“Mansfield Park”: a grudging appreciation

First of all, let me apologise in advance to all fans of Austen out there: I really do not intend to indulge in Austen-bashing – that is not the purpose of this post. It seems pointless and childish to be arguing along the lines of “My taste is better than yours”: it’s far more interesting to try to understand why one responds well to certain things, and not so well to others – why it is that our responses may legitimately differ. And I must confess, I have never responded favourably to Austen. I don’t dispute her stature as a major novelist, but I have never, for all that, felt drawn to her works, and find the greatest difficulty in attempting to incorporate her view of life into my own. 

This is not because she is essentially a “woman’s writer” (whatever that means), or because her novels are, as is often claimed,  forerunners of chick-lit. Despite all the wit and sparkle on the surface, only the most obtuse of readers could overlook her mastery of craft, the sharpness of her insights, and, indeed, the essential seriousness of her intent. No – what I find difficult is a certain coldness:  reading through her works, I am constantly reminded of Charlotte Brontë’s criticism: Austen’s works, she said, were “bloodless”. Of course, it may be said that just about anyone’s work is “bloodless” compared to the novels written by the Brontës, but the criticism strikes me as particularly apt. In Austen’s novels, human emotions seem to be held at arm’s length, and powerful passions are well beyond limits; furthermore, the author seems not to like too many of her characters: most are there to be looked down upon, to be sneered at; and there seems never to be an open laugh, as there is so frequently in Dickens: all the laughs here are at someone’s expense; and so on. These novels of Austen seem to me the works of someone very deeply censorious of human behaviour, someone who prefers to look down on human behaviour from an exalted height rather than to descend to their level, someone who likes to keep a decorous distance because she prefers not to be sullied by the sheer messiness of human affairs.

This is no doubt a very unfair and one-sided picture of a great novelist: it may rightly be said that, as with all great novelists, there are many aspects to Austen’s art, and that to characterise them in such terms as I have done above is no more than to caricature them, and, in the process, to misrepresent them. I plead guilty to all that. And yet, try as I might, I can’t get over a general sense of dislike. And I keep coming back to this dislike because my failure to enjoy the works of an author of such obvious quality is very clearly indicative of the way I perceive literature, and, perhaps, of the way I perceive life itself. 

For many years, I thought that I just didn’t get Austen, but nowadays, I feel that I do get Austen, but I don’t like what I get: her perspective is far too alien to my sensibilities. To complicate matters, I find myself increasingly attracted to the works of Flaubert, who, at a cursory glance, may seem very similar to Austen in many respects: both view humanity with an ironic detachment; both are censorious, and harsh in their judgements; both look down on many of their creations; both are lacking in warmth, preferring instead to view humanity with the clarity of a cold and unsentimental light. And yet, for all that, they are different: were they not so, I could hardly dislike the one and love the other. If I can react so differently to these two writers, there must be differences – very significant differences – between their writings. And it’s these differences that I am trying here to untangle. 

A few years ago, in an attempt to come to terms with Austen, I read through all her novels again. To my surprise, I found that I rather liked her last written novel, Persuasion: towards the end of her brief life, she shows evidence of tolerance of human foibles, of warmth, and even of geniality – all those qualities I find so conspicuously lacking in her earlier works. Possibly she was thawing out with age, and, had she lived longer, we may have seen further evidence of this. But if Persuasion was the novel I liked best, the novel that intrigued me most was Mansfield Park.

Having read some critical responses to Mansfield Park, it seems that my reading of the book is somewhat idiosyncratic, as, against the critical grain, its principal themes seem to me to be displacement and identity. Fanny is displaced very dramatically at the age of ten – taken away from her parents, from her siblings (to at least some of whom she is particularly attached), and transported far away to an entirely different environment, with no prospect of seeing again the only world she has known. This, at any age, is traumatic: at so impressionably early an age, it must be shattering. To make it worse, the world into which she is displaced is cold and loveless. How does a mere child deal with this?

And it gets worse. Soon after Fanny moves to Mansfield Park, a brother to whom she had been particularly attached dies in her absence. One can but imagine the emotional trauma this must have caused. Indeed, one has to imagine it, because not only does Austen not depict this trauma, she doesn’t even bother mentioning the death until much later in the novel.

I think the reason for this is that Austen wants to discourage any sympathy for Fanny that mention of this might occasion in the reader. We may remember the depictions in the early chapters of David Copperfield or of Jane Eyre of the profound emotions that a child may experience. But Austen has no desire to go in that direction. Now, this suppression of the brother’s death seems to me as emotionally manipulative as anything in The Old Curiosity Shop, but from the other side: where Dickens wants to involve the reader emotionally (to the extent of forcing false emotions in the particular instance of The Old Curiosity Shop), Austen manipulates the reader into feeling as little emotion as possible. I certainly can’t think of any other reason why Austen should suppress so momentous an event as the death of Fanny’s brother. I can’t say I find this emotional distancing particularly endearing, and, given the choice, would personally prefer Dickensian sentimentality even at its worst to such emotional coldness.

This is not to suggest an artistic failure on Austen’s part: on the contrary, she achieves exactly what she aims for. Emotional coldness is very characteristic of the whole ethos of Mansfield Park (the novel and the place).  But Mansfield Park is a place to which Fanny becomes, over time, closely attached.  People who are unsure of where they belong feel more strongly than most the need to belong – to belong somewhere; and, since the only realistic option in Fanny’s case is Mansfield Park, she embraces its ethos wholeheartedly, and becomes, as it were, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.

Later in the novel, when Fanny’s brother William appears, we sense a certain warmth of feeling between brother and sister – a remnant of past times. But we observe no such warmth in the Bertram family, no sense of affection between parents and children, between sibling and sibling. The symbol of Mansfield Park is the cold, fireless room in which Fanny likes to sit on her own: it is here she feels most at ease.

Into this environment come the Crawfords, who infect the grey coldness of Mansfield Park with their glittering brightness and vivacity. Fanny, wedded to Mansfieldian values, disapproves of them, as she disapproves of the very un-Mansfieldian moral laxity into which she perceives her cousins being led; but, as a ward, she knows better than to give open expression to her disapproval. Given the various layers of irony characteristic of Austen, it is hard to see whether she approves of Fanny’s moral rectitude, or whether she sees Fanny’s censoriousness as merely prissy. Perhaps it doesn’t matter: if Austen had felt it important for the reader to know where she herself stood on the matter, she would, no doubt, have told us: any ambiguity on this point is surely deliberate. But what we surely sense – and are intended to sense – is that for all the outward differences, the Crawfords are emotionally shallow, and as incapable of depth of feeling as are any of the Bertrams (except, possibly, for the rather serious-minded Edmund).

In the climactic chapters of the novel, Fanny is sent back to her family in Portsmouth for a while, as a sort of punishment for refusing what the Bertrams would have considered a good match for a penniless ward. It is here that the strand involving Fanny’s sense of identity – the principal thematic strand, I think, of the novel –  is resolved. For Fanny’s Portsmouth family is everything the Bertrams aren’t. I’d describe them as Dickensian were it not that this novel preceded Dickens. And Fanny is horrified. She is horrified by the clutter, the noise, the crowdedness. The same lassitude that Fanny had accepted without comment in her Mansfield Park aunt she now finds intolerable in her Portsmouth mother. And she realises, once and for all, that it is Mansfield Park, with all its coldness, that is her true spiritual home: she is now certain of her identity, of who she is.

And yet, this resolution is highly problematic. Fanny chooses Mansfield Park over Portsmouth because her own origins disgust her, and to feel ashamed of one’s origins is not a particularly likeable trait (it’s what I tend to call the VS Naipaul Syndrome): speaking for myself, I find it rather distasteful. But in this context, it is entirely believable. The disgust Fanny feels on seeing her Portsmouth family is not too far removed from the disgust Gulliver feels on seeing the Yahoos: no Houyhnhnmn ever felt as strong a sense of disgust at the Yahoos as Gulliver feels, and this is because, unlike the Houyhnhmns, Gulliver is afraid that he may be a Yahoo himself.

There is one scene in particular that sticks in the mind. When Henry comes to visit Fanny in Portsmouth, the two of them accidentally come across Fanny’s father, who has had a bit to drink. And Fanny is dreadfully ashamed that Henry should know this drunken man to be her father. But why? It’s not as if her father is completely inebriated, and is making an exhibition of himself; and one would be very surprised if Henry were himself to be a stranger to alcohol. And in any case, is not Fanny convinced of Henry’s un-Mansfieldian unworthiness? Why should she care what he thinks of her father, and, by extension, of herself? But for all that, Fanny is mortified by the mere thought that a person with some association with Mansfield Park, her adopted spiritual home, could judge her, Mansfieldian Fanny, as belonging to that world her father inhabits. I find this a deeply distasteful scene, and all the more so because it is so very believable.

In the end, of course, after a series of off-stage events (which, if my reading is correct, do not constitute the resolution of the principal strand of the novel: that resolution takes place very much on-stage in Portsmouth), Fanny finds herself exactly where she wanted – married to Edmund, and mistress of her spiritual home. It is hard to read through the layers of irony to discover what Austen wants us to feel about it all. Is this the vindication of Fanny’s moral rectitude? Or is it something more ambiguous than that? However one reads it, one may note Fanny’s unyielding censoriousness: even when Sir Thomas wonders whether it was right to have married his daughter Maria off to someone she clearly did not love (feelings such as love not having much value in Mansfieldian currency), Fanny remains, as ever, unbending, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.

