"Children of the Same Family, the Same Blood"
Jane Austen's Mansfield Park
A Male-Voices Web Page
December 16, 1999
An important question for the Male Voices community is, how shall we think about Jane Austen's Mansfield Park? An important question because the principles of this novel may speak to some of the problems and dilemmas of our own generation, a fact little appreciated because we have grown so insensitive to the root causes of our problems? It is not surprising then, that Mansfield Park seems so often misunderstood by our generation. For example, family ties are consistently denigrated in our novels and films, but consider this passage from Mansfield Park.
" ... all the evil and good of their earliest years could be gone over again, and every former united pain and pleasure retraced with the fondest recollection. An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connection can justify, if such a precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. Too often, alas! it is so.--Fraternal love, sometimes almost every thing, is at others worse than nothing. ..."
Mansfield Park, Chapter VI, Volume 2
That narration describes a meeting between Fanny Price and her brother William, but it serves us as well as the statement of a unifying theme of Mansfield Park. I will try to justify that assertion to you. Before we move on, however, reread the selection and tell me if you can point to any other place in the novels where the tone is similar? - So heartfelt, even sad in a way. I have a hunch that many passages of the first drafts had this appearance, but were edited out as Jane Austen went over the manuscripts to make them logical and consistent in style. Her final manuscripts are as beautiful, manicured parks, but this passage is as an outcropping in a secluded corner where we paleontologists can search for traces of a hidden and miraculous life.
Of course, the term "unifying theme" is not synonymous with "central theme". The central theme of Mansfield Park is education; not "education" in the sense that we use the word in our times, rather education in the more complete sense that it was used in Jane Austen's time. That is the other point that I will try to make in this posting.
I say "the fraternal tie" is "a unifying theme" because it is not the just the Price siblings that are portrayed in this positive way, the Crawfords are seen in the same light. That is strange because they are the bad influences of the novel and, in this way, Jane Austen softens their characters by making them excellent brother and sister. Also, it is the betrayals of the fraternal or familial ties that serve as the crises and signposts of the novel, crises in events and signposts of ill-natures or wrong choices.
The theme of precious fraternal and familial ties occurs in several other of our Lady's novels. Darcy and Elizabeth are both devoted to family, especially to a sister. One of the two great Darcy sins, in the eyes of Elizabeth, is his interference in her sister's love life. Elizabeth will admit her love for Darcy only after he rescues another of her sisters from an infamy. And after the engagement, Elizabeth playfully teases Darcy and commands him to "account for his having ever fallen in love with her".
" 'My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners - my behavior to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. ... To be sure you knew no actual good of me - but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.'
'Was there no good in your affectionate behavior to Jane while she was ill at Netherfield?' "
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter LIX
By this time, Darcy could also have called to mind Elizabeth's kindness to his own sister, Georgianna, when Elizabeth was visiting his family at Pemberley.
To my mind, Sense and Sensibility has far less to do with sense and sensibility than it has to do with the fraternal tie. In a short argument, I would begin by pointing out that Jane Austen's original title for that novel was Elinor and Marianne. It is only in the last novel, Persuasion, that we see anything like an antithesis; in that novel, it seems that the farther Anne Elliot is from her family, especially her sisters, the more she is appreciated. (What is that all about?)
This recurring theme was not missed by members of Jane Austen's own family. J. H. Hubback was a grandson of Jane's brother, Admiral Sir Francis Austen. He joined his niece E.C. Hubback in the authorship of Jane Austen's Sailor Brothers, a collection of family reminisces passed down by our Lady's siblings. The first chapter of that book is titled Brothers and Sisters and begins,
"No one can read Jane Austen's novels, her life, or her letters without feeling that to her the ties of family were stronger and more engrossing that any others."
And further on in that same Chapter
"...Much has been said about her fondness for pairs of sisters in her novels, but no less striking are the brother and sister friendships which are an important factor in four out of her six books. ...But it is in Mansfield Park that brothers and sisters play the strongest part. ..."
But Jane Austen was no Louisa May Alcott, our Lady was an adult writer with a
realistic view. Notice that she wrote, "Too often, alas! it is so.--Fraternal
love, sometimes almost every thing, is at others worse than nothing." One short
example is the way that Edmund Bertram was used by his siblings, Tom and Maria,
during the production of the play at Mansfield. I will have more to say about
that at the appropriate place, but there are far more important examples.
