When in the fall of 2007 I began reading Mansfield Park for the fourth time, I was not prepared for the experience, despite familiarity with its every incident.  It was like casting a cursory glance at that fishbowl on the end-table, and finding one’s gaze drawn down into a fathomless maelstrom.  Soon I began to write down the impressions and surmises that unfolded, held to the task of writing like a reader who cannot put the book down.

As I wrote and rewrote, I became curious about what others had seen in the book.  A Google search took me to Ellen Moody’s commentary, which summarizes much online discussion as well as scholarly research.  From her references I looked up Avrom Fleischman’s A Reading of Mansfield Park, as well as Lionel Trilling’s influential essay in The Opposing Self.   On a visit to the stacks I spotted Harold Bloom’s anthology, Modern Critical Interpretations of Mansfield Park.  I found much to confirm, challenge and supplement my own observations; and as I continued writing and rewriting, my notes began to acknowledge these others’ comments.  I went back, also, to Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life, which I had read a year or so earlier, and realized that certain observations from that biography had been in the back of my mind.

At the start I had no thought of maintaining a thesis.  In the course of the writing certain themes seemed to emerge.

Reading, like writing, has its moment.  On my first, blank-minded reading of Mansfield Park (perhaps in 1961), I was scarcely older than its heroine.  Since that first reading I have watched a chapter or two of history, and have pondered the experiences of my generation.  And I have also come to know a culture much older than Austen’s, that of the Orthodox Jewish community, which suggested a number of comparisons.  This is a perspective that was obviously unknown to Austen; yet she was to some extent an alien in her world, and the artist’s intuition is not altogether bounded by culture.

Where to start?  Well, the title, which proclaims that the book is mainly concerned not so much with the fates of the individual characters as with a place – a setting, an environment, a world in miniature.  Northanger Abbey is the only other book named for a place, and that is not really about a place but rather about a certain genre of literature of which abbeys are frequent settings.  But Mansfield Park really is about a world, a microcosm.  The word “park” implies an enclosure, a preserve.   This doesn’t prevent parts of the book from taking place elsewhere – in Portsmouth, in London, at Sotherton.  But Mansfield Park remains the central reference point. 

Mansfield Park is like a mandala which grows more involved as you look at it, or a plotting of the Mandelbrot set:  you see first the large shape, and then you realize that each of the protuberances on this large shape is the same shape, with similar protuberances, and so on.  The story of Fanny Price is the focus of Mansfield Park, but the novel contains several other stories that, if you contemplate them, seem capable of being expanded to the same degree of complexity.  In Emma we focus mainly on the title character, only to realize that Jane Fairfax has been living through a story of at least equal intensity and interest.  But such is the almost childish simplicity of Emma compared with Mansfield Park, that we take this revelation mainly as a comment on Emma’s obtuseness.  But here, quite independently of individual character, the egoistic focus of the novel is constantly underlain and undercut by an awareness of what takes place beyond the self’s circle of concern and of knowledge.

 In Mansfield Park Austen takes particular care to make her characters seem plausibly related.  By contrast, the Bennett sisters seem assembled for the purpose of demonstrating a range of serious and comic possibilities; and if one stops to think about it, one cannot quite see how Mrs. Bennett managed to attract Mr. Bennett.  Would a pretty face really have been enough, given Mr. Bennett’s ear for the ridiculous?  Again, these two characters seem assembled chiefly for the purpose of striking sparks from each other.  But though Lady Bertram is just as absurd as Mrs. Bennett, we guess that her extreme passivity might well have charmed Sir Thomas Bertram, a man very fond of having his own way.  The mixture of his pride and sternness with her passivity results in three of the four children turning out rebellious or irresponsible.  Only the younger son, Edmund, escapes, because he is brought up with more modest expectations than the others, and because he is influenced by the values of the profession – the ministry – for which he is destined.  And as a receptive little “parishioner,” Fanny gives him a chance to assume the role of counselor and teacher at an early age!  (Influence of teacher and pupil always reciprocal.)

Edmund is felt by some readers to be stodgy and perhaps not too bright.  This is unjust.  True, he is not quick to criticize his family; but that is after all an amiable trait, a sign of loyalty.  Edmund is not seen at his best throughout most of the book; he is in the grip of the amatory passion, which is not known for making people more perspicacious.  Yet he can ingeniously soften reproof with affection when Crawford threatens to attend his inaugural sermon:  “I shall keep clear of you, Crawford, as long as I can […] for you would be more likely to disconcert me, and I should be more sorry to see you trying at it, than almost any other man.”  (I think of George Herbert’s recommended formula of rebuke: “That was not so well done but that it might better have been forborne.”)  Likewise when he states to Mary that “I am a very matter of fact, plain spoken being, and may blunder on the borders of a repartee for half an hour together without striking it out” -- this disclaimer of wit is not unwitty.  And it is said that he can read aloud “very well.”  Edmund is not stupid; he is just not interested in scoring off others, and he is wary of touching too lightly on subjects that should be treated seriously.  He refuses to “sit in the seat of the scorners” (Ps. 1:1); he has what is still known in Orthodox circles as fear of G-d.    Trilling has retrieved a letter written by Austen to her niece Fanny Knight, urging her to accept a certain Mr. J.P., which should remove all doubt as to how she meant Edmund to be regarded:

His only fault indeed seems Modesty.  If he were less modest, he would be more agreeable, speak louder & look Impudenter; -- and is it not a fine Character of which Modesty is the only defect? – I have no doubt that he will get more lively & be more like yourselves as he is more with you; -- he will catch your ways if he belongs to you.  And as to there being any objection from his Goodness, […] I cannot admit that.  […] Do not be frightened from the connection by your brothers having the most wit.  Wisdom is better than Wit & in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side…

Some of this could apply to Fanny as well; I have an idea that after the curtain falls Fanny, relieved from oppression and secure in Edmund’s and Sir Thomas’s affections, will become “more lively.”  Meanwhile, Fanny’s seriousness is the echo of Edmund’s; that remark of his to Crawford is followed by Fanny’s reflection that Crawford “can feel nothing as he ought.”

Mrs. Bertram and her sisters are a study in the effects of “nature” and “circumstance.”   Mrs. Bertram and Mrs. Price are both indolent by nature; but Mrs. Bertram, married to a rich man, becomes a vapid lady of leisure, while Mrs. Price, married to a poor man, becomes a feckless tenement slattern.  These two represent the worlds of wealth and poverty.  Between them is the all-too-energetic Mrs. Norris, married to a clergyman.  The clergy sometimes mediate between the worlds of wealth and poverty, and Mrs. Norris does this when she prevails on the Bertrams to take Fanny into their home.  The fact that the sisters belong to three different worlds contributes to the “microcosmic” impression, the impression that Mansfield Park contains the larger world. 

Mrs. Norris is, as people used to say, “a caution.”  But she is no caricature, unlike, say, Lady Catherine de Bourges. Or if she is a caricature she is one that, having caught the attention, holds it and draws it deeper.  Having pegged Lady Catherine as a mean-tempered woman whose arrogance is backed by her wealth, the reader feels no need of further analysis.  Mrs. Norris, however, gives the impression of being gnawed by a secret worm.

It certainly appears that she does not have enough to do with her nervous energy.  She is childless.  At one point Fanny reflects that her aunt Norris might have been better suited than her mother for the task of raising a large family on a small income.  Mrs. Norris’s stinginess has something to do with her barrenness.  Nature has not prompted her to give, and she cannot bring herself even to send the shabbiest present to her goddaughter.   Her vigilant attention to the task of blighting poor Fanny is a distorted and inverted reflection of a mother’s unwearying solicitude.  Mrs. Norris is such a nuisance to the other characters that the reader does not often think of pitying her.  Just at one point it is said that Fanny imagines the loneliness of the house Mrs. Norris goes home to, and feels sorry for her.  But at the end it is said that not even Fanny shed any tears for her when she was gone.  Thus the reader is at one point encouraged to think about what Aunt Norris is, other than a plague to the rest of the characters, but then that encouragement is withdrawn.

And yet there is enough background given so that one can begin to imagine how Mrs. Norris might have gotten to be this way.  She is the eldest of the three sisters and the only one with much energy.  As the three were growing up, she must surely have ruled Miss Maria and Miss Frances with an iron hand (perhaps, indeed, their very passivity was an adaptation to her rule).  When Sir Thomas showed up, wouldn’t she have wanted to claim him for her own, indeed assumed that he was hers by right?  Sir Thomas, however, refused to oblige; instead he fell for Maria, the placid one, ready and willing to be the clinging vine to his mighty oak.  Sir Thomas, as he will say to Fanny years later, does not care for a “spirit of independence” in women.  After Sir Thomas chooses Maria instead of Miss Ward, the latter waits six years before resigning herself to a clergyman under Sir Thomas’s patronage.  

As I retype these Notes, I hear a cautionary voice from Emma, which I proceeded to reread afterwards: speculating on others’ amatory history is a risky business!  But at least it does not seem too venturesome to place Mrs. Norris as one who has come down in the world, from an imperious elder sister to the wife of a hanger-on.  And the ceaseless flattery with which she surrounds Sir Thomas:  could this not represent a continued attempt to gain ascendancy over a man she failed, long ago, to attract?

Of course, Sir Thomas could not be flattered if he did not have the weakness of pride – a weakness that was involved in his choice of Maria.  Mrs. Norris is, indeed, as he finally almost realizes, a part of himself, that he finally wishes he could be rid of, so that her final departure is a deliverance.

A hidden passion for Sir Thomas, rooted in pride but suppressed and distorted into servility, would help to explain the peculiar character of Mrs. Norris’s relationship to Sir Thomas’s children.  They are the children she did not have with Sir Thomas – and they are the children of her successful rival.  She wants them, she can make them dependent on her by spoiling them, but she cannot inspire love in them, perhaps because they sense the undercurrent of anger in everything she does.  By bribing them with indulgence, she subverts Sir Thomas’s system of moral discipline, though fully cooperating with him in instilling pride.  Their real mother does not have the energy to oppose her, perhaps still intimidated, under her sister’s spell psychologically despite her own outward triumph.  Thus her children are alienated from her.  This might help to explain why Lady Bertram comes to favor Fanny over her own daughters.  Not only do the latter show no interest in her, whereas Fanny is always there to help, but Fanny is also a fellow-sufferer from Mrs. Norris.

