The Erotics of Restraint, or the Angel in the Novel: A Note on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park
She simply felt a powerful inner resistance to paying any price in foreign currency.
– Christa Wolf, The Quest for Christa T.
1. The Angel in the Novel
Call this an act of piety and self-education. Academia has sacrificed entire forests to the altar of Jane Austen, and I am not likely to add one whit to the pile. But her novel Mansfield Park has been gnawing at me for two decades, ever since I taught it at Skidmore College to a class of privileged young people who might have walked out of its pages. (One vivacious co-ed wore platform shoes and glitter on her eyelids and regularly skipped sessions to attend a mysterious court case on Martha’s Vineyard.) My copy is a palimpsest of notes, multicoloured highlights, underlining, and plastic flags. It’s been through a basement flood, and the rippled pages have sprung from the spine. I have a digital copy on my computer, equally marked up – testament to my obsession.
Mansfield Park is a brilliant book, a great book, breathtaking in its invention and orchestration. The British critic of the novel Q. D. Leavis called it “the first modern novel in England.” And yet it is alien territory for the contemporary reader. Whereas we live in a culture of instant gratification and intimate sharing, Austen’s best people find impulse and promiscuous self-expression dangerous if not pernicious. They strive to train their thoughts and emotions like garden plants; they value comfort over adventure; they practice self-command, as they call it, learn self-sacrifice and restraint. For us, restraint is tantamount to repression. It has been over a century since Freud’s talking cure leapt from the analyst’s couch to the living rooms of the West; self-denial (good) has become simply denial (bad).
In this regard Mansfield Park is perhaps the quintessential Austen novel and the least romantic romance ever written. The heroine, Fanny Price, wins the love of her life, her cousin Edmund Bertram (an Anglican clergyman), not by pursuing the object of her affection but by default after the love of his life, Mary Crawford, comes up morally short. It’s not what Mary does that’s wrong; it’s the way she thinks. Mary Crawford calls her brother’s adultery a “folly,” while straight arrow Edmund calls it a “dreadful crime.” Fanny Price, the last woman standing after the implosion of the Bertram and Crawford families, goes even further, calling it a “sin of the first magnitude,” here touching the Christian bedrock that defines the moral structure of the book. Everything hangs on a fine discrimination of ethical intention, and Fanny is the only one who gets it right.
Fanny Price is a good person, a paragon—humble, grateful, dutiful, self-sacrificing, and restrained. She’s very much like two other reticent, long-suffering Austen heroines, Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Anne Elliott in Persuasion, except that in Mansfield Park Austen takes an uncharacteristically sharp turn into the theological underpinnings of early nineteenth-century English morality. Without Austen actually mentioning it (there are no prayers, sermons, church-goings, or appeals to God), the question of holiness suffuses the book. It does this obliquely via the ordination theme. In a letter to her sister, Austen wrote, “—it [Mansfield Park] shall be a complete change of subject—Ordination,” that is to say, taking holy orders, becoming an Anglican priest (though, of course, it is not the heroine but her love interest who is ordained). Holiness may perhaps not be the correct word, since Austen keeps a tight rein on her otherworldly intimations. Her strategy is apophatic; she is more intent on describing the here and now and, through Fanny, critiquing its ethical superficiality than talking about faith, grace, and other divine interventions. With typical Austenian irony, she leaves it to her villain, Henry Crawford, to recognize Fanny’s figurative divinity:
You have qualities which I had not before supposed to exist in such a degree in any human creature. You have some touches of the angel in you beyond what—not merely beyond what one sees, because one never sees anything like it—but beyond what one fancies might be. (284) [My emphasis throughout.]
By virtue of his role, a priest is a mediator, a link between the divine and the human. This is what Edmund Bertram is meant to become as the novel opens. Austen constructs his plot as a triad: Edmund pulled in two directions between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price. Though, of course, Fanny doesn’t tell Edmund she’s in love, nor does he recognize her as a love object until the very end of the novel. She is rather an expression of his best moral and spiritual inclinations, a model, reminder, and example. Mary Crawford represents the seduction of worldly pleasure; Fanny represents a narrowly ethical life, self-denying, dutiful, restrained, and devout; and the novel is Edmund’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
What Fanny possesses that the other characters do not is an inner guide (“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it...”(341)), a principle of discrimination and self-discipline. There is a beautiful thematic passage near the end of the novel that makes the point: this is Sir Thomas Bertram meditating on the catastrophic choices his children have made and the defects of the education he has given them.
Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. (382)
The phrase “active principle” is an Evangelical Anglican keyword. See for example William Wilberforce’s 1797 book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, In the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity:
Religion...may be considered as the implantation of a vigorous and active principle; it is seated in the heart, where its authority is recognised as supreme, whence by degrees it expels whatever is opposed to it, and where it gradually brings all the affections and desires under its complete control and regulation.
