Archive for May 25th, 2014

“Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen

It is, I think, fair to say that …

Now, always mistrust an essay or a posting that starts with such words. But I am going to go ahead and start with these words anyway.

It is, I think, fair to say that Mansfield Park is the Austen novel that her fans tend least to like. And the reason this novel is so frequently disliked – if the comments I frequently find around the internet are to be trusted – is that Fanny Price is not considered by many readers a likable character.

Now, disliking a protagonist seems to me, for reasons well articulated here, a poor basis for disliking a book. But the question of whether or not we like Fanny is not, perhaps, one that is easily dismissed. For while the reader’s personal like or dislike of Fanny has, or at least should have, no bearing at all on the reader’s judgement on the book’s literary qualities, it certainly has a very strong bearing on how the reader interprets the book. The reader who sees Fanny as priggish, repressed, and overly censorious of human frailties is bound to interpret this novel differently from the reader who sees her as clear-sighted, possessed of moral integrity, and, indeed, heroic. One may try, of course, to be more sophisticated as a reader, and see in Fanny both admirable and not-so-admirable features, but here again we run into difficulties, for those aspects of her character that may be regarded as admirable are precisely the same aspects that may, with equal justification, be regarded as reprehensible: the principled and the priggish are not different qualities, but, rather, the same quality seen from different perspectives. And where Austen herself stands on all this, from what perspective she views her creation, is hard to discern given the various levels of irony she employs throughout. Following immediately on the footsteps of the eminently reader-friendly Pride and Prejudice, Austen here seems to go out of her way to make things as difficult as possible.

***

Fanny is the still centre of a turbulent world. While the various uncontrolled passions – or whims, or passing fancies – drive the other characters this way and that, Fanny remains in the midst of it all, not herself by any means passionless, but with a quiet and undemonstrative constancy. And being so still, and being, further, an outsider, she can see clearly what others cannot. Towards the end of the novel, Fanny is in Portsmouth, away from what many readers consider the “real” action of the novel: and this “real” action is resolved off-stage, as it were, with the turbulence of the various other lives merely reported to Fanny, and to the reader, second hand, through letters and through newspaper reports. Many have found fault with this: even Nabokov thought this a structural flaw. But let us give Austen benefit of the doubt on this matter: the decision to keep the static Fanny in the foreground and to relegate the seemingly more interesting turbulence of the other characters to the background, even in the climactic sequence, is a conscious artistic decision, and not one arrived at lightly. We have, indeed, been given a foretaste of this earlier in the novel in the very intricately choreographed sequence in Sotherton, where Fanny sits alone, still, observing the various other characters in motion all around her, all grouping and re-grouping with each other. Austen’s focus of the interest is not so much what these other characters do, but the repercussions of what they do in Fanny’s mind.

In the sequence that forms the denouement of the novel, Fanny is placed in Portsmouth, away from all the other characters who had, with Fanny, populated the novel up to that point. When the storm breaks, it breaks off-stage: it is merely reported to us. But, unless we are to assume that Austen had miscalculated badly on a point as important as this, we must conclude that it is not this storm in the background that forms the climax of the novel, but, rather, what Austen has placed in the foreground. It is here that we should search for the novel’s denouement.

Certainly, this off-stage storm solves all Fanny’s problems: she is entirely vindicated in her resistance to Henry Crawford; it paves the way for Sir Thomas Bertram to realise that it is indeed Fanny who is the daughter he had always wanted – i.e. Fanny becomes a fully-fledged member of the Bertram family, a position she had not till then held; her fears concerning Maria – fears that only she had entertained – prove well grounded; and, like so many protagonists of other Austen novels – Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse – Edmund is freed from false perception. All birds are killed with this one single stone; her foes all utterly vanquished, Fanny is triumphant. And yet, this personal triumph of Fanny’s, so complete and so unreserved, could only come about through misery for everyone else: a happy ending for Fanny could only come about with the destruction of others’ happiness. Maybe this is why it is so easy to dislike Fanny. But it’s unfair to dislike Fanny for this: she had not willed this, not even unconsciously; indeed, she feels genuinely sorry for those whose suffering forms the basis of her triumph. And if we dislike Fanny even for her magnanimity, as many seem to do, we must turn the moral lens of the novel on to ourselves; and doing so is rarely comfortable. It is little wonder this novel is not widely liked.