"Considering Who and What She Is"
"Considering Who and What She Is"
Mansfield Park begins with a description of the Miss Wards, all pretty but intended for different fates. One is to become Lady Bertram, another Aunt Norris, and the third Mrs. Price. Jane Austen draws a striking family resemblance between Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price, I am thinking about a resemblance in habits and attitudes. Both are lethargic and somewhat indifferent, and both are insensitive to their own children. The Miss Ward that would become Aunt Norris is different in every respect. Incidentally, I believe that it can be inferred from the opening paragraph of the novel that Aunt Norris is the oldest sister - check me on that. That is perfect, because Jane Austen gives Mrs. Norris the personality of a controlling, domineering oldest sister while the other two are made overly compliant.
The novel opens at a time when "Fraternal love, sometimes almost every thing" had become "worse than nothing". That is, at a time when Fanny Price's mother, Miss Frances Ward, had "married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune or connections, did it very thoroughly." That choice would lead to a falling out between the sisters.
Within three short pages we read a description of the extent of the sister's falling-out, eleven years of separation and subsequent resumption of the fraternal ties. Lady Bertram momentarily placed "the conjugal tie ...beneath the fraternal" and instantly agreed with her sister, "Aunt Norris", to send word for their young niece, Fanny Price, to come and live at Mansfield Park. That is remarkable because the genesis of the argument had been Mrs. Price's "disrespectful reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas" (albeit indiscreetly revealed and possibly enhanced by Mrs. Norris). There is an amusing hint that the argument was more for show than deeply felt: "Their homes were so distant, and the circles in which they moved so distinct, as almost to preclude the means of ever hearing of each other's existence during the eleven following years, or at least to make it very wonderful to Sir Thomas, that Mrs. Norris should ever have it in her power to tell them, as she now and then did in an angry voice, that 'Fanny had got another child' ". We can only conclude that two of the sisters were still writing.
Some may think that Fanny Price's mother meant to do her a great favor by sending her to live in a more comfortable environment. Jane Austen dispels that possibility when our Lady explains that the mother actually wanted to send her son William, his mother's favorite. Mrs. Price was a bit surprised that the Mansfield branch sent for the girl instead. But, it is good to get rid of any burden, so Fanny was sent along but not, however, with a glowing recommendation:
"... assuring them of her daughter's being a very well-disposed, good-humored girl, and trusting they would never have cause to throw her off. She spoke of her farther as somewhat delicate and puny, ..."
And a burden out of sight was out of mind:
"Of the rest [of Fanny's family other than brother William], she saw nothing; nobody seemed to think of her ever going amongst them again, even for a visit, nobody at home seemed to want her; ..."
And so Fanny, the child, was banished forever from the home of her parents and siblings. The child was ten years old and her mother had given her away, had forgotten her. At the beginning, the separation was physical and later, as an adult and during the visit to her parents' home, Fanny learned that the alienation ran deep within her and was permanent. On the other hand, her acceptance at the Bertram estate was grudging and never really complete.
I think it significant that when Fanny grieved and was then drawn out by Edmund, she talked only of her brother - of William who had made her promise to write him, and who was "her advocate with her mother (of whom he was the darling) in every distress". And then Edmund endeared himself to Fanny when he first helped her fulfill that promise and then did the most wondrous of things, he sent William half a guinea (about three week's salary for a servant).
This is clever device of Jane Austen - to create a character banished and disengaged in this way. I believe that because, in this way, Jane Austen invented a keen observer of the inhabitants of the estate. Fanny was not allowed a stake in anything; she had nothing to risk and no expectations were allowed or imagined. Fanny had no expectations and she was allowed no consideration or notice. Surely Fanny must have ached, and surely she must have seen everything. Fanny Price, the disinterested observer, is the most perfectly drawn of all of Jane Austen's many perfect creations, Jane Austen's ingenious device.
Actually, the dislocation of Fanny, the child, at the beginning of the novel, achieves a second purpose in my view. A child's reaction to this sort of trauma can be expressed in several different ways. Fanny's adjustment was perfectly plausible; Fanny, early on, acquired a code of behavior and decorum, and she would cling to it. It is as if some abandoned children, seeking for justice and virtue, develop a strong notion of those things and refuse to be driven from this refuge. They insist on honesty and correctness from themselves, and they judge others on this same scale. A person who is not so disaffected, who must make compromises with those they are transacting with for status and recognition, is likely to be more flexible, not so idealistic. And when they are not flexible, they make quite another impression; I mean that some of the same qualities that make Fanny Price a heroine, make Mary Bennet a bit silly.
