woman at Thornton Lacey to be converted." (394) Then an agitated Mary varies and expands upon that theme in Chapter 47, this time directing her sarcasm at Edmund: “At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.”     (458) 
Smith and Stern do well to realize that Mary’s jibes at Edmund are significant subtextual clues, and much has been made since, pro and con, of their speculation that Austen became an Evangelical in 1810. But, what concerns us here is that they fail to ask whether there might be a second meaning of those clues, beyond the purely religious meaning they perceive.
What they do instead is akin to discovering an oblique reference to Martin Luther King in a novel set in the Sixties, inferring therefrom only that the author became a Southern Baptist, but never asking whether he also marched in Selma. The Evangelicals were the leading lights of the English abolitionist movement, and few, then or today, would have known Clarkson’s name had he never led that great struggle.
During the next twenty five years, the former silence reemerges, but those claims have not been for naught, because Chapman makes subtle changes in his appendix note, which is reproduced below exactly as it appears in his 1955 edition:  “Clarkson, Thomas, 1760-1846, abolitionist. JA may refer to his Life of Penn 1813 (too late?) or to his Abolition of the …Slave Trade 1808”  (221)
Chapman now describes Clarkson as an abolitionist. Plus, he downgrades Life of Penn from priority of likelihood, and also suggests that it may have been published too late to have been read by Austen before January, 1813. We read between his carefully worded lines that he has read Mary’s jibes, and the gloss thereon by Smith and Stern, and has detected that second, antislavery meaning in them that they did not. However, he seems too cautious or ambivalent to dispense with the Penn safety net.
The Slavery Subtext Unveiled, Then Reclothed
 The pioneer who first publishes an explicit claim of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park is Avrom Fleishman. His 1967 article ends the 153-year dead silence, and initiates the process of finally answering Fanny’s question. He begins by placing Mansfield Park in the historical context of a “crisis” or “turning point in the gentry’s fortunes.” (15) Per Fleishman, Mansfield Park depends on Antiguan income, and Sir Thomas is Antiguan. Fleishman then writes: “And if a question about off-stage action may be admitted, what does Sir Thomas do in Antigua to make secure the sources of his income?”  (16)
  Fleishman goes on to provide economic history and claims that Antigua was an exception to the rule of absentee ownership that prevailed elsewhere in the British West Indies, but that it had just been adversely impacted by the abolition of the slave trade. He wonders whether it is economic necessity that drives Sir Thomas “to improve conditions for the slaves,” and he believes that the “strange business. . .in America” that Tom mentions to Dr. Grant (Mansfield Park, 119) is a reference to Sir Thomas’s crisis in Antigua. (17)
Fleishman combines the best ideas of Smith, Stern and Chapman when he points out the importance of Austen’s familiarity with Clarkson’s The Abolition of the African Slave Trade. He then takes the step that Chapman did not, arguing that the Evangelically-driven abolitionist movement must have been very much in Austen’s awareness as she wrote this novel. Regarding Sir Thomas’s startling display of affection for Fanny, Fleishman writes that “it is inescapably significant that she is the only member of the family interested in hearing from him about the slave trade.”   (17)
Fleishman thus presents persuasive and unequivocal advocacy for Sir Thomas as absentee plantation owner, and for Clarkson’s abolitionism on Austen’s radar screen. However, as valuable as these explicit insights are, his indirect implications are even better.  His approach implies that there can be offstage, unreported action in an Austen novel worthy of serious thematic consideration. There is enormous power in this approach, and, so energized, he goes on to achieve what seem to me to be four distinct insights:
1. Sir Thomas’s “bullying” (14) of Fanny—this is the first conceptualization, however indistinct, of the allegory of Fanny as slave and Sir Thomas as master, which Kirkham will make explicit in 1983, and is fundamental to much thinking ever since about Austen’s slavery references.
2. Sir Thomas’s children as “bitter fruit” (15). This is a prescient grasping of the pervasive allusive import of  Paradise Lost in the novel, the image of bitter fruit being specifically and ironically tagged by Dr. Grant’s deriding Mrs. Norris’s Moor Park apricots as “insipid” and inedible (Mansfield Park 54) .
3. “The large and airy rooms” (16) of Mansfield Park-- the central symbolism of the magical power of English air stated in the slave-freeing 1772 Mansfield Judgment.
4. Fleishman’s quoting D.W. Harding, who in turn is clearly riffing on Mary,  about Austen’s intentions as a writer: “Her object is not missionary” (18).  Mary’s mocking portrayals of Edmund as a missionary comprise one instance among many in Austen’s novels in which Austen ventriloquistically uses a character as a mouthpiece for her reflections, in this case on her own role as a writer in morally sick Regency Era England. Does Mary speak of Austen? Harding thinks not, but others like Smith and Stern might disagree.
Fleishman’s article fertilizes the examination of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park, but its gestation will be long and difficult. Despite the wealth of his radically new ideas about slavery in the novel, no commentator will, until 1982, respond positively to him. However, he does, in the interim, have a few particular, adverse respondents. 
Writing in 1969, B.C. Southam never acknowledges Fleishman by name, but seems to be reacting to Fleishman’s provocative imagining of Sir Thomas as absentee Antiguan planter. Whatever prompts Southam to check Vere Langford Oliver’s obscure 1896 history of Antigua, it is fortunate, because it is where Southam finds the name of George Austen, mentioned in 1760 and 1788 entries, as trustee of the Haddons plantation in Antigua owned by James Langford Nibbs. That appears to be the same Mr. Nibbs whose portrait hung at Steventon, and whom Chapman was unable to identify even as late as his 1952 edition of the Letters.
 This is the first mention in print of the Austen family’s Antiguan connection, a dramatic validation of Fleishman’s ideas. However, Southam promptly minimizes the significance of his own discovery:
These facts are trivial and add nothing to the meaning of Mansfield Park. But they do enable us to see Jane Austen’s reliance upon the known world and her fond habit of introducing family associations into her fiction.”  (19-20)
Southam’s words echo Fanny Price’s letter to Mary (“The rest of your note I know means nothing”) (   ) and Fanny’s struggle to shield herself from Henry Crawford’s powerful and dangerous charm. There is a finality to his dismissal of slavery subtext, but, to paraphrase Blake on Milton, perhaps Southam was of the party and didn’t know it, because his later words on this subject--twenty six years later—will evidence a very different point of view.
In 1975, A. Walton Litz explicitly rebuts Fleishman: “Surely if Jane Austen had thought them [details of the English colonial slavery crisis] crucial she would have included them in her description and dialogue.” (678) Litz explicitly rejects Fleishman’s contention that Jane Austen was dropping hints to contemporaries sophisticated about history and current events.
And in 1977, David Monaghan seems to echoes Litz, in passing, as he rebuts Kaye-Smith’s claims of Austen as evangelical :
“Fanny’s questioning of Sir Thomas about slavery cannot be taken as evidence of Jane Austen’s sympathy with the abolition campaign because it tells us no more than that she was aware of the problem….The subject [of whether Austen was alluding to Evangelicalism in Mansfield Park] can be illuminated only if we begin with coherent statements of the religious and social positions adopted by the Clapham Sect [the key Evangelical abolitionists, to be discussed later in this article] and by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park”  (219)
Very Strange Business in Antigua
Things do not heat up again until Frank Gibbon, in 1982, starts from Southam’s kernel of discovery about Reverend Austen’s Antigua connection, and adds to it a wealth of well-organized data about what turns out to be an extensive and decades-long Austen-Nibbs family connection. Gibbon’s facts go far beyond the simple trusteeship first described by Southam. He recites that Southam’s “odd little item of information has lain buried ever since” but then dryly suggests that “the role of the Nibbs family is not quite so trivial a factor as Mr. Southam believes.” (299) Gibbon does not merely show the real lives of the Nibbses, he shows several major parallels between their lives and the lives of characters in Mansfield Park. He does not cite Fleishman’s discoveries, but surely they’ve inspired him, as he broadens them to include private family allusions that seem to only have significance for those who know the Austen and Nibbs family histories.
