AUGUST 17, 2014
I CAN’T LEAVE Mansfield Park alone. When driving or washing dishes or folding laundry, I turn on an audio version and listen, and I keep the little speckled copy of the text near me at all times. I’m hungry for it, compelled, addicted. Wherever I land when I open the book — the white attic, the East room, or the wilderness at Sotherton — it is a sweet relief to go for a walk in Mansfield.
I didn’t always feel this way. Jane Austen’s third published novel celebrates its 200th anniversary this summer, but it was only a spry 175 when I first read it. Then, I thought it unbearably fusty and didactic. The impoverished Fanny Price is raised with her rich Bertram cousins in their home at Mansfield Park. She keeps her pious head down and her nose clean, and eventually, after a number of trials, she wins her man. Was this not just a lame Cinderella retread? And unlike that firecracker Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price is a weakling: she’s usually debilitated by a headache, and must sit to catch her breath after a few hundred yards in a shrubbery. She’s boring, too. About trees and stars she is infinitely sincere, and she makes not one joke in 442 pages.
At the time of that first reading, I was in search of a way to live that would give me maximum pleasure without fatal compromise. Grubby, intrepid environmentalist? Cheerful literate mom? Bold, solitary bluestocking? Each had its drawbacks. But in any case, I did not want to hear from Jane Austen that it was advisable to fetch tea and carry messages and refrain from speaking even the odd cross word. Self-effacing feminine abjection? Knuckling under to the patriarchy? Forget it. I had to assume that Austen had written the book under the influence of a lugubrious local preacher, or a case of mononucleosis. I could borrow parts of Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, or even the gentle but competent Anne Elliot for myself, but Fanny Price? Who wanted to grow up to be an Anglican doormat?
But now, in middle age, with my identity more or less formed, those choices made, I have changed my mind. In the Rorschach of Mansfield Park, I see not an agent of oppressive Christian morality, but a hero on a winged horse. The attics and drawing rooms seem like battlefields, and the card games and evening strolls somehow bring my heart into my throat. It’s baffling. Why should a single year unfolding among the well-fed English rivet my attention? Why, after all this time, should this tedious novel, this monument to humility, be the nourishment my soul requires?
On the surface, Mansfield Park shares many of the concerns of Austen’s other novels. The dramatis personae are drawn from a band of society ranging from the most straitened of the middle class up to the minor nobility. The significant questions are who will marry whom and what role birth, wealth, family culture, and personality will play in various lives. A good deal of drama arises from human folly: conceit, stupidity, rashness, and self-indulgence.
Usually, though, the most arresting scenes in Austen are revelatory, when, for instance, the elegant Mr. Elliot is shown to be cold and self-interested, or Mr. Darcy is exposed as the mysterious savior of the Bennet family. Mansfield Park is weirder. Its best moments are not thunderclaps of discovered malfeasance or heroism, but subtle thickenings in the dynamics of the story, small shifts which are easy to overlook, but in fact are such carefully layered moments as to be eerie, even sublime. One doesn’t often turn to Austen for a chill up the spine, but in Mansfield Park, her Georgian clarity is commingled with dread. In a number of these key moments, particularly those in the three scenes I think of as “the theatricals,” something repellent, even demonic, distends the novel’s porcelain skin.
When Fanny Price is 18, her stern uncle Sir Thomas absents himself from Mansfield for the better part of a year, and very soon a brother and sister duo, Henry and Mary Crawford, arrive on the scene. They are witty, lively and wealthy, but at first, though Mary Crawford is admitted to be pretty, her brother is considered by the Miss Bertrams to be “plain, absolutely black and plain.”
Henry Crawford’s manners are engaging, however, and within a few visits the girls come to find him blindingly attractive, enough so that Maria, freshly engaged to the doltish rich boy Rushworth, begins to rethink her choice. We learn that Crawford has enthralled many women, that they have “tried” for him but failed to secure his permanent attention. Fanny alone continues to think him unattractive. This is not, one sees later, a question of mere taste. Fanny is spiritually configured to see through Henry’s gauzy attractions, his emperor’s clothes. She is constitutionally impervious to his brand of charm.
