Deborah Yaffe

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Strange business, indeed

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 3 2014 01:00PM

Judging from the near-absence of any mention of our blessed land in the works of Jane Austen, it appears that our beloved author didn’t spend much time thinking about the newly un-colonized United States of America.


With Independence Day approaching, however, it seems an appropriate moment to quote the single mention in the novels, which also happens to be a moment of high comedy. Even better, it’s in Mansfield Park, the novel celebrating its bicentennial this year.

Tom Bertram has carelessly offered to dance with Fanny during the impromptu ball in Chapter 12, and she has declined:


“I am glad of it,” said he, in a much brisker tone, and throwing down the newspaper again, “for I am tired to death. I only wonder how the good people can keep it up so long. They had need be all in love, to find any amusement in such folly; and so they are, I fancy. If you look at them you may see they are so many couple of lovers—all but Yates and Mrs. Grant—and, between ourselves, she, poor woman, must want a lover as much as any one of them. A desperate dull life hers must be with the doctor,” making a sly face as he spoke towards the chair of the latter, who proving, however, to be close at his elbow, made so instantaneous a change of expression and subject necessary, as Fanny, in spite of everything, could hardly help laughing at. “A strange business this in America, Dr. Grant! What is your opinion? I always come to you to know what I am to think of public matters.”


A quick troll of the internet suggests that no one is quite sure what “strange business in America” Austen was thinking of. In the years before the writing of Mansfield Park, grievances between Britain and its former colonies were simmering, and they finally flared into open conflict in the War of 1812. Apparently, then, Tom Bertram had plenty of “strange business” to choose from.


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