All this makes for a perceptive novel, indeed, a great novel, but not, as far as I can see, a particularly likeable one. Admittedly, it’s not the most representative of Austen’s novels: although many rate it as her greatest and her most profound work, it is generally seen to lack the charm and the surface brilliance that Austenites so value. However, it does exhibit what I see as a typical Austenite trait – an emotional coldness, an unwillingness to engage with deeply felt emotions (even when the content may seem to demand such an engagement), a reluctance to get too close to human passions.

Let us now move on to Flaubert, who at first glance, may appear similar. But there is, it seems to me, one major difference: Flaubert was deeply attached to Romantic values.

It has long seemed to me that the novel as a form could not accommodate the soaring qualities of Romanticism. It seems to me, further, that this was the reason the novel as a form went into a sort of decline during the late 18th century and the early 19th centuries (the only indisputably major novelist of that era, Jane Austen, being decidedly un-Romantic); and that when the novel reasserted itself once again as a major literary form, it could only do so because, with a few notable exceptions, novelists had, by and large, turned their backs on Romanticism. This is not to say that they all embraced realism: some of the greatest of novelists – Gogol, Dickens, Dostoyevsky – had no interest at all in surface realism, and presented highly stylised fictional worlds. But there’s little in the great 19th century novels that can truly be called Romantic. (I’m speaking in very general terms here, and am, inevitably, generalising quite crudely.) And this turning away from Romanticism is, itself, one of Flaubert’s major themes.

Madame Bovary, as any student crib notes will tell you, is about the futility of life. It tells you how pointless everything is. This is true up to a point, but if we only see up to that point, we miss virtually all the riches. Because merely to say that life is futile is neither particularly interesting nor profound – even if it should happen to be true. Anyone can say that. But Flaubert goes deeper.

Somerset Maugham once wondered why Flaubert made Charles Bovary die of grief after Emma’s death. Surely, Maugham argued, if he’d got over it and married again, that would have added another note of futility. I think this is why, despite his talents, Maugham could never be anything other than a second-rater compared to someone like Flaubert. Because in Flaubert’s vision, one cannot dismiss humanity with a casual shrug of the shoulders, and a cheerful “What does it matter anyway?” That is far too easy. It does matter – it matters because these characters, absurd and stupid though they may be, are nonetheless sentient beings capable of depth of feeling. And that can’t be shrugged away. Even a figure as absurd and as stupid as Charles Bovary cannot be dismissed, because, despite everything, he is capable of feeling deeply. The scene where he and Homais stay up together after Emma’s death is almost unbearably moving – all the more so because Charles’ understanding of the situation is so inadequate.

Emma Bovary is not the brightest of people: her Romanticism is merely sentimental. To have presented her as a pure representative of Romantic ideals who is crushed by a philistine world would have been far too formulaic and crude for an author as subtle as Flaubert. Emma’s Romanticism is just as stupid and as insipid as Homais’ philistinism: the rebellion is just as flawed as that which it is rebelling against – and therein lies the profound sadness of it all.

We may or may not sympathise with Emma, but that, I think, is perhaps beside the point. The emotions we sympathise with – or at least, the emotions that I find myself sympathising with – are the author’s. And these are emotions of deep sadness – sadness that life should be like this, when those ideals that he still can’t bring himself to discard tell him it should be so much more. Romanticism urged us all to aspire towards something great and noble, and the sorrowful awareness that humanity is not capable of this is at the heart of just about everything Flaubert wrote.

Austen knew this too: of course humanity could not strive towards the transcendent as the Romantics urged them to do! The very idea! But where Flaubert found this tragic, Austen found this merely amusing. And there, I think, lies the difference. Where Austen refused to take human beings too seriously, Flaubert took them very seriously indeed. While Austen regarded human inadequacy with an amused smile, Flaubert shook his head in sadness.

It is this that accounts for Flaubert giving Charles Bovary depth of feeling, and Austen keeping from any strong emotion a decorous distance. In an Austen novel, a character such as Charles would have been no more than a laughing stock: unlike Flaubert, Austen seems temperamentally incapable of taking seriously a figure as absurd as Charles. Take for instance Austen’s representation of Miss Bates in Emma: Austen knows that despite her absurdity, she is a harmless lady, and that it is ungentle and unkind to poke fun at her. Mr Knightley says all this quite openly. And yet, Austen herself  just couldn’t resist poking fun at this harmless creature; and she didn’t (or couldn’t) depict any aspect of Miss Bates that gives her any sort of depth. She couldn’t, in short, make of her what Flaubert had made of Charles Bovary: at no point is Miss Bates depicted as anything other than a tiresome old bat.

Ultimately, what one does or does not respond to is a matter of individual temperament, and I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy Austen’s amused detachment. It is Flaubert’s deep sorrow that continues to attract me, and, indeed, to move me.

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40 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kirsty on November 4, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    I don’t think she’s “detached”, she’s more like emotionally repressed. If you look at her characters like Darcy, Elizabeth Bennett, her sister Jane, Edward and Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, they’re not the sort of people who declare their eternal love for each other everyday. They hide their emotions. I think Austen just genuinely didn’t like outward display of emotions, it’s not that she’s a cold person. I also think she had a thing about repressed emotions, she probably felt it’s more powerful.

    Sure, it feels like she looked down on most of the characters she created, but she’s writing a social satire, so I don’t fault her for it. And at least the main characters are likable. And if she’s completely unforgiving, why did she make Mr Knightley defend Miss Bates? and the fact that Miss Bates doesn’t mind people have a few laughs at her expense makes her more likable. I’d say Austen rather liked Miss Bates herself. I suppose you can say she writes about the more trivial and harmless human flaws, and I do feel she’s quite prissy sometimes, by modern standard.

    Flaubert is probably easier to sympathize because he reveals his vulnerabilities, his disappointments, Austen doesn’t have vulnerable moments.

    Reply

  2. Hello Kirsty,

    I am not entirely sure which way round it is: is Austen looking down on her characters because she is writing social satire? Or isshe drawn to social satire *because* she looks down on her characters? I am not sure. but then again, there is so much I am not sure about. For instance, when I read “Emma”, and came across that passage where Mr Knightley reprimands Emma for mocking Miss Bates, I thought at the time that Austen was having her cake and eating it; that, despite pointing out how cruel it was to make fun of a harmless creature, she herself had wasted no opportunity to do the same. But in retrospect, I don’t know that i was right: could it not be argued that Austen deliberately wrong-foots the reader? That, having encouraged the reader to see Miss Bates as an essentially ludicrous and laughable figure, she suddenly opens up a new perspective that takes the reader by surprise? I really am not too sure.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have written this post: generally, people tend to be less perceptive about what they dislike than they are about what they like. I do take your point that Austen is not emotionally distanced or detached, but that she depicts emotions that are below the surface. But they are so far below the surface, that I find them hard to reach!

    The problem, I guess, is that I grew up with Russian novels, where very powerful emotions were right at the surface and, as they say, “in your face”. As a teenager, I was virtually obsessed with the Russian novelists. And this has marked me for life! 🙂

    All the best,
    Himadri

    Reply

  3. Posted by Kirsty on November 5, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Of course she chose to write a social satire because she’s stuck up and mean! I think the reason you find her so harsh on humanity is she’s so good at creating this ludicrous characters and making fun of them. It overshadows the other more admirable characters. And knowing she’s writing a satire, she cast these characters in the worst possible light (and you can’t do a satire half-heartedly), and in the process exaggerated her disdain for her characters. I think how Elizabeth Bennett makes up with Charlotte Lucas after blasting her for agreeing to marry Mr Colins is kinda “warm”, for Austen anyway. You sort of feel “she’s not that judgmental after all if she still considers Charlotte good enough to be her friend”.

    About poor Miss Bates, I think “cruel” is probably is too strong a word, I actually feel Mr Knightley is rather patronizing, he sees Miss Bates as some pitiful creature. At least Emma finds her likable and enjoys her company. I think that’s why i don’t find Emma’s mocking terribly unkind. Maybe it’s a gender thing, I sometimes find the way men laugh at each other crass and insensitive, but they think it’s perfectly normal, and funny.

    Austen is not my favourite or anything, but I do prefer her to the Bronte sisters. I’m surprised you seem to prefer Charlotte Bronte. My impression is men usually enjoy Austen while only a few “get” the Brontes.

    Reply

    • Hello Kirsty, I think, on the whole, I do prefer the red-blooded passion of the Brontës to the more decorous reticence of Austen, but I do think that, keeping personal preferences out of it, Austen was a more accomplished artist than either Charlotte or Anne. On the evidence of “Wuthering Heights”, which I think is an astounding achievement, Emily was the most gifted of the three. “Jane Eyre” I do quite like, but Charlotte’s other novels seem to me to catch fire only intermittently.

      While I agree that Austen was a social satirist, I think also that she was far more than that: merely poking fun at human inadequacy isn’t enough to create major works ofliterature. And yes, I take your point once again that there probably is more warmth in Austen than I’ve acknowledged. In the example you give, for instance, I think there *is* a sympathy on the author’s part, understated though it may be, for someone like Charlotte Lucas, who is faced with a choice between marrying a man she knows to be an idiot, or to live out the rest of her life in poverty (or, at best, as a hanger-on to some wealthier family). But on the whole, Austen did, I think, regard humanity in general with an amused disdain, and, for all her artistry, I find this meanness, as you put it, hard to get round.

      Well – one can’t respond to everything!

