Mansfield Park (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) eBook: Page2

Jane Austen (2005)


  The values that Mansfield Park endorses, and the certainty with which it endorses them, can best be understood when we restore the novel to its historical context. Mansfield Park was written at the end of one tumultuous era, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and at the beginning of another: the industrialization and urbanization of England. Events like these might seem too large for the carefully circumscribed world of Austen's novels, and Austen's insistent modesty has done much to encourage such a view. In one letter, she identified her ideal subject matter as "3 or 4 families in a country village," and, in another, she described her novels as "those little pieces (2 inches square) of ivory." Her nephew repeated both of these statements in A Memoir of Jane Austen, published after her death, and they have long shaped our reading of the novels. But these are surely the most ironic statements ever made by this most ironic of novelists. For what Austen's novels in fact demonstrate is not only that world-historical events manifest themselves on the scale of the "country village," but also that such events can be represented and analyzed even within the compass of a novel only "2 inches square." Recent criticism has come to recognize the full range of Austen's subject matter, and there are now vehement debates over whether Austen was feminist or anti-feminist; capitalist or anti-capitalist; imperialist or anti-imperialist; radical, conservative, or moderate. That these debates persist unresolved is a sign of Austen's characteristic obliquity: It is now clear that she was, among other things, a political novelist, but it remains far from clear what her actual politics might have been.

  In the rest of this introduction, I will approach the question of Austen's politics, her endorsement of stability and immobility, by following two tropes as they appear and reappear in Mansfield Park: the country house and improvement. The country house was a longstanding trope for authority in English literature, one that took on new significance in the years following the French Revolution. Improvement was, by contrast, a more recent term, referring to the eighteenth-century vogue for changes in all imaginable domains--agriculture, art, science, education, manufacturing, and, above all else, landscape gardening. The conservative theorist Edmund Burke, who used the improvement of the country house as a way of figuring the maintenance of authority in a world convulsed by change, first brought together these two tropes. In what follows, I will first trace the development of the country house trope from seventeenth-century poetry to such novels as Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I will then turn to Mansfield Park, which I take to be Austen's most complex depiction of the country house. Astringent and despairing at the same time, the novel insists that improvements are urgently needed, even as it registers the enormous costs that these improvements will exact. In this way, Mansfield Park stands as Austen's most profound treatment of politics, her richest response to the revolutions and wars of her time.

  Mansfield Park is unique among Austen's novels for beginning when its heroine is still a young girl. In this way, it heralds what will become one of the nineteenth-century novel's most enduring concerns, namely the relation between our childhoods and the adults we become, and it thus serves as the precursor to novels as various as Jane Eyre (1847), David Copperfield (1850), and Jude the Obscure (1895). These latter novels belong to the genre of the bildungsroman, or novel of education. The critic Franco Moretti has most powerfully described the bildungsroman; he argues that the genre emerged in the nineteenth century because it was only then that youth became what it still remains for us, a time of possibility. Not until the advent of industrial capitalism, not until the demise of apprenticeship and feudal farming, could the young imagine that their lives might be different from those of their elders. The imagining of new possibilities offered a kind of compensation, Moretti suggests, for the shattering dislocations that came with such profound economic change, and the bildungsroman sought to make sense of what would otherwise be an overwhelming experience by positing an autonomous self, free to move through this new world at will--indeed, free to remake this new world in his or her own image, as the eponymous titles of many bildungsromane suggest (The Way of the World). That Mansfield Park is named after a place rather than a person is the first sign, then, that this novel does not fully belong to the genre.