But if these off-stage events that lead to Fanny’s triumph in the Mansfield world – a world in which she had previously occupied that uncertain status that is somewhat above that of the servants and yet below that of the family – cannot be considered in themselves the resolution of the novel, then where exactly does this resolution lie? To answer this, we need to consider carefully the themes that have been laid out with such subtlety and intricacy in the rest of the work.

***

The novel tells of a journey from adoption to acceptance. We start with a brief resume of the older generation: the three Ward sisters make – rather as the Bennet sisters had done – three unequal marriages: one makes a brilliant marriage with a titled landowner; another weds a clergyman – not a particularly good marriage, but, thanks to her brother-in-law, one that becomes reasonably comfortable; and the third, disastrously, marries “a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions”. It is on the next generation that the novel focuses.

Mrs Norris, the Ward sister who had married the clergyman, and one of the great monsters of literature, in one of her most hateful moments accuses Fanny, progeny of the bad marriage, of ingratitude, “considering who and what she is”. Mrs Norris has no doubt that who Fanny is determines also what Fanny is. Fanny takes even this gross insult with her customary meekness and patience, but she herself, not quite one of the servants but neither one of the family, cannot be entirely sure on this point: what, after all is she? As someone who had been displaced from her native environment aged only ten, and who had occupied a most uncertain position within her new environment, Fanny’s identity – “who and what she is” – is far from clear.  Although from the same trunk, the branches of the Ward family have grown in very different directions, and within a mere single generation, the common origin from that single trunk seems barely visible.

Fanny is the only one of Austen’s heroines whose childhood is depicted. Despite being marked by the special favour of adoption into a rich family, her childhood does not appear particularly happy: wrenched at the age of ten from the only environment she has ever known – from her parents, from her siblings, her friends – and placed in the somewhat cold and unfeeling environment of Mansfield Park, where she faces mean-minded hostility from her Aunt Norris, and general indifference and disregard from her other aunt and her cousins (Edmund excepted), her situation is not one we are likely to wish on any child. And yet, Austen seems careful not to engage our empathy too strongly with this child. One need only look at how Dickens depicted the childhood of David Copperfield, or how Charlotte Brontë depicted the childhood of Jane Eyre (another ward in an unloving family), to see what Austen might have made of these chapters. Of course, it can be argued that engaging the reader’s sympathy so directly is very much counter to Austen’s classical temperament: the circumstances described here are such that some measure of sympathy for the child is inevitable anyway, and any further prompting on this score on the author’s part becomes a loading of the dice, and mere wallowing (a charge to which neither Charles Dickens nor Charlotte Brontë could entirely plead innocence). But it becomes difficult to account for Austen suppressing at this stage of the novel the death of Fanny’s sister. Fanny had been particularly attached to her sister, and one can but imagine that the news of her death would have made on her a devastating effect. And yet, it is only relatively late in the novel that this event is so much as mentioned. And the only reason I can think of for Austen to suppress this event at the point where we may have expected it to have been narrated is that she wants to maintain a certain emotional distance between the reader and Fanny. Even when we are taken into Fanny’s mind – as we often are – the reader is invited to judge the workings of that mind from as objective a perspective as is possible.

And some readers have judged Fanny very harshly indeed. She is the most morally upright of all Austen’s protagonists, and even for her moral uprightness she is upbraided. This is not to say that censorious judgements of Fanny are necessarily wrong: indeed, Austen, having refused to enlist our sympathies for her heroine further than is unavoidable, gives us perfect freedom to judge her any way we want. It is, indeed, the author’s refusal to guide our moral judgement in this matter in this most morally serious of novels that makes it so very troublesome.

Austen seems to me actually to go further: not only does she refuse to direct the reader’s moral judgement, she makes it difficult for the reader to exercise that judgement. For, very soon after the start of the novel, she introduces the brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, characters of tremendous vivacity, charm, and wit; sparkling and effervescent; and tremendously attractive. These people are, indeed, everything Fanny isn’t. Austen, in short, invites us to like characters whose very existence seems a sort of reproof to Fanny.

Yet it would be very wrong to accuse Fanny of lack of feeling, or even lack of passion. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has combined charm and vivacity with a depth of feeling, but here, the two do not go together: Mary Crawford may possess the former, but it is Fanny who possesses the latter. No-one in the Mansfield circle possesses such depth of feeling as Fanny shows for her brother William, or for Edmund. Consider, for instance, her feelings on Edmund’s letter when he presents her with a neckchain to wear at the ball (one of the novel’s many symbols):

Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author—never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer. The enthusiasm of a woman’s love is even beyond the biographer’s. To her, the handwriting itself, independent of anything it may convey, is a blessedness. Never were such characters cut by any other human being as Edmund’s commonest handwriting gave! This specimen, written in haste as it was, had not a fault; and there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of “My very dear Fanny,” which she could have looked at for ever.

