An Allegorical Interpretation of Mansfield Park
Reverend Dr Michael Giffin
It has been noticed that the opening chapters of Mansfield Park (1813) rework commonplace themes in late-Georgian literature. Three men marry three sisters. The middle sister, Maria Ward, who according to convention should not have married before her elder sister, captivated Sir Thomas and became Lady Bertram. The eldest sister, Miss Ward, was not having much luck in the marriage market, but finally married Sir Thomas’s friend, Reverend Norris, six years later. The youngest sister, Frances Ward, chose to disoblige her family by marrying a poor and uneducated Lieutenant of Marines. Sir Thomas would have assisted the Prices, financially, but before he could devise a means of doing so, Lady Bertram and Mrs Price had become estranged, and the estrangement was instigated and perpetuated by Mrs Norris, one of the novel’s principal sources of mischief.
While the Norris marriage is infertile, perhaps symbolically so, the Bertram and Price marriages are fertile and result in several children. However, in spite of one family’s affluence and the other family’s poverty, these children all suffer from poor parenting. Therefore each family is disordered in different ways.
Reordering the disordered Bertram and Price families depends on a loving marriage between two children of the estranged sisters: Fanny and Edmund. This marriage is allegorical, it can be understood as a metaphor for the mystical union of Christ and his church, but the marriage does not simply happen and neither is it predestined. It only occurs after a series of trials and tribulations which mirror the Christian story of fall and redemption.
If we want to understand the allegorical aspects of Mansfield Park, we need to focus on three allegorical characters. Sir Thomas Bertram represents a flawed authority figure who must recognize his mistakes and try to correct them. Second, like Jesus, Fanny Price is a redemptive character who must make a journey of self-denial and self-discovery before she recognizes and accomplishes her mission as Mansfield’s saviour. Third, Edmund Bertram represents a church which is being seduced by worldliness and threatening to lose its moral authority and pastoral focus. Here are a few observations about these allegorical characters.
SIR THOMAS AS FLAWED AUTHORITY
As the novel’s ultimate source of authority, Sir Thomas is expected to effectively manage his extended family in Mansfield and Portsmouth and his plantation in Antigua. While Austen does not use the precise term, throughout Volume One, during the novel’s rising action, she describes him as an “absentee landlord”, and his physical and emotional absence is the major contributing factor to the disorder under him. The image of an absentee landlord is significant because—along with celestial clockmaker—it is a Deist description of God’s nature and relationship with creation. Deism was a neoclassical movement that believed in a creator who was neither involved nor interested in his creation. Deism should be contrasted with Theism, the orthodox or mainstream Judeo-Christian view that the creator is deeply involved and interested in his creation. Those who interpret the novel allegorically can see Austen criticizing Deism in Mansfield Park.
With Fanny’s arrival from Portsmouth, Austen introduces the distinction between a formal education and a Christian conscience. While Sir Thomas has given Tom, Maria, and Julia a formal education, he has not encouraged them to develop a Christian conscience, and while Edmund is an exception, his father’s lack of encouragement has affected him too. The consequences are evident early, in Tom’s dissipation and extravagance, which creates the economic necessity of Sir Thomas presenting the Mansfield living to Dr Grant, instead of holding it open for Edmund when he is ordained, and Dr Grant is means through which the evil Henry and Mary Crawford are introduced to Mansfield.
What was happening in Antigua, which necessitated Sir Thomas’s personal intervention there? While Austen only alludes to what was going on in the colony, we know his losses were significant and his income was limited. Economically, Antigua was already an old colony suffering from soil exhaustion and there was competition from more recently settled French colonies; also, slave labour was no longer economically viable. Morally, while slavery had long since been illegal in Britain itself, the urgent question in Britain was British involvement in and benefitting from the slave trade.