This sentence can stand as a rough guide to understanding Fanny Price’s character and the structure of the novel. Fanny doesn’t have a plot in the usual sense of that term. At critical moments, she steadfastly refuses to act. But she bears an active principle in her heart, and her constant struggle is to school her thoughts and emotions toward goodness in a tainted world. You might call this a plot by another name, a mysteriously atypical plot-that-refuses-plot, and Austen uses it to draw a line between Mansfield Park’s real Christians (Fanny, and, finally, Edmund) and professed Christians (everyone else).
Austen was not an Evangelical (she had a brother, Henry, who became an Evangelical clergyman after a failed career in banking). But it is in the nature of novel-writing to exaggerate positions for dramatic contrast. Evangelicals, influenced by European Protestantism, stressed individual faith, humility, and the ultimate sinfulness of mankind; think of them as Anglican born-agains but professing a nuanced distinction not rebellion. They were rather dour, proto-Victorians in our stereotyped understanding of the word.
Yet the Evangelical emphasis on the heart behind the act, the inner intention, fits very well with Austen’s own emphasis on Fanny Price’s interiority, her dramatic soliloquies, her refusal to act where she cannot find a principled path, and her disapproval of frivolous amateur theatricals (precursors of what come to be thought of as Victorian values). It helps Austen find a dramatic perspective within the novel from which to judge the ethical superficiality of people like the Crawfords. A basic distinction to keep in mind when reading the novel is between characters who act out of principle and characters who act because they want something, whether it be money, admiration, or love. Austen announces the mercenary spin of Mansfield Park’s presiding ideology in the precise calculations of the first two sentences.
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. (5)
2. Impulsivity & Slaves, a Little Context
Mansfield Park, published in 1814, was Austen’s third novel in order of publication after Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). Emma appeared in 1815, and Austen died in 1817 at the age of 41. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously. Austen grew up in an Anglican rectory. When she was very young, she was sent away to school but contracted typhoid fever and nearly died. She lived most of her adult life with her economically insecure family (her father had to take in private students to make ends meet). She never married. It is unlikely she ever had sexual intercourse. She was already writing brilliantly when she was fifteen. Her best friend and confidante was her sister Cassandra. She had several brothers, two of whom became admirals in the Royal Navy, and one, as I have said, who became an Evangelical clergyman. There is evidence that she had more than one Austen-esque flutter with a young man, including a marriage proposal that she accepted and then turned down the next morning. Her novels are romantic comedies about young women jockeying for suitable husbands in provincial England. Usually, the young women come from economically insecure branches of upper-middle-class families. It was a time when women made their financial success or failure by the choice of the man they married. Otherwise they remained single and lived with the help of relatives, as did Austen herself.
English society throughout Austen’s short adult life was coloured by the events of the French Revolution and its aftermath, the Napoleonic Wars, and to a lesser degree the American Revolution and its aftermath, the War of 1812. It was an era when (apparently) poor impulse control had catastrophic international consequences and rebellious children caused horrendous imperial headaches; family and politics were reciprocally interchangeable metaphors. At the same time, Britain was in the early throes of the Industrial Revolution and a parallel surge in capitalist expansion fueled by the Enclosure Acts (1750-1860), which dumped immense numbers of rural unemployed (the so-called, oxymoronic, free labour pool) into factory towns, not to mention slave labour in the colonies.
African slavery and the Enclosure Acts created the surplus accumulation upon which modern capitalism is founded. Austen mentions the slave trade only once in Mansfield Park, in dialogue, though, of course, it is tacitly understood that slaves supply the labour on the Bertram estate in Antigua. When Fanny raises the topic with her uncle, her question is met with a “dead silence” (166), a response that can be read in many different ways but remains undetermined. The aforementioned Wilberforce and the Anglican Evangelicals were at the forefront of the English anti-slavery movement, which fits with Fanny’s implied disapproval.
New wealth (accompanied by a sense of entitlement and class privilege) and conservative tendencies were in the air Austen breathed; in this sense, Mansfield Park reflects the zeitgeist precisely, with its emphasis on emotional restraint, its use of the discourse of class and finance (income, interest, property) to gauge marital prospects, and its suppression of riot and rebellion amongst the younger generation of Bertrams. Maria Bertram, the scapegoat of the novel, fails “to bury the tumult of her feelings under the restraint of society” (162), commits adultery, and ends up exiled from the family.
3. What Happens
The edition I am using (Penguin Classics, 1996) runs to 390 pages, divided into three volumes (that function much like acts in a play with dramatic climaxes at the end of each) and 48 chapters. Fanny Price is the daughter of an impecunious, disabled lieutenant of Marines with a “superfluity of children,” living in the major naval town of Portsmouth. At the opening of the novel, Fanny goes to live in Northampton with the wealthy Bertrams (Lady Bertram is her mother’s sister). Inviting her is an act of familial charity on the part of Sir Thomas Bertram, and Fanny is never allowed to integrate fully into the Bertram brood for this reason. Sir Thomas has two sons and two daughters, Tom, Edmund, Julia, and Maria. Edmund is the earnest second son; since he can’t inherit the estate, he is bent on being ordained a clergyman with a living somewhere nearby. He befriends Fanny, helps with her education, and she falls in love with him without quite admitting it to herself and certainly not to Edmund or anyone else; she knows her place. Edmund loves her in his own way (as a sister, he keeps repeating), admiring her for their similarities: sense of duty, kindness, delicacy, and bookishness.
