I bet you were starting to see a trend with my posts by now, but alas, I’m here to throw you off just a little bit. I needed to send you into the weekend with another fabulous guest post, dear readers. Sara is taking over today’s post to talk about Mansfield Park and self-knowledge/self-deception. Sara is currently finishing a degree in English literature. When she’s not reading, studying, or drinking unhealthily large quantities of Earl Grey tea, she’s blogging at Majoring in Literature. Welcome, Sara!
If there’s one Austen novel that divides readers more than any other, it would have to be Mansfield Park. For some, the novel is the work of a skilled and mature writer at the height of her powers. For others, an evening spent watching paint dry may be preferable to spending even one second with the insufferable Fanny Price and her dreadfully dull husband-to-be, Edmund. No matter what you think about Mansfield Park, however, it’s clear that the novel differs markedly from Austen’s earlier work. Even the author herself acknowledged that it was more ‘serious’ than her other novels; in a letter to her brother, Francis Austen, she wrote that “I have something in hand – which I hope on the credit of P[ride] & P[rejudice] will sell well, tho’ not half so entertaining” (Letter dated Chawton, July 3rd 1813).
Mansfield Park certainly seems like quite a departure from Austen’s first two novels; Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are both crammed with lovable heroines, hilarious hypochondriacs, and as many balls and parties as a reader could wish for. Mansfield Park is a fairly quiet novel in comparison, with fewer balls, parties, and wonderfully weird characters. It seems to be the kind of novel that grows on people slowly, one which yields more the longer you scratch away at its groundwork. And since it happens to be celebrating its two hundredth birthday this year, this August seems like a good opportunity to ask what it is about this novel that makes it, like all of Austen’s fiction, so loved, so debated, and so enduring.
Because the novel’s heroine, Fanny, is so different to some of Austen’s other early heroines – the naïve Catherine of Northanger Abbey, witty Elizabeth Bennet, and the always-dramatic Marianne Dashwood – there is a tendency to lump Mansfield Park with another of Austen’s later, more ‘serious’ novels, Persuasion. But it is also worth remembering that in terms of publication, Mansfield Park is sandwiched between two of Austen’s most high-spirited and humorous novels: Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Incidentally, it is in these two novels that self-knowledge, a key issue in all of Austen’s novels, plays an important part in the overall plot. Pride and Prejudice pivots on Elizabeth Bennet’s acknowledgement of her own prejudicial attitudes; and in Emma, it is the heroine’s inability to understand both the motivations of others and her own desires that drives the story forward.
In contrast, Mansfield Park‘s heroine appears to change very little during the course of the novel; unlike Elizabeth and Emma, Fanny does not go through the painful yet enlightening process of developing greater self-awareness. Yet Mansfield Park is just as concerned with the issue of self-knowledge as Austen’s other novels. Instead of the heroine undergoing a transformation, however, in Mansfield Park Austen inverts the plot of her best-known stories and considers what it is like to possess both self-awareness and sound judgement in a world full of hypocrisy and lies.
At Mansfield Park, self-deception rules the day. The neighbourhood surrounding the great house is peopled by an unpleasant cast of characters who are idlers (Tom Bertram), gluttons (Dr Grant), flirts (Henry Crawford), or just plain bossy (Mrs Norris). People with an inflated sense of self-worth are in charge (namely, the dreadful Mrs Norris), and the patriarch of the family, Sir Bertram is – perhaps willingly – blind to his own failures as a father and an educator.
Young, rich people form attachments to individuals profoundly unsuited to their own temperaments; Maria Bertram marries the unalterably stupid Mr Rushworth, and Edmund Bertram pursues Mary Crawford against his own better judgement. There is scarcely a character who is not deceiving themselves on some level. Whether it be Henry Crawford, convinced he can seduce Fanny, or Mr Rushworth, thinking Maria is in love with him, or Edmund, foolishly thinking Miss Crawford might make a good clergyman’s wife.
