Sunday, January 17, 2021

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park


Locus Focus

Opening Passage:

About thirty 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. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them. Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances fared yet worse. Miss Ward's match, indeed, when it came to the point, was not contemptible: Sir Thomas being happily able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield; and Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice.

Summary: Fanny Price, from an impoverished and poorly managed home, is sent from Portsmouth to Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire to be raised by her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. The family (contrary to what I've seen in multiple summaries) does not for the most part treat her badly, but, except for Edmund, the youngest son who is a few years older than her, they treat her as an outsider, which is very hard for someone like Fanny, who is of a very shy and introspective disposition. She is expected to adapt to them, and not them to her, and while a more robust personality might have been able to offer them something to break the ice, young Fanny is simply not that kind of person. She does have to endure the continual pettiness of Mrs. Norris, who has a high opinion of her sister Lady Bertram's marriage and children and a very low opinion of her sister Mrs. Price's marriage and children, but this is counterbalanced by Edmund's kindness and willingness to stand up for her. The primary problem is that Fanny has gone from one mismanaged household to another mismanaged household. Mansfield Park is not as obviously mismanaged as the old home in Portsmouth, but some of that is because wealth can hide a lot of mismanagement, and some of it is because Sir Thomas's form of mismanagement is despite a genuine intention to manage things well.

There is an interesting discussion in Chapter XXV in which Sir Thomas talks about the responsibilities of the clergy, when explaining why Edmund will be residing in his parish:

“We shall be the losers,” continued Sir Thomas. “His going, though only eight miles, will be an unwelcome contraction of our family circle; but I should have been deeply mortified if any son of mine could reconcile himself to doing less. It is perfectly natural that you should not have thought much on the subject, Mr. Crawford. But a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park: he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.”

This is notable, because everything that is said here about the clergy is easily adapted, mutatis mutandis, to parents. (This is quite deliberate on Austen's point; in the other significant discussion of the responsibilities of the clergy, in Chapter 9, it is explicitly tied to governance of the household.) A family has wants and claims that can be known only by a father constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. A father might 'do the duty' of the family, showing up occasionally to lead and to preach (as fathers do), being the father every so often for a few hours; but it will not do. Human nature needs more lessons than a weekly parental sermon can convey; if a father does not really live with his family, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own. Change the terms from clergy to father, which you can very well do, and it reads as an indictment of Sir Thomas's parenting. Sir Thomas does the duty of the family; he does it, to his credit, very conscientiously and very well. But that's all he does. He is not in constant residence. He is, in fact, halfway across the world in Antigua for much of the book. (A significant portion of the plot is carried by young Tom Bertram's gambling problem, but he comes by it honestly, as his father is something of a gambler, too: West Indies investments would not have been safe investments. Because Sir Thomas is intelligent and competent, he is able to make them work, but it is at the cost of being away from home and having as his proxies a Lady Bertram who does nothing and a Mrs. Norris, who is all about means without any real regard for ends.) It is explicitly noted that his children don't really miss him, because Sir Thomas is not outwardly affectionate, so his being around dampens everybody down; it's also precisely because of this, that he has failed to prove himself by constant attention to be their well-wisher and friend, that Sir Thomas really doesn't notice that his children lack properly trained dispositions. After all, they are on their best behavior when he's around, and sigh with relief when he's gone.

