Friday, June 08, 2018

love and exclusion

Anna Massey as Mrs Norris in the 1983 BBC series of Mansfield Park

[Image source: . Miss Sneyd's industry and sense are of the highest order. ]


.....when she was found one morning by her cousin Edmund, the youngest of the sons, sitting crying on the attic stairs.
“My dear little cousin,” said he, with all the gentleness of an excellent nature, “what can be the matter?” And sitting down by her, he was at great pains to overcome her shame in being so surprised, and persuade her to speak openly. Was she ill? or was anybody angry with her? or had she quarrelled with Maria and Julia? or was she puzzled about anything in her lesson that he could explain? Did she, in short, want anything he could possibly get her, or do for her? For a long while no answer could be obtained beyond a “no, no—not at all—no, thank you”; but he still persevered; and no sooner had he begun to revert to her own home, than her increased sobs explained to him where the grievance lay. He tried to console her.
“You are sorry to leave Mama, my dear little Fanny,” said he, “which shows you to be a very good girl; but you must remember that you are with relations and friends, who all love you, and wish to make you happy. Let us walk out in the park, and you shall tell me all about your brothers and sisters.”
On pursuing the subject, he found that, dear as all these brothers and sisters generally were, there was one among them who ran more in her thoughts than the rest. It was William whom she talked of most, and wanted most to see. William, the eldest, a year older than herself, her constant companion and friend; her advocate with her mother (of whom he was the darling) in every distress. “William did not like she should come away; he had told her he should miss her very much indeed.” “But William will write to you, I dare say.” “Yes, he had promised he would, but he had told her to write first.” “And when shall you do it?” She hung her head and answered hesitatingly, “she did not know; she had not any paper.”
“If that be all your difficulty, I will furnish you with paper and every other material, and you may write your letter whenever you choose. Would it make you happy to write to William?”
“Yes, very.”
“Then let it be done now. Come with me into the breakfast-room, we shall find everything there, and be sure of having the room to ourselves.”   (Mansfield Park, Chapter II)


There's a very strict line, a line that's never crossed, running down the very centre of Mansfield Park. One one side stand Fanny, Edmund and Sir Thomas Bertram. On the other side stand Aunts Bertram and Norris, the Misses Bertram, Tom, and the Crawfords.

Defining the terms of this binary is not quite easy. It is not exactly the good vs. the wicked, though we might use those terms -- "wicked", of course, meaning worldly and selfish rather than criminal or satanic. But anyway, that's not really it. Sir Thomas, a chilly parent, has done a lifetime of harm to his daughters, albeit inadvertently. Edmund, we find, is unsteady, self-deceiving, and prone to incorrect judgments. But though their behaviour may sometimes be bad and harmful, they remain, as definitely as ever, on the side of that line that forever distinguishes them from the vanity of Maria or the lightness of Mary.

It's more a matter of gravity vs. levity. Or of those who genuinely set a value on moral principle vs. those who really don't. One might almost say, of our good trio, that they feast on moral principle: it's their culture. They're always talking about and thinking about it, even if their behaviour falls short sometimes. (Author and reader are of their party, too.)

After Edmund and Mary keep Fanny from going riding, Mary gracefully apologises for her selfishness, and asks to be forgiven, but she doesn't feel guilty in the slightest. Edmund, on the other hand, after taking a censorious survey of his aunts' various selfishnesses and blindnesses, then inwardly and seriously berates himself for neglecting his cousin. He has done wrong. He has the moral discrimination to know it. He feels guilty. It's how only the good react, though none of this will prevent him from neglecting Fanny again.


The lovely scene in which the young Edmund and Fanny first become fond of each other is a fateful one. Love lays its fortifications so early. I don't exactly mean to identify the moral division with the exclusiveness of love, but Fanny does: she thinks of Mary not as her rival but as bad for Edmund. In the end the line holds. That works out well from Fanny's point of view (and Austen makes no bones about Fanny's self-interest, her possessiveness, jealousy, loneliness...). It makes a very happy ending for these two people that we really care for. (And by that stage of the book, we care for Sir Thomas too.)

 And yet part of what makes Mansfield Park such a complex and deep reading experience is that at its heart, alongside all the comic brilliance and the eventual happy ending, along with all this the book is in some ways a tragedy, too.

The tragedy, too, is about the intransigence of the line. And so Henry and Mary, for all their charms and their agreeableness and their intelligence and sensitivity, can never be redeemed, they can never enter the charmed circle of the grave and good.

It isn't, you may say, a tragedy from the Crawfords' own point of view. There's little to suggest that they really know what they've lost.  Austen is far above saddling the Crawfords with punitive descents into turpitude and disappointment, as many other authors would do.

The tragedy is, rather, for us readers; for most of us, anyway. We vainly wish, every time we read Mansfield Park, that somehow or other Mary and Henry may come to good. We feel that Edmund and Fanny's gravity and principle could be so much enhanced by a little melding with the Crawfords' spirit and originality. And vice versa, of course. 