Gibbon introduces several other noteworthy insights. He explicitly connects the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park and Emma, when he mentions Austen’s use of Bristol, a main slave-trade port, as the hometown of the Hawkinses and Sucklings. Gibbons also and infers “that the Sucklings were retired West Indian merchants with at least an indirect financial interest in the slave trade.” (303)
He is the first to bring Mrs. Norris into the slavery mix. He suggests that Austen “possibly nam[ed] Mrs. Norris after its [Clarkson’s History’s] most obnoxious character.” (303) He does not try to match all attributes of Mrs. Norris to Robert Norris, her slaver namesake (who will be discussed later), but recognizes that Austen’s art of allusion is too flexible for that. Gibbon’s only error seems to be that of not grasping all the implications of his discoveries. Had he done so, he might have noticed other character (or even place) names which alluded to other names prominent in the world of slavery, which will be described in my companion article.  
Gibbon expands Fleishman’s allegorical implication: “[Sir Thomas’s] estate must be handled by managers, who, as a class, were about as efficient and kindly as Mrs. Norris turned out to be in her managerial role during Sir Thomas’s absence from the Park.”  (302) In so doing, Gibbon, like Fleishman fifteen years earlier, comes close to realizing that even the genteel life at Mansfield Park is itself an allegory for a metaphorical plantation, where the “slaves” pick spouses, instead of sugar cane, at the whim of their overseers.  
Lastly, he takes a deep dive into the murkiest depths of the subtext of the novel when he writes “Jane Austen would certainly have been aware of the likelihood of a family such as her fictional Bertrams having numerous mulatto relatives in Antigua…” (304-5)   
Gibbon’s ideas, surprisingly, receive little critical reaction, and the ship of slavery subtext study seems stalled once again. However, things are finally about to change.  
Traffic in Female Flesh
Margaret Kirkham does not cite Fleishman, Gibbon or even Southam, but her chapter on Mansfield Park nonetheless is a turning point in the study of its oblique slavery references. First and foremost, she trumpets Austen’s application of the metaphor of slavery to the condition of women in England, famously championed by Mary Wollstonecraft who died thirteen years before Mansfield Park. “The resemblance between Wollstonecraft and Austen as feminine moralists is so striking that it seems extraordinary that it has not always been recognized, but that is to leave out of account the Great Wollstonecraft Scandal of 1798.” (48) That last refers to the scandal which polarized women in England and seriously set back the cause of women’s rights.
Kirkham is also the first to refer to the Mansfield Judgment as an allusive source for the novel, and to link them both to Wollstonecraft:
“The title of Mansfield Park is allusive and ironic, but the allusion in this case is not to philosophical fiction like Emile or to the theatre, but to a legal judgment, generally regarded as having ensured that slavery could not be held to be in accordance with the manners and customs of the English….Jane Austen follows an analogy used in [Wollstonecraft’s] Vindication between the slaves in the colonies and women, especially married women, at home.” (116-7) 
In summarizing Clarkson’s book, which would have been an important source for Austen in its detailed description of the Somerset case (decided by the Mansfield Judgment),  Kirkham briefly but indelibly inscribes the Mansfield Judgment on the map of Mansfield Park scholarship.  Kirkham also breaks new ground when she notes that  “at the house of her brother Edward Knight, she [Austen] met Lord Mansfield’s niece on a number of occasions,” (118) thereby establishing an Austen personal connection to Lord Mansfield’s family, the significance of which is addressed in the companion article.
Finally, she shows how the actual words (both proper and ordinary names) of  Mansfield Park constitute a language of slavery--the “captivation” of Miss “Ward” of “Huntingdon”--and of law--the “air” of Mansfield Park (118) echoing the famous words of the Mansfield Judgment. Kirkham shows a sharp sensitivity to Austen’s creativity in detecting the subliminal aura of slavery into the novel.
Although Gibbon and Kirkham both blaze new paths, Kirkham is the one who ignites a fire, perhaps bcause her frank feminism is timely at that moment in history, with the result that this short section of her book has been cited in most of the hundred-plus articles that have addressed this issue since 1983.
The Discreet Charm of Edward Said And The Feminist Wave
As the Eighties progress, the slavery subtext begins to appear regularly in print, mostly pertaining to the feminist metaphor, but the discourse about Austen and slavery is completely altered by the entrance of Edward Said. Per Fraiman, “Mansfield Park takes relatively little space in the vastness of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), yet one reviewer after another has seized on Austen’s novel as emblematic of the cultural tradition Said shows to be inextricable from European colonialism.”  (805)
This is good news and bad news. A lot of people who have never given a second thought to slavery in Mansfield Park become aware of the issue, and the novel begins to be more widely viewed in a new light. However, as stated earlier, the slavery subtext becomes entangled with Said’s ideology, such that those who oppose his ideology use it to deny the existence of the slavery subtext altogether.
What did Said actually say about Mansfield Park? I quote at length, because of the singular impact of his enigmatic words on the study of the even more enigmatic shadow of slavery in Mansfield Park:
It would be silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave….Yes, Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all, I would argue, if we….make connections, to deal with as much of the evidence as possible, fully and actually, to read what is there or is not there…Mansfield Park is a rich work in that its aesthetic intellectual complexity requires that longer and slower analysis that is also required by its geographical problematic, a novel based in an England relying for the maintenance of its style on a Caribbean island. . .But precisely because Austen is so summary in one context, so provocatively rich in the other, precisely because of that imbalance, we are able to move in on the novel, reveal and accentuate the interdependence scarcely mentioned on its brilliant pages. A lesser work wears its historical affiliation more plainly. …..Mansfield Park encodes experiences and does not simply repeat them.  (366)
            With a poet’s voice, Said captures subtle aspects of Jane Austen’s mystery-generating art. It will be very hard, but also very rewarding, work, to struggle to grasp the experiences encoded beneath the surface of the novel. Whatever else his impact, Said’s  penetration is undeniable.
In 1993, a new element is introduced by Maaja Stewart, who adds to the catalogue of historical antecedents of Mansfield Park two fictional stories by Inchbald and Edgeworth, respectively, which Stewart sees as congruent with the slavery subtext of the novel. Here is her metaphorical reading of Lady Bertram as a planter’s wife:
Lady Bertram is further mirrored in Maria Edgeworth’s portraits of these wives in The Grateful Negro: ‘Mrs. Jeffries was a languid beauty, or rather a languid fine lady who had been a beauty, and who spent all that part of the day which was not devoted to the pleasures of the table, or to reclining on a couch, in dress.’  (129-30) 
Stewart’s breakthrough to an entirely new domain of the slavery subtext, and beginning to flesh out the Bertram family portrait in the slavery album, is significant. However, she fails to realize that the resemblance that Lady Bertram bears to Mrs. Jeffries in The Grateful Negro is no coincidence.
In the same vein, Deirdre Coleman and Moira Ferguson, two other influential Nineties feminist commentators write about the complex interface between antislavery and feminism in Jane Austen’s and other novels.
Antiracism and Feminism Then & Now
The ideas of Kirkham, Stewart, Coleman and Ferguson, as well as those of Fleishman two decades earlier, illustrate the crucial role that contemporary politics then and now have played in all this. Austen’s creation of an elaborate slavery subtext in Mansfield Park seems to have been an outgrowth of the abolitionist movement’s galvanization of early women’s rights advocates such as Wollstonecraft. The modern decoding of her slavery subtext seems to have been an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and its galvanization of modern feminism. 