Henry Crawford is not ill bred in any observable way, but he is restless. He has an antipathy to “anything like a permanence of abode, or limitation of society.” His own refusal to set up a permanent home at his estate Everingham means that his sister Mary must take up residence with their elder sister, who is the wife of the Mansfield clergyman (as an unmarried woman, Mary could keep house for him but not live alone). But he is happy to escort Mary to Mansfield; indeed, Henry does a great deal of walking, traveling, riding, and escorting in the novel; he’s a blur of arbitrary motion. His sister says, with some understatement, that he “likes to be doing.” There’s nothing wrong with that, in particular — except, as Austen soon shows us, when there is. To be without a rooted sense of home, she implies, is to be without fidelity to anything.
Fanny is also wary of Mary Crawford, whose “sparkling dark” eyes, athletic courage, and vivid wit immediately fascinate Edmund, the younger Bertram brother. It happens that Fanny loves only two people in the world unreservedly: her brother William, abroad with the Navy, and this cousin Edmund; he has cared for her comfort and education since she came among them as a frightened, homesick child, and as she has grown to womanhood, her gratitude has become a passionate but wholly secret love. Now, she is displaced as Edmund’s companion, literally as well as figuratively. Mary takes Fanny’s horse for a ride and keeps it much too long; Mary draws Edmund to her side at the piano as if under hypnosis; Mary fills Edmund’s conversation whether she is present or not.
The natural antipathies Fanny feels toward the Crawfords — gentled at first by her own self-scrutiny and generosity of mind — are drawn into gleaming focus in a justly famous hour of novel time: the wilderness walk at Sotherton. In respect for Henry Crawford’s capacity for “doing,” he is called upon by the blockheaded Rushworth to suggest “improvements” for Rushworth’s Elizabethan estate at Sotherton. Crawford will propose changes of roads and removals of trees and much more, in order to revise the old place to the new fashion of elegance. All the young people make the trip, even Fanny, who wishes to see the estate once before it is torn up and rebuilt to Henry Crawford’s specifications.
The visit unfolds in small, unnerving scenes. Fanny, for instance, is disappointed in the plainness of the chapel — she has imagined that the room at the center of a great house, where a family gathers for collective devotion, would signal its vitality by magnificence in décor; this one’s plainness suggests religious paucity. Her rival Mary Crawford, on the other hand, instantly cooks up a vision of young wives going through the motions of prayer when they would prefer to be sleeping. For Mary, there is no reason a girl should seek out church unless the chaplain is “worth looking at.” So, where Fanny honestly values the refreshment and guidance of religious worship, Mary Crawford disallows even the possibility of the sacred and regards all those receptive to religion as hypocrites. On behalf of Edmund, who is soon to be ordained as a clergyman and takes his vocation seriously, the devoted Fanny is “too angry for speech.” Though we are amused by Mary’s comic sketch, the outrage that mild Fanny feels is persuasive. It is not merely Edmund who is insulted, but the very idea of the transcendent. What the Crawfords are, and what Fanny is, begin to diverge.
Mary’s spontaneous fantasy is characteristic of her — she and her brother are constantly employing irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, spontaneous verse-making, and the odd blue joke. In a more contemporary milieu, Mary Crawford would make a superb heroine of an urbane 1930s detective film; sassy and streetwise and two steps ahead of the men who cluster around her. But as the party leaves Sotherton house to pass through a gate into a “wilderness,” Austen continues to shine a jaundiced light on what the Crawfords say and how they say it.
In the woods, the avid property developer Henry, the flirtatious Maria, and the moronic Rushworth seek the best viewpoint for surveying the layout of Sotherton, while Mary and Edmund stroll along another path, accompanied by the observant Fanny. Fretful that Edmund intends to become a clergyman, Mary attacks the church as an unworthy profession for a man of his attributes — especially, she implies, a younger son who would like to attract a woman of substance. Half-seriously, she entreats him to give up the church and go into the law. He responds in mock astonishment, “With as much ease as I was told to go into this wilderness.” He is teasing, yet suggesting that his choice has not been lightly made, and should not be treated lightly. She refuses to take his meaning, choosing instead to engage him in word play: “Now you are going to say something about law being the worst wilderness of the two, but I forestall you; remember I have forestalled you.”
