Mansfield Park is not one of Jane Austen’s best-loved works, even among her serious admirers. It is certainly not my favorite. It is nearly her longest novel (almost double some of her more esteemed writings) and it is certainly the least humorous. Further, it is more politically and socially complex than most others. But there is still another factor; Mansfield Park is perhaps one of Austen’s most demanding novels: subtler, slower, and structured around two central characters who are by no means effervescent. Neither Fanny nor Edmund are outspoken or deeply expressive: they do not exemplify what many often think of when they seek out the wit and wisdom of Austen’s prose.
This last point is not insignificant. While we can easily delight in the clever and bold mind of a Lizzie (P&P), or can shake our heads lovingly (or not so lovingly) at an Emma (Emma) or a Marianne (S&S), Fanny Price must be rejoiced in with a quieter satisfaction. Still, this is to Austen’s praise! She is capable of writing and celebrating such a diversity of excellence. For there is indeed a diversity of character and excellence in the word. And truly, Fannie’s greatness is a greatness proper to her temperament and experience: a child born in an impoverished and alcoholic home suddenly transported to Mansfield Manor, now the youngest among a family and home of imposing character. Often ignored or treated with patronizing superiority, it is no surprise that we might find her somewhat shrinking. And yet she does not lack strong judgment and the will to occasionally express it. All this is to say is that she too is a jewel, one worthy of the page, even if she is no Lizzy. Fanny displays a moral greatness of her own, one which the unfolding of her life reveals.
It is the manner of its unfolding which I am interested in because this little piece I am writing is not a Defense of Fanny Price (what ‘price’ does one place upon someone who refuses to sell her heart to a Mr. Crawford?). This is, instead, a defense of the novel itself. An account of its cooler reception. And it is my argument that this reception can only in part be attributed to the temperament of its heroine.
Alas, I must come out and say it, though it may offend. In a word, Mansfield Park is a reader’s novel: a novel for those who delight in reading and delight in the arts of reading. It is not merely entertainment, but moral analysis. It is a trial, a test of the interpretive arts and even of the value of such arts. It is a testing of the meaning of customs, morals, and all the words which we speak: those words which disclose far more than our conscious intentions.
The reader who will appreciate Mansfield must continually judge whether its passing remarks have meaning, whether the little expressions of self-definition, of hospitality (or lack thereof), all that talk of plays, chapel, the coming-out of daughters, the use of horses, the attachments and hopes that ought to pertain to marriage, the communication of siblings, etc., are minor or great in import.
To put it yet another way, Manfield is a novel about education, in that most holistic sense. We may borrow from Fanny then and state that one’s reception of the novel is in no small part “the effect of education” (Chapter XXVII). And we must, therefore, hope to prove ourselves worthy of Sir Thomas’s accurate (though dramatically ironic) praise of Fanny:
You have an understanding which will prevent you from receiving things only in part, and judging partially by the event. You will take in the whole of the past, you will consider times, persons, and probabilities (Ch. XXXII).
Such “understanding,” Sir Thomas explicitly attributes to education. Such an education includes not only what one learns in books, at school, or even at the home, but the sum result and development of one’s powers: the active application of the heart and its subsequent disposition to the vicissitudes of life: i.e., one’s whole mode of reading, interpreting, evaluating and acting. I might have used the word philosophy or even ‘religion,’ if I had not feared that the all too common abuse of such terms (not entirely without reason), even from the pulpit and in the mouths of truly intelligent men and women, might cause a miscarriage of understanding.
The link between Mansfield and education is most powerfully suggested in its treatment of the act of reading itself. To read (or to interpret) is to reveal as much about a reader as a text. The reading act may even be a crystallization character (Gen. 22:12; Matt. 25:24-26). Thus Fanny’s judgments about Crawford, her struggle to understand him, and, ultimately, her conviction of his ineligibility and fitness for her, form the true crisis of the narrative.
Mansfield Park is quite Augustinian in this sense. Thus all of its slow and subtle development, its hints and minor moments. Its texture and foreshadowing are its very meaning and action, but only to readers attentive to moral and personal drama of the kind. Yet, such is the tissue of our everyday life. Such are the actions which underlie many of the most significant crises and definitive moments. Therefore, the novel ultimately will only please those who really care, not just for entertainment or even to read cleverly, but to ask and understand: in what manner does reading matter? Or even simply, what matters? Does a moral sensibility have real consequence? Or ought we, like Mary Crawford in the chapel at Sotherton, consider such sensibilities the outmoded affectations of a bygone age, likely imposed upon us by ego and power? Is moral character really just a form of social self-indulgence?
While by no means ‘cryptic’ or ‘esoteric,’ Mansfield Park truly is a novel of interpretation. This is perhaps why it is Austen’s only work to significantly feature an extended structural allegory, one full of biblical and moral significance. It is Jane Austen’s most overt foray into symbolism that I can recall.
We find it in Chapter 10, when our young party spends a day of intended pleasure on the grounds of Mr. Rushworth’s Sotherton.