Mrs. Norris is the one sister whose first name we never learn (unless the fact that she is the godmother of Betsy might suggest that her first name was Elizabeth).  Perhaps one should not make too much of this; the reader does not learn the first names of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, or of Mr. Woodhouse.  And it was general for the eldest sister to be referred to as Miss N., while her younger sisters were distinguished by their first names.  Nonetheless, Mrs. Norris’s lack of a first name is consistent with the impression that no one really knows her.

In Mrs. Norris’s character (stepping outside the framework of the novel for once) I sense a note of self-admonition on the part of the author, in whose own position of spinsterhood there must have been much to put up with.  Mrs. Norris is one whom life has relegated to a peripheral role.  She is not absolutely necessary to anyone.  Instead of resigning herself to this hard reality, reminding herself that “they also serve who only stand and wait,” she is constantly trying to assume an artificial importance, to write a role for herself into the lives of others, with uniformly unfortunate results. 

Amid all the damage that Mrs. Norris does, it is easy to forget that Fanny would not have come to Mansfield Park had it not been for her interfering ways.  Mrs. Norris gets Fanny to Mansfield Park by appealing to Sir Thomas’ benevolence while giving the impression that she herself will bear the main responsibility for Fanny, until it is too late for him to back out gracefully.  This was probably not a plot on her part; she probably had not thought it through and was just creating a bustle in her usual manner, almost in a sort of random motion.  She indeed seems here like the blind instrument of a benevolent Providence Who “writes straight with crooked lines,” as a saying has it. 

Thus good occurs in the novel not primarily through human good intentions; it happens by “chance.”  It does not reside in the characters, not even in Fanny, who is apparently the novel’s “good” character par excellence.  Fanny’s moment of supreme goodness is when she is able amid her oppression to feel a twinge of pity for her oppressor.  But at the end, when Mrs. Norris is most truly pitiable, it is said that not even Fanny sheds tears at her departure.  By this time Fanny is firmly established in Sir Thomas’s favor and is on the way to winning Edmund’s love.  She is much happier now.  She could “afford” to pity Mrs. Norris.  But – she does not. 

Are we then simply to rejoice at the downfall of the villainess, the way the original hearers of Grimm’s Fairy Tales apparently rejoiced at the horrific punishments meted out to the wicked stepmothers?  Or are we to hear that voice in the text which whispers:  “Happiness, as well as power, can corrupt.  Goodness resides securely in none of us.”   That voice can be heard more distinctly where the narrator speaks of Fanny’s and William’s fraternal affection; the narrator knows that such affection belongs to a certain stage of life, that it can easily be lost or tarnished.  Some words from the Hebrew prayerbook come to mind:  “What are we?  What is our life?  What is our kindness?  What is our righteousness…”  Edmund too, kind and decent as he is, will end by occupying more than one living in order to support his family; I gather that “pluralities” were a frequently-criticized clerical practice in Austen’s time.

W.H. Auden once wrote that compared to Austen, “Byron’s Don Juan is innocent as milk.”  And that is truest of Mansfield Park.    There are few fates in literature crueler than that of Maria, exiled with Mrs. Norris to a retreat where their tempers are expected to become “their mutual punishment.”  This is comparable to Sartre’s No Exit.   But the damned trio in that work are hardened malefactors, while Maria is scarcely more than a child.  Furthermore, Mansfield Park describes a world where advantage gained by one character is frequently attended by disadvantage to another, and this fact does not escape the characters’ notice.  At the end Fanny is released and rewarded amid circumstances of considerable suffering to others; she feels guilty about being happy amid so much unhappiness but cannot help enjoying her portion, any more than a starving man can avoid throwing himself on the food that is finally offered to him.  Others are less finicky: William Price speculates on the death of his first lieutenant, Mary Crawford speculates on Tom’s death, Tom on the death of Dr. Grant, which we are informed on the last page, indeed occurs just at the point where Edmund and Fanny are beginning to need a larger home.  It is a curious way of telling us that children have been born to our hero and heroine!  An event to rejoice at, surely? – but rejoicing is muted in a world where life must live – whether or not one chooses to know it – at the expense of other life.

In light of this we can perhaps begin to understand that famous question about the slave trade.  We are hardly meant to overlook its implications.  If we were, the novel would not bear the name of a certain Judge Mansfield, who had ruled, a few decades earlier, that a slave is free once he sets foot on British soil, since slavery is incompatible with Britain’s “pure air.”  And there has indeed been much speculation about Fanny’s purpose in asking this question, and Austen’s purpose in having her ask it.

As to Fanny’s purpose, my guess is that Fanny does not mean to challenge Sir Thomas on this moral issue.  She is just trying to show an interest in his affairs, at a moment when he has come back from a dangerous and arduous journey to a houseful of young people, most of whom are just put out because he has returned too soon and spoiled their fun.  The question is thus a manifestation of her compassionate nature – but it is a compassion that shuts out the suffering on which this whole world of Mansfield Park is built.  (Cf. that 1995 sonnet.)  One could shudder at the obtuseness of this question, not only toward the slaves who are thus used one more time as a means to an end, but even toward Sir Thomas, whom the question ought to make very uncomfortable indeed, although it does not seem to.  (The “dead silence” which falls is evidently due to the other listeners’ lack of interest in Sir Thomas’ concerns.)  How could the sensitive Fanny be capable of this?

Experience teaches (alas, alas) that any degree of obtuseness is possible when a mind has formed the habit of blocking out some particularly inconvenient reality.  And I would conjecture that Fanny’s mind has long been at work blocking out, repressing, the knowledge of the suffering on which her world is based.  Her very existence depends on her blocking it out.  If Jane Austen were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny would have stood up stoutly, in Sir Thomas’ drawing room, for the slaves – and would then have been miraculously saved from the consequences.  But Jane Austen is not Harriet Beecher Stowe.  And yet of course the obscene secret will out, the repressed does get to the surface, in a question ostensibly meant to accomplish something quite different. 

Could Austen herself have blocked out the reality of the slave trade?  Not likely.  She had met the daughter of Judge Mansfield; she expressed herself as “in love” with the writings of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Kirkham, 127); William Cowper, one of Austen’s favorite poets and a strong presence in Mansfield Park, befriended John Newton, the slave trader turned abolitionist who wrote “Amazing Grace.” Flipping through Cowper’s works, I came across an epigram on slavery that is Swiftian in its unqualified savagery.  Fanny, as both a reader of Cowper and a dependent of Sir Thomas, might have blanked that page out; but Austen was under no necessity of keeping Sir Thomas’ favor; indeed, there was no necessity for her to make her heroine the dependent of a slave owner.  Austen would have had no difficulty in arranging for Sir Thomas’ money to have been obtained in some less flagrant manner, for his journey to have been prompted by some other concern.  No:  the question of the slave trade is meant to exist here as a vast discomfort on which the world of the novel floats.

This discomfort may help to explain why readers have such contradictory reactions to Fanny herself.  Some take her at face value as a romantic heroine, a Cinderella figure, a moral heroine.  Some, on the other hand, consider her a goody-goody and a killjoy (or, as Austen’s mother put it, “insipid”), and find Maria and the Crawfords much more fun.  There is even one interpreter (Nina Auerbach) who, like Mrs. Norris, takes Fanny as the “daemon” of the piece, as though Fanny’s suppressed resentments generated the explosive force that brings down the pride of the family.  Still others feel an almost parental protectiveness toward her (particularly in the face of the hostility she has evoked in modernist commentators).  It seems to me that we are not meant to have a simple reaction to Fanny.  We are meant to shudder at her blindness to the suffering which is always happening offside, while the characters in this novel are preoccupied with their own affairs (cf., again, Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”).  And at the same time we are meant to sympathize with her struggle and ascribe value to what she is struggling for.  The two evaluations are meant to exist side by side. 

And not only side by side but in relation.  As Margaret Kirkham establishes, Fanny’s resistance to pressure and insistence on herself as a rational being, is a rebellion against the marriage trade which (as Mary Crawford points out) is also a commerce in human flesh, and against the overall brutalization (Mary Wollstonecraft’s word) of women.  And finally the theme of the slave trade can be set in relation to the theme of protest against the general human tendency (manifested by female as well as male characters) to want to control others, to subvert their selfhood.  And yet again: to take the slave trade as a metaphor for something else is to detract from its enormity and use the slaves, once again, as a means to an end, thus creating another form of discomfort, like that which we feel when Sylvia Plath uses the Holocaust as a metaphor for her own mental sufferings. 

Fanny’s last name – Price -- recalls the New Testament parable about the “pearl of great price” for which a merchant sells all he has.  Henry Crawford comes very close to doing this but then recoils-- to his lasting regret, if we are to trust the narrator’s tentative summation.  Sir Thomas, on the other hand, does in a manner exchange, if not all, at least a great part of what he has for Fanny.  His eldest son has given him a bad scare, his eldest daughter has put herself beyond the pale, his second daughter has married disappointingly.  In compensation he is willing to accept Fanny as a daughter-in-law despite her pennilessness and despite his concern about cousins marrying.  (Curiously, here too there is a reminiscence of Cowper: the poet’s first love was his first cousin, and they were prevented by her father from marrying; in the event neither married, and Cowper’s depressions seem to have begun with this disappointment.)  The prejudice against cousin marriage was doubtless based on some folk wisdom about the genetic dangers of such unions.  Thus from this point of view also the happiness of Fanny and Edmund comes at a price. 

To carry out the metaphor, there is something “pearl-like” about Fanny herself.  Her coloring – fair, with “light eyes” – may have been suggested by the pearl.  She tends to create a little “sphere” around herself – the east room at Mansfield Park, the attic in the Portsmouth house – where the arrangements mirror her desire for order and stability.  (I thought, in this connection, of Yeats’ line “How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born” – and see that the same association has occurred to Lionel Trilling.) And her mind, too, is a place of subtle lights and half-tones. 

In fact, the said mind may be the novel’s central theme.  Edmund first notices that his little cousin is “clever,” even though his sisters have dismissed her as stupid.  And although we are often distracted by Fanny’s social and emotional problems, we become more and more aware of this cleverness as her most salient trait.  In Fanny Austen shows us a certain type of intelligence, an intelligence that consists not in brilliance and originality but in making the correct distinctions, having (with some lapses, one of which we have already noted) almost perfect moral pitch. 

