June 2010 Meeting: Mansfield Park critiques

Our June meeting comprised a lively and fascinating discussion of the various critiques (secondary sources) of Mansfield Park that members presented. Five members, who had attended our last meeting, came prepared and have provided the following brief outlines for the information and enjoyment of those who were unable to attend.

Lionel Trilling, Mansfield Park (essay), 1955

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park. A reader’s guide to essential criticism, edited by an American academic Sandie Byrne, was published in 2005 (Palgrave Macmillan). Chapter titles include “Contemporary Opinions”, “Reviews from the 1830s to 1870s” and “Late Twentieth Century Approaches”. Chapter 4 “The Mid-twentieth Century” includes discussion of Lionel Trilling’s 1955 essay Mansfield Park. Trilling (1905-1975) was a New York critic and academic described by Byrne as ‘one of the last of the philosopher-critics who looked to great works of canonical literature for moral lessons on how we should live our lives and imaginative recreations of human experience’ (p191). Trilling suggests that reading Mansfield Park will be an uncomfortable and possibly unsettling experience for modern readers because its uncompromising judgements are not what we expect from art.  Trilling argued the novel ‘scandalizes the modern assumptions about social relations, about virtue, about religion, sex and art. Most troubling of all is its preference for rest over motion’; the heroine ‘cannot cut a basket of roses without fatigue and headache’. Trilling compares Fanny Price with Mary Crawford who ‘is conceived, is calculated, to win the charmed admiration of almost any reader. She is all pungency and wit. Her mind is as lively and competent as her body; she can bring not only a horse but a conversation to a gallop. She is downright, open intelligent and impatient…..yet in the end we are asked to believe that she is not to be admired, that her lively mind compounds, by very reason of its liveliness, with the world, the flesh and the devil.’ (Trilling’s essay is reproduced in various collections including Jane Austen: A collection of critical essays ed. Ian Watt. Prentice Hall 1963.) Byrne suggests the many different interpretations of Mansfield Park ‘highlight the power and complexity of this astonishingly rich and apparently inexhaustible text.’ (p8)

Avrom Fleishman, “Mansfield Park in its time”, Nineteenth Century Fiction, 22(1), June 1967

Fleishman looks at the social and political environment within which Mansfield Park was written with a view to clarifying the frequent view that it represents a reversion to the taste and style of the Augustan Age, and censures the libertine morality of the Romantic movement. In his opening sentence he says that Austen’s novels “appear at a crucial point in the transition of English society to the modern age, at a time when the threat that the French Revolution would spread to England caused a cultural reaction which lent a conservative cast to much of English Romanticism”.

He looks at four arguments often made regarding Mansfield Park:

  • That Austen was under the influence of the Evangelical movement which results in the book’s “moralising tone”. To put it simply, Fleishman argues that the religious affirmations, despite having some Evangelical basis, are put more to the purpose of maintaining and bolstering the political strength of the gentry than to saving souls.
  • That the rejection of the amateur theatricals is based on their moral impropriety. Fleishman suggests that the main reason for rejecting “Lovers vows” is not for its (im)morality but because it is a “politically charged play” which undermines the status quo (that is, the aristocracy).
  • That, to put it baldly, Fanny Price is a prig. Fleishman argues that Fanny in fact is a Romantic heroine: she is the only one to respond to the beauty of nature; she is regularly defined by her Romantic delicacy of feelings and mind; and she is critical of and rebels against the morals of MP (that is, the gentry).
  • That the novel defends the gentry’s lifestyle. Fleishman suggests that, through the actions and behaviours of the Bertram family, Austen presents a case for the gentry needing to modify its way of life in order to ensure its (and therefore the nation’s) stability in the changing political and economic world.

Hoyt Trowbridge,Mind, body and estate*:  Jane Austen’s system of values” in From Dryden to Jane Austen:  essays on English critics and writers, 1660-1818, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1977

Trowbridge finds Austen uses five basic criteria to differentiate her characters and guide our judgment of them.  These criteria are intelligence, morality, feeling, beauty and worldly condition (rank and fortune).  Other standards appealed to are manners, taste and feminine accomplishments, but these are less important.

Austen conceives both intelligence and morality as active powers, meant to be put to use.  Principles, however sound, are nothing but inert abstractions unless they become a habit of mind, a disposition to think and act in a certain way.  Sir Thomas, for example, blames his own errors of judgment in the education of his daughters.  ‘He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting …..’

There are several kinds of beauty of body and mind and Austen’s heroines unite these in varying degrees. Because beauty appeals so powerfully it can also be dangerous and destructive.  Mary Crawford is the most striking example of this.

