9/9: Jane Austen's Critique of Kant

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Lest the message of what might have been is lost on the reader of “Mansfield Park”, Jane Austen steps forward as she opens the novel’s last chapter to give in a form even more terse than the rapid fire narrative of the events of the prior few months the denouement of her story. Far from drawing a moral message of how everything is resolved for better or worse, how people pair off as nature intended, with Fanny getting the Edmund she rightfully deserves, she shows that Fanny gets Edmund because that is all that she deserves, in the sense of a person who she is prepared to deal with and who is prepared to deal with her on the terms of the claustrophobic life of Mansfield Park now doubly enclosed by the moral Methodism which Mary quite properly characterizes as Edmund’s. It is not just that both Edmund and Fanny were quite right in thinking that they could not bear the constant sensations of dealing with the candor and overt feeling of their previously intendeds. It is also that they have each been more true, all along, to their own feelings of self respect which they see mirrored in one another than they have in the interests of the family at all.

To the reader’s surprise, there is no recrimination by the family for the role Fanny played, largely through inaction, in bringing about the scandal in the family. To the contrary, she seems all the more indispensable to Mrs. Bertram, and seems to Sir Thomas Bertram to have been morally correct in her reading of Henry, though she has her own silent misgivings about whether or not she would have not eventually accepted him if he had not been so foolish as to fall again, at least temporarily, for his prior love. Mary was quite right in thinking that a little encouragement by Fanny might well have saved him from following his impulses. Moreover, the family, in its morally diminished state, with Maria dishonored and Julia badly married, turns to Fanny as a reminder of what they themselves once were, an icon of country respectability, which she has become more than they ever were. And so her eventual marriage to Edmund, which had been unthinkable because of her rank, and because she was sisterly to him, becomes thinkable as the emphasis is placed on her as a distant relative who has risen in manners well enough to give substance to the feeling that the family is respectable once again, though she brings nothing else to the marriage.

Mrs. Norris, who had always served as the family Cassandra, reminding them at the very beginning that this is the way things might turn out, finds herself the subject of Sir Thomas’s disapproval, perhaps because she is a reminder of the extent to which the little girl who was taken out of charity to serve as a high level companion to his wife, has become the dominant figure in the family, replaced his own daughters in his favor, which seems particularly unnatural and uncalled for. Mrs. Norris, knowing that her place is no longer welcome, since in the key test of the Rushfords and the Crawfords she had seemed to judge badly, has little choice but to acknowledge her failure and move out, leaving the field not to Fanny who has after all moved far beyond her and replaced Lady Bertram as the leading woman in the family, but to Sally, Fanny’s younger sister, who has now become the main companion to Lady Bertram. That defeat by two sisters must have been too much, though as usual Jane Austen does not describe the emotions that have overcome her at the prospect of Sally, but she does describe the statements Mrs. Norris makes about the inconsiderateness of the family to Maria, and those seem just. Mrs Norris goes off to live with Maria as two ladies alone, which is no great sacrifice to Mrs Norris, who gains a companion and who can live in a style appropriate to someone who has rage against an unjust world, just as Fanny would have lived with William, her brother, if the concatenation of circumstances had not worked out in her favor.

Mrs. Norris is thought badly for her candor in saying what Fanny had thought, which is that her acceptance of Henry Crawford would have averted the family scandal. The family is in no position to consider such possibilities, but in the tradition of Humean morality, feels such sentiments as its position now entitles it to, which is to think well of Fanny. This fact finally secures Fanny's position, since it is no longer a matter of mere sentiment, of charity un-buttressed by self-interest.

Sir Thomas has no good explanation to give for the series of family disasters. He turns to the usual set of banalities that are trotted out by parents and experts whenever children of any social class go bad. He says he was too permissive with daughters who had been flattered by Mrs. Norris, as if she had raised them, but who is now the repository of all blame. Fanny had turned out well because of her adversity. This is so lame as to be comic, since Fanny's mistreatment by Mrs. Norris had not bothered him so much before then that he had put a general stop to it, however benevolent he was in lightening her disapproval of Fanny by granting individual acts of mercy and graciousness. Who would have needed the mercy of this beneficent God if God had not established a cruel world to begin with? The reader is also aware that the benefit of Mrs. Norris’ attentions had driven Fanny even more deeply into herself, made her a more clever version of Mrs. Norris, who knew better than to speak out of turn, and accounted in part for her inability to respond to Mr. Crawford, because she did not feel she could possibly deserve such attentions, given her condition and defects, all of which had been made abundantly clear by Mrs. Norris.

So Lionel Trilling is correct to say that the ending of “Mansfield Park” does not leave us feeling good, even though it ends with the conventional marriage of erstwhile hero and heroine and their entering into the life they desired. The ending is not satisfying, however, not because our hero and heroine are such smug creatures, but because the novel never lets the reader forget that any number of other possible endings might have taken place, and that this particular ending is not so perfect, for it represents the fact that Fanny and Edmund are limited in their prospects, settled for what was comfortable rather than what might have challenged their souls. This is less upsetting in the case of Edmund, who was never very perceptive, once he got interested in women, and who seems to have the character of a clergyman, which he was gracious enough to accept without complaining, once he had no choice but to become one, just as Fanny has once silently accepted the fact that she would probably never consummate her love for Edmund. It is more unsettling when applied to Fanny, who after all had potential, had made herself into a creature of the gentry class, but could never force herself to brave it into London or polished society.

Fanny had done more than she could have been expected to do. She was a girl who was clever and deferential, who turned her reading and her brain into a way of moving up significantly in social class partly because she had no choice but to succeed or fail, to live up to the correct manners required of her since the day she arrived at Mansfield Park or else risk being shipped back if she should lose favor. She had to make the manners part of herself more than the others did because she was so dependant upon them, and so they took over her being in a particularly remorseless way, which made her constitutionally incapable of taking on the next leap and transforming her personality into one that could have managed the moral life of the London set, though there is no reason to think it any way worse than that of the men in the country set, who simply disappear for long periods to go hunting, drinking and wenching at a distance rather than close to home. It is, moreover, understandable that having partially gained acceptance at Mansfield Park, though by no means secured it, she would not want to take a risk with her new found selfhood to remake herself yet another time. She was too old for that. Jane Austen's protagonist is therefore only heroic to an extent, to the point absolutely required by her condition, and since her condition is so precarious, and has been so for so long, she cannot be expected to drain herself of her remaining psychological resources by daring again to remake herself. That would be foolhardy, even if the reader would like to believe his heroine could go on forever outwitting the world and conquering ever upwards. Trilling finds society oppressive because it isn't pure possibility, but has some resilience of its own, giving under concentrated pressure but not always yielding. Jane Austen, to the contrary, seems to think Fanny's achievement remarkable enough without requiring her to toss it all away to become someone who might not be able to cope with a husband’s philandering.

An even more deflating residue of the novel, however, is its depiction of the nature of moral life as that is successively redefined by the novel. Morality as generalized principle comes to replace a calculus of self interest. The last chapter of the novel suggests that generalized principle is not enough because the world gets turned so topsy turvy that it is not clear whether a generalized principle is a good enough guide to self interest. At the end, it seems that Fanny has been good because she has been Kantian. She has embraced principle for its own sake. She acts correctly regardless of consequence, and proves to impress the rest of the world with her moral rectitude. Morality is her power and her strength.

But this is a very flawed version of Kant. Fanny’s is still what Kant would call a prudential morality in that it is adopted for want of any better way to act. A person acts morally only because whatever calculus one makes may not work out. This level of ignorance makes it incumbent to act morally in the first place because if things go wrong then there is the satisfaction, at least, of having acted properly. This is appropriate in a topsy turvy world, but it is not what Kant meant when he said that moral action should be taken for the love of acting morally not for the sake of being known to oneself, much less to others, as a person who acts morally. Fanny may come to learn to be moral as well as to want to be moral, just as Pascal suggests that practice may lead to belief, but she is not there yet, and it is not at all clear that that would be such a good thing. In a prescient critique based on Methodism of what would become elaborated as Kantian ethics, Jane Austen notes the moral deficiency of this moral stance. It involves an inturning of the self, a loneliness which no communication can breech, for only in the self is it known whether an action was taken for the right reasons. Kant may want to turn humankind into a set of moral monads, each person operating as if they were totally independent in the world, and only fortuitously conjoining their actions, or doing so on the basis of high seriousness, rather than on the basis of the give and take of life, but Austen sees this as a sacrifice which Edmund, but more especially Fanny, makes. Fanny's strongest moral trait is her reticence, her unwillingness to speak what is unbecoming even to herself, and that means that her life is necessarily filled with unvoiced defeats and even tragedies and even successes. She cannot gloat, but neither can she savor; she cannot whine and browbeat, but neither can she express or seek the need for compassion. This removal from human life has made her triumphant, but more largely speaking, it is what she is.