“You need not hurry,” Edmund replies, “when the object is only to prevent my saying a bon-mot, for there is not the least wit in my nature.” It’s a touching moment, even as we feel for poor neglected Fanny; Edmund, in love, seeks to present himself to Mary as he truly is, hoping that he will be enough for her: “I am a very matter-of-fact, plain-spoken being, and may blunder on the borders of a repartee for half-an-hour together without striking it out.”
Curiously, in this crucial exchange Austen has the literal Edmund use a metaphor, a very rare figure for him. It’s as if, while resisting Mary’s opinion, he is drawn by her elastic and disorienting speeches into her particular linguistic territory. Befogged by her sexy wit, he can neither credit her actual spiritual barrenness, nor guard himself against it.
Soon, Mary opines that they must have walked “at least a mile” in the woods. Edmund argues that it has been much less than that, “I know nothing of your furlongs,” Mary retorts, “but I am sure it is a very long wood, and that we have been winding in and out ever since we came into it.”
Edmund, here blundering on the borders of a pedantry, demonstrates that they have been walking for 15 minutes, and clearly, they could not have maintained a four-mile an hour pace. Mary will not back down: “Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.” Her personal assessment of distance and time substitutes itself for what Edmund and Fanny know to be the truth; as the narrator says, “She would not calculate, she would not compare. She would only smile and assert.”
Mary is very funny, and also alarming. Edmund and Fanny speak in a clear and precise way of their world, seeking to minimize static between a signified thing and its word, so that actualities and not their symbols are foregrounded. Mary and Henry, on the other hand, elaborate, misdirect, double back, and stonewall. They dismiss actual truths in favor of their distortable signifiers. For them, language is the means of establishing the dominion of their own subjectivity — their beliefs, constructions, and desires — over the fixed truths of the world.
So when Edmund, in thrall, sets out with Mary to determine the dimensions of the wood together, Fanny is deeply, and rightly, disturbed. Her heart is abraded by Edmund’s abandonment; worse, she sees that Edmund is disoriented with regard to the actual, factual world. Beguiled by Mary’s cunning speech, he allows himself to be lead into an erroneous reassessment of what he already knows to be true. The peril here is not that a woman will be disappointed in love, but that a person of self-restraint and rationality will be led into a wilderness of unchecked relativism and subjectivity.
But why is Austen’s caveat appealing to me? I love subjectivity, don’t I? We make our art out of it, and art is the primary reason, it seems to me, for not jumping off the nearest available cliff. It would not be becoming, psychologically or aesthetically, for a post-post-modern reader to hunker down in a 200-year-old conservatism and discredit modernist liberties of representation. Metaphor? Fancy syntax? Hyperbole? Irony? My adoration is long-standing. Given the father I have, possibly the most oblique satirist west of the Upper East Side, I probably loved language while in utero. I felt the first inkling of true attachment to my sweetheart when I asked him if his recent raft trip had been “splashy,” and, adopting an uncharacteristically formal persona, he replied, “I would term it moderately splashy.” Later he sealed the deal by comparing my brain to a worldwide bauxite shortage (that’s a longer story — another time). And though Austen presents her troublesome Crawfords as acrobats of irony, her own tone is often so blisteringly ironic that she might be accused of calling the kettle black. So why — if I love the elasticity of language — are the Crawfords so scary?
The moral earth of Sotherton is rumbling, and Edmund and Mary have gone off — for how long? And to do what, really? But Austen doesn’t end the scene there. Rather, she cranks up the sense of danger. Fanny, still seated alone on a bench, becomes spectator to another play, in which language comes in again for manipulation.