  In Mansfield Park, there is something that comes before even the childhood of the heroine, something that proves to be more fundamental and more determining, and that is Mansfield itself. The institution is prior to the individual, in all senses of the word. Fanny is invited to Mansfield only after her aunts and uncle have decided that whatever "disposition" she may have formed in the home of her drunken father and slatternly mother will be subdued by her new "associations" of Bertram family and Bertram estate (p. 10). And subdued she is. Once at Mansfield, Fanny is quite literally dwarfed by the house in which she now lives. "The grandeur of the house astonished but could not console her," the narrator tells us. "The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease; whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her chamber to cry" (p. 13). Rather than making her way through the world, as the protagonist of a bildungsroman would do, Fanny must learn to feel at home at Mansfield.

  Mansfield comes before Fanny, then, but in order to understand all that Mansfield means, we must pause to consider the tradition of country-house writing, a literary tradition that Mansfield Park both enters into and alters. This tradition begins with the genre of the "country house poem," poems written, in the seventeenth century, to pay tribute to a patron or other aristocrat by paying tribute to his ancestral house. Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" (1616) and Andrew Marvell's "On Apple-ton House" (c.1650) are the most prominent instances of this genre, along with Thomas Carew's "To Saxham" (1624). In these poems, all that is good and pleasing radiates outward: from the house and its inhabitants to the lands and people surrounding it. The house itself is invariably described as ancient, well-proportioned, unpretending, as taking its forms, quite properly, from nature. "But all things are composed here," Marvell writes, "Like Nature, orderly and near." And as a reward for this imitation of the natural, the house is surrounded by an unnatural abundance. Fertile fields, blooming orchards, breeding livestock--all this we might expect, but not perhaps, as in Jonson, fish that throw themselves into the lord's nets or, as in Carew, oxen that lead themselves to slaughter. Only through such impossibilities, it seems, can the full bounty of the country house be described.

  The country house is a source not only of plenty, but also of good. Jonson concludes "To Penshurst" by describing the training of the lord's children, for it is this training that projects the values of the country house both outward in space and forward in time. The children, he tells us, are taught to pray "with the whole household," and their religious education thus serves as the focal point for concentric rings of piety: the lord's family, the lord's household, all the lord's dependents. At the same time, the children are learning from their parents' noble example the "manners, arms, and arts" that will enable them to perpetuate the house and its values into the future. So perfect is the goodness of the lord's family that it obscures the economic relations organized around the country house. The tenant farmer who pays a portion of his harvest to his lord, the farm laborer who receives a cottage and a small wage for his work, both are figured, in Jonson, as carrying fruits and nuts and cheeses to the country house for no other reason than to "express their love" for their lord. And upon their arrival they find that a place has already been set for them at the lord's own table--and set for them with the lord's own beer and meat and wine. Economic exchange is thus transformed into a fantasy of hospitality. In Carew, even more fantastically, there is no exchange at all. The lord's dependents receive his bountiful generosity, which they reciprocate only with their prayers of gratitude, prayers that ensure that the lord's table be "blest / With plenty, far above the rest." Here, the very act of giving ensures the receipt of even more.

  In Austen, the country house poem is transformed into prose, m
ost clearly in Pride and Prejudice and Emma. While the descriptions are less extravagant in Austen, they nonetheless follow the pattern established by Jonson, Marvell, and Carew. When Elizabeth Bennet visits Pemberley, for instance, she finds that the house is "lofty and handsome" and its landscaping a judicious combination of nature and art, "neither formal nor falsely adorned." And when Emma visits Donwell Abbey, she finds that it is "just what it ought to be ... [and] looked what it was." The grounds at Pemberley are as fertile as they are expansive, with rich stands of timber and well-stocked streams, while Donwell is impossibly fecund. Fish may not leap into nets when Emma visits, but the orchards are blossoming and the strawberry fields bursting as if it were spring and summer at the same time. The country house and its grounds are of less interest to Austen, however, than the network of social relations that they figure. After visiting Pemberley, Elizabeth can at last comprehend its owner, Mr. Darcy, in all his social roles. "As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship! --How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!--How much of good or evil must be done by him!" (Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p. 272). Elizabeth's description is rather abstract, but Emma will specify the many and various duties comprised by such "guardianship." As master of Donwell, Mr. Knightley is magistrate of the local courts and head of the parish council, and landlord to his tenant farmers and manager of his family's home farm as well. He dispenses justice and plans new drains, governs parish affairs and cuts new footpaths, and the very heterogeneity of these duties demonstrates his centrality to the community, while his patient attention to all of them confirms, for Emma as well as for Austen, his fitness for the role.