In short, the critique of Kantian morality is that it removes people from people, supplies them with only, perhaps, their own heart to consult, and even that at considerable risk. Kantianism is thence not a triumph of reason but a retreat into the Romanticism that is on the rise in the world: a paean to emotion that comes from the fact that people have become self-enclosed and therefore preoccupied with self rather than because they have been liberated into new kinds of experience. Jane Austen, who lives on the cusp between Classicism and Romanticism, is not unmindful of the kind of liberation Romanticism supplies. After all, her own self is turned to the energies of art and the position of the observer, but she does not contemplate, here at least, the position of the heroic poet who acts, the Byronic figure, but considers instead, how much is given up by looking at the multifaceted self and not at the multifaceted social reality it reflects, for that is to take a self out of the action, out of an engagement with life, and means betraying the self. Fanny's final tragedy has nothing to do with whether she marries Edmund or not. It has to do with the creation of a self other than the Classical one, and the ambiguities that are resident in such a self.

What accounts for Fanny's rise in the world from a poor relation to the new daughter in the family who will soon be courted by a highly eligible bachelor, and whom Sir Thomas has come to treat as his own daughter, and whom he likes and respects more than his own daughters? The suspense of the novel is that Fanny seems sooner or later to be headed for a fall, either through circumstances, which would make it unfortunate, through the venality of others, which would make it melodramatic, or through her own character, which would make it tragic.

All of these possibilities are available. Fanny is both headstrong and remote, and so could miss an opportunity available to her, or blurt out the well merited grievances she has piled up against the family, and suffer the consequences of being ungrateful to those who think there is no end to the gratitude she should feel towards them. She might not be able to withstand the onslaughts of Mrs. Norris, who would do anything to turn something Fanny does against her, whether it were deserved or not; or Lady Bertram, who is so suggestible and weak that someone could turn her against Fanny, or might manage to do so herself if for some reason she took it in her head that Fanny had been insufficiently attentive; or the sisters, who have no great use for Fanny if she should become of sufficient importance to be noticed by them as something other than a dependant.  

External events rather than family intrigue could also lead to Fanny's downfall. A turn in the family's fortunes, or a rearrangement of the family so that Lady Bertram would have to, let us say, take on Mrs. Norris as a permanent lady in waiting, or the need to pack off Fanny to serve that role for one of the sisters, would also lead to a reduction of Fanny from her recently elevated position to her "permanent" rank as a poor dependant. In any of those circumstances, Fanny might be turned against herself, reinterpreted herself as ungrateful, and so no longer secure in her insecure position.

None of these disasters come to pass even though the reader has been waiting patiently and deliciously for Jane Austen to invent a particularly clever and unexpected way for Fanny to fall, the novel serving as a kind of mystery story which provides clues but not the conclusion not to who done it but to how Fanny was done in. So the reader begins halfway through the novel to reread it for the reasons Fanny leads such a charmed life.

Fanny works her way into the good graces of the family because, first of all, they are not so grand as they make out. Sir Thomas had married considerably beneath him, for sentiment rather than good sense. He has a wife who needs constant attendance and is not much good for anything. But for her brief conquest, she might well have fared no better than her sister in Portsmouth who also married for love, but to less advantage. The work of Mr. Bertram’s' life seems to be to try to raise the sights of his wife and her relatives, to reach below him and provide civility to his inferior relatives, perhaps because that is the best such a soft hearted gentleman can be expected to do. In that case, Fanny appeals to him as another case to work on, and of considerably better capacity than the other materials he has tried to form, and so not so out of keeping with the rest of his life, either what he is doing now, or what he chose to do years before-- though it is to his credit that he does not harbor bitterness about past decisions.

Fanny is herself up to the task of being remade because she is more master of language than anyone else at Mansfield Park. She says things in the way they should be said or does not say them at all. She is not given to the gaffes of the rest, and so it is no wonder that Mary Crawford picks her out for friendship as one who can be talked to as a sister. Fanny is tongue-tied when she is called upon by Henry to say something to him, because nothing that she could say would tie together her feelings and her situation, but no one else in the family could have spoken with such candor to Mary, telling her that her brother was not to be trusted because he was a flirt, declaring her real motives in a morally appropriate manner, and so earn from Mary a laugh and a remark that acknowledge the truth of what she has said.

For this and other reasons, Mary takes Fanny to be the sort of person who could indeed rise up not only to the social class of the minor country gentry, but to the stature of the more worldly London families, who have their connections in the Admiralty and the other institutions that control English life, which is all the more reason why Mary is confused that Fanny would not take the opportunity to marry her brother, but seems instead to prefer the morality of country respectability, to which she and her brother have condescended with a liberality at once real and affected, as was the case with many Eighteenth Century city people who have nostalgia for what they see as an antiquated and disappearing but charming manner of life. Such a life is attractive to the Crawfords because it is a non-threatening alternative to their own insecure positions as the Fanny like relatives of a more distinguished family patron. They do not know that Fanny is shocked rather than sympathetic to their own view of the servility imposed upon distant relatives by the heads of families. They do not know that she is self-limiting and that therefore her failure to move up in society as far as she might could be considered tragic, our third possibility for explaining her fate, when it is, instead, settling for what she wants, and so not tragic at all, Jane Austen, among her other accomplishments in this novel, supplying an answer to the idea, which will become everywhere obvious in the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Century, that you are only satisfied if you go as high as you can. Jane Austen turns that wisdom on its head by declaring that people go only as far as they want to, and there are no end of sociological studies which justify the idea by showing that people do not go so much from the bottom to the top of the social ladder as move up one or two rungs in the course of their lives. Jane Austen explains why.


8/9: Fanny Price at Portsmouth

Portsmouth Harbour

Portsmouth Harbour

Fanny Price is diffident about life at Portsmouth once she returns there. Jane Austen uses the occasion to reveal the nature of the character that had not been so completely revealed beforehand, perhaps because it would have been too unappealing to stay with, but now that the reader is so much invested in Fanny Price, Jane Austen can show just how singular that character is as well as how Fanny is, like most people, both possessed of insight and limited in her sense of what she wants her life to be like and how she is with other people.

Fanny finds her home at Portsmouth physically uncomfortable, and yet also recognizes the ways in which her family is like the family at Mansfield Park even if lacking their social graces. That recognition forces the reader of the novel to appreciate that morality is an individual characteristic and not just a social one, even if social graces are collectively a morality as well as an improved form of life because those graces do in fact make people more considerate of one another even if her mother is not particularly considerate. Her mother thinks that Mrs. Bertram must worry over the servant problem because that is her own problem of household management, while the truth of the matter is that Mrs. Bertram doesn't worry about the servants at all, because the servants do a better job on their own, since they are better selected and better paid, and because others in the family worry about them. Having servants is not a key to respectability at Mansfield Park. The family that owns it takes that for granted so that they can worry about other things that will establish themselves as of the sort of people they think they should be. But, on a personal level, Mrs. Bertram is not that much better than Fanny's mother. She may be kinder, but that is because she has time to be kinder, and her kindness means allowing Fanny to serve as a high level serving maid in recompense for her keep, as an expression of her gratitude. Mrs. Bertram is, if anything, more indolent than Mrs. Price, and is allowed to be so by her more comfortable social arrangements

But all of this Fanny could take in. What Fanny does not notice about herself is her indifference to her own family, which Jane Austen presents as the family's indifference to her. It is true that they do not present a very lavish table for her when she arrives, but then they have worked harder at doing something for her arrival than the Bertrams did for her when she arrived at Mansfield Park. And she expects them to treat her as a lady from Mansfield Park. But instead, her father settles in with his borrowed newspaper after the family has been more preoccupied with the concerns of William’s life than with what has happened in her’s, which is not surprising since he, after all, had been living with them, and his prompt arrival at his ship is something of an emergency. There is also the sense, however, that Fanny was always like this, that as a child she had also been aloof and removed, that she had occupied herself with her reading and separating herself from the rest of the family by going off to her little room in the same way she went off to her bigger room in Mansfield Park.