A fast, entertaining, and wealthy brother-and-sister duo, Henry and Mary Crawford, move into the neighbourhood. Edmund fancies Mary and a cat-and-mouse, book-length courtship ensues; Fanny watches and suffers. Henry Crawford is a delicious flirt; he goes after Julia, then Maria (who is already engaged). Sir Thomas has left for Antigua to fix something untoward with his plantation. In his absence, the young people get up to mischief that climaxes in a series of intense and inappropriate flirtations during rehearsals for a little amateur theatrical production they intend to perform, these illicit flirtations only brought to a thunderous and embarrassing halt on Sir Thomas’s return (a book burning ensues, the play books).
The young crowd scatters. Tom goes off to drink and gamble, Julia to socialize with friends and hunt a husband, Maria to her new husband’s estate and town house. With no one else around to distract him, Henry Crawford pays suit to Fanny; he actually comes to recognize and value her good qualities, and he has good qualities of his own despite his impulsiveness (the reader is quite attracted at first, all the while knowing that Austen has dark plans for him). Henry makes an awkward marriage proposal; Sir Thomas becomes involved in forwarding the match, but despite his best efforts he can’t convince Fanny to say yes to Henry. She has two good reasons, neither of which she can speak: she doesn’t trust Henry and she’s in love with Edmund. Annoyed by her silence, which he interprets as stubborn irrationality (Henry is rich, after all), Sir Thomas sends Fanny back to her family in Portsmouth to think things over in penitential squalor. This plan seems tantalizingly close to working. Fanny immediately misses the Bertrams and their estate, her health suffers, and Henry visits her, showing moral improvement and steadfastness of intention.
But then, back in the social jungle of London, the veneer of propriety comes unglued. Henry and Maria reanimate their affections and, horror of horrors, defy convention by running away together. Julia also elopes – with an acquaintance from those amateur theatricals. Tom falls ill from carousing and returns to Mansfield Park on death’s door. Finally, Edmund uncovers Mary’s ethical superficiality and breaks off his relationship with her. Fanny has long recognized Mary’s failings, but she has kept her mouth shut as usual, suffering in silence. She returns to Mansfield Park to help look after the wounded family, especially Edmund, who eventually emerges from his disappointment and recognizes her not only as a figurative sister but as a potential marriage partner. They are set to live happily ever after. Not so poor Maria who cannot be resuscitated from disgrace. She is packed off to a distant place, though still supported comfortably by those long-suffering and nameless slaves.
4. A Structure of Threes
The novel is elaborately and intricately orchestrated. This is its genius – a pure vein of what John Shade, the poet of Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), refers to as “combinatorial delight.” You can’t but admire the great rhythmic surges of action that intensify and climax at the end of each of the three volumes, the way that each event neatly evolves out of previous events like segments of a telescope tube being pulled open, the gorgeously elaborated system of subplots, and the way every action, speech, and bit of stage property (Fanny’s pony, the amber cross, Sir Thomas’s bookcase, the fire in the East room) does double or triple duty as a symbol or parallel of something else. From my very first reading, I was fascinated by the Wilderness set piece at Rushworth’s Sotherton estate, a gorgeously choreographed sequence of events that parallels and foreshadows the events of the entire novel. I can think of nothing as good save for the steeplechase chapter in Anna Karenina in which careless Vronsky rides his mare to death while Anna, with her husband in the stands, looks on.
You can imagine the various plots as a series of triangles (Austen seems to love triangles) with Henry-Fanny-Edmund at the centre (the refusal plot that magically turns into a marriage at the end): then Fanny-Edmund-Mary (Edmund torn between Mary and ordination), and Julia-Henry-Maria (flirtation and jealousy inspiring Maria’s passion), which segues into Rushworth-Maria-Henry, which goes on hiatus while Henry chases Fanny – Fanny-Henry-Maria – only to explode in adulterous flames at the end. In effect, Austen sets Fanny’s interior plot inside a system of multiple contrasting romantic subplots all on the restraint-lack of restraint (inaction-action) axis backed by her moral-religious thematics. All the subordinate plots involve various conventional erotic/romantic manoeuvres that seem shallow, venal, and inconstant in contrast with Fanny’s persistent and unspoken love for Edmund. In other words, you learn to read the subplots from the critical point of view of the main plot and vice versa.
