Filed under: book reviews, fiction | Tags: clarissa, class, embroidery, jane austen, mansfield park, marriage, matrimony, noble peasant., pride & prejudice, quotes, samuel richardson, sense & sensibility
Recently I was asked what my favorite of Austen’s novels were and I said Mansfield Park partially because it is what I had just finished, because it is ambitiously different than Pride & Prejudice, and as a result of my scholarly research attached to the novel: “Much of my interest of the book involves gender, colonialism, xenophobia, and class – subjects Austen usually does not spend a great deal of time on in her other novels.”
I left off as Sir Bertram was berating Fanny Price as she had “disappointed every expectation [he] had formed, and proved [herself] of a character the very reverse of what [he] had supposed” (599), for refusing Henry Crawford’s hand in marriage. This show of spirits from Fanny (Austen certainly allows her character’s room for growth) results in her visiting the Price household in Portsmouth as a complex notion of vacation, visiting, family, and above all else punishment. Fanny is being punished for not doing her duty, “that is every young woman’s duty to accept such a very unexceptionable offer as this” (607). Poor Fanny has no where to turn for consolation either as even Edmund supports the marriage and goes so far as to lecture Fanny on the greatness of the match (618).
One thing I must give Austen great credit for in Mansfield Park is that she does begin to take more rebellious steps in her marriage commentary. Early within the third volume Fanny says, “…I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself” (619). Now before I get too far ahead of myself the similarities between Fanny and Samuel Richardson’s heroine Clarissa just struck me. Both Fanny and Clarissa are “untried” persons in the sense that up until a point in the novels they have never had any real demands, requests, or encouragements made of them; using the term real I mean no life changing events have occurred. Both Fanny and Clarissa resist what they consider unsuitable matrimony and are punished for their resistance to duty: Fanny is sent to Portsmouth and Clarissa is under house arrest. Fanny is “oppressed and wearied … with the kind authority of a privileged guardian” (620). Similar to not killing off Marianne in Sense & Sensibility for her lost love, Austen does seem to give Fanny a boost in spirits and righteousness that contrasts with Richardson’s Clarissa.
By the end of Mansfield Park the reader discovers how very right Fanny actually is in turning down Henry Crawford. However, a word from Mary seems oddly appropriate: “…to be about as unhappy as most other married people.” I mean appropriate in the sense of how few glimpses Austen provides into pleasant matrimony. Excepting the brief appearance of the Gardiner’s of Pride & Prejudice, I can not recollect a single matrimonial pairing that represented a mutual respect and liking between equals that happens throughout the novels. While Mary’s ideas of marriage greatly contrasts with companionate marriage, her idea of matrimony certainly seems more honest in reflecting the represented state of matrimony. I find it interesting that Austen argues for the companionate marriage throughout her novels but in at least the three novels I have read there is seldom a suggestion of this marriage actually occurring. Everyone, excepting the heroines, seem damned.
Fanny’s actual time in Portsmouth is an interesting novelty as while the Price’s are not quite as impoverished as the most recent film adaptation makes them out to be, they certainly are lower middle class and this is the first time Austen breaches the class structure in any manner for any extensive period of time. Fanny arrives to an “abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety” (639), which seems to very much reflect Austen’s own snobbish ideas of decorum and etiquette. (I love Austen but she is a bit of a social snob.) Mrs. Price has nine or ten children, one dead, and two (Fanny and William) away, an alcoholic and layabout husband, and obviously a hard time at finding maids. This is the one time where I am bewildered at Austen’s lack of compassion as the woman is easily (but quite amusingly) written off as a Lady Bertram in poorer circumstances (650). Fanny’s contempt for her family only seems exaggerated by her encouragement of Henry Crawford’s antics “To be the friend of the poor and oppressed!” (648). While Fanny chastises her own family she seems to glamorize and romanticize an idea of the noble country peasant.
Another theme Austen loves to play with is the idea of nature and nurture and it certainly crops up throughout Mansfield Park. Looking only at Fanny, it becomes quite apparent that her lack of spirits seems to entirely reflect her move and treatment at Mansfield Park. I can only conjecture that any further amount of time spent at the Price household in her life would certainly have given her adequate spirit if not a deficiency in the head or intelligence. After all, even after spending only a short time in the topsy turvy Price household it is quite obvious that Fanny’s spirits have arisen to at least internally express her own exasperation and go as far as criticize Edmund’s folly with Mary (658).
As with most of Austen’s novels, a surge of action happens just prior to the end: Tom Bertram takes gravely ill, Mary suggests if Tom dies she could still marry Edmund, and Henry Crawford runs off with the now Mrs. Maria Rushworth. Oh my! Additionally, more so than in any of her novels Austen seems to express an outright contempt for London society that casts a dark look at everything previously occurring in the book: “Fanny was disposed to think the influence of London very much at war with all respectable attachments” (663). Of course, all ends well with Tom surviving, Fanny and Edmund marrying, and everything in their appropriate niche.
I will say that the concluding chapters of Mansfield Park left me rather anxious. It has been said that Austen’s conclusions reflect an aesthetic air, but I wonder if compartmentalize is not a better word. Austen likes the tidy ending that leaves no questions asked (unless you have a case of over curiosity as myself). While the author says “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery” (679) she still manages to place all of her characters in their moralistic boxes of punishment or privilege. I did enjoy the condemnation of women being punished more severely than men when it comes to infidelity. I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with this ending, but after reading three novels in a row it has become somewhat… uniform and perhaps too tidy.
When I realized what I had found, a smile ran across my face: a how to for a Jane Austen Quilted Wall Hanging. While my own sewing talents are nonexistent, hopefully someone else can make use of this.