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Saturday, 17 December 2016

'MANSFIELD PARK': A WARNING FOR NEW READERS

In Mansfield Park, the word ‘restrain’ appears twenty-four times. That says a lot. The mood of the story is set by the restraint of the young, some self-restraint and some defiance of restraints. The message is that restraints are necessary and proper. That is the problem for readers who feel uncomfortable with this novel.
After the popular and financial successes of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen was disappointed with Mansfield Park's lesser appeal and its failure to make an immediate profit. Much of Mansfield Park had been written at Godmersham during Jane's long stay there in 1813.

Calendar sleuths can be very picky about dates and chronology in Jane’s novels. They have noted that the Ball at Mansfield Park took place on December 22 and that this was a Thursday, in which case the year must have been 1808. Yet Crabbe’s Tales in Verse are mentioned, even though they were not published until 1812. Pretty obviously, Jane intended 1808, but added later events during revisions of the draft.

Sheila Kaye-Smith admits sometimes being 'put out of humour' by Mansfield Park. She detects a 'puritanical, censorious Jane, who though she still has her sense of humour has lost her sense of fun'. Throughout the novel she finds a mistrust of gaiety. She wonders whether Jane was going through a phase of influence by the Evangelicals.

Lord David Cecil notes that Fanny Price is unique among Jane's heroines in not being a person to be laughed at and with. Though she is convincingly real, virtuous and unselfish, she does not laugh. She resembles Shakespeare's Cordelia and it is possible to detect parallels with the plot of King Lear. Jane Austen struggles to draw sympathetically someone so unlike herself. Innocent sweetness and romantic sensibility cannot be effectively conveyed in a comedy vein.

Cecil also finds the ending defective and unconvincing. Would the cool-headed Henry Crawford, he asks, really have run the risk of losing his chance of marrying the first girl he had ever truly loved by eloping with an old flame he had never seriously cared for? And is it credible that selfish, snobbish Mrs. Norris would have sacrificed her comforts and social position to spend a dreary old age looking after an outcast niece who had always been bored by her.

Fanny Price is the kind of heroine who rhapsodises about shrubberies:

'The evergreen! How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! When one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature! ... One cannot fix one's eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.'

Mary replies that she can see no wonder in the shrubbery to compare with 'seeing myself in it'! She would never have imagined herself spending so many months in this quiet place, away from the society of the town.

The tone is more sombre than that of the earlier novels. The moral stance is imposed by Sir Thomas Bertram, a daunting figure whose presence casts a chill over the younger generation. The heroine's main achievement is to perpetuate the virtues he inculcates. She can appear stiffly self-righteous. She rebukes the lively Henry for regretting that Sir Thomas did not return from the West Indies a week later, thereby allowing the amateur dramatics to be concluded. She tells him in a firm tone:

'As far as I am concerned, sir, I would not have delayed his return for a day. My uncle disapproved it all so entirely when he did arrive, that in my opinion, every thing had gone quite far enough'.

It is not surprising that Henry is stunned!

Even the love story in this novel barely germinates. Fanny Price's love is one-sided. As a child, she develops a dogged devotion to her cousin Edmund, while he regards her merely as an adopted little sister. As late as the penultimate chapter, he still sees her only as a good friend both to himself and to Mary Crawford, the woman he intends to marry. The nearest he comes to expressing love of Fanny is saying (of himself and Mary): 'There is something soothing in the idea, that we have the same friend, and that whatever unhappy differences of opinion may exist between us, we are united in our love of you. ... She is the only woman in the world whom I could ever think of as a wife'.

However, unlike Jane Austen's other novels, Mansfield Park is not much concerned with the manner in which the hero and heroine come to be united. It is about values, the nature of society, parenthood, and – in a broad sense – education.

It is difficult at the start to understand how Miss Frances Ward of a respectable family in Huntingdon got to elope with a coarse marine and settle with him in Portsmouth. We do not know why her family did not prevent the connection. Nor do we know how Frances could ever have an opportunity to meet an ill-bred, uneducated Portsmouth marine. Portsmouth is one hundred and twenty-five miles from Huntingdon.

The novel gets off to a disquieting start in another way. Sir Thomas sets off for Antigua, expecting to be away for a year. It is outrageous to leave his constituents unrepresented for the whole of that time. Yet there is no evidence that he even thought of resigning his seat in Parliament.

It is also astonishing if not incredible that he allowed his son Tom to run up such huge debts as to rob 'Edmund for ten, twenty, thirty years, perhaps for life, of more than half the income which ought to be his'.

(Tom spends many days at the horse-races. This was the age of the establishment of the horse-racing industry. The Derby, for example, was run at Epsom for the first time in 1780.)

By the way, Jane was inspired in the choice of name for her heroine by Crabbe - a poet she greatly admired. In his Sir Edward Archer (from The Parish Register), the eponymous hero tries unsuccessfully to seduce his bailiff's daughter (Fanny Price). He later helps her in marriage to the man she wants. There's an in-joke in Mansfield Park: Fanny Price is found by Edmund, in her sanctuary, reading Crabbe's Tales.