You can further imagine the book as a play in three acts, three large rhythmic units, huge waves that gather, surge, and break, and then begin again. Each of the first two volumes ends with a climactic explosion that is followed in the beginning of the next volume with an aftermath: moral tidying up, expulsion or scattering of key characters, and a sense of gathering or redisposition of the dramatic forces. So Volume I looks at the intense flirtation amongst the young people climaxing in the rehearsals for the play and Sir Thomas’s unexpected return. Volume II, after the tidying up, presents Sir Thomas’s well-meant plan to launch Fanny socially in parallel with Henry Crawford’s romantic pursuit (the one abetting and complicating the other) leading to his shocking marriage proposal and Fanny’s even more shocking (to Sir Thomas) refusal.
Volume III begins with the tidying up, once again Sir Thomas trying to get control of events. This is not to be dismissed, though I use that phrase “tidying up,” because the first scenes here between Fanny and Sir Thomas, Fanny and Henry, Fanny and Mary, and Fanny and Edmund are the absolute moral centre of the novel, stunningly well written and intense. This is where Fanny appears utterly exposed yet admirable. This is where you come to understand the net of crossed moral imperatives that enjoins her silence and the obdurate stubbornness of her essential soul. But then, yes, everyone scatters again, Fanny to Portsmouth, Henry to his estate, Mary to London, Edmund soon to follow, etc. Volume III ends dramatically with the offstage explosion of moral turpitude (Henry and Maria) in London and contains its own aftermath when Fanny and Edmund return to Mansfield Park. The narrator tells us what Sir Thomas has learned, brings Fanny and Edmund together, and then sketches in future bliss in the final chapter.
The two dramatic explosions at the ends of Volumes I and II both require Fanny to make difficult moral choices, difficult in that she is alone in her decision and everyone around her is against her, providing her with conventionally moral and prudential (venal) imperatives counter to her own. The theatrical rehearsals and Fanny’s refusal to act a part in Volume I foreshadow Henry’s marriage proposal and her refusal at the close of Volume II (and frame the inverse at the close of Volume III when Mary Crawford fails to take a moral stand in regard to her brother’s adultery). Both these climactic explosions involve disappointing Sir Thomas. At the beginning of Volume II (after the theatrical catastrophe), he is disappointed with everyone except Fanny, and this is the inspiration for his special attention to her that leads through her brother William's visit and the ball to Henry's proposal. But at the beginning of Volume III (after the proposal and refusal), Sir Thomas is disappointed with Fanny and no one else. This is a fascinating pattern of repetition and variation that foregrounds the special relationship of gratitude, duty, and regard that exists between Sir Thomas and Fanny. Sir Thomas is the source of all good things and her sense of gratitude towards him is such that at times of difficulty it renders her mute.
5. Absence at the Core
Naturally timid but also constrained by social inferiority and duty to her benefactors, the Bertram family, Fanny creates a strange and disturbing absence at the core of Mansfield Park. Instead of driving plot by acting to achieve her desires, Fanny Price spends most of her time observing the action of subordinate characters and struggling to achieve equanimity by restraining her feelings and constraining her thoughts. When Fanny does rouse herself to act, it is in the negative, a refusal to act (rather like Melville’s Bartleby with his insistent “I would prefer not to”). As a result of her outward restraint, she is often misinterpreted, overlooked, and even forgotten by the other characters who misread her. In the novel’s third volume, as I say, Austen exiles Fanny from the plot entirely, sending her to Portsmouth while the rest of the interested characters go to London (Fanny and the reader only know what happens via letters). There is a note of comedy in this; even the author, it seems, can dispense with Fanny’s services.
It’s a critical commonplace that Fanny is not universally admired among readers. C. S. Lewis called her out for insipidity.
One of the most dangerous literary ventures is the little, shy, unimportant heroine whom none of the other characters value. The danger is that your readers may agree with the other characters. (“A Note on Jane Austen”)
And an apoplectic Kingsley Amis (in a masterpiece of literary invective entitled “What Became of Jane Austen?”) condemned her as “a monster of complacency and pride who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel.” Such a reading, as Lewis suggested, is a consequence of the protagonist’s passivity, which introduces a degree of what we might call hermeneutic play, a looseness of the novel joints. Without a concrete aim to define the meaning of a character’s actions (or inaction), readers may tilt to contrary interpretation. Yet it remains rather curious that Lewis, so religious himself, should miss the drama of Fanny Price’s religiosity.
Conventional (I nearly typed contemptible) wisdom dictates that there can be no real story where the main character prefers to hide behind her needle work and is constantly being left out or behind while suffering without complaint. When writer-director Patricia Rozema made her 1999 movie Mansfield Park, she felt compelled to tart up the novel with contemporary pastiche. She reinvented Fanny as a writer (like Jane Austen, using bits of Austen’s own unpublished work), introduced a lesbian flirtation between Fanny and Mary Crawford, turned poor, dozy Lady Bertram into a drug addict, and forced Sir Thomas Bertram to renounce slavery. This is a travesty based on bad reading and the assumption (probably correct) that most contemporary readers are equally bad.