Maria Bertram, her fiancé Rushworth, and Henry Crawford appear, in full discussion about improvements. Maria insists that they should proceed to the iron gate at the end of the vista, and Henry concurs that the hill on the other side will be ideal for assessing the estate’s problems. “Go therefore they must to that knoll, and through that gate,” mocks the narrator, “but the gate was locked.” Austen’s syntax here, giving primacy to the verb “go” and frustrating the characters’ desire with the final hard placement of “locked,” bespeaks the irony with which the narrator views their desire to press on, their inability to be satisfied.
Of course it is not a mere walk about a manor park that the narrating presence regards as risible, but the willingness of Maria to go where she has no business going, and Henry’s willingness to lead her there. While Rushworth, the putative master of the house and the putative master of Maria’s person and future, lumbers home to get the key for the gate, Maria complains feverishly that the boundaries of the iron gate and the ha-ha fence give her “a feeling of restraint and hardship.” Crawford makes his move:
And for the world you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth’s authority and protection, or I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.
One can barely hear his words over the din of him sharpening his pitchfork.
Maria’s fall is instant: “I certainly can get out that way, and I will.” And Fanny, aroused to moral panic, begs Maria to consider the consequences: “You will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown […] You had better not go.” In fact, of course, much more than Maria’s dress is at risk of tearing, since her virtue, her marriage, her social prospects, her family relationships, and her autonomy and respectability as a woman will later be sacrificed to her impetuous desire for Henry and his false dogma of infinite liberty.
Having been a spectator to these two scenes Fanny grasps the full Crawford modus operandi. As if serpents have crawled over her body, she recoils.
Why are the Crawfords so scary? Because they are masters of saying what they do not mean. And now that I have gray hairs in my eyebrows I know that when the stakes are high, I require people to say what they mean. However clumsy someone’s language, the relationship of that language to her felt truth must be faithful. Frivolous and debonair, the Crawfords think nothing of leaving their meanings ambiguous. It’s one of the reasons they are seductive — they feel very contemporary.
For of course distortion of meaning is now as common as the grass. These days, more than ever, when a pundit, a personality, a congressman now speak, they often mean and do not mean what they say. They are striking attitudes with which they may partially agree, but their point is not communication — it is manipulation. The bold lie used to be the province of the grifter, the used-car salesman, but now that unfaithful language is in the mouth of the CEO of General Motors. Speech that appears to be sincere is often quite vividly a construct meant to resemble sincerity, and the responses to it are constructed performances in themselves. All speech is acting, and everywhere is a wilderness.
My serious seven-year-old son often quarrels with a verbally adept older friend. Confronted by her superior vocabulary and rhetoric, he can only be sure of one thing: whether she is being nice, or being mean. That’s how Fanny feels, on her bench listening the Crawfords. Is it nice and meant for good; or mean, and meant to do harm? Mean, she thinks. Mean.
After Sotherton, the young people decide to amuse themselves by producing a play — Lovers’ Vows — for the amusement of their neighbors. In choosing and casting this lowbrow love story, they once more unleash their own vanity, jealousy, and general sluttiness. But since this is Mansfield Park, the Lovers’ Vows episode is not just fraternity-sorority hijinks that will end with a flaming sofa being thrown off a balcony. Edmund knows that Sir Thomas would disapprove of any well-bred children, but particularly his own daughters, acting the roles of fallen or sexually aggressive women.
But Edward is criticized by his siblings for grandiosity and sanctimony; ultimately he succumbs to their taunts. He agrees to act, moreover, in a role that mocks his own chosen profession of the clergy. His “sturdy” character “bends”; in order to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse, he seeks to control the juggernaut of naughtiness from within. But Fanny is close to terrified. Mary’s relativism is having its way with Edmund.
The restless energy for flouting boundaries engendered and nourished by the Crawfords has now set itself up in the heart of Mansfield itself. No inadequate, comical master like Rushworth is threatened here. It is Sir Thomas himself whose authority is besmirched. The players take the billiard room for their stage — fair enough — but it is separated only by blocked doors from the absent Sir Thomas’s own study. In order to make a backstage area, the doors are unblocked and flung open, and the sanctum of the head of the household is co-opted, if it is not overstating the case, for evil.