Susan, her sister, is the only person in the family in whom she takes an interest. She regales her with stories of Mansfield Park, recreating as best she can the world she inhabited in Mansfield Park, in her imagination, and living as she had when she was there. It is no wonder that the family seems to have little use for her as she lords it over them with her better ways. More important is that she has little feeling for them, makes little attempt to engage them or to appreciate them on their own level. She may reject Crawford and settle down with William in a brother and sister cottage, but she has no intention of either returning to Portsmouth as a way of life, or for that matter engaging in the London life of Henry Crawford, even if she is tempted to do so. Her success to this point has been created out of her firmness, apparent docility, and her ability to be alone and reserved, to gain life from her books and her general principles, and that is the way she intends to be.

That explains her response to Tom Bertram’s illness. She does not know whether to take an active role and request to be sent for so that she can return to Mansfield Park and comfort the family in its time of need. That would seem to be in her self interest as well as an expression of any feeling she has for the family. But she is remarkably reserved, and simply awaits news of what to do, appearing to modestly resist any temptation there is to step forward, lest it be construed as presumptuous, when in fact she has no great desire to express her feeling to anyone, nor such great regard for Tom that she feels obliged to his family to act as if she were properly a member of the family.

But since she does not know what would be appropriate in the matter, she terms her decision not to arrange for transportation back to Mansfield Park as allowing Sir Thomas Bertram to decide when he has need for her, as if she were indeed more a servant than a member of the family. This is the same principle she followed in the case of the play production, when she hesitated as long as possible and made no declaration of what should be done other than her own withdrawal from the activities. She did not feel it proper for her to take a role in deciding what to do, which was appropriate given her social circumstances at the time, but that is a cover, the reader can realize at this further state of the story, for her general passivity, her waiting for events to resolve her dilemmas, of both marriage and family obligations.

The idea of principle is therefore double edged. It means at first simply a generalization from experience about what to do under a set of circumstances, but it moves up into being a rule whereby one settles on what to do in circumstances which are ambiguous or unclear by making the empirical generalization serve as a matter of obligation. It appears to be like a moral rule, since it is what one does regardless of information, but it is still a scientific, utilitarian principle, because it is what one does as an application of past practice only because there is no information to clarify the situation. Morals are rules applied to limited information about self interest. This is a rather narrow and nasty understanding of non-utilitarian morality: it is inferior to utilitarian morality because it is merely a bad, rough calculation which will have to do, and yet it appears in the trappings of high moral language. And that is the way Fanny has conducted her entire life: she has used moral language because she has spend so much of her life in unfamiliar or only barely familiar settings that she has had to rely on general principles to give her a compass on how to behave. Categorical morality is the refuge of ignorance rather than the abandonment of self interest.

Tom’s illness seems to provide a way out of Fanny's overall dilemma. It is a deus ex machina which will resolve her problem, although not necessarily in a way she likes. It immediately occurs to the reader that should Tom die, Edmund will inherit Mansfield Park, and so be in a position to marry Mary, since his relative poverty is the only thing that makes Mary hesitate about a love match. That couples relation resolved, Fanny would have even more reason to accept Henry, for it would allow her to continue to live near Edmund, and persevere in the brother sister relationship that is one side of the ambiguous relationship she knows herself to have with Edmund, while having Henry as a perhaps unfaithful and absent and even possibly transformed husband who she could deal with as she pleased, since he would not be the center of her emotional life, unless she wanted to make him so. It would secure her future, allow her to move in any direction she wanted, while her present situation was fraught with danger because any of the options open to her-- continued association with Edmund, or even marriage with him, and the continued courting by Henry or even the good graces of the Bertrams, could be foreclosed by any number of events, including some simple insult she might pay the family inadvertently, since her connection to them is not legal but simply based on the favorable sentiments they have about her. Her situation is precarious, and Edmund's succession to Mansfield Park would move her in one direction.

Nor should such a possible resolution present a surprise to the reader, however unexpected the letter informing Fanny of Tom’s illness might be. The conventions of the Eighteenth Century novel, as well as the realities of Eighteenth Century life, remove characters from the scene through death all the time, or in some other way provide an external resolution, as when Tom Jones is found to be the illegitimate son but rightful heir of Squire Weston's sister.

But Jane Austen has already so well prepared the way for understanding that “Mansfield Park” is not a conventional novel in which all is made right in the world so that life is in accord with its natural scheme of inheritance and the social scale of being, so convinced has the reader become that people make the best they can of bad choices in which each choice has its appealing side, satisfying some self interest, even if no choice is a perfect one without problems, that the prospect of a deus ex machina comes as a disappointment from which one hopes Jane Austen will save us, which she does indeed do, but not before Fanny receives a letter from Mary which she finds proof positive of Mary's cynical and immoral nature because it is so candid about stating what is obvious about the change in Edmund's fortune.

The reader is less prepared to find Mary's letter so incriminating partly because she does no more than state what the reader has already been led to think about the matter. How could anyone deny Mary the right to have such thoughts? She would have been a fool not to see the possibilities, which are, after all, fully in accord with the morality of self interest which had been the hallmark of Mansfield. But Mary is so foolish as to state them, and to state them inelegantly, as a matter of personal greed, rather than as a matter of what the science of morality would dictate as appropriate under changed circumstances. First off, Mary, for all her graces, was not as clever as Fanny, and could hardly be expected to either find the right way to say something or decide to just say nothing at all. And, moreover, Mary had come to treat Fanny as a sister in the prospect of her becoming a sister-in-law, and so could confide in her more candidly than she would to someone else. After all, Fanny was at the moment confiding all sorts of things to Sally, who was her flesh and blood sister, but whom she had not seen for years and years. It may have been crude of Mary to say what she did, but Fanny is an unforgiving soul, especially of a woman who loves the man she loves.

But then another unexpected event enters the picture: the elopement of Maria with Henry. Again, Fanny remains in Portsmouth, passive, waiting for more information in correspondence from others rather than declaring herself or expressing concern or interest. Mary does not have Fanny to confide in, to perform the sisterly function that would be expected of someone else, but a role from which Fanny is exempt because she has for so long been the great stone face that she is expected to be someone on whom moral virtue is projected: what would she think were the right thing to do? Fanny is a kind of moral oracle who operates from afar, just as Sir Thomas had been, though not as well, from Antigua.

Instead, Mary confides in Edmund, who one would think would supply an attentive and sympathetic ear, since this is the woman he wishes to marry. Mary suggests that, proprieties aside, the interest of the combined families is to allow the couple to live together till they decide to marry. This is not an approval of the elopement but the common sense for which those at Mansfield Park are supposedly renowned. It would be far more a disaster for Maria to be disgraced permanently and for Henry to lose his marriage to Maria than for him to make an honest woman of Maria by becoming a reformed rake. If he were, after all, good enough to marry Fanny, then he certainly is good enough to marry Maria, who is now a fallen woman, and has shown poor judgment before.

Edmund greets this heartfelt confidence between a woman and the man who has expressed interest in marrying her by turning on her, by immediately interpreting this declaration of her’s as conclusive proof of her immorality. When he says as such, in no uncertain terms, she is clearly shocked, for she had been on the verge of accepting him, even though Tom's health had improved, and there would have been considerable sacrifice in the match for her. Her response is, quite correctly, to call him morally self-righteous, unwilling to consult normal moral concerns, and so she tells him to leave. When he does so, she hesitates and calls him back, but he is unwilling to return, which is the contempt he shows for a woman who is not only willing to face the fact of his poverty, but also swallow her pride so that she might marry a man she knows will never be candid with her.

The willingness of both Mary and Henry to marry their social inferiors requires explanation. Both of them, the reader has suspected and it now seems confirmed, are in as precarious a position as Fanny. They have been raised in a house not their own on the sufferance of people whose shortcoming they endure not from familial love but out of social necessity. They border themselves with the Grants for periods of long duration, in part out of what they declare is their sentimental attachment to the country, as well as because of their need to find someplace to live where they can be more than they are, and also out of a sincere admiration for what they see as the orderliness of life in Mansfield Park. But they have both been trained so long in their upbringing to a level of morality which is more candid and more acceptant of the vicissitudes of life that it is difficult for them to appreciate just how constricted are the moral concerns of the people at Mansfield, just how inhibited their language is. So while they are thought of as from a better class than those in Mansfield, and are perhaps therefore understandable as more sophisticated, this sophistication is not appreciated by the Mansfieldians when it has to do with anything of great consequence to them, and the Crawfords, for their part, think the good order of Mansfield does not mean that they cannot be candid when candor is required, as it is often enough in life. What seems eccentric about each party to the other becomes seen as essential to them in moments of crisis. This is a gap which is not easily breached.

