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.