Readers react differently to this kind of moral intelligence, both as it surfaces in Fanny’s thinking and as it informs the novel as a whole.  Stuart Tave appreciatively writes in his article “Propriety and Lovers’ Vows”:


This delicacy of mind is a strength.  A genuine delicacy is a strong form of propriety necessary for making the finest distinctions, especially in the feelings of others, and for determining the appropriate response.

Then there are so many ways of losing the path, and so many forces can divert, choosing exactly the right line of conduct becomes a severe and revealing test. [...] the private theatricals at Mansfield Park are not obviously wrong.  If they were they would not serve their major purpose as an episode in the novel, which is to present almost all the characters with an occasion in common, when they must make proper choices, with varying degrees of awareness, from a variety of personal circumstances, at an unusual time. (38)


On the other hand there is the annoyed reaction of G.B. Stern in Speaking of Jane Austen (written with Sheila Kaye-Smith):  “All [Fanny’s] inward struggles, […], the perpetual shredding and the tedding of her conscience, leave me faintly impatient.”  (84)  They don’t leave me impatient at all, but then I have some experience of a milieu – the Torah world -- where to consider what one is about is part of the main business of life, and in the end a source of enjoyment.  The rights and wrongs of things are interesting.  Perhaps these thoughts are also suggested by the experience of reading the book aloud.  The sentences of Mansfield Park are not easy to read; they demand alertness and foresight.  But in grappling with them there is a kind of exhilaration, much more than in the smoother sentences of Emma.

One of the most interesting scenes, in this sense, is the scene in the wood at Sotherton, which has been frequently and justly admired.  Others have, I think, noticed that Fanny in this scene is a possible ancestress of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, that alien and innocent witness to a world whose monstrosities are only slight exaggerations of the menagerie of unkindnesses that exhibit themselves in the Sotherton scene.  The reader sees what Fanny sees and how Fanny sees it, and must be thoroughly hardened in worldliness not to see that she is quite right.

This kind of intelligence is not unrelated to the aesthetic sense; Fanny is keenly receptive to art as well as to nature.  Yet she shrinks from performing.  She will not learn music or art, she resists being made to act.  She can see artistic ability in Crawford without being influenced in her overall opinion of him; indeed, his skill at acting raises the question whether the ability to perform may not come at the expense of the ability to think and act justly.  Her shyness is not only timidity; it is also an expression of tsni’ut – modesty, literally hiddenness – which is one of the main virtues Orthodox Jewish woman are enjoined to cultivate.  (And it is not only a “maidenly” quality; Micah’s injunction to everyone to “walk humbly [hatsni’a] with thy G-d” employs the same root.)  Along with the above-mentioned type of intelligence, the love of order, and an almost-unfailing compassion, this tsni’ut forms a complex of qualities that seem designed to hold the Mansfield Park world together (and whose absence in other characters has the opposite effect).

Various critics have sensed, with differing nuances of feeling, that Fanny is not only a character but also an archetype, the symbol of a cosmic order that reflects itself in the ideal social order, the order of a place where

no sounds of contention, no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence, was ever heard; all proceeded in a regular course of cheerful orderliness; everybody had their due importance; everybody=s feelings were consulted.  If tenderness could be ever supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place[.]

The seal of cosmic order is affixed to Fanny’s desire in her stargazing with Edmund (from which the singing of the others draws him away).  We recall that each of the three sections of the Divine Comedy ends with the word “stars,” anchoring the poem to a frame of reference beyond the human.  And at the same time, like any of us, Fanny is a particular human being who might quite easily not have existed.  Not only could her parents have failed to produce this particular offspring, but her health is not robust; had she been left in the unhealthy Portsmouth home she might have shared the fate of her younger sister Mary, that “peculiarly amiable” child who dies during the years of Fanny’s absence from home.  Susan, the survivor, displays the toughness needed to survive in that environment.  Fanny’s life seems literally to hang by the thread of Sir Thomas’ good will.  When Fanny, exiled to a place of bad air and inedible food, does not die of a fever or contract tuberculosis there, we almost feel as though Austen is straining verisimilitude!  On the other hand, to do Austen justice here, Fanny’s survival may reflect not only her creator’s behind-the-scenes good will, but also a reserve of hardiness in her apparently delicate constitution.

“Delicacy underlain by strength” is certainly one of the themes of Fanny’s character.  One can see it, too; she is a recognizable physical-psychological type.  I am reminded of a remark read somewhere, that people who speak softly are often very stubborn.  The quality of stubbornness is, of course, most manifest in the great scene of confrontation between Fanny and Sir Thomas.  He does not understand the grounds for her resistance, and she cannot explain them to him without tattling on Maria and Julia and/or betraying her own secret passion for Edmund.  In the face of the all-powerful Sir Thomas she can only cry and say no.  With Edmund, whose attempt to persuade her she must find even more painful, she can argue, but cannot give all her reasons.  Nevertheless she remains true to herself, to her own integrity and her own perceptions.  Because these perceptions are accurate, others are eventually obliged to share them.  They even come to value her for them – by no means always the fate of those who turn out to be right, but this much at least the novelist can do for a virtuous heroine.

What keeps Mansfield Park from being an open-and-shut case of “virtue rewarded” is (besides the ambient question of the slave trade) the tragedy of the Crawfords.  They get their comeuppances, no doubt, but it is a shame and a pity.  They have acted undeservingly, but there was better stuff in both of them which almost got a chance to come out.  The best that happens to them is that they are ennobled enough to feel what they have missed.  But we are led to feel that more might have been possible.

In the tragedy of the Crawfords, Fanny has an antagonist who never comes onstage – the Admiral, uncle of the Crawfords, in whose home they were raised.  Sir Thomas may be materialistic, obtuse, fond of his own way, and engaged in a nefarious business; but at least in the domestic sphere he is moral and well-intentioned.   The Admiral is at one point enlisted by Crawford in a benevolent action – the promotion of Fanny’s brother William.  But he is no friend to morals, nor to womankind.

The information about the Admiral’s character is presented to the reader in a manner that seems designed to keep the reader from paying attention to it.  First, Austen tells us that the Admiral had provided a “kind home” to the orphaned siblings.  Then we hear that the Admiral and his wife had “agree[d] in nothing else” but in affection for these children.  Then this is further qualified by the statement that they were “adverse in their feelings” in that the Admiral favored the boy, while his wife favored the girl.  It would appear, then, that in the Admiral’s household the war of the sexes was war indeed.  And in the next sentence we hear of the death of Mrs. Crawford.  It is not stated nor quite implied that the Admiral caused the death of his wife; but Mary will refer to the sufferings of Mrs. Crawford in the marriage; and there were health hazards connected with the kind of man we next learn he is:  After his wife’s death Mary was obliged to seek a new home because “Admiral Crawford was a man of vicious conduct, who chose, instead of retaining his niece, to bring his mistress under his own roof[.]”  And these words are followed not by a period, but by a semicolon!  The reader not allowed even the space between sentences in order to think about what s/he has just heard.

Such is the general human tendency to avoid contemplating what is unpleasant (at least when we are not, on the contrary, in the grip of sensationalism) that it is quite possible not to realize that in the space of one bland paragraph we have been presented with the outline of a terrible and violent history, which the imagination of a Catherine Morland might just suffice to fill in.  Admiral Crawford is the worst person Austen chose to portray – or not to portray -- in her mature fiction.  He is cruel like General Tilney and amoral like Willoughby and Wickham, and unlike them he makes no secret of his proceedings, does not even pay virtue the tribute of hypocrisy.  This makes him a general menace, whereas Aunt Norris remains a local nuisance.  He represents a world of urban ruthlessness on which the moral values that (just) hold within the pale of Mansfield Park, can gain no purchase whatever.

The reality of the Admiral’s bigness and badness is, like the slave trade, something that the novel can deal with only by keeping its distance.  While typing up these notes I went back, as said, to Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life, and realized that here I had found my way back to Tomalin’s historical interpretation.  Tomalin states that Mansfield Park was begun in 1811, the year when George, the Prince of Wales, assumed the title of Prince Regent and celebrated the event with a party that

cost ₤120,000, money taken from a nation that had been expensively at war for nearly twenty years and was hardly able to feed its poor.  To this ill-judged event the Prince failed to invite his own wife, with whom he was engaged in a long-drawn-out war of his own.  Jane Austen’s view of [the Prince Regent] is sufficiently indicated by a remark she made about the Princess of Wales some months later:  “Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband.”

Eighteen-eleven also saw the scandal of the Duke of Clarence’s dismissal of his mistress and mother of his ten children, the actress Mrs. Jordan.  She moved out of their home and into a house in Cadogan Street, just round the corner from the Henry Austens.  They may have noticed the arrival of the five younger FitzClarence children in February 1812, brought to the back door by the Duke, and their departure again in June, when their mother returned them sadly to his care, judging it in their best interest.  In the House of Lords, Clarence spoke in favour of the slave trade; elsewhere he made himself a laughing stock by pursuing rich young heiresses, urged into matrimony by the Regent, himself quarrelling furiously with his wife over his daughter’s custody.  The behaviour of Princess Charlotte [the Prince Regent’s daughter], who had so much identified with Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, was feared to be almost out of control.  She spent her time flirting with unsuitable young men, one of them her cousin, the eldest son of Mrs. Jordan.  On the one hand there was social, moral and political confusion; on the other, patronage ruled.  The Regent appointed Clarence Admiral of the Fleet in December 1811, putting him at the head of a system in which advancement depended largely on knowing the right people, as the Austens had always understood. 

The princes were able to live with a total disregard for justice, religious principles or the sanctity of marriage; but their behaviour was widely perceived as a liability upon the nation.  Mansfield Park is, among other things, a novel about the condition of England…

It is really remarkable how many historical facts about the Prince Regent and his family find their way into Mansfield Park, just rearranged and reflected in the life of a family living at some distance from London.  All the indictments against the princes are there:  extravagance, immorality, patronage in the navy, the marriage market, the slave trade.  It is a kind of roman à clef, even though the keys are no longer within easy reach. 

