Jane Austen, Religion and Mansfield Park

The article below was written by the JASACT group in 2004 for publication in JASA’s Chronicle (December 2004). I’m posting it here to contribute to our current round of discussions.

In 2004, the Canberra group discussed Jane Austen’s criticism of the Anglican Church  as  revealed in Mansfield Park. Our discussion was prompted by an article by Peter J. Leithart titled Jane Austen : Public theologian? in First Things. Leithart argues that Jane saw ‘a marginalisation of the church … … the failure of the church to be the maker of English manners’ and that ‘she sees a threat embodied in a particular way of life, one that detaches moral principle from good breeding and mannerliness’. This ‘particular way of life’, he argues, is that of the upper strata of London society.

An ongoing concern of Jane’s is English morals and principles and, as in all her novels, there is a strong emphasis on ‘principle’ throughout Mansfield Park. Jane herself, in a letter to Cassandra, said the subject of Mansfield Park was to be ‘Ordination’. However, we believed the theme is much wider. We felt it is about the making of moral choices in everyday life, that is, about the individual’s ability to choose in the face of social conformity or in the face of the tempations offered by a ‘faster’ lifestyle. It is the way Fanny exercises this ability which makes her a heroine.

Through the introduction of the Crawfords to the Mansfield family, Jane creates a tension between London life and provincial life, with London being presented as the source of the declining moral standards (principles) in the nation. The Crawfords’ behaviour demonstrates the difference between good breeding (refinement and courtesy) and good principles (conduct). And she shows how young people can be particularly susceptible to the temptations of London society.

Henry and Mary’s sophisticated London upbringing gives them attitudes foreign to those of the country family (with the exception of Tom Bertram, the eldest son who has largely moved away). The Crawfords have a worldliness and a desire for entertainment and constant novelty which they bring to Mansfield Park, providing the catalyst for the course of the events in the lives of the main characters of the novel. They easily influence the Bertram sisters who do not have firm moral principles. We felt that there is an element of the modern concept of status anxiety in the way the Mansfield Park occupants, with the exception of Edmund and Fanny, embraced the idea of staging such a modern play as Lovers’ Vows. The sophisticated nature of this play has much to do with its whole-hearted acceptance, highlighting the influence of London’s lax morality over the stricter principles of the more Church-oriented rural England.

Sophisticated London, presented by the Crawfords as the arbiter of fashion, is shown by Austen to be in moral decline. Mary says that in London a clergyman is rarely seen out of his pulpit and so does not provide moral leadership, whilst Edmund, in outlining the proper lifestyle of a clergyman, claims the true clergyman is one who ministers full time to his congregation and who, by good example, upholds good principles in the community. Edmund’s struggle against temptation and even Fanny’s brief flirtation with the idea of marrying Henry indicate the influence of London though, of course, in each case their principle wins through. It is interesting that Henry’s appreciation of Fanny’s goodness leads him briefly to want to be a better person, but on his return to the morally polluting effect of the London scene with its lack of principle, he founders. And it is in London, too, that Maria Bertram throws away her reputation. Leithart, a theologian himself, describes Henry as a Satan character, rich, elegant and delighting in the chaos he creates.Whilst some of us objected to such a strong description, there can be no doubt he was a tempter, the snake in the garden of Mansfield Park.

Even in Portsmouth, there is an extension of the London theme, for the squalor of Fanny’s family home is contrasted with the lightness and brightness of the walk along the ramparts (perhaps a city/country theme in microcosm?). It is in that walk that Fanny sees Henry at his best and comes close to weakening her determination, but Henry’s return to the temptations of London is his undoing.

Leithart claims that Mansfield Park ‘is a thick description of the kinds of habits of speech and personal conduct … … that emerge from uncontrolled individualism’. On the whole we did not agree with his ideas of Jane’s being against ‘uncontrolled individualism’ and in favour of a ‘fixed fate’ which he defines as being ‘to act well in the assigned role … to do what your role assigns to you’. We felt, in fact, that Leithart made too great a simplificaton of the dichotomy between ‘fixed fate’ and individualism, between ‘good country’ and ‘bad city’. Mary Crawford, for example, while certainly contributing to the events that occur, is not a wholly negative character. As Edmund, besotted but not silly, says, ‘Hers are not faults of temper. She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to anyone’. We argued, then, that Jane explores a more complex notion, that of the difficult moral choices to be made in the face of overwhelming social expectation which lacks ‘principle’.

We also briefly discussed Jane’s reported adoption of Evangelicalism with its emphasis on salvation by faith and the requirement to suffer for one’s sins, and wondered whether this was the reason for Maria’s banishment to social obscurity, albeit with her father’s financial support. But we felt we needed to research this issue more before exploring it further.

Mansfield Park has been described as Jane’s darkest novel on which we were all agreed. We touched upon the baser aspects of some of the characters which darken the story. Mrs Norris’s nastiness (with her constant carping at and slighting of Fanny), Henry’s perfidy, Mary’s superficiality, Tom’s failure to accept his responsibility (both to himself and his family), Yates’ complete unawareness of his lack of principle in his behaviour as a guest, and even Rushworth’s vanity are all degrees of baseness in educated people who should have known better. The weaknesses in these young people can be fairly traced to the lack of parental guidance and responsibility both in London and Mansfield Park.

Jane is frequently accused of being narrowly focused in her novels but we would argue that she promoted at all times deep moral principles and that she does so nowhere more strongly than in Mansfield Park, a novel which explores religion in its wider meaning rather than being simply about ordination.

(Contributors: Heather, Mary, Tracey, Jessie and Sue)

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