||[Apr. 14th, 2004|12:12 am]
This is a short essay I wrote on Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in the context of feminism (Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women).|
Jane Austen wrote satire. Her characters acted and interacted with Principles and Consistency. Her heroines were pretty; her heroes handsome. The image she portrayed of the status quo was so flattering to the then Prince Leopold of Saxe-Cobourg (later King of Belgium) that he asked her to dedicate Emma1 to him.
Jane Austen wrote in an England in which slave-trading was socially acceptable, but in which a lady could not put her hand under her neck-handkerchief. Jane Austen's novels reflect this perversity, but her trademark irony is subtextual.
Mansfield Park (1813) is arguably Jane Austen's most severe indictment of her society.
Her protagonist, Fanny Price, is sent, at the age of ten, to live with her rich cousins, the Bertrams; her family hasn't the means to support her. It is at Mansfield Park (the Bertrams' estate) that Fanny meets her future husband, Edmund Bertram—the youngest son. This future husband is unaware of his responsibility to Fanny, and falls in love with Mary Crawford. Mary Crawford is mercenary, self-sufficient, and free from the self-righteousness evident in both Fanny and Edmund. Mary Crawford is also very pretty. It is for this last quality alone that Edmund loves her—the others are overlooked, or explained away. This aspect of Edmund is subtly ridiculed in chapter forty-seven when, having fallen out of love with Mary Crawford he is regreeting having 'been deceived' (italics are mine):
...[Fanny and Edmund] continued to talk of Miss Crawford, and how she had attached him, and how delightful nature had made her, and how excellent she would have been, had she fallen into good hands earlier. We see here that then, as now, the only virtue a women needs is beauty—the rest is all training. We also see here that Edmund—the morally unquestionable hero—is hypocritical.
Fanny, on the other hand, is not ridiculed so much as she is pitied for her feminine virtue—modesty, as she calls it.
This modesty is what Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)2 called humility. 'Modesty' was a virtue, while 'humility' was nothing more than low self-worth. Fanny is quite obviously humble, rather than modest, so Jane Austen seems to agree with Wollstonecraft, despite less evolved terminology.
Mary Wollstonecraft advised a zero-tolerance policy toward the societal expectations of women. Her famously-stated aim in A Vindication of the Rights of Women was:
...to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonimous[sic] with epithets of weakness.
Jane Austen, however, painted Fanny, with all the soft phrases, as a heroine. Only Fanny's worrying indicated that she should be no-one's heroine. This indication is made obvious by the frequency with with Fanny is 'terrified', 'horrified', 'in awe', and 'dreading'.
As for the heroine's final reward—the fairytale wedding to the novel's hero (Fanny's One True Love), Jane Austen had stated, categorically, that it is no reward. "Even the conjugal tie," she wrote in chapter twenty-four, "is beneath the fraternal." Everything about Fanny and Edmund's relationship, save Fanny's chaste but apparently not-platonic love for Edmund, implies a fraternal tie. Edmund is often said to have spoken to Fanny 'as a brother', not to mention the fact that they grew up in the same house.
In short, the novel is full of contradiction between the voice of the characters and Jane Austen's own. Depicting her characters as moral and 'modest', while subtly contradicting them, can only be called irony. This debunking of the myth of not only the beauty of the soft phrases (which have resonance even today), but the Prince Charming (which has almost as much resonance today as it did in Jane Austen's time3) confirms Jane Austen as one of the great feminist authors.
Jane Austen has, in Mansfield Park, written a novel in which there are no wholly likeable characters. The ultimate irony being that it is still universally enjoyable. Those like (or who like) Fanny and Edmund ignore the subtext. Those like (or who like) Mary, or her brother Henry, Crawford delight in seeing such characters in print. Those who are fairly unlike all the characaters, and who like none of them, rejoice in the miserable end each character has crafted for him- or herself. This connection between character and fate is what confirms Jane Austen as one of the great authors.
1 This request was conveyed through James Stanier Clarke (the Prince's librarian). Return to text.
2 Vindication was written as a response to Dr. Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women (1766). These sermons also serve to illustrate the feminine ideal against which Jane Austen was
fighting ridiculing. Return to text.
3 This resonance is probably best indicated by Charlotte Lucas's (from Pride and Prejudice) matrimonial choice. In short: men were expected to provide for a woman; not finding a suitably wealthy husband meant a lifetime spent in poverty. Jane Austen's time did not only have Prince Charming, but Duke Charming, Baron Charming, all the way down to Mr. Charming—and there were plenty of uncharming but necessary Charmings. Return to text.
Cross-posted to feminist_lit