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on November 6, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    “People who are unsure of where they belong feel more strongly than most the need to belong”
    Speak for yourself.
    I suppose I’m going to have to read Mansfield Park now.
    Can you enlightem me on one point – does Fanny have any kind of role at Mansfield Park? Is she some kind of governess?
    John Fowles play on the 19th century novel: “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” explores the character of a woman who is educated beyond her class background and prefers the perception of others that she is in perpetual mourning for her dead lover, she is known to as ‘The French Lieutenant’ Whore’, rather than the truth that their relationship did not break social mores. Fowles’s argument appears to be that she is displaced by education, cannot marry out of her class and cannot bear to marry into her class. If I recall correctly Fowles seems to argue that this social displacement and its emotional impact (obvious in Dickens) was a big feature of the 19th century novel – industrialisation and all that.
    So, I suppose my question is, are you sure that Austen did not have a more serious purpose? I’d like to think so before I put in the effort to read it.

    Reply

  5. Fanny is taken into Mansfield Park as a ward. Her mother had made a bad marriage, and she & her large family live more or less in poverty in Portsmouth; but Fanny’s aunt, her mother’s sister, had made a very good marriage, and lives in Mansfield Park. And her aunt and uncle, more or less on a whim, decide to adopt their niece. But Fanny’s position, as a ward, is an uncertain one: she is not one of the servants, but, somehow, she is not quite one of the family either.

    This position of the ward occurs comes up quite frequently in 19th century literature – Fanny price in “Mansfield Park”, Esther Summerson in “Bleak House”, Harriet Beadle in “Little Dorrit”, Sonya in “War and Peace”. Hmmm – material for a blog post, perhaps…

    Th eonly novel I have read by Fowles is “The Magus”. I really ought to try “The French lieutenant’s Woman” some time, especially as the wonderful flowering of the novel in the 19th century is something I feel particularly close to.

    As to your last question, Austen most certainly was a very serious novelist, even though her novels are generally full of sparkle and wit. (“Mansfield Park”, however, is more sombre than her other works.) The reputation she has of being a purveyor of 19th century chick-lit is way, way off the mark. But I feel awkward recommending Austen, as, despite many attempts, I find myself most certainly *not* on her wavelength, and find it very hard to come to terms with her vision of life .

    The eminent critic Edmund Wilson thought Austen and Dickens were the two finest British novelists. It’s a judgement hard to disagree with, although, I think, good cases can be made also for George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, Wilson’s friend, Vladimir Nabokov, (or, at least, they *were* friends before they quarrelled), in his infuriatingly patchy “Lectures on Literature”, devotes the first chapter to “Mansfield Park” and the second to “Bleak House”, and admits to loving Dickens, but not caring much for Austen. (After the chapter on “Mansfield Park”, he says he has “tried to be fair” when writing about Austen.) I disagree with some of the things Nabokov says about “Mansfield Park”, but I feel much the same as he did about these two authors as he did: Dickens I love; Austen, at best, I admire, rather grudgingly, from a distance.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Marita on August 9, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Hello Himadri, here are some of my thoughts on Mansfield Park.

    You wrote:
    “In Austen’s novels, human emotions seem to be held at arm’s length, and powerful passions are well beyond limits;”

    I think there is passion in Austen’s work, but it is held back. There is passion in Elisabeth when Darcy tells her he wants to marry her against his better judgment; there is passion in Elinor’s feelings for Edward; but Austen’s heroines can keep their passions hidden. They are masters of their feelings instead of being mastered by them. There are exceptions like Marianne in S&S who has a lucky escape (and admits she should have acted more restrained like her sister). Or Lydia in P&P who elopes with Wickham and would have been ruined (as would her sisters’ chances to find a husband) if Darcy hadn’t put pressure on Wickham. And at the end if Mansfield Park when Edmund tells Fanny about his last meeting with Mary Crawford, surely you can’t deny the emotions there.

    You mentioned:
    “The death of the brother – Austen not invoking sympathy for Fanny.”

    Fanny is taken away from her home where she was “nurse, playmate and instructress” to her siblings to a place where she means nothing to anybody. On the way when she cries (normal for a girl her age) her aunt Norris tells her she “hopes this doesn’t signify sulkiness of character” and that she is “lucky to be going to Mansfield Park”. There her uncle frightens her, her aunt Bertram is only interested in her dog, her cousins Maria and Julia only ask her to play when they need a third person for their schemes. Her cousins Tom and Edmund ignore her. The governess thinks her stupid and the servants mock her.
    Jane Austen tells us that Fanny is all alone in a strange environment, homesick, with nobody to talk to about her home and no way to contact them, with nobody showing her any kindness. How can this discourage sympathy in the reader? Surely all this must evoke our compassion for the little girl. Add to that a beloved sister (not a brother) dying and to Austen who doesn’t go in for big emotions, it’s over-egging the pudding

    Your wrote:
    “since the only realistic option in Fanny’s case is Mansfield Park, she embraces its ethos wholeheartedly, and becomes, as it were, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.”
    and
    “The symbol of Mansfield Park is the cold, fireless room in which Fanny likes to sit on her own: it is here she feels most at ease.”

    I disagree. Fanny never becomes Mansfieldian. In all the coldness of Mansfield Fanny finds the one warm spark. Edmund who finds her crying, asks her why and discovers her loneliness and her warm feelings for home. He takes an interest in his little cousin, helps her to keep in contact with her family, and encourages her to develop her mind. Edmund is the only person in Mansfield who realises that Fanny is not stupid. Edmund makes Mansfield bearable for Fanny and it is Edmund’s ethos she embraces to become Edmundian and yes, more so than Edmund.
    That Fanny has not become cold is apparent when her brother arrives. The warmth between them is real and is kept alive through the letters they send back and forth. The room where Fanny feels most at ease isn’t a symbol of Mansfield but shows how cold the Mansfieldians (Mr and Mrs Bertram, Maria, Julia and Aunt Norris) are towards Fanny. This cold, fireless place with her books and plants feels warmer to her than the Bertram’s warm room.

    Your wrote:
    “Into this environment come the Crawfords, who infect the grey coldness of Mansfield Park with their glittering brightness and vivacity. Fanny, wedded to Mansfieldian values, disapproves of them, as she disapproves of the very un-Mansfieldian moral laxity into which she perceives her cousins being led;”
    and
    “But what we surely sense – and are intended to sense – is that for all the outward differences, the Crawfords are emotionally shallow, and as incapable of depth of feeling as are any of the Bertrams (except, possibly, for the rather serious-minded Edmund).”

    Again for me it’s the un-Edmundian values of the Crawfords that Fanny objects to. They are more vivacious and glittering than we have seen Mansfield to be but this is surely down to Mr Bertram. When he goes away his daughters feel that a restraint has fallen from them and the character they have hidden so far is as vivacious and morally lax as anything the Crawfords have to offer. Tom has already shown this as he has been following his own selfish urges for a long time. Mrs Bertram has no ideas or opinions of her own and is incapable of correcting her children (or even aware that as a parent she should). Mrs Norris has been the biggest influence on the girls and has filled their heads with self-importance and selfishness. She would never deprive them of any pleasure and has no moral standard but theirs. The one person who could counter this, Edmund, is blinded by his love for the charming and beautiful Mary Crawford.

    You wrote:
    “In the climactic chapters of the novel, Fanny is sent back to her family in Portsmouth. And Fanny is horrified.”

    Before going to Portsmouth Fanny gets a reply to the letter informing them she’s coming. This reply (in Austen’s words) “though short, was so kind, a few simple lines expressed so maternal and motherly a joy in the prospect of seeing her child again, as to confirm all the daughter’s view of happiness in being with her – convincing her she should now find a warm and affectionate friend in the ‘Mamma” who had certainly shown no remarkable fondness for her formerly – they should soon be what mother and daughter ought to be to each other.”

    Full of hope Fanny travels to Portsmouth, to a reunion with her family, above all her mother. She must have thought about confiding in her, telling her about her love for her cousin and his doomed love for a woman who didn’t share any of his values. Fanny is surely in need of somebody to talk to as the person she confided in till then (Edmund) is the one person she can’t talk to, nor can she confide in the woman who professes to be her friend (Mary) as both are too deeply involved in Fanny’s thoughts, fears and hopes. I’m sure she was convinced to find in her mother the one person to talk to about everything she feels – and there is no mother in Portsmouth interested in her. Mrs Price is only interested in her boys and her youngest daughter. Mr Price has never been interested in his daughters and not much in his sons either I think, until they are old enough to go to sea.

    Fanny, fatigued from the journey, arrives in the clamour and chaos of her parents’ home. A noisy schoolboy arrives – the brother who as a baby was very attached to her. She tries to see if something of the baby of then is left in him. There is also a little sister – Betsy – born after Fanny had left and she tries to see a resemblance between this new sister and little Mary, the sweet little sister who died, especially as Betsy is as old as Mary was when last seen.

    At first Fanny is disappointed in her home. Her family is not interested in her beyond the first greeting. Her mother is not inclined to know her better. Mrs Price has no maternal feelings or friendship to offer her daughter. This increases all the faults of her home and we know that Fanny’s home is not quite what it should be. It is indicated by William (who hopes Fanny’s more refined ways will have an influence on his home) and by Susan (who tries in her own way, but unsuccessfully, to change things at home).

    Fanny misses the elegance, propriety, regularity and harmony of Mansfield – but more important to her are its peace and tranquillity. I think that a loving home would have been forgiven a lot. Instead she is not really wanted there. Nobody wonders at her sitting upstairs all the time, nor do they worry about Susan doing the same. When Edmund comes to fetch her back to Mansfield her parents are only too happy to let her go (and Susan as well). If Fanny chooses Mansfield over Portsmouth it is because she is needed and wanted there.

