Mansfield Park – Jane Austen

27 June 2011
Chapters 1-10
Not quite a quarter of the way through, and we’re in slightly more difficult territory than usual in a Jane Austen novel. The mise-en-scene is familiar – upper- or upper-middle class families concerned about advantageous marriages – but we have some problematic elements. For a start, the Bertram family are almost all monsters, the sort of people Austen usually casts in secondary roles (like Darcy’s sisters in Pride and Prejudice, the novel before this one). Usually, they are the obstacles the more attractive main characters have to overcome, but in this novel we haven’t been able to get away from them. There are only two exceptions at Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas’s family seat in whatever shire Austen has picked out of the hat this time (Northants, as if it matters): Edmund, the second son and Fanny Price, the girl who would be the heroine if she didn’t keep disappearing into the background all the time.

What has struck me most forcibly in the earliest chapters is the tangential ways that Austen has of letting us know how monstrous her characters are. Page 1, for instance, mainly consists of introductions to the three Ward sisters (a name we never hear again, because they all get rid of it), introductions which are entirely demarcated by the relative financial advantageousness of their marriages. There’s nothing in the tone to tell us that Austen is being satirical, but we know anyway: all these references to money that render any other consideration secondary send an unmistakeable message. Or later, when one or other of the Bertram sisters is being particularly unbearable, Austen masks it in the language they themselves would use: they are clever, not privileged, beautiful rather than vain. This happens almost all the time in the early chapters, as though Austen wants to dare us to find the behaviour of these people acceptable. She knows we won’t.

Into this hideous world steps – or, rather, is dragged by way of the self-promoting manoeuvrings of her Aunt Norris – poor Fanny Price. Poor as in like a lamb to the slaughter, and poor as in poor: her mother is the sister who married a man with no money. Her arrival in Chapter 2 is all awful. The Bertram girls have been brought up to understand nothing of circumstances that are not identical to their own, patronise Fanny for her ‘stupidity’ when she simply has not received their education. When they aren’t being horrible, Aunt Norris is, or Aunt Bertram is being unimaginative to the point of oafishness. Fanny’s homesickness is seen as ingratitude, her timid sense of awe in the big house as dullness… and so on, and on, and on. It’s actually rather hard to read.

Thank god for Edmund. Without him… without him, no novel. He’s a lot older than Fanny – he and Tom, the eldest, are in their mid to late teens when Fanny arrives, aged nine or ten – and he becomes her mentor whenever he isn’t away at school or, later, at Oxford. One of Fanny’s selling-points when Aunt Norris first proposes this selfless act of philanthropy on her part – it’s her main comic trait always to take credit for things she suggests that other people do – is that she is far younger than the boys, and will grow up like a sister. She won’t be a stalking horse in the marriage market; it would be unthinkable… etc. In other words – especially when Austen fast-forwards the action to a time when the age difference seems far less marked – we’re just waiting for Aunt Norris to be proved wrong.

The fast-forwarding starts early. Fanny is soon 15, is 18 by the time the new kids on the block arrive in Chapter 5. If the whole family still consider Fanny to be an irrelevant outsider – and their little ways of constantly reminding her of this make it painfully clear to her – we know they’d better watch out. Austen isn’t making it easy for us to predict a happy outcome, because she makes Fanny disappear all the time: she is retiring to the point of invisibility, so that even when she’s present it’s easy for the reader to forget; and Austen is often prepared to focus on other matters and doesn’t mention Fanny for quite long sections. (I’m not sure that this really true, or whether it’s just the impression we get. I’m not going back to check now.)

What other matters? For a start, Sir Thomas leaves to sort out his business in Antigua in about Chapter 3, taking his extravagant elder son with him. Nearly a year later, things still aren’t right and Tom comes back on his own. Which means that the only thoughtful male presence in the house is Edmund, who has no power…. Fairly quickly, the sisters set about catching a husband, and Maria, the elder, nets a local toff, as crashingly dull as he is rich. This is Mr Rushworth, and Austen has fun describing the stages by which he becomes interesting in the Bertrams’ eyes as marriage begins to look feasible. It’s Austen being satirical and… and it’s not the most hilarious thing she’s ever written. But hey.

Another complication arrives. The local clergyman is Mr Brent – the living had been earmarked for Edmund, but financial needs have made his father offer it elsewhere instead – and his wife has two wealthier half-siblings. They turn up because – because Austen needs them. Henry Crawford has his own property, and declares that he is not in the marriage market. Mary has a reasonable fortune and declares no such thing – and soon she’s seen how attractive Mansfield Park is, and she starts to pretend to find Tom interesting. It looks like Maria and Mr Rushworth all over again but, when Austen slows the action right down to one particular summer, Tom is away with his horses and what she begins to realise is that the interesting one is Edmund.