A remarkable thing about this book is the extent to which its focus can be deceptive.  Most of the literary critics seem to overlook the Admiral’s importance, misled by the fact that he is never confronted within the text, and by the euphemistic, anesthetic manner in which the goods on him are retailed.  Just as the Greeks referred to the Furies as the Eumenides (“gracious ones”), the first adjective connected with the Admiral is “kind,” and by the time we get to the mention of the Admiral’s treatment of Mary, the reader is too lulled to react.  Possibly the author felt the need to muffle her critique of powerful persons in this way, but that is not the whole explanation.  Recent history affords a good many examples of the fact that people often “manage” the encounter with evil by putting an acceptable mask in front of it.  Few characters in Mansfield Park are immune to this kind of “Stockholm syndrome.”  Even or precisely Mary, who loses no opportunity to speak ill of the Admiral, fails to throw off his moral influence.  Fanny’s and Edmund’s least sympathetic moment comes when the two of them, talking over Mary between them, criticize her for mentioning the Admiral in a less than respectful tone, and also agree that the late Mrs. Crawford, though probably ill-used, might have been remiss in respect herself and thus not entirely “amiable.”  (How readily bystanders find fault with the victims of domestic abuse, is of course a recurring theme of all research on that subject.) 

Neither Edmund nor Fanny is willing to use their imagination to understand what Mary has been up against; and many readers, those who are not simply charmed by Mary’s playfulness, seem to follow them in this.  Mary is never allowed to express much of her anger, hurt and grief directly; it comes out mostly in a kind of brittle humor, by which the others are alternately charmed and put off, without seeing what lies behind it.  It is troubling, indeed, that while the “good” characters and the narrator are very ready to take Mary up on her moral solecisms, no one ever commiserates with her on what she has suffered or gives her an opening to speak of it at length.  Even the narrator tells her story only by implication, leaving her to a solitude penetrated only by the reader whose sense happens to have been sharpened to such things.  I think here of Leo Strauss’ important book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, which describes the devices writers use to express perceptions they have reason to think may be unwelcome.  Often the “payload” of the writing is slipped in as an unobtrusive aside, which only “those who understand” will catch.

In the case of an evil character, this method has one further advantage, besides that of evading censorship:  it avoids the danger that arises from the fascination of evil, a danger noted by Alexander Pope in his “Essay on Man”:  “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, As to be hated needs but to be seen; Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, we first endure, then pity, then embrace.”  From a similar perception, probably, the rabbis derive a rule:  it is forbidden to look at the wicked.  Had Austen attempted to portray the Admiral directly, readers might have found him all too interesting. 

What can be gleaned about the character of Mrs. Crawford?  Mary writes to Fanny that being at the seaside was always detrimental to Mrs. Crawford’s looks and health, though the admiral would never believe it.  Was Mrs. Crawford a society belle, unable (unlike Fanny) to enjoy the fresh air of the seaside?  Or had the Admiral given her a distaste for the sea as something connected with him?  Possibly Mrs. Crawford is mirrored in Mary’s friends, Mrs. Fraser and Mrs. Stornaway, women struggling to get along with the husbands they have married for money and position.  Mary’s view of marriage is that it is a “take-in,” where each party tries to get the better of the other, and deception – including “flirtation” after marriage – is part of the game.  It could appear, then, that Mrs. Crawford, like her pupil Mary, may have shared the values of an amoral milieu where women receive little respect and affection, and attempt to compensate by being callous and immoral in their turn.

Mary’s chance at something better begins when she seeks refuge with her older half-sister, Mrs. Grant.  The latter is a different sort of woman altogether – quiet, unassuming, basically decent.  One feels that she must have had a good mother.  Undoubtedly this mother has left some trace behind in the younger half-siblings as well.  The young Crawfords’ attachment to each other must be rooted in their early childhood, and it says something for them that this affection has survived a later childhood in a foster-home between two warring adults, each of whom had his or her own favorite.

Their mutual affection has survived, but it is not quite symmetrical.  Henry was the favorite of the “stronger” party, who gave him “lessons” in cynicism and misogyny.  Mary seems to have retained her hold on Henry partly by becoming his audience, and occasionally his cat’s-paw.   He can be candid with her because she will never go too far in criticizing him.  She must accept his plotting against other women and even connive at it (as when she manipulates Fanny into accepting a necklace purchased by Henry).  She can expect small favors from him, but not major support (he would not settle on his estate to give her a home, but is willing to help her with transportation).  And one wonders if it even entered into his calculations that in running off with Maria he was ruining his sister’s chance of happiness as well as his own.

Henry is a much smoother character than Mary, better able to gauge the sensibilities of those he is playing to, always knowing just how far he can go.  It is Mary, not he, who risks a vulgar joke, and who makes fun of the clergy in front of a young man shortly to be ordained.  Her performance as a cynic is cruder than his, perhaps because she has to keep it up against her own instincts.  Her behavior fits a familiar pattern of adaptation to a misogynist culture.  One can already see in her something of those “feminists” who connive at the dissolution of the family, those “girls gone wild” who seek to ingratiate themselves with men by imitating them at their worst.  Around the Admiral, it was probably not wise to have moral reservations, or to manifest respect for religion.

In the Admiral’s household, Mary has been grooming herself for the marriage market and the role of a socialite.  All her studies have been directed toward these ends.  She sings and plays the harp because it adds to her allure.  She has no feeling for nature; all her attention is for the social game.  Lacking any expectation of married happiness, she has learned to compensate by the enjoyment of intrigue and an occasional treat of Schadenfreude.   It is actually the indulgence of Schadenfreude that brings about the Crawfords’ downfall, when Mary’s enjoyment of Maria’s discomfiture over Henry’s courtship of Fanny leads her to bring Maria and Henry together again. 

And yet when Mary’s expulsion by the Admiral suddenly returns her to the country, to the home of her elder half-sister, to the world of her early childhood, she likes it better than she had expected to.  The new environment is more in keeping with her true instincts.  “The really good feelings by which she was almost entirely governed,” as the narrator says at the moment when she rescues Fanny from Mrs. Norris’s bullying.  She is capable of empathy; she also feels for the late Mrs. Crawford, and for her unhappily married friends.  Of course, she begins by forming designs on the eldest son, and only relinquishes them when it becomes clear that he is not interested in her.  But then she finds herself falling in love for the first time in her life – with the younger son on the verge of ordination!  At last, in the scene with Fanny before her departure from Mansfield Park, we hear that she has learned to respect Sir Thomas, and indeed has fallen in love with the whole family.  She has begun to overwrite the negative impression of married life which she received in the Admiral’s home, with the positive images of the Grant and Bertram marriages.  She is reconstituting her internal parents, she is in a sense being reborn.

Why does her “deprogramming” fail, in the end, or succeed only in making her (more) unhappy?  A large part of the answer must simply be: habit.  She has glimpsed the good, but truly to choose it would mean acquiring the resolution and persistence to cast off patterns of thought and action which have cost her much to learn.  She had always aimed at marrying a rich man and shining in high society; she had trained herself for the part.  Now is all this training to be useless?  A false self has been created, and this false self cannot be expected to go out of existence without a struggle.  It is this inertia that prompts her to accept her old friends’ invitation, even though she feels no great desire for their society.  Once she is back in the old environment, the false self reasserts its power.

This false self is reinforced by her attachment to Henry, an attachment in which she has hitherto found most of what little emotional security she had.  With all his faults he is her closest living relative, in whose company she has experienced early childhood, the loss of father and mother, the transplantation to the “kind” home of Admiral and Mrs. Crawford.  When Henry shows signs of being truly changed by his love for Fanny, Mary, herself again in the clutches of the urban social environment, is unable to let him go.  She detains him from going to Everingham and starting to live up to his responsibilities as a landlord; she brings about his reencounter with Maria, which, as noted, produces the explosion that destroys both their chances for a new life.

This conflict between a false and a true self may help to explain how she could write Fanny that appalling letter which drives the last nail into her coffin.  Certainly, this speculation on Tom’s death is reprehensible.  But at this point Mary is grasping after a last straw of hope for a painless resolution of her inner conflict.  The false self wants to marry a rich man; the true self finds itself in love with Edmund; now if Edmund were to become a rich man, the false and true self could, she fantasizes, at last live in peace together.  She writes out of that conflict, too much embroiled in it to think about how the letter will be felt at the other end.  (And then there is also that fashionable habit of “playing” at being wicked.)

Mary’s final scene with Edmund can, like the letter, easily be read as showing her basic heartlessness.  But again, the reality is more complex.  Mary is still fighting against the realization that her brother’s misconduct will divide her from Edmund forever.  She wants to see a way around the obstacle; she has summoned Edmund in a last desperate hope of enlisting him in the struggle with fate.  Unhappily, she has nothing to fall back on except the wiles she has learned in the Admiral’s world.  And these, of course, are what is least calculated to win Edmund back.  He is appalled because she does not use the language of moral condemnation but talks about the affair in the terms that the fashionable world would use.  She is acting, so to speak, out of Mansfield Park feelings – her love for Edmund – but she has not had time to learn the language appropriate to those feelings.  That “saucy” smile which is her final attempt to lure Edmund back is pathetic.  Edmund, unfortunately for her, takes these devices at face value.  He has never understood the pain and confusion which underlie her brittle worldliness.  And, of course, talking all this over with Fanny confirms him in this judgment.

Mary fails to remain at Mansfield Park and accept Edmund partly from the inertia of the false self.  But she also founders on the unseen rock of Fanny’s attachment to Edmund.   Throughout Edmund’s courtship of Mary, Edmund and Fanny are always talking Mary over, and in these conversations they tend to award her merits and demerits, rather than comprehending the underlying struggle.  Edmund is a lover, i.e. (alas) someone who sees the actions of the beloved in terms of how they affect him, rather than what they mean from her standpoint.  Romantic love is not an altruistic passion.  Edmund wants Mary, and to him all her vacillations are auguries of whether or not he is to get her.  He is concerned, at the same time, for her spiritual welfare; but he cannot be disinterested enough to intervene effectively.  Fanny is a scrupulous, gentle, mostly-kind person; but she is a woman in love, not a saint, and Mary is her rival.  Edmund, as well as Mary, is in the dark about this, because Fanny is at pains to keep her romantic attachment to Edmund a secret – we feel that she would even conceal it from herself if she could.  As Ellen Moody points out, she could hardly have revealed it without getting herself banished from Mansfield Park, from the presence of Edmund and the only environment in which she can thrive.  From the moment she becomes aware of her love for Edmund, she is living at Mansfield Park on false pretences, and this makes an otherwise normal feeling into a guilty secret.  But it is also a secret that confers an unfair advantage, because Edmund and Mary cannot take it into account in evaluating Fanny’s responses.