In 1807, George III assented to an Abolition Bill which made the slave trade illegal but abolitionists argued this was not enough. In 1811, an Enforcement Bill and a Felony Act were passed which made participation in the slave trade a transportable offence. In The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815–1830 (1991), Paul Johnson suggests Sir Thomas was forced to go to the West Indies and restructure his plantation, to cope with the new legislation, “lest he be threatened with transportation to Botany Bay”, Britain’s newly-created penal colony in what is now Australia. While this is hypothetical, it is probable, given that Mansfield Park is about the social, economic, and moral imperatives surrounding the birth of modern society.
Sir Thomas is greatly altered on his return from Antigua and he arrives home just in time to prevent the scandal of staging Lovers’ Vows. While Sir Thomas, Edmund, and Fanny would like to have the question of the slave trade discussed openly, “there was such a dead silence” when Fanny mentions the subject that it is dropped.
From the beginning of Volume Two, Sir Thomas regards Fanny in a new way. She is the only character who resisted the staging of Lovers’ Vows, a fact he would have learned, and from that point onwards he keeps his gaze upon her as he goes about behind the scenes doing what he can to promote renewal. But he cannot solve the problem of Mansfield by himself even though he is responsible for it. Because of free will, transformation must come from within hearts of Mansfield’s inhabitants. The Bertram’s must develop a Christian conscience and Fanny must become saviour of the estate.
During the novel’s climax, in the middle of Volume Two, Sir Thomas initiates a game of Speculation, during which he makes what Austen calls his “little harangue” against Henry Crawford, who wants to purchase and “improve” the Thornton Lacy parsonage and further his intimacy with Mansfield Park. His sister Mary supports his plan, because she wants to marry Edmund, and, like her brother, “shut out the church, sink the clergy, and see only the respectable, elegant, modernized, and occasional residence of a man of independent fortune.” Sir Thomas makes his position clear. The Crawfords are not welcome to Thornton Lacey, because the living is intended for Edmund when he is ordained, as establishing a resident priest there is fundamental to the renewal of his estate.
During the novel’s falling action, Sir Thomas allows Crawford to tempt and test Fanny. There are scriptural precedents here. In the Book of Job, God commits Job to Satan, so Job’s faith can be tested. In all three Synoptic Gospels, the Holy Spirit leads or drives Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of temptation, fasting, and suffering at the hands of Satan, so his faith can be tested. Does Sir Thomas have a hidden agenda? While the novel is silent about that, an allegorical interpretation of the novel makes a hidden agenda seem logical.
Crawford proposes to Fanny. She refuses him. Sir Thomas seeks her out in Mansfield’s cold attic and challenges her. He suggests she does not know her own mind; an ambiguous comment which also suggests she does not know his mind either. While most critics assume he wants her to marry Crawford, if the novel is allegorical, and if Crawford is evil, we should allow that Sir Thomas’s will, like God’s will, is complex and hidden.
On withdrawing from the cold attic, Sir Thomas learns that Mrs Norris has never allowed Fanny a fire. He has one lit to warm her, which means the cold attic, which is a symbol of Mansfield’s conscience, is finally warmed and achieves a balance of reason and feeling. This does not mean Fanny will get her own way. Sir Thomas soon sends her back to Portsmouth, which becomes a kind of wilderness period for her, and this wilderness period coincides with Lent.
FANNY AS REDEMPTIVE GOOD
If Fanny has a mission as saviour of Mansfield Park, it evolves gradually and emerges from Austen’s focus on education. As Tony Tanner notes, in Jane Austen (1986), education is central to Austen’s novels. In Fanny’s case, she is mocked early in the novel for her lack of formal education; however, she has more moral intelligence than anyone else in the novel and “finally turns out to be the ‘teacher’ of them all—apart from those who are, morally speaking, irredeemably ineducable.”
If Fanny arrives at Mansfield without formal education, she brings something more important; love for her brother William; that is, a spirit of “brotherly-love”. While this spirit is the vehicle through which Mansfield will eventually be renewed, many things must happen before that spirit can do its work. She must be stripped of all ego, be reminded she has come to serve not to be served, and realize everything she is given is a free gift she has not merited and does not deserve.