The Mary/Edmund thread is brought to our attention most strongly in an episode involving Fanny. (You remember Fanny.) Edmund, realising how his sisters keep offering to lend her their horses but never actually do it, offers her one of his on a kind of permanent loan. Ok. When it is suggested that Mary learns to ride, she is to borrow this horse – only for half an hour, mind – each morning before Fanny goes out on it. Ok, again. But guess what? After a few days, when Mary realises what fun it is – and how good a rider she is – both she and Edmund forget how long they’ve been out. Soon, as a special favour, but only if Fanny is absolutely sure she doesn’t need the horse, they ask if they can use it for a day’s riding. Which is such fun it happens again next day. And the next, and the next…. When Fanny is faint on the fourth evening and Edmund hears how his mother and Aunt Norris have been sending her on errands in the heat – Austen can lay it on thick sometimes – he’s mortified. Quite right. But it doesn’t stop him leaving Fanny alone in the woods for an hour on another occasion – I’ll come back to that – when his stroll with Mary is supposed to be for fifteen minutes.

Do I believe that Edmund’s attraction to Mary would really make him so insensitive to Fanny? One of the ways that Austen tries to get away with it is by being vague about his age – but if Fanny is 18, he is in his mid-20s. But hey, again. She needs him to be so infatuated that he is willing to swallow a lot of his doubts about her moral principles, some of which he discusses with Fanny early on. (I’m not making this up.) So a bit of forgetfulness over the time is small fry by comparison.

Time for a set-piece excursion: a visit to Mr Dull’s country seat ten miles away. Maria is very happy to bask in the glory of everybody’s knowledge that she will soon be mistress of all they survey – her crowing is so exactly as you would expect I’m not going to mention it again – but, well, she is never thrilled in the company of her prospective husband. And on the way she’s been mortified by the amount of fun that her sister has had, sitting out in the barouche box and bantering with Henry Crawford all the way there. Reader, remember this little incident.

What do we find out? Mr Dull’s mother is as boring as he is, giving them a guided tour until, when they notice an open door, they all pile out. Henry Crawford might not be in the marriage game (he says), but he’s very happy to flirt with both the sisters. Fanny is besotted by the house and its surrounding parkland: it hadn’t taken long on the trip for her to be ‘outside her knowledge’ because, in all the years she’s been at Mansfield Park, nobody has ever thought to take her anywhere. (Yawn.) Mary Crawford is blasé: she takes absolutely everything for granted, and is perfectly content to spout conventional opinions on absolutely any given topic.

She does this in the house’s chapel, making cynical comments about how everybody is happy to avoid attending the services conducted by boring clergymen – and all clergymen are boring, obviously. Austen lets us inside Fanny’s head to see how shocked she is by this turpitude – but we can only see Edmund’s embarrassment as he lets Mary know that he is going to go into the clergy as soon as he can. Mary thinks he’s joking at first, and when she realises he isn’t keeps trying to persuade him to change his mind. That’s the end of Ed’s infatuation, right? Wrong: it’s shortly after this that he and Mary leave Fanny on her own in the woods.

It’s important for Austen that Edmund is in complete agreement with Fanny on all matters of morality and conduct – and that she can’t understand how he makes every possible allowance for Mary Crawford as she breaks all the rules. Mary rubs Fanny up the wrong way – now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d find myself writing – and Fanny knows Edmund is feeling the same way. So why does he want to spend all his time with Mary and not her? Well, if she doesn’t know – and she obviously doesn’t – it’s not my job to tell her. Maybe Austen will let it dawn on her eventually.

28 June
Chapters 11-18 – to the end of Volume One
In some ways, things have hardly moved on at all. There’s been a certain degree of consolidation of the positions reached by the end of the expedition to Dullness Hall – real name Sotherton – but, well, Edmund is still letting his infatuation cloud his judgment, Fanny is still mortified by this, and everybody else at Mansfield Park is still behaving appallingly. Aunt Norris in particular continues to fulfil her role as chief tormentor, providing Austen with a short-cut to our sympathy by being gob-smackingly patronising or downright nasty in all her dealings with poor Fanny…. It’s all very wearing.

A chapter or two after the Sotherton trip, the idea of a play is suggested by a friend of Tom’s whose function in the plot is solely to do this. (Is it as formulaic as I’m making it sound? I must say I’m finding a lot of it less persuasive than I usually do.) Preparations take up the whole of the rest of Volume One – six chapters – and Austen uses these to show us how dreadful everybody is. No change there, then. The sisters are everything you would expect them to be – what we used to call drama queens but now call divas – and… and so on. What Austen is aiming to set up is a conflict in miniature: the values of the right-minded characters, i.e. Fanny and Edmund, ranged against the others. Specifically, how is Edmund going to stand up against what he believes to be wrong?

The problem for a modern reader – this modern reader, anyway – is that it’s difficult to care hugely about all this. Austen has used the little misunderstanding between him and Mary in the chapel in order to prepare us for the way that Edmund doesn’t fit in with the mores of smart society. But the satire is tedious and, however uncomfortable both he and Fanny are about what the others are preparing to do, well, it just doesn’t seem that bad. The play, Love’s Sweet Vow, is presented as somewhat risqué and, Edmund alleges, their father would strongly disapprove of the forced intimacy of the rehearsals and eventual performance. They would never dream of it if he was there, and Edmund does his best to make a stand. Fanny looks on admiringly as he refuses to have anything to do with it – but that’s as far as he can go. In this house of unquestioned self-indulgence, with Lady Bertram the presiding spirit, indolently epitomising all that we are apparently supposed to find abhorrent, he holds no sway. Can we go home now?

