Saturday, May 13, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, is due out soon. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Jane Austen's Mansfield Park:
The first page of Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park, tells the story:

“About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences an handsome house and large income.” Lady Bertram had two sisters, neither of whom was so fortunate, because there “are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.”

One of the sisters married a clergyman, Reverend Mr. Norris, “who had scarcely any money at all.” The other sister married a naval officer, Lieutenant Price, “without education, fortune, or connections,” and before they had been married eleven years had nine children. The eldest daughter, Fanny, who is nine, is sent to live with Mrs. Price’s sister, Lady Bertram, at Mansfield Park. Lady Bertram has four children of her own, two sons and two daughters, all of them several years older than Fanny. They think Fanny remarkably stupid, so stupid she does not know the principal rivers in Russia and has never heard of Asia Minor. They, themselves - and this tells something of how different education was then to what it is now - used to repeat in chronological order the kings of England, and the Roman emperors “as low as Severus,” a good deal of ‘Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, semi-Metals, Planets and distinguished philosophers.” Fanny Price knows nothing, but, as we will discover, is more intelligent, and has better judgment, than anyone else at Mansfield Park.

It is a rule, sometimes understood by politicians, that it is often more difficult to protect yourself from your friends than from your enemies. Jane Austen never had any enemies; she has had too many friends. Nearly everything said about her, certainly everything depicted in the motion pictures based on her novels, have distorted out of all recognition the penetrating intelligence of her remarkable mind. If Mansfield Park is the retelling of the story of Cinderella, it is Cinderella written with the craft and subtlety of Niccolo Machiavelli. Those who now idolize what they think the light comedies of Jane Austen, might wish to consider what Thomas Babington Macaulay, one of the greatest writers of English prose, wrote about her in January of l843:

“Shakespeare has had neither equal nor second. But among writers who…have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation placing Jane Austen…. She gives us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace, all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings.”

Shakespeare was able to see how a character is formed by a multiplicity of passions and beliefs, all of them, together, checking and balancing each other in a sometimes uneasy combination. Shakespeare’s Shylock, for example, is driven by a desire for money, but he is also driven by a thirst for revenge, and, it is not so often remembered, by loyalty to his religion. Jane Austen has this same ability to see, to understand, and to describe the conflicting feelings and emotions that make someone who, and what, they are. But while Shakespeare had to work within the limitations of the stage, each character defined by what they said and what they did, Jane Austin, with the greater freedom of the novel, could include their private thoughts and feelings. Witness how she describes Mrs. Norris.

Mrs. Norris was the first to suggest that something should be done to help her, and Lady Bertram’s, sister, Mrs. Price, and that taking over the care of one of her many children would be the most helpful thing they could do. Sir Thomas is in complete agreement with this, but after Fanny arrives, is surprised to learn that Mrs. Norris would be unable to “take any share in the personal charge” of the girl. Mrs. Norris, “as far as walking, talking, and contriving reached … was thoroughly benevolent and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.” When the Rev. Mr. Norris dies, she “consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering that she could do very well without him….”

Sir Thomas exercises an almost tyrannical rule over his household. His daughter, Julia, is determined to escape his restrictions. She has attracted Mr. Rushworth, “an inferior young man, as ignorant in business as in books, with opinions in general unformed, and without seeming much aware of it himself.” Mr. Rushworth is stupid, but he is also very rich. Maria, however, is not in love with him; she is in love with Henry Crawford, a young man who has made a career of having women fall in love with him, and thinks nothing of it when he leaves Maria to pursue someone else.

There was only one thing Maria could do, and only someone with the lethal intelligence and rapier wit of Jane Austen could know what it was: “Henry Crawford had destroyed her happiness, but he should not know that he had done it.” She was ready for marriage to Mr. Rushworth, “being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection and contempt of the man she was to marry.” What could possibly go wrong?

Henry Crawford’s sister, Mary Crawford, has in the meantime set her sights on Sir Thomas’s second son, Edmund. The problem is that Edmund wants to become a clergyman. “You really are fit for something better,” she tells him. “Come, do change your mind. It is not too late. Go into the law.” Convinced there is no more important work, Edmund insists that it will “be every where found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.” This, as you can imagine, has no effect on Miss Crawford.

Later, when they are practically engaged, Mary Crawford draws the difference between them with a cruel, ruthless logic which, if it escapes attention, only does so because the author constructs the conversation - the dialogue - in a way that makes the statement of extremes seem the light-hearted expression of an almost commonplace point of view. “A large income,” she informs him, “is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.” All Edmund can promise is that he will not be poor. This produces a response that, spoken to someone not in love with her, would have ended all relations. “Be honest and poor, by all means - but I should not envy you; I do not much think I shall even respect you. I have a much greater respect for those who are honest and rich.”