(A different Edmund, for example, might have learnt something from Mary's spirited attack on his wretched clock-bullying. There's a littleness about Edmund and Fanny. You feel it again about the planned stargazing on the veranda; the stargazing that Edmund immediately forgets about. Heartbreaking for Fanny: but isn't there something arrested in childishness about Fanny's and Edmund's Arcturus worship, is it really a mature basis for a marriage? Mary's materialism and wordliness are chilling, but her assaults on the pettiness of a clerical life do have some traction with us.)

Each of the Crawfords, at different times, comes so close. They have always possessed  intelligence and sensitivity far beyond, say, Maria Rushworth. As readers we so want to reward gracefulness: but Mary is capable of real perceptions and kindnesses as well as graces (So Edmund isn't wholly deceived about her merits, which Fanny's dogged though unspoken condemnation refuses to acknowledge). And Henry, up to the disastrous elopement, has begun to develop under Fanny's unsparing eye into a thoughtful, kindly, even lovable nature. It's not to be.

Austen's delineation of this so-near-and-yet-so-far story demands moral material to work upon that is not merely simplistic. Hence the moral grey areas, at least to appearance, of the theatricals (about which Miss Sneyd is wonderfully lucid); the story just wouldn't work if everyone automatically made the same moral judgments about it: we need a spectrum.

Of the two Crawfords, Henry's story matters less to us: he's a consummate actor, his inconstancy is bound to break out, it was a good escape for Fanny (though the narrator remarkably claims that the marriage would have worked out rather well in the end). Mary, like her brother, is a performer. A play of wit she will have, whether the facts are there to support her or no. But with her, more than her brother,  it's a compulsive performance; a matter of her very identity. Mary, with all her interest in Edmund, can never not speak lightly of the church. Her society values have become her personality. She is indeed as strong-willed about maintaining her own kind of moral integrity as Fanny is: in their so different ways, both characters are incessant.

The desolating wisdom of Mansfield Park is that people can't change, much. It's the same, of course, with the Prices in Portsmouth. Nor can Fanny, once formed at Mansfield, resume being the person she would have been in a Portsmouth that has forgotten her. But the closing pages are illuminated by one thorough exception: Fanny's young sister Susan (because she's still young enough not to be "formed" already). They also lash out with real hatred at Aunt Norris. The hatred is richly deserved, but it reminds us that Fanny is no angel, and also that this supremely poised author is deeply involved in her own stories.


Mansfield Park (1814) was perhaps Austen's most popular novel in her own time. None of her novels received any public notice during her lifetime, but she recorded some private ones. That of  "Lady Gordon" is notable:

"In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A----'s works, & especially in M. P. you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family; & the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that there is scarcely an Incident, or conversation, or a person, that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, borne a part in, & been acquainted with."

For many subsequent  Janeites, however, Mansfield Park is the least beloved of her works. It's commonly regarded  as unfilmable (possibly as a result of the attempts in 1999 and 2007),  and it's true that much of the story takes place in the mind of a heroine who rarely speaks her thoughts . But that would hardly scare good actors or directors. Maybe the real issue is that, seen from outside herself, Fanny's love of Edmund would seem too apparent to credibly pass without notice either from him or from his family. (I wouldn't mind a look at the 1983 BBC series, if it was available in the UK.)

Among literary novel-readers generally, its reputation stands higher, some of us considering it Austen's most amazing novel, its intricacies and darknesses rather adding to its interest. (It has also been prominently attacked, but that's never a bad thing.)


The Librivox reading of Mansfield Park,  by Karen Savage, is just fabulous.


A wealth of posts about Mansfield Park, organized by Sarah Emsley:

Two excellent chapters on Lovers' Vows and Mansfield Park generally, in Paula Byrne's The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Is a Hit in Hollywood (2002). Byrne abundantly illustrates the relevance of both LV and the unchosen plays (e.g. The Heir at Law) to MP. Very illuminating on Tom Bertram.

She is harder on Sir Thomas than I have been, particularly in regard to his anger at Fanny's refusal to marry Henry. Likewise, she thinks he yields too easily to Maria's bravado about her betrothal: he must take some responsibility for the disastrous outcome.

She contrasts Sir Thomas' intransigence with Baron Wildenhaim in the play. She concludes:

A detailed analysis of the complex relationship between the two works suggests that, although Sir Thomas Bertram condemns the theatricals, Jane Austen does not. The opposite is more true, thanks to the contrast between the two fathers: it is the theatricals that condemn Sir Thomas.

Still, I think this is too one-sided. Baron Wildenhaim was after all a seducer... Sir Thomas, we are sure, has never slipped. I think part of the fascination of MP is that, for all the irony, Austen does assign great value to the gravity of Sir Thomas (and Edmund, and Fanny).

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