In her role as helpmeet to all at Mansfield, Fanny submits to sew costumes and attempts to teach the moronic Rushworth his “two-and-twenty speeches,” but of every being in the house, she alone resists the theatrical enterprise from beginning to end. When asked to represent Cottager’s wife, the lowliest of the play’s characters, Fanny repeatedly refuses. “I cannot act,” she says. “It is quite impossible for me.” Her cousins take this to be a statement of inadequacy to the demands of the art, as one might say, “I can’t sing,” or “I can’t cook.” Her cousin Tom entreats her to make herself useful to them, and the unbearable busybody Aunt Norris accuses her of self-importance.
Austen, however, means us to understand that Fanny literally cannot act a role. Her “fear of being looked at” is not the self-consciousness of the awkward teenager; it is an acknowledgment of her inability to perform a self. She can be vague, she can be silent, but she cannot lie, pretend, imitate, or seem. For better or worse, she embodies a pure integrity that cannot be alloyed, even if she wishes it. And she’s thus possessed of hypersensitive antennae for hidden feelings and role-playing in others, for, in fact, all moral falsity.
But Fanny also cannot act in the sense of taking action. She cannot actively change the course of the events she sees unfolding. As a deeply diffident person, a dependent niece neither as pretty nor as accomplished as her confident, privileged cousins, with no financial expectations and no particular talents, she is absolutely marginal in the closed system of Mansfield society. She can see evil coming but knows her warnings will be ignored. Her dual incapacities to “act” make her life a sustained psychological torture. Far from being a mouse with a martyr complex, Fanny is formed by Austen to experience the maximum stress her world can offer.
One short, indirect scene during the theater episode illustrates this predicament with such cruelty that one has to admire Austen’s courage in devising and putting her heroine through it. Fanny has escaped the theater to sit in her own East room — an unheated place of morning light and privacy, a forgotten room, and the only one that is all Fanny’s. But she is called upon there by Mary Crawford, and asked to read the role of Anhalt the clergyman — Edmund’s role — in order that Mary may rehearse her love-making to Edmund and conquer her supposedly delicate feelings before trying the language on the real man. Soon, Edmund himself shows up with the same idea — for each of the actors, Fanny in her accommodating ignominy will stand in for the other. She is forced to promote the romance, even the sexual attraction, between the man she loves and the woman she knows is unfit for him. Her implicit grief and humiliation, though private, are exquisite.
This suffering is temporarily suspended when on the eve of the first full run-through, Sir Thomas Bertram returns unexpectedly. The usually sulky Julia sounds the alarm: “My father is come! He is in the house at this moment.” Sir Thomas, redolent with almost divine authority, is gentle and forbearing in rebuke of his children, but he is deeply disappointed in them, especially Edmund. At once, he tears down the scenery and burns all the copies of the play he can find.
I have nothing against a play — far from it — and neither, really, does Austen. But I see what she is after here. What’s disturbing is not simply adoption of a tawdry play or the disregard of paternal rule. Austen uses the play as a metaphor for dangers of pretense itself. When people allow themselves to play roles and mimic other persons, they are relieved of responsibility for their speech and actions. The bonds of the integrated self are slipped. It’s easy to say, as Henry does, later, do not judge us by what we appeared to be then. It’s easy to say, I didn’t mean it. It’s too easy to say, that wasn’t really me.
Is all well, then, when the master of Mansfield and its arbiter of morality returns? Of course not — in fact, the danger intensifies. In the same way that Sir Thomas’s departure seemed earlier to draw the Crawfords to Mansfield, his return sends Henry Crawford away, as if their moral polarities do not allow them to occupy the same space.
But the Crawfords, we know by now, are the most subtle of creatures. Not long after Maria, devastated that Henry has not spoken for her, marries Rushworth and goes off, miffed, on her honeymoon, Henry Crawford returns to the Mansfield to seek new prey; this time, he intends to make Fanny Price, rather than her cousins, fall in love with him.