Maria, the oldest daughter, becomes engaged to Mr. Rushworth, a well-meaning and extremely wealthy but rather stupid young man, largely due to the efforts of Mrs. Norris. Meanwhile, the Crawfords, Henry and Mary, show up in the neighborhood, and being charming and sophisticated and attractive, they are immediately popular. Edmund becomes attracted to Mary and both Julia and Maria to Henry. Henry is a flirt, and will do so with Maria right under Mr. Rushworth's nose. Tom, who has been with his father in Antigua, returns and, bored, pushes for family theatricals. They finally settle for Elizabeth Inchbald's translation, Lover's Vows, of August von Kotzebue's play, Das Kind der Liebe. The play is a highly moralizing one, but (as one would guess from the German title, "The Love Child") seduction and sex outside of marriage are significant elements of the plot, and it practice it is not really innocently chosen; the young people are participating because it allows for clandestine flirting under the cover of just practicing the parts. Far from being stopped by Mrs. Norris, it is encouraged (it is not her money, after all, that is being spent on building a stage). Fanny is pressured by everyone to participate; she refuses, on the ground that she cannot act, but is just about to crack under the united pressure when Sir Thomas returns from Antigua, happy to see his family but entirely unsympathetic to his household being upended and his rooms taken over for a theater to stage a play that does not seem appropriate for a family context. Maria and Mrs Rushworth marry, and they head off for London with Julia.

With no Maria around, Henry takes it into his head to try to make Fanny fall in love with him. He proceeds like a master in the process, but he is stymied by the fact (unknown to him) that Fanny is in fact already in love with Edmund, and this attachment to Edmund keeps her head clear enough that when he proposes to her in marriage, she rejects him. This just makes her more attractive to Henry, and astonishes everyone else; Henry is, after all, a very likeable and very wealthy man. Sir Thomas thinks that Fanny rejected Henry because living at Mansfield Park has led to her not appreciating how much someone like Henry can offer her, and arranges for her to visit her family in Portsmouth in the hope that it will make her see this. Henry visits and is even more charming than ever, and is obviously making a genuine effort to improve himself for her. She still will not marry him, but it begins almost to be plausible that she could. Throughout the story, Henry has shown an interest in 'improvement' in the landscaping sense, but his education and undisciplined temperament have led his notion of improvement to be entirely social and external, and this is true to the end of his entire approach to improving anything. He has no real sense of moral improvement. Henry is willing to make all sorts of improvements to himself for Fanny's sake, and is entirely sincere in doing them; he would no doubt succeed very well at them. But they are all about external compliance with Fanny's taste and not internal compliance with moral principle. That this is so, is seen very clearly when Henry visits the Rushworths, falls back into his flirting ways, and runs off with Maria in a scandal that makes the newspapers. Much the same is true of Mary Crawford, as well; charmed by her beauty and manner, Edmund discovers in the aftermath of the affair that, while she does in some sense genuinely love him, there is really no moral agreement between him and Mary. Around the same time, Tom's heavy living takes its toll as he falls from his horse and suffers a potentially fatal illness.

Fanny returns to Mansfield Park and her presence is a great consolation amid the disasters that have overtaken the family. Mrs. Norris  -- who wanted the scandal to be treated as no scandal at all -- has left to look after Maria, Julia elopes, the rest of the family pulls together more closely, and a new Price, Fanny's younger sister Susan, comes to (a much improved) Mansfield Park. Eventually, Edmund gets over Mary and he and Fanny marry.

Favorite Passage: This particularly struck me this time, namely, that Fanny's first real action as an agent in her own right is, as we would say, taking out a library card (note also the mention of 'improvement', a theme throughout the novel, associated with landscaping; Fanny has shown herself excellent at *being improved*, but now is her first conscious attempt at *improving another*):

The intimacy thus begun between them was a material advantage to each. By sitting together upstairs, they avoided a great deal of the disturbance of the house; Fanny had peace, and Susan learned to think it no misfortune to be quietly employed. They sat without a fire; but that was a privation familiar even to Fanny, and she suffered the less because reminded by it of the East room. It was the only point of resemblance. In space, light, furniture, and prospect, there was nothing alike in the two apartments; and she often heaved a sigh at the remembrance of all her books and boxes, and various comforts there. By degrees the girls came to spend the chief of the morning upstairs, at first only in working and talking, but after a few days, the remembrance of the said books grew so potent and stimulative that Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none in her father's house; but wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one's improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself. 

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, of course.