I started this entry on the 15th of March, but I couldn’t figure out where it was going for quite a few days. While I’m not sure it ended up anywhere in particular, it was quite a joy to ramble on a bit about such a fascinating pair of characters.
‘The ides of March are come.’
‘Ay, Caesar, but not gone.’
Traditionally the day on which Romans sacrificed their sheep to appease Jupiter, the “Ides of March1” is now mostly remembered for the justification of the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar, that he should “beware the ides of March.” We in the audience know what fate awaits the hubristic Caesar. His ultimate sacrifice to the Roman god of power proves the lie in his boast to the Soothsayer.
Yet Caesar’s assassination was more than a sacrifice – each blow was a consummation of the oath taken by a circle of conspirators, and each drop of Caesar’s blood, meant to cleanse the Republic of his influence, became a stain on their hands.
Jane Austen was certainly familiar with Shakespeare. And contrary to the beliefs of those who would class her fiction as simple romances or “chick lit,” her books are powerhouses of subtle references to the world around her – one in which war, intrigue, assassination, and espionage were facts of life. At the 2002 JASNA AGM in Toronto, Professor Li-Ping Geng presented his theories2 that Mansfield Park is partly a story of England’s wars superimposed upon a traditional English country manor. Other scholars have theorized that Emma‘s Frank Churchill is a representation of France – his disruptive return to Highbury an attempt to conquer the quintessential English homeland even though they shared familial ties. And of course, Henry Tilney confounds us with his admonition to Catherine that ghastly things could not happen in England, what with every neighborhood being filled with “voluntary spies.”
Austen’s writing is notably free from the violence and gruesome imagery of her Gothic predecessors. She chooses to plumb the depths of human nature through everyday relatable social situations. So where a Lewis or Radcliffe would have placed a terrifying remote castle populated by a brutish thug, Austen demonstrates the real devastation of loneliness, isolation, and grief in ways we can recognize as even modern readers. Though he at least has a choice in the matter, Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates are both social prisoners in Highbury. Anne de Bourgh’s got a gilded cage. Charlotte Lucas walls herself off from the world of sensible companionship. And of course, young Fanny Price is taken from her family and thrown into the little cramped dungeon of an attic at Mansfield Park, where she spends solitary hours without heat or company.
Austen’s genius, however, is not merely in the portrayal of the victims of loneliness and despair. While her villains are seemingly not as terrifying as a monstrous uncle or raping Monk, they are somehow more troubling due to their all-to-real ability to cling to their positions of social power.
Some Austen villains are able to continue their abuses due to their rank in society. Lady Catherine is an obvious example – perhaps the only statement of Wickham’s we can trust is his description of her: “her manners [are] dictatorial and insolent. She has the reputation of being remarkably sensible and clever; but I rather believe she derives part of her abilities from her rank and fortune, part from her authoritative manner…” General Tilney is another character in which we see rank obscuring what would otherwise be obvious defects in temper. But not all of the villains have the shelter of rank – Mrs Norris, arguably the most evil of Austen’s creations, is in fact a widow with an income dramatically smaller than those whose lives she attempts to control. The others use their rank to grow or retain their power over others; Aunt Norris’s power comes from almost unearthly manipulative control over Sir Thomas Bertram.
On the surface, Mrs Norris doesn’t seem to share many similarities with a fallen Roman Dictator. But her story is (hilariously) similar (seriously, stop here and read the bit from Suetonius3) – like Caesar, who had early potential but was placed into a position with the church, Aunt Norris’s early beauty seems to mark her for something higher than her ultimate betrothal to a Reverend. Once free from the ties that bind them to their clerical responsibilities – Caesar’s position as high priest of Jupiter lost in the upheaval of a civil war involving his uncle, and Aunt Norris’s lost in merry widowhood – they are both free to pursue power as the ultimate end of their means.
Aunt Norris conquers even her allies, bending the Bertrams to her will. She ruthlessly assassinates the character of anyone unfortunate to end up on her bad side (including the carpenter’s son). Yet when called on by Sir Thomas to take on real power, perhaps by lodging the motherless Fanny in the Parsonage, she demures. Upon the death of her husband and her removal to a home even more suitable to the company of a young companion, she again defers her claim to the title of “guardian,” even though she has actively assumed the role since before Fanny’s arrival at Mansfield. Though not remotely as averse to being in the spolight as Mrs Norris, Julius Caesar resigned less than two weeks after being appointed Dictator for the first time. But like Mrs Norris, once he finally assumed ultimate power without oversight, his downfall was inevitable.
For like Caesar, Aunt Norris’s mistakes grew out of self-indulgence and a sense of invincibility. Her repeated “assassination” attempts against Fanny’s character finally undermined her authority with Sir Thomas – especially when contrasted with her encouragement of the truly outrageous behavior of his own daughters – much like Caesar’s overstepping of his powers angered the Senators and powerful Romans he had supplanted through murder or political maneuvering.
