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by Theodore McCombs
Everyone knows Jane Austen’s dirtiest joke, right?
It’s in Mansfield Park, her third and strangest novel. Mary Crawford, the greatest frenemy in all of Western literature, is teasing Fanny Price about her brother’s prospects in the British Navy by bragging about the admirals in her salty uncle’s circle:
We know very little of the inferior ranks. Post-captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us. […] Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.
Yes, Mary’s pun is exactly what you think it is, alluding to the same unmentionable and often abusive practices of men at sea that rumble through Billy Budd.
Mansfield Park is full of these painfully subtle details, including sidelong allusions to the slave plantation in Antigua on which the wealth of Fanny’s adoptive family, the Bertrams. depends. Fanny herself, Austen’s quietest protagonist, follows a heroic arc of delicate shifts in power between her and the Bertrams. If this sounds dull, I swear it’s not, as long as you read closely. Given the proper attention, Mansfield Park is about a young woman with absolutely no leverage standing up to the people who hold her future in their power, as casually and completely as a hand of cards.
Growing up, I exerted a large share of my intelligence on suppressing things I knew about myself and others around me. While I loved subtext in books, I was suspicious of reading life closely. What a doctrine of comfort, to take people at face value! Why be paranoid? If you’re not in a Sherlock Holmes story, should you really be hunting for clues?
Austen’s novels show us there’s value in attention and deep reflection in our own ordinary lives. It’s how we grow into who we are. Fanny develops her voice only by understanding her principles, and she understands her principles only by closely studying her reactions to the people around her—how Mary’s amoral charm makes her seethe, how her parents disappoint her, why she finds Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram so differently compelling. Like Proust a century later, Austen championed the value of the close read of life, in part by rewarding her close readers with a rich and surprising enigma of a novel.
In today’s world of curtailed attention and glibly prescribed anti-depressants, I know of no cultural force that encourages mindfulness and scrutiny with as much natural potency as the novel. We’re rarely given the time, much less the resources and enthusiasm, to ask why we are sad, or alienated, or panicked, or drunk in love, or vibrant with certainty, and to follow that question for hours or years until we reach some illumination. But that’s just what literature does. It even lets us imagine we’re performing this work on a fictional character, for whom the stakes are relatively low, rather than on ourselves, for whom the stakes are the very character of our hearts. (No pressure.) I’ve found my own invaluable consolation, insight, fear, wisdom, and outrage in the pages of my favorite book—I’ve found myself. That, and no end of rears and vices.
Theodore McCombs is a writer and lawyer, formerly of Wall Street, currently in Denver. His fiction has appeared in Shenandoah and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. A proud Lighthouse member, he also blogs about speculative literature at FictionUnbound.com and tweets as @MrBruff.