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Book club: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

by
04 March 2022

Alexander Faludy on the ethical and political aspects of Jane Austen’s Regency novel Mansfield Park

MANSFIELD PARK is the subtlest of Jane Austen’s novels, and perhaps for that reason the least filmed. Fanny Price, its timid heroine, up-ends the paradigm for Austen’s leads. It is not Fanny who, in order to “succeed”, must attain better awareness of self or “other” — rather, others must come to value Fanny, and the virtues (especially constancy and patience) that she quietly embodies. Only thus can they rectify disorders in themselves and their surroundings.

Fanny’s challenge is not to change, but under personal pressure and circumstantial testing, remain herself: resisting calls to “act out of character”, whether literally, in a domestic theatrical, or by marriage to a man whose integrity she cannot trust.

Mansfield Park is unusual in other ways. It is the only work that Austen herself titled after its setting, not by its themes or protagonist (Northanger Abbey was named posthumously by her heirs). It is the good of Mansfield Park — a complex unity of people and place — which is the novel’s heart. Mansfield Park is thus a “political novel”: a novel about a mini polity and how it might best prosper.

Challenges to Mansfield Park’s safety arise from within and without. The disruptive arrival in the neighbourhood of Mary and Henry Crawford — bringing with them beguiling urban manners and an absence of moral grounding — imperils the welfare of the Park’s occupants, who are ill prepared to resist the temptations, especially romantic, that the siblings present. Mansfield’s vulnerability arises from the absence of its patriarch (Sir Thomas), his neglect of his children’s moral training, and the indolence of its parson, Dr Grant.

Only Fanny, the tolerated poor relation, is well placed to resist the charming Crawfords. This is thanks to the hard schooling of her naturally unassuming disposition by adverse circumstance. Being left out of conversations by others has allowed her a calm vantage point from which to hone attentive observation of the minute signifiers of the disposition of others (and attendant dangers).

Throughout the novel, Austen plays with contrasts of interior and exterior space to highlight the importance of the good ordering of interior life. Fanny’s sustained attention to the good use of her room contrasts with schemes to remould the surrounding landscape by swift and dramatic alterations proposed by the easily distracted Henry Crawford.

Paradoxically, the external world is ultimately shown better managed by the slow outworking of interior dispositions than the imposition of dramatic change. Indeed, the latter risks actual harm: the contrived “improvement” of the grounds at Sotherton brings Edmund close to an Edenic fall on its “serpentine” paths as Mary Crawford seeks to tempt him from his clerical vocation.

This dimension of the book — its meditation on how character is best formed slowly so as to navigate crisis rather than be shocked into alteration by it — has caused the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre to celebrate Mansfield Park as making Austen “the last great effective imaginative voice” of virtue ethics.

Virtue in Aristotle’s conception is about locating the “golden mean” between extremes. Fanny’s moderated activity in walking and riding presents a “middle term” between the ceaseless motion of Mary Crawford and the couch-bound indolence of Aunt Bertram. Fanny’s intermediate position between the women’s temperaments is a signifier to the reader of what she represents in the novel more widely.

Universal Art Archive/Alamy Stock PhotoJane Austen was a frequent visitor to Godmersham Park, in Kent. The fictional Mansfield Park is said to be based on Godmersham Park, the estate that her brother Edward Austen inherited in 1794

 

Fanny’s lack of positive attraction frustrates some readers, but, for MacIntyre, “Fanny’s lack of charm is crucial to Jane Austen’s intentions,” because “charm is the characteristically modern quality which those who lack or simulate the virtues use to get by.”

Mansfield Park’s morality has been hotly debated from a different angle of late: slavery and empire. The comforts enjoyed at Mansfield are funded by the sugar plantations in Antigua which Sir Thomas absents himself to visit. Given the lack of overt authorial reproach, Edward Said, in a famous essay (“Jane Austen and Empire”, 1993), attacked the novel as fostering “a domestic imperialist culture”.

The attack is unfair: Austen subtly uses associations with slavery to cast characters in an unfavourable light. The detestable Mrs Norris shares her name with a prominent contemporary slave trader. The untrustworthy Crawfords eventually move into the vacated London house of the Lascelles family — notorious slave owners.

Sir Thomas, returning from his plantations abroad, and continually associated with the word “plantation” at home, is corrupted by his commodification of humanity, so that he sees even the marriages of his kin only in terms of financial transaction. In titling Mansfield Park, Austen nods to William Mansfield, who, as Lord Chief Justice, prepared the path to abolition by declaring slavery “odious” and neither “allowed or approved by the law of England” (Somerset’s Case, 1772).

Austen’s naming of the park suggests that liberating slaves from bondage might also free their owners from moral corrosion. To discern this, as much else about the novel, however, we need a careful training in focused attentiveness analogous to Fanny’s own. It is a training that sitting patiently with the text of Mansfield Park itself over time furnishes.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is published by Penguin Classics at £5.99 (Church Times Bookshop £5.39); 978-0-141-43980-8.

 

MANSFIELD PARK — SOME QUESTIONS

  1. “Did you not hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?” Sir Thomas’s plantation in Antigua, which provides the family with wealth, relies on slave labour. Is Austen making a comment by including this?

  2. “Cut down an avenue! What a pity!” In what ways is Fanny’s taste and intelligence shown to be superior to her cousins’?

  3. Is Fanny’s passivity a virtue or a weakness?

  4. “It seemed as if to be at home again would heal every pain.” How does Fanny’s notion of “home” change over the course of the novel?

  5. “How . . . to make her remember she is not a Miss Bertram.” How is Fanny set apart?

  6. Who holds freedom and power in the Bertram family?

  7. What is Maria Bertram’s fate, and why?

  8. “I could not act anything if you were to give me the world”. Why is Fanny so adamant about not acting?

  9. Why is Mrs Norris in particular so cruel to Fanny?

  10. “He must find his sister at sixteen in some respects too much like his sister at ten.” Does Fanny’s character develop over the novel?


IN OUR next Reading Groups page on 1 April, we will print extra information about our next book, The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd. It is published by Tinder Press at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-4722-3251-9.

 

THE BOOK

The Book of Longings was inspired by the real-life discovery in 2012 of a (forged) scrap of papyrus referring to Jesus’s having a wife. Sue Monk Kidd’s fictional story inspired by this idea presents a young woman, Ana, who is rebellious, educated, and clever, and feels trapped by the expectation that she is to marry an older widower. Change comes when she meets Jesus of Nazareth and becomes his wife instead. Adventures unfold for Ana, but the novel focuses also on the internal struggles for a woman born in a time and place in which women had very little power, but had desires, passions, and longings, none the less.



THE AUTHOR

Born in Georgia, in the United States, in 1948, Sue Monk Kidd trained and worked as a nurse and nursing instructor before turning to writing full time. Although an active member of a Baptist church in her early life, Kidd was influenced by the literature of the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and her first books were spiritual memoirs describing her experiences of “contemplative Christianity” and her later search for a feminist spirituality. Kidd has since written four novels in addition to her works of non-fiction. She is best known for her acclaimed 2002 bestseller The Secret Life of Bees, which was made into a feature film (Arts, 5 December 2008).

 

BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

May: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

June: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

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