They walk about the grounds, but eventually find themselves hemmed in by a locked iron gate which prevents further exploration. Here is an image of law, moral boundary, and prohibition if ever there was.
Mr. Rushworth’s fiance Maria and the man who will eventually lead her astray express disgust at this self-enclosure. They begin to express doubt whether that gate should be considered a boundary at all: “Prohibited! nonsense! I certainly can get out that way.” While Mr. Rushworth runs to fetch a key, their impatience spurs them to illegitimately bypass the gate and pair off from the party.
We are surely meant to recall Eden and the Fall, as well as Jesus teaching that “whoever does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1). Austen may even have in mind the sexualized crossing of “iron gates” featured in Andrew Marvel’s poem To His Coy Mistress:
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
An allegory is itself an engagement in the reader’s art, particularly when it draws on other literary sources, sacred and/or secular.
In this light, we can begin to see the novel’s emphasis on reading and education. The failure of Maria and Mr. Crawford appears to be a failure not merely of action but of interpretation. Maria’s response to Fanny’s expression of apprehension is underlaid with great ambiguity and implies an a dangerous moral ignorance:
Her cousin was safe on the other side while these words were spoken, and, smiling with all the good-humour of success, she said, “Thank you, my dear Fanny, but I and my gown are alive and well, and so good-bye.”
This is not Maria’s only opportunity within the novel to make interpretative judgments, to read the situation. Quite more explicitly, we are treated to a display of her powers. While Sir Thomas continues to be absent, the young men and women seek entertainment in drama. Edmund, however, attempts to direct his sibling’s away from the performance of a play which he deems inappropriate. Speaking to Maria, he says:
“My dear Maria…I think it exceedingly unfit for private representation…I hope you will give it up. I cannot but suppose you will when you have read it carefully over. Read only the first act aloud to either your mother or aunt, and see how you can approve it. It will not be necessary to send you to your father’s judgment, I am convinced.”
“We see things very differently,” cried Maria. “I am perfectly acquainted with the play, I assure you; and with a very few omissions, and so forth, which will be made, of course, I can see nothing objectionable in it; and I am not the only young woman you find who thinks it very fit for private representation.”
Manfield continually emphasizes such interpretative acts and contrasts readings which depend chiefly upon self and ego with those that read with an eye to others, to standards and actors beyond the self. We see this above. Edmund suggests Maria ought to read the play before her Aunt or Mother, that her consciousness should include not mere reference to herself but to the full social context in which her actions occur. He seeks to educate her consciousness and interpretation by creating a consciousness of others.
This in fact parallels the very poignancy of Fanny’s later crisis, for she includes her Uncle’s judgments (as well as what she imagines is due to him) within her own reflections upon Mr. Crawford. This is precisely what is absent from Mary Crawford’s reflections on Edmund’s elder brother’s potential death at the very end of the novel.
A further aspect of this theme of interpretation is its intersection with self-knowledge. We can see this perhaps more clearly by turning toward the novel’s end (the necessary step in any ethical discourse!). Austen presents us with Sir Thomas’s reflections after having witnessed the moral failure of his daughters, a failure which Sir Thomas characterizes as a failure of education!
The anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters was never to be entirely done away…Too late he became aware how unfavourable to the character of any young people must be the totally opposite treatment which Maria and Julia had been always experiencing at home, where the excessive indulgence and flattery of their aunt had been continually contrasted with his own severity. He saw how ill he had judged, in expecting to counteract what was wrong in Mrs. Norris by its reverse in himself; clearly saw that he had but increased the evil by teaching them to repress their spirits in his presence so as to make their real disposition unknown to him, and sending them for all their indulgences to a person who had been able to attach them only by the blindness of her affection, and the excess of her praise.
Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice…He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.
These are words to bring any Christian parent up short. Have I been educating my children in the daily practice of religion, not merely in a theoretical faith? Or just as badly, have I made the very practice of faith a suppression of the spirit rather than a life giving self-denial and humility which might bring joy and welcome to them and to others? Sir Thomas recognizes his parental failure precisely as educational, as a failure to humanize faith for his daughters.
I am not writing here simply to moralize but to reflect on what I believe is Austen’s intentional framework of the novel: an exploration of reading and education.
We see how when young Fanny is thrust among apparent superiors (Maria and Julia) at Mansfield, she is reduced to ridicule because she lacks education in the arts, in geography, in the social pleasantries of the manor’s inmates. It is Edmund who sees her, draws her out, supplies her with letter-writing material, and, as we are told later, with books and conversation. It is he and his love which ultimately helps to form her mind. It is Edmund and not the governess who is Fanny’s true educator. Years later, she in turn will be his.