It is Fanny’s view of Mary that prevails at Mansfield Park, but Fanny’s view is not necessarily Jane Austen’s.  At one point Austen gently corrects Fanny on the subject of Mary: where Fanny foresees a dire future for Edmund with Mary, the narrator remarks that actually, a woman married to a husband she respects will generally end by accepting his views.  And in these discussions of Mary, Fanny as the moral compass-needle of the novel seems to me to waver significantly.  In the Orthodox Jewish code, lashon hara (“evil tongue”) is taken very seriously.  Lashon hara means negative things about another person, particularly when they are true.  (Slander, the telling of untruths about another, is a different offense.)  There is an exception to this prohibition: one may give negative information about another to save a third party from serious harm, e.g.. from being cheated in a business deal, or from contracting a disastrous marriage.  But to trigger this exception the information must be of a flagrant nature – a criminal record, mental illness, drug addiction, or the like.  Mere faults of temper or character are not meant to be the subject of discussion.  There is a saying that lashon hara kills three – the one who speaks it, the one about whom it is spoken, and the one who listens.  In the present case, who can say whether the picture of Mary built up in these discussions with Fanny did not come between Edmund and Mary and prevent him from relating to her more spontaneously and perhaps getting through to her.  I am not sure whether Austen sees this, but she does allow us the possibility of seeing it. 

In mitigation it might be objected that in Orthodox Judaism the prohibition against lashon hara applies only to members of the Orthodox community; there is no prohibition on speaking lashon hara against someone who is not a member of that community.  As Fleishman puts it, “whatever destroys human connections is an evil” [52], but with outsiders these connections do not yet exist and indeed outsiders may represent a threat against which the community needs to protect itself.  Thus it is not wholly inconsistent for Fanny and Edmund to criticize Mary for criticizing her family. The relationship between Mansfield Park and the world of London could be seen as analogous to the relationship between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox world.  For Fanny and Edmund, Mary as a representative of a morally dubious milieu is outside the circle within which the rule against lashon hara applies. 

However one evaluates Fanny’s actions here, it is remarkable that they generate this type of “halakhic” discussion.

The dynamics between Fanny and Mary become especially evident in that scene in the East room just before Mary’s departure, when Fanny witnesses Mary’s most open moment.  At that moment Mary desperately needs a friend who would say to her firmly and decidedly: “Why are you going back into that milieu where you see no one is happy?  Stay here with us!”  But Fanny cannot be that friend.  She has every excuse: Mary, like everyone else, has been pressuring her to accept Henry, and she has gone into the meeting in a defensive posture, in dread of betraying her secret.  All she wants is to get this interview over with quickly.  She is moved to tears by Mary’s words – but she cannot wish Mary to stay.  And, to be sure, the narrator at the end of the scene speaks of Mary’s “apparent affection,” and it cannot be overlooked that Mary is quick to exploit Fanny’s susceptibility by getting her to agree to correspond.  In the correspondence with Fanny, Mary will transmit messages to Edward and from Henry, thus doubly circumventing the social rule against correspondence between a young man and woman neither engaged nor related. 

In the end Mary’s internal conflict is not resolved.  We last see her living with her widowed half-sister, “perfectly resolved never again to attach herself to a younger son,” yet sick of her former friends and unable to forget Edmund and sell herself off in the marriage market.  We are told that this state lasts “long,” but not how long. 

Perhaps we are not meant to care too much about Mary.  True, she never chose to exposes herself to the Admiral’s degrading influence.  True, she might have thrown off that influence with a little more assistance.  But as Susan Morgan says, “For Austen there always comes a point when defects of character, though they be as Fanny gently suggests >the effect of education,= are not to be reversed.”  In the end one is held responsible.  And moreover, the domestic morality of Mansfield Park can maintain itself only by the enforcement of taboos, by the stigmatization of transgression with a sacred horror.  (This is one point that is made by Henry’s finally going over the line into flagrant misconduct; to “play” at wickedness is to play with fire; those readers who think this turn of events improbable have missed this point.)  Mary is separated from Edmund by her brother’s transgression, but, as we saw, it was a transgression her own thoughtless machinations helped to bring about.  And she is finally rejected by him for her refusal to participate in the community’s defensive reaction against the breach.  And among the defenses of righteousness is a certain permission to rejoice in the punishment of the wicked.  Hence the slight tone of Schadenfreude with which Mary is finally dismissed.   It is not nice, but to condemn this sentiment risks falling into too much sympathy with wrong. 

And yet, and yet.  It may be just a coincidence that Mary Crawford has the first name of Fanny’s little sister, the “peculiarly amiable” child who did not survive.  And Mary wants to be “sisters” with Fanny.  We hear that on hearing of the death of her little sister Fanny was “for a short time very much afflicted.”  There is something a little chilling about that “for a short time.”  If Fanny had mourned her sister Mary longer, might she have also been more responsive to the call of Mary Crawford’s true self?   Both Mary Price and the “good” Mary Crawford are casualties of unfavorable environments.  Mary is the spark that remains unredeemed.  In connection with the Crawfords Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern speak of the “failure of goodness,” which is uncomfortably close to the “triumph of evil.”  The more one contemplates all this, the more Edmund’s lament for Mary – “Spoilt, spoilt!” becomes amplified to a loud and bitter cry.

Henry Crawford is apparently a more straightforward case.  Unlike Mary he does not have the awkwardness of those who are divided against themselves.  The Admiral’s teaching has appealed to his natural selfishness.  The sufferings of his foster-mother have apparently been no skin off his back, and the treatment of his sister has not roused him to indignation.  To him, the Admiral is still a “good man” though he “has his faults.”  Henry’s grounds for thinking the Admiral a “good man” are that the Admiral has been “more than a father” to him, and this in turn means that the Admiral has let him have his own way more than a father would have. 

Of course, any person of normal intelligence can see that the Admiral has been much less than a father to Henry.  (Henry and Maria have each been spoiled by an evil parent-substitute; that may be part of the basis for their unhappy bond.)  As Freud would put it, the Admiral has not represented the “superego” but has encouraged Henry to be guided by his “id” and “ego.”  If the super-clever Henry does not see this, it is not because he has not read Freud.  Nor is it solely because he has enjoyed the doubtful privileges the Admiral has given him.  Force has been used on him as well as on his sister, and he too has a touch of “Stockholm syndrome.”  To put it another way: the Admiral would not have liked to have an Edmund for a foster-son.  Any sign of “priggishness” on Henry’s part (that is, any expression of the sense of decency that his first home might have inculcated) would have been negatively reinforced.  Most people are quick to sense disapproval even when it is not overtly expressed, and wicked people particularly dislike being disapproved of.  Thus, a person (especially a child) who is at the mercy of a wicked person must learn to suppress moral responses on quite a deep level, before they reach the surface of consciousness.   While skeptics often take pride in not being “duped” by religion, the stupefying effect of evil is less widely recognized.  Henry demonstrates this again when he expresses the hope that he can bring the Admiral and Fanny to “love” each other, and that Fanny will convince the Admiral of the erroneousness of his views about women!

This quaint project, as Thomas R. Edwards has observed, is typical of Henry’s “will to dominate, to recreate the world as an image of his wishes.”  He is “determin[ed] that both Fanny and the Admiral shall be objects to manipulate.” (12)  But it is also a symptom of the above mentioned stupefaction.  To an unstupefied person it would go without saying that the “beliefs” of a misogynist about women are not derived from observation but from the need for a view that will “justify” his brutalization of them.  Perhaps the Admiral’s misogyny has bothered Henry a little all along; as said, he has needed to suppress some feelings, some responses – not as many as Mary, since it is natural to feel most the sufferings of those most like us, but some.  The encounter with Fanny has possibly stirred these buried feelings.  But Henry is even farther than his sister from facing the split in his own being which living with the Admiral has produced.  His sister, while infected with the Admiral’s values, has no illusions as to the Admiral himself.  It is just in this conversation that her feelings about the Admiral are most extensively developed.  She says to him, “To have seen you grow like the Admiral in word or deed, look or gesture, would have broken my heart.”  In response to Henry’s “I must have them love one another” she reflects “that there could not be two persons in existence, whose characters and manners were less accordant.”  Fanny and the Admiral are the two poles of the novel, which must not meet.  One feels that Fanny must be protected from such an encounter; and doubtless Fanny senses this too.  Just before that rehearsal of her love scene with Edmund, Mary had said to Fanny, “You have a look of his sometimes.”  And one can well believe that Henry sometimes “has a look” of the Admiral’s – that to a person of subtle perceptions he already, sadly, does resemble the Admiral in look and gesture.  This perhaps, more than anything else, explains Fanny’s shrinking from Henry, the almost-horror with which she repels his advances.  To have accepted them would have committed her to grappling with a deeply malicious antagonist who held all the cards of power.  “Miserable” might well have turned out to be an understatement.

It is simplistic to think that Henry falls in love with Fanny merely because a) after the departure of Maria and Julia, she remains as the only unattached nubile female at Mansfield and b) her resistance offers a challenge.   These motives are present, certainly, and the second motive will also help to drive him out of the incipient relationship, when Maria’s resentment offers a new challenge to be overcome.   But we must ask:  what draws Henry back to Mansfield for that third visit?  The reader, like Edmund, is surprised to see him again.  The first time, he was accompanying the sister whom he is always willing to oblige if it doesn’t put him out too much.  The second time, he came to “trifle…farther” with Maria and Julia.  This third time, what will he do?  Well, hunt; and his pursuit of Fanny, as another form of hunting, will take up some of the slack time.  This design on Fanny does not consciously occur to him until he has arrived at the rectory, had a bit of conversation with her, and been rebuffed.  One gets the feeling that until then she had been part of the background; he had never really focused on her.  But one can be unconsciously drawn to someone without focusing on them; and moreover it may be that just this background, the Mansfield ambiance of which Fanny is the animating spirit, attracts him no less than his sister.  This kind of unconscious gravitation is the expression of a sense of affinity, rather than a desire for conquest.  It originates in a layer of personality deeper than the conscious ego.

This sense of affinity must be partly based on the fact that, like Mary, Henry is not a native of the fashionable world.  He too spent his early childhood in a very different atmosphere.  Indeed, as the elder, he spent more time in that better world than Mary did, though on the other hand the world to which they were transplanted was made more pleasurable for him than for her.  Fanny must appear to him as a messenger from a past that has been so thoroughly suppressed that we never once hear Mary and Henry allude to it between them.