  Indeed, it is no surprise that Emma falls in love with Knightley, as Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy, when she sees him in his country house; for the very purpose of the country house trope is to compel our respect, indeed our love, for those who are our guardians. The trope has endured because the country house is such a potent figure for authority: an authority that is justified, the figure implies, by the excellence of the family living within the house and ratified by the gratitude of the people and the fertility of the lands by which the house is surrounded. This is an implicitly conservative conception of authority, not simply because it enlists our support for a landed elite, but also because it inhibits us from imagining any radical change. For by law and by custom, the country house was unchanging. Primogeniture ensured that the estate was passed down in its entirety to the family's oldest son, and the estate was legally entailed so that the heir was prohibited from selling or materially diminishing what he was expected to pass down in his turn. Far from being understood as a constraint on freedom, the fact of inheritance both past and future is the very source of the country house's excellence. Darcy implies as much when he replies to praise of Pemberley by saying calmly, "'It ought to be good... it has been the work of many generations'" (Pride and Prejudice, p. 83). No new work, no work of a mere individual, could possibly compare.

  The country house had always implied a conservative conception of authority, but it was only in the years following the French Revolution, the years immediately before Austen began writing, that this conservatism would be self-consciously theorized and explicitly named. Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a text that uses the trope of the country house to represent a specifically English and specifically anti-revolutionary set of values. Against the radical Jacobins who grounded their revolutionary claims to liberty in natural law, Burke argued that whatever liberties we have come to us as an inheritance:

  You will observe, that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right (p. 119; emphasis in original).

  By comparing our liberties to an entailed estate, Burke is arguing that we must bequeath them to future generations largely unchanged. Largely unchanged, but not entirely so, for Burke recognizes that we must sometimes alter to preserve. "A state without the means of some change," he famously cautions, "is without the means of its conservation" (p.106) . Conservation requires us to distinguish wise changes from unwise ones. The former, what Burke calls "improvements," are those changes that repair what is damaged in order to preserve all that is still sound. The latter, what he calls "innovations" or "alterations," are those changes that sweep aside everything in order to build anew. Against the revolution that has razed all the edifices in France, then, Burke sets the example of England's Glorious Revolution, which had preserved the principle of monarchical succession through improvements that prevented Catholics from inheriting the throne.

  Whether Austen herself was a Burkean conservative is a question that has been vehemently debated in recent Austen criticism. The question was first raised by Marilyn Butler, who, in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, restored Austen's novels to their historical context by reading them alongside two forgotten genres of the 1790s and early 1800s: Jacobin novels, such as those by Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin; and anti-Jacobin novels, such as those by Maria Edgeworth and Hannah More. In Butler's account, Austen is the culmination of the anti-Jacobin tradition, the most artful of the reactionary novelists writing in opposition to the French Revolution. This account was challenged, however, by Claudia L. Johnson, who, in Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, argued that Austen was not, in fact, an anti-Jacobin novelist and, moreover, that the very category of the anti-Jacobin novel was more complex and internally riven than it might at first seem. In Johnson's account, even the most seemingly reactionary novelists of the period were suspicious of at least some aspects of Burkean conservatism--and Austen was the most suspicious of all. While Butler and Johnson come to very different conclusions about Austen's politics, they join in emphasizing that her novels in some way engage with Burke, and thus with the central political questions of her time.