Many readers hate Fanny Price; I was surprised to learn that - did not know that until I made my way onto the internet. I think the reason is this: if Fanny can judge the Crawfords, in such an absolute way, then she might very well judge the reader in the same manner. They are right about that you know? - those readers who hate her; they have much to fear from a Fanny Price or a Jane Austen. Those readers must invent reasons to bash Fanny Price because they are not able to justify their condemnations with reference to Jane Austen's text. I suspect that many readers of our times are so compromised, so conditioned to tolerate the Crawfords, or worse, that they see Fanny as a threat. And Fanny Price is judging our cultural values, the cultural values of this late twentieth century.
Fanny Price lacked the strength or stamina of the Savior, but she was like Jesus in the wilderness. One Male Voice has observed that Jane Austen's design for Fanny is remarkably like that outlined in the Beatitudes. Some other people think of Fanny as being a door mat; perhaps they do not appreciate people who have interior lives that they are not quick to share. She is neither witty nor is she busy for the sake of being busy. She's quiet and contemplative. I think that some people resent that she doesn't have the sparkle of an Elizabeth Bennet, but instead has a gravity about her, and, in an age where superficiality is promoted and admired, Fanny's sincerity is puzzling.
And so, Fanny Price came under the guidance of Aunt Norris and Lady Bertram, and became the occasional plaything of the vain, condescending Miss Bertrams. Let us turn to that discussion in more detail. Jane Austen had a heart, so she also placed some excellent men in that home. I am thinking of Sir Thomas Bertram and his son, Fanny's cousin, Edmund Bertram. Paradoxically, it was Sir Thomas who set the conditions by which the restraints were placed upon Fanny at her admittance to Mansfield Park.
" 'There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris,' observed Sir Thomas, 'as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up; how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make [Fanny] remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorize in my girls the smallest disrespect towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different. It is a point of great delicacy, and you must assist us in our endeavours to choose exactly the right line of conduct.' "
Chapter I, Volume 1
This is a statement that Sir Thomas would live to regret. The greater error was to imagine that he could speak of delicacy and nuance, and convey any understanding of that to this sister-in-law.
This, as Fanny began her stay at Mansfield Park,
"... The little visitor meanwhile was as unhappy as possible. Afraid of everybody, ashamed of herself, and longing for the home she had left, she knew not how to look up, and could scarcely speak to be heard, or without crying. ..."
And her slightly older, female cousins observed Fanny's poorer education and took it for a form of stupidity. Fanny thought too little of herself to imagine them wrong.
"...[Fanny's] feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to. Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort."
Nobody except Edmund. However,
"Fanny, with all her faults of ignorance and timidity was fixed at Mansfield Park, and learning to transfer in its favour much of her attachment to her former home, grew up there not unhappily among her cousins. There was no positive ill-nature in Maria or Julia; and though Fanny was often mortified by their treatment of her, she thought too lowly of her own claims to feel injured by it."
This is a conversation between Fanny and her Aunt Bertram when it appeared that Fanny was to be sent away to live with Aunt Norris.
" 'I hope I am not ungrateful aunt,' said Fanny modestly.
'No my dear; I hope not. I have always found you a very good girl.'
'And am I never to live here again?'
'Never, my dear; but you are sure of a comfortable home. It can make very little difference to you, whether you are in one house or the other.' "
Here are more quotes.
"Fanny had no share in the festivities of the season; but she enjoyed being avowedly useful as her aunt's companion. ..."
" 'No,' replied Edmund, 'I do not think [Fanny] has ever been to a ball. My mother seldom goes into company herself, and dines no where but with Mrs. Grant, and Fanny stays at home with her.'
'Oh! then the point is clear. Miss Price is not out.'..."
" '...I dare say Mr. Crawford would take my two nieces in his barouche, and Edmund can go on horseback, you know, sister, and Fanny will stay at home with you.
Lady Bertram made no objection, and every one concerned in the going, was forward in expressing their ready concurrence, excepting Edmund, who heard it all and said nothing."
"...the ride to Mansfield common took place the next morning;--the party included all the young people but [Fanny], and was much enjoyed at the time, and doubly enjoyed again in the evening discussion. ..."
"Vexed as Edmund was with his mother and aunt, he was still more angry with himself. His own forgetfulness of [Fanny] was worse than any thing they had done. Nothing of this would have happened had she been properly considered; but she had been left four days together without any choice of companions or exercise, and without any excuse for avoiding whatever her unreasonable aunts might require. ..."
"... [Fanny] was not often invited to join in the conversation of others, nor did she desire it. Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions; ..."