Fanny had accepted just such condescension from the Mansfieldians. She had accepted that she needed to learn to behave in a different way than she had at Portsmouth, had accepted on faith that the manners of the richer were better than those of the poor, and yet neither she or Edmund would allow themselves to be tutored in the behavior of an even higher social class, but responded with a narrow mindedness that might have been expected of Mrs. Price. She had risen as far as she intended to in her vision of what a proper life amounts to. And so Fanny remains forever the Portsmouth girl who clings to her final prize, Edmund, because that is the only one she wanted. She was not taken in by wealth or manners, only by her own passions.


7/9: Morals in "Mansfield Park"

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Critics have gotten “Mansfield Park” wrong because they have read it as an Eighteenth Century novel whose purpose it is to illustrate moral virtue through the use of exemplary cases. “Tom Jones” raises this concern to enormous proportions because Fielding self-consciously invokes the idea of an epic to frame the comic adventures of his hero, which are nonetheless to be taken seriously because they show the working out of a hero's life, whether that is understood as a result of God's providence or coincidence, those adventures taking place in the domestic world of inheritance and marriage arrangements rather than in warfare or other more usual forms of heroism. Critics are constrained to find the moral universe of “Mansfield Park” unsettling because the high seriousness of the moral squabbling seems unrelieved by either irony about the project of making good marriages (though there is plenty enough dramatic and verbal irony throughout the novel) or because the harsh moral righteousness of the heroine, who seems to embody the moral message of the novel, seems to make her excessively loyal to propriety, just as Griselda, the heroine of Chaucer's exemplary tale about obedience, “The Clerk’s Tale”, seems also to carry a good thing too far, even if the reader can profit from her instruction.

Jane Austen might well have been pleased at such readings, for she is certainly doing her own turn on the Eighteenth Century novel, adopting its structure, plot lines, and tone, and does indeed suggest that the life of morality is not the easy one her predecessors portrayed, but rather, in fact, a life so grim that a reader might think to dispense with it entirely and, instead, take off with Mary Crawford on some romantic adventure, even if it came to no good end and had to be paid for the rest of one's life. That would indeed supply an opening to Romanticism, a transition from sentiments externally stimulated to feelings that well up from the consciousness.

Critics, however, in their penchant for telling a new story out of the story that is before them for analysis, the telling of a new story out of a given text, can fall far short of the mark in that the commentator proceeds only by doing violence to the text under consideration in that what is offered is not a new or additional reading of a text but a clearly faulty one, as that can be concluded by consulting the evidence of the text, even if the misreading has been so successful as to crowd out a more faithful reading of the text. Such is the case with Lionel Trilling, who became an influential figure in mid-Twentieth America because he had a powerful vision that informed his criticism. He stated his view most clearly in his essay “Meaning, Morals and the Novel”. A novel, more than other forms of literature, establishes a moral framework for understanding life because all major characters are on a moral quest to establish what they see as the right way of living onto the ongoing flow of history, as that is imagined in all the richness of detail of which the novel is possible. Their individual takes on life, which is what Trilling takes morals to be, somehow different from custom or overt morality, intersect with the forces acting upon the hero or heroine, and the reader observes how these experiments in living will play themselves out. So the novel is a form of instruction that, in the modern world, has become preferable to that which is provided in a church because it is far more subtle. We go from novel to novel ever enriching ourselves about how to act in life. Trilling is carrying on in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, about whom Trilling wrote his first book, someone who also believed that literature had replaced dogma as the way to guide one’s life, though Arnold did not primarily have the novel in mind. Trilling’s was a noble undertaking in that mid century America was in need of a moral compass that would not indulge in quasi-religious platitudes and would instead appeal to the sophisticated secularist who wanted to find the richness of reference and a sense of the complexity of the world that had in previous generations been offered by religion. The liberal West was not without a soul; to the contrary, it cultivated a highly inflected one. And so that is the story Trilling wishes to unfold in any number of novels, Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” just one of them.

But Trilling gets “Mansfield Park” wrong in his widely reprinted essay of that title precisely because he is so hard on the hunt for what he wants to find in it, which is a moral quest, when the whole point of Jane Austen is to be on no moral quest at all but to tell the story of lives as they are actually lived, no judgment passed on the characters, only descriptions of what they are as people, some of those more appealing than others. Trilling starts his essay with his usual grace of style, and that allows him to elide from one point to the next as if one point was earned by the previous remark, though that is not at all the case. Trilling says that Fanny Price is very different from Elizabeth Bennet in that Elizabeth is vivacious and energetic and talkative while Fanny is sickly, uncommunicative and rather dour. This is all true enough but that is used to suggest that Fanny is just a different kind of moral heroine than is Elizabeth, that she too has her principles, those involving support for her cousin Edmund to become a clergyman, which Trilling says is a position that Austen associates with Mr. Collins from “Pride and Prejudice” and so something to be looked down on even though, from Fanny’s point of view, it is the right thing to do.

But, as I say, Fanny is not on a moral quest or even just out to improve her chances in the marriage market in that she turned down a very good match to a rich landholder very much impressed by her, he an amiable mate because she could manage him around and also because he is identified as one of those landholders who want to improve their properties, something of which Fanny might take charge as a suitable outlet for her energies. The reader realizes that the one she wants is the one she has always wanted, which is her cousin Edmund, with whom she has been raised as a sister. Sir Thomas Bertram, who is very vigilant about what happens to his children, cannot even admit to himself that Fanny has this incestuous interest and is willing to put everything else aside, even the well being of the family into which she has been adopted, to accomplish that end. Being a clergyman’s wife is therefore a suitable ambition for someone who has always been a loner, who has made her gaucheness into a tool to get her way, whether to get herself a horse, or by her silence answer those relatives who are critical of her for her low beginnings. She bides her time and finds a way to prevail. So Fanny is no moral exemplar, even if of an unusual kind.

The point of the novel is a keen observation of what it means to take in a poor relation, this offered a generation before Jane Eyre, who was a true orphan, found her way into the Rochester household. Such a situation requires the family to cope, in spite of Sir Thomas’s good intentions, with a mean spirited and selfish child who does not identify with the family but with what she can get out of it, however much that allows the author an opportunity, which a good novelist will indulge, to display the pretensions and idiosyncrasies of a family from the inside, which is great fun for the reader, but does not make the protagonist any more of a heroine.  So Jane Austen is not a moralist but instead offers a portrait of a human soul, one of the most intriguing in world literature, a woman not tragic in the manner of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, but rather true to herself with all that implies about her true character. This novel is therefore not in keeping with what Trilling believes to be the nature of the novel however pleasing it would be to believe that it fits into his grand scheme. Rather, it is onto something even broader, which is to provide a true rendering of human life, never mind the morality.

But Jane Austen, I think, is even more radical than that. She is doing an even grander turn on the Eighteenth Century novel, abandoning its moral message entirely, if morality is understood as a system of what people are obliged to do out of religious or natural principle, and which they can live up to or not, and instead proposes to describe the moral life with utmost clarity and candor, and to make no moral judgments of her own upon it. Her characters are neither symbols or representatives of anything but themselves, but, as they say, are imaginary frogs in real gardens, constrained only by their own sense of things and their sense of the way the world is, working out their fates as best they can, with Jane Austen acting neither as chorus nor moral focus, but only as historian of their travails. This wrenching away from moral certitude while maintaining concern for the reality of moral choice in the quotidian of everyday life, sets the stage for the Nineteenth Century novel, and for what critics have come to call the moral tradition of the novel, even if that hard headed approach is sometimes challenged by escapes into symbolism, imagery, and the other purely literary pleasures of the novel that make it the rival and successor of epic poetry.

Austen is freed to become a student rather than a practitioner of morality not only because her Humean inclinations towards identifying morality with empathy, and so doing without the first of the two, allows her to do so, but because of her appreciation of what the form of the novel can accomplish, how it can rid itself of the superstructure of being a moral exemplary tale, or even an epic one, but simply the record of how some people fare in the world. Characters in novels are like real people in that their motives are always invisible, constructed by an outsider (or the persons themselves) out of the words they use and the emotions they are recognized or recognize themselves to feel. The motive itself is ever allusive, a supposition based on evidence. The more private the motive the less certainty with which anyone, including the person so motivated, can speak of it.

