Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: Ch. 9

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Mrs. Rushworth began her relation. "This chapel was fitted up as you see it, in James the Second's time. Before that period, as I understand, the pews were only wainscot; and there is some reason to think that the linings and cushions of the pulpit and family seat were only purple cloth; but this is not quite certain. It is a handsome chapel, and was formerly in constant use both morning and evening. Prayers were always read in it by the domestic chaplain, within the memory of many; but the late Mr. Rushworth left it off."

"Every generation has its improvements," said Miss Crawford, with a smile, to Edmund.

Mrs. Rushworth was gone to repeat her lesson to Mr. Crawford; and Edmund, Fanny, and Miss Crawford remained in a cluster together.

"It is a pity," cried Fanny, "that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one's ideas of what such a household should be!d A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!"

"Very fine indeedd," said Miss Crawford, laughing. "It must do the heads of the family a great deal of good to force all the poor housemaids and footmen to leave business and pleasure, and say their prayers here twice a day, while they are inventing excuses themselves for staying away."

"That is hardly Fanny's idea of a family assembling," said Edmund. "If the master and mistressd do not attend themselves, there must be more harm than good in the custom."

"At any rate, it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Everybody likes to go their own wayd—to chuse their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint, the length of time—altogether it is a formidable thing, and what nobody likes; and if the good people who used to kneel and gape in that gallery could have foreseen that the time would ever come when men and women might lie another ten minutes in bed, when they woke with a headache, without danger of reprobation, because chapel was missed, they would have jumped with joy and envy. Cannot you imagine with what unwilling feelings the former belles of the house of Rushworth did many a time repair to this chapel? The young Mrs. Eleanors and Mrs. Bridgets—starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different—especially if the poor chaplain were not worth looking at—and, in those days, I fancy parsons were very inferior even to what they are now."

For a few moments she was unanswered. Fanny coloured and looked at Edmund, but felt too angryd for speech; and he needed a little recollection before he could say, "Your lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects. You have given us an amusing sketch, and human nature cannot say it was not so. We must all feel at times the difficulty of fixing our thoughts as we could wish; but if you are supposing it a frequent thing, that is to say, a weakness grown into a habit from neglect, what could be expected from the private devotions of such persons? Do you think the minds which are suffered, which are indulged in wanderings in a chapel, would be more collected in a closetd?"

"Yes, very likely. They would have two chances at least in their favour. There would be less to distract the attention from without, and it would not be tried so long."

"The mind which does not struggle against itself under one circumstance, would find objects to distract it in the other, I believe; and the influence of the placed and of example may often rouse better feelings than are begun with. The greater length of the service, however, I admit to be sometimes too hard a stretch upon the mind. One wishes it were not so; but I have not yet left Oxford long enough to forget what chapel prayers are."

While this was passing, the rest of the party being scattered about the chapel, Julia called Mr. Crawford's attention to her sister, by saying, "Do look at Mr. Rushworth and Maria, standing side by side, exactly as if the ceremony were going to be performed. Have not they completely the air of it?"

X [d] what such a household should be!

Religion

Whatever their differences, loyalties of blood and common religious belief should transcend all.

Fanny's passionate remarks, each capped with an exclamation point, like her earlier comments upon nature, open up a deep schism in the novel, that between family and religion on the one side—the group—individuality and a fragmented secularism on the other.…

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X [d] Very fine indeed

Religion

Mary represents a cynical secularism. Her point is undeniable—religion was often forced upon the children and domestics by the people who themselves were far from pious—but her glib manner regarding a grave subject offends Fanny and Edmund. Even if what Mary says is in itself true, they bristle at her delight in unmasking clerical hypocrisy, for the failings of churchmen and the church can only do a regrettable harm.

X [d] the master and mistress

Daily Life

Edmund refines Fanny's point to insist upon the master and mistress being present. The reader may feel that Edmund is unwittingly alluding to what is causing some havoc in his own family—his father's absence at a critical time and his mother's abdication of any effort to monitor and supervise. 

X [d] it is safer to leave people to their own devi…

Manners & Morals

Mary's point regarding individualism touches the third rail of political thought of the day. Mary maintains that we are the best and should be the only judges of what is in our own interest. We are quite able to choose what is "right." Our choosing freely assures the sincerity of our actions and is far more likely to make us happy. …

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X [d] too angry

Mind

Anger is uncommon in Austen, the only other place it surfaces being Pride and Prejudice. That Fanny feels angry reinforces our sense of a passionate personality beneath her meekness.

X [d] Do you think the minds which are suffered, wh…

Religion

Edmund's well-put formulation responding to Mary's point that distracted, undeveloped minds should not be expected to attend church services. Implicit is his view that such minds' incapacities should not be the reason for expecting less of them. 

His further argument is that such minds, exempted from church because of their deficiencies, would only become more distracted in private…

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X [d] the influence of the place

Education

Another instance of the importance for Austen of environment, which includes everything from the aesthetics of the surroundings to the example of the clergyman and the house's master and mistress and the social weight of the congregation.