But it begs the question: How do you talk about absolute things in a novel? God, beauty, goodness, saints, and true love? Fanny’s problem is how to be good (selfless, dutiful, principled, otherworldly) in a world in which all the usual assumptions swing towards calculation, mere prudence, or outright cupidity. The paradox of an absolutist morality is that there can be no acts of pure selflessness in the real world; thus Fanny cannot act – hence her curiously apophatic aura: her disapproval, her silence, her stubborn refusals. She defines herself by demonstrating what she cannot do. Silence for her has the clarity of resolution; rather than do wrong or complain of others (also wrong), she will be mute.
But the novel is a child of technology, offspring of writing, paper, and the book, with a materialist bias. In a novel, it’s difficult to speak of absolutes. In 1868, just as he was beginning his novel The Idiot (another novel about a Christ-like character), Dostoevsky wrote to his niece describing the difficulty of what he was trying to accomplish.
The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful person. There’s nothing more difficult than that in the whole world, and especially now. All the writers, and not just ours, but even all the European ones, who ever undertook the depiction of a positively beautiful person, always had to pass. Because it’s a measureless ideal.
6. Desire, Restraint, & the Invention of Consciousness
There is plenty of sexual energy in Mansfield Park. No one writes more astutely about raging hormones, flirtation, and the role of jealousy as an erotic accelerant than Jane Austen. The Wilderness set piece at Sotherton and the play rehearsals following it are little masterpieces of erotic psychology and narrative foreplay. And the climax (pun intended) of the novel is a volcanic eruption of illicit desire; though it is off stage and not named as such, the implication is that Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram simply ran off and jumped into bed. Even Fanny is in love with Edmund, but her sexuality lurks solely in the intensity of her regard, and she never acts on it (the idea of marrying Edmund never crosses her mind). In her thoughts she constantly tamps down jealousy and expectation. She knows it is wrong even to hope that Edmund might give up on Mary Crawford, so she coaches herself to forbear and find solace in helping others (again, this can be comical since she mostly finds solace helping dozy Lady Bertram with her stitches).
One of the most curious and original inventions of the book is Austen’s use of the technique of free indirect discourse avant la lettre or at least long before James Joyce and Virginia Woolf popularized it. Instead of a plot – everyone can have a plot – Fanny has a very modern self-consciousness and inner turmoil. Instead of a dramatic action, she has a dramatic mental and emotional life based on a constant triangular effort to adjust her inner state between what she wants, what the world offers her, and a principled goodness. Her renunciation of her own desires paradoxically results in a richer inner self.
Edmund has a plot, while Fanny doesn’t. But by virtue of being the central point of view, Fanny’s character is prioritized for the reader. She is what Nabokov calls the novel’s “sifting agent.” We observe Edmund’s state of mind through Fanny’s eyes. Fanny watches, with a distanced concern that seems almost divine, loving but unable to intervene (act). Her inaction in the external world is a direct result of her continuous and intense struggle to give justice to other people and tame her weaker impulses (inaction is thematically linked with morality). When she is silent, it is because a principle prevents her from speaking. But she is thinking.
In the manner of much of her inventiveness, Austen here borrows from Shakespeare, in particular his soliloquies. She elevates thought to the level of dialogue and erases the critical distance between the narrator and the mind of the character. It is as if we overhear Fanny’s actual thoughts or she is talking out loud to herself (in intense intimacy with the reader). Here is a typical passage from the first volume, Fanny trying to parse her feelings and obligations when everyone is urging her to take a part – that is, to act, to perform on stage – in the amateur theatrical.
...she had begun to feel undecided as to what she ought to do; and as she walked round the room her doubts were increasing. Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for – what might be so essential to a scheme on which some of those to whom she owed the greatest complaisance had set their hearts? Was it not ill-nature, selfishness, and a fear of exposing herself? And would Edmund’s judgment, would his persuasion of Sir Thomas’s disapprobation of the whole, be enough to justify her in a determined denial in spite of all the rest? It would be so horrible to her to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples; and as she looked around her, the claims of her cousins to being obliged were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them. The table between the windows was covered with work-boxes and netting-boxes which had been given her at different times, principally by Tom; and she grew bewildered as to the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced. (127)
Fanny defines a moral problem and proceeds by a run of rhetorical questions to examine her soul, her motives, and the various ethical principles involved (duty and gratitude to Sir Thomas, gratitude to cousins). She even suspects the nature of her own vehemence in resisting the invitation to act. I emphasize the crucial sentence in which scruples prevent her from acting because that’s the key to her character and the ethical structure of the novel.
And amusingly enough, Fanny’s self-restraint does have a certain erotic appeal both for Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram. In fact, Edmund seems to find this abasement one of the most attractive things about Fanny Price. (I wrote an early draft of this essay under the title “Bondage Lit.”) Witness the masochistic (delight and pain mixed) scene near the end of the novel when Fanny fights to suppress every (just) resentful, jealous, loving bone in her body in order to make herself available to Edmund as a sympathetic interlocutor so that he can freely bemoan and anatomize his breakup with Mary Crawford.