Hence we can understand that Henry’s use of the “angel” trope in that one speech to Fanny is not only the tired ploy which Austen mocks in other contexts.  Margaret Kirkham points out that “only fools and villains” use it in Austen’s novels.  (This is perhaps a little hard on Frank Churchill, but his use of it in that valedictory scene is probably a sign that the trials of Jane Fairfax are not over.)  What Henry says is:  “You have some touches of the angel in you, beyond what – not merely beyond what one sees, because one never sees anything like it – but beyond what one fancies might be.”   As we must expect from this deeply-divided being, the speech is both an attempt to batter down Fanny’s resistance by taking every unfair advantage – and a stammering tribute from the soul.

If Fanny does not pick up on the latter, perhaps this obtuseness is partly from the difficulty of doing so, without at the same time a) giving way to bullying and b) at least appearing to be swayed by the mercenary motives, her resistance to which is the ground of her moral appeal to him!  She responds only to the frivolous motives that have contributed to his attachment – the constant need to impress, to conquer, the delight in role-playing.  She knows he is a consummate actor, and fears this is just another act; and his making a public performance of his devotion is hardly calculated to reassure her.  And indeed, the fact that he goes about it in such a wrong way – has, as Edmund sees, gone about it the wrong way from the beginning -- may be another sign of a Kafkaesque ambivalence, which always slams the door in its own face.  To use the language of popular psychology, Henry is setting for Fanny the classical “bear trap,” in which the unwary rescuer who responds to an appeal from one side of a divided nature will unfailingly be clobbered by the other side.

There are at least three reasons why Fanny rejects Crawford.  First, she had observed him from a distance and seen him display fickleness, manipulativeness, cruelty, and spiritual insensitivity.  “He can feel nothing as he ought” is her verdict on him at the very moment when he begins to form designs on her.

Second, she is in love with Edmund.  All the energies of sympathy, imagination, and finesse that love demands are elsewhere engaged, or she might just possibly have found a way to respond to the better element in Henry’s courtship without becoming his dupe.

The third reason lies in her own nature as it has been shaped by circumstances – in that humility that looks like diffidence, or that diffidence that looks like humility.  In that conversation where he tries to persuade her to accept Crawford, Edmund suggests that Crawford’s and Fanny’s gifts could complement each other, and that Fanny could counteract the unfavorable influences to which Henry has been subjected, and supply him with a foundation of principle.  Fanny recoils: “I would not engage in such a charge… in such an office of high responsibility!” 

This is very much what one would expect from someone who has always been kept down by her environment and taught to think of herself as “the lowest and the least.”  Shortly after this conversation, at Portsmouth, we see Fanny begin, with great difficulty, to make small decisions on others’ behalf.  She buys a knife for Betsy, orders books for Susan.  But she is still reluctant to assume the role of guide to Crawford.  When he asks her advice about going back to his estate to help his tenants and says “Your judgment is my rule of right,” she says, “Oh, no! do not say so.  We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

This is surely a critical moment.  Is the answer Fanny gives the right one?

Doubtless she is still afraid Crawford is playing a role.  He has understood that she is not to be won by the offer of fortune and position, and he is now trying to win her by what he understands she values most – good deeds.  But she cannot trust him till she feels that he does the good deeds for their own sake and not just for her.  Only then would he be really transformed, and only then could she trust her future to him.  This was Crawford’s test.  Had he gone to Everingham and carried out his virtuous purpose there, “he might,” as the narrator says, “have been deciding his own happy destiny.”  He fails the test and, in doing so, amply justifies her reservations.

Beyond the dynamics of this particular relationship, Harold Bloom, following Tave, argues convincingly that this refusal to take control of another’s destiny represents a central and positive value:

Stuart M. Tave shrewdly remarks that: >Mansfield Park is a novel in which many characters are engaged in trying to establish influence over the minds and lives of others, often in a contest or struggle for control.=  Fanny, as a will struggling only to be itself, becomes at last the spiritual center of Mansfield Park precisely because she has never sought power over any other will.  It is the lesson of the Protestant will, whether in Locke or Austen, Richardson or George Eliot, that the refusal to seek power over other wills is what opens the inward eye of vision.

 On the other hand:  I think of the rabbinic dictum that a person should be encouraged to study Torah even for the wrong reasons, in the hope that eventually they will study for the right reasons.  Judaism, of course, generally values the concrete step that starts one off in the right direction, over the pure intention so dear to Christianity.  (“We will do and [then] we will understand.”)  Had Fanny given a warmer encouragement to Henry’s right actions, responding to them for what they were in themselves – for the good that would result to the tenants -- rather than from her fear of being trapped by him, it might have gotten him over the threshold of his previous conditioning.  Is there not a failure of generosity here?  (Once again Plath comes to mind:  “These are the isolate slow faults/ That kill, that kill, that kill.”)

(And then the irony of her refusing to let the Crawfords bring her back to Mansfield on grounds that Sir Thomas had not sent for her!  Probably nothing would have pleased Sir Thomas more than her acceptance of the offer.  But then she was not privy to Sir Thomas’ amiable design of quasi-starving her into acceptance of Crawford by rusticating her to Portsmouth.)

The rabbis generally are less enamored of autonomy and more in favor of good influence being energetically exerted and sought, than are the authors cited by Bloom.  “Acquire thee a teacher, and get thee a companion,” as Ethics of the Fathers has it.  They are also less inclined than Western writers to treat romantic love as something sacred.  There is the Song of Songs; but the holiness of that text depends on its being interpreted as an allegory of the love between G-d and Israel, the only relationship that can justify that intensity.  In a recent column Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis writes that her father, of blessed memory, always advised people against praying to be married to a specific person; a person must ready to accept the Divine will. 

What would the rabbis have said about Fanny’s situation?  Of course, one has to be cautious about applying their dicta outside the community that is the background for all the discussions.  Still some things come to mind.  One of the heroines of the tradition – Queen Esther – is a woman who, married against her will to a powerful and not very good man, is able to seize the opportunity which the marriage affords her of helping her people; the Midrash also suggests that she managed to civilize him just a little.  On the other hand there is the matriarch Leah, whose weak eyes are explained by the Midrash as a consequence of the tears which she shed while worrying that she might be married to the wicked Esau; this is evidently told to emphasize her righteousness.  And then again, another Midrash criticizes Jacob for concealing his daughter Dinah from Esau, since if he had given her to Esau she might have civilized him and the regrettable episode of Shechem would have been averted (as Henry’s elopement with Maria might have been averted had Fanny accepted him).  I think that a rebbetzin might have suggested to Fanny that she take into consideration the good influences that Sir Thomas and Edmund would exert on Crawford; in marrying her, he would be making a commitment to them as well.  Perhaps, like Yates under Sir Thomas’s influence, he might after all have become “tolerably domestic and quiet.”  Moreover, I recall a Talmudic saying that a good woman married to a bad man will make him good, whereas a bad woman married to a good man will make him bad.  By this token, Fanny and not the narrator might have been right about the prospects for Edmund had he married Mary (even though she wasn’t all bad), but perhaps Fanny ought not to have refused the “high office” of reforming Henry.

How, indeed, is it possible not to imagine what might have been, if she could have accepted this office?  In Portsmouth Fanny herself has discovered that with a bit of wealth – even with just Lady Bertram’s ten pounds – a great deal of good may be done.  What might she have done with Henry’s four thousand per annum?  Henry, too, when he first gets the idea of marrying Fanny, expresses a desire to do something “for her happiness, comfort, honour, and dignity in the world.”  Through his love for Fanny, Henry has just begun to discover his own power of doing good!  What might he have become with her encouragement:  an ideal landlord on a model estate, an eloquent public speaker in some just cause (e.g. the abolition of slavery). 

Just once in this novel where “ordination” is the theme but the depths of religious feeling are seldom shown, do we see Fanny in “fervent” prayer – for Edmund’s happiness.  Might she not at some point have prayed for guidance in the matter of Henry Crawford’s proposal, supported as it was by those closest to her?  Experience has certainly shown this writer that when someone else very much wants you to do something, it is well to consider carefully before refusing.  But then Fanny is completely inexperienced, and in her eighteen years has had not a single guide she could trust – except Edmund, only six years her senior.  She may well not have sorted out her integrity and her principles from this vital attachment in which they are bound up!  And that may be another reason for the sense of guilt she has about the attachment.  She doesn’t know where the devotion to her Creator ends and the devotion to her mortal Pygmalion-figure begins, or whether she truly has, as she says to Crawford, “a better guide” in herself “than any other person can be.”  She could only find out by setting Edmund free.  And she does not have quite the inner strength to do this, or the inner clarity to envision doing it.

That last paragraph ventured onto spiritual ground, which Austen  has largely roped off from the reader.  And it is starkest conjecture.  But again, after writing this I went back to Tomalin’s biography and found the account of Jane Austen’s own decision not to marry Harris Bigg-Wither, a family friend. 

 Jane would now become the future mistress of a large Hampshire house and estate, only a few miles from her birthplace, and close to her brother James.  She would be almost as grand as Elizabeth Austen at Godmersham.  She would be able to ensure the comfort of her parents to the end of their days, and give a home to Cassandra.  She would be surrounded by dear sisters-in-law and friends.  She would be a kindly mistress to estate workers.  She would have children of her own.  All these thoughts must have rushed through her head, each one like a miracle, offerings of happiness she had given up expecting.

But, in Tomalin's reconstruction, Austen then compared her feelings for Bigg-Wither with her feelings for Tom Lefroy several years earlier, and realized that the marriage would be loveless on her side.  It is starkest conjecture; all that is known is that Bigg-Wither, a wealthy family friend five years younger than Jane Austen, proposed to her, that she accepted him, but then withdrew her acceptance after a sleepless night.  But it seems to me as though Tomalin’s projection might have been partly inspired by the situation of Fanny, who is likewise confronted with a proposal that seems like a chance of receiving and doing a great deal of material good, but that cannot be accepted because she “cannot like him well enough to marry him.”  In Crawford’s immorality Fanny has been given a reason for her refusal that Austen did not have, and we do not see Fanny even allowing herself to consider the advantages she is being offered.  And yet they occur to the reader, as though that sleepless night had left a question in the back of the author’s mind.  Is Romantic love the absolute criterion as which it is being treated here?  Is it the “pearl of great price” which justifies this level of stubborn endurance?  I think, again, of the Song of Songs:  “If a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.”   And yet, again, it is not the election of the individual that the tradition recognizes as having this authority.