The allegorical logic of Fanny’s journey is similar to Jesus’ journey. Because of his humanity, Jesus had to experience life and mature before turning his face towards Jerusalem and making his way through an emotional wilderness towards and beyond the cross. In Fanny’s case, her maturity involves finding the right balance between (neoclassical) reason and (romantic) feeling; something she shares with other Austen heroes.
Fanny’s struggle with reason and feeling can be seen in Edmund’s pastoral concern, which she craves, and Crawford’s unwanted attentions, which she resists. For example, in the middle of the novel, as she is preparing to go home after the game of Speculation, she feels disappointment when “the shawl which Edmund was quietly taking from the servant to bring and put round her shoulders, was seized by Mr Crawford’s quicker hand, and she was obliged to be indebted to his more prominent attention.”
The choice between Edmund and Crawford is clear; one is associated with good, the other with evil. Austen highlights this choice when William gives Fanny a cross to wear to her first ball but prevents him from affording a chain to put it on. The symbolism is obvious. The cross gives Fanny’s mission Christological overtones which Edmund wants to encourage and Crawford wants to discourage. Hence they both contrive to give her a chain from which her cross will depend, a chain that symbolizes which banner she must chose to live under: the banner church or the banner of its enemy. Which chain will she wear? She is persuaded, or rather pressured, to wear Henry’s chain, but fortunately it will not go through the cross, so she can wear Edmund’s chain with a good conscience. Thus the tokens of the two individuals she loves most, Edmund and William, are linked together around her neck when she leads her first ball.
Now that Fanny’s love for Edmund and William are linked, she is given sufficient emotional strength to withstand further tribulations. Crawford proposes to her and she refuses him. Sir Thomas confronts her in Mansfield’s attic and subjects her to the kind of emotional pressure he would never subject his own daughters to. She responds to him in a way Maria and Julia could not, with the strength of a Christian conscience and a moral conviction they do not have. Notice that she stands up to her uncle on principle, and she is the only character in the novel who ever does, including Edmund, but this causes her great pain, because she honours Sir Thomas above all earthly things. She is mortified that she has inadvertently given him cause to be angry with her. She is ashamed that her conscience will not allow her to accept what is apparently his will. But what exactly is his will?
Fanny’s extended wilderness experience back in Portsmouth coincides with Lent. After Easter, the risen Fanny returns to Mansfield, ascended and glorified as a priest’s wife. This is what Austen intends for her as an allegorical character.
EDMUND AS THE DISORDERED CHURCH
For a time it was thought, because of a reference Austen made in a letter to Cassandra, that Mansfield Park was about ordination. For many readers, the ordination theme was reinforced by the novel’s obviously religious sense, compared with her other five novels. Among critics, the ordination theme has gone out of fashion, because of a hypothetical comma in the letter, because ordination no longer has the cultural significance it once had, and because critics now have other critical agendas. For example, when post-colonial theory was at its height, critics were too busy trying to implicate Austen in the evils of western imperialism, and Sir Thomas in the global crime of being British, to think about Edmund’s ordination to the priesthood. However, both themes of colonialism and ordination are fundamental to the novel and we cannot ignore either theme without distorting its allegorical message.
On his return from Antigua, Sir Thomas holds Edmund more accountable for staging Lovers’ Vows than Tom, although staging the play was Tom’s idea. His reasoning does not make sense unless we realize that Edmund, a second son intended for the church, is meant to be his older brother’s keeper. Edmund is supposed to represent the moral authority of a church that should but is unable to preserve the moral integrity of the estate.
Edmund is kind and good; however, Austen is making the point, as a priest’s daughter who understands what parish life should be about, that we cannot separate the testing of Edmund’s vocation from the testing of Fanny’s vocation, or from Mary Crawford’s hostility towards both vocations, any more than we can separate the mission of the church from the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. The drama facing Edmund represents the drama facing a church that will lose its moral authority if it forgets its focus must be on Christ (Fanny) not on the world (Mary). Edmund cannot have both. He must choose.