How Fanny listened, with what curiosity and concern, what pain and what delight, how the agitation of his voice was watched, and how carefully her own eyes were fixed on any object but himself, may be imagined. (375)
By the end of the scene Fanny has accomplished what she set out to do, which is to win Edmund’s trust, create an intimate bond in his mind, and become his necessary confidante. “Fanny’s friendship was all that he had to cling to.” (379)
7. Religion, Education, & The Amber Cross
The novel focuses on a contrast between Fanny Price and everyone else (each character representing a degree of superficiality and calculation if not outright corruption—Edmund Bertram being nearest Fanny in goodness and poor Henry Crawford, in a tie with Maria Bertram, being the most remote). Austen situates Fanny in a transitional axis between a Christianity of ardent, principled practice and a new faux Christianity that is more about appearances, just as she is situated (in a structural triangle of her own) between Edmund Bertram and Henry Crawford).
As I say, there are no church-goings, prayers, sermons, or direct appeals to God in Mansfield Park, but the thematic orchestration of the novel is such that religion forms a crucial part of the discourse of the characters. No one goes to church in the novel, but the chapel scene at Sotherton is a set piece illustration of a religious culture in transition. Fanny is disappointed; the signs of awe and mystery are absent, and the chapel is no longer a locus of family and community worship as it once was. This is also the scene in which Mary Crawford discovers Edmund’s intention to be ordained but not before she has dropped a joke about the conventional image of lazy, gluttonous priests. There are no sermons in the novel either, but in the second volume Edmund and Henry Crawford have a lively discussion about giving sermons; Henry would love to give sermons but just once in a while before large audiences and in London.
And there is an ostentatiously symbolic sequence of scenes involving the Henry-Fanny-Edmund triangle and an amber cross Fanny’s brother has given her. She wants to wear it to the ball in her honour that leads into the climax of Volume II, but she lacks a chain from which to hang it. Henry makes an awkward gift of a chain through his sister Mary, but just a little later Edmund comes through with a beautiful gold chain of his own, which Fanny likes better because it’s from him. But she’s in a tizzy, torn between the conventional obligation of gratitude to Henry and Mary and her heart’s delight in Edmund’s gift. At the last moment, fate (the author) saves Fanny when it turns out Henry’s chain is too large and Edmund’s fits the cross perfectly.
Finally, an “education” theme runs through Mansfield Park; I have not space to explore it except to mention in passing how it inflects the novel’s Evangelical torque. The Bertram children’s indiscretions raise the question: How does one learn proper restraint? How does one acquire the necessary active principle? And the novel’s answer is: A proper religious education. This is clear in the expanded version of the thematic passage I cited earlier in the essay, Sir Thomas meditating on his children’s errant ways.
...he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. (381-382)
Mary and Henry, too, have been ruined by bad parenting. Henry’s behaviour toward women, according to Mary, is detestable because “the Admiral’s lessons have quite spoiled him.” (37) “The effect of education” (222) observes Fanny (a bit primly) when Edmund moans about Mary’s improper conversation. In contrast, Fanny escapes the effects of the Bertram household by virtue of being an impoverished outsider in the family circle. The chief part of her education comes from Edmund, who, like her, is cut out of the social sweepstakes because he is pre-destined for the priesthood. And once again, Austen gives Henry Crawford the role of recognizing Fanny’s essentially religious nature (and the connection between manners, principle, and religion).
...her manners were the mirror of her own modest and elegant mind. Nor was this all. Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name; but when he talked of her having such a steadiness and regularity of conduct, such a high notion of honour, and such an observance of decorum as might warrant any man in the fullest dependence on her faith and integrity, he expressed what was inspired by the knowledge of her being well principled and religious. (242-3)
8. Acting & the Inner Drama of Holiness
The novel’s inner drama of holiness is enacted on two parallel tracks, one truly inward while the other is more conventionally expressed in external action. While Fanny struggles with herself, taming her resentments and schooling herself to humility and self-denial, Edmund pursues the reluctant Mary Crawford (she can’t imagine becoming a country parson’s wife), at war with himself over her alarming frivolousness. Fanny’s big dramatic moments are negative and come when she finds herself under relentless pressure to act in ways she finds objectionable, and she refuses.
This is a complex and subtle figure; the structure of the novel – plotless pivot reflected against dramatic subplots – enacts the theme of the novel, which is ultimately the nature of goodness in a contingent universe. The thematic construction of Fanny’s plot-that-refuses-plot turns on a triple pun, three senses of the verb “to act”: to act as in a play, performing a role for an audience; to act in life so as to achieve an effect, manipulate, entertain, or impress; and to act as a moral agent with conscious intention. For a professional actor to act in a play is innocuous, morally neutral (Edmund makes this point). But for a person to pose or dissimulate to achieve an effect can be morally suspect, in Fanny’s absolute terms, evil.