    Then there is the episode with Henry. Fanny doesn’t want Henry to think badly of her family precisely because of his unworthiness.. Not his Mansfieldian unworthiness but his Edmundian unworthiness. When Edmund comes into her house later she doesn’t think about this – she doesn’t wonder what he will think about her home or family (ok she’s leaving for Mansfield then but they are still her family and in total disarray as usual). She doesn’t want somebody like Henry, whom she thinks shallow and morally inferior, to think badly of her family. And don’t forget that Fanny herself is troubled by her feeling of shame.

    Fanny is not the only one ashamed of family – even Little Dorrit is ashamed when her father very obviously although in a roundabout way asks Mr Clennam to give him money. And Pip would rather not be known to belong to Joe Gargery’s world.

    You wrote:
    “In the end, of course, after a series of off-stage events Fanny finds herself exactly where she wanted – married to Edmund, and mistress of her spiritual home.”

    In the end, Fanny is married to Edmund and his home is her spiritual home. It is not Mansfield that is her home but the parsonage where she lives with Edmund. Mansfield goes to Edmund’s older brother Tom.

    So far some of my views of Mansfield Park.

    I have just one question. You write:
    ‘even when Sir Thomas wonders whether it was right to have married his daughter Maria off to someone she clearly did not love (feelings such as love not having much value in Mansfieldian currency), Fanny remains, as ever, unbending, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.’

    I don’t know where you read that Fanny is more unbending than Sir Thomas about Maria. Can you tell me where this is apparent? I’ve read through the last chapters again but cannot find any indication of this.

    Reply

    • Hello Marita, and thank you very much for your fascinating post. This is precisely the kind of thing I was hoping for when I started this blog.

      I’ll need to think carefully before I answer, and will need to re-read parts of the text again. But I must ask you to bear with me: I’m away for a few days from tomorrow, and, while I’ll have access to this blog, I don’t think I’ll have access to a copy of Mansfield Park. However, I shall most certainly give your comments thought, and will return to this when I get back.

      Reply

    • Hello Marita, first of all – thank you once again for your post, and apologies for the late reply.

      I do actually agree with much that you say. For instance, you say: “I think there is passion in Austen’s work, but it is held back.” It’s that “but” I think I am commenting on: it is always held back. What passion there is isn’t depicted directly, and is at best implied. This is not an aesthetic flaw in any objective – it is merely a feature that I personally (and I emphasise: personally) find alienating.

      But generally, I don’t think Austen was too interested in passion. Once again, this is not a criticism, as an author is entitled to choose his or her themes and subjects. Once again, I agree with you when you say: “[Austen’s characters] are masters of their feelings instead of being mastered by them.” Now, if passion is to be defined as feelings so strong that they cannot be mastered (which seems to me a reasonable definition), it follows that Austen never really depicted passion at all. Strong feelings are there, yes, but, as you say, they are “held back”. One cannot, for instance, imagine any Austen character capable of committing murder, say; the tempestuous, the intense, seem to be outside her range – emotions are too “held back” to allow for such things.

      None of these, I hasten to add, are flaws in any objective sense. Criticising Austen for lacking passion is as pointless as criticising Emily Brontë for having too much: different writers bring their different temperaments to their work, as is only to be expected.

      I found Fanny’s first days in Mansfield Park particularly interesting. If I may be a bit autobiographical here, I myself was transplanted from my native India to Britain – a strange country where I didn’t even know the language – when I was five, and looking back, it was a deeply traumatic experience. For Fanny to be wrenched away from the only environment she had known into the generally cold and unsympathetic environment that is Mansfield Park must have been utterly devastating. But how much of this sense of devastation communicated? Do we really get a sense of the deep trauma that Fanny must have gone through? We are, as you say, told of her situation, and, as a result, we feel compassion for her. What we don’t do is share in her sense of devastation. We do not ourselves feel devastated, and I think there’s a difference. We are certainly sympathetic to fanny, but Austen observes her from the outside, ad does not encourage us to share what must have been very powerful emotions. (Compare this with the childhood chapters of David Copperfield in which Dickens encourages us to feel the very powerful emotions of the boy David.)

      Once again, this is not intended as a criticism: it was clearly Austen’s intention to hold back Fanny’s emotions – to tell the reader about them rather than encourage the reader to share them, so the reader feels sympathy, if not necessarily empathy.

      I was mistaken about the sex of the sibling: for some reason, I was convinced it was a brother. However, a sister dies, and when it happens, Austen decides not to tell us about it. Why? Clearly, the author cannot tell us everything: the author must choose what is important and what isn’t. But I’d have thought that the death of the principal character’s favourite sister would have been very important indeed. Austen omits this very important incident so as “not to over-egg the pudding”. But what exactly do we mean by “over-egging the pudding”? If characters feel extreme emotions (as, presumably, Fanny did), why should it be wrong to depict them?

      The only explanation I can think of for this omission is that Austen did not want to encourage on the part of the reader any great sense of empathy for Fanny. To have depicted Fanny’s emotional trauma would have encouraged far too great an identification for Fanny on the reader’s part, and Austen’s artistic aim demanded that we look on Fanny more dispassionately.

      Once again, to differentiate between artistic qualities (which are objective)and my personal reactions (which are subjective), I can appreciate the artistic qualities on an objective level, but, subjectively, could have done with a greater sense of involvement with the characters’ emotions. Austen, as you rightly say, “doesn’t go in for big emotions”. But I can’t help thinking that if her characters experience “big emotions”, then maybe she should go in for them: otherwise, the characterisation remains incomplete.

      Now, to the issue of Fanny’s coldness. Looking back on the novel, my abiding impression of Fanny is of someone who is morally censorious. But she has trained herself to keep quiet on such matters. She is a ward after all, and it is not for her to express her feelings directly. (There are many wards in 19th century literature – Jane Eyre, Sonya in War and Peace, Harriet Beadle in Little Dorrit, Esther Summerson…) She also knows that her feelings don’t really matter, as no-one really cares much what she feels. But Austen very cleverly allows us to register her moral disapproval even when she doesn’t express them openly herself. She is clearly censorious of her cousins putting on the play, even though she doesn’t say anything. And there’s a very intricate chapter when they all visit Rushworth’s estate: here, in a very carefully choreographed sequence, the various characters pair off with each other in unexpected combinations, and go walking off. The only one who doesn’t in fanny, who sits still, quite immobile at the centre of all the movement around her. And she observes. Her stillness at the centre is contrasted with the movements of the other around her: she is sharply differentiated from the others. And, although she doesn’t say anything (she never does), she has a presentiment that things aren’t right; and she does not approve.

      She is, I think, just about the only one not to be charmed by the Crawfords. Once again, she doesn’t say anything, but, as at Rushworth’s estate, she sits quietly in still, sober judgement, refusing to take part in the movement around her. You say, again quite rightly, that “it’s the un-Edmundian values of the Crawfords that Fanny objects to … They are more vivacious and glittering than we have seen Mansfield …” Indeed. Their glittering vivacity is in direct contrast to the still sobriety that is Mansfield Park; and it is with this stillness and sobriety that Fanny so strongly identifies; it is this stillness and sobriety that seem to me the true “Mansfieldian values”. The vivacious Crawfords, the cousins putting on the play, the various parings off at Rushworth’s estate – these are all deeply un-Mansfieldian, and naturally, Fanny, Mansfieldian to the core, disapproves. She is determined to be – as she was at Mr Rushworth’s estate – the still, sober centre around which the others may whirl in their un-Mansfieldian fashion if they want to.

      This is what I meant when I described Fanny as being “more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians”: her cousins (Edmund excepted), the Crawfords, all adopt un-Mansfieldian ways, but Fanny remains true to Mansfieldian values. The question remains: to what extent is Fanny’s moral censoriousness indicative of integrity and rectitude, and to what extent is it indicative merely of priggishness? Austen is deliberately ambivalent on this point. And I can’t help thinking that it is on this ambivalence that this complex novel is balanced.
      Your views on Fanny’s visit to Portsmouth were enlightening – especially your comments on Fanny being embarrassed when Henry sees her father, but not being embarrassed when Edmund sees her family. Certainly, Fanny is unwanted at Portsmouth, and the disappointment must have been immense. But she had been unwanted at Mansfield Park also. It did seem to me remarkable that Fanny finds fault wither mother’s lassitude, when precisely the same quality in her mother’s sister back in Mansfield Park passes without comment. True, Portsmouth is hardly a welcoming home, but it does appear that the people of Portsmouth and of Mansfield Park are judged by different standards. Perhaps, as you say, it’s a matter of dashed expectations: Fanny had expected much for her parents, and didn’t find anything.
      (Incidentally, I wasn’t criticising the incident in which Fanny is embarrassed when Henry sees her father drunk; far from it – it struck me as a scene full of great psychological insight. And I also can’t help thinking that Dickens would have been a bit more sympathetic of the clutter of the Portsmouth house, and would have preferred the buzz and vitality of Portsmouth to the stillness and tranquillity – some might say coldness – of Mansfield Park.)

      Fanny’s disgust with her Portsmouth home, however we may view it, does convince her that her true spiritual home is Mansfield Park. The issue of identity does lie at the heart of this novel, it seems to me: Fanny has to see Portsmouth for herself, and reject it, before she can realise that Mansfield Park is her true home.