Trowbridge quotes David Cecil, who ‘succinctly sums up Miss Austen’s views on the worldly condition:  It was wrong to marry for money, but it was silly to marry without it.’  A moderate income and an independent self-respecting position in society provide the necessary basis for a civilized and happy life.  Fanny and Edmund begin their life together in this way.

Trowbridge argues that Austen’s system of values is very ancient, part of the humanistic classical-Christian tradition which she inherited.  These values can also be found in the philosophical works of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.  ‘Jane Austen gives these ideas a Christian colouring and states them in a nontechnical, eighteenth-century vocabulary.’  However, her novels are neither allegorical nor didactic, but comic masterpieces in which her system of values defines and distinguishes the range of comic effects, and constitutes the special literary quality and character of the novels.

*A reference to the Anglican prayer book:  a humble request for divine mercy on everyone afflicted or distressed in ‘mind, body, or estate’.

John Wiltshire, Jane Austen and the body, Cambridge University Press, 1992

Wiltshire’s main argument is that Mansfield Park “runs a narrative line which vindicates not conscience, or duty, or self sacrifice but desire”, that to view Fanny as a model of integrity and principle ” the undeviating moral mast-head of Mansfield Park is to forget that her unspoken love for Edmund, all the more powerful for its suppression is the instigator of her conduct, not her rectitude. Wiltshire analyses the novel paying particular attention to how Fanny’s body betrays her emotions. He suggests that as a result of her having to suppress emotions of envy, jealousy and rage, she suffers from somatization, which is linked to powerlessness. Headaches are a common symptom of somatization.

Wiltshire also explores how Austen uses Fanny’s blushing to show both Fanny’s desire and her powerlessness.

Wiltshire effectively quotes from John Donne’s ‘The Second Anniversary’ to make his point:

Her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheekes and so distinctly wrought,
That one might say, her body thought.

Jennifer Evans, ‘Which Father: Religious and Filial Duty’, Sensibilities, No. 13 (December 1996)

Jennifer Evans’s article highlighted the importance of taking into account Jane Austen’s religious beliefs when reading the novels: her ‘value system deriving from her High Church of England doctrine connects belief and behaviour, religion and morality.’  Evans points out that in the late 17th/early 18th centuries there was a ‘wide social concern with parental neglect and filial responsibility’ and compares two contemporary novels, Marriage and Self Control in which the Christian doctrine of obedience is overtly canvassed, with Mansfield Park where the same doctrine is more subtly demonstrated. Sir Thomas’s neglect of the education of his children and Lady Bertram’s failure to teach, train and discipline Maria and Julia both fail the religion test – ‘the principle of right … had not formed any part of [their] education.’

The relationship between children and parents is basic to Mansfield Park. Fanny is obedient to the wishes of ‘all those set in authority over her’ (C of E Prayer Book) but she could not love and honour someone whose principles are counter to Christian morality. When she defies Sir Thomas’s wish that she marry Henry Crawford her duty to God clashes with her observance of the fifth commandment to honour her parents.

Evans concludes ‘Virtuous children can reverse the moral decay resulting from parental failures. Edmund and Fanny’s marriage offers a symbol for regeneration.’

The ‘virtuous children’ absorbed into their very being the religious principles Austen held so dear.

Business of the Meeting

Six members attended the meeting and there were four apologies.

We expressed our appreciation to the members who posted a report on our last meeting who posted an article entitled ‘Jane Austen Manuscripts on Line’.

We have now been advised that the Friends Room in its new location on the fourth floor will be available for future meetings. There are conditions, viz meetings are to be restricted to two hours but with our half hour of socialising over afternoon tea we feel that we can comply with this requirement. The National Library has also requested that at least a majority of members belong the Friends of the NLA and whilst this is the case at present we would urge non-members to consider becoming a member out of courtesy to the Library which is providing this meeting place free of charge to us. Membership carries privileges not the least of which is a 15% discount on purchases at the Library bookshop.

An outline of our plan  for the conference presentation has been passed on to JASA in Sydney together with a request for more information as to the type of questions required for the conference quiz that we have been asked to prepare. It was agreed that we should check whether, for example, all questions must come from the novels, or whether some could come from her letters.

One of our members also advised that she and another member attended Gillian Russell’s recent informative and interesting lecture at the NLA entitled ‘Jane Austen’s Fallen Women’. She will post a report on this blog.

Our thanks to our Quizmaster once again for providing a challenging quiz based on quotes from Mansfield Park. Our combined efforts managed to solve most of them and as usual provided enjoyment and increased our appreciation of the novel. After our traditional challenge of the quotes the meeting closed. Our next meeting will be on 27th July, probably in the newly located Friends Room on the fourth floor.


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