Citizen Reading: 22 May 2017.
1 day ago
In some ways, it is not surprising that Mansfield Park was not among the novels initially adapted for film or that the filmmaker altered the novel so radically. Although Mansfield Park has never been without defenders, it has long been regarded as Austen's least-popular novel, largely because of the supposed unattractiveness of the novel's heroine, Fanny Price.( n18) Literary critics have tended to regard Fanny as at best "essentially passive and uninteresting,"( n19) and at worst "morally detestable," "a monster of complacency and pride...under a cloak of cringing self-abasement."( n20) In one of the most famous critiques of Mansfield Park, Lionel Trilling remarks, "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park."( n21)I found this on my library's database so most anyone can I think with the above citation.
Those who, like Trilling, regard Austen as reactionary, a defender of society against the newer claims of romanticism or the self, tend to see Mansfield Park as Austen's clearest and most explicit statement of her position. Although such critics argue that all of Austen's works support conventional morality, they maintain that in her earlier novels, especially Pride and Prejudice, which she rewrote for publication just before beginning Mansfield Park, Austen's defense of society was done in a way that was pleasing, that depicted characters with humor and wit as worthy of emulation, due chiefly to Austen's much admired use of irony. However, in writing Mansfield Park, such critics maintain, Austen turned her back on this style of writing, and taking on a more sober and excessively moralistic style, wrote her least-pleasing, most overtly rationalistic tome, in which irony has no place.
Even among those who claim that Austen is a romantic, that she defends individual happiness over and against the claims of society, some express disapprobation toward Mansfield Park and argue that it is an anomaly among Austen's works.( n22) However, in recent years, a number of critics within this camp have begun to argue that Austen's intentions in writing Mansfield Park have long been fundamentally misunderstood. They claim that Austen does not intend her readers to regard Fanny Price as the heroine of the novel, as is the case with the central female characters in her other novels, but rather as a kind of antiheroine, to be pitied perhaps, but not to be admired and emulated.( n23) Austen wrote Mansfield Park, such critics claim, as a parody of the popular instructive novels of the day, frequently of an evangelical, pietistic nature, which were intended primarily to provide moral guidance to young women. The plots of such novels center on innocent, exemplary young women whose purity of heart both enables them to avoid many moral pitfalls and motivates those fortunate enough to know them to take up the path of moral righteousness as well. Arguing along these lines, the well-known critic Claudia L. Johnson maintains that in writing Mansfield Park Austen turns the instructive novel on its head. Rather than defending the social institutions of the day, especially the family, Austen condemns them "by registering [their] impact on a heroine who, though a model of female virtue and filial gratitude, is betrayed by the same ethos she dutifully embraces. ...This painful and richly problematic identification makes Mansfield Park Austen's most, rather than her least, ironic novel and a bitter parody of conservative fiction."( n24)
Mansfield Park has been subject to such harsh and divisive interpretation, I believe, not because it is anomalous among Austen's works but because of Austen's treatment of its three pre-eminent and interrelated themes, (a) proper female behavior, (b) the role of religious belief in human life, and (c) the connection between virtue and happiness. Although, as I shall argue, Austen does not treat these themes in a way that conforms simply to the conservatism of her day, she treats them in a way that also contrasts sharply with the claims of modernity.
First, in regard to Austen's treatment of female behavior in the novel, it is true, as critics frequently claim, that Fanny Price is different in many ways from Austen's other central female characters, particularly the witty Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice and the charming Emma Woodhouse of Emma. Unlike any of Austen's other central female characters, Fanny is described as displaying "great timidity" (MP, 14).( n25) Furthermore, Fanny is not as physically robust as Austen's other central female characters. As a result of the unhealthy conditions of her early childhood, her lack of freedom to exercise, or some combination of the two, she tires easily. However, it is not the case, as many critics claim, that Fanny is inherently sickly or "debilitated," and certainly not the case that Austen presents such a condition as a virtue.( n26)
Neither the character of Fanny Price nor the novel as a whole is as anomalous as some claim. Like Anne Elliott of Persuasion and the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility, Fanny Price is a young woman of unusually deep feelings, what Austen calls "sensibility." Austen suggests that the heightened sensibility of each of these characters is due, at least in part, to the loss of her childhood home. Fanny's more extreme sensibility, Austen suggests, stems from her having lost both her home and her family at a young age and her awareness that the family and house within which she lives are not truly her own.
