Guilt and misery

mansion

Jane Austen Mansfield Park Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1814)

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

I’ve noted before Austen’s predilection for inserting her authorial voice into her novels: in Sense and Sensibility she speaks in chapter XXXVI, and in Pride and Prejudice she appears at the beginning of the final chapter. And here she is at it again in Mansfield Park, at the start of chapter XLVIII (yes, the final chapter again) giving a succinct if ironic set of observations about the previous forty-seven chapters. She says it’s about the ‘odious’ subjects of guilt and misery; and those who have suffered from such miseries, though not totally innocent, will come to some sort of happy ending, while those who have peddled the misery and turned the knife in feelings of guilt will get their more or less just deserts. Have I committed the unpardonable sin of introducing spoilers or, this being a classic romance, is this what readers of the genre hope for and expect?

I’ll speak of guilt first. There is the guilt of those who knowingly but carelessly play with others’ feelings. There’s Mrs Norris, aunt of the young Fanny Price, who continually puts her down and unfailingly reminds her of her lowly status. There are her cousins Maria and Julia who, like Cinderella’s step sisters, feel superior not only in breeding but also in virtue (though without any cause). There’s Henry Crawford, who deliberately sets out to charm Fanny and her guardian uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, even as he has eyes for Fanny’s cousins. There’s Henry’s sister, Mary, who in chapter V approvingly joins in a discussion about victims being ‘taken in’ or duped by those wooing them. There’s Fanny’s father, Lieutenant Price, who wantonly neglects his large family unless they are intent on joining the navy. And so it goes on.

Then there’s the guilt of those who underestimate or overlook our delicate heroine. Sir Thomas has her advancement at heart but is blind to where her true feelings lie, badgering her at one point till his better judgement takes over. Edmund Bertram is her true friend but is so obsessed with the faithless Mary that he cannot see Fanny’s worth as a loving partner.

Certainly misery there is in plenty, as critics of Mansfield Park complain, proclaiming that not only is Fanny a mousey, even prim and insipid, protagonist, but that her misery — long and drawn out as it is — makes for a pretty dismal tale. It is true that for our modern sensibilities there are few fireworks and that the pace is slow and stately, but for me this is a real strength: we get to know the virtues and foibles of all the principals (and not a few supporting characters too). This is a novel of manners, with social interactions at the forefront and most of the action, such as it is, largely offstage.

Indeed, at the heart of the novel are the rehearsals for the risqué play Lovers’ Vows, and in a way Mansfield Park too follows a sequence of set scenes, after the preliminary introductions are made: Fanny’s horse-riding lessons, a critical discussion of the clergy, the play rehearsals and their aftermath, cousin Maria’s precipitate marriage to James Rushworth of Sotherton Court, a meal at the Parsonage, the Christmas ball at the Park, a discussion on Shakespeare along with sermons, Fanny’s disastrous time with her birth family in Portsmouth and so on. Austen treats these all theatrically, with dialogue and reported speech aplenty. Not only do we have set scenes but Austen structures her story well. Just to give one example of this, the crucial ‘inciting incident’ or ‘plot point 1’ (to use screenwriting terms) occurs exactly halfway; late though this is in screenplay terms, it sets up the conflicts for the remainder of the novel. This is the point where the dastardly Henry Crawford tells his equally two-faced sister Mary that “my plan is to make Fanny Price [fall] in love with me”. From this point on all Fanny’s petty woes up to now will fade into the background as the ramifications of Henry’s callous decision cause her world to turn upside down.

The simultaneous arrival at Mansfield Park of Fanny’s beloved brother William (at this point a midshipman in the navy) will, while bringing her joy, strongly contrast with her reception when she goes to visit her birth family in Portsmouth. It will bring centre stage Fanny’s realisation that she is neither fish nor fowl — she cannot feel part of genteel society at Mansfield Park, nor can she accustom herself to the familial chaos of the Portsmouth household.

‘Tolerable comfort’ for the relatively innocent parties is what she promises — and delivers — in the last chapter. What began as a Pygmalion-type story (Sir Thomas tries to create a gentlewoman out of Fanny, discovering in time that she is more loyal and dependable than his true-born daughters), continues and ends within a Cinderella plotline (the virtue and beauty of the least regarded at last is recognised); and Austen rather speedily wraps things up with Fanny’s marriage to her prince. Misery for Fanny is dispersed, the guilty get punished after a fashion, and the minor gentry of Regency England are portrayed as little able to successfully raise a model family as the aspiring working class living from hand to mouth.

Mansfield Park was the first of Austen’s novels to be named after its setting (we can’t be sure what she intended the title of the posthumously published Northanger Abbey to be) and, maybe surprisingly, doesn’t follow the dichotomy-laden titles of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility which had proved successful, nor does it follow common practice by being named after its protagonist Fanny Price (as her earlier attempts such as Lady Susan and Catherine and, of course, Emma show). So, in a sense, the Park itself is a character in its own right, a contrast with the Prices’ Portsmouth home as much as prejudice and sensibility are foils of pride and sense.

But of course Fanny is the not always still heart of the novel; and, nineteen by the close, hers is the ideal marriageable age for an Austen heroine. (Completed in 1813 and published the year after, the novel’s chronology suggests that Fanny was born around 1793-4.) I very much enjoyed Mansfield Park, despite its unwonted reputation, which combines a fairytale ending with a surgical dissection of human frailties.

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5 thoughts on “Guilt and misery

  1. Pingback: Literally challenged: update | calmgrove

  2. Thanks for this analysis, Chris. I’ve always found MP to be the most difficult of Austen’s six novels, precisely because Fanny is so good. Some argue that she’s too passive, but that doesn’t bother me as much as her lack of, for want of a better word, “oomph”. Her patience, especially under Mrs. Norris’s treatment, is admirable, but I so wanted her to retaliate. Even just to ask why she had no fire in her room. As she is, she’s already perfect; I almost wish she had married Henry Crawford, to learn what it’s like to make a grave error.

    Austen is clearly trying something different, after the Dashwood and Bennet sisters of her previous novels. The contrasts here, as you note, are across class and geography, rather than within families. Yet I’ll take a clever but often mistaken Elizabeth over Fanny any day.

    And then, of course, there’s Emma Woodhouse, in a class of her own. A discussion for another day.

    1. I’ve grown fond of the novel, Lizzie, paradoxically because it doesn’t give us exactly what we want. The story arc is familiar enough, but I found individuals much more realistic than I expected, and in some ways more rounded. While we rejoice that monsters like Mrs Norris get their comeuppance I found I still had a sneaking admiration for Fanny, remembering how passive I was at her age but with fewer principles. (Just realised where the supercilious Hogwarts cat got her name!)

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