Austen is emphatic; Fanny announces her inability to act three times.
“Me!” cried Fanny, sitting down again with a most frightened look. “Indeed you must excuse me. I could not act anything if you were to give me the world. No, indeed, I cannot act.” (122)
It is not that I am afraid of learning by heart,” said Fanny, shocked to find herself at that moment the only speaker in the room, and to feel that almost every eye was upon her; “but I really cannot act.” (123)
Her constitution, incorporating that active principle, is such that she cannot pretend, in life or on the stage. She is incapable. In life, she must pursue the principled course, and when she can’t (for lack of good options or because of conflicting moral imperatives), she falls silent. If pressed, she begs off.
Edmund at first declines to act a part in the play until steamrolled by fears for Mary Crawford’s virtue, a dismal shock to Fanny’s heroic opinion (note the lapse into free indirect discourse).
To be acting! After all his objections—objections so just and so public! After all that she had heard him say, and seen him look, and known him to be feeling. Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent! Was he not deceiving himself? Was he not wrong? Alas! it was all Miss Crawford’s doing. She had seen her influence in every speech, and was miserable....he was to act, and he was driven to it by the force of selfish inclinations only. Edmund had descended from that moral elevation which he had maintained before. (130-131)
In contrast to both Fanny and Edmund, Henry Crawford is a theatrical enthusiast from the get-go, using every rehearsal to flirt outrageously with Maria Bertram. Acting is his habit of being. He acts for entertainment, for applause, for effect, and to persuade, not out of principle. Austen repeatedly demonstrates Henry’s inability to be genuine by knowing slips that are her specialty. While visiting Fanny in Portsmouth, Henry makes a show of taking responsibility for his estate and tenants (which, till then, he has mostly ignored).
This was aimed, and well aimed, at Fanny. It was pleasing to hear him speak so properly; here he had been acting as he ought to do. To be the friend of the poor and the oppressed! Nothing could be more grateful to her; and she was on the point of giving him an approving look, when it was all frightened off by his adding a something too pointed of his hoping soon to have an assistant, a friend, a guide in every plan of utility or charity for Everingham: a somebody that would make Everingham and all about it a dearer object than it had ever been yet. (335)
He cannot resist revealing that he has an ulterior motive, that he is acting not out of duty but out of a desire to engage Fanny’s affection. His intentions are toward an audience and not the counsel of his heart. “But such were his habits that he could do nothing without a mixture of evil.” (249)
Holiness is a word falling into disuse (as are churches and the clergy). Nor are we accustomed to the idea that our acts are moral acts (we are more apt to call them “political” in this age of political correctness) that require rigorous self-inquiry as to motives, feelings, duties, and justice. Popular therapeutic dogma enjoins us not to feel guilt but to turn our traumas into identity stories. We do not learn anymore to criticize and correct our emotions. And we are apt to miss the pun on the verb “to act” and the essentially apophatic nature of its structure. Fanny defines what is right and good by refusing to be calculating, self-regarding, ingratiating, manipulative, or even shrewd about her prospects. She refuses to act on terms that most of the people in the novel find perfectly normal. She’ll risk poverty and obloquy rather than betray principle and the man she loves (even when his own enthusiasms lead him elsewhere). And her torment must remain internal, always unspoken, again for the sake of principle.
9. The Via Negativa of Fiction
Apophasis, or the ancient via negativa, assumes that God is outside creation, that He is literally no thing, concludes that He cannot be seen, described, or communicated with, and proceeds to define Him by negatives. Conversely, the only way to know God directly is to bracket out the “things” of this world. This is the path Fanny Price takes – poverty, humility, and exile – until Jane Austen rescues her at the very end of the novel.
I can think of two other fictional works that follow the same conceit: the aforementioned “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” by Herman Melville and The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf. Bartleby hires on as a lawyer’s copyist but refuses to do chores ancillary to copying. “I would prefer not” is his refrain. He takes up residence in the lawyer’s office and refuses to leave when he’s fired. The lawyer moves, but Bartleby remains. When he’s evicted, he haunts the entry and stairwell. He’s arrested, sent to the Tombs, refuses food arranged for him by his former employer, and dies. Bartleby will not even act to preserve his life. Subsequently, it turns out that he has worked as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, the repository of dead hopes, affections, and prayers. Bartleby’s pallid otherworldliness derives not from religious conviction but from his association with death, which has unfitted him for life, imbued him with a reluctance to act in the world of affairs, and consigned him to the tomb.