Henry’s courtship of Fanny is the final and the most destabilizing of the three “theatricals” in the novel. Fanny is no longer a spectator at the sparring match between good and evil. The assault is now directly upon her own perceptions and integrity, and it is prolonged, creative, and diabolical.
Fanny has not fallen under Henry’s spell, and his cold blood is quickened. He explicitly sees her indifference as a challenge to his own powers of attraction:
I only want her to look kindly on me [he tells Mary], to give me smiles as well as blushes, to keep a chair for me by herself wherever we are, and be all animation when I take it and talk to her; to think as I think, be interested in all my possessions and pleasures, try to keep me longer at Mansfield, and feel when I go away that she shall be never happy again.
Mary dryly observes, “Moderation itself!” but she does not protest, for though she finds her brother a bit extreme in his amusements, she accepts their basic premise: that other people are lesser, “good little creatures,” and if they have not the cunning to look out for themselves, they must take what they get. Her coarseness on this point is emphasized shortly afterward. In what must be the creepiest episode in all of Austen, Mary and Henry conspire to persuade Fanny to accept a gold necklace, secretly purchased by Henry for the purpose, to wear at the ball where she will be presented. By a performance that amounts to a series of lies, Mary hoodwinks Fanny into literally wearing Henry’s chain around her neck.
Like any imp, Henry is energized rather than discouraged by Fanny’s evident antipathy. He goes at her particular vulnerabilities with a scalpel. In pursuit of her good opinion, he plays at being a good master of his own estate, and with his gift for imitation and pretense, he is an excellent dramatic reader of the books Fanny loves — and he brings them brightly, seductively alive. He sees and validates her maturing feminine beauty, her kindness, her freedom from cant, and her spiritual gravity. Where Fanny has been neglected, he foregrounds her, enough even to rouse the languid Lady Bertram to the awareness that Fanny, now chosen by a wealthy man, might deserve one of her cherished pug’s puppies. These attentions alone would melt the suspicions of many under-sung and mistreated heroines. Fanny sees it all as a miming of true attachment.
The moral battle, though, is seriously engaged when Crawford actually falls for Fanny, and desires to become someone she might love. He visits Fanny when she is away from Mansfield and homesick, he is charming to her parents, he takes note of her fragile health and offers — ever the escort — to transport her home at a day’s notice. He even asks her advice on his very movements, a sign that his state of mind is different than we’ve ever seen it: “Shall I go? Do you advise it?”
But Fanny knows, even if Henry doesn’t, that in his desire to “absolutely confide in her,” to tell the truth of himself without his characteristic linguistic artifice, he is seeking what he cannot find. His rapid and passionate embrace of the idea of Fanny is only his old theme of restless transformation, intoxicatingly amplified. Like his planned improvements at Sotherton, he wants to change Fanny’s revulsion into love, and her lowly life into one of privilege. Most exciting of all, his choice of Fanny allows him to imagine a different self (as he at other times has imagined being a Navy sailor, a landscaper, and a clergyman). As the affianced try on wedding gowns, he tries on the costume of a new Henry, one dignified by principle and self-discipline.
Later, Mary speaks of this potential for change in him with peevish regret, saying of Fanny’s refusal, “She would have fixed him […] It is all her fault. Simple girl! I shall never forgive her.” Henry would have been tethered, put into position. Given that his evil lies in his relativism, compulsive motion, and boundary hopping, to be fixed in one place, as Fanny’s husband, might have been healing indeed. But like a snake who may dream of being something else but cannot help his slither, he sheds skin after skin, and becomes only more glitteringly himself.
Yet Fanny’s measure of Henry is not respected by those around her. When she says, “I — I cannot like him, sir, well enough to marry him,” Sir Thomas refuses to understand why she should reject so eligible a match, a man universally agreed to be all that is desirable. Stymied, he concludes that Fanny actually has no reason — that she is being “willful” and “perverse” for the sake of it, throwing her weight around and spiting those who care about her. Like a deity sinned against, he throws Fanny out of Mansfield, and sends her back to Portsmouth and the squalor from which he plucked her. Perhaps there she will learn to appreciate the honor being done her, and get her head screwed on right. He imagines her to be her own opposite: an ungrateful, faithless child.
