I CANNOT WRITE about sex and drugs on Capitol Hill, although it is probably my duty. I know nothing, for one thing. For another, I resent the intrusion of scandal on our summertime calm in Washingon, which is, except for the weather, delightful.
The mighty and consequential have fled, often mercifully taking their press secretaries with them. It is a time for eating raspberries and watching fireflies -- many evening parties move outdoors, and it is possible to tune out the babble about the space shuttle and the flat tax and go undetected.
But there is another reason, and I must be honest about it. I fell in with Jane Austen, the great enemy of incivility and squalor. A friend bequeathed me her collection of books by and about my favorite author. I fought down temptation for a while, thereby, I think, winning Miss Austen's approbation. I turned my attention to the page boys and the cocaine addicts. I tried to figure out whether it was seven or 17 and what was firsthand and what was not. But I thought a few pages of "Mansfield Park" might refresh my mind and sharpen my perceptions of these disgraceful events.
You who love her too can guess the rest. Miss Austen took me by the throat in the first sentence. Here it is, and why it hooked me I leave you to judge:
"About 30 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 of an handsome house and large income."
Six hours later, I turned out the light. I had reluctantly left Fanny Price at her father's wretched house in Portsmouth, uncertain of the progress of her beloved cousin Edmund's courtship of Mary Crawford, awaiting with her wonted flutters and nerves the arrival of the post from Mansfield Park, where all were in grievous turmoil caused by the elopement of Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram Rushworth. My interest had not flagged. My eyes had given out.
Early on -- I say this without any pretense of rationalizing, a practice of which Miss Austen disapproves -- there had been the odd flicker of relevance. For instance, the odious Mrs. Norris, a penny-pinching busybody, who torments the terminally tormentable Fanny, lives in a modest dwelling called "The White House." Fanny herself takes refuge from her frequent alarms, headaches and shrinking spells in an old schoolroom called The East Room.
Thin, I know. But in the larger sense, I told myself as I galloped along, much applied to what is so murkily unfolding. Miss Austen speaks insistently of the necessity of proper education -- and did not Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) point out long ago the importance of reforming the page school? And Miss Austen reminds us that the most promising characters can be blemished by the wrong associations.
Mary Crawford is a bewitching girl, and as the besotted Edmund says, of a true sweetness of disposition. But early commerce with mercenary and vain people has warped her view. The scales fall from Edmund's eyes finally, when -- as he recounts in horror to Fanny -- Mary bemoans not so much the evil of what his sister and Henry Crawford have done as the folly of being caught.
"No harsher name than folly given! So voluntarily, so freely, so coolly to canvass it. No reluctance, no horror, no feminine, shall I say, no modest loathing. This is what the world does."
Mary Crawford is a modern character. I can imagine her in Washington. She is pretty, witty, elegant and musical -- Edmund is enthralled when she plays the harp. She is opinionated and outspoken. She means to marry money; she has no use for clergymen, she tells Edmund, due for the living at Thornton Lacey, to his face.
Edmund is sweet, but a little stuffy. He and Fanny are a pair of prigs clucking over Mary Crawford's cutting, although unassailably accurate remarks about her scoundrel uncle. ("Very wrong, very indecorous" says Edmund.) And Fanny, an early Elsie Dinsmore, can be a trial. I guiltily rejoiced when her cousin Tom called her a "creep-mouse." But Miss Austen stands by her heroines, and when I got up early the next morning to follow Fanny back to Mansfield Park, I decided, as was the author's wish, that she is a dear girl. Edmund's obtuseness is almost canceled by his kindness. I sigh for the lost Crawfords. Fanny, married to Henry, might have become merry. Edmund, with Mary, might have laughed more.
But I do not quarrel with Miss Austen, who, despite her high irony, is unrelenting in her celebration of virtue and right-mindedness. Two properly formed characters deserve each other.
I realize that she would censure me for devouring "Mansfield Park" in one gulp. She deplored unrestrained indulgence. But you can see that this week I am not in a position to judge undetailed excesses on Capitol Hill. How can I, at this time, pass judgment on addicts of any kind?