No we can’t, we’re here for the long haul… because Edmund is faced with a moral crisis. For a start, Mary Crawford is gleefully joining in, with a big role in the play – but that isn’t the nub of it. They’re short of a male lead, so Tom is going to throw it open to all comers in the local area. The horror! Edmund realises that there is nothing he can do but offer himself, a sacrificial lamb, to play the part. He explains all this to Fanny, who is mortified. Not only is he reneging on all the principles she admires most about him (etc. etc.)… he’s also going to play an intimate scene with Mary. I think this is the first time Austen allows herself the use of the word jealousy to describe what Fanny is feeling. Perhaps she is beginning to understand something about relationships between men and women at last. Perhaps.

I’ve read to the end of Chapter 18 so I know what Austen is planning. Nobody in the house is at all concerned about Sir Thomas. He’s been stuck out in the West Indies for nearly two years, and – and so what? We’ve had a glimpse inside Maria’s mind as she contemplates his return, supposedly in three months’ time. That will be the end for her: as things stand, all she will have to look forward to is marriage to a fool while Julia, the younger sister, will probably get the stylish and entertaining Henry Crawford. (Undoubtedly she won’t, but Maria’s judgment is warped by jealousy.) She contemplates delays to her father’s return, perhaps a difficult voyage, with optimism – anything to put off the evil day. Nice daughters he has.

The final sentence of Chapter 18 ends with the news that Sir Thomas has returned and ‘is in the hall at this moment.’ Oh dear. And all I can think about is how Edmund will have to suffer exactly the same kind of unjust criticism that Fanny has been enduring almost from the start. Why didn’t he try to stop it? What on earth was he doing playing a part when he should have been tearing down the scenery?

Please let it not be like that.

29 June
Chapters 19-25
It isn’t, thank god. Like that, I mean: Edmund doesn’t have to suffer, aside from some severe looks just after Sir Thomas has gone to his room and found the theatre set in place in the billiard room beyond. In fact, Austen seems determined to make nothing at all of the crisis brought on by his return. He’s hugely pleased to be back, tells them all how pleased he is to see them – including, crucially, Fanny – and doesn’t let the blip of his disappointment over the play spoil it all. Edmund apologises – singling out Fanny as the only one who would have nothing to do with it – and Aunt Norris manages to wriggle out of a difficult conversation about the part she played. These two encounters take place quite close together, and they show Austen, at the start of Volume Two, making the first real adjustments to the balance. Aunt Norris’s star hasn’t waned yet, and Fanny’s star has some way to rise, but the process has started.

There’s only one example in all the chapters in this section in which we see the old harridan attempting one of her usual put-downs. As soon as she started I was thinking, we don’t need this any more, we get it – and I’m hoping it’s the last time Austen has her do it. Whatever. This particular bit of sniping is over Fanny having been invited to the Grants’ for dinner – tell you later – and needing to ask permission of Mrs Bertram, who is becoming self-centred to the point of infantilism. Aunt Norris tries to say that she can’t possibly accept, is quite unable to understand how such an invitation… etc. Sir Thomas vetoes her.

This is later. Before starting to do what I wish she’d done a lot sooner – focusing on Fanny rather than the monsters around her – Austen needs to get rid of the sisters. Unexpectedly, they are shot in a drive-by shooting…. Only kidding, unfortunately. What really happens is that Henry Crawford does what he always said he would: loves ‘em and leaves ‘em. During the rehearsals, a particular press of the hand has convinced Maria that she’s definitely the one, that she can give Rushworth the push as soon as Crawford says the word. Now, when she overhears him telling Tom that he’s off to Bath for the season… she’s quietly mortified, but decides nobody will ever know. A few days later she’s decided that Mr Dull has his compensations – she frequently lists them to herself, so we’re in no doubt that she knows exactly what she sees in him, with pound signs where her eyes should be – marries within a few weeks, and goes off with him to Brighton. She takes Julia for somebody to talk to. (I’m not kidding.)

Almost immediately we get one of Austen’s convenient showers while Fanny is near the parsonage where the Grants live – this has never, ever, happened in the nearly three years of their residence there – and she’s invited in. She doesn’t like Mary, as we know, but there’s a harp, there’s the friendly Mrs Grant and, fairly soon, there’s Edmund…. Cue invitation to dinner.

The biggest thing from now on is to do with – wait for it – Henry Crawford’s pursuit of Fanny. He’s decided to come back to Mansfield for a while and is at his sister’s for dinner – and finds Fanny’s palpable disapproval of him intriguing. Reader, she stands up to him, tells him that she’s very glad Sir Thomas arrived home when he did. Henry has been speaking, in a bantering tone but clearly from the heart, about how he wishes Sir Thomas’s voyage could have been delayed for just a week or so. (This is such an echo of how Maria had been thinking all summer that Austen must expect us to notice it.) Fanny is so furious she surprises him with her rebuttal, something that clearly doesn’t happen to him very often….