The Return of Southam & Other Recent Highlights
Brian Southam returns to slavery in Mansfield Park in 1995 with a bang. As we read his “The Silence of the Bertrams”, we see a shift from denial to acceptance. Southam now takes as given that the Nibbs family allusion in Mansfield Park is intentional, although he remains enigmatic as to exactly what sort of meaning in the novel might be implied by that allusion: 
A silence not unlike the ‘dead silence’ at Mansfield Park may have begun to gather over Mr. Austen’s West Indian connections—connections which extended deeper into the household. . .Like Sir Thomas Bertram, Mr. Nibbs had a spendthrift elder son, James Junior; and like Tom Bertram, James junior was taken off to Antigua by his father to detach him from his ‘unwholesome connections’. (14)
            The greatest portion of Southam’s article provides a welcome and extensive analysis of the chronology of Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua in the context of world politics, particularly involving the colonial slavery system. Surprisingly, he fails to mention Gibbon, but perhaps more surprising, he not only mentions Edward Said, but even pays tribute to Said’s vision of Austen’s global perspective.
The Present  
In the last decade, there have been a number of articles on the subject of slavery in Mansfield Park. It remains as lively an area as any in Austen studies, although radically new ground is not broken in them. Here are two highlights.
In 2000, Elaine Jordan follows Stewart’s lead in her application of Antiguan patterns of behavior to the actual characters of the Bertrams. She sees Sir Thomas as a nouveau riche from the West Indies trying to buy himself legitimacy and gravitas, but she also extends Gibbon’s 1982 insights in one intriguing respect: “James Langston Nibbs. . .took his son and heir, named after himself, out to Antigua to cure his extravagances in England. Unlike Tom Bertram, this son did not return. His half-brother, Christopher, a slave, also died in Antigua.”   (40)  .
            Moreland Perkins, in 2005, convincingly establishes the depth of the allusions by Austen to her “loves” Clarkson and Pasley, but, even more important, Perkins looks all the way back to Chapman and Fleishman, and makes an open-and-shut case for Austen’s profound ambivalence between Pasley’s strength-through-empire theories and Clarkson’s abolitionist eloquence.
In The Opposition:
There are still those who continue to deny and/or limit the significance of slavery subtext in the novel. The most articulate and prominent is John Wiltshire. In 2003, he draws a bead on what he calls the “postcolonial criticism” of Said and Rozema. He asserts that the postcolonial critic “actively colonises the novel by placing more value on the ‘history’ within which the text is putatively embedded than on the artifact of the novel itself.” (Decolonising Mansfield Park 317), and that Rozema’s film is  “an attack on colonialism, it is itself a neo-colonialist enterprise, the promotion of ‘Jane Austen’.”  (Recreating Jane Austen 136) Wiltshire gives alternative interpretations for the association of the names Mansfield and Norris with slavery in the novel. But even he  allows a metaphorical reading of slavery applied to women in England.
Rozema’s Film Adaptation
Chronological order has been breached slightly to devote the last words hereof to Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park. Its impact on perceptions of  slavery subtext in the novel cannot be overstated. She foregrounds the issue of slavery for the first time in the awareness of people who have never read a Jane Austen novel, and has heated up the controversy. Rozema both depicted slavery subtext implied in the novel, and also frankly wove in her own inventions as well, radically altering the character of Fanny Price, and those two creative decisions have often been conflated by critics. Just as the brilliance of Said’s suggestions have been overshadowed by his ideology, so too Rozema’s sensitive grasp of Austen’s slavery subtext has been widely dismissed as merely Rozema’s own inventions.
Despite all of this, the film is a milestone in the history of understanding slavery references in Mansfield Park,  with its horrific depictions of slavery and its practice by Sir Thomas, giving painfully vivid reality to Clarkson’s and others’s written descriptions, Rozema also brilliantly encapsulates Austen’s likely intentions when she states  "I actually believe that Mansfield Park was Austen’s meditation on servitude and slavery . . . She was kind of exploring what it is to treat humans as property, women, blacks, and the poor especially." (audio commentary) With her film, the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park  goes public, nearly two centuries after publication.  
That completes the history of the slavery subtext in Mansfield Park up to publication of this article. With the perspective of this detailed history, we can see how, and how far, our collective understanding of Austen’s slavery subtext has grown, even though the ending of this history is, like the ending of the novel itself, not decisive.The  rest of the story of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park remains to be told.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye 3rd ed., Oxford: OUP, 1995.
_________.  Jane Austen: Selected Letters. Ed. Chapman 1st ed., Oxford: OUP, 1932.
_________.  Jane Austen: Selected Letters. Ed. Chapman 2nd ed., Oxford: OUP, 1955.
_________.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. R. W. Chapman 3rd ed., Oxford: OUP, 1934.
_________. “Opinions: Collected by Jane Austen” in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1811-1870. Ed. Southam,  London: Routledge, 1979.
Clarkson, Thomas. History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament. 1808.  Ed. John W. Parker. A New Edition, with Prefatory Remarks on the Subsequent Abolition of Slavery, London: John W. Parker, 1839.
Coleman, Deirdre. "Conspicuous Consumption: White Abolitionism and English Women's Protest Writing in the 1790's", ELH Vol. 61, 341-62, Baltimore: JHUP, 1994.
Edgeworth, Maria. “The Grateful Negro” in Tales and Novels, Volume 2, London: Baldwin & Cradock, 1832.
Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 1873. Ed. Carole Jones. Hare: Wordsworth Classics,  2003                  
Ferguson, Moira.  “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender” in Oxford Literary Review, Volume 13, Oxford: OUP, 1991  .
Fleishman, Avrom.  “Mansfield Park in its Time” in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 22. No. 1. Berkeley: UOCP, 1967.
Fraiman, Susan. “Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21, 805-823, Chicago: UOC, 1995.
Gibbon, Frank.  “The Antiguan Connection: Some New Light on Mansfield Park” in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, Oxford: OUP, 1982.
Jordan, Elaine.  “Jane Austen goes to the seaside: Sanditon, English identity and the ‘West Indian schoolgirl’ “ in The Postcolonial Jane Austen, Ed. You-Me Park & Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, 39-41, London: Routledge, 2000. 
Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction, Brighton: Harvester Press Ltd. 1983 .
Litz, A. Walton. “Recollecting Jane Austen” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 1, No. 3, Chicago: UOCP, 1975  
Monaghan, David. “Mansfield Park and Evangelicalism: A Reassessment”, Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 2, Berkeley: UOCP, 1978
Pasley, Charles.  Essay on The Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire.  1810. 4th ed., 1812. Re-issued (with author given as Major-General Sir C. W. Pasley), London: John Weale, 1847.
Perkins, Moreland.  “Mansfield Park and Austen’s Reading on Slavery and Imperial Warfare” Persuasions Online, Vol. 26 No. 1, 2005
Rozema, Patricia. “Director/screenwriter’s audio commentary” on DVD of Mansfield Park, Miramax, 2000.
Said, Edward. “Jane Austen and Empire” in The Edward Said Reader, 347-367,  NY: Vintage, 2000. 
Southam, Brian.  “The Silence of the Bertrams: Slavery and the Chronology of Mansfield Park“ in Times Literary Supplement, 13-14 in 17 February 1995 issue.
___________. “Jane Austen and Antigua”, Jane Austen Society Report 1969.
Steffes, Michael.   “Slavery and Mansfield Park: The Historical And Biographical Context” in English Language Notes. Vol. 34, Boulder: UOCP, 1996    
Smith, Sheila-Kay & Stern, G.B. Speaking of Jane Austen, London: Cassell & Co., 1943
Stewart, Maaja.  The Shadow Behind the Country House: West Indian Slavery and Female Virtue in Mansfield Park” in Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions, 110-136, Athens: UOGP, 1993.
Wiltshire, John.  “Decolonising Mansfield Park” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 53 No. 4, 303-321, Oxford: OUP, 2003.

