Mansfield Park: An Appreciation
by Dr. Paul Franssen (University Utrecht)
Mansfield Park is, one might say, the ugly duckling among Austenís novels. It lacks the brilliant humour of Emma and Pride and Prejudice; nor does it have the nostalgia of Austenís mature style in Persuasion. Its heroine may be ďright,Ē in the sense of the usual subdivision of Austenís protagonists into heroines that are wrong and heroines that are right; yet she does not command the modern readerís sympathy to the same extent as Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, or of Anne in Persuasion. Fanny Price is, by modern standards, too much of a prig, in her almost puritanical refusal to have anything to do with the private theatricals, and in her obvious jealousy of Mary Crawford. We can forgive Anne Eliot her one remark on the sinfulness of travelling on Sunday; but Fannyís attitude is so deeply ingrained in the novel, that we find it much harder to ignore it. The most successful film version of recent years, directed by Patricia Rozema in 1999, got round the problem by redesigning Fanny from the bottom up, and turning her into a pretty, self-confident, and feminist young woman. Her problems are with slavery, cruelty, tyranny and promiscuity, not with entertainment, and her aim is to further female independence, even as a writer who comes to resemble Austen herself. Thus refashioned in the self-image of modern western women, Rozemaís Fanny Price does pass muster; but although it makes for a good movie on its own terms, it is not by any means Austenís Fanny that we admire.
Yet, Mansfield Park also has its strong sides. Whereas Austenís other books all begin when their heroines are mature young women, or at least on the verge of maturity, Fanny Priceís life is traced from her childhood. Thus, the novel suggests how environment and education put their stamp on personality. Fanny may not be a role model for the modern world, but we do understand how she got to be what she is. Even as a child in Portsmouth, she is neglected by her mother. Once she comes to Mansfield Park, her Cinderella-like existence, tucked away in the little white attic that seems emblematic of her purity, makes her grow up into a woman of modest expectations. Always at the mercy of her aunt Norris, she understandably turns to those who are willing to protect her, her uncle and particularly her cousin Edmund, and lives by their values. Her one great asset as a poor relation is her morality, which she therefore guards jealously. She is unwavering and rigid in her principles, precisely because they are all she has. In this respect she is the exact opposite of decadent Mr Crawford, who delights in play-acting, in trying out different roles; but he, too, falls for Fannyís stability. Thus repressing her own impulses, Fanny can hardly help feeling jealous of and being judgmental about others, whose start in life was luckier. If this sounds like seeing her as a pathological case, a victim of her upbringing who is in desperate need of a good shrink to put her right, as some feminist critics do, we might also remember that the limits placed on her as a little girl keep her from becoming decadent in later life, like most of her cousins do. Precisely because she was never spoilt as a child, the ugly duckling grows into a beautiful swan.
What is more, in her own way, Fanny does acquire a degree of power as a woman, not by striving for liberation, but rather by sticking to her principles. In a repressive society, keeping most rigidly to generally acknowledged standards of behaviour is a way of acquiring moral authority. Power can be obtained not just by working against the system from the outside, but also by following its rules meticulously. In the twentieth century, for instance, Indian intellectuals who had learned Western ideas about human rights and democracy from their British education began to question the fact that these principles were not applied to them as well. Such intellectuals formed the nucleus of the early independence movements in the third world; it was not just Marxists who came up with a completely new set of values, but also those who questioned the internal inconsistencies within colonial cultures, the gap between theory and practice. Seen from that perspective, Fanny Price has a certain liberating potential thanks to her rigid adherence to the rules.
Fanny is exquisitely fit for this role, and is ultimately acknowledged by her uncle as the moral centre of Mansfield Park. Her road from the little white attic to the throne of the estate, one might notice, leads through the former school-room, which she occupies as she grows up: when everyone else forgets the standards they live by, she teaches them by example what values ought to be central to an estate like Mansfield Park. It has been suggested that in this respect the novel is not so very far removed from being a political allegory. As Roger Sales has pointed out in a book-length argument, the situation at Mansfield has some interesting and suggestive parallels with that in the country at large. Sir Thomas goes away to Antigua, in the middle of a war, and leaves the running of the estate to his eldest son Tom. In an analogous way, King George III was often unwell, rumoured mad, and therefore unfit to govern. In 1811, his eldest son, the future George IV, took over the day to day running of the government as Prince Regent. While Tom abuses his fatherís trust, by lavish expenses and by staging theatricals in the absence of Sir Thomas, the Prince Regent was also known for his debauchery, his taste for display and for parading in military uniforms. Many people in the country disapproved of such behaviour, particularly in an emergency, when the King himself was unfit, and the wars against Napoleon were still going on. Although Austen was prevailed upon to dedicate her novel Emma to the Prince Regent, which was after all good for sales, she seems to have disliked him personally, also for his treatment of his estranged wife Caroline. One option entertained by the Tory opposition was to appoint Queen Charlotte as regent instead of the crown prince. This was against their own principles of primogeniture and following the male line; yet it was felt that the female candidate was more likely to guard the nationís interests and its morality than the Prince Regent. Thus, Sales suggests, Mansfield Park reflects the state of the nation during the ongoing regency crisis.
From another perspective, one might see the book as supporting a new approach to class distinctions. It is, after all, the poor relation who has to save the aristocratic estate, when the true heirs of the family let the side down. This shows that merit, not birth, is what counts in life. In that respect, the book belongs with Pride and Prejudice, whose heroine makes the aristocracy (Darcy, Lady Catherine) take notice of her in spite of her relatively humble background, and with Persuasion, which documents the decline and fall of the decadent Eliots and the rise of the professional classes, in this case the navy.
Thus, Fannyís rise to power because of her moral principles may have a more serious dimension than some of Austenís simpler romantic comedies do. Most of all, it makes the book a document of an age: an age that was fast developing into what we now know as Victorianism, where the women, the ďangels in the house,Ē came to be seen as the guardians of morality. Not surprisingly, Mansfield Park was quite popular for much of the nineteenth century. Equally unsurprisingly, it went out of favour along with Victorian values when the twentieth century rebelled against all restraints.
All rights reserved by Dr. Paul Franssen
Dr. Paul Franssen (on the right) at the GNE Dr. Paul Franssen bij literaire workshop voor JASNL
Dr. Paul Franssen has been teaching British and South African Literature at the University of Utrecht since 1979. His expertise on the Renaisance is accompanied by his interest in some more modern areas and people, such as British 20th century drama. Jane Austen, J. M. Coetzee and Oscar Wilde.
Dr. Paul Franssen is universitair docent Engelse Letterkunde aan de Universiteit Utrecht. Binnen het onderwijs en onderzoek houdt hij zich voornamelijk bezig met de Engelse literatuur uit de Renaissance, waaronder Shakespeare. Daarnaast richt hij zich op individuele auteurs zoals Jane Austen en Oscar Wilde en heeft hij speciale aandacht voor de Zuid-Afrikaanse literatuur.
Franssen is penningmeester van het Shakespeare-Genootschap en redacteur van Folio, het blad van het genootschap. Daarnaast is hij een graag geziene spreker bij het Genootschap Nederland-Engeland en verzorgt hij de literaire workshops over de werken van Jane Austen voor onze Jane Austen Society NL.
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