The Quest for Christa T. is a fictional memoir of a spirited German girl named Christa who grows up in the time of National Socialism then lives as an adult under Soviet Communism, two rigidly prescriptive ideologies. The word “quest” in the title is ironic; as Christa Wolf tells us in her essays “The Conditions of Narrative,” she has set out to create a sort of anti-myth to answer all the male-dominated literary quests. Wolf’s heroine Christa is energetic, charming and well-intentioned, but her story is a baffling litany of failure, breakdown and self-defeating impulses. Eventually, she marries and bears a child, only to throw away domestic security for an affair. And then she dies of cancer having accomplished pretty much nothing. Again, this is a plot-that-refuses-plot. Although Christa seems to want to act, she mysteriously stymies herself every step of the way.
The key to understanding Christa’s failure to thrive lies in a counter story told through the novel’s word patterns. Christa’s life is full of teachers, mentors, advisors and interested friends who counsel her to seek health and success by curbing her lively and imaginative impulses. Toe the party line, they say, and by this they don’t only mean the Communist Party doxa but also the calculation and prudence necessary to get on in any system.
To survive...has always been man’s goal and always will be. This means that at all times conformity is the means to survival: adaptation, conformity at any price.
Conformity, self-extinction, it turns out, is a price that Christa, like Fanny Price, can’t pay; as the novel progresses, words like success, adaptation, conformity, calculation, and measuring acquire a sinister aura, and Christa’s failures begin to look like assertions of a self under pressure from all sides to live the life of compromise. Her “neurotic” and stubborn resistance, her refusal to deal in “false currency,” her kenotic dying to the world are paradoxically essential to the preservation of an awakened self. What does it mean to be alive? the novel asks. “And of the attempt to be oneself?”
10. The Ambiguous Construction of a Self
What is truly paradoxical in Mansfield Park is the way it reaches beyond its satire on the marriage customs of Regency England, beyond the conventions of the romantic comedy, and beyond even its theological torque to tell a very modern story about the construction of a self. Much like Wolf’s Christa T., Fanny forges her self not in any positive way but in resisting imperatives, the forms imposed on her by her society and the gaze of the individuals around her. She is not simply a passive character; she is symbolic, fused with theme. I don’t want to, I can’t act, I won’t do that—Fanny Price’s refrain. She defines what action is by not acting. She defines morality by refusing to act.
The climax of Fanny’s non-plot is the sequence of scenes after the ball when she steadfastly persists in refusing to marry Henry Crawford. The fact that she cannot tell anyone that she loves Edmund, least of all Edmund himself, who is obstinately smitten with Mary, makes her appear irrationally stubborn. She remains cagey about her distrust of Henry. She can’t tell Sir Thomas about it at all; she confides in Mary (discreetly) and Edmund (explicitly), but Mary passes Henry’s flirtations off as harmless, and Edmund, too, minimizes Henry’s faults and suggests that time will prove his constancy (weasel words).
Above all, Fanny cannot escape their watchful, measuring eyes. Fanny is alternately cajoled, coerced, bludgeoned, and sent into exile, but she remains true to her principles. She is the poor, underclass cousin who has never stood up for herself before; but in these chapters she asserts herself against every authority, including the wishes of the man she loves. She even makes a speech (unique for Fanny) in which she enunciates what might be called the novel’s quintessential moral (in a novel full of moral discrimination).
“I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex, at least, let him be ever so agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, 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. (292)
This speech reads like a feminist call to arms; those sentiments certainly existed. It asserts Fanny’s right of self-determination, and in the context of the novel, this radical selfhood stands against the ubiquitous dogma of property, propriety, income, estates, inheritance, class, and rank. By extension, it claims for any individual the right of refusal in the face of what the world offers. The basis of self is apophatic: the ability to say, I am not that, and I am not that either. What the world offers is contingent, mired in circumstance, calculation, and history, rated by pre-existing discourses (habits, traditions, forms). The soul proceeds by denial. Its struggle is less a matter of knowing itself as essence than of knowing when it is not itself. Sorting and discarding the trivia of life is the existential duty of the modern.
That Fanny (and the novel) can’t quite live up to this transcendent declaration is a sign of the tension that exists between Austen’s inspiration, the time in which she wrote, and her preferred genre, the romantic comedy. Fanny must marry Edmund Bertram despite the fact that as Edmund himself concedes, she is “too good for him.” Even the narrator is only dimly celebratory about the upshot.
With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune and friends, the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.
This passage is sometimes construed as Austen’s ironic commentary on the romance genre or the institution of marriage. But we must wait another 150 years for a manifest critique of that ending in the form of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman in which the author offers readers the possibility, among others, that the disgraced, impoverished, abandoned female lead might continue to exist on her own and even prosper. When her lover finally appears after a gap of years, she remains cool, aloof – inviolable; she has her own life and no need of rescuing by a man.
DOUGLAS GLOVER has published four novels, five story collections, and three works of nonfiction, including The Enamoured Knight (2004), a study of Don Quixote and novel form. In 2005 he was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2003 he won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction. His most recent book is Savage Love (short stories, 2013). He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He currently teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and edits the online literary magazine Numéro Cinq.