______________. Recreating Jane Austen, Cambridge: CUP, 2001.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The important reason why Jane Austen chose to allude to Boccaccio’s Decameron in Northanger Abbey

In my previous post … …I laid out the details of the allusions I see in Northanger Abbey to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and also to a prior work which Merchant itself alluded to, Boccaccio’s The Decameron. My familiarity with The Decameron is, frankly, very small, so today, I awoke wondering whether, by any wild chance, there might be something else in those hundred tales I had mostly never read, besides the first story on Day 6 (with the horse-obsessed man boring a woman with his inept story-telling), which might have been of interest to Shakespeare and/or to Jane Austen.

I quickly found two of Boccaccio’s stories (the second and third stories among the 100) which each related to a Jewish man, each of whom bears the mark of Shylock, so to speak: the first, Abraham, is, like Shylock, pushed into converting to Christianity by a “righteous” Christian; the second, Melchidizek, is, like Shylock, a bigtime money lender. I will leave for another day, after further study, the unpacking of the thematic significance of Shakespeare’s picking up on those two Jews in the Decameron while he was conceiving the character of his far more famous Jew, Shylock.

Today I will reveal to you the remarkable discovery I made, once I asked myself a wild question about Jane Austen: if Northanger Abbey at its core really is about the metaphorical “plague” of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth in Jane Austen’s England, then could it be that JA’s veiled allusion to the Decameron, written as it was about Florence in the grip of an actual Plague, might be a clue to search in those 100 tales by Boccaccio to find one or more of them which in some way involved that same “plague” of death-in-childbirth? I knew from my prior research that death-in-childbirth was not limited to England during Jane Austen’s lifetime, it had been going on for centuries, and not just in England, but in many continental European countries as well.

I quickly tested that wild thought with Google, and Google just as quickly led me to an exceptionally well researched 2012 dissertation, which, as I skimmed it with growing excitement, showed me that my wild thought had luckily hit a scholarly bulls-eye! I.e., in a dozen different ways, I learned that Jane Austen could not have chosen a more apt literary source to allude to regarding death in childbirth than the Decameron, even though it was published over 4 ½ centuries prior to Northanger Abbey, and takes place in Italy!  

I immediately saw Catherine Morland’s ruminations on the geography of horror through the lens of Jane Austen having made herself the mistress of Boccaccio’s medieval, Italian masterpiece:

“Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.”

With that introduction, the best way I can show why I am now so certain of JA’s focus on the death-in-childbirth subtext of the Decameron is simply to quote from relevant passages in the 2012 dissertation, edited down by me to get to the essentials, which may as well have been written about NA as about the Decameron. After quotation of all the relevant excerpts, I will return at the end of this post with a final comment. So, here goes:

Historicizing Maternity in Boccaccio’s Ninfale fiesolano and Decameron by Kristen R. Swann (2012)
“…Why doesn’t Boccaccio play up ‘good mothers’? Why are mothers afforded little narrative presence in the Decameron?...As historians have shown, Tuscan women were conditioned for motherhood from a young age: their dowries included items for future children, their house contained items reminding them of the importance of becoming a mother (and bearing a male child), and, in society, they regularly encountered a wealth of recipes and practices aimed at increasing their fertility. I argue that the omnipresence and gender specificity of Tuscan society’s promotion of procreation is a necessary context when considering the way motherhood is treated in the Decameron. The Decameron is, as we know, openly dedicated to women subject to the wills of others - fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands - and restricted to the narrow confines of their rooms. Regardless of the book’s actual audience [It is a matter of scholarly debate whether 14th-century women were actually readers of the Decameron…], which certainly included many men, the author frames the work, and its stories, as solace for 14th-century women.
…I ask how Boccaccio’s literary portrayal of motherhood - whether depictions of unwanted motherhood, such as V.7 or IX.3, or affective portraits of mother-child interactions, such as Monna Giovanna’s solicitude for her ailing son in V.9 - comment on, or provide solace with respect to, the ideology and reality of motherhood in 14th-century Tuscany…I aim to restore to the Decameron’s depictions of motherhood the multiple resonances which these passages would have carried for his contemporaries…I explore how, when depicting motherhood in the Decameron, Boccaccio alternately ignores, plays with, and, at times, subverts beliefs about motherhood and its attendant rituals and customs. …I take Boccaccio’s claim to be writing for women at face value and assume that the tales he includes in the work are selected with this audience in mind.
The Demographic Realities of Motherhood in 14th-Century Tuscany
…high maternal and infant mortality rates profoundly influenced the way Florentines thought about reproduction and structured the family. In this section, I explore the demographic factors influencing a woman’s experience of maternity and consider how, and why, Boccaccio’s treatment elides or obscures these harsh realities. Perhaps the most pressing and unavoidable ‘reality’ of motherhood in the premodern period was the ever-present specter of death…childbearing in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance was “risky business”, many women died during birth or following it, while only half the children they bore reached maturity…roughly 20% of the deaths of married women in 15th-century Florence were associated with childbearing...Data indicates a maternal mortality rate of 14.4 deaths for every 1,000 births, a rate on par with maternal mortality today in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, and approximately 300 times higher than in most modern European countries today…Half of all deaths of married women who predeceased their husbands in the ricordanze are related to childbirth; only one in six (17%) of these deaths of married women is attributable to various fevers, illnesses, or epidemics. As Park notes, this data indicates 3 times as many married women died in childbirth “as died of disease, even in the relatively unhealthy period following the Black Death of 1348.” Being from a prosperous family did little to protect a 14th-century woman from death in childbirth; if anything, it exposed her to it more. Because patrician families in Renaissance Tuscany, “placed especial emphasis on lineage,” Jacqueline Marie Musacchio writes, women “underwent pregnancy after pregnancy, in an attempt to bear an heir.” The more pregnancies one underwent, of course, the higher the probability of something eventually going wrong. Beatrice d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia, Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne de’ Medici, and the Grand Duchess Giovanna de’ Medici all died as a result of childbirth; the Medici secretary’s notation of Maddalena’s death is evidence of the common nature of this outcome…
…28 of 202 women’s wills [from that era] which were studied were explicitly written during pregnancy, and another 31 were written by wives who may’ve been pregnant. Excluding out unmarried testatresses from his sample, Chojnacki calculates that as many as 49.2% of married women writing wills were pregnant at the time. Alessandra Strozzi bought insurance to cover her pregnant daughter in 1449 to protect the 500 florins already advanced to her son-in-law.
…The biggest way people dealt with the perils of reproduction was, somewhat paradoxically, by having more children: in this respect, the desire to produce heirs outweighed the fear of death in childbirth. “High fertility,” Margaret King notes, “was in the interest of the propertied family, whose ability to prevail ‘against the powerful forces of death’ required at least one surviving male heir.” As frequently noted, upper class Tuscan families achieved startlingly high levels of fertility…Maximum biological fertility for the human female is generally considered 12 births, but many Renaissance women were able to surpass this number: Florentine Antonia Masi, the wife of an artisan, gave birth to 36 children, while Venetian noblewoman Magdalucia Marcello bore 26, nearly one per year for her years of fertility. The patrician family’s focus on fertility and heirs meant, in practical terms, that women spent a large portion of their lives pregnant. Historians have found that the wealthiest women in Renaissance Florence were also the most fecund: wealthy women were both younger when they first became mothers and were able to maintain their fertility over a longer time span than poorer women, having, on average, 9.4 children.
The well-established practice of wet-nursing - the sending of an infant to be nursed by another woman for a period of up to two years - allowed upper class women to circumvent nursing’s contraceptive effects, thereby freeing them up to conceive children in quick succession. Yet as Angus McLaren rightly notes, this system benefited the husband much more than the wife “since, at no risk to his health, it brought the promise of additional heirs.” Historians point to the heavy physical toll that repeated pregnancies had on women: even if they did survive, their health was often compromised, as the many descriptions of women ‘worn out by childbearing’ attest. Katharine Park sums up the reality of motherhood in patrilineal Tuscany in rather stark terms: “Wed in their teens to much older men, these women were supposed to perpetuate the families of their husbands by producing as many male children as their bodies could bear.”
The picture of motherhood that emerges from these sources is not pretty. The stark demographic realities of childbearing and childrearing and the patrician family’s focus on heirs combined to make a woman “perpetually pregnant” and in constant peril during her years of fertility. Florentine women could expect to bear “a series of children in quick succession, only to die in childbirth in their twenties or early thirties.” If this is the reality of motherhood in 14th-century Tuscan society, it is not, however, the picture we receive when reading the Decameron. To start with one significant departure, no woman dies in childbirth in Boccaccio’s text, nor does any woman suffer a pregnancy related illness. This observation stands both for narrated events, and past events related in the work; mothers who are already dead in a tale (such as II.8 or IV.1) are not identified as having died in childbirth. While the Decameron does not ignore childhood morbidity and mortality - in VII.3, Agnesa’s son is said to be stricken with vermi, or ‘worms’, a common childhood disease, and in V.9 Monna Giovanna’s young son dies after a brief illness - it does ignore these other troubling aspects of motherhood. If the brigata is under strict orders not to talk about the plague, it seems they also cannot speak of maternal mortality. This may seem like a banal observation, but given that, as Teodolinda Barolini has astutely pointed out, women and their issues “are never peripheral” to Boccaccio, it strikes me as significant that this women’s issue is so patently ignored.
The exclusion of maternal mortality from the Decameron appears intentional. When Boccaccio transformed a Filocolo story into Decameron X.4, he deliberately changed the cause of Catalina’s death from childbirth-related to a generic illness, a move that bucks the general trend of increased socio-historical specificity in the novella. In Question 13 of the Fourth Book of the Filocolo, widely seen as the precursor to Decameron X.4, Catalina’s counterpart dies in childbirth...The change in cause of death, from childbirth in the Filocolo to an unrelated sickness in the Decameron, has no narrative logic: it does not affect the rest of the story…In light of the novella’s increased geographical and historical specificity, the change in cause of death is striking. Had Boccaccio wanted to be historically accurate, he could have easily continued to attribute Catalina’s death to childbirth; as we have seen, twenty percent of married women died in or shortly after childbirth. Instead, he chose to change it from a historically specific and plausible cause to a non-specific ‘cruel illness’. I would note that this change is made by an author who is more than capable of narrating the “specifics” of female life, when he wants to. In the Corbaccio, in a passage widely patterned off of Juvenal’s Satire VI, Boccaccio laments women’s anti-natal practices..Boccaccio’s mention of the perennially defoliated savina plant in the Corbaccio, regardless of the motivation behind the passage, well demonstrates the author’s attention to the details of women’s lived experience.
To return to X.4, what we notice is that Boccaccio has gone out of his way to avoid mentioning an all-too-common element of female life. Giovanni Getto claims that Catalina’s passage from death to life and then birth in X.4 reveals the breadth of the Decameron’s narrative reach. It is in the context of this thematic breadth - the Decameron’s ability to narrate all aspects of human life - that the absence of death in childbirth is so significant: it appears that Boccaccio elected to not include this aspect of human - and specifically female - existence.
Why might the author be reluctant to narrate this aspect of female life? Other medieval authors had shown that childbed death scenes held dramatic possibilities…Yet…Boccaccio does not seem interested in the pathetic or regenerative narrative possibilities of childbirth death scenes. The Decameron is written, by Boccaccio’s own admission, to provide lovestruck women with succour and diversion [Proemio, 13]); the tales are meant to provide women with both pleasure and useful advice. In this context, the avoidance of the mention of maternal mortality in the Decameron, as well as the birth of the work’s many male infants, may be read as a sort of wish-fulfillment, in the sense that Boccaccio would be offering his purported female audience a vision of the best possible reproductive outcome: no one dies and a male heir is (almost) always produced.
There may be, however, another, less sanguine, reason for the author’s reluctance to discuss maternal death. Historians of Renaissance Tuscany detect an idealization of death in childbirth among patrician society; according to these scholars, death in the service of the patrilineage - bearing heirs - was the “hallmark” of the ‘good wife’ in late medieval and Renaissance Tuscany…When noting the deaths of their wives in ricordanze, Tuscan men consistently listed the number of children they had borne them. As Louis Haas notes, this accounting “was not just a statement of fact but an evaluation of worth”: women were prized for their ability to create male children, and thus heirs, for the line…
…I contend that the Decameron’s lack of interest in female fertility is less the result of the frame characters’ narrative agendas - Migiel argues that narrators present views on sex, marriage, women, and children based on their classification as men or women - than it is a rebuttal of a functional view of maternity that places women (and their bodies) at the service of the male line.
Historian Margaret Miles has suggested that the idealization of the virginal woman in 14th-century Tuscan painting may have “symbolized to medieval women freedom from the burden of frequent childbearing and nursing in an age in which these natural processes were highly dangerous.”
…Recently, scholars have explored the variety of ways in which women in late medieval and Renaissance Tuscany were encouraged to assume a maternal role. These scholars, working primarily in the field of art history, have drawn attention to the overt and subliminal messages contained within domestic rituals and objects with which women interacted on a daily basis….Other scholars…have also examined the interplay between art and ideologies of motherhood in Renaissance Tuscany. A commonality to these scholars’ approaches is a careful attention to the way visual art - whether private or public - interacted with societal discourses promoting the family and motherhood in Renaissance Tuscany, shaping or mediating a woman’s experience…
…The first wave of plague in 1348, with which Boccaccio would have been familiar when writing the Decameron, is believed to have killed two-thirds of Florence’s population, or 78,000 people (shrinking the city’s population from 120,000 pre-plague to 42,000 immediately after...In the Introduction to the Decameron, Boccaccio puts the number of dead at 100,000. While the plague is an important context for Renaissance natalism, birth-related objects and rituals were present in Tuscan society prior to the mid-14th century, due to an emphasis on marriage and family among patricians, as well as the risks associated with childbirth; their popularity rose, however, in the years following the plague…
…The encouragement started before marriage: birth-related items were a common constituent of a woman’s material dowry; in addition to new dresses and jewels, a bride received special birth cloths and swaddling bands, charms for future infants, and sometimes life-size dolls in her wedding chest. A girdle, an item possessing definite connotations of fertility, was also included in these chests; their interiors were frequently painted with erotic or suggestive imagery (nude or barely dressed young men and women) to encourage sexuality and procreation. Nuptial ritual also emphasized procreation: at the presentation of the betrothal chests during the wedding ceremony, a child was placed in the bride’s arms as a promise of fertility; this practice was so popular in Florence that sumptuary laws were drawn up in 1356, 1388, and 1415 to regulate it.
…Musacchio considers these birth-related items and rituals “blatant encouragement” for a bride’s future role as mother. Yet messages to procreate were not limited to a woman’s dowry or marriage ritual; objects promoting motherhood and reproduction were also present in a woman’s home before and for a long time after a birth…According to Musaccchio, these objects focused a woman’s attention on reproduction but also sought to control and direct the procreative process, by providing paradigms for proper female behavior and channeling a woman’s imagination toward desired reproductive outcomes. Familiar childbirth or confinement scenes provided comfort or “positive reinforcement” for women currently, or hoping to become, pregnant, while the presence of male infants stimulated a woman’s imagination “toward the procreation of similarly healthy, hearty sons.” (A childbirth tray from the 16th century is bluntly to the point: the underside simply displays the word maschio.) Inside her home, then, a woman was surrounded by objects encouraging motherhood and procreation; outside her home, she encountered a multitude of recipes and practices purporting to increase her fertility.
In the following section, I explore two depictions of unwanted motherhood in the Decameron - one sympathetic, one farcical - and consider how Boccaccio’s treatment undercuts contemporary ideologies of motherhood and the family….
…In the Decameron, unwanted pregnancies occur, predictably, in tales concerning extra- or pre-marital sexuality, such as III.1, III.8, and V.7, or in novelle involving the reversal of sex roles, such as IX.3 where Calandrino becomes ‘pregnant’. In these tales, women (and men) want sex but not the consequences, a dynamic most evident in III.1 where the nuns’ hesitation to have sex with Masetto disappears once they are assured there are a thousand ways to deal with an undesired pregnancy. The marital or social situation of these tales’ protagonists is a fundamental context for the undesirability of these pregnancies: we have nuns (III.1), an adulterous affair (III.8), a premarital relationship (V.7), and, in IX.3, a pregnant man.  What I find interesting about these tales, however, is that despite their varying treatments of the unwanted pregnancy theme, they offer alternatives to the dominant discourse about women and motherhood. At the most simplistic level, depictions of unwanted pregnancies counter Renaissance natalism by showing women who, for various reasons, do not want to conceive. For the sexually curious nuns in III.1, pregnancy is an evil - a mal. For Ferondo’s adulterous wife in III.8, it is a misfortune - a sventura. To the unwed Violante, it is unwelcome - discaro.