There is no getting around that general point about the nature of moral life. To consider the characters in novels merely fictions, and therefore to have no life outside the page, may seem to undercut a lot of naivete about the complex relation of literature to reality, but it does so at the expense of the imaginative recreation of characters in the minds of readers, who know well enough that they could never have met these particular people in the street, but know equally well that as imaginative creations the characters have a life of their own, which allows us to speculate about their childhoods or what they do after the novel is over, because if we cannot do that, how can they be characters to us, how can we identify with their concerns or the worlds in which they live? It is no more difficult (and probably easier, since we have more information at hand) to speculate about what motivates characters in novels than it is to speculate about what motivates those real people with whom we interact in the actual world, who we presume to have lives when they are out of our sight, whose character we infer from what they do when they are in our sight and what we hear of them doing. Jane Austen makes no greater demands than that in order to gain our appreciation of her characters. She rarely falls into the pose of voicing the point of view of the character that go beyond the evidence already supplied from more indirect observation, and then, it often seems, as a prod to slow readers who need cues or confirmations to reach opinions about her characters that could have been derived without such evidence.

This deliberate limitation of her own artistic resources sets up problems for narration and character portrayal that could have been solved by the novelistic equivalent of the dramatic soliloquy, which is the epistolary form, or else by the contemplative passage, which had already been used by Swift, even if it is given much fuller development in Dickens and his successors. But this limitation, the equivalent of eliminating in prose the rhyme in poetry, allows Jane Austen to do what few other novelists are able to do, but which so many of them strive for: to make her characters either larger or smaller than life, some of both types in the same novel. Characters whose inner lives are revealed are either pathetic, like Mr. Collins, and as they come to be in the stream of consciousness of naturalistic fiction, or heroic, like Elizabeth and Darcy, as they will also be in the dramatic fiction of Dickens and Conrad. But characters about whom we have no more information than is available about real people, act and move and make impressions that are more like those of real people: a bit at a distance, and much left to inference. That is why Jane Austen's characters can seem both spontaneous and determined.

It is also why they can seem both undramatized and ordinary when most art, in its very nature, works against the mundane by making the very act of attending to its characters turn them larger than life, so that the mental world of the reader is filled with Oedipus and Hamlet and the Karamazovs, all of whom make it difficult for the reader not to think that these characters feel more deeply than ordinary mortals do, that real families are pale copies of the Karamazovs, because their own perverse emotions and rages could not possibly be as vivid and are certainly more passing than those of the dramatic characters. Great heroes are, in that way, like movie stars. Because both kinds of characters are larger than life, they are beyond us and so it is quite understandable that they do remarkable things and are caught in remarkable situations and then do remarkable things. Ordinary life is not like that. If there is a moral message in “Mansfield Park” or other of her novels, it is not the question of what are proper morals but, rather, what is the burden of morality on life as a quality of all life, and the answer grows directly from her perception of the nature of novelistic characters, and hence, actual characters: people mean what they say, and are what they seem.

The nature of her undertaking, as it is to be distinguished from an attempt to only produce another turn on the conventions of the novel, is made perfectly clear by the rapid fire sequence of events that follow from Fanny taking leave of Mansfield Park for Portsmouth, confirmed in her inability to choose between Henry Crawford and the desire, barely confessed to herself, to have Edmund or no one. Fanny has been sent to Portsmouth by the benevolent spirit of Sir Thomas so that she might reconsider her irrational refusal to accept Henry Crawford's proposal. Rather than a new adventure, Bertram and Jane Austen have arranged for Fanny to reconsider an old one: how she came to be what she was. What is remarkable about her life in Portsmouth is how little it changes her. She seems to be more willing to consider Henry, since she now expects to hear from him, and is displeased and somewhat alarmed when there is no communication forthcoming, though she has done little enough to encourage him to persist in his interest in her, but the flattery of his relentless pressure might have worked its way at Mansfield Park as well as at Portsmouth-- or maybe not, which is the way it is in real life.


6/9: The Tragedy of Incest

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Fanny Price, the anti-heroine of  “Mansfield Park”, has character traits that have been helpful in moving her up in the world to the extent to which she has but which work against her rising any further. Such an irony is sufficient for an Eighteenth Century domestic novel. There are, however, more troubling dynamics in her character, which those around her barely perceive, that make Fanny's life into a Shakespearean tragedy, even if it does not lead to her social downfall. Separating Fanny's personal fate from her social success is part of Jane Austen's critique not only of the social novels of her period, which do not go much farther than define a happy ending as the achievement of social success, but also are part of Jane Austen's critique of Shakespeare, who insisted on correlating personal and social tragedy, when the truth of the inviolable and separated self is that the lack of a social tragedy is only incidentally connected, if not irrelevant, to what is happening in the privacy of a soul.

Fanny emerges as the protagonist of a Shakespearean Jacobean tragedy, not because of her rise in society, or its connection to her fall (since there is no fall) but because of her difficulties in accepting the idea of a marriage to Henry Crawford once it has been settled to the satisfaction of everyone but Mrs. Norris, and before the family is itself sent into imbalance by the elopement of Maria and Henry and the subsequent acceptance of Fanny into full membership in the family. At that point, Fanny is no longer the subject of condescension, but a significant personality who is no longer judged or encumbered by her ungainly manners. Her major fault seems to be the minor one of showing too much deference to her prior position, when others believe, for the moment, that she ought to feel more secure than she does.

It is from this elevated position, and the assumption of family responsibilities that supposedly goes along with it, that she had faced the prospect of Henry Crawford as a suitor. Her rejection of the match, which would seem to bring great good to the family as well as herself, since it is the kind of contribution women can be expected to make to the salvation of the family's fortunes, is only explicable to Sir Thomas as a throwback to prior times, when Fanny might have been expected to have the hesitancy appropriate to a less elevated position. Sir Thomas is willing enough to excuse her response, at least this once. But there is something more in her hesitancy, and it stands beyond issues of class and manners.

By any real world standards, Henry is not at all a bad catch. He says enough things to make this clear. He is, first of all, the only one who shows any interest in improving the land. He actually has some contact with those who oversee his estate, and has made something of a study of "improvements", which is a catchword with the modernizing gentry, raised as they are in a land of steam and canals. Henry, moreover, is willing to be guided by Fanny in how he deals with the land under his control, to accept her judgment about the moral way to deal with his dependents. This is not only more than anyone else is willing to do; it is more than could even occupy their imaginations as a possibility.

Henry also has no trouble we know of in accepting Fanny despite her inferior position. At first interested only in flirting with her, he is the first to notice her even for this potential, because that in itself provides a kind of equality with Julia and Maria, who are far more eligible creatures. His lack of condescension to Fanny and her family, which is more than the Bertrams can manage towards her for a very long while, is so important that Jane Austen pauses to enter the mind of Henry, something she rarely does with her characters, to note that he feels deeply satisfied by the opportunity his wealth provides to give William, who is one of Fanny’s brothers, a horse to ride, which he thinks is little enough a rich man can do for someone who is so admirable because he has devoted his life to doing something substantial. This is not only something the others would not do; it is something only Henry would even contemplate doing.

Certainly Henry is a flirt, first with Maria, and then with Fanny. But it is to be said for him that he did not choose to flirt with Julia, the one who had been assigned to him by order of precedence. Henry is a romantic man. He found Maria attractive, and was encouraged enough to believe that she was not only unhappy with her affianced but would consider him in place of Mr. Rushworth. (Dickens is not alone in identifying people through their names. Everyone rushes to identify Mr. Rushworth's worth by his wealth.) Choosing Henry over Rushworth would mean a sacrifice of income to Maria, but the marriage to Rushworth was so clearly sentimentally unsuitable that only a temporary separation from Henry was enough to make Maria angry enough to lose her judgment, and insist she would marry Rushworth, even though her father gives her every leave to get out of the marriage if she would only say she wanted to. But Maria is not capable of knowing that there are occasions when words are real, have consequences for her life as well as the lives of others, or to appreciate that her father had offered her a chance to save herself from the marriage, to find a safe anchorage for her soul elsewhere. In this, Jane Austen follows Shakespeare's idea that the right marriage is a sort of salvation.