"... it was while all the other young people were dancing, and [Fanny] was sitting, most unwillingly, among the chaperones at the fire, longing for the re-entrance of her elder cousin on whom all her own hopes for a partner then depended. It was Fanny's first ball... "
Would He Only Have Smiled Upon Her
" '... But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct.--No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays, without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.'
'... His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similies, and describe with his descriptions; ...' "
Mansfield Park, Chapter III, Volume 3
Sir Thomas is the King Lear of Mansfield Park and Fanny Price is his Cordelia. I don't propose that Jane Austen borrowed so very much from the Shakespeare tragedy. - there is no madness or murder in Jane Austen's story. I merely want to evoke some sense of that; there are some elements of Cordelia and Lear in the Mansfield characters. Fanny saw all that was dishonorable and persisted in doing the honorable thing herself. And Fanny maintained her integrity while under a great deal of pressure from Sir Thomas to act differently. It was the fate of Sir Thomas to learn the guilt of his two natural daughters, and that his own values were to be carried into the next generation, instead, by that adopted-daughter/niece for whom he had had limited expectations, and against whom he had raged his disapproval and disappointment.
Sir Thomas would have been saved from this fate if he had had an alert and communicative wife. For it had been Lady Bertram who was always with the children and best positioned to observe their development, attachments, and actions. But Jane Austen sealed Sir Thomas in his role when our Lady provided a most lethargic and self-involved Lady Bertram - more Jane Austen logic. Lady Bertram was not a bad women and she loved Fanny, perhaps more than she loved her two daughters; but, in her case, that was not the same thing as having taken much notice of Fanny.
Edmund Bertram was very much like his father - there was the same instinctive kindness, the same selflessness. Edmund was far more considerate and sensitive, but then a second son does not have the distractions, the considerable responsibilities and concerns of a father. However, love is blinding; and so Edmund's love for Mary Crawford fogged his view and clouded his judgment - And Edmund was young.
The novel begins with the information that Sir Thomas married to disadvantage, much as did Darcy. For this and other reasons, Sir Thomas had concerns about money throughout the novel. Lady Bertram didn't deserve him, but he never seemed to notice and he never stinted when trying to help her family. It was Sir Thomas who provided Aunt Norris's husband with a comfortable "living". He then tried to devise some way to help the other sister, Fanny's mother, after her lowly marriage but in that he was to be thwarted at first:
"... Sir Thomas had interest, which, from principle as well as pride, from a general wish of seeing all that were connected with him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram's sister [Fanny's mother]; but her husband's profession was such as no interest could reach; and before he had time to devise any other method of assisting them, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place."
But then, Sir Thomas did find a way to be useful; he began by accepting Fanny into his home. He had some objections at first; he seemed concerned that his ability to help his own children would be diluted and he had some concern that he was being asked to raise a wife for one of his sons. (Perhaps we are to understand that he does not want a son to repeat the father's mistake of a disadvantageous marriage.) After he accommodated Fanny herself, his thoughts turned to her family.
"Amid the cares and the complacency which his own children suggested, Sir Thomas did not forget to do what he could for the children of Mrs. Price; he assisted her liberally in the education and disposal of her sons as they became old enough for a determinant pursuit: and Fanny, though almost totally separated from her family, was sensible of the truest satisfaction in hearing of any kindness towards them, or of any thing at all promising in their situation or conduct...."
Sir Thomas was as a river to the Price family. And, of course, he took two of Mrs. Price's daughters into his own home and raised them. Sir Thomas was not a perfect man - this is a Jane-Austen character. He said some unintentionally hurtful things to Fanny and made her weep. For example, just before he left for the West Indies, he informed Fanny that she may invite her brother William to Mansfield. The happiest of news because Fanny had not seen her brother for eight years.
"... --and would he only have smiled upon her and called her 'my dear Fanny' while he said it, every former frown or cold address might have been forgotten. But he ended his speech in a way to sink her into sad mortification, by adding, 'If William does come to Mansfield, I hope you may be able to convince him that the many years that have passed since you parted, have not been spent on your side entirely without improvement--though I fear he must find his sister at sixteen in some respects too much like his sister at ten.' She cried bitterly over this reflection when her uncle was gone; and her cousins, on seeing her with red eyes, set her down as a hypocrite."
Chapter V, Volume 1
How could such a good man have made such a blunder? But Jane Austen is right you know - good men blunder too.
Something happened on that journey to the West Indies. We are not told what, and are only made aware of some reflection, some turning of mind when entering the room with Fanny to greet her uncle on his return, we overhear him say, "But where is Fanny?--Why do not I see my little Fanny?". And this before he would learn from Edmund just how much respect he owed his little Fanny Price.