He doesn’t realise it yet, but he’s hooked. He thinks he’s in charge when he tells Mary he’s going to stay for two weeks and get her to fall in love with him. (Any echoes of Dangerous Liaisons are deceptive: in that little intrigue Valmont knows what he’s doing.) And… and as chapter follows chapter, he finds himself making plans to stay longer and longer. Meanwhile, Fanny is almost starting to become a human being, begins not to find him nearly so unbearable as she used to. There’s a limit to how far her liking can go, because she’s still holding that torch for Edmund – Austen is explicit about this – but, within the sorts of limits we always get with her, she’s ok with him now. Ok.

But do we believe any of these developments? Austen has spent much more time on Fanny’s appearance in these few chapters than in the whole of Part One: Edmund, Sir Thomas and Henry Crawford himself have all commented on the change, as though daring us not to believe that this time the caterpillar really has become a butterfly. There have been enough hints to suggest that there’s further for her star to rise yet, but aside from that one time we know about, Fanny remains the retiring, uber-correct, fine upstanding bore she’s always been. Show her a social gathering and she does calculations about how little actual chat she’ll be able to get away with. So far – up to the card-party at the Grants’ at which Henry talks about renting a place for the whole winter – it’s difficult to understand what anybody might see in her.

The card party. It takes place at more or less exactly the half-way point in the novel, and I’m guessing that Austen wants it to be a pivotal point. Ok, there’s no earthquake – how could there be when her main character models her behaviour on an article of furniture – but things are moving. We have a new character in the person of William, Fanny’s favourite brother who’s been away at sea for seven years. He’s always been there in the background, a model in absentia of what young men ought to be like. As he spends a week or two at Mansfield Austen does her best to show us what Fanny has always seen: he’s honest, straight and capable. Sir Tom, who had been more of an absence than a presence even before leaving for Antigua – Fanny always held him in awe, and never becomes at all close until after his return, another stage in her development – is now a thoughtful and kindly eminence. He seems to hold her in real affection, the only one besides Edmund who does.

Other stuff in these chapters. We’ve seen plenty of the Eligibility Dance in this novel: the relative successes of the marriages of the three sisters that it opens with, the games played by Henry Crawford, Maria and Julia that end in Julia’s marriage – judged by absolutely everybody to be doomed to misery – and the glum little triangle that has Edmund at one corner and Fanny and Mary at the others. This last is, or isn’t – how should I know? – reaching a crisis. Edmund really is going to be ordained, soon, really is going to live in a tiny village eight miles from Mansfield Park. We know, because Austen has told us, that Mary takes this as a personal affront: he’s as good as made the announcement in public very shortly after she’s announced that she could never live without money. And Fanny continues to hate Mary for her cynicism.

I genuinely don’t know how any of this is going to pan out. I don’t know whether the apparently irredeemable characters will in fact be redeemed – i.e. whether either Henry or Mary (or Julia, for that matter, with William now in the frame) could ever be a marriage partner for one of the novel’s bona fide good guys – or whether Fanny simply has to end up with Edmund. That’s got to happen, hasn’t it? Or… how far is Austen prepared to mess about with our preconceptions? We’ll see.

2 July
Chapters 26-31 – to the end of Volume Two
Fanny Price’s near-psychotic self-esteem issues, and the fact that she spends – and, therefore, the reader spends – approximately half her life in a state of mortification , make this book a highly unenjoyable read. Am I liking any of it? If we compare it to, say, Villette by Charlotte Bronte, a novel I re-read last year… is Fanny’s habit of considering herself to be entirely worthless worse, or not worse, than Lucy Snowe’s habit of, well, resolutely disappearing all the time? I’d say worse because, beneath her cloak of invisibility, Lucy Snowe is self-possessed and astute. Beneath Fanny Price’s cloak lurks a moron. Sure, Austen has given her an upbringing that might make anybody doubt their own value. That’s what the incessant mental abuse of Volume One is designed to persuade us – and, reader, I don’t buy it. All I ever feel is acute annoyance as the Bertram sisters treat her like the poor relation she is or Aunt Norris comes out with one of her habitual, small-minded demolition jobs. I’m annoyed at Austen for laying it on far too thick, and I’m annoyed at Fanny for being so bloody boring about it.

The problem is that here we are, two thirds of the way through, and we’re still having to put up with it. Not the abuse – Austen is determined to keep the sisters away into the New Year, and Aunt Norris is finding herself increasingly marginalised – but the moronic lack of astuteness. When we come to Henry Crawford’s inevitable proposal, what can she do? Accept? Refuse? Neither, because she decides not to believe that he could possibly mean it. This is one of his sophisticated tricks, he’s probably proposed to ‘fifty’ other girls, because that’s the nature of his crude little power-game.

What? What? Don’t get me wrong, I’m as pleased as anybody at the irony of the situation, at the puncturing of Henry Crawford’s complacency. He tells Mary of his decision, and there’s a self-congratulatory chapter in which the upper-class sister and brother rejoice in his ability to simply pluck from nowhere a girl that anybody would love to have. He knows he just can. What’s not to like about what’s going to come next? Like Volume One, Volume Two has ended on a gulp! moment: Fanny has just replied to Mary’s approving letter, in which she makes it clear that she doesn’t take the proposal seriously. Now we await with interest the coming storm. I only wish I could believe a bloody word of it.