In the end, both were destroyed by the very people they’d stepped on in their pursuit of power and control. Some witnesses reported that with Caesar’s last words he lamented Marcus Brutus’ role in his murder, which was inspirational for William Shakespeare in his adaptation of Caesar’s life. Aunt Norris, too, at the last cursed and lamented the role of her trodden-upon niece in her downfall. “Mrs. Norris, instead of having comfort from either, was but the more irritated by the sight of the person whom, in the blindness of her anger, she could have charged as the daemon of the piece. Had Fanny accepted Mr. Crawford this could not have happened.”
‘Et tu, Fanny?’
This is all, of course, silly and speculative. I am not in the least bit convinced that Austen set out to make Aunt Norris in the image of Julius Caesar. Rather, her masterful portrait of a person whose hunger for power overtakes all other pursuits, even friendship, is recognizable in other similar characters whether literary or historical. It’s not hard to find parallels with other personalities, or even with one’s own personality. I certainly have a bit of Aunt Norris in me, even if that bit is tiny and wrapped up and buried in a heck of a lot of layers of “don’t be a jerk.” But I see in myself the same need to feel in control, the same desire to be the one making the Big Decisions, and especially the desire to do so when the risk involves someone else’s resources instead of mine. That’s part of what makes the “bad” characters so much fun to read; they allow us to see the dark parts of our psyches blown out to proportions that make them easier to identify and tear down in our own lives. Unless of course we’re beyond the reach of morality. In which case – I’d advise sticking close to home around March 15th or so…
1. I realize I make frequent use of links to Wikipedia. While there is quite a worthy debate about its accuracy and its standards, as well as other glaring issues, I find it’s a good starting point for really basic background information, and a good jumping-off point for learning more about a topic. (The key is to go down to the bottom of the page and dig through the links in the footnotes.) Still, if all you need is a refresher on the overall plot of The Monk, I don’t see how a few misspellings or inaccuracies are going to keep you from seeing that Ambrosio is a really nasty dude.
2. From JASNA’s Toronto AGM website: Li-Ping Geng: “The Siege of Mansfield: Jane Austen’s Art of Political Manoeuvring.” The myth that Jane Austen was politically naive and less-than-well-informed has been blown away. This paper will examine Jane’s art of politics in her late novel, Mansfield Park (1814), and will focus on its “siege” by “foreign legions”, even as England was waging successful military campaigns across the Channel. It will ponder the moral destruction of a seemingly secure stronghold in the peaceful English countryside, and try to explain why and how the battle was lost. Li-Ping plans to illustrate some of the dramatic and poignant acts of political manoeuvring which typically reflect Jane’s art of irony and humour but, more importantly, reveal Jane’s political viewpoint towards the historic events of her day.
3. The whole segment on Julius Caesar is interesting, but I’ve had a whole lot of fun pulling out Norris-ish tidbits, like “In consequence he had more gold than he knew what to do with,” and “He covered great distances with incredible speed, making a hundred miles a day in a hired carriage and with little baggage, swimming the rivers which barred his path or crossing them on inflated skins, and very often arriving before the messengers sent to announce his coming.” But I really had a lot of fun with this part:
|I. Julius Caesar, the Divine , lost his father  when he was in the sixteenth year of his age ; and the year following, being nominated to the office of high-priest of Jupiter , [appointed by allies of his uncle] he repudiated Cossutia, who was very wealthy, although her family belonged only to the equestrian order, [Can’t we picture young Miss Ward “repudiating” Sir Thomas because he was only of the “equestrian order”] and to whom he had been contracted when he was a mere boy. He then married (2) Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, who was four times consul; [politically convenient marriage which allows him to move closer to the seat of power] and had by her, shortly afterwards, a daughter named Julia. [Julia? Hmmm…] Resisting all the efforts of the dictator Sylla to induce him to divorce Cornelia, [Maria?] he suffered the penalty of being stripped of his sacerdotal office, his wife’s dowry, and his own patrimonial estates; and, being identified with the adverse faction , was compelled to withdraw from Rome. [Perhaps to an establishment “formed for him in another country, remote and private”] And: We are assured that when Sylla, having withstood for a while the entreaties of his own best friends, persons of distinguished rank, at last yielded to their importunity, he exclaimed—either by a divine impulse, or from a shrewd conjecture: “Your suit is granted, and you may take him among you; but know,” he added, “that this man, for whose safety you are so extremely anxious, will, some day or other, be the ruin of the party of the nobles, in defence of which you are leagued with me; for in this one Caesar, you will find many a Marius.”|