Mansfield Park

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Mansfield Park (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen

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Austen's opening sentences, like a key signature in music, establish her distinctive writing voice. It is crisp yet supple to the point of conversational, more the voice of a concise, self-assured speaker in a drawing-room than of a remote writer at her desk. She speaks to us with a flickering irony. The voice is playful and amused but at moments sheds its levity to issue a pitiless, swift judgment. This is true of Mansfield Park, but the novel's protagonist and subject are more somber than Austen's other five completed novels. Her voice drops into a lower register, the comedy more tart, the judgment more incisive. 

Mansfield Park is Austen's longest and most complex novel. The heroine is unlike any of her others, not least because she suffered a defining childhood trauma that has left her timid physically and socially withdrawn. Frightened of horses (which is like being frightened of bicycles), passive rather than active when it comes to the outdoors, and diffident with people to the point of disappearing, Fanny Price is nevertheless the most fearless and uncompromising of Austen's heroines when her principles or integrity is challenged. Mansfield Park differs in another respect. While it, too, dwells on love, the choice of a spouse, and marriage, Austen is especially interested in the families out of which emerge the young, marriageable people and how well these families have prepared them for adult life. She is interested in parenting, which will determine how stable and effective the next generation of parents will be. The novel takes the long view, that of the rearing of children so that they can carry out the responsibilities that will devolve upon them and their likelihood of creating a marriage and home that will assure the next generation's responsible happiness. The title, unlike that of the parody Northanger Abbey, signals the gravity and breadth of Austen's subject—the future not just of the family but of the moral integrity of the estate they inhabit and of which they are stewards. Her interest is the family that inhabits that estate, and the estate itself stands for the landed gentry in general. Austen is writing a cautionary novel about the moral state of the gentry, which is to say, given the supreme importance of the gentry to English society as a whole at that time, a novel about a perilous moment in English society. Marriage is central in the life of the individual and of the society, but Austen here treats marriage more as a commencement of grave responsibilities than as a consummation of youth. 

"Gentry," we'll see, is a good deal more inclusive and less precise than we may suppose from Austen's novels focus upon a specific group, but on one point everyone can agree: the gentry are perceived as a gauge of the health or not of English life at the time, so deeply does English society views its wellbeing and future as identified with the gentry's. Their significance is out of proportion to their numbers. They are only a thin slice of English society (about one family out of eighty in a population of some fourteen million. But their political, economic, and, owing to the Englishman's view of land, their representative status accord the gentry a mythic power far beyond their numbers or even wealth. Austen is aware of those below or above the squirearchy (Persuasion, her last completed novel, explores a socially more various world), but the landed gentry, often "commoners" such as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Knightley in Emma or baronets such as Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park, are the people Austen knows, and she writes about what she knows. From her perspective, which is shared by many at the time, the gentry embody the values, manner of life, and customs that comprise England's spine, and do so at a time when the body politic is becoming gangly and somewhat uncontrollable.

Three distinct sub-classes make up the landed gentry. At the summit is the peerage, composed of the aristocracy (bishops and archbishops, barons, viscounts, earls, marquesses, and dukes). They are the most worldly, and while they derive much of their wealth from the land, divide their time between their country estates and their opulent London homes. Austen rarely depicts or refers to the aristocracy but when she does it is to suggest its often fatuous, extravagant, and morally dangerous worldliness. Immensely rich, even when in debt, and of vast political powerful owing in part to their being in the House of Lords, their number was minuscule. In 1803 the entire peerage numbered 313, which included bishops and princes of the blood. They tended to hold high positions in the government and controlled large estates whose electors (always owners of land known as freeholders or copyholders who paid taxes on the land) voted for Members of the House of Commons as the lord wished. A peer was almost inevitably also lord lieutenant of the county, the highest-ranking administrative post in the county. 

The second sub-class is composed of the baronets (not included among the aristocracy) and below them the knights. There were 540 baronets (Sir Thomas and Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion), making that titled rank alone nearly double the size of the entire peerage, and probably some 800 knights, of whom one, conferred by the King for his civic duty as mayor, is  Sir William Lucas of Pride and Prejudice. 