Or, rather, I wish we weren’t constantly put in a position in which the main character can’t see what is blindingly obvious to us. It’s no good Austen trying to persuade us that, given the back story, it could happen. (How many times has she made references to the education that people have received not preparing them for what life brings? The Bertram sisters, Mary, Henry… at some time or other someone – and it’s sometimes Austen herself – has blamed the adults in charge of their upbringing.) But, as I’ve said, I don’t buy it. Fanny seems at best obtuse and at worst idiotic.

But I’m not telling you the plot. Before all this, Austen needs to get everybody together so she can stir the mix a bit more. Somebody mentions dancing at the end of the card party chapter – William, I think, which allows Henry Crawford to praise Fanny as a good dancer, although Austen confirms for us he can’t actually remember whether she is or not – and the next chapter opens with a Plan. It’s Sir Thomas’s idea, which is another step towards confirming him as a father-figure – and another step towards the ousting of Aunt Norris: she tries to claim the credit, then tries to take charge of the arrangements, and is rebuffed on both counts.

We can’t actually get to the ball without two chapters of soul-seeking first. Fanny and Edmund are the only ones capable of such an activity, so they are the ones who do it. For Fanny, it’s what to do about a neck-chain for the only article of jewellery she has – a cross from William. Mary lendsher one – but she tells Fanny it was a gift from Henry so, inevitably… etc. She can’t refuse it now, but feels terrible about the message it will send. And was it a brother-sister conspiracy to entrap her? Better ask Edmund – who has bought her his own chain! What to do now? ‘My dear Fanny,’ Edmund says, ‘you feel these things a great deal too much.’ Well, he’s got that one right. But when she asks him if he thinks she can wear his instead of the Mary/Henry chain, Edmund, not a reliable adviser when it comes to anything concerning Mary, says no: it would look too bad. So, after about a chapter of this stuff, she’s feeling mortified: she has a gift from Edmund that she can’t use….

Edmund’s soul-searching is to do with Mary. He goes to see her and reports back to Fanny – because in a confusing world of moral relativism, these two only have each other to rely on for unimpeachable judgments…. Mary is being Mary, to the extent that he can’t possibly marry her unless – and this is a conclusion he comes to with Fanny – she makes some changes for the better. Jesus. This is the other unbearable thing about this novel: the two good guys are constantly making judgments about the behaviour of other people. In our own universe ‘judgmental’ is a pejorative term. But, somehow, in Jane Austen’s, making judgments is absolutely fine. There’s some mileage to be got out of the fact that Edmund’s judgment has been badly affected by whatever it is that he feels for Mary – Austen clearly wants us to see that he makes far too many allowances for her – but, basically, this is how people behave in her novels. (I remember near the end of Emma when Mr Knightley goes through Frank’s letter of explanation, giving a running critique of the moral sense he detects in it.)

You know most of the rest, or you can guess…. Fanny is a success at the ball. The word ‘beauty’ is used – I’m sure there hav been studies done to show how Austen gradually feeds in ever more favourable descriptions of Fanny as the novel goes on: I get the feeling that she’s slipping this move past us, from invisibility to main attraction. But we know her tricks and her manners. Henry Crawford spends as much of the evening as he can with her, makes the sorts of look at her – at the ball and at the dinner he’s invited to soon afterwards – which coming from anybody else, could mean only one thing even to the obtuse Fanny. I suppose we’ve got the opposite happening here to what Edmund is doing: as he leans over backwards to accommodate Mary’s cynicism, he bangs his head against Fanny’s as she leans just as far back to see nothing but games-playing in Henry’s behaviour.

There’s another bit of plot. We’ve already heard that William is going to travel back to London with Henry, whose stepfather is an admiral…. so, again, if you don’t know what happens you can guess. What better way to get the girl than to fix up a promotion for her beloved brother? No better way possible, so that’s what he does. He tells Fanny about it on a morning visit to the big house after his return, and proposes to her as soon as she’s taken in the good news. Job done. Except it will take a lot more than that… etc.

Meanwhile, Edmund has also been away, getting himself ordained. Mary is due to leave to visit a friend, so she’s wondering why he’s extending his visit. she’s getting jealous – don’t ask – until Fanny puts her right: she knows Edmund is no more going to be playing away than he’s going to convert to Buddhism, and says something like this to Mary. And Mary seems to be wavering a bit: she sounds less bothered about going to visit her stylish friend than she did, lets it slip to Henry during their tête-a-tête over Fanny that if she marries Fanny he’ll see more of her as well. And Austen tells us she doesn’t mean because she’ll still be staying at the Grants’, although that’s what Henry assumes.

So I’m still no more certain about what’s going to happen than I was six chapters back. Henry Crawford obviously isn’t good enough for Fanny yet, and Mary isn’t good enough for Edmund… but maybe, one day? After all, it’s a Jane Austen trope that people can be changed for the better – like Darcy in the novel before this one and, of course, Emma in the one after. But there’s trouble ahead before any of that can happen.