That Edmund, like his father before him, has been “captivated” by beauty, leads him to the kind of allowances he might otherwise never have been willing to make. He confides to Fanny, who has, in secret, been in love with him for as long as she can remember, that Mary “does not think evil, but she speaks it - speaks it in playfulness - and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.” Fanny has grown up, and though Mrs. Norris, like the wicked step-mother in Cinderella, is always telling her, “Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last,” she sees more clearly than anyone else the selfish game others are playing, and understands better than anyone the fine nobility of Edmund Bertram’s too forgiving soul. She has grown up into a very attractive young woman, a fact which Henry Crawford is the first to notice. He tells his sister that he has decided “to make Fanny Price fall in love with me.” His sister, to her credit, has a very high regard for Fanny Price, and her brother is made to promise that no harm will come to the girl. He will only make her “feel when I go away that she shall never be happy again.”

But Fanny Price does not fall in love with Henry Crawford; he falls in love with her. His sister tells him, “From my soul, I do not think she would marry you without love, that is, if there is a girl in the world incapable of being influenced by ambition, I can suppose it is her….” She is right: Fanny does not love him, and she refuses to marry him. This astonishes Sir Thomas, and makes Mrs. Norris angry, though more angry “for having received such an offer than for refusing it.” Mrs. Norris “would have grudged such an elevation to one whom she had always been trying to depress.” Lady Bertram, for her part, tells Fanny not just that she has made a mistake, but has failed in her responsibilities: “it is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this.” To which Jane Austen comments, “This was almost the only rule of conduct, the only piece of advice, which Fanny had ever received from her aunt in the course of eight years and a half.”

After Sir Thomas recovers from his initial shock, he sends Fanny to see her family, the first visit she has made since she left, nearly nine years ago. Fanny regards this as a singularly generous thing to do; Sir Thomas regards it as the best way to show Fanny the mistake she is making. He thinks, correctly, and quite shrewdly, that an extended visit will make her “heartily sick” of the place. The “smallness of the house,” the “noise, disorder, and impropriety,” a mother from whom she “never met with greater kindness…than on the first day of arrival,” make her realize how much she had come to require the “elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony - and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield….” Comparing the two houses, “Fanny was tempted to apply to them Dr. Johnson’s celebrated judgment as to matrimony and celibacy, and say, that though Mansfield Park might have some pains, Portsmouth could have no pleasures.”

Old enough, and mature enough, to make this comparison, Fanny begins to feel less dislike for Henry Crawford, and more belief in the sincerity of his affection. She continues to have feelings for Edmund, feelings which, because they must stay hidden, sharpen her sense of how mistaken he is about Mary Crawford. When he writes to her that Mary is the only woman he could think of marrying and attributes her ideas to the fashionable world, and that it is only “the habits of wealth I fear,” Fanny reacts with scorn. “Her friends leading her astray for years! She is quite as likely to have led them astray. They have all, perhaps, been corrupting one another.” She tells herself this; she cannot tell him.

Any doubt she may have had about Mary Crawford vanish forever when Edmund’s older brother, Tom, who will inherit everything, becomes ill and is in serious danger of dying. Mary writes Fanny: “I would put it to your conscience whether ‘Sir Edmund’ would not do more good with all the Bertram property, than any other possible ‘Sir.’”

While Mary Crawford is imagining the possible demise of Edmund’s brother with all the satisfaction of wealth and power foretold, Henry Crawford, waiting for Fanny to change her mind, discovers that the “temptation of immediate pleasure was too strong for a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right.” He runs off with Fanny’s cousin, Edmund’s sister, the wife, for all of six months, of the rich, stupid, and unfortunate, Mr. Rushworth. And what was Fanny’s reaction? An admirable sadness for Edmund’s now disgraced sister? A sense of betrayal for what Henry Crawford, for whom she had started to think affection might not be impossible, had done? Not a bit of it. She “felt she was, in the greatest danger of being exquisitely happy, while so many were miserable. The evil which brought such good to her! She dread lest she should learn to be insensible of it.”

Mrs. Norris and Mary Crawford both find ways to blame Fanny for what Henry Crawford has done. None of it would have happened if Fanny had accepted him, insists Mrs. Norris. “Why would she not have him?” Mary asks Edmund. “It is all her fault.”

Edmund, finally, realizes what Fanny has known all along, that Mary Crawford lacks all conscience. “Fanny, it was the detection, not the offense which she reprobated.”

In the well-ordered world of Jane Austen, the timing is perfect. She tells us in the last chapter that Edmund stops caring about Miss Crawford, “exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier,” and “became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.” She then explains, “Even in the midst of his late infatuation, he had acknowledged Fanny’s mental superiority. What must be his sense of it now, therefore? She was of course only too good for him; but as nobody minds what is too good for them, he was very steadily earnest in his pursuit of the blessing, and it was not possible that encouragement from her should be long wanting.”

If you did not know it was Jane Austen, you might think you had been reading a history of the Medici, that family, full of treachery, learning, and deceit, that brought the Renaissance to Florence and left us with the memory of what it means to be alive.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

--Marshal Zeringue