At first, Sir Thomas was pleased with Maria's engagement to Rushworth, who was far richer than himself. But then, after a chance to become better acquainted with Rushworth, Sir Thomas became puzzled, closely questioned Maria on the matter, and made clear that he would not object if she were to cancel the engagement. Maria lied and convinced her father that she wanted the marriage, and the father was happy to be convinced because the desirability of the match overcame his better judgment. He would pay for this failed courage of conviction.
Along with his rapidly growing awareness of Fanny's qualities, Sir Thomas noticed Crawford's attentions to Fanny - what happiness! what a match! Sir Thomas noticed no particularity on Fanny's part, but thought that well bred of her. The patriarch then did as much to promote that relationship as good manners would allow. We can imagine the old man's joy when Crawford came to him and announced his intentions. And Crawford misled Sir Thomas - as he had misled himself - by suggesting that Fanny must be willing to make the match herself. The delighted Sir Thomas then hurried to the East Room to tell Fanny of this happy news, and then to bring her to Crawford and join her hand to his.
A series of shocks was to greet the old man in the East Room. First he was startled to find that Fanny had no fire, had never had a fire. Inquiry led him to understand that this was the doing of Aunt Norris. He excused the aunt to Fanny; we are led to understand that he blamed himself in part because, when they had first discussed taking in Fanny, Sir Thomas had said that some "distinctions" should be made in the case of the niece. (He was saddened that his call for distinctions would be taken to this extreme.) But then, he was even more dumbfounded to learn that Fanny had refused Crawford in no uncertain terms and she was not about to relent.
Sir Thomas was reeling. There is painful passage in which the old man asked for assurance that Fanny did not love Edmund. It was too painful a thought for him; he could not be explicit. Fanny lied to him when she allowed him to think her affections did not lie in that forbidden direction. It was all between the lines, but it was a lie nevertheless. And she would be forced to mislead again - or not fully inform when Sir Thomas searched in another direction.
"... 'Have you any reason, child, to think ill of Mr. Crawford's temper?'
She longed to add, 'but of his principles I have;' ..."
Chapter I, Volume 3
But she could not so reply, because to do so, she would have to implicate her cousins, the daughters of Sir Thomas.
And then, King Lear raged at his Cordelia:
" ...'It is no use, I perceive to talk to you. ... I will, therefore, only add, as thinking it my duty to mark my opinion of your conduct--that you have disappointed every expectation I had formed, and proved yourself of a character the very reverse of what I had supposed. For I had, Fanny, as I think my behaviour must have shewn, formed a very favourable opinion of you from the period of my return to England. I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offense. But you have shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse, that you can and will decide for yourself, without any deference for those who would guide you--without even asking their advice. You have shewn yourself very, very different from anything that I had imagined. ...' "
At this point, Sir Thomas played an ace:
" '...The advantage or disadvantage of your family--of your parents--your brothers and sisters--never seems to have had a moment's share in your thoughts on this occassion. How they might be benefited, how they must rejoice in such an establishment for you--is nothing to you. You think only of yourself;...' "
There had been that arrangement of Crawford's that resulted in an officer's commission for Fanny's brother - proof enough of what Crawford could do for the Price family. Sir Thomas was not finished. He expressed the view that he would have been very surprised if either of his daughters had turned down Crawford with so little regard for opinions of family.
" '... I should have thought it a gross violation of duty and respect. You are not to be judged by the same rule. You do not owe me the duty of a child. But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude--'
He ceased. Fanny was by this time crying so bitterly, that angry as he was, he would not press that article farther. ..."
He began to relent and to understand that a different, kinder, gentler attack was called for. A little time and patience ("and a little impatience") might do the trick.
Fanny would never again be without a fire in the East Room.
But the Austen Lear was to learn the same lesson as Shakespeare's. He was to understand that Cordelia had it right after all. There was this difference, Sir Thomas's Cordelia would live, and would present him with his grandchildren. This is Jane Austen after all.
"Fanny was indeed the daughter that [Sir Thomas] wanted. His charitable kindness had been rearing a prime comfort for himself. His liberality had a rich repayment, and the general goodness of his intentions by her, deserved it. He might have made her childhood happier; but it had been an error of judgment only which had given him the appearance of harshness, and deprived him of her early love; and now, on really knowing each other, their mutual attachment became very strong. ..."
Chapter XVII, Volume 3
Julie Grassi 2/11/99, 2/27/99, 9/25/99, 9/29/99, 10/17/99, 12/2/99;
Dave Payton 7/8/00;
Anielka Rice 12/3/99
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