4 July
Chapters 32-37…
…i.e. up to William and Fanny’s departure for Portsmouth. Six chapters, one theme: the assault on poor Fanny’s sensibilities. I kept thinking of 19th Century-style words for what she has to undergo: mortification (hers, and it’s a word Austen herself uses in these chapters) and effrontery (everybody else’s, more or less whenever they speak to her). Wearing? What do you think?

First we get Sir Thomas. He’s delighted to hear about the proposal, as we knew he would be. Henry Crawford is downstairs waiting for Fanny to come down and fall into his arms, and her uncle thinks it’s going to be his fortunate job to convey her there. What we’re getting is farce. Ok, it isn’t funny – just as most of the satire in Volume One isn’t funny, and Aunt Norris’s comedy miserliness isn’t funny – but, basically, what we get for chapter after chapter is a series of farcical misunderstandings. Fanny tells Sir Thomas, then Henry Crawford himself, Sir Thomas again, Mary Crawford – whoever is passing by – exactly what she means: No, wild horses couldn’t drag her to the altar. What they hear is, she’ll think about it.

This is bad enough when she’s dealing with the imperfect characters – it’s the scene in which she tells Sir Thomas that she’d rather walk barefoot on broken glass than marry Whatsisname, and his spluttering reaction, that shows us how a complacent reliance on class superiority to get whatever you want is not confined to the Crawfords – but then bloody Edmund joins in. (I was trying to think of another novel, if it is a novel, in which a character in crisis finally turns to the one person she, or he, knows will help – but gets no solace there either. I’ll get back to you on that.) Edmund is far more sympathetic, even says some of the right things, although not in the first conversation he has with her: no woman can be expected to marry without love (or is is it affection? I forget), so her refusal up to now is perfectly understandable, even praiseworthy. But…

But. I love that word, because we know that Edmund has not been a reliable mentor for a long time now – and we know that he’s not hearing Fanny either. For him, no means ‘not yet’ and, given time and a proper understanding of what Henry is really like, she will come round to finding him as acceptable as everybody else does.

Do I need to go on? Is it enough just to say that we get six chapters of this stuff and leave it at that? It’s a relief when Sir Thomas comes up with his cunning plan at the end of Chapter 37: he decides to send her to Portsmouth with William so she can see how dreadful life is if you don’t have the good fortune to live at Mansfield Park – or, by implication, the equally well kitted-out place that Henry Crawford is trying to lure her into. It shows how much he knows about her. It will be her own family that she will see in Portsmouth and, of course, she loves the idea, is already planning how she long she will be able to stay away. It’s during these chapters that we’ve been able to understand how a basically ok sort of bloke can end up with a wife and daughters like his: he has the emotional intelligence of – what? – one of his precious articles of furniture. All he sees is the form of things, not what lies beneath.

In his second or third conversation with Fanny, Edmund himself alludes, cautiously, to how carelessly brought up the Bertram sisters are. He is excusing Henry Crawford’s behaviour in ‘flirting’ with them in the way he did during the play. (‘And before the play,’ Fanny reminds him quietly.) They were too open in their dealings with him, allowed their own perfectly understandable liking for him to give him the impression… etc. Maybe, but Fanny knows what she knows and, for her, bad education is no excuse. During all these chapters her resolution does not budge an inch.

So. It has to be the happy wedding of Fanny and Edmund in – let me see – eleven chapters’ time. Yes? Have there been enough signals that what is on offer to Fanny, and to the self-deceiving Edmund, is simply not going to cut it in the ethical universe that Austen has created?

Yes. In Volume Two, shortly after Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua, Fanny asks him about his plantations and about the slaves who work on them. Slavery: that’s what the wealth of these people is based on. Later in Volume Two, as Henry describes his thoughts about the time of the play, Fanny’s own thought is, ‘…never happier than when behaving so dishonourably and unfeelingly! Oh! what a corrupted mind!’ Strong word, ‘corrupted’.

And now, in Volume Three – Chapter 36 – Mary Crawford speaks to Fanny about marriage in general and her brother in particular. All she can say about marriage is in connection with her stylish friend Mrs Fraser, who has proven how easy it is to marry the wrong man even when everybody close to you thinks it’s going to be fine. (Neither Fanny nor Jane Austen makes any further comment. None needed.) About Henry, her main praise is singled out for what he did for William – hardly the ‘disinterested’ act it is described as by, I think, Sir Thomas – and the number of women who have fallen in love with him and been disappointed. She also admits that, yes, lending the chain he’d originally bought for Mary was Henry’s idea and, yes, when he saw Fanny wearing it he took it as a sign of favour.

There will have to be a crisis. Something will have to happen to demonstrate to Edmund that he hasn’t got it right about the Crawfords. In this universe, their sneaky conspiracies can’t be allowed to go unpunished. First, though, we need to see Fanny enjoying agenda-free, straightforward family life in Portsmouth, and not missing Mansfield Park one bit. I guess.