This intersection of education, self-knowledge, and reading receives its most explicit and extended treatment within the walls of the manor. In perhaps one of the most complex moments of the text, after Henry Crawford has decided to win Fanny’s heart, we are privileged to a discourse on the art of reading. It is no accident that Crawford, a central figure in this discourse, will himself be a great trial to Fanny’s interpretative powers and to her faith in those powers. As we shall see, this is perhaps because Crawford’s personality is by no means easily readable. He is somewhat of a mystery because he is somewhat unknown even to himself. The attraction then between him and Maria is in this sense one of kinship, an attraction between two self-deceived individuals (Maria, blinded by consequence and perhaps a desire to please her father, proves unable to read her own heart. This ignorance propels her into an imprudent marriage and into an even more reckless affair).
The scene I speak of now explores sense and sensibility, expression and intention, as well as character and constancy. It is a reminder to all good readers that outward expression does not always match inner intention. A brave horse rider is not necessarily a person of true courage and fortitude. A competent reader of Shakespeare may not know his own heart. A handsome face or polite manner may or may not tell us who we deal with. I will place selections of the rather extended passage located in Chapter 34 before you:
“Fanny has been reading to me, and only put the book down upon hearing you coming.” And sure enough there was a book on the table which had the air of being very recently closed: a volume of Shakespeare. “She often reads to me out of those books; and she was in the middle of a very fine speech of that man’s—what’s his name, Fanny?—when we heard your footsteps.”
Crawford took the volume. “Let me have the pleasure of finishing that speech to your ladyship,” said he. “I shall find it immediately.” And by carefully giving way to the inclination of the leaves, he did find it, or within a page or two, quite near enough to satisfy Lady Bertram, who assured him, as soon as he mentioned the name of Cardinal Wolsey, that he had got the very speech.
It is no accident that the play he reads from is Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and the character mentioned, Wolsey, is one who plots marriage and divorce, who eventually compares himself to Lucifer when his own downfall comes! The text is evocative of politics, power, matrimony, intrigue, deception, and folly.
She [Fanny] seemed determined to be interested by nothing else. But taste was too strong in her. She could not abstract her mind five minutes: she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used: her uncle read well, her cousins all, Edmund very well, but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always alight at will on the best scene, or the best speeches of each; and whether it were dignity, or pride, or tenderness, or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. It was truly dramatic. His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on the stage with Miss Bertram.
The play of prior days is reintroduced by Austen by way of contrast but also reminder. Austen is asking us to reflect on the nature of playing a part. What does true character look like? Is it all in expression? Our reader or actor here, Crawford, is partly so excellent only because his very character is somewhat indefinite. He can perform because he is formed as a player and not as a man. We might recall the Uncle and household in which he was educated, and, surely, in which he learned to read.
After he finishes reading, Crawford discusses with Edmund the nature of reading itself: that is, the pronunciation or performance of reading! Edmund enters into the conversation with alacrity.
“No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree,” said Edmund, “from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent.”…
Lady Bertram’s admiration was expressed, and strongly too. “It was really like being at a play,” said she. “I wish Sir Thomas had been here.”…
The subject of reading aloud was farther discussed. The two young men were the only talkers, but they, standing by the fire, talked over the too common neglect of the qualification, the total inattention to it, in the ordinary school-system for boys, the consequently natural, yet in some instances almost unnatural, degree of ignorance and uncouthness of men, of sensible and well-informed men, when suddenly called to the necessity of reading aloud, which had fallen within their notice, giving instances of blunders, and failures with their secondary causes, the want of management of the voice, of proper modulation and emphasis, of foresight and judgment, all proceeding from the first cause: want of early attention and habit; and Fanny was listening again with great entertainment.
“Even in my profession,” said Edmund, with a smile, “how little the art of reading has been studied! how little a clear manner, and good delivery, have been attended to! I speak rather of the past, however, than the present…
“Our liturgy,” observed Crawford, “has beauties, which not even a careless, slovenly style of reading can destroy; but it has also redundancies and repetitions which require good reading not to be felt. For myself, at least, I must confess being not always so attentive as I ought to be” (here was a glance at Fanny); “that nineteen times out of twenty I am thinking how such a prayer ought to be read, and longing to have it to read myself…
Crawford blithely reflects not only upon secular but even sacred performance, as if he cannot distinguish acting from service. As critic, he reflects upon the reading of sermons and prayers. He muses even upon his own fitness as a potential clergyman. The easy transition from Shakespearean to sacred text is intentional. For Crawford, such a transition seems to be simply a change of part. Fanny keenly, though somewhat surreptitiously, reflects, “I thought it was a pity you did not always know yourself as well as you seemed to do at that moment.” Does Fanny think that with better education he might in fact have been suited for such a calling? Perhaps.
But what a pity that we do not all know ourselves well, that we do not all seek to learn not only to pronounce the marks of character, but rather, to embody them.
I will leave the reader here to consider whether it is worth revisiting Mansfield Park. I will not demand that the novel be made anyone’s favorite. It is perhaps best appreciated not only by those who can sympathize with a somewhat more reserved heroism (and Fanny truly is heroic), but by lovers of reading who know how difficult it is to be formed or to help form others for read as they ought. This is a novel for those who long to be truly educated and who know how grand a thing that is to desire. There is a reason that when our Lord took on human flesh, he labored to teach us how to read.