The undesirability of these pregnancies is inextricably linked to the extra-marital quality of these affairs: pregnancy threatens to reveal the protagonists’ sexual transgressions (tellingly, Boccaccio never depicts a married couple who do not want to conceive). Nonetheless, the explicit characterization of pregnancy as a misfortune or evil could have provided a counter narrative to the insistent promotion and praise of female fertility that a Tuscan woman encountered on a daily basis. These tales raise the possibility, if safely ensconced in an extra-marital context, that some women might not want to become mothers.
[In two Decameron tales, V.7 and IX.3, motherhood is so unwanted that protagonists seek out abortive remedies to avoid it: in V.7, Violante employs various measures to disgravidare, or miscarry, none of which produce the desired effect… “  END QUOTE FROM SWANN DISSERTATION 

I reached out this afternoon to the author of that brilliant analysis, Kristen R. Swann, a prof at UNH, so as to better understand her take on Boccaccio's intentions in the Decameron. Does his avoidance of the facts on the ground in Florence of rampant death in childbirth when he wrote the Decameron suggests that he was a propagandist for tricking women into submission to the prevailing norm of endless pregnancy, or a subversive wishing to undermine those norms in the eyes of the knowing reader?

It’s no coincidence that the same sort of question applies to so much of Jane Austen’s subtextual meanings – which is what she really believed, the surface meaning or its opposite? On the issue of death in childbirth, I believe Jane Austen’s actual position is indisputable, in part because of all the sarcastic comments in her letters about English wives being knocked up yet again. But the fascinating question raised by this post is, how did she read Boccaccio?