In Persuasion Austen revisited the question of stubbornness; there, the heroine is punished for not insisting at first on her own romantic choice.  She learns to regret her pliability – and then is forgiven for it after all.  If she had gone her own way at first -- if she had married, like Fanny’s mother, “to disoblige her family,” there was no way of knowing in advance that she would be spared a similar fate.  (And in Fanny’s stubbornness, virtuous as it is, isn’t there a hint of her mother’s former willfulness?  She too disobliges her family.)

In the novel as in the life, we know what happened, but not why it happened.  We don’t know whether the deficiencies of the suitor or a prior attachment were the main cause of the refusal.  (E.g., when Fanny gets angry with Crawford for his “selfish and ungenerous” persistence and thinks, “Had her own affections been as free – as perhaps they ought to have been – he could never have engaged them,” we do not know whether she is really angered by Crawford’s persistence or is seizing on it as an “acceptable” reason for her own persistence, the real reason for which is her half-guilty love for Edmund.)  And we also do not know why Henry flies off at the end, just when he may be starting to get somewhere.  Maybe he gives up because he just was not getting enough encouragement from Fanny, because he realizes that she does not love him and never will.  And yet the narrator, in summing up, tells us unequivocally that Fanny’s attitude toward him had begun to soften, and that had he persisted in his virtuous resolves she would eventually have yielded, and gladly.  (Note: we have Fanny’s words to Crawford at that critical moment, but we don’t know in what tone, with what glance they were said, and that would make all the difference.)  So perhaps, on the contrary, he defects because he realizes that he may succeed, and that if he succeeds he will have committed himself to a life of virtue. 

Through his love for Fanny, Crawford has begun to understand that virtue is not the dull thing as which vice characterizes it – that beneficence can be a form of creativity.  The question is whether he could be “fond” of practicing virtue “for a constancy,” as he once put it.  As with his sister, the old self is not about to go quietly, and it finds allies –his sister, as noted, and of course Maria.  He ought to have accepted Maria’s snub as a justified rebuke for the past, and walked away.  He couldn’t.  Both he and Maria are motivated as much by pride as by attraction:  she could not accept his preferring a little nobody to herself.  And possibly, back in the great world, he could not help being somewhat struck by the incongruity.

The incongruity has also struck Thomas R. Edwards, even though he is on the whole appreciative of Fanny’s integrity.   He writes that in parting with Henry, the novelist “seems unduly insistent about what he has missed. […] The novel totters on the brink of a miracle. [...] Children do grow up, and (less commonly) people do change their ways, but surely more than a Fanny Price is required to change a Henry Crawford so radically.”  But this is viewing Fanny with the eyes of the world, not with the eyes of the heart which the novelist has been trying to open for us.  Both in the narrator’s summation, and in all the passages where Henry shows at his best, I hear almost a note of pleading – for men to realize their power of doing good, for men to love “rationally, as well as passionately.”  Were ever two incompatible adverbs more forcibly wed?  one is tempted to remark.  And yet there is in Western literature the tradition of a love that is both rational and passionate, a tradition centering in the Divine Comedy.   And the heroes of Austen’s happiest tales – Darcy and Knightley  –  manage to represent this possibility; they live as characters, even if we are not altogether confident of meeting with their like in this world.

When it comes to the prospects for Crawford’s reform, the tradition returns a peal of mocking echoes.  Reread, in Chapter VI of the third volume, Henry’s description of Fanny when he first forms the project of making her fall in love with him:  “I used to think she had neither complexion nor countenance; but in that soft skin of her’s, so frequently tinged with a blush as it was yesterday, there is decided beauty…” etc.  And the more enthusiastic reprise in Chapter XII, when the project has become more serious:  “Had you seen her this morning {…} attending with such ineffable sweetness and patience, to all the demands of her aunt’s stupidity, working with her, and for her, her color beautifully heightened as she leant over the work…” etc. Decidedly, Henry has the faculty of appreciation.  But that’s just it.  Everyone knows the song:

With blondes it is his habit
To praise their kindness;
With brunettes, their faithfulness;
With the very blond, their sweetness.[…]
In winter he likes fat ones.
In summer he likes thin ones.
He calls the tall ones majestic.
The little ones are always charming.
He seduces the old ones
For the pleasure of adding to the list.
His greatest favourite
Is the young beginner.
It doesn't matter if she's rich or poor,
Ugly or beautiful;
If she wears a petticoat,
You know what he does.

Don Juan’s Don Juan-ism (in Da Ponte’s libretto) also includes the faculty of appreciation – which, like artistic talent, partakes of the infinite generosity of the Creator.  The question is whether the operation of this faculty can be confined as the rules of human existence require.  The speaker of Kipling’s “The Ladies,” after reflecting on a series of amorous adventures, concludes ruefully:


   I’ve taken my fun where I’ve found it,

An’ now I must pay for my fun,

   For the more you ‘ave known of the others

The less you will settle to one;


And  A.E. Housman chimes in:


Oh, when I was in love with you.

    Then I was clean and brave,

And miles around the wonder grew

    How well I did behave.


And now the fancy passes by,

    And nothing will remain,

And miles around they’ll say that I

    Am quite myself again.


And most tellingly of all, perhaps, there is Prince Lir’s song in Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, about a womanizer who finally finds a woman who sees his unsullied inner core -- but immediately betrays her.  He concludes that "true love may be strong but a habit is stronger."  In Crawford's case, too, it is habit that triumphs.

The less-than-optimal outcome of the Crawfords’ stories suggests that Austen is skeptical of a cure for libertinism.  Once the barriers of inhibition are breached they are not easily put back.  (Although there are penitents, and milieux that support them, such as the ba’alei teshuvah yeshivas and women’s seminaries; that is a large part of what being a baal teshuvah is about.)  

As many have seen, the Crawfords represent the general trend of modern culture, to which the Bertram children are exposed in other ways.  Tom seems like a textbook example of the type of gentleman’s education Cowper inveighed against in his poem “Tirocinium” (which is quoted once in Mansfield Park, though not to this purpose).  Maria and Julia are both drawn toward the fashionable world which is “the enemy of all respectable attachments.”  These centrifugal attractions threaten the domestic environment of Mansfield Park; and if, at this point in my exposition, I were to name the central theme of the work, I might say it was:  the survival of the domestic environment.

This theme is also the point of the one subplot that creaks a bit – namely the reclamation of Tom.  Early on, Tom’s gambling debts compel Sir Thomas to sell the living of Mansfield rectory, which had been intended for Edward.  Gambling is one of the vices which, according to Cowper, are encouraged by a public-school education.  If we think of the possible further consequences, we find ourselves looking ahead to Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, which depicts an entire society held hostage to this habit.  From such dire prospects Mansfield Park is rescued by Tom’s illness, surely not inevitable at that particular juncture.  As with Louisa in Persuasion, Austen employs a personality-changing illness to deal with a troublesome character; after his illness (and his distress over Maria’s elopement, which, like Crawford’s wish for a faithful wife, rings true enough; many men not particular about their own morals, want their women to be so), Tom becomes “quiet and useful.”  With a bit of help from the authorial “providence,” Mansfield Park is saved from the consequences of extravagance, which, like immorality, is an aspect of the culture which the outside world is pushing.  Sir Thomas’ problems are, when all is said and done, very similar to those of parents today, who might like to transmit some wisdom and values to their children, but are prevented by the nihilistic culture that is pushed on young people without letup.

Thus, survival of the domestic environment is achieved at the end of Mansfield Park – at a price, by hook and by crook.  In a curious fashion the Crawfords, who pose the greatest threat to that environment, in the end contribute inadvertently to its preservation.  For if the Crawfords had not stirred them up, would Edmund ever have seen Fanny as anything but a sister?

Mansfield Park may owe something to Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), in which the interactions of two couples are compared with chemical reactions.  Die Wahlverwandtschaften appeared in Germany only a few years before Mansfield Park was written; Austen must at least have read about it.  Die Wahlverwandtschaften ends in death and sterility, whereas Mansfield Park ends in renewal (Mansfield Park is the only one of Austen’s novels that looks beyond the wedding to the production of children).  But here too what happens can remind the reader of a chemical reaction. The two cousins who are the heart and soul of Mansfield Park emit some influence that attracts the Crawfords from outside.  In the end the two outsiders fly off, but they have “catalyzed” the relationship between the cousins:  Crawford’s pursuit of Fanny doubtless makes her appear more desirable, and Edmund’s need to talk about Mary ends with the transfer of his feelings to Fanny. 

With this union, Mansfield Park turns in upon itself.  We may think that had the two exogamous unions taken place, the influence of Mansfield Park would have radiated further.  In its last sentence (“the parsonage […] soon grew as dear to her heart, […] as everything else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park, had long been.”), the novel just misses being one of those stories that end with their titles, clicking shut upon a self-complete world.  But it does just miss that device, as if to remind the reader of all that remains outside, all that could not be gathered in.  The world “within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park” reminds one of Dante’s description of the abode of the virtuous pagans: “a blaze of light surrounded by a hemisphere of darkness.”  One senses a hint of cultural pessimism in this ending; Mansfield Park, flawed as it is, may have seemed to its author like a last preserve of values destined to disappear.

But there is another way of looking at Austen’s self-limitation in this work.  It reminds me – lehavdil, acknowledging the distinction – of the position staked out by Judaism after the rise of Christianity.  At that time Judaism, which had been a proselytizing religion with a universal message, stopped seeking converts and concentrated on consolidating the Jewish community, securing it against outside influences.  Deeply ingrained in the Jewish tradition and ethic is the recognition that before even attempting to influence others, one had better be sure of holding onto one’s own values.  This includes an acceptance of obscurity (which is related to the above-mentioned value of tsni’ut) as a corollary of the fact that the Divine countenance is hidden, the Divine Presence is in exile.  Indeed, G-d Himself appears to have taken on some limitation:  “Since the Temple was destroyed the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in His world except the four ells of halakha.”  (“Four ells” is the traditional measure of personal space.) 

Nothing I’ve read about Austen suggests that she had any direct knowledge of this position.  And yet, it is remarkable that despite her affinities with Cowper she declined to adopt his anti-Semitism.  To the Jewish reader of “Tirocinium,” that tirade against the miseducation of young men, the following lines come like a slap in the face:

        Point to the cure, describe a Saviour’s cross

As God’s expedient to retrieve his loss,

The young apostate sickens at the view,

And hates it with the malice of a Jew.