Henry turns his attention to Fanny. This is not as dishonorable as the Bertrams, or Fanny especially, take it to be. Henry had come from London society, which has different meanings for flirtations. Not every one of them are meant as courtships. But, as is generic in Shakespearean love matches, what begins in innocence turns serious. The person who had not been expected to become the beloved turns out to become so.

A Shakespearean reversal should not surprise Fanny who has all along wanted her own sisterly relation with Edmund to turn to love. The suspense over whether Fanny will fall from grace in the Bertram household is joined as a plot motif to the suspense over how the relationship between Fanny and Edmund will turn out. How will she deal with her possessiveness when he finally marries someone else, or how can she possibly arrange for him to find her a love interest? Jane Austen makes sure that the reader sympathizes with Fanny's feelings toward Edmund, so why is it so wrong to suppose there might be a different sort of plot that unfolds, with Henry turning from a flirt into a devoted and sincere suitor for Fanny? That ending would be appropriate if “Mansfield Park” were only a novel of upward mobility, but it is less so because “Mansfield Park” is also about how the intensity of feeling can displace an objective evaluation of things, so that Fanny could except a transformed Edmund from her moral scruples, because her heart warms to him, but cannot accept Henry transformed by his love for her, since she does not respond to his presence as he does to her’s.

Henry's proclamations of devotion to Fanny only seem empty hyperbole when looked at from the outside. That his transformation has been earned by the love of a woman is supported by the fact that he takes her good qualities so seriously, not just as virtues the rest of the family can recognize, but as the expressions of a self, and so the basis for romantic love rather than merely respect. Moreover, these qualities are recognized by him as more essential than her obvious deficiencies as a person without social or economic standing who also combines a minimum of personal attractiveness with a somber and frightened character that rejects all opportunities in the name of circumspection. The concern Edmund and others have that she should not over exert herself is not a false concern directed at the weaknesses attributed to all women, but is specific to Fanny, since the other young women in the family are not treated in that way.

Jane Austen has also provided a precedent for Henry's devotion to Fanny that would make it more plausible if the reader were not seduced into Fanny's way of thinking about things. Fanny does not think the persistent devotion of Edmund to Mary makes him unsuitable to marry Mary. Rather, she thinks his persistence likely to pay off, and that Mary will give in to a marriage that she does not deserve. Why is the same not true of Henry, whose persistence does not seem as clouded as Edmund's is to the character of the woman he is courting? Henry does not praise Fanny for virtues she does not believe herself to have, while Edmund is regularly flattering Mary by describing her in terms that Fanny thinks grossly untrue. But this parallelism does not enlighten Fanny about her relation to Henry, or move her to speak to Edmund about Mary's shortcomings, which as a sister she would be called upon to do.

Henry's final lapse from grace is also more ambiguous than the Bertrams notice, though Jane Austen gives the reader reason enough to suspect that the whole thing had gotten out of hand. Henry seems to have tried to be loyal to Fanny despite her continuing lack of encouragement. Austen lets the reader know that Fanny wanted Henry to persist, but how was Henry to know this? It is not surprising that his interest in Maria is rekindled. (Maria is one of Sir Thomas’s daughters, in case you forgot; there are a lot of characters to keep track of in “Mansfield Park”.) Maria seems hardly at all to be living with her husband anymore. At the outset, it seems, the affair between Maria and Henry was supposed to have been discreet, but someone tattled. Fanny, unlike Mary, chooses to see this as a moral melodrama rather than a moral tragedy. For Fanny, social lapses are still more important than matters of character.

That is because Fanny has learned, if anything, that she gets what she wants only through patience, that she is best served when she holds out against temptation. That is what got her through the years at Mansfield Park, that is what got her through the play, and that is what she expects will get her through the present crisis. For what she wants, which she confesses to herself only reluctantly, is Edmund, nothing less. Fanny sees herself as a kind of Romantic heroine because she will never compromise this goal, even if it means that she never married, and even if she takes the secret of her heroism to the grave. Jane Austen repeatedly reminds the reader that Edmund was the preoccupation that allowed Fanny to remain largely unaffected by the glamour and flattery of Henry, and that no one knew this but herself, in spite of everyone at Mansfield Park and elsewhere spending so much of their lives dissecting one another's motives.

The reason that her attachment to Edmund is unnoticed is because it is awfully close to being incestuous. She had lived with him as a sister for so long that everyone had forgotten Mrs. Norris warning that her proximity to the young men of the house might make her a decidedly unsuitable match for one of them. Sir Thomas, who is usually so careful about controlling social arrangements so that only those occasions for flirtation which he thinks are suitable are allowed, proceeds to dismiss these concerns out of a Squire Western liberality. He insists on drawing a strong line of reason between a paranoid view of class relations, which is bad, and the prudence with which powerful social forces need handling, which is good.

Confronted with Fanny's perversity about the offer of marriage from Henry, Sir Thomas for a moment considers that Fanny might be interested in Edmund, but quickly dismisses it as something of which it would be unworthy to speak. This, in sharp contrast to his willingness to speak to Maria of breaking off her own engagement, suggests that he is not concerned about speaking candidly about the advantages and disadvantages of a particular marriage, but that there is something beyond that in speaking of a possible combination of Fanny and Edmund.

And there is indeed something incestuous about the interest of Fanny in Edmund. We have here the reverse of the situation in “Tom Jones”, where Tom did not know that he was flirting with his real mother. Fanny knows that Edmund is not her real brother, but she does not see that her interest in him is inappropriate because he has been like a brother to her. She saw him within the confines of the family and so she had been privy to his confidences, and had counted on his emotional support during family battles. She feels comfortable with him, as she might with a brother.

The problem with courtship at country estates like Mansfield Park is that husbands are selected as a result of a few meetings on formal occasions with those few eligible men who come from elsewhere. These are slim pickings, similar to those of the country gentry in Tolstoy or Chekhov. These men, moreover, seem unpleasant. They are characters out of Rawlinson: garrulous, self-flattering, and given to the usual vices of country gentlemen, such as drinking, horses and, one presumes, women. Edmund seems immune to those diversions. He seems much more comfortable, familiar. And that may well be why there is an incest taboo: to make people choose people who are not already in the household, because otherwise the family itself would be an emotional cauldron that could not contain its de-domesticated passions, and because people will be able to get outside their own family's peculiarities only by finding someone from outside it.

This Fanny seems unable to do, for the good reason that men who talk inelegantly and wildly, as most men do, are indeed unattractive, but also for the bad reason that she is unwilling to risk the emotional comforts of the family she has settled with at Mansfield Park. In more modern terms, Fanny seems to suffer sexual anxiety: she is unable to see herself consummating a relationship with someone so gruff and loudmouthed and healthy as the men to whom she is introduced, and would prefer to settle for an easier relation with either her real brother in a small cottage or else in a real marriage to her adopted brother. Marriage, for Fanny, is a kind of impossible safe haven of the sort she had made for herself at Mansfield Park. Why should she give it up? The country set may be quite willing to refer to sexual sentiments as motives-- characters regularly comment on who is attractive and who is not-- but language and custom do provide excuses for not facing up to the challenge of the deepest emotions, much less those perverse passions which do not speak their name in any society.

Isabella, in “Measure for Measure”, is not able to sacrifice her virginity for her brother because, Shakespeare suggests, this is too much evocative of her real feelings. She is saving herself not for an imaginary lover, but for the specter and thought of her brother, and so sleeping with another for his sake would be an irony that cuts too close and therefore must be rejected. A similar Freudian reading, by which the truthfulness of a juxtaposition calls forth repression, applies to Fanny, who is willing to reject all men because no man can be as good as the brother she has adopted, unless she makes the leap of faith which romance would require and passion would urge.

She is finally brought back into the family, after having been pointedly left out of all the developments that sealed the family's fate, oblivious to the possibility that she may have been kept out because her own influence toward moralistic solutions which hide her own needs was no longer admired. She is brought back into the picture only when the disasters have piled up to the point that there is no hope for the family, and the eventual marriage of Fanny and Edmund is now acceptable because it is a kind of funeral, the left over pieces matched up as a mockery of Shakespearean pairings, or, to use another resonance, like Gertrude's marriage to Claudius, too close to a funeral, except that this one is transformed into a kind of joy, a wish about a future, by the family's needs, by Fanny's obtuseness, and by Jane Austen's sense that marriage is more the hope of salvation than the reality of it.