I’ll return with a followup when I have got more to tell.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

The two “tenfold” subtexts of John Thorpe’s “rich as a Jew” slur in Austen’s Northanger Abbey

The other day in Janeites, Nancy Mayer raised a new topic:
“I do not know that Jane Austen ever recorded her opinion of Jews. On a blog about Jews in George III's England, someone commented that she was sorry to see a bit of antisemitism from Austen.-- the line to which she objected was in NA-- John Thorpe says someone is as "rich as a Jew." I don't think it shows us anything about Austen but is supposed to show us what sort of person young Thorpe was.”

Diane Reynolds replied:
Nancy, I agree with you. I don't think John Thorpe's opinions in any way reflect those of the author! If it comes from his mouth, it means Austen is condemning the opinion.”

I have recently written in Janeites about the thread of allusion from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey, drawing parallels between Bassanio, Montoni, and General Tilney & John Thorpe, respectively. Today I want to go into much greater detail about the complex allusion to Merchant that I see in NA, beginning with my response to Nancy’s comment in which I agree with Diane’s reply to her:

Indeed, when John Thorpe, one of her most odious characters – a predator and a gold-digger-- casually tosses out a vile stereotyping epithet, it most certainly does not mean that Jane Austen was an anti-Semite—as Diane points out, the context suggests the diametric opposite- i.e., that JA (rightly) was appalled by such casually expressed bigotry toward a persecuted minority in her society.

For Jane Austen to endorse Thorpe’s anti-Semitism would also run contrary to everything we know about her as a sharp critic of oppression of other vulnerable groups who, like Jews, lacked power in her England. I’ve long claimed that Northanger Abbey in particular is, at its core, an attack on one of the many ways women were oppressed in her society – the universal subjugation of English gentlewomen as breeding animals compelled to run a two-decade gauntlet of serial pregnancy and all too frequent death in childbirth.

But….JA was also intimate by instinct with Shakespeare (a sly joke, because her intimacy patently derived from a great deal of scholarly study), and so I suggest that there’s a deeper, Shakespearean reason why John Thorpe casually calls Mr. Allen “rich as a Jew”—and, behind the Shakespeare, yet another reason, having to do with Isabella Thorpe’s reference to “The Italian”, as you will see if you read along to the very end of this post.

In the first chapter of NA, Austen explicitly alerts the reader that Catherine Morland (like her creator) has profited from reading Shakespeare. As evidence thereof, JA quotes from three of his plays: Othello, Measure for Measure, and Twelfth Night:

“And from Shakespeare [Catherine] gained a great store of information—AMONGST THE REST, that—
   “Trifles light as air,
   “Are, to the jealous, confirmation strong,
   “As proofs of Holy Writ.”
   “The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
   “In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
   “As when a giant dies.”
 And that a young woman in love always looks—
   “like Patience on a monument
   “Smiling at Grief.”

But…the key words in that paragraph, for my purposes today, are “amongst the rest”, meaning the rest of Shakespeare’s plays besides those three explicitly quoted plays! Which other plays? At my JASNA AGM talk in 2010, I made the case for a global, complex veiled allusion to Hamlet, hidden in plain sight in Northanger Abbey But today I am going to make a detailed case for the additional, complex presence of The Merchant of Venice in NA as well!

Let me start by pointing out the striking echoing of specific themes and accompanying keywords in The Merchant of Venice by passages in NA:


What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica:

Away, then! I AM LOCK’D IN one of them…[the casket to be chosen by her future husband]

“…[Mr. Morland] was not in the least addicted to LOCKING UP HIS DAUGHTERS…”

“Eleanor’s countenance was dejected, yet sedate; and its composure spoke her inured to all the gloomy objects to which they were advancing. Again she passed through the folding doors, again her hand was upon the important LOCK, and Catherine, hardly able to breathe, was turning to close the former with fearful caution, when the figure, the dreaded figure of the general himself at the further end of the gallery, stood before her! 



[Catherine] “…You do not know how vexed I am; I shall have no pleasure at Clifton, nor in anything else. I had rather, TEN THOUSAND TIMES rather, get out now, and walk back to them…Did not they tell me that Mr. Tilney and his sister were gone out in a phaeton together? And then what could I do? But I had TEN THOUSAND TIMES rather have been with you; now had not I, Mrs. Allen?”


SHYLOCK (to Bassanio)
I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, But I WILL NOT EAT WITH YOU, drink with you, nor pray with you.

“…A very fine fellow; AS RICH AS A JEW. I should like TO DINE WITH HIM; I dare say he gives famous dinners."  



“Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer—but for some time without discovering anything of importance—perhaps nothing but a considerable HOARD OF DIAMONDS…. “



“"What! Not when Dorothy has given you to understand that there is a secret subterraneous communication between your apartment and the chapel of St. ANTHONY, scarcely two miles off? Could you shrink from so simple an adventure? No, no, you will proceed into this small vaulted room, and through this into several others, without perceiving anything very remarkable in either. In one perhaps there may be a dagger, in another A FEW DROPS OF BLOOD, and in a third the remains of some instrument of torture…


Three thousand ducats is the amount of money lent by Shylock to Antonio, and to burn that amount into the audience’s brain, Shakespeare has Shylock repeat the words “three thousand ducats” eight times, and Bassanio four times, in the play. It is the amount upon which the entire action of the play turns. So I find JA’s characteristic sly irony in referring to that same numerical amount of British currency, in her summing up of the action at the end of NA:

“…It taught [Henry Tilney] that he had been scarcely more misled by Thorpe's first boast of the family wealth than by his subsequent malicious overthrow of it; that in no sense of the word were they necessitous or poor, and that Catherine would have THREE THOUSAND POUNDS.”

So, based on the above alone, I believe I’ve made a strong case that Jane Austen meant to invoke the memory of Merchant in her readers’ minds as we read NA. But one other echo of Merchant in NA opened a door for me to an additional, earlier allusive source for NA.


The number “ten” is used, in a variety of contexts, a total of 33 times in NA, which is a frequency more than double the frequency of the number “ten” being used in any other Austen novel. This suggests a thematic meaning of some kind unique to NA.

So isn’t it curious, in light of all the other echoes I’ve listed, that, similarly, the number “ten” appears with unusual frequency for a Shakespeare play in Merchant as well:

Enter GRATIANO and SALARINO, masqued
This is the pent-house under which Lorenzo
Desired us to make stand.
SALARINO His hour is almost past.
And it is marvel he out-dwells his hour,
For lovers ever run before the clock.    [Austen alludes to this line with Catherine watching the clock]
O, TEN TIMES faster Venus' pigeons fly
To seal love's bonds new-made, than they are wont
To keep obliged faith unforfeited!

Is't like that lead contains her? 'Twere damnation
To think so base a thought: it were too gross
To rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave.
Or shall I think in silver she's immured,
Being TEN TIMES undervalued to tried gold?
O sinful thought! Never so rich a gem
Was set in worse than gold.