Then, of course, there is Fanny herself. At once involved in the society at Mansfield and simultaneously removed from it, Fanny is the only person who seems to see things as they really are. Unlike the heroines of Austen’s other novels, for whom self-knowledge and sound judgement are achieved only through a long process of trial and error, by the time Mansfield Park begins, Fanny has already developed these qualities. Whether they are inherent in her character, or the result of her upbringing, is never made explicit. But from the moment Fanny is brought to Mansfield as a child, her ‘outsider’ status is asserted; her Aunt Norris declares that, “it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you [Maria and Julia Bertram] are; – on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference” (Chapter II). And while alienating Fanny may have contributed to the development of her introverted personality, it is clear that her status as something of an outsider also allows Fanny to judge both her own feelings and the characters of others with much more insight and intelligence than, for example, Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet do.
A quality which goes hand-in-hand with self-knowledge is the ability to make sound judgements; the ability to ‘make up your own mind’. Fanny’s excellent awareness of both her own disposition (including her love for Edmund) and the character of her friends and family allow her to make difficult decisions independently. Despite her family’s displeasure, and despite the tactics they employ to try and change her mind, Fanny refuses to marry Henry Crawford, rightly judging him to be an unscrupulous flirt. Fanny has not overheard the conversation which takes place between Henry and his sister, Mary, where the bored young man asserts that he plans to “make Fanny Price in love with [him]“, and that he “cannot be satisfied […] without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart” (Chapter XXIV), yet she nevertheless judges his character correctly. The reader, aware of this conversation, sees at once how accurate her judgements are.
Fanny makes decisions with both “a sound intellect and an honest heart” (Chapter XXVII). Her desire to be “rational” (Chapter XXVII) in her decisions reveals an awareness of how easy it is to judge oneself and others from a position of blindness and self-deception. Fanny’s heightened self-awareness allows her to make decisions independent of those around her; and this independence of thought is another thing which singles Fanny out from the other people at Mansfield. But while Mrs Norris argues that Fanny has “a little spirit of secrecy, and independence, and nonsense, about her, which I would advise her to get the better of” (Chapter XXXII), Austen’s readers understand that it is precisely this “independence” of thought that makes Fanny heroine material.
Mansfield Park is a novel hugely concerned with ‘intellect’, ‘rationality’, and ‘the mind’. People speculate on the ‘minds’ of others; Edmund, discussing Mary Crawford with Fanny, laments, “that uncle and aunt! They have injured the finest mind; for sometimes, Fanny, I own to you […] it appears as if [her] mind itself was tainted” (Chapter XXVII), and when Mr Crawford bemoans the failure of the theatricals at Mansfield, Fanny reflects on what she considers to be his “corrupted mind” (Chapter XXIII). In order to make sound judgements, it seems, one must possess both a good mind (“intellect”) and an “honest heart”, an awareness of one’s own feelings and how they might, potentially, interfere with sound judgement. It is for this reason that Edmund, the novel’s hero, is another of Mansfield’s great self-deceivers, for although he is aware of Mary Crawford’s failures, including her attitude towards his future occupation, the church, he cannot help but be blinded by his infatuation with her. Despite his insight into her character he persists in believing that she may yet change her mind, and make a good clergyman’s wife. Though he sees her character with a certain clarity of mind, he is not so “honest” that he can admit to being blinded by affection.
Honesty – both with the self and others – is important in Austen’s fiction. In Mansfield Park Austen surrounds her heroine with a cast of self-deceivers, and positions her as the only person with the clarity and the honesty to perceive the truth in her surroundings. And while Fanny’s insight may make her seem a little less human than Austen’s other, flawed heroines, the novel also emphasizes the difficulty that comes with clarity of mind and judgement. Positioned as an outsider to the wealth and idleness of Mansfield, Fanny’s character demonstrates that occupying the moral high ground can at times be a difficult and lonely task, particularly when even the people you trust try to force you to do otherwise – as Edmund eventually does when he tries to talk Fanny into marrying Henry Crawford. Clarity of judgement is an ideal which few characters achieve without overcoming many obstacles; but as Fanny notes, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be” (Chapter XLII). This ideal resounds through all of Austen’s novels, but in Mansfield Park Austen demonstrates an awareness of the difficulties inherent in achieving it. Despite these setbacks, however, Austen’s emphasis on self-knowledge may be one of the reasons why she is such an enduring and popular author; no matter which period of history you inhabit, the propensity of human beings to blindness – whether it be moral, political, or personal – endures.