Anne Stott teaches for the Open University and Birkbeck College. She is the author of Hannah More: the First Victorian, which in 2004 won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for literary biography. She is currently researching for a book on the domestic life of William Wilberforce. In this post Anne discusses Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.
Anne Stott on Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park is often seen as Jane Austen's problem novel, technically brilliant but flawed in its conception, its conservative Christian values out of kilter with modern sensibilities. Chick-lit it isn't. Fanny Price is one of Austen's passive, suffering heroines, too mouse-like and priggish to engage the immediate sympathy of most readers. To compound the problem, she is matched with the equally moralistic Edmund. Kingsley Amis summed up many critical responses when he declared that he would not care to dine with Mr and Mrs Edmund Bertram. (But would they have wanted to dine with him?) When this central difficulty is admitted, however, the book remains a great work of literature, subtle, full of insight, beautifully structured, and innovative.
The novel begins like a fairy story as three sisters make very different marriages that determine their destinies. The eldest marries Mr Norris, a clergyman of modest means, the second the wealthy baronet, Sir Thomas Bertram (though 'her uncle, the lawyer... allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim' to such a marriage), and the youngest a mere Lieutenant of Marines, 'without education, fortune, or connections', a rash decision which condemns her to a life of hardship and incessant child-bearing. At the age of ten, Fanny Price, the eldest daughter of this unfortunate marriage, is taken from her disorderly home to live with her aunt and uncle, at Mansfield Park. She is brought up alongside their four children, though very much as the poor relation, as Mrs Norris never ceases to remind her: 'Remember, wherever you are, you must be lowest and least'. Only her cousin Edmund knows how to value her. 'Her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to. Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.' The result is a crippling feeling of isolation and insignificance that dogs her for most of the novel.
If Mrs Norris is the wicked stepmother, Fanny's cousins, Maria and Julia, are the ugly sisters, though they treat her with careless selfishness rather than active cruelty. Constantly flattered by their aunt, they pride themselves on their fashionable accomplishments and the superior education that has enabled them to repeat 'the chronological order of the kings of England... and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers'. 'It is not very wonderful,' Austen comments dryly, 'that with all their promising talents and early education, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility.'
The family grows up. The eldest son, Tom, wastes a good deal of his father's money; Edmund prepares for ordination; Fanny's unacknowledged love for Edmund grows; Sir Thomas Bertram visits the West Indies to revive the fortunes of his estates (a plot development which has occupied post-colonial commentators far more than it did Jane Austen herself); Maria becomes engaged to the doltish Mr Rushworth, about whom Edmund reflects, 'If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow'. But Maria sees it as her 'duty' and 'moral obligation' to marry a man who can give her that prized symbol of affluence, a house in town. Into this less than perfect set-up enter the brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, a pair of charming Regency sophisticates who proceed to create havoc within the family. Before they have realized what is happening, Maria and Julia have fallen in love with Henry, and Edmund is dangerously attracted to Mary.
There is an apocryphal story of two American academics at a literary conference. The first states that Mary Crawford is the most evil character in fiction, to which the second replies in a voice of deep emotion: 'I have been in love with Mary Crawford for 20 years'. Many readers will recognize this divided response. Mary Crawford has Elizabeth Bennet's wit and energy but she lacks her moral compass and unwittingly reveals her skewed values in almost every speech she makes. This for example: 'I look upon the Frasers to be about as unhappy as most other married people. And yet it was a most desirable match for Janet at the time... she could not do otherwise than accept him, for he was rich, and she had nothing.' She is selfish and charming in equal measure, attracted to Edmund but contemptuous of his choice of profession: 'a clergyman is nothing'. She tells him, 'Be honest and poor, by all means - but I shall not envy you; I do not think I shall even respect you. I have a much greater respect for those who are honest and rich.'
The society represented by Rushworth and the Crawfords is restless as well as materialistic, with no understanding of the rhythms of rural society or of the traditional way of life of the country gentry. Mary refuses to understand why she cannot get a cart to transport her harp in the middle of the hay harvest. Dissatisfied with his Elizabethan house, Rushworth is thinking of calling in the landscape designer Repton to oversee 'improvements' to his property. As a preliminary, he has cut down 'two or three fine old trees'; the chapel has been out of use for a generation. Henry Crawford tries to persuade Edmund to embark on a series of expensively unrealistic alterations to his future parsonage. As Marx was to write:
All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.Maria Bertram's affair with Henry Crawford is prefigured when the young people decide to while away Sir Thomas's absence by indulging in private theatricals. The play they choose is August von Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows, which was notorious for its two central female characters, the fallen woman, Agatha, and the pert and forward Amelia. As the rehearsals proceed, the players are subsumed into their roles, able to declare their love for each other in a way that the conventions of society do not normally allow. They are no longer acting. In the role of Amelia, Mary pays court to Edmund/Anhalt, while Crawford/Frederick lovingly clasps the hand of Maria/Agatha to his heart. Only Fanny refuses to take part, but she lacks the confidence to explain the true reason for her objections. The result is that she is left as the inarticulate observer, 'full of jealousy and agitation... Everybody around her was gay and busy and prosperous and important... She alone was sad and insignificant.'