      Now for that ending, which I find deeply ambiguous. You are quite right, of course: I slipped up very badly in saying that Fanny becomes mistress of Mansfield Park. She becomes, as you say, mistress of Edmund’s parsonage, no longer a ward. She has found her spiritual home, and is settled there. But as for Maria’s adultery, it did strike me that even Sir Thomas wonders whether it had been right to marry Maria off to someone she didn’t love. Fanny, as I remember, doesn’t respond to him either way: she remains silent on this issue, even though, by this stage, she didn’t need to be silent. The kindly Sir Thomas (kindly as far as Fanny is concerned, at least), doubting the goodness of his past actions, would certainly have welcomed from sympathetic response from Fanny, but Fanny has none to give. This very lack of response when a response was surely called for does, I admit, strike me as unbending. This adultery is the culminating point of the invasion of Mansfield Park by un-Mansfieldian, Crawfordian values: only Fanny held out firmly and consistently against these Crawfordian values. Now, she is justified: Edmund sees how wrong he had been in having been dazzled by Mary. The Crawfordian values are now universally seen to be morally rotten, and the Mansfieldian values, of which fanny has consistently been a quiet champion, are triumphant. But where is the grace in the victory? Where is the compassion for the defeated? For surely, Maria et al deserve at least some token of compassion. Sir Thomas certainly feels some. But it is Fanny’s silence on this matter that indicates to me that she has no compassion at all for the defeated. She doesn’t even have any words of comfort for Sir Thomas, not even a gentle “It must have been very difficult for Maria – one shouldn’t judge too harshly”.

      I do feel Mansfield Park is a superb work of art, and is a work of great intricacy. As with any great work of art, there may legitimately be different responses to it. But speaking personally, I do find it difficult to warn to works in which powerful emotions are held at arm’s length. That is, however, merely a personal response.

      Reply

      • Posted by Marita on August 22, 2011 at 3:19 pm

        Thank you for the response, Himadri. No need to apologise for the late response. After all it took me (god knows how many) months to reply to your original post.

        I think it unlikely we’ll ever agree on the passion (or lack of it) in Austen’s work. You feel she never expresses it and I feel it as a strong undercurrent, something I pick up reading between the lines. As you said, this is not a flaw of Austen and might well be a flaw in my reading of Austen’s work, seeing and feeling a passion that is not there.

        As for Fanny’s integrity and rectitude, they are a result of the education that Edmund gave her, pointing her to the right books to read and really forming her mind. But Fanny, shy by nature and undoubtedly made more so in Mansfield, is never sure of herself. When she sees Maria and Henry rehearsing the play over and over again she feels this is not right for a young woman who’s engaged. She wants to tell Edmund of this but is not sure whether what she sees IS wrong. Perhaps she only THINKS it’s wrong. She has no confidence in her own judgement so she can only hint at the problem and Edmund, with his head with Mary in the clouds, doesn’t understand the hint.

        You say:
        “But it is Fanny’s silence on this matter that indicates to me that she has no compassion at all for the defeated.”

        Silence is Fanny’s theme. The silence of her cold room, the silence around her at the outing to Rushworth’s estate, the silence she seeks at her parents’ home in the bedroom she shares with Susan and I presume that the room where she sits with her aunt Bertram is rather quiet as well.
        There is also Fanny’s silence. Being a ward AND being shy she doesn’t talk much, doesn’t voice her opinions on anything. Jane Austen says for instance that there was ‘no positive ill-nature in Maria and Julia but Fanny was often mortified by their treatment of her but thought too lowly of her own claims to feel injured by it.’ Fanny doesn’t say anything about this (not event to Edmund).
        Neither does she tell Edmund about the necklace that Mary gave her pretending it was a present from Mary herself while in fact Mary tricked her to accept a present of Henry. She doesn’t reveal to him the mercenary thinking of Mary regarding Tom’s illness until long after Mary is gone.
        Aunt Norris again and again belittles her, keeps rubbing it in that she’s not a Bertram. Even after the changed attitude of her uncle this still happens and Fanny still remains silent.
        The biggest sign of her silence is in Portsmouth where she cannot talk to her mother, not about her own problems and not about her mother’s problems (despite William’s hopes). The first is because her mother’s not interested, the second because Fanny, always made to follow, doesn’t know how to lead.

        I don’t think Fanny’s silence is due to a lack of compassion. Fanny is shy and even the changed attitude of uncle Bertram and her changed place in the household cannot magically cure her from this shyness. Fanny is a listener and her compassion lies in the fact that she can listen without judging.

        It is true that Maria was severely punished for her idiotic behaviour with Henry while he gets away scot-free. It is not right by any stretch of the imagination but that’s what happened in Austen’s days and neither uncle Bertram nor Fanny had the power to change this.

        I have been thinking about Austen not mentioning the death of Fanny’s beloved sister. I get the feeling that we are meant to see Fanny through the eyes of others or rather see only those things about Fanny that the people around her see. While Fanny is in Mansfield we are told nothing about her parents, brothers and sisters. As if they don’t exist to the people in Mansfield. Only her brother William is mentioned when he’s in Mansfield and when Henry helps him to get a promotion and Henry is at that time of interest to Mansfield as potential husband to Fanny. The Portsmouth family is only of interest as a means to show Fanny what an imprudent marriage can lead to.

        In Portsmouth it is only indirectly – through letters – that we hear from the people at Mansfield. They are of no interest to Fanny’s family, except for Susan who cannot hear enough of them.

        I might be totally wrong about this. As I said, it is just a feeling I have

      • Hello Marita, I don’t actually think we’re disagreeing too much: I do agree with you that Mansfield Park is a great novel. Our disagreements are more on matters of interpretation, I think.

        On the question of passion, you say:

        “I think it unlikely we’ll ever agree on the passion (or lack of it) in Austen’s work. You feel she never expresses it and I feel it as a strong undercurrent, something I pick up reading between the lines.”

        Certainly there do exist, I agree, strong emotions in Austen, but they are always presented, as you say, as undercurrents, whereas I personally prefer strong emotions to be depicted directly, on the surface.

        Are the emotions in Austen’s works, presented though they are as undercurrents rather than on the surface, strong enough to be called passions? I suppose much depends on the point beyond which we think an emotion is sufficiently strong to be termed a passion. Austen would never, I think, depict the kind of extreme emotions as depicted by, say Emily Brontë: I think she would have considered such directness an aesthetic flaw.

        Once again, that is a matter of personal preference: some like the emotional reticence of Austen (“emotional reticence” does not imply “absence of emotion” – merely that strong emotions are presented as undercurrents); others, like myself, prefer the full-frontal emotional assault of an Emily Brontë. I have a friend who likes both, depending on her mood at the time of reading. But leaving aside Emily Brontë, the emotional intensity of whose work is, I agree, extreme, I do not think Austen could have depicted, say, the obsessive passion Pip has for Estella; or the passion that Bradley Headstone has for Bella Wilfer, which turns into a murderous rage; or the passion of a Michael Henchard, or of Tess. And neither would she have wanted to, I think. Austen’s art requires a clear, objective viewpoint, and extreme emotions depicted openly on the surface would have marred the clarity she strove for: it is very different in nature from what Dickens or Hardy were trying to achieve.

        And it is because Austen aimed for objectivity that she was careful not to involve the reader too deeply with Fanny I think Fanny is kept at a certain distance quite deliberately, for if we were to empathise with Fanny, we would not be able to view her with the objectivity that I think Austen wanted. I don’t know that I agree that “we are meant to see Fanny through the eyes of others or rather see only those things about Fanny that the people around her see”. We don’t need to browse too long through the book to see that Austen frequently enters fanny’s mind, and shows her aspects of her that no-one else could have seen or known about. For instance, in Vol 1 Chapter 3:

        “Fanny left the room with a sorrowful heart; she could not feel the difference to be so small, she could not think of living with her aunt with any thing like satisfaction.”

        Or in Vol 1 Chapter 5:

        “…she still continued to think Mr Crawford very plain …”

        Or in Vol 1 Chapter 12:

        “Fanny was the only one in the party who found anything to dislike; but ever since the day at Sotherton, she could never see Mr Crawford with either sister without observation, and seldom without wonder or censure…”

        We are, throughout., taken into Fanny’s mind. And yet, when Fanny’s mind must have felt extreme grief, we aren’t. The occasion isn’t even narrated. As I say, I cannot think of any reason for this omission except to ensure that the reader doesn’t feel too sorry for Fanny: the reader must view Fanny objectively throughout.

        You give a very detailed and convincing picture of Fanny’s moral steadfastness. I agree that she is quite both by nature (she is shy), and also because, as a ward, she has no alternative but to keep her feelings to herself. But she is censorious of the Crawfords, and of her cousins’ behaviour: the last of the three excerpts I quote above makes that clear; there are many other similar passages expressing Fanny’s unspoken disapproval. The picture you present of Fanny’s moral rectitude is certainly correct, but, in good fiction as in life, things are rarely so clear-cut: I think there are other ways of looking at this. What Fanny sees as the moral laxity of the Crawfords and of her cousins may be seen more charitably as high spirits, as a zest for life, as gaiety and cheerfulness; or, at worst, as but the indiscretions of youth. And Fanny’s constant disapproval can be seen as prissy, or even as priggish. After all, a terrible injustice was done to Maria in marrying her off to someone she didn’t care for. Is it not possible to sympathise with Maria, as we sympathise with, say, Emma Bovary or with Anna Karenina? Is it not possible to see Maria gasping to escape from a stuffy marriage that she had not herself asked for? Even her father thinks so at the end. But, although we are taken into Fanny’s mind throughout the novel (as I say, browse through any part of the novel and you will find descriptions of what is going on in her mind), I don’t think she ever expresses the slightest sympathy with Maria – not even in her thoughts.