(From Chapter 27)

No-one else in Mansfield Park, Edmund once again possible excepted, is capable of such feelings, of such an emotional reaction. Indeed, so Romantic are Fanny’s sensibilities, it is difficult to forget that she is a contemporary of Wordsworth’s:

Fanny spoke her feelings. “Here’s harmony!” said she; “here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”

(From Chapter 11)

Later, speaking to Mary Crawford, Fanny seems even more explicitly Wordsworthian:

“… How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

(From chapter 22)

But Mary, we are told, is “untouched and inattentive”. Fanny, observing this, returns to more trivial matters that she knows will interest Mary more.

No-one else seems to share Fanny’s depth of feeling, or her fine sensibilities (here so conspicuously married to sense). Not even, perhaps, Edmund: although he is certainly the most sensitive of the family, he has still to learn to perceive clearly. But Fanny, the outsider, can perceive very clearly indeed: the Bertram household, together with the Crawfords and the Grants, seem to constitute a veritable Vanity Fair, with everyone driven to some degree or other by self-regard, by selfishness, by thoughtlessness, by malice. Fanny can see all this, but she is silent – too silent, in many readers’ estimation; but that is hardly to be wondered at: had she spoken, those around would be as untouched and as inattentive as Mary had been.

Fanny’s silence, though censorious up to a point (as it must be, given how clearly she sees), is not, however, without compassion: she can see how great a fool Mr Rushworth is, and yet when his intended, Maria Bertram, walks off with Henry Crawford during the visit to Sotherton, Fanny naturally feels sympathy for him. She is, indeed, perhaps the only character in the entire novel who does feel sympathy for this great booby of a man. More surprisingly, Fanny can even feel sorry also for Julia when, in those famous chapters describing rehearsals for the play, Henry Crawford snubs her by showing quite openly his preference for her sister Maria:

…Maria felt her triumph, and pursued her purpose, careless of Julia; and Julia could never see Maria distinguished by Henry Crawford without trusting that it would create jealousy, and bring a public disturbance at last.

Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them. Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties. They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness.

(From Chapter 17)

The entire sequence of the rehearsals that ends the first of the three parts is one of the many virtuoso passages in the novel, although, perhaps, given how harmless the entire enterprise may seem to modern readers, it is possibly the easiest to misinterpret. In particular, Fanny’s objections may seem prissy: they aren’t. In the first place, everyone concerned knows that they would not have been doing this had the owner of the house, Sir Thomas, been present: when he returns unexpectedly in the midst of the rehearsals, they all know without having to be told that these rehearsals must stop instantly. And in the second place, under the guise of play-acting, some very real feelings come to the fore – rather as they do in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte – and, as Fanny can see (though no-one else can), these feelings, rooted as they are in mere vanity and selfishness, and lacking in depth or in sincerity, are dangerous and destructive. Maria, though engaged to Mr Rushworth – an engagement she has walked into of her own free will, and which she does not break off because she rather likes the idea of being mistress of Sotherton – responds to the cold-blooded and calculating flirting of Henry Crawford with “triumph”; she is indifferent to the feelings of her future husband, and takes delight in humiliating her own sister. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, has her own plans concerning Edmund. The entire enterprise develops such a momentum that not only is it unable to stop, it sucks in everyone: even Edmund finds himself thinking up excuses to become part of this, and one wonders how even Fanny could have held out had not Sir Thomas’ unexpected return put an abrupt  end to all the shenanigans..

But though Fanny can see clearly, and even sympathise, she must keep all she feels to herself: the others, like Julia, make “no communications”, and it is not Fanny’s place to take “liberties”. Like many a narrator of tragic tales, Fanny cannot do anything about what she sees.

But the novel, in the latter half, takes a sinister turn: Fanny is no longer merely the observer of events, but becomes a participant. Henry has taken it into his mind that it would be amusing to win Fanny’s heart. Rather like the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangeruses, Henry and Mary plot together, and aid each other in their amoral schemes and stratagems. But in the course of this charm offensive, something rather strange happens: Henry genuinely seems to fall for Fanny, and he proposes. From this point onwards, Fanny becomes the focal point of the plot itself. Sir Thomas, who has a genuine regard for Fanny, goes to the little room – the “little white attic” that Fanny had made her own – and observes a symbolically fireless grate. He is perturbed by this: Fanny must, he insists, have a fire. And she must also have a husband.