  Nowhere is Burke's significance to Austen clearer than in Mansfield Park. For if Pemberley and Donwell are the country house ideal, Mansfield is the country house in desperate need of renovation. The natural and the architectural; the social, the moral, and the religious; the political and the economic--these disparate domains no longer combine to reflect and reinforce one another. Instead, outward appearances have become dangerously unmoored from inward realities. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram are well-mannered, but not kind; Maria and Julia Bertram are accomplished, but not principled; and Mansfield itself, for all its beauty and expansiveness, is imperiled by precarious investments abroad and a recklessly improvident heir. The country house ideal has been hollowed out from within. Mansfield's shortcomings are symbolized by, and largely attributable to, Sir Thomas's two-year absence from home. Mrs. Norris has taken his place; high-handed meddling and intrusive attention to trivialities make her the grotesque caricature of a Darcy or a Knightley. Not only does Mrs. Norris transgress the proper limits of her authority, as when she busies herself advising the servants at a neighboring country house, but she also betrays the very values her authority is intended to preserve. She monitors the Bertram servants closely, but only to ensure that they are not wasting fabric or stealing scraps of wood, and she pays no attention at all to the far greater lapses of her nieces. Indeed, she goes so far as to encourage their mercenary marriages and illicit flirtations.

  It is hardly surprising, then, that threats to Sir Thomas's authority multiply under Mrs. Norris's incompetent rule. Mary and Henry Crawford pose the first threat. Dashing and glamorous Londoners, the Crawfords seduce us as easily as they seduce the provincial Bertrams. It is only in the context of country-house writing that we can recognize the danger they represent. For Mary is not only contemptuous of religion, but also indifferent to nature, and she refuses to honor the
seasonal rhythms of rural life. When told that no cart is available to transport her harp in the midst of harvest season, she is shocked to discover that the "'sturdy independence of your country customs'" will not yield to London cash (p. 52). Henry should be closer to the land than his sister, for he has inherited Everingham, the Crawford family estate. He has not settled there, however, because he is, as Fanny describes him, "'so very fond of change and moving about'" (p. 102). As a result, his lands have been put in the hands of an agent, who later proves to have been the cause of much suffering among the tenant farmers and hired laborers whom Henry has not troubled himself to know. Neither Mary nor Henry is prepared, then, to be the inheritor and preserver of the country house.

  The theater poses the second threat. The amateur theatricals are the novel's most famous set piece because they so seamlessly join the figurative and the literal: The play itself predicts much of what will happen in the novel, while the characters' struggles over the staging of the play present each of them in a revealing light. The play, Das Kind der Liebe, was written in 1791 by the German August von Kotzebue; it was translated into English, as Lovers' Vows, by Elizabeth Inchbald in 1798 and was frequently performed throughout England for several years after that. Austen could therefore presume that her readers would know the basic outlines of the plot. The play begins twenty years after a seduction, when a peasant girl, Agatha, encounters Frederick, the illegitimate son she had long ago abandoned; the Baron Wildenhaim, now a great landowner with a daughter by a now-dead wife, had seduced Agatha. In a subplot, the Baron arranges a marriage between his daughter and a dissolute rich man, even though his daughter is already in love with a humble, but virtuous, clergyman. Frederick, driven to beg in order to support himself and his mother, at last threatens the Baron and is imprisoned. His true identity is finally revealed, however, and the Baron responds to the news by marrying Agatha and restoring Frederick to his patrimony. Having thus learned to renounce the concerns of rank, the Baron also permits his daughter to marry the man she loves. As even this brief summary suggests, the staging of Lovers' Vows gives rise to many ironic parallels, with the thick-headed and self-satisfied Mr. Rushworth all too pleased to be playing a man valued only for his money and the fawning Mr. Yates all too eager to play at being an aristocrat of more exalted rank. More troubling is Tom Bertram's readiness to "'descend a little"' and play a comic butler (p. 116), and most troubling of all, of course, is the readiness of Maria and Julia to descend even further and play the part of the fallen Agatha.