March 19, 2004

Mansfield Park Poll

Continuing with the Austen reread theme (because this academic/adjunct stuff is bringing me down):

As an RC (though admittedly a sadly lapsed one), I've always been more than a little bit weirded out by the marriage of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. Hello? Not only were they first cousins, but they were raised in the same home, where they called each other brother and sister. Perhaps an impediment as far as the fourth degree was a tad harsh, but I must say I think the Church was onto something with those consanguinity laws.*

It's no use wishing for another ending, of course, and in lit. crit. terms, I'm sure such reification of fictional constructs must be deemed hopelessly naive. Nevertheless. What if Fanny had relented and taken Henry Crawford on board, thus clearing the way for a union between Edmund and Mary? Wouldn't both of our moral exemplars have been better off marrying outside the immediate family?

The not so subtextual subtext to this poll: is Fanny Price an appalling little milksop, or the fit and proper center of a properly centered moral universe? (or, to put it another way: is Mary Crawford a serpent in the garden, an actual force for positive evil, or just a slightly racier version of Elizabeth Bennett: EB on steroids, say?)

*Legal beagle question of the day: What kind of civil laws now take the place of the canon law in the area of consanguinity? I know there must be laws, I would assume they would vary from state to state. Not something I've ever really thought of before -- I suppose because, well, it's never occurred to me to want to marry one of my first cousins. (Note to singleton blogreaders: I do have a lot of first and second cousins, of both male and female persuasion, and some of them are still up for grabs. If you're over 21, have never been convicted of a felony, and are willing to relocate to Canada, drop me a line and I'll see what I can do**).

**You know I'm only joking, right?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 19, 2004 09:04 PM

IA wrote:

"*Legal beagle question of the day: What kind of civil laws now take the place of the canon law in the area of consanguinity?"

I happened to have been researching this a little the past few days with respect to the gay-marriage issue. Not surprisingly, each state has a marriage statute which, among other things, lays out the conditions which must be satisfied before a marriage license may be issued. Among those conditions are things like residency, minimum age absent parental consent, minimum age with parental consent, different-gender requirement, and in some cases a proscription on marriage between certain classes of blood relatives.

Posted by: Bill Richards at March 19, 2004 10:14 PM

On behalf of Price I'd like to obkect to the fact that you defaulted in Crawford, so that your careless and illiterate readers will vote for her. We plan to protest the outcome of this invalid vote.

As I recall, Aquinas said that the combined affections of a brother-sister marriage would create an excessively intense relationship. However, in China where some families do foster in infants to serve as eventual brides, these marriages are reported to be especially unhappy, and in traditional Chinese culture the husband-wife relationship was not expected to be blissful, since if it were, it would threaten the unity of the extended family.

Posted by: Zizka at March 20, 2004 10:46 AM

I've always found Henry Crawford's renewed relationship with what's-her-name a bit strained, as if it had to be tacked on to clear the way for Fanny and Edmund to marry. I always think Henry is being reformed in a convincing way, and that Fanny would not be too badly off with him if he eventually won her heart. I'm not sure Mary is as improvable, but Edmund wouldn't be the first to make a poor choice in his marriage.

Posted by: Su at March 20, 2004 11:59 AM

Hey, Mary Crawford liked Fanny, and anyone that Mary likes must be OK!

As Zizka mentioned, Aquinas explained that incest is sinful because it "would hinder a man from having many friends" (what with just being able to stay inside the house his whole life). But Fanny doesn't *want* many friends, and it's Fanny's happy ending, not ours.

It's an uncomfortable novel, but I think it succeeds admirably on that basis. Softening the insularity would put it on a different basis.

More here.

Posted by: Ray at March 20, 2004 01:26 PM

I'm not exactly reading JA for the plot so much as the snarky descriptions she gives, so the fact I stopped in my first reading of Mansfield Park at the end of Volume 2 only dismays me a little.