Furthermore, while the claim that Mansfield Park is in some sense a satirical response to the instructional novels of the day is quite persuasive, it is not true that Austen meant to present Fanny Price as unlikable, and certainly not as an antiheroine. To the contrary, Austen writes in such a way that, as the book progresses, the reader comes to sympathize more and more with Fanny, to admire her strength of will, purity of heart, and good judgment. As Anne Crippen Ruderman remarks, "Fanny is not charming, and yet the remarkable thing is that it is extremely difficult to read Mansfield Park without rooting for her in some way."( n27) The reason is that, although Fanny is different from Austen's other heroines in many respects, she nevertheless shares with them in an overarching characteristic, the love of virtue.( n28)
Like Aristotle, Austen points to the centrality of prudence in the achievement of virtue. While Austen sometimes uses the word "prudence," she more frequently refers to this virtue by using words such as "good judgment" and "understanding." Austen indicates, like Aristotle, that the development of prudence requires training from one's youth. One must have someone external to oneself who possesses what Aristotle's calls "right reason" as a teacher or guide, but eventually this guidance or direction must come from within oneself. That is, a human being becomes truly prudent when she no longer relies on another for guidance, but rather understands for herself why she should perform or refrain from certain actions. Aristotle defines prudence as a virtue of intellect, but one that, to be perfected, must be combined with emotive disposition or character. That is, prudence entails both intellectual virtue with respect to directive action--in particular, it is associated with the ability to deliberate well in achieving one's ends--and moral virtue in regard to feeling as one should. Mansfield Park, as all of Austen's novels, supports this view.
At the age of ten, Fanny is taken from her large, relatively poor family in Portsmouth and placed in the home of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, at the large estate known as Mansfield Park. Fanny grows up alongside her four cousins: Tom, the heir, then eighteen; Edmund, a prospective clergyman, then sixteen; Maria, then fourteen, and Julia, then twelve. Almost immediately upon arriving at Mansfield, Fanny is befriended by her cousin Edmund, who seeks to make her feel more comfortable in the household. Edmund enables Fanny to write to her brother William, two years her elder, whom she loves dearly and with whom she thereafter regularly corresponds as she grows up at Mansfield. Edmund eventually oversees her education by directing her reading of books and discussing them with her. Unlike the other Bertram children, Edmund grows into a morally serious young man and, admiring Fanny's intelligence and moral goodness, comes to hold her in deep, sisterly affection. Although Edmund is wholly unaware of it, Fanny eventually falls in love with him. Fanny keeps her feelings for Edmund hidden, believing that her lowly position makes it almost impossible for him or any of the Bertrams to consider her his equal.
One of the first things Edmund discerns about Fanny when he becomes acquainted with her is her love of virtue, observing that she has "an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right" (MP, 14). Rather than valuing "reason" over "emotion," or vice versa, Fanny combines great emotional depth--"sensibility"--with the desire to be good, that is, to discern and abide by rationally discerned principles of morality. It is because of this, Austen indicates in Mansfield Park, as in all of her novels, that Fanny is capable of achieving true happiness. Although Fanny is timid and thinks little of her importance within the Mansfield household, she takes seriously the development of virtue in her life. Grateful for the attention she begins to receive from her cousin Edmund, Fanny takes advantage of the circumstances in which she finds herself to improve her mind and her character.
Over and over again Austen makes reference to Fanny's struggles to act in ways that conform to her "duty," which Fanny understands to involve both thinking or judging correctly as well as feeling correctly.( n29) For example, when Fanny is sixteen years old, her uncle, Sir Thomas, in the face of financial difficulties brought on largely by the profligate behavior of his elder son and heir, Tom, departs for what turns out to be a two-year-long trip to Antigua, where he owns a sugar plantation. Sir Thomas's daughters, Maria and Julia, take great joy in his departure, knowing they will now be "relieved...from all restraint" and "have every indulgence within their reach" (MP, 25). Although Fanny is as relieved as her cousins, she cannot take pleasure in Sir Thomas's departure. Rather, "a more tender nature suggested that her feelings were ungrateful, and she really grieved because she could not grieve" (MP, 25). Furthermore, as she comes to realize that Edmund is falling in love with their new neighbor, Mary Crawford, Fanny is aware that her judgment of Mary may be adversely influenced by feelings of jealousy. Aware that her jealousy of Mary might cloud her judgment, she continually challenges herself to judge Mary's character fairly, that is, "independently of self" (MP, 249). However, Fanny cannot help judging Mary to be morally flawed, believing her to have "a mind led astray and bewildered, and without any suspicion of being so; darkened, yet fancying itself light" (MP, 249). Nevertheless, in reflecting on the fact that Edmund will likely propose marriage to Mary, even Fanny's feelings of jealousy do not lead her to abandon virtue. Unlike her cousin Julia, whose jealousy upon realizing that Henry Crawford prefers Maria to her leads her to want revenge against them both, Fanny's jealousy leads her to experience sorrow rather than spite, and she responds to Edmund's preference for Mary by offering "fervent prayers for his happiness" rather than wishing that he or Mary be made to suffer (MP, 181).
Walsh, G. (2002). Is Jane Austen Politically Correct? Interpreting Mansfield Park. Perspectives on Political Science, 31(1), 15. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.