Adventures in Reading

Mansfield Park: Volume 3, Ch. 1 1/2 – Finis

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.

Other opinions: Between the Covers, Girl Detective, Fifty Books, Book Nut, This Delicious Solitude, Book-A-Rama.


Pride & Prejudice

Before I begin with more Pride & Prejudice disquisition, I have to point out a variety of changes to the site. Certainly nothing too extreme but I think I have finally (or almost) achieved a layout I can live with. For anyone picky about these things it is a rather nice success to achieve this with a newly obtained blog.

One of my favorite sections from the book and scenes from the A&E version of Pride & Prejudice is when Mr. Bennet tells Elizabeth (after Bingley & co. have left the neighborhood) that in short it is good for every woman to experience some jilting in love. While in Mr. Bennet’s way this could certainly be read as a sarcastic off the cuff situation directed at his moping daughters but I began to look at it more as advice.

With so many strict rules and social structure when it comes to men and women having relationships in this period, this degree of jilting could perhaps be seen as beneficial. Now by degree I mean that the woman’s reputation has not been harmed but it has allowed her some experience in male-to-female relationships she would otherwise be quite naïve of. Of course in Jane’s situation it seems far less important that her experience has been broadened as much as in retrospect not heeding Charlotte’s advice (though it was given to Elizabeth about Jane) to be more aggressive in her (Jane’s) love making.

On that note, particularly half way into the book terms such as love making begin cropping up more regularly and these terms absolutely do not have the same connotation that we derive from them in today’s world. In What Jane Austen Ate & What Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool aptly describes the respectable female sexual contact prior to marriage as “a hand around the waist, a kiss, and a fervent pressing of the hand was probably the accepted limit in most cases.”

Something I am also trying to do with Austen is to pay as much attention to what is not said as I do to what is said. Fairly early on I said even coming into this reading frenzy that I never counted myself as an Austen fan (though admittedly it is changing). It was so easy to poo-poo her books and leave it at that. In The Myths of Motherhood by Shari L. Thurer a brief passage begins to describe some of the reason to notice what is not said:

Others have ransacked the literature trying to prove that mothers did indeed manage to tell their stories, but that their accounts were, more often than not, in the gaps, in the contradictions and omissions of the novel. Women authors, they argue, have had to use subversive strategies to inscribe their subjectivity into what is a “male” narrative frame. Because the traditional narrative structure is unwelcoming to the female experience, women have been forced to devise creative and unconventional ways to tell their stories. To recover an author’s subjectivity, the reader must read subversively, that is, attend to silences and absences, the unspoken and encoded, to look for repressed mother-daughter relationships, to foreground subplots. Such a reading might interpret the typical example, to represent a profound if ambivalent connection between mother and daughter. So, from this perspective, Elizabeth and Mrs. Bennet, who ordinarily are viewed as mutually remote, might be considered highly enmeshed. Elizabeth needs her mother to butt up against. She uses her mother as a standard against which to distinguish her own personality. Her purposeful distance is a form of connection. A true lack of attachment between mother and daughter would be indifference, and Elizabeth is not indifferent.

Other opinions: Blogging My Books, A Fondness For Reading, Books Lists Life, Trish’s Reading Nook, Deliciously Clean Reads, So Many Books So Little Time, Library Queue, Ramya’s Bookshelf.., The Bookworm, Storie Delle Sorrelle

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