If you're interested, the Texas law is here:
Texas Family Code Ch 2 2.004 with the particular section stating:
(6) printed boxes for each applicant to check "true"
or "false" in response to the following statement: "The other
applicant is not related to me as:
(A) an ancestor or descendant, by blood or
(B) a brother or sister, of the whole or half
blood or by adoption;
(C) a parent's brother or sister, of the whole or
half blood or by adoption; or
(D) a son or daughter of a brother or sister, of
the whole or half blood or by adoption.";

It doesn't look like this rules out first cousins. (D) appears to be referring to nieces and nephews to me, not children of the aunt or uncle.

For the record, I will be 21 by the time I return to the Northern Hemisphere and have a number of people who'd like me to relocate to Canada.

Posted by: kd5mdk at March 21, 2004 12:10 AM

Sir Thomas is the true moral exemplar of Mansfield Park.

Don't be fooled by abolitionist nonsense!

Posted by: Shalom Beck at March 21, 2004 09:23 AM

"Sir Thomas is the true moral exemplar of Mansfield Park."

But that's nonsense too. Look how well his children turned out (not). Look at the things he said to Fanny when she refused to marry Henry Crawford.

I've never been able to like Fanny though, and I agree with Kingsley Amis' view of what a visit to Fanny and Edmund would be like. A pair of wet humourless prigs as ever was...

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at March 21, 2004 06:12 PM

Yo, IA. Can I ask-- just out of curiousity-- what a "sadly lapsed" RC is? Is it like weakness of will, where you wish you weren't so lapsed, but you can't quite bring yourself to go to Mass, or something else?

Once I was sad to be what I am, in the sense that I had certain beliefs about God, and was sad that I had them, but didn't, in virtue of that, stop thinking they were true. It was interesting. Well, maybe not that interesting, but still.

Posted by: Fontana Labs at March 21, 2004 09:26 PM

Fontana Labs,
I'm not quite sure how to answer your question. I don't know that it has anything to do with weakness (or strength) of will. I suppose I mean that I feel the loss of a faith as a real loss.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 22, 2004 07:07 AM

Hope it's not too preachy to say: but Fontana, faith is a gift, not a choice--you can't step into and out of faith of your own volition--and if you've had it, and feel its withdrawal, that's pretty damned sad.

Posted by: ogged at March 22, 2004 12:07 PM

I think the relationship between will and faith is a little more complicated. But the more common problem is (at least in my experience) finding the institutional manifestation of the Catholic Church to be oppressive, mean-spirited, conservative, and authoritarian, at a crucial age when one is looking for liberation, generosity, progressive politics, and individual self-respect. Some of that is a local phenomenon, however, both in time and place.

I don't know if it's easier being Protestant, but the CC also has a major insider/outsider dynamic going, and I think some of the sense of loss that IA describes is the loss of a large and comforting edifice within which one belongs and is protected.

People who have spent their lives in the miitary or in a large corporation often feel the same thing, perhaps on a psychological rather than a spiritual level (if one can distinguish there).

Posted by: flu in san diego at March 22, 2004 03:33 PM

Sorry flu, you're right and my response was glib (I was trying to be brief instead). But do you think it's possible for the Catholic Church to retain a recognizably consistent doctrine and yet be a welcoming institution?

Posted by: ogged at March 22, 2004 04:13 PM

(I'm a relapsed RC, though I was more lazy than lapsed in my adolescent years.)

Back to the main point: I don't think Mary Crawford was reformable -- she liked the fashionable London world too much, and was only about pleasant surfaces. Likewise, there was probably no getting over Henry's egotism.

Back to the cousin marriage: marrying one's first cousins is legal in many U.S. states, and I think marrying your second cousin is legal in all states (though I could be wrong about that). I did remember reading that in some states, you could marry your brother or sister, if both parties were over 65 and/or one of the parties was provably infertile. I also remember reading an article that first cousin marriage per se doesn't end up with higher rates of genetic diseases if the cousins themselves are healthy.

Though Edmund & Fanny did call each other brother & sister, Edmund was away at school often, so it was probably more like many people are with their cousins now (see them at holidays). Emma & Knightly also called each other brother & sister, if I remember rightly, though that was a relationship by marriage -- Emma had known Knightly as a close family friend all her life. Why should that be any less creepy?