Fanny's most significant tragic flaw, then, is more general than her incestuous feelings about Edmund. Fanny is not only passive before events because she is circumspect, which is an admirable trait, or because she is driven by a pathological wish that the world come to her on her own terms, which is understandable and unremarkable, but also out of a profound misreading of social relations as something other than a place where choices have to be made, some balance of advantages and disadvantages chosen over another balance of advantages and disadvantages. She does not make decisions because she acts as if she is beyond life, a member of the moral rather than the actual world, when marriages and family relations are actual events to which morality is applied rather than a platform from which to condemn reality.

Jane Austen encourages the reader, however, to engage in a healthy sense of suspense over the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand choices, which cannot be usefully resolved either way, but are nonetheless part and parcel of the human condition. “Mansfield Park” and the emotions it invoke therefore stand, in true Shakespearean style, as a critique of the central character of the book, just as “Hamlet” is a critique of the self-consciousness of Hamlet through its exploration of the way people come to master their own self-consciousness and somehow find ways to continue to live-- even after watching plays about self-consciousness.

Fanny makes into a tragedy what was simply the melodrama of every marriage choice. The genre of domestic romance has been elevated into tragedy by demonstrating that to give domestic romance tragic reverberations is itself the source of tragedy for the characters, however illuminating it is to the reader who can catch these reverberations but succeeds in reading the book properly only by returning it to the precincts of a domestic romance. Such a Shakespearean paradox based on the relation of the fiction to reality is required to unravel Fanny, who will not settle when any choice is a settling for one thing rather than another. She has made herself outside the remove of ordinary life, and that is tragic, a turn on Shakespeare, since the tragedy lies not only in the dissolution of a family rather than in any single death, but in the inability of a character who is made the representation of the moral and yet romantic soul, to imagine herself in any ordinary real life pairing at all, but who subverts reality into becoming a copy of her fantasy life.


5/9: The Theatricals at Mansfield Park

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The transition in “Mansfield Park” from language that is occluded because it is calculated to language that is, by and large, in the clear because the characters have need of a language whereby they can express who they are, takes place at the same moment that is the pivotal point for the plot of the novel, which is when Sir Thomas Bertram returns from Antigua. Jane Austen seems to expect her more literate puzzle solvers to catch on to this union of her structural and language leverage points, and so see the Shakespearean allusion as well as the importance for the plot of weaving the change of language into the new developments in the plot, just as she expects her merely attentive reader to solve the puzzle of her characters if some attention is paid to the abundance of clues Jane has so thoughtfully provided to help the reader along.

The Shakespeare play that Jane Austen chose to rework as “Mansfield Park” is probably “Measure for Measure”. There, just as in “Mansfield Park”, a heroine who seems devoted to virtue comes to seem perverse because of her seeming unwillingness ever to consider prudence, even to serve, there, the interests of her brother, and in spite of the advice of all those who surround her. There is also an absent nobleman, who has allowed his society to run on its own dynamics, presuming these to be fixed, settled, and self-balancing, only to return to find that things have fallen apart, his society on the verge of some kind of moral anarchy. The general belief is that society can only be restored to its proper balance by the intervention of the returned leader, though it is not clear that he has either the understanding or the will to do so. The audience and the reader are left with the very sour feeling that people keep making messes of their lives, and will continue to do so, and manage to rectify things, if at all, only by redefining relative failure as relative success. Their problems arise not so much from tragic flaws, from their own or the universe's nature, but from thoughtlessness, stubbornness, and other minor vices.

As soon as Sir Thomas appears on the scene on his return from Antigua, there is an immediate change in the meaning of language. Now events which had been frivolous and words which had been meaningless take on their full resonance and meaning all at once, as if everyone had been removed to a higher level of understanding, the veil between illusion and reality suddenly lifted.

It is interesting to contemplate the first emotions people might have felt under this new dispensation. It might have been gladness, reasonability, sentiment, or any number of other emotions thought characteristic of the Eighteenth Century. Instead, the first emotion every character feels is guilt, even down to Fanny, who has least to feel guilty about since she had held out longest against the temptation of doing theatricals, even though she had at the end given in ever so little to it.

Sir Thomas forgives the family immediately, though Jane Austen suggests this has less to do with relenting from a deserved sternness that in his unwillingness to forego the pleasure of his reunion with his family. He does put an immediate end to the festivities, even if Yates, a friend of the family who had first proposed the theatricals, is so crude as to ask why everyone had done such an about face, and wonders what was so wrong with the theatricals, especially since Sir Thomas, perhaps out of a touch of guilt about having cancelled them, decides to give a ball that will serve as a kind of coming out party for Fanny.

The trouble with the theatricals is in part financial. Mrs. Norris is quick to note how much money she saved on the project, so everyone was at the time of their plans aware that they should not spend too much money. Sir Thomas was, after all, away in Antigua to straighten out their finances, and it is to be presumed, though Jane Austen does not say so in so many words, that the family was trying to live frugally until the economic problems were resolved.

There is a larger problem with the theatricals. They are a recipe for license because they allow people to proclaim emotions they do not feel which are of an intimate sort, or even worse, allow people to proclaim private feelings which they do feel, but which are not properly spoken of. The irony of this situation was lost on the characters, though not to the reader, before Sir Thomas' reappearance, but it is sensed as a careless form of liberation afterwards. It is not that the characters did not know before what they knew afterwards, but that they took it all more seriously, with more responsibility, as if now they had to be responsible for their actions when the presiding figure was present but were not responsible for their actions, did not have to act as other than children, when their father was away.

The reader is made ever more aware of the precarious hold morality has on Mansfield Park. Far from secure, morality is always challenged by the immoral ways of the country gentry young folk, the likes of Tom, Sir Thomas’ eldest son, who are always off on some misadventures which they can talk about only in the euphemisms of horseracing. Sir Thomas does not want his family's country respectability to give way to the looser morals of the large country estates or of the city.

The ball for Fanny is not the same thing as theatricals, since it is a real rather than a fancied event, and so people will, if anything, act more properly than they otherwise might. It is also an event where there is sufficient formality and control by the elders so that flirting is kept within its proper bounds of providing indications of interest in pairing off. It is the kind of courtship which allows the passions to present themselves in a useful way, and it takes Sir Thomas' presiding genius to understand the delicate balance of pretense and compromise which allows the passions to be turned to useful arrangements, even if he is eventually to be overcome by his inability to manage things as well as he would have liked.

The play within a play that moves along the plot of the novel or play into which it is interpolated is, of course, an inheritance from “Hamlet”. Shakespeare is also known for his performances-within-performances, where characters go through set piece ceremonies where they each know what role they are supposed to play and, for some reason, fail to act properly. In the plays that precede the great tragedies, these performances are set towards or after the middle of the play and result in its subsequent events, and so function as the play within the play will function. Shylock is so overtaken by his rage that during the trial scene he drops the life long guise of magnanimity which he had adopted for the sake of prudence and so brings down all the evils which his Jewish soul had dreaded, by for once giving vent to his desire for vengeance. He for once holds a gentile to his promise, as he is presumably always held to his despite the entreaties of all the good gentiles that he act with nobility, even if the nobles engage in this performance of Christian virtue only this one time when the life of one of their own is at stake. Henry V, for his part, is remarkably passive, falling back on his old contemplative ways, when he listens to the explanation of his rights to the French throne, and unleashes the war as if he did not in that formal performance of his kingly role have the right to ask his advisors to reconsider, or give them new guidance about ways to deal with the French, who would probably have bartered their daughter for a peace treaty before as well as after the war.

Most of the time, however, the performances come close to the beginning of a play, as if the set pieces, the public occasions, generate the entire play or its most general movement when a key character misreads his role or perversely refuses to play it or somehow has risen beyond it. The intrigue in “Julius Caesar” emerges from the interpretation of what Caesar meant when he three times turned down the throne. Was it merely a performance, or an intention as well? There was nothing Caesar could have done within that performance that would have appeased his opponents. Hamlet suggests the depths of his own misanthropy and his preoccupation with his own cleverness when he plays on the pun of being a son during his formal reintroduction at the Danish court. Othello is better at declaring his love of state and of Desdemona at his formal return to Venice than he is able to avoid personal and social anarchy at the end of the play during the private performance of the confrontation scene he had set up in his mind. And, of course, both Lear and Cordelia both violate and uphold performance standards in the set piece that opens “King Lear”.