Third are the squires, so-called commoners because they are untitled, yet in Austen's view often the most worthy. They are not so proud (no one exceeds in vanity of rank Sir Walter of Persuasion) and not so worldly, a word Austen almost always intends as a criticism. The squires range from the immensely wealthy Darcy Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice to the significantly named Knightley in Emma. This class, sometimes called the squirearchy, is politically conservative, supporting the status quo, which is to say opposed to reform, and identified itself with the Anglican Church. They are in the root sense of the word conservative, which is to say determined to conserve and perpetuate the gentry's ownership of land and way of life. Their religion, sturdily and unquestioningly Anglican, is worn as comfortably as their shooting clothes and taken with their port. Austen views the gentry as a critical mass whose values stabilize English life. The significance she accords the gentry through her focus upon them barely hints at the two forces that will eventually reduce the gentry's real power. Industrialism and urbanization are at the time she is writing are having a seismic impact on English society and producing conditions no other nation in the world's history had faced. 

We can similarly identify various sub-classes within the so-called working classes and the middle classes. But the supreme, incontrovertible divisor in 19th-c. England is between those who own land and those who do not, those who own "real" estate, the adjective is crucial, and those who have only "portable property." G. E. Mingay's important English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century opens, "Landed property was the foundation of eighteenth-century society [and well into the 19th]....the owners of the soil derived from its consequence and wealth the right to govern. Above all, land was immovable and indestructible, and the very permanence of land gave stability to the society that was based upon it."  The gentry generally had smaller estates and a smaller income than the peers (but Darcy's Pemberley is grand and his income of £10,000 per year exceeds that of the less affluent peers, who may earn £3-4,000). Many gentry, such as Knightley, manage their own estates, and for Austen many others ought to, an issue in Mansfield Park, but what distinguishes them from the freeholders and farmers is a steady stream of supplemental income from tenants, mortgages, and investments. To arrive at dollars, we can calculate a £ in 1815 as worth some $90. Darcy's annual income is then some $900,000. Ownership of land that yields a certain amount in rents confers the right to vote. One paid taxes ("rates") on land and a great deal else from windows to servants and dogs. Only a fraction of the male population in 1811 of just over 14 million is able to vote (about 225,000), and many of those cast their ballots as dictated by the lord or squire, who is then said to possess a "pocket-borough."

For the class immediately below the landed gentry (the tradesmen and shopkeepers or "shopocracy," country lawyers, apothecaries, doctors, grain merchants, and so on), ownership of land is their great aspiration and their sign of having arrived at success. The closer this class comes to owning land or marrying a daughter into the gentry, the more it apes the gentry's dress, manners, politics, and religion. Approaching elevation to the gentry, the upper middle class tends to migrate in politics to the more conservative and land-based Tories from the Whigs, often identified with the City, meaning not just London but finance and commerce, and to the Church of England from Dissenting (Search) chapels, non-Anglican Protestant sects such as Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists.


England in Austen's time is an avowedly patriarchal society. This affects all women but none more so than those in the gentry owing to the persistence of that class's deeply conservative and traditional values. These reinforce two legal features of the patriarchy: primogeniture (the entire estate and any title go to the first-born son or to his next-born surviving brother or closest male heir); second, that by law a married woman was legally regarded as her husband's chattel, a part of her husband's property, and, unless exempted by legal contract, any property and money she had when she married or that inherited or earned in the course of the marriage would become her husband's.

These legal realities were harsh enough, but accompanying them were customs and attitudes that further disadvantaged women. For instance, in each of the Austen novels with very rare exceptions the women who marry leave the home they are in, often the one in which they grew up, and go to live in their husband's home, The women are uprooted from in many cases a lifetime of proximity to relatives, friends, and servants. There was a brief, evanescent period between the moment a young woman comes out, which is to say is eligible for marriage, and her marriage, During this time she has more power than she will ever again unless she remains single. She can attract and refuse suitors and, if she is good-looking and/or has some property, she has the intoxicating power of choice. But upon marriage her power evaporates, as if she were in a reverse fairy tale. Married, she is legally dehumanized and indistinguishable from her husband's property.