        Austen uses various levels of irony, so it is not possible to see where exactly her own sympathies lie. But I do think that Mansfield Park is a more subtle work than a merely a depiction of “Patient Virtue Rewarded”. As with any work that has depth, more than one single perspective is possible on the various complexities of character. And I think that the possibility of different perspectives enriches rather than diminishes the work.

        I think we are actually more in agreement than otherwise: I have no doubt at all that Austen was a major novelist, and a very great artist. The problem is not with Austen, but with me: I like strong, powerful emotions depicted openly, but that would have been quite contrary to Austen’s aesthetics, which require objectivity and clarity.

        Your posts, however, are certainly making me rethink some aspects of the novel – especially the chapters set in Portsmouth. I am particularly struck by your point that she is embarrassed by Henry seeing her family, but not Edmund. That seems as it should be, but it is not as yet obvious to me why.

      • Posted by Marita on August 23, 2011 at 10:49 am

        Concerning Maria you say
        “After all, a terrible injustice was done to Maria in marrying her off to someone she didn’t care for. Is it not possible to sympathise with Maria, as we sympathise with, say, Emma Bovary or with Anna Karenina? Is it not possible to see Maria gasping to escape from a stuffy marriage that she had not herself asked for? Even her father thinks so at the end.”

        Maria wasn’t married off to someone she didn’t care for. She chose to marry Rushworth.

        After the episode with the theatre she expected Henry Crawford to declare himself and she would have dropped Rushworth in an instance if he had. Instead Henry leaves Mansfield and Maria now knows he never meant anything serious. Her dreams of Henry are dust; more importantly her pride is injured. She is determined to take Rushworth..

        Mr Bertram, pleased with the wealth and importance of his future son-in-law, soon realises that Rushworth is an idiot. Observing Maria he notices that she is not in love with her future husband so he suggests to her that the marriage can be cancelled. He would do all that was needed.

        This, according to Austen (chapter 21) was Maria’s reaction:
        “Maria had a moment’s struggle as she listened, and only a moment’s: when her father ceased, she was able to give her answer immediately, decidedly, and with no apparent agitation. She thanked him for his great attention, his paternal kindness, but he was quite mistaken in supposing she had the smallest desire of breaking through the engagement, or was sensible of any change of opinion or inclination since her forming it. She had the highest esteem for Mr Rushworth’s character and disposition, and could not have a doubt of her happiness with him.”

        Sir Thomas accepts this answer gladly.
        “…too glad to be satisfied perhaps to urge the matter quite so far as his judgment might have dictated to others. It was an alliance which he could not have relinquished without pain; …”

        In chapter 48 Sir Thomas realises his mistake:
        “He felt that he ought not to have allowed the marriage, that his daughter’s sentiments had been sufficiently known to him to render him culpable in authorising it, that in so doing he had sacrificed the right to the expedient, and been governed by motives of selfishness and worldly wisdom.”

        So Maria could easily have escaped the marriage to Rushworth. She wouldn’t even have to do anything herself to get rid of him. Maria’s pride was her downfall. She married Rushworth for his estate, for his house in London; she wanted the consequence this would give her and the possibilities of lively parties away from stuffy old Mansfield. Mostly I think she marries out of injured pride. She wanted to show Henry Crawford that he meant as little to her as she to him. That is why she acts cold and uninterested to him when they meet again. She totally ignores him. If she had acted differently, been friendly, pretended they had always just been friends, nothing would have happened. But her coldness piques Henry’s pride and he is determined that Mrs Maria Rushworth will care for him as much as she did when she was Miss Maria Bertram. And he succeeds, beyond his imagination I think because he wins Maria – whom he doesn’t really want – and ends up losing Fanny, the woman he had chosen with his mind and his heart.

        On a different tangent: don’t you think that Edmund and Fanny, though first appearing in 1814, are fine examples of the dull heroes and heroines of Victorian novels?

  7. Yes, you’re right, Maria went into the marriage of her own free will, and I was wrong in having implied (albeit inadvertently) that she had been forced into it. (Actually, Emma Bovary had not been forced into marriage either, and neither is there any indication that Anna Karenina had been forced into marriage.) But while Maria is clearly a very different character from either Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, she does, I think, find herself, like the other two, married to someone she doesn’t care for – although, I agree, it is a bed of her own making. She certainly pays a heavy price for it by the end of the novel, though!

    I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised if Fanny fails to find sympathy for Maria at the end: when Maria had the upper hand, she had certainly made no attempt to make friends with Fanny, and appeared (if I remember rightly) effectively to ignore her. Maria is proud, selfish, self-centred … but as I say, she does pay a heavy price for it all by the end.

    Victorian heroes and heroines often tended to be dull because teh conventions demanded that they be chaste before marriage. In an earlier century, Fielding could allow his hero Tom Jones to be sexually active (although Sophia had to remain pure!) – but in Victorian times, both hero and herone had to remain spotless – not merely on matters of sex, but in other thing salso: they had to be paragons of virtue. And this made for dullness. If Fanny and Edmund are dull as people (and once again, this is not a criticism of the book: if they are dull, it’s because Austen intended them to be dull) – they are dull not because convention demanded them to be morally spotless, but because they are too stuffy and humourless to be otherwise! They remind me of that quip from Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest – “Sometimes he is so serious that I think he cannot be quite well!”

    I need to re-read this novel: as you can see, I have forgotten many of the details. Thank you very much for reminding me of so much of it.

    Reply

  8. I’m quite aware of the fact that Maria Rushworth made the decision to marry Mr. Rushworth. I found Maria’s decision to elope with Henry Crawford rather stupid. On that note, I fully agree with Mary Crawford. But the manner in which Sir Thomas ostracized Maria from the family circle STILL strikes me as too extreme and unforgiving to the point I found it chilling. It would have been one thing for Maria to be forced to avoid society, but to have her family completely turn their backs on her. In fact, I found Edmund’s reaction to Mary’s suggestions on how to deal with the matter rather extreme, cold, and unforgiving. I feel that Mary was lucky to escape being the wife of Edmund Bertram. I don’t think he was suited for her.

    I may admire Fanny for her steadfastness in her refusal to marry Henry Crawford. But I believe she should have been honest . . . at least with Henry and herself about the true reasons behind her refusal. She did not love him. Instead, she loved her cousin Edmund Bertram. Even worse, Fanny has adopted some of Edmund’s worst traits – his priggishness, hypocrisy and inability to forgive.

    Did Austen really expect her readers to condemn the others characters in the same manner that Fanny and Edmund did . . . and at the same time, turn a blind eye to the young couple’s faults by the end of the novel? Or were we expected to view the story’s finale from a perspective different than those who always come to Fanny’s defense.?

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome to this blog.

      Mansfield Park is a novel I really must revisit: it is a morally complex work, and a singl ereading isn’t enough. I read back on some of the things I wrote in this post, and frankly find myself cringing: as if a single reading – and from someone like myself who finds Auste difficult – could ever be enough!

      Did Austen really expect her readers to condemn the others characters in the same manner that Fanny and Edmund did . . . and at the same time, turn a blind eye to the young couple’s faults by the end of the novel? Or were we expected to view the story’s finale from a perspective different than those who always come to Fanny’s defense.?

      Indeed. I’m afraid I really don’t know. When I read the novel, I found Fanny priggish, and was far more sympathetic than she was to her cousins, awful though they were in so many ways. But many things I have heard and read since about the novel – not least teh exchange in the comments above – have convinced me that there is far more to this novel than I had discerned at my first reading. I am planning to re-read all of Austen’s novels next year, in the hope, even if I end up not liking them, that I at least understand them a bit better. And until I do understand them a bit better, I don’t really feel qualified in passing judgement on any aspect of these works.

      Regards, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Marita on December 17, 2012 at 7:47 pm

        Hello Himadri,

        You know I’ve always been a defender of Mansfield Park and I hope you don’t mind I put my view forward – yet again.

        I feel the behaviour of these characters is too often judged by our 21st century standards. Measured by those the treatment of Maria is harsh and her family should practice some Christian charity towards her. The Crawfords are fun people and the rest has swallowed a broomstick along with an over the top sense of what is morally correct.

        Of course Jane Austen wrote in the 19th century when things were rather different. If Maria’s family still accepted her, it would reflect badly on her sister and Fanny. People see Maria as a loose woman and would consider the whole family to have loose morals if they didn’t turn their backs on her. It would make finding a husband utterly impossible for Julia and Fanny. This is also shown in Pride and Prejudice where the elopement of Lydia is seen as disastrous for the marriage prospects of the other Bennet girls.

        And with all our moral outrage we should not forget that as recent as the 1960’s girls who had illegitimate babies were treated in the same way. Certain parts of our 21st society do even worse things to girls who are seen to break the moral code.

        drush76 says: “I believe she (Fanny) should have been honest . . . at least with Henry and herself about the true reasons behind her refusal. She did not love him. Instead, she loved her cousin Edmund”

        At the moment that Henry asked Fanny, she was convinced that her cousin would marry Henry’s sister Mary. If Henry had been morally sound Fanny would have said yes. Austen even acknowledges in her novel that, if Henry had not run of with Maria and had kept his promise, Fanny would have married him, once his sister had become Edmunds wife. In Austen’s time love was probably an added bonus rather than the only reason to marry somebody. Marriage was the only career option for a girl at that time. The alternative – being a spinster – was not a position to envy unless the lady had money. Think about Miss Bates (I think that was her name) in Emma. For Fanny, a girl without prospects or money, refusing a a man like Henry Crawford needed more solid ground than the love for a cousin who was already taken.