Until this point, Sir Thomas has seemed more properly paternal than any other father in Austen. But when he is persuaded to support Crawford’s pursuit of Fanny, he displays his vulnerability. Given his way, Sir Thomas would invite the Crawfords permanently and catastrophically into his home. The protection of Mansfield Park is vital. It is not just a handsome house with delightful grounds. It is man’s field, the field of the life of mankind, the peaceful home of order and light. In the world of the novel, it is the sole habitable planet.
Only Fanny can see what is at stake. The risk of the families becoming connected by the marriage of Edmund and Mary, or of Henry and Fanny, is not that Mansfield will become Portsmouth, disorderly, dirty, combative, and emotionally shallow; no, the risk is that Mansfield, while appearing to be itself, will be dyed with that “dash of evil” Edmund finally comes to recognize in Mary. It will not be Mansfield, it will only seem to be it. The authentic and eternal Mansfield will be displaced by its own simulacrum.
Austen is no prude. In designing the book as she does, it’s vivid that she understands the allure of liberty, of subjectivity, of sexuality, of border crossing and language-making, of pitching into the wilderness under the enchantment of seducers like the Crawfords. Departing from her stance in Pride and Prejudice, which suggests that sexual transgression in a woman arises only from deeply foolish and trivial character (see: Lydia Bennet), Austen here shows a deep, wary respect of the pleasure available beyond the gate, and she wrestles with the potential costs of seeking it. Mary and Henry are made quicksilver, fascinating, magnetic. Austen understands how hard it is to resist such forces, and how much we would like to pursue them heedlessly. Must we seek to make a self and a life in negotiation with the boundaries of the world we are given, which necessitates compromise and the foregoing of personal pleasures? Must we submit our life and lines to the governance of order and principle? Or might we have the freedom to explode the boundaries, and remake them to suit our fancies?
Austen looks down these two forks of the path, and imagines the destinations. Believe me, you don’t want to follow Mary or Henry or Maria on theirs. Their trespasses, born of their unchecked and unexamined subjectivities, do not accrue to them any personal happiness. In assigning them solitary, loveless fates, Austen celebrates what they have disdained: Mansfield, Fanny, a great tree, anything that takes a long time to grow and become itself. In patient growth and tenacious selfhood, Austen affirms, lie authenticity, harmony, and integrity.
But she also knows that the costs of defending permanence against change, meaning against language, being against seeming, and good against evil may be almost unbearably high. Throughout the novel, Austen stretches Fanny on the rack of her own character. Fanny is by nature an ever-fixed mark, altering not when alteration musters all its powers of persuasion; since she cannot change, she cannot ease her own suffering. Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, forced to carry Lucy Steele’s ulcerating secret, enacted an earlier version of this predicament, but in Mansfield Park, the stakes are higher: grace under pressure is required not just for personal dignity and peace of mind, but to preserve the only good place in the face of moral apocalypse.
With Sir Thomas the dupe of the Crawfords’ guile and money, Fanny’s power of resistance alone saves Mansfield from permanent debasement. She holds out and holds on, even when it seems certain that Edmund will take Mary as a wife, and even when Henry’s new imitation of good nature begins to confuse her. Her character is durable enough even in agonized extremity to outlast the Crawfords. Henry finally succumbs to the easy adventure of the married Maria, a less rewarding but more immediate conquest than Fanny, and Mary Crawford, interested only in the spin control of the scandal, reveals the true coarseness of her nature to Edmund. Even then, her gravitational force is so strong that Edmund escapes only by “the impulse of a moment.”