5 July
Chapters 38-45 – in Portsmouth…
…which is where Fanny still is. And I was wrong: family life with the Prices is awful, and she’s terribly homesick for Mansfield Park. Shows you how much I know – and for a chapter or two I thought I’d got it wrong about Henry Crawford as well. Fanny’s been at her parents’ cramped, noisy, thin-walled dump of a house for some weeks when he arrives – and, reader, she doesn’t hate his company half as much as before. He spends a couple of days, staying at a local inn, and when he’s out walking with them he’s the image of gentlemanly consideration. He is kind to Susan, the only sibling Fanny can bear once William is whisked off to sea again, and he’s kind to her father, lets him take him on a dull little tour of the dockyards and pretends to be interested…. However, Austen is explicit about why Fanny might think him ‘much improved’ – one of Fanny’s sly little judgments – and almost likeable: for weeks, she’s been putting up with people who don’t know how to behave, whereas Crawford does. That’s all. She still cringes at the thought of any further contact with him once he’s left.

Meanwhile, there’s the seemingly endless Edmund and Mary thread. When Fanny’s head isn’t full of the disorder and noise of the family home, which it is almost all the time, it’s full of worry. Is Edmund in London yet (where she is)? Why hasn’t he written? Are they married? Why aren’t they married? When will the letter arrive telling her that they are married? It’s just another aspect of these eight chapters of misery – the word ‘mortified’ is used almost as soon as she arrives – and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. We know it’s not going to happen – we’ve known since the end of Volume Two – but, interminably, Fanny doesn’t. Talk about one note. (And, talking of one note: the word ‘shrank’ or variations on it appears eight times in the novel in connection with Fanny; ‘mortification’ or variations: 20.)

Mary writes to Fanny from time to time but, it’s made clear, only when there’s something in it for her. She writes a lot after she’s left for London but before Fanny leaves for Portsmouth, because she wants news of Edmund. Later, she writes to Portsmouth, but only because her brother urges her to. It’s made explicit that Mary would find Edmund much more attractive if there was an cousinly link connecting him to her brother’s wealth. (Is that why she’s delaying making a commitment? Might be.) She writes about her London friends, and is endlessly bitchy about them. All she can say about Edmund, to Fanny’s spluttering disgust, is how fine and gentlemanly he looks. Looks! Edmund hardly writes to Fanny, but eventually he does, and is quite open about his discomfort about Mary’ behaviour in London. He blames her friends for bringing her down to their level. Fanny is convinced that if it isn’t the other way round, Mary and the other sophisticates are certainly cut from the same cloth.

Anyway, we get a crisis at last. It might be a tease, but there are enough implications to get the Crawfords going: Tom is very ill. Mary, of course, is immediately thinking about how much more attractive a proposition Edmund would be if he were next in line to becoming Sir Edmund – to the extent that she thinks it’s ok to write to Fanny about it. Fanny, of course, splutters her disgust all over again: the only thing stopping Mary from saying yes to Edmund is his lack of what she would regard as a decent income. Splutter.

Anything else? I haven’t said much about the Price family. Fanny’s mother is, essentially, Lady Bertram without the dosh. She would have done better, Fanny muses, if she’d had some of Aunt Norris’s economising skills – which might be the nearest thing to a joke in these chapters. She doesn’t like any of her siblings at first, but eventually realises why the 14-year-old Susan is so bad-tempered: who wouldn’t be if they had an ounce of common sense – which Susan has – but no power to influence a disorganised mother with none at all? Fanny decides that the only thing she will regret when she leaves will be having to leave her there. And she realises that when she thinks of ‘home’ she means Mansfield Park….

But anyway. Mary’s just written again, fishing to find out if there’s any truth in the rumour that Tom’s illness is getting worse again. It’s the first that Fanny’s heard of it, and I’m wondering if there’s anything in it. Or… has somebody at Mansfield Park – surely not Edmund himself? – decided to test Mary’s sincerity? The Crawfords have already offered to pick Fanny up if and when they decide to go to see how poor Tom’s getting on – and she’s already refused. But there are only three chapters to go, and she can’t stay in Portsmouth forever.

6 July
Chapters 46-48 – to the end
The subject of upbringing is a thread that Austen keeps going right through this novel. As I was reading Volume Two I wondered: ‘How many times has she made references to the education that people have received not preparing them for what life brings?’ By the time we’re in the final chapter, and Sir Thomas realises what a disaster his daughters’ education has been (tell you later), he comes to ‘acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline.’ And now I realise that the whole novel is based on this idea. Before we can get to the heaven – and, for some, hell – of Chapter 48, we have to go through the hardship and discipline of ploughing through Chapters 1-47. If Samuel Richardson hadn’t taken the subtitle 75 years earlier this novel could have been Fanny – Or Virtue Rewarded. I’ll get back to Chapter 48.

