About thirty years ago

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

R.W. Chapman, Austen's first and greatest editor, has a chronology of Mansfield Park that sets the novel in 1808-09. The novel's opening words, "About thirty years ago" situate the Bertram marriage around 1778. Despite the imminent loss of the American colony, George III (Farmer George) is popular with the landed gentry, who saw him as one of theirs. He lives simply, expresses an interest in animal husbandry and breeding, is domestic in his tastes and devoted to his wife and family. But his eldest son, the future Prince Regent and George IV, is becoming a problem. At seventeen he will do what some sons do best and rebel against much his father represents. This includes the Prince Regent's incorrigible extravagance and his secretly marrying at twenty-one a twice-widowed Catholic. Ways are found to annul the marriage. Still, discontent and agitation are less directed at the monarchy than Parliament, whose easing in 1778 of the civil disabilities limiting Catholic participation in public life resulted in the Gordon Riots, 1780. A wholly different agitation was that conducted unremittingly throughout the later 18th c. to abolish the slave trade on British ships. That finally succeeded in 1807, is obliquely alluded to in Mansfield Park, and may have something to to with the economic problems of Sir Thomas's sugar plantations that call him to the West Indies. For most landed gentry, the thirty years witness a huge increase in the value of their land in England, their crops, and their incomes. Despite and because of war, England throughout these thirty years accrues power and prosperity owing in part to its empire and world trade, both supported by a Navy that Kipling hymns at the century's end, assures "dominion over palm and pine." 

Austen begins Mansfield Park in 1811 and publishes it in 1814, an anxious period in English history. The early years of the 19th c. lack the confidence of the 18th  and its relative calm. The English war with the French is costly and at times uncertain, and in 1812 England is also at war with the Americans. There's periodic fear of a French invasion of Ireland or England. Owing to the acceleration of industrialism and urbanization, the society is experiencing bewildering disruptions, and pauperdom is increasing massively. Religion once more is becoming fractious and sectarian. Methodism splits from the Church of England in 1794, taking with it many of the middle and artisan classes who were more earnest in their belief, and leaving the Church as "the praying wing of the Tory party." The Church of England, a national church and a political instrument, does not serve those it most needs to address if it's to act as a credible, stabilizing authority in English life. Radical ideas about, and the tide is setting toward liberalism, which will crest in 1832 with the passage of the First Reform Bill. Romanticism, whatever else it means, challenges older ways of thinking, present practice, and is individualistic, democratic, and iconoclastic. Amid such huge and half-understood forces the gentry house will need to be secure against external disruptions but, first of all, internally well-governed and stable.  

If the Royal family is indicative, there are grave problems. The King is insane and the Prince Regent (he became Regent in 1811) is still at fifty seeming to make a profession of profligacy. The future George IV is effectively at war with Parliament over his father, for the Regent wants to assume formally his father's powers and be crowned king. He is an intelligent and in some ways enlightened man, yet his extravagance seems incurable. In 1795 his debts amounted to £630,000 or some $60 million, and this after Parliament's earlier bailing him out. His very girth symbolizes to some a gargantuan indulgence. Married, he refuses to live or even speak with his wife and future queen, Caroline of Brunswick. The eccentric Royal Pavilion at Brighton, which he commissioned, typifies his ostentation. He was an "improver." A young man in the novel, possessor of a great manor, is also an incipient improver who wishes to cut down some venerable trees and change the landscaping to accord with new fashions. Austen never mentions the Prince Regent and the Royal family, yet there are inescapable parallels between this young man's behavior and, centrally, between Mansfield Park's problems, which begin with the older son.   

In the absence of an exemplary monarchy and morally sound aristocracy, only the gentry remain to stabilize the society and preserve customs and values winnowed over time. The problems infecting the gentry reflect those in the royal family and aristocracy.  If the Bertram household is an example, the disease at the top is slowly penetrating to the landed gentry. It then spreads from the husband-father to the wife- mother, until the children, while physically vigorous, are morally ailing and thus susceptible to carriers in the form of visitors from London and from opulent aristocratic estates. Austen titles Mansfield Park to focus on the house, the family. There are two sons in Mansfield Park who are inheriting large estates and whose irresponsibility or moronic behavior jeopardize the respective Seat's future. In this novel marriage is less Austen's immediate focus than it is an act that bears upon, for good or ill, the healthy continuity of the estate.

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