        Marita

      • Hello Marita, it’s always a pleasure to see you here. And I don’t think you need to defend Mansfield Park: its quality is quite apparent, even to someone like me who doesn’t quite get it, and feels he needs to investigate further.

        Yes, of course I agree that Austen was depicting a society with moral standards very different from our own. Nonetheless, when I read Mansfield Park, I did get a strong sense of emotional coldness: that cold room lacking a fire in which Fanny liked to spend her time seemed to me symbolic of a certain state of mind, a certain coldness perhaps. And many readers have found Fanny priggish: Kingsley Amis, for instance. Speaking for myself, I think I’d better reserve judgement until I have read it again. But even if Fanny is a flawed character (aren’t we all?) the flaw is in her character, not in the characterisation, which is masterly. (It always annoys me, for instance, when people criticise Bleak House because they do not happen to like Esther Summerson as a person!)

        And yes, from what I remember, Fanny refuses Henry because she disapproves of him morally. But complex characters can and do have complex motives, and it may indeed be at least conceivable that a love for Edmund, though not openly acknowledged (not even perhaps to her own self) could have been a factor also. But even if this were to be the case, you’re quite right in highlighting the lack of choice women had in the society Austen was depicting: one either got married, or one ended up, at best, an impoverished hanger-on. Austen was nothing if not a clear-sighted realist.

        I really don’t want to make a fool of myself further by talking about matters that I realise I did not fully take in at my last reading. I have no doubt that Mansfield Park is a serious novel about serious moral and psychological themes; but I realise also that morality and psychology are never clear-cut and unambiguous. I am quite looking forward to my Austen Odyssey next year, when I hope to be reading these books in chronological order (much as you’re doing with Dickens). And the point this time is not to determine whether or not I like these novels, but, rather, to see whether or not I can understand something of the nature of Austen’s highly sophisticated art.

  9. [“I feel the behaviour of these characters is too often judged by our 21st century standards. Measured by those the treatment of Maria is harsh and her family should practice some Christian charity towards her. The Crawfords are fun people and the rest has swallowed a broomstick along with an over the top sense of what is morally correct.
    Of course Jane Austen wrote in the 19th century when things were rather different. If Maria’s family still accepted her, it would reflect badly on her sister and Fanny. People see Maria as a loose woman and would consider the whole family to have loose morals if they didn’t turn their backs on her. It would make finding a husband utterly impossible for Julia and Fanny. This is also shown in Pride and Prejudice where the elopement of Lydia is seen as disastrous for the marriage prospects of the other Bennet girls.”]

    And yet . . . Austen allowed Lydia to marry Wickham in the end. Also, the Bennet family seemed more concerned with ensuring Lydia and Wickham’s marriage than banning Lydia from the family permanently. Which is why I (a 20th and 21st century woman) find Sir Thomas’ punishment of Maria excessive.

    Reply

    • I don’t know that the two instances are directly comparable. After all, Lydia and Wickham are free to marry: this is not the case with Maria and Henry. If we feel that the punishment of Maria is excessive, it is because Sir Thomas himself seems less unbending than Fanny on this matter.

      Reply

      • Posted by Marita on January 4, 2013 at 10:02 pm

        I think in Austen’s time there was a big difference between a married woman eloping with another man and an unmarried girl eloping with an unmarried man (and at some point marrying him). Maria’s sister, Julia did elope with her brother’s friend, Yates, and came back a married woman. She wasn’t thrown out by her family.

        In Pride & Prejudice after Lydia married Wickham Mr Bennet says she will never be received at home. Of course his wife is so over the moon with the marriage that he, again, gives in to her and Lydia briefly visits home.

        You say “If we feel that the punishment of Maria is excessive, it is because Sir Thomas himself seems less unbending than Fanny on this matter.”
        I’ve re-read the last three chapters, from the moment Fanny receives Mary’s letter to the end of the novel and have seen nothing that would indicate this. All Fanny is thinking about is what the actions of Maria and Henry have done to the family at Mansfield Park, especially what it meant to Sir Thomas and Edmund.

        It is her father who remains unbending as is shown here:
        “Where she could be placed, became a subject of most melancholy and momentous consultation. Mrs. Norris, whose attachment seemed to augment with the demerits of her niece, would have had her received at home, and countenanced by them all. Sir Thomas would not hear of it, and Mrs. Norris’s anger against Fanny was so much the greater, from considering her residence there as the motive. She persisted in placing his scruples to her account, though Sir Thomas very solemnly assured her, that had there been no young woman in question, had there been no young person of either sex belonging to him, to be endangered by the society, or hurt by the character of Mrs. Rushworth, he would never have offered so great an insult to the neighbourhood, as to expect it to notice her. As a daughter—he hoped a penitent one—she should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their relative situations admitted; but farther than that, he would not go. Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man’s family, as he had known himself.”

        It is not Fanny’s fault that Mrs Norris blames her for Sir Thomas’ decision not to let his daughter come back. Sir Thomas even says that he would still act the same, even Fanny hadn’t been there.

      • Hello Marita, first of all, I agree with you fully that Maria’s adultery is entirely different from Lydia’s elopement. I agree with you further that in the society Austen was depicting, adultery is a very grave matter indeed. Having recently re-read Anna Karenina, I could hardly be unaware of the gravity!

        On the matter of Sir Thomas, this is the passage I was thinking if (it’s near the start of Chapter 48):

        Sir Thomas, poor Sir Thomas, a parent, and conscious of errors in his own conduct as a parent, was the longest to suffer. He felt that he ought not to have allowed the marriage; that his daughter’s sentiments had been sufficiently known to him to render him culpable in authorising it; that in so doing he had sacrificed the right to the expedient, and been governed by motives of selfishness and worldly wisdom.

        Rather than view his daughter as solely culpable, he actually starts to consider what part he himself may have played in the whole sorry affair. This does not suggest to me a man unbending in his condemnation, and his moral outrage.

        But no quarrel at all about the very serious nature of Maria’s infidelity – especially within that society.

  10. Posted by Marita on January 5, 2013 at 12:28 am

    The first part was actually in answer to the previous post, the one you had replied to.

    I agree that Sir Thomas blamed himself for what Maria did by allowing her marriage to Rushworth. Later on he blames himself for the way his daughters had been raised. He feels, at least partly, responsible for the failings in their character. But he still condemns Maria to a quiet life abroad, away from her family. He still does not forgive her and let her come back home.
    I still don’t understand how this realisation of Sir Thomas makes him less unbending than Fanny.

    Reply

    • Yes, certainly, Sir Thomas punishes Maria for the gravity of her transgression. But his own soul-searching at this point seems to me both unexpected and touching. He examines his own conscience, and finds himself bearing some of the guilt. And if he feels he bears at least some of the guilt, it follows that he doesn’t think Maria bears all of the guilt. Now, I may be misrembering, but no such consideration enters Fanny’s mind: she never considers even the possibility that people other than Maria, and Maria alone, have had a part to play in the catastrophe. This is why it seemed to me that Fanny is more unbending.

      I shall reread Mansfield Park later this year. It clearly contains moral and psychological complexities that I had at best skimmed over.

      Reply

      • Posted by Marita on January 5, 2013 at 9:47 pm

        I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on Mansfield Park once you’ve re-read it, Himadri.

  11. Posted by Jim Stacey on February 2, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Hi, Himadri.

    Congratulations on the wide-ranging and very stimulating blog – a delightful, and recent, discovery for me.

    Your comments on Flaubert in this posting and elsewhere are very perceptive and I wonder whether you have dipped into his letters. If so, you should write about them – please! If not, you’ll find they are a revelation. There is an excellent selection in translation, with connecting narrative, by Francis Steegmuller (“Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert”, 2 volumes). It’s no longer in print but is readily available second-hand or from any decent library. Volume 1 contains the most extraordinary letters, those Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet while at work on “Madame Bovary”.

    You would find strong support for the distinction you make between Jane Austen and Flaubert in their respective letters. But this distinction brings to mind Horace Walpole’s aphorism: “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” And neither group is wrong, or dispensable.

    Best wishes and thanks,

    Jim

    Reply

    • Hello Jim, and thank you for that.

      One consequence of writing a blog is that all the past posts remain, with all their errors of critical judgement, and containing all those thoughts one has since come to revise. In view of the comments above, I think I may well have misjudged Mansfield Park to a certain extent – that it is not so emotionally distant as I had thought it. At any rate, I have sufficient doubts on this point to be prepared to reserve my judgement till the next reading.

      I also think I got wrong Austen’s view of Miss Bates. Emma is a novel, after all, of many layers of irony, and perhaps I was guilty of taking certain things at face value that I shouldn’t have.

      Perhaps I should make a rule not to comment on anything I do not like, as one tends not to be too perceptive about one’s dislikes.