As Fanny languishes in Portsmouth we get the crisis we’ve been waiting for – and it’s a corker. Mary sends her a letter telling her not to believe the filthy rumour about her brother, and Rushworth’s anger. Fanny, not realising what sort of novel she’s in – and behaving, as usual, as if she was born yesterday – doesn’t understand what Mary is talking about. But we do, and we know that the next letter – from Edmund this time, I think – will spell it out in words of one syllable. It does: Maria has run off with guess who, and Julia has eloped with Mr Yates. You remember him: he was the one who brought the idea of the play to Mansfield Park all those months ago…. He’s been in the background in London ever since Julia arrived, might even have been in Brighton now I think of it.

The elopement is small beer. At least they get married, and by the time we’re at the grand distribution of fortunes (and misfortunes) in Chapter 48, Mr Yates has seen the error of his flighty ways and is on the road to redemption. And Julia, Austen assures us, has never been as bad as (spit) Maria. The older sister needs to be consigned to the deepest pit of hell – which is where, almost – i.e. not quite – literally, she ends up. Reader, she lives with Aunt Norris in seclusion, where ‘their tempers became their mutual punishment.’ Ouch. But I’m jumping the gun again.

Plot. Edmund conveys Fanny – and Susan, for reasons of narrative neatness that become clear at the end – to Mansfield Park. All is misery, obviously. Fanny can’t guess why Edmund is looking quite so tortured as he does all the way there, but we can. She has to wait until a wet Sunday evening some days after their return before he tells her what we know: Mary’s behaviour has shown itself to be – to quote two words he uses – corrupted and evil. Well. He describes the full horror of his conversation with her, one in which he was expecting shame and, well, more shame. What he gets is pertness and a kind of cynical pragmatism. Mary outlines how Henry and Maria can salvage the situation to the extent that most of Society will not cease to know them… etc. Edmund is almost sick, realises that ‘I had never understood her before’ – well, duh – and ends up telling her it’s over.

But it’s the description of her at the end that I find most extraordinary. As he leaves, she calls him back. He turns – and she becomes a figure from mythology as she shows him not remorse, but ‘a saucy playful smile, seeming to invite in order to subdue me.’ We don’t know whether he shudders or not, but he manages to resist. If he had succumbed she would no doubt have eaten him up.

The last couple of chapters are all like this. I’ve mentioned Maria and Aunt Norris in hell, but what I haven’t mentioned is almost everybody else in heaven. In Austen’s descriptions, Mansfield Park is full of warmth and tender feelings and all the other words the 19th Century can dig up. And it’s clear from the opening of Chapter 48 – I’ve reached it at last – that Austen is the presiding goddess. In the second sentence she introduces herself as the authorial ‘I’ and tells us she is ‘impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.’ She can do that, see? She’s got the power.

And she does it, all of it, in what strikes me as the grandmother of all those happy ever afters the 19th Century did so well. It’s the one that Charlotte Bronte satirises mercilessly at the end of Villette, when the tolerable comfort is won by all and sundry, whether they deserve it or not. All, that is, except, well, we know who. (A S Byatt satirises it, equally mercilessly, in Possession. Or is that a pastiche of Shakespeare? Is there any difference?)

Austen seems much more comfortable in this chapter. For the first time, she drops that pious, leaden tone of the rest of the novel – or, for the first time, she manages the tone successfully at last. If she’d conveyed this satirical tone throughout, so that we could retain some healthy distance from the uber-pious Fanny, I wouldn’t have found myself complaining so much. From the start, we know things that Fanny doesn’t, but instead of an engaging conspiracy between author and reader, all we get is a main character who seems a bit thick.

We can see Austen getting close to a more satirical tone when she seems to make a specific point about the author/reader conspiracy near the start of Chapter 46. There is a letter from Mary, and Fanny knows exactly what it is about before she even opens it, details it in her mind. We know she’s wrong, and Austen wants us to know. It’s ok, she seems to be saying, I know Fanny’s limitations as well as you do. But I’m still going to give her the happy ending you’ve been waiting for all this time. Fanny opens the letter, and it’s all about the crisis that will end all her woes.

By Chapter 48 she is ‘my Fanny’, and Austen is parading that authorial omnipotence before us. And it’s extraordinary. She taps into that desire for completion and ticks off her own successes one by one. Aunt Bertram: mortified and chastened, but able to get over it. Sir Thomas: ditto, but left wiser than his wife. Obviously. Tom: sadder and a bit wiser. Henry Crawford: following a period of mutual loathing with Maria, he is left with a ruined reputation, convinced (wrongly, which somehow makes it all the better) that he lost Fanny in a moment of weakness. Susan: living a life of comfortable security, more of a favourite with Aunt B than the mouse-like Fanny ever was.

Fanny and Edmund, after a decent pause for him to get over Mary, end up together in the parsonage in the little village. This turns out to be only a staging-post. Mr Grant, in due course, shuffles off his clerical coil which means, yes, they can live within sight of the Elysian Fields of Mansfield Park, ‘as thoroughly perfect as…’ – as what? – the heaven on earth it’s always been. Slavery? Ah well, Antigua’s a long way away.

Would it be possible to read this novel as entirely satirical? All that shrinking, all that mortification…. What if Austen wants us to see the religiosity as all a bit overdone? What if we aren’t supposed to adore Fanny, but to find her a bit too bloody much?

You wish. Or I wish.


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