It is a measure of the subtlety of Austen’s characterisation that although Fanny has been represented up to that point as quiet and tractable, we are not surprised to see her refuse the offer of marriage. And the persuasion she resists is extremely subtle. It is noticeable that the pressure to marry Henry does not come from the more unlikeable characters of the book: Aunt Norris is quite conspicuous in these pages by her absence. Rather, the pressure comes, insidiously, from those very people who actually care for Fanny – from Sir Thomas and from Edmund. Not that they have any intention to be cruel, or to force Fanny against her will: but, rather, they think the marriage will be good for her; that she does not yet understand herself; and that her mind, with persuasion, can be changed. Unlike the cruelties practised on Clarissa Harlowe in Richardson’s novel – a character who in many ways foreshadows Fanny, not least in her quiet determination not to submit, whatever the odds – Fanny is, in this moment of greatest danger, treated with perfect civility and kindness. And, if anything, this makes her resistance all the more difficult.

And so, to teach Fanny a lesson (although Sir Thomas wouldn’t have seen it in such terms), Fanny is packed off to Portsmouth for a few months, so she can see the life she would have been condemned to had it not been for the Bertrams.

It is certainly a very daring step to change the locale so dramatically at so late a stage in the novel. It comes almost as a shock to the reader: it is certainly a shock to Fanny. Austen isn’t, in general, particularly noted for conveying a sense of place: not that she is bad at it – at this stage of her artistic development, she was in complete control of her material – but possibly, this is the sort of thing Dickens might have achieved more memorably. Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, despite his self-proclaimed attempt to be “fair”, couldn’t resist comparing Austen’s description of the sea from this section of the novel unfavourably with a similar passage from Bleak House. But it’s an unfair comparison: if there are certain things Dickens could do better, there are also certain other areas where Austen’s art remains peerless: comparisons at these levels are pointless, and not, perhaps, the best way to appreciate the art of either writer.

The depiction of what goes on in Fanny’s mind at this stage is masterly. The dirt, the clutter, the cramped conditions, the noise – everything to which Fanny is unaccustomed, and which to her appears insupportable – are conveyed partly through detailed description of the physicality, but, more powerfully, through the depiction of the impact they have on Fanny herself. Inevitably, Fanny finds herself comparing Portsmouth, her original home, to her adopted home Mansfield Park:

Such was the home which was to put Mansfield out of her head, and teach her to think of her cousin Edmund with moderated feelings. On the contrary, she could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways. Everything where she now was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of everything opposite to them here.

(From Chapter 39)

And here, it seems to me, is the denouement . On returning to her origins, she realises her true identity: it is that of her adopted home. Everything about Mansfield – “the elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquility” – she finds she values, and cannot do without. Fanny now knows who and what she is, and the rest is mere plot.

***

Although, admittedly, it is the development of this plot that allows Fanny to assert her identity. But this assertion seems to me but a coda – albeit a powerful one – to the drama that, thematically, at least, has already been resolved.

Sir Thomas’ world collapses: as with Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House, his peace of mind, built as it was on illusion, cannot survive the revelations of the various cracks in the fabric of his family that he had not previously noticed. But in the embers is something that doth live: Fanny, he realises, is the daughter that he had always wanted; and Edmund begins to see clearly – as clearly, indeed, as Fanny had done. And a particularly nasty fate awaits the monstrous Mrs Norris and the sinning Maria: they are to spend the rest of their lives together, in what strikes me as a rather Dante-esque punishment for them both. Oh – what a play Beckett might have written about Maria and Mrs Norris living out their futile days, and tormenting each other for eternity!

But all of this is in the coda. In Pride and Prejudice, the union of Elizabeth and Darcy had been the point at which the drama had been resolved, but Mansfield Park is a far more intricate work. Despite the happy ending for Fanny and for Edmund; despite the complete vindication of Fanny, and the fulfilment of her passions; it leaves behind troubling questions that are more easily felt than articulated. If Austen had never written anything beyond Pride and Prejudice, I doubt we’d have considered her to be capable of something so troubling and so very intricate as this. No wonder it isn’t better liked!