Austen’s Fallen Women. Mansfield Park and Lady Susan

Report on Gillian Russell’s lecture, “Austen’s fallen women: Mansfield Park and Lady Susan”, at the National Library of Australia. May 25th, 2010.

Russell argued that both novels have transgressive, ruined women in Mary Crawford and Lady Susan. Both novels also explore adultery and divorce, both of which were controversial topics in Austen’s time.

To Russell, Mansfield Park is the most ambitious and interesting of Austen’s novels. Fanny Price although mousey and passive is also jealous and resentful. In her teens, Russell was “on Fanny’s side”, in her 20s, she thought her creepy. Now she sees the character as an interesting study of powerlessness. Fanny is totally dependent. Her position at Mansfield Park is ambiguous. She is almost a servant. Like a servant, Fanny overhears conversations and watches. Russell revealed that there are more references to servants in Mansfield Park than in any of the other Austen novels.

Russell then examined Mansfield Park as a story about contemporary Regency Britain. She explored Austen’s references to slavery and the debate over tradition versus innovation and change.

The characters who exemplify modernity in the novel are Henry and Mary Crawford. Russell described them as worldly, sophistcated and sexy.

Russell explained that adultery was both a sin and a civil offense in Regency England and that husbands could sue adulterers. Divorce needed an Act of Parliament. There was a significant increase in divorce 1790-1820 and reports in the newspapers meant it was no longer private. There was a growing concern about the increase in divorce which led to moral panic, as many believed it was an effect of the French Revolution. Fashionable women, like Mary Crawford, were part of the trend.

Russell then turned to Lady Susan, ‘the merry widow’. She sees Lady Susan as a prototype of Mary Crawford and that Austen in both Mansfield Park and Lady Susan explores the sexual double standards of the time in the way society treated men and women over adultery.

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5 Responses to Austen’s Fallen Women. Mansfield Park and Lady Susan

  1. Thanks for this report Elsey11! I am so frustrated that the NLA bookclub events are held the same night as my bookgroup – though conceivably I could rush from one to another and fit them both in.

    Anyhow, this sounds like it was really interesting. It fits in well with that critique of MP I read which suggested quite strongly that MP in particularly reflects the uneasiness in England at the time regarding the ideas coming out of the French Revolution. Austen may not have discussed politics specifically but this doesn’t mean that political events don’t influence and aren’t reflected in her writing, does it?

  2. jessiet1 says:

    An interesting report thank you – especially for those who were not at the meeting.

    When I read the Juvenilia I often see hints of things to come in the adult novels – toned down, of course! But they are fun, aren’t they?

  3. Rosie says:

    But Mary Crawford wasn’t the fallen woman in the novel. The worst she had suffered was the loss of Edmund’s affections (no real loss there).

    It was Maria Bertram Rushworth who ended up being the novel’s fallen woman.

    • True, Rosie, and thanks for commenting … perhaps the word “ruined” wasn’t used in the sense of “fallen” so much as “faulty”, as lacking in the values Austen was espousing? Mary, for example, was rather accepting of Henry’s behaviour. I wasn’t there at the talk though so maybe Elsey11 will respond.

      (Oops, I missed the title of the talk and went straight to the discussion. However, the point I’ve made is my understanding of what Elsey11 has written.)

  4. 11elsey says:

    Yes Rosie, that is true but Russell argued that Mary was ruined in her ideas. After all Lady Susan isn’t technically a fallen woman either, just rather progressive and inappropriate in some of her ideas and actions.

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