It is indeed painful to read this aside in a poem that laments the very evils which the Jewish system of education is designed to avoid!  It is doubly unfair since in his poem Cowper takes aim precisely at the influence of the Greek and Roman “classics,” whereas his own values owed a great deal to the Hebrew Bible.  Austen herself, of course, was a Christian; at the time of this writing she was, I gather, influenced by the Evangelicals.  But in all her mature work (I haven’t read all the juvenilia) only one character makes anti-Semitic remarks – the highly unsympathetic John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey, in whom this is one more sign of boorishness.  Could Austen, from a distance, perhaps from her own experience as an outsider, have had some intuition of the Jewish position? 

Lionel Trilling, in attempting to get to the bottom of some readers’ aversion to Jane Austen, ascribes it to “the fear of imposed constraint”; he speaks of “the biological force of the resistance which certain temperaments offer to the idea of society as a limiting condition of the individual spirit.”  One might hazard a guess that precisely this resistance underlies many overt or disguised anti-Semitic reactions – including the “antinomian” strain in Christianity.   A familiar paradox of Judaism (also, incidentally, of formal poetry) is that in accepting constraints one finds true freedom.  And here I think of Maria, who illustrates, precisely, the opposite phenomenon.  In the scene at Sotherton she quotes:  “I cannot get out, as the sparrow said.”  She probably thinks at this moment that it is her engagement to Rushworth that confines her; but what really confines her is her inability to surmount the opposing pulls of her “Rushworth-feelings” and “Crawford-feelings” and make a moral decision.  Either to back out of her commitment while there is still time, or resolve to keep it, would have set her free.  Her inability to assert herself as a moral being leaves her at the mercy of her passions and their consequences, which arrive as inevitably as the month of her marriage: “It was a gloomy prospect, and all that she could do was to throw a mist over it, and hope when the mist cleared away, she should see something else.”  Thus a mind at the mercy of time and circumstance is bound to think.

And on the other hand within the compass of the modest portion which Fanny and Edmund eventually secure for themselves, even amid so much that is lost and so much that is flawed and dubious, something like an infinite happiness is possible.  “Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she has scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope,” writes Austen.  I like to think of Fanny and Edmund, after the children are put to bed, stargazing on the lawn at Thornton Lacey.


The theme of limitation which we saw reflected in the action of Mansfield Park can also be seen as reflecting the limits of the novel form as such.  As other studies have taught me, the great problem of the novel is that it cannot contain all the wisdom of its creator.  Many novels inspire the reflection that if the characters could see things with the eyes of the novelist they would stop making things so complicated, and would almost instantly resolve their conflicts in an amicable and rational manner.  According to the Kabbala the world in which we are living is a rather similar affair:  G-d as it were “contracted” his being, as it were “withdrew” from a space in which the world could come into being as a (seemingly) separate entity. 

Where the separation of the novel-world from the novelist is strictly carried through, the results for the characters are generally tragic.  Before the modern period when this became the rule, it was frequently avoided by the author fiddling with things a bit, putting in some more or less improbable, quasi-Providential events to make things turn all right, so that the “dear reader” (the dialogue with whom also served to lighten the darkness of the novel’s self-enclosure) can close the book with a sigh of satisfaction, put out the light, and lie down to peaceful slumbers.

Austen uses both these devices in Mansfield Park, but above all she avoids some of the constriction of the novel by taking the most perspicuous character as its center.  Fanny is not only the romantic “heroine” of the novel, but also its observer and commentator.  When at last she is recognized and elevated, it is -- just a little -- as if the Shekhinah were to be redeemed from captivity and the Kingdom of Heaven established on earth. 

Just a little, because after all Fanny is only a character, acting in ways that appear plausible given her “nature” and her “circumstances.”  It appears that in this world all good is self-limiting.  Edmund’s affectionate guidance has enabled Fanny to survive her childhood at Mansfield Park and develop the inner strength that enables her to withstand seduction, manipulation and pressure.  One consequence of this, however, is that she has become fixated on Edmund, who for eight years has been her one and only source of human comfort.  She is ashamed of her feeling for Edmund; she can permit herself to entertain no hope of its being returned, let alone approved; but she cannot help furthering it by her actions.  Thus she repulses the Crawfords, and they are not reclaimed.  Again, her position of lowly outsider has impelled her to develop the qualities that attract Henry, but this history has also left her with a passivity and diffidence that prevent her from seizing the chance (if there really was one) of making a new man of him.  Had she accepted Crawford, she might have been able to count on the support of Edmund and Sir Thomas (an effective father-in-law, in the case of Yates) in keeping him up to the mark; but again, her long years of almost-solitude in the family might well not dispose her to envision this possibility. 

That all these “might-have-beens” can occur to us, is characteristic of the way in which literature can sometimes suggest the possibility of an unlimited good.  (The “Utopian” aspect of literature, as Paul Celan called it.)  Again I think of the name “Mary” which Fanny’s rival shares with her dead sister.  We do not know whether this was deliberate on the author’s part or not; quite possibly it was unconscious.  There is a field of association that lies beneath or beyond the battlefield of the egos, and if we all had access to that field, “Utopia” would be possible.

Toward the end there are a few “alienation effects,” which always point to the self-limited nature of Art.  While most of the novel is narrated straightforwardly by an unobtrusively omniscient narrator, toward the end there are more asides to the reader.  In speaking of Henry Crawford’s fate, the narrator draws back from omniscience and merely conjectures about his state of mind.  And once or twice there is a note of asperity, as if the author meant to say to the reader, “Here is your happy ending – I hope you’re satisfied!”

In the episode of the theater production, there is, it seems to me, a quite radical questioning of Art (again I find myself citing Celan).  There has been a lot of discussion among critics as to whether the episode of the production creates an “atmosphere of evil” or whether Fanny is a killjoy and a spoilsport for not feeling entirely comfortable about this activity.  It is also mentioned that in her youth Austen herself had written plays and taken part in family theatricals.  But one must be extremely partial to the theater, to miss the note of moral discomfort that accompanies the theater theme from its very first mention.  Mr. Yates comes to Mansfield from another family party that was on the verge of performing Lovers’ Vows “when the sudden death of one of the nearest connections of the family had destroyed the scheme and dispersed the performance.”  Mr. Yates feels this disappointment deeply and wishes “that the news could have been suppressed for just the three days we wanted.  It was but three days; and being only a grandmother, and all happening two hundred miles off, I think there would have been no great harm…”  Thus, the theme of the play is introduced amid the typical callousness of a culture that is “the enemy of all respectable attachments.”  And it is accompanied by another of the subthemes of this culture – material waste – as the engagement of the scene painter (who spoils the floors) and the procurement of yards of pink satin and green baize are doubtless intended to illustrate.  This in addition, of course, to the theme of concupiscence, which is also associated with callousness – Maria’s and Henry’s use of the play as a pretext for flirtation involves the humiliation of Rushworth, as well as Julia.  And even a reader who feels (like this one) an affection for Fanny should not overlook the fact that she too begins to take a questionable interest in the proceedings.  “Maria she also thought acted well – too well; -- and after the first rehearsal or two, Fanny began to be their only audience -- and sometimes as prompter, sometimes as spectator – was often very useful.”  In the end Fanny too is pressured into acting – and it is just at this moment that Sir Thomas arrives.  It reminds me a little of the saying that the Messiah will come either in a generation that is completely righteous or in one that is completely guilty.  With Fanny’s conscription the corruption of this miniature society is complete, and now the “sovereign” is as it were compelled to intervene.

One critic I read (I’m sorry now that I don’t recall which one) suggests a distinction here between the theatre and the novel.  Whereas the theater encourages people to make a show of their emotions, the novel can encourage quiet observation and introspection (as personified by Fanny).  In Northanger Abbey, Austen vigorously defended the novel.  But Mansfield Park is a work of more unsparing introspection, possibly set off by an appalled recognition of the state toward which society had been drifting, and we cannot be sure the novelist would let herself off.  I am reminded of Proust’s self-accusation in Combray: 

…all the sentiments which the joy or misfortune of a real person makes us feel are produced in us only by the intermediary of an image of that joy or that misfortune; the ingenuity of the first novelist consisted in understanding that in the apparatus of our emotions, the image being the only essential element, the simplification which would consist in suppressing, purely and simply, the real persons would be a decisive perfection. 

It is to some such reservation about Art, rather than to the secularism that some have attributed to Austen, that I would attribute Mansfield Park’s reticence on spiritual matters.  It may well be that she did not completely share the faith of the Evangelical movement which may have influenced this book; a comment quoted by Trilling – “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest & safest” – is the kind of comment that can be made by one who is not quite within the fold.  But that does not exclude the presence of an unspoken or unarticulated faith, or sense of the sacred.  We recall that the narrator did not “presume” to describe Fanny’s final happiness, and similarly the narrator takes leave of Henry “without presuming to look forward to a juster appointment hereafter,” i.e. to his punishment in the next world.  In this respect Austen differs from Dante, who had no inhibitions about depicting the future rewards and punishments of his characters, some of whom had been persons known to his first readers.  He has been criticized for this by some who take their religion seriously; and conversely Austen’s reticence may well be a sign of acknowledgment to realities beyond the “view and patronage” of Art. 

And sometimes such realities do return an answer.  There are prayers, some of which may even take the form of novels; and there is Providential intervention.  Tomalin writes that the waif Fanny “turns into something like Queen Victoria; among its other achievements Mansfield Park is prophetic.”  Twenty-three years after the publication of Mansfield Park, an act of Providence more generous than Austen could have dared to hope for, placed a dumpy little woman on the throne of the world’s greatest power.  Had the obstetrician of poor Princess Charlotte not blundered, England would have been ruled in the mid-nineteenth century by a descendant of the Prince Regent.  Thanks to the influence of Queen Victoria, domestic morality revived for over half a century.  In that revival, the novel Mansfield Park played a not inconsiderable role.  And the said domestic morality was a major source of strength for various reform movements that eventually secured a tolerable existence for the worker in Western society, and a degree of social equality unprecedented in the history of civilization.  Undermined by bohemian ideologies which often professed a hypocritical concern for the downtrodden, domestic morality finally collapsed in the ‘60’s, leaving Western society apparently incapable not only of reform but of self-defence.  Those of us who remember better things await another act of Providence. 

                                                    -- Esther Cameron