Jane Austen has a play within a play as a central moment of “Mansfield Park”, the point of which is that when people feign emotions they really have, as is the case when Maria plays opposite Henry, then people actually do perform the roles they have hesitated to perform in real life, and so reveal themselves more than is discrete, not because it is improper to be so forward, but because it is too emotionally destabilizing to act as if one is acting emotions which are not being merely performed but are in fact felt. People come to recognize themselves in their roles, or if they fail to do so, as is the case with the characters at Mansfield Park, it is not only a sign that they are obtuse, but are, in their own "real" world within the novel, merely prisoners of their roles, unsaved by circumspection and thoughtfulness, which is the virtue Jane Austen saves for herself and, occasionally, bestows on Fanny.

The characters do not know what to make of what they feel because they think they are merely playing roles, rather than displaying their feelings in public. Theatricals are a threat to social order not because they are play, but because they come too close to the truth. They serve the same purpose as a psychoanalytic session: they provide an occasion for the projection of feelings that are otherwise unnamed, and which are not less real because they are not attributed to the players during the dispensation of the performance.

The ball that Sir Thomas prefers to the theatricals is a performance within a performance that contains its own paradoxes and ironies. People at balls know they are feigning roles, while during the theatricals they do not know they are not merely feigning roles. At the ball, everyone cooperates to make Fanny look good, and so they discount what they are doing, though what they do not only succeeds in elevating Fanny's position in society, and her own self-esteem in a realm where, like Othello, she thought herself inadequate, but where her enthusiasms do not seem to create a disaster, her indulgence of her dreams of herself sustained rather than the object of humiliation, but where people do reveal themselves more than they want to, both Henry and Edmund coming off as her especial friends, which leads to the two courtships, one or the other either sacred or profane, that will dominate the rest of the book.

As Shakespeare knew, plays and performances are not fictions, but kinds of reality in which more is revealed than the characters recognize is revealed even if they see and are participants in the revelation. While Shakespeare may consequently have seen theatrics and performances as metaphors for religious conversion, Jane Austen simply regards them as methods and mechanisms for the continuing unraveling of character which is the nature of life in the world, and the ultimate justification of fiction.


4/9: Jane Austen and Shakespeare

Lady Reading in an Interior,  Marguerite     Gérard,  1795

Lady Reading in an Interior, Marguerite Gérard, 1795

Jane Austen was a literary intellectual in the sense that she used literature as a vehicle for writing about life rather than just to amuse readers so that they would buy her books, notwithstanding that her first two novels were satires of the popular genres of her time: the gothic romance and the novel of domestic life. Jane Austen was also an avid follower of the contemporary theatre. It is not surprising, therefore, that she would self-consciously choose Shakespeare as the model against which to work “Mansfield Park”, the first completed of her second trilogy of novels. Shakespeare was both part of her own education and part of the accepted lore of English culture, he just coming into his Romantic stature as a god-like figure who could even serve as the basis for a set of imitations and reflections in a number of genres for a number of Romantic figures that included Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb, and Landor.

Austen says as much within “Mansfield Park”. Jane is playing with her reader when she provides Mr. Crawford, a supposedly obtuse young man, with a speech about how Shakespeare seeps into every Englishman's sensibility, whether the plays are read or not. Fanny and Edmund, who think themselves well read, are horrified at this excuse for ignorance, but they are not prepared to see its truth, which is that there is such a thing as a culture, with its own way of seeing things, that goes beyond a set of quotations or plot summaries. What Crawford says strikes home because it is so candid an admission of how Shakespeare functions even for those who are not particularly literate. By this point in the novel, Jane's readers should know that admissions about how the world serves self interest are usually true observations. Culture operates even upon those who simply wish to appropriate it so that they will seem cultured. So Jane's clue that her own novel is Shakespearean even if it does not again overtly refer to Shakespeare is so obvious that, like the purloined letter, it is likely to be missed.

The structure of “Mansfield Park” is that of a Shakespearean tragedy. First, the plot adds on additional complexities until it becomes a Gordian knot somewhere in the third act. This is the moment of highest emotional distress and tragic recognition. The play then unravels its complexities into some kind of resolution. If the play had been a comedy or romance, there would have been a restoration of family through intricate pairings of lovers on every level of class and generation. If the play is a tragedy, however, the family whose life the play chronicles is destroyed once and for all. Lear's soul is destroyed, but the life of his favorite daughter is also taken. The crown does not descend from Hamlet to some relative but is usurped by Fortinbras. No descendants are mentioned for Anthony and Othello. None of these tragic heroes become connected to future generations. For Shakespeare, tragedy is when a family line ends, because the usual melodrama of fate can no longer operate, as it inevitably does, to merely alter a family or cause it grief. In a tragedy, there is no longer a stable universe of the family within which grief can be acknowledged and overcome.

The same can be said of “Mansfield Park”, which is also about the continuation of families into the next generation, and which ends only with the creation of a replacement family for the Bertrams, rather than any of the marriages that would have simply extended the family line into another generation of gentility built on inherited wealth and community standing. This tragedy is shown indirectly, however, because it does not arise out of a decline in family fortunes, which is the early clue Jane Austen plants to provide suspense about the future of the family, or even with the melodramatic foolishness of some of the characters, who seem to bring the family to ruin because they throw their lives away by loving the wrong people, which is a false trail Jane Austen provides towards the end of the novel and which takes in most readers and critics.

The reader trained on the Brontes is likely to think that Fanny's story is that of an observer who has been brought into the drama to do that and to some extent rescue the fall of the Bertrams. But Fanny is more than an observer; she is a deus ex machina. The story is constructed around Fanny's rise to prominence in the family, which is not just an ironic counterpoint to the fate of the family, but also suggests her growing role in creating that fate. She is the one who appears to come to fit into the world of the Bertrams, but who, in fact, is so unassimilable that her presence skews the responses of others, like the Crawfords, to the Bertrams, and makes more difficult a sensible response by one or another of the Bertrams to the opportunities that avail themselves. Though not the single force that leads to the degeneration of the Bertrams to a family whose best marriage, finally, is between Edmund, a clergyman, and Fanny, his poor relation, Fanny does live up to the prophecy of the Cassandra of the story, Mrs. Norris, who thought from the beginning that Fanny would detract rather than add to the family.

The drama is arranged as a rags to riches story. Fanny's rise in the family from a minor to a major figure accompanies the first part of the drama, which moves from childhood to the crisis of courtship and arrives at its apex when Sir Thomas Bertram returns from Antigua and proceeds to set things on their topsy turvy course--or else to preside over trying to set right what has already gone so amiss that it proves beyond repair. The denouement, suitable for Shakespeare, is full of action as well as attempts to find as right a pairing as is possible that will preserve the future of the family. Sir Thomas is moved to discard one pairing after another, each one of lessened importance, until the final matching of Edmund and Fanny, far from a triumph, comes out as the best that can be done under the circumstances, no matter that it is a love match or that Sir Thomas actually likes Fanny.

Even that minor saving grace is accomplished only after even this last match has been made almost impossible. Fanny has been sent off to Portsmouth, where she had begun her life, with no expectation of a future role in the family drama in which she played so large a role despite herself. The drama is turned full circle: she had arrived at Mansfield Park, found a place for herself there, moved to center stage, then moved herself off center when she refuses to marry Crawford, and then even farther off stage to Portsmouth from which she is rescued only by her usefulness in patching up as best can be events that had gone beyond all control.

This symmetrical movement, which also appeals to Keats and Emily Bronte, runs counter to another feature of the narrative. The pace of the novel picks up as it moves along, and there is an unfolding of ever more sophisticated levels of description by the author, and a building to a final epiphany that changes all meanings, rather than just a central meaning to which the plot ascends and from which it descends.

As in Shakespeare, the stages of plot are symmetrical but the stages of language are successive. In each of the great tragedies, language proceeds from its "lower" to its "higher" forms. Macbeth, Othello, Lear especially, and even Hamlet, move from the language of politics in the first sections of each play, where the characters are concerned with the calculation and balancing of the interests of the political players, a type of language Shakespeare had perfected in “Julius Caesar”, to the language of the great soliloquies, in which the central characters consider the confrontation of mankind with the forces of nature, including the elemental passions. Lear on the heath, Macbeth transformed by his guilt and his understanding of his own nature and nation, Othello confronted with the possibility of his own jealousy, an uncontrollable force which surprises a man whose passions had previously been so in concert with his social position, the protagonist now agonized into eloquence, and so speaking poetry.

Poetry then gives way in the resolution of each of the tragedies to what might be called, following Lear, the language of the birds, the music which allows perfect communication of love and the kind of serenity