By the novel’s end, Fanny is no longer marginal. During her excruciating solitary journey, she has descended from the unseen “white attic” to the parsonage, where she is the spiritual anchor of the community. She is the wife, peer, and probable guide of the substantial Edmund, now the Mansfield clergyman, and she is the beloved spiritual daughter of a chastened Sir Thomas. Morally immutable, Fanny has not changed under his thundering disapproval; instead, he has changed, to become a father worthy of her love and gratitude. The story of Eden is radically revised: Fanny is sent away for refusing the apple, and when the serpent has self-destructed in a cloud of glittering scales, the baronet realizes that she, his creation, understands his garden better than he himself ever did. If you want your patriarchy subverted, look no further.
Well, fine. The novel is technically dazzling, rich with characters, satisfying in its conclusion, and subtly rejects conventional femininity. But lots of novels do these things. Why should I fix on this one? What is its secret balm?
It’s coming to me, I think. These days I don’t go to literature for information about myself, or about consciousness or sexuality or sadness or anything experienced by an individual person. The art that animates me most brings me news of the village, and since I first read and dismissed Mansfield Park, the future of the village has gotten far less certain. Rough beasts are aslouch on the road to many Bethlehems, and Grendel is roaring at the doors. Isn’t that a huge scaly foot poised above the plaza?
I remember one December in the years between my two readings. I was planting daffodil bulbs (very late) when I heard that the Supreme Court had stopped a vote count and arbitrarily made one candidate president. My hands covered in cold clay, a daze stole over me: one of the few public bodies I trusted seemed suddenly profane. Other things we all know about happened: airplanes flew into tall buildings on a bright day in New York; baffling misinformation proliferated on the front page of the Times, and despite protests (me) and arrests (not me), a mind-blowingly nasty war was launched. Bombs in cars. Bombs on trains. Bombs strapped to the vitals of teenagers.
Now behemoth corporations gush the speech of money, and the displaced poor teem on the bandit-ridden highroads. The sea rises. The world grows thirsty. And every time the heart stops racing, another emissary from the island of lost boys blows people to shreds. In fact, as I wrote the first draft of this paragraph, an “active shooter” was terrorizing the students at Reynolds High School, a few miles up the road in Portland, Oregon. To quote a friend: this is bullshit, people.
This must be what keeps me coming back, obsessively, to Mansfield Park: the hope of an improbable, even impossible reversal of course. We don’t really deserve this fate. We don’t really mean to let this happen. Like Mary Crawford, for instance, we’re not wholly bad. Mary’s affection for Edmund, for instance, her dalliance on the threshold of loving him, show that she is not morally dead. She is living with severe, chronic, moral illness, but until the novel’s denouement, there is hope for her.
Like Mary, we can see, or maybe just smell, the right thing to do. But we don’t have the self-discipline, the sustained attention, to do it. So many intriguing activities distract us, so many avenues of insisting on our subjectivity. We can filter a chaos of data to suit our own predispositions because, in the age of digital media, anyone can convince herself that science is a hoax, that an American is an African, that toxins are harmless, and that the beneficial is secretly toxic. We have a surfeit of realities available to us, and if it would please us to believe, like Mary Crawford, that a half a mile is a whole one, or even 20, we can easily find 10,000 friends who will confirm it.
But Fanny Price focuses. True, she is simple and monochromatic, a dumb lamb among wolves. Yet when surrounded by a manipulated reality, she keeps her interior eye fixed on the real Mansfield, the one worth saving. In her stillness, she embodies civil disobedience, peaceful protest. She is the power of the nonviolent no. No, I won’t speak that way. No, I won’t cop that temporary attitude. No, I won’t marry that man. No, I won’t support that lie. She does not give in, and her resistance is ultimately irresistible. Mansfield reforms — re-forms — itself around the steel surveyor’s pin of her single determined soul.
So you tell me. Is it possible that a nobody from nowhere can disperse the forces of malignancy, send them howling into isolation and impotence? Can the village be saved by peaceful resistance? Can the great claw be turned aside?
Or is such a story, 200 years in its future, mere cultural debris? Is my love of it mere escapism?
Is it, once and for always, a fairy tale?