There are other more subtle disadvantages resulting from the patriarchy. As young as sixteen and with very little experience of the world beyond a twenty-mile circumference, the new bride will be detached from the home and community she knew as a child and compelled to move to her husband's estate, which, if more than fifty miles away, may be virtually transcontinental from her birthplace. Although Austen did not marry, she suffered a paralyzing dislocation. Born in Steventon Rectory in Hampshire and spending the first twenty-five years of her life there, she is traumatized when her parents decide to leave Steventon and move to Bath, taking Jane and her sister, Cassandra, with them. Austen's capacity to write was paralyzed and she suffered some years of depression.

Primogeniture, the legal necessity, formulated as entail, of an estate's passing intact and whole from father to the eldest son or nearest surviving male heir, rendered the other sons, known as "cadets," supernumeraries and the daughters fungible. An unmarried daughter, unless like Austen's Emma she was independently wealthy, was a financial drain. A daughter's intrinsic worth lay in her ability to marshal such dowry, looks, and talents as she possessed to "marry up." Her chances of doing so were potentially better than that of a cadet's making a marriage that improved the family's status. Though the society is patriarchal, the cadets are apt to be less important than their well-dowried sisters, whose prospects for a good marriage (wealth, rank, and connections) may likely exceed the cadets'. Such a marriage would multiply her familly's "connexions," which would assist her brothers in their careers and her sisters in achieving a good match, or at least some match (as occurs in Mansfield Park through Lady Bertram's marriage to Sir Thomas). Connexion was the catalyst, an alchemical property that transmuted a woman's attachment into her siblings' advancement.

Primogeniture, an especially English phenomenon, preserved intact an estate over generations, unlike on the Continent where the estate, at the patriarch's determination, might be divided in varying portions among the male heirs or the more responsible second-born given preeminent control. There was a potential price to be paid for the estate's indivisibility according to primogeniture: what if the heir is a fool or a scapegrace? A ruinous bit of genealogical bad luck; or, less forgivable, what if he's unwilling to meet his responsibilities? The father has little power in the matter other than moral suasion, to which some young men, keenly aware of their immunity, may react allergically. Yet whatever the first-born's capacities and character all of the property and much of the wealth legally must go to him. What if a younger son is far more qualified? What if the parents failed in their responsibility to raise the heir to be worthy of his inheritance? What if the daughters, instead of advancing the family's connexions, jeopardize them? These questions are at the fore of Mansfield Park.     

The house will continue to stand, and the land will remain largely intact, as decreed by entail. But the family's future and to some significant degree the well-being of servants, renters, and tenants depends on the squire and his choice of a spouse. Though the land and manor will remain in the family, the family, beginning with the parents, can be unworthy of the guarantees provided by primogeniture and entail. The squire may have great wealth and power but he has only a "life interest" in the estate in that he cannot determine its future. Aside from his choice of a spouse and his participation in the conception of a male heir, his role, other than as a dutiful parent, is minor, that of a conservator or steward with very little power over the future. He can mortgage but he cannot generally sell or divide the estate. Whether an earl or a commoner such as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the landed gentry are links in a chain anchored in the land. However rich and lustrous, the manor's current inhabitant is perceive as a transient. The gentry's moral and political values are naturally conservative because their obligation is to conserve and preserve the estate or seat. In that their power is more moral than actual.