The rehearsals are ended abruptly by Sir Thomas's unexpected arrival, and the sexual tensions are deflated by comedy. But there is nothing amusing about Maria's subsequent marriage, for which she is prepared 'by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry'. Henry Crawford's manipulation of her emotions has doomed a marriage that never had much chance of happiness. His sister indulgently describes him as a 'sad flirt', but Fanny is more unforgiving: 'I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings'.
Yet though Fanny sees what the other characters miss, she is not an infallible observer. She is only eighteen, with little knowledge of the world or human nature, and her jealousy blinds her to the complexities of the situation. She is more alive to the Crawfords' defects than to their potential for change. In fact, Mary is beginning to revise her values. She loves Edmund, younger son though he is, for 'his sincerity, his steadiness, his integrity'. She says to Fanny, 'Nay, in sober sadness, I believe I now love you all... You have all so much more heart among you than one finds in the world at large.' Henry Crawford is also changing. With his usual predatory carelessness, he begins to court Fanny, but he ends up proposing marriage to this penniless girl because he 'had too much good sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name'. His vanity and selfishness come through in his inability to accept her refusal, but it is to his credit that he should wish to marry her at all.
In the second half of the book, Austen leaves the comfort-zone of the genteel world and experiments with low-life when she takes Fanny on an extended visit to her family at Portsmouth. She gives us a vivid picture of a naval town in a time of war and of an overcrowded household, 'the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety', with a coarse and indifferent father and a mother who cannot manage her children and moves through her household tasks 'in a kind of slow bustle; always busy without getting on, always behind hand and lamenting it, without altering her ways'. This forms a painful contrast with the 'peace and tranquillity' of Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas Bertram may be a flawed patriarch - Fanny reflects with some scorn on the moral blindness of a man who could marry a daughter to Mr Rushworth - but there is much to be said for a well-run establishment.
This is just one example of the many shifting perspectives in Mansfield Park. The characters are more nuanced, more capable of surprising us, and the plot development is left more open-ended than in the other Austen novels. Even the dreadful Mrs Norris receives praise of a kind; unlike poor Mrs Price she 'would have been a... respectable mother of nine children on a small income'. In his visits to Portsmouth, Henry Crawford shows the considerate and sensitive side of his character, so that Fanny finds him 'decidedly improved'. Is she beginning to soften? In a surprising twist at the end of the novel, Austen becomes the omniscient narrator, telling us that 'would he have persevered and uprightly, Fanny would have been his reward - and a reward very voluntarily bestowed - within a reasonable period from Edmund's marrying Mary'. This is the other Mansfield Park - the novel that Austen might have written but chose not to.
In the end the plot hinges not on Fanny and Edmund but on the moral choices of Henry and Mary Crawford. They both fail the test. Henry's habit of sexual predation turns out to be ingrained and his elopement with Maria Rushworth puts Fanny forever out of his reach. Mary ruins her now slim chance of marrying Edmund by once more revealing her false values. She insists on blaming Fanny for the affair. 'Had she accepted him as she ought..., Henry would have been too happy and too busy to want an other object. He would have taken no pains to be on terms with Mrs Rushworth again. It would all have ended in a regular standing flirtation.' Because she does not understand Edmund, she cannot grasp his shocked reaction to this piece of worldly wisdom. The 'saucy, playful smile' she turns on him at the end - the born gambler's final throw of the dice - is precisely the wrong strategy. Tears might - just - have won him over.
In the final chapters the characters are despatched rather too hastily. Maria's punishment is brutal - to be exiled to a remote district with only Mrs Norris for company. In this case, hell is truly other people. Sir Thomas comes to see his fatal mistakes in the education of his daughters. And Edmund falls in love with Fanny though, in a sly little joke, Austen leaves it to her readers to decide on the exact timing of 'the cure of unconquerable passions and the transfer of unchanging attachments'. So the book ends on something of an anticlimax. With the departure of the Crawfords, the sexual chemistry has dissipated. But Fanny and Edmund were never going to be Elizabeth and Darcy and those of us who enjoy Mansfield Park return to it again and again for other reasons: for Jane Austen's distinctive voice, witty, astringent, unfailingly perceptive; for the unfashionable triumph of quiet integrity over flashy cynicism; for the intellectual journey as the novel ventures beyond the conventions of the comedy of manners, delightful though these are. Because we will never know how far she would have gone in her experiments, we can only echo Sir Walter Scott's lament: 'What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!'