Posted by: meep at March 22, 2004 04:16 PM

my students are always shocked by first-cousin marriage in 18th-century novels as well, and i'm always shocked that they're shocked. i was under the impression that first-cousin marriage is historically fairly common, especially in rural communities. in fact, my grandparents were first cousins.

and the "brother/sister" nomenclature isn't that uncommon, either (have just finished teaching _Evelina_, where Orville's & E's intimacy is first signalled by his calling her his "sister"). it's weird, yes--arguably, our discomfort with it reveals a tension between the nuclear family ideal and the incest prohibition--but not uncommon. consider that terms like "boyfriend/girlfriend" are of relatively recent date, and that one needs language to signal intimacy while disavowing sexuality (pre-engagement) and, well, there you go.

Posted by: t at March 22, 2004 04:31 PM

My knowledge of 17th and 18th century manners is hardly extensive, but I think the kin relationship (whether actual like Edmund and Fanny, or fictive like Knightly and Emma) also allows the characters to be far more intimate than they could otherwise be: the most striking intimacy is that they can use each other's first names — although Emma of course doesn't. Useful for the author, as there is more scope for showing their characters actually interacting.

t: I've always thought that cousin marriage, historically, was not only common, but almost the rule rather than the exception. And, yes, two of my great-grandparents were married first cousins.

As for the question, I don't think I find anyone in Mansfield Park an attractive character at all, so I can't work up any passion about who they should have married or did marry. Henry doesn't strike me as terribly likely to remain Fanny's devoted servant for life though.

I've just finished reading Nabakov's lecture notes on MP and he seemed to think that all possible endings were artistically implausible, since Austen didn't care to write another 500 pages finishing the story in the style she started it.

Posted by: Mary at March 22, 2004 06:30 PM

Replying to ogged at #12: I don't know -- it seems to me that the institutional part of the Catholic Church is what defines its doctrine. It provides a coherent architecture of identity for millions of people worldwide -- to belong IS to believe, in some way. I am still drawn to the universality of its message and fascinated by the oppressive grandeur of its historical sweep.

I'm struck by its corrupt malleability and ironic evasiveness -- the opposite of the chilly integrity and one-dimensional personality that seem to haunt the soul of Protestantism, for example.

Both sides of the Reformation fascinate me (as I proceed merrily on my essentializing way).

I teach Puritan literature sometimes, which is an odd experience. That seems to fit neither with my Catholic youth nor with my secular adulthood. Maybe I'm drawn to religious conflict for itself, discovering in it a kind of poetry not easily found elsewhere.

But ultimately I identify, for various reasons (genius isn't one of them, by the way), with James Joyce and his willingness to bear the separation, the loss.


Posted by: flu in san diego at March 23, 2004 04:04 AM

Well, if the Canadians in question are anything like Benton Fraser on "Due South", give me an hour to pack a suitcase! :P

I kind of empathise with Franny. I went through a really antisocial phase in junior high, would even start having panic attacks if I was left alone in a large crowd of strangers. Her shyness and feelings of isolation strike a chord in me, remind me of personal experience. And, yeah, I don't see much hope for Henry or Mary; they seem pretty irreparably spoiled and self-centered.

Oddly enough, I also kind of empathize with Emma, who couldn't be more different from Fanny. I guess that's just a testament to Jane Austen's ability as a writer.

Posted by: Kacie at March 23, 2004 10:12 PM

Just supporting others about the popularity of cousin-marriage in earlier centuries. Remember that, below royalty, marriage was mostly important in a financial sense. (Royal marriage was diplomatic.)
The middle & upper classes were quite concerned to conserve or extend their estates & 'keep them in the family'. These ideas were changing with different social & moral attitudes, with the influence of Romanticism starting to influence the idea, as addressed in other books.
Remember what was supposed to recommend Mr Collins to Lizzie, even without knowing anything else at all about him, was that he was the relative who was going to inherit. He felt it 'the thing to do' to propose.
You can see why it was important, not just emotionally, but genetically, that there was a fair amount of infidelity around :)

BTW Good luck for the future. I've used online communities to get me through several difficult patches from 1992 to now, and am glad we were a help to you.

Posted by: Epacris at March 24, 2004 06:42 PM