These issues form part of Mansfield Park's topographyAusten's fictional families are fragile organisms highly sensitive to the behavior of each member. The grand manor house such as Mansfield Park may be enduring but not necessarily stable and functional. Those attributes hinge in part upon whom the squire has chosen to marry and the basis for his choice. In the Austen world complementarity is the most effective form of love, strengths and weaknesses in the couple balancing one another. Given the lock-step nature of primogeniture and entail, this, a right marriage that results in vigilant attention to the rearing of the children, is the points at which the squire can exercise his will to secure the estate's health. No word may be more important to Austen than "improvement." While fully cognizant of human frailty and our gifts for rationalizing our selfishness and desires, Austen remains an optimist. She believes in the possibility of unselfish love resulting in a good marriage dedicated to rearing responsible progeny. Love is not the purpose or end but the base, and courtship is only a delightful prelude to the real business, the general improvement of the micro-society at whose center stands the estate. In this highly integrated and small world, the lone individual can have a disproportionate effect for the good or ill of the whole. Parents, older siblings, relatives, friends, and schools in Austen's view have nearly limitless power to shape the individual, and the individual to improve or imperil the little society. We are in her view not born good or bad but rather impressionable and pliable, and hence the people and the nature of the household are crucially important. That we are so susceptible means for Austen that elders in particular have enormous power, and power bestows responsibility. Austen is pitiless in her judgment of those, especially parents, who abuse or fail to exercise their power for good.   

Love interests Austen in part because it is apt to issue in progeny and the next generation. She understands that, given the influence of parents who want to extend connexions and then ther youth and inexperience of those seeking mates that misjudgments, often comic, sometimes with grave consequences, are inevitable. These form the novels' action. She also understands that for people in their late teens and early 20s, physical attraction can distort judgment and blind one to other aspects. As the reader will see in Mansfield Park, Austen is no prude. We must be careful not to equate refined manners with sexual anemia. Sexual energy appears in all of her novels (it is what makes Elizabeth and Darcy so appealing). Austen only condemns it when it is the sovereign reason for a couple's decision to marry, at which point it obscures or eliminates other more lasting features of a marriage. Physical attraction may be a bonus but it is not an essential for Austen. Love or at least affection is essential to a good marriage, and physical attraction may help activate affection, but for Austen marriage entails a constellation of elements, such as complementarity of temperament, connections, and money. To marry for love but without money may promise no better conclusion than marrying without love but with money. Physical attraction galvanizes but it does not sustain. The consequences of these marriages founded on just one element such as physical attraction will survive long after the attraction moderates into esteem or atrophies into tedium. In marriage at this social level, which is apt to involve considerable property, the practical is nearly synonymous with the emotional. The measure of the union's success is not the parents' personal happiness but the children's fitness to assume a steadying role in perpetuating the values of the gentry. 

Austen has been thought stuffy (Charlotte Brontë and Twain have reacted allergically to her) and immune to the baser realities of human nature. In his Letter to Lord Byron, Byron being Austen's contemporary, Auden writes,   

There is one other author in my pack

    For some time I debated which to write to.

Which would least likely send my letter back?

    But I decided I'd give a fright to

    Jane Austen if I wrote when I'd no right to,

And share in her contempt the dreadful fates

Of Crawford, Musgrove, and of Mr. Yates.

The three men of the last line appear in Mansfield Park. Auden's notion that he'd give a fright to Austen is facetious, though he's probably correct that his writing uninvited would prompt her to return the letter. A staple of that class's manners at the time was that one required an introduction through a third party known to both. But we should not confuse Austen's impeccable manners and her belief in manners acting as a solvent upon the rawer parts of human nature with her being squeamish, unknowing, or incurious. (Like Auden, she, too, read the infamous Byron.) Austen work falls into what is called "the novel of manners." This does not mean she approves of manners for their own sake. Often she depicts the ways in which the cunning and devious can deploy manners to camouflage their desires. Manners are often the basis for Austen's comedy, for the gap between the appearance, the manner, and the reality is where her humor finds its richest material. She questions the manners of her time and the uses to which her characters put manners. For Austen manners can be mechanical and hollow, which is to say formulaic and possibly harmful, or they can be part of what improves us. Manners help fit us for social life, suppressing ego and desire, but they are also the vehicle for expressing who genuinely we are. Their role is not to distort but to distill and refine so that we can read in them the qualities of the self they both repress and to the observant reveal.  

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