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am: though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish,
To wish myself much better; yet, for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself;
A thousand times more fair, TEN thousand times more rich;

What if my house be troubled with a rat
And I be pleased to give TEN thousand ducats
To have it baned? What, are you answer'd yet?
Yes, here I tender it for him in the court;
Yea, twice the sum: if that will not suffice,
I will be bound to pay it TEN times o'er,
On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart:
If this will not suffice, it must appear
That malice bears down truth.
I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.
DUKE Get thee gone, but do it.
In christening shalt thou have two god-fathers:
Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had TEN more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font.

So, was Jane Austen simply pointing to Merchant with this procession of 33 usages of “ten” in NA? I felt there must be more to it than that, and I noted that an unusually high percentage of the “tens” in NA were either spoken by or about John Thorpe. Hmmm… that led me to return to the portion of my 2012 post…
…. in which, inter alia, I identified John Thorpe as Jane Austen’s sly reworking of one of the 3 suitors whom Portia (a la Eliza Bennet and Mary Crawford) skewers with her rapier wit, as she satirically encapsulates hid foibles to Nerissa in Act 1, Scene 2:

NERISSA   But what warmth is there in your affection towards any of these princely suitors that are already come?
PORTIA I pray thee, over-name them; and as thou namest them, I will describe them; and, according to my description, level at my affection.
NERISSA First, there is the Neapolitan prince.
PORTIA Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse; and he makes it a great appropriation to his own good parts, that he can shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his mother played false with a smith.

I think it clear that the Neapolitan Prince is rebooted by Jane Austen as John Thorpe, whose equine obsession is foregrounded by Austen similarly to the way Portia skewers the Prince. But was that the full explanation for the “ten” leitmotif in NA? I felt there must be still more, and after a bit of creative word-searching, I stumbled upon an answer which caused me to hit my forehead with a “Doh!” – of course!

Jane Austen was a master wordplayer, and so I realized that she had not merely been pointing to Shakespeare’s Neapolitan Prince in Merchant, she was also showing her recognition, via her extensive study of Shakespeare and his sources, that Shakespeare had foregrounded the number “ten” in Merchant in order to point to a very famous work of literature from centuries before his own lifetime, in which the number “ten” was the very basis for its title – of course I am referring to Boccaccio’s Decameron which Wikipedia tells us was “a collection of a hundred tales by Boccaccio (published 1353), presented as stories told by a group of Florentines to while away ten days (the meaning of “Decameron”) during a plague. 

Now, I suggest that part of the way Austen showed her recognition of the Boccaccio behind the Shakespeare, was via a sly double meaning in Isabella’s above-quoted line:

“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of TEN or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“The Italian” seems at first to refer only to the title of Radcliffe’s second most famous gothic thriller. But it also, especially when you see it in the same sentence as the number “ten”, can plausibly be seen to refer covertly to Boccaccio --- who was of course, “the Italian” author who wrote the Decameron!

Okay, I am sure some of you are thinking that my imagination has been overstimulated, like Catherine Morland’s, and that I’ve just gone too far in ascribing to Jane Austen such a level of knowledge of Boccaccio’s ten days of tales, some of them famously bawdy. The evidence I’ve presented is just too thin, right?

Well, here’s the coup de grace. Just read the first story told on the sixth day of the Decameron, and you tell me whether the “gentleman” in Boccaccio’s tale doesn’t just leap out of his saddle and into your imagination as the literary “predecessor” of both Shakespeare’s Neapolitan Prince and Austen’s John Thorpe!:

“A gentleman engageth to Madam Oretta to carry her a-horseback with a story, but, telling it disorderly, is prayed by her to set her down again”
"Young ladies, like as stars, in the clear nights, are the ornaments of the heavens and the flowers and the leaf-clad shrubs, in the Spring, of the green fields and the hillsides, even so are praiseworthy manners and goodly discourse adorned by sprightly sallies, the which, for that they are brief, beseem women yet better than men, inasmuch as much speaking is more forbidden to the former than to the latter. Yet, true it is, whatever the cause, whether it be the meanness of our understanding or some particular grudge borne by heaven to our times, that there be nowadays few or no women left who know how to say a witty word in due season or who, an it be said to them, know how to apprehend it as it behoveth; the which is a general reproach to our whole sex. However, for that enough hath been said aforetime on the subject by Pampinea, I purpose to say no more thereof; but, to give you to understand how much goodliness there is in witty sayings, when spoken in due season, it pleaseth me to recount to you the courteous fashion in which a lady imposed silence upon a gentleman.
As many of you ladies may either know by sight or have heard tell, there was not long since in our city a noble and well-bred and well-spoken gentlewoman, whose worth merited not that her name be left unsaid. She was called, then, Madam Oretta and was the wife of Messer Geri Spina. She chanced to be, as we are, in the country, going from place to place, by way of diversion, with a company of ladies and gentlemen, whom she had that day entertained to dinner at her house, and the way being belike somewhat long from the place whence they set out to that whither they were all purposed to go afoot, one of the gentlemen said to her, 'Madam Oretta, an you will, I will carry you a-horseback great part of the way we have to go with one of the finest stories in the world.' 'Nay, sir,' answered the lady, 'I pray you instantly thereof; indeed, it will be most agreeable to me.' Master cavalier, who maybe fared no better, sword at side than tale on tongue, hearing this, began a story of his, which of itself was in truth very goodly; but he, now thrice or four or even half a dozen times repeating one same word, anon turning back and whiles saying, 'I said not aright,' and often erring in the names and putting one for another, marred it cruelly, more by token that he delivered himself exceedingly ill, having regard to the quality of the persons and the nature of the incidents of his tale. By reason whereof, Madam Oretta, hearkening to him, was many a time taken with a sweat and failing of the heart, as she were sick and near her end, and at last, being unable to brook the thing any more and seeing the gentleman engaged in an imbroglio from which he was not like to extricate himself, she said to him pleasantly, 'Sir, this horse of yours hath too hard a trot; wherefore I pray you be pleased to set me down.' The gentleman, who, as it chanced, understood a hint better than he told a story, took the jest in good part and turning it off with a laugh, fell to discoursing of other matters and left unfinished the story that he had begun and conducted so ill."

Just think of Jane Austen laughing her head off as she brilliantly parodied Boccaccio’s small tale with the episode in which Catherine is virtually abducted by Thorpe in his carriage and is held as a captive audience to his boastful drivel, until we read:

““Good heavens!” cried Catherine, quite frightened. “Then pray let us turn back; they will certainly meet with an accident if we go on. Do let us turn back, Mr. Thorpe; stop and speak to my brother, and tell him how very unsafe it is.”

So I hope you’ll now agree that Jane Austen had indeed read “the Italian” master Boccaccio, and also the man from Stratford, very closely indeed, and then reflected her understanding of Shakespeare’s borrowing from Boccaccio, in her “tenfold” subtext in NA. And, last but not least, the Boccaccio allusion in NA is not entirely a laughing matter --- just as Boccaccio’s tales were told during a “plague”, so too did Jane Austen write her novel during a “plague”—the epidemic of death in childbirth among English gentlewomen, as symbolized by the ghost of Mrs. Tilney.

Cheers, ARNIE

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