      But on the whole, the comparison between Austen and Flaubert still strikes me, I think, as a valid one: they saw the same things, but felt about them very differently. Austen still strikes me as a classicist, and Flaubert a disillusioned Romantic. I have heard many fine things about Flaubert’s correspondence, and really should get hold of a copy: thanks for the recommendation.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  12. Posted by Di on April 2, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    Fanny’s disgust with her own home may not sound very nice, but I understand her- it isn’t much different from the way many people feel about their homeland after many years in another country, especially if they’ve moved from a developing country to a developed one. They may feel that they don’t belong to the new place, but upon return for a visit, realise that the new place is now their home.
    And I don’t find Fanny dull, priggish or hypocritical (which, I must add, is not the only reason “Mansfield Park” is my favourite Austen, tied with “Emma”), but that would need a longer post.
    (I didn’t intend to write too many comments in your old posts, which must have crept you out, but I felt the need to defend “Mansfield Park” :D)

    Reply

    • Posted by Di on April 2, 2014 at 11:26 pm

      I’m aware, this is not a perfect comparison. One’s home and one’s homeland are different, especially today, when 1 person can have more than 1 homeland. But Fanny moves to Mansfield park when she’s quite young. And all I’m saying is that, whether one likes her attitude is 1 thing, I understand how she feels.

      Reply

      • I actually agree with you. I think Austen’s understanding of the mind of a person displaced at an early age is very astute. The greatness of this novel, or of any novel, does not depend on whether or not one likes the characters, and I think I agree with you that this and Emma may well be Austen’s finest works. (Although, as I say in my post, I did like Persuasion quite a lot.)

        Since having written this, I have been rereading the Austen novels again, and this time, I think I am understanding them better. Mansfield Park is next on my list, and hopefully, I’ll come to a better understanding of this obviously great work.

      • PS To indulge in a bit of autobiography, I myself came to UK from India aged 5, so the theme of displacement is one that particularly resonates with me.

      • Posted by Di on April 3, 2014 at 10:32 am

        I see.
        I myself moved from Vietnam to Norway a few months before turning 16.
        Anyway, you wrote “its principal themes seem to me to be displacement and identity”. I don’t disagree, but I think “Mansfield Park” has 2 more important themes:
        1st, Jane Austen shatters the ‘bad boy ideal’, like Anne Bronte later does in “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” but in a better, more masterful way.
        2nd, I see this novel as the author’s reaction to her own previous work “Pride and Prejudice”. Does it strike you that Mary Crawford is similar to Elizabeth Bennet in many ways and yet is the ‘bad girl’ of the book? (Another character that resembles Elizabeth in some aspects is Louisa Musgrove in “Persuasion”, in my opinion).
        Just curious, why do you like “Persuasion” best?

      • I really need to re-read the novel before commenting on it. But I think you’re right in that, after Pride and Prejudice (which Austen herself thought might be “too light”), she wanted to try something completely different. The result is so sombre that many Austenites feel it to be the “black sheep of the family”, as it were.

        I liked Persuasion because it seemed to me the warmest of her novels. It is unfair to describe Austen as “bloodless”, as Charlotte Bronte had done: my recent re-reading have convinced me that there most certainly are strong feelings in her novels, but that these feelings were placed decorously under the surface, and are easy to miss: certainly, I missed much of it in my earlier readings. But in Persuasion, powerful feelings lie very close to the surface. Its theme, after all, is a passion that hasn’t diminished despite years of separation. I am, as I said, re-reading these works in order, but it does seem to me that in her last completed novel, Austen was moving in a new direction.

      • Posted by Di on April 3, 2014 at 6:58 pm

        Ah, right, warmest and, I think, most romantic (Wentworth’s letter!).
        Your comment reminds me of this passage by Virginia Woolf:
        “Let us take Persuasion, the last completed novel, and look by its light at the books she might have written had she lived. There is a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world; she no longer notes them freshly. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobbery of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on her object. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, the quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works”. She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”. She dwells frequently upon the beauty and the melancholy of nature, upon the autumn where she had been wont to dwell upon the spring. She talks of the “influence so sweet and so sad of autumnal months in the country”. She marks “the tawny leaves and withered hedges”. “One does not love a place the less because one has suffered in it”, she observes. But it is not only in a new sensibility to nature that we detect the change. Her attitude to life itself is altered. She is seeing it, for the greater part of the book, through the eyes of a woman who, unhappy herself, has a special sympathy for the happiness and unhappiness of others, which, until the very end, she is forced to comment upon in silence. Therefore the observation is less of facts and more of feelings than is usual. There is an expressed emotion in the scene at the concert and in the famous talk about woman’s constancy which proves not merely the biographical fact that Jane Austen had loved, but the aesthetic fact that she was no longer afraid to say so. Experience, when it was of a serious kind, had to sink very deep, and to be thoroughly disinfected by the passage of time, before she allowed herself to deal with it in fiction. But now, in 1817, she was ready. Outwardly, too, in her circumstances, a change was imminent. Her fame had grown very slowly. “I doubt”, wrote Mr. Austen Leigh, “whether it would be possible to mention any other author of note whose personal obscurity was so complete.” Had she lived a few more years only, all that would have been altered. She would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure.

        And what effect would all this have had upon the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would not have written of crime, of passion, or of adventure. She would not have been rushed by the importunity of publishers or the flattery of friends into slovenliness or insincerity. But she would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters. Those marvellous little speeches which sum up, in a few minutes’ chatter, all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs. Musgrove for ever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is. She would have stood farther away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, while it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust — but enough. Vain are these speculations: the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal, died “just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success”.”

      • Interesting. I must admit that Virginia Woolf’s novels are a bit of a blind spot of mine, but her literary criticism I have generally found quite sensible. I’ll need to read Persuasion again (I re-read her first three novels last year: my next re-read will be – going in chronological order – Mansfield Park), but I am a bit puzzled by this:

        The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude.

        Austen’s satire is, indeed, harsh, and not merely in Persuasion: but she had such refined sensibilities that i don’t think she could be “crude” even if she wanted.

        But yes, I did sense that Austen was moving into new areas of feeling with Persuasion. Woolf writes that Austen could not have written of passion: I disagree. For, in Persuasion, passion is precisely what she writes about. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth feel passion or each other. Of course, Austen’s aesthetics were a bit different from that of the Brontes: the passion is not depicted in terms as vivid as those of Jane Eyre, say. But it’s there, and it’s convincing. There is one passage especially where Captain Wentworth helps Anne into a carriage, and, even out of something as seemingly insignificant as this, Austen depicts the frisson of physical contact, and of sexual attraction. It is a magnificent piece of writing, and more erotic than any number of explicit sex scenes.

      • Posted by Di on April 5, 2014 at 6:28 pm

        Ha, I like that: “more erotic than any number of explicit sex scenes”.

  13. Posted by Di on April 3, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Slightly off-topic: Have you read V. S. Naipaul’s comments on Jane Austen and female writers?

    Reply

    • Yes, I have, and while I do admire Naipaul as a novelist, I don’t know that these particular comments are even worth refuting. I can only guess that he was trying to wind people up.

      Reply

      • Posted by Di on April 3, 2014 at 7:04 pm

        Did you read this interview as well http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/magazine/110865/vs-naipaul-the-arab-spring-authors-he-loathes-and-the-books-he-will-never-write?
        I wonder what you, as an Indian, think about him.
        Because an Indian friend of mine said that Naipaul’s understanding of India, its history and people, was zero.

      • Thanks for that link. It’s an interesting interview.

        Once again, I don’t think I’d take too seriously his views on other writers. It happens quite frequently that a creative artist is so immersed in his or her own artistic perspective, they find it difficult appreciating perspectives radically different from their own. For instance, I suppose the three writers who mean most to me are Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Tagore; and yet, Tagore disliked Tolstoy, and Tolstoy hated Shakespeare. I suspect also that Naipaul isn’t above deliberately winding people up.

        The view that Austen’s novels are “trivial” is very wildly wide of the mark. Possibly, Pride and Prejudice – as Austen herself thought may be the case – is a bit on the light side; but how anyone could read Mansfield Park, Emma or Persuasion without seeing the author’s seriousness of intent I cannot imagine.

        Of course, no one person can respond to everything equally. Nabokov was respectful about Austen, but admitted candidly that her novels weren’t really his kind of thing. Mark Twain disliked Austen immensely. On the other hand, Austen’s ardent admirers included Walter Scott (who, at the time, was the world’s best-known novelist), Tennyson, Henry James, etc. The influential critic Edmund Wilson rated Austen and Dickens as Britain’s two greatest novelists. (Of course, Naipaul dislikes Dickens also…)

        On the question of India – it is a vast country with a bewildering complex of languages and cultures: having lived away from the country for virtually all my life, I would not presume to have any great understanding of it. Naipaul’s writings on India are certainly idiosyncratic, but given how little I myself understand about India, I am in no position to sit in judgement on his views. He is, of course, by no means the only writer to have written about India: Sunil Khilnani, Amartya Sen, Romila Thapar, Wendy Doniger, Sumit Sarkar, Ramachandra Guha, William Dalrymple, etc. etc., have all written knowledgeably and perceptively about various aspects of Indian history and cultures (I use the plural form of “culture” advisedly). Naipaul’s voice is but one amongst many. It may be said that at least some of the other voices speak with greater authority, but that is not in itself a reason to reject everything Naipaul says.

        And, no matter what Naipaul’s view on Austen may be, her reputation is in no danger of suffering as a consequence!

      • Posted by Di on April 5, 2014 at 6:19 pm

        Yeah, right. You have a point.
        The thing is, sometimes I may not agree, but understand how 1 writer views another. Eg: I can more or less understand why Tolstoy disliked Shakespeare, why Nabokov disliked Dostoyevsky, why Nabokov said that “Mansfield Park” wasn’t “a violently vivid masterpiece”, why Charlotte Bronte called Jane Austen “bloodless”, etc. V. S. Naipaul’s comments give me the impression that he didn’t really read her books.
        Then of course, one may say, who cares, that’s his opinion. Guess I simply haven’t got rid of the habit of making a fuss when somebody says something about people and things I like. Haha.

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