A central theme of the novel is Tom’s extravagance, which necessitates the presentation of the Mansfield living to Dr Grant, which has the evil result of bringing the Crawfords to Mansfield, which threatens the future of the estate. As Sir Thomas tells Tom: “You have robbed Edmund for ten, twenty, thirty years, perhaps for life, of more than half the income which ought to be his.” Edmund was to hold two parish livings within the estate, both within the patronage of Sir Thomas and his heirs. After ordination, Edmund’s circumstances will be greatly reduced for the foreseeable future.
There is a spiritual consideration as well as an economic consideration, which has to do with Austen’s sense of the role of the parish within the estate. She was against, if not pluralism as such, for Edmund will eventually hold two livings within the same estate, then the kind of pluralism that encouraged the abuse of absentee livings by clergy more interested in being worldly than pastoral. This background gives meaning to Mary’s infatuation with Edmund, because her interest in him as a potential husband is contingent upon making him one of the worldly clergy that Austen, as well as Fanny and Sir Thomas, objects to.
Mary tells Edmund he has “limited means and indifferent connections” and relations “who are in no situation to do anything for you.” From her worldly perspective, this is true, given the exigencies of primogeniture, which will not benefit Edmund or his future wife. Mary would like to marry Edmund and further his interests, or rather her interests, which means seducing him into becoming a wealthy pluralist clergyman in London living off the income from many absentee livings. This ambition represents another threat of evil in the novel, preventing Edmund from clerical residency, effective priesthood, and a life focused on his vocation rather than on the pursuit of Mary’s worldly interests. Until Dr Grant dies, Thornton Lacey is the only living left for Edmund, and establishing his residency there is fundamental to the novel’s spiritual resolution. Mary wants to sabotage that resolution.
In the closing chapter, Lady Bertram’s daughter Maria (who happens to be her mother’s namesake) is banished from Mansfield with Mrs Norris while Mrs Price’s daughter Fanny (who also happens to be her mother’s namesake) returns to Mansfield, becomes a priest’s wife, and moves to Thornton Lacey. The novel ends at that point.
We do not know whether Tom makes a full recovery, marries, and produces an heir for Sir Thomas. Some critics argue that Mansfield will eventually default to Edmund and Fanny, since they assume Tom is a dissolute homosexual who will die. However, if critics want to speculate about that, it is just as reasonable to keep within the novel’s allegorical logic. If Edmund and Fanny remain a clergy couple, this would merely cement their position alongside other clergy couples in Austen’s novels, who live under the sign of reason informed by feeling.
Like Austen’s other novels, Mansfield Park never invokes providence for a resolution, because it is about human maturity not divine intervention. The reordering of Mansfield is achieved not by a struggle between an ontological good and evil but by a struggle between the good and evil within every human being. For Fanny, evil was Henry Crawford, a worldly and cold-blooded man, “ruined by early independence and bad domestic example”, a hedonistic man in whom “the temptation of immediate pleasure was too strong for a mind unused to make sacrifice to right.” For Edmund, evil was Mary Crawford, a woman totally lacking in conscience or moral feeling. Austen describes this as a “perversion” that was “natural” to Mary’s “blunted delicacy” and “corrupt, vitiated mind”.
Put simply, the Crawford’s are evil because they lack a Christian disposition, and their reward for this godlessness is to continue living a godless existence, unconcerned by their exclusion from the moral ending of Mansfield Park, Austen’s most religious novel.
~ THE END ~
All rights reserved by Rev. Dr M. Giffin
About the author
Michael Giffin is a member of JASA and JASNA. He obtained a BTh from the Sydney College of Divinity, a BA and an MLitt from the University of New England, and a PhD from the University of Western Australia. His books include:
Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England (2002)
Jane Austen’s Religious Imagination: A Balance of Reason and Feeling (2013)
Female Maturity from Jane Austen to Margaret Atwood: When Bildungsroman Meets Zeitgeist (2013).
He is an ordained Anglican (Episcopalian) priest and a professed member of the Society of Saint Francis (Third Order). He was born and raised in Honolulu, lives in Sydney, and holds both United States and Australian citizenship.
For further information about Michael, visit his website at www.spanielbooks.com.
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