Adventures in Reading

Mansfield Park: Volume I, Ch. 10 – 18
October 8, 2007, 10:13 am
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Fanny differs from Austen’s heroines’ [1] in Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility in spirits, manner, but also physically and in regards to her health. Mansfield Park is punctuated with references of Fanny’s poor health and headaches, her limited ability to walk great distances, and the exercise she seeks and enjoys from horseback riding. Any time Edmund expresses his concern for her health, I am just waiting for her to be carried off with consumption. However, it does make me wonder whether by nature Fanny is more inclined to illness or if by nurture Fanny’s health has been firmly intertwined with her weak spirits.

Horseback riding is obviously a favorite activity of Fanny’s and appropriately so regarding the time period. The Neoclassical period embraces antiquity (such as Greek heritage) and particularly when referencing statuary the physical becomes an important characteristic. Thus the desired scholarly paunch preferred in earlier centuries would alter to the more streamlined physique appreciated by the Greeks. I previously mentioned that the Pride & Prejudice BBC adaptation includes some extras of Mr. Darcy fencing and swimming but horseback riding certainly is an addition physical activity that would be encouraged. In fact, the love for horseback riding would also help alter fashion history as men’s and women’s wear would adapt to a more physically vigorous – particularly on horseback – lifestyle.

Another fashion reference crops up in chapter ten and interestingly enough when referring to servants: “…and she has turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns” (483). This was mentioned in Jane Austen’s Etiquette as well as the fashion lecture I attended. There is no real white fabric unless you are capable of bleaching cloth and it is right in this timer period that chemistry contributes this wonder to the world of fashion. Coinciding with this wonderful discovery I will once again reference statuary as the whites and off-whites very much reference antiquarian pieces (keeping in mind that most statues would have been painting but the paint had long since vanished). This combination would develop into the late 18th, early 19th Century female costume many are familiar with.

However, the expensive bleaching process would later become affordable allowing for servants to “rise above their station” and dress in the more modern fashions that their employees were embracing.

The end of Volume One dwells on what seems to be one of the favorite past times of the 19th Century and before: play-acting. As a reader we have glimpses of this in Jane Eyre as well as Daughters of Danaus, but Austen is the first author I am familiar with to spend a great deal of time exploring this entertainment through her fictional characters. Tom Bertram (the oldest son) has returned home with a friend while the other characters have only recently returned from Sotherton. Thus an ideal amusement to break up the more regular entertainment they decide to perform a play. Keeping in mind all of the awkward relationships brewing (Mr. Rushford engaged to Ms. Bertram, Ms. Bertram and Ms. Julia Bertram interesting in Mr. Crawford, Fanny and Ms. Crawford romantically inclined towards Edmund, Edmund becoming more partial to Ms. Crawford), which perhaps can be best described as an afternoon in a middle school cafeteria, the romantic play chosen is immodest at least.

The play Lovers’ Vows perhaps does not need any further explanation, but Austen does seem increasingly interested in Mansfield Park to establish environments or events that colorfully dramatize her scenes. All of the characters, excepting Edmund and Fanny, immediately fall into play-acting at the great disapproval of Edmund that such an endeavor would be selected. However, upon the need to fill a final role Edmund, despite his opposition, joins the group. Here the Edmund and Ms. Crawford relationship becomes further complex. Fanny seems to free Edmund of any accusation as he suffers from Ms. Crawford’s wiles (“Alas! It was all Ms. Crawford’s doing” (511).) but his purely hypocritical actions had allowed Edmund to descend from “that moral elevation which he had maintained before, and they were both [Tom and Maria] as much the better as the happier for the descent” (511).

It does make one curious as to where to place Edmund. He is rather reminiscent of Edward Ferras of Sense & Sensibility in that the heroine provides excuses for him, but perhaps one he is not worthy of. Despite regularly experiencing Ms. Crawfords less than tasteful comments and behaviors he still falls for a pretty, if spirited, face. I will say I do not have much patience for Edmund.

[1] I find myself using the term heroines quite often and, while I understand the definition as a lead female character doing some definition of heroic deeds, I do question the use of it. The gendered nature of the term is irksome and seems unnecessary in the same sense as using actress rather than actor when describing a female who acts; however, heroine also seems the only appropriate word to describe many of Austen’s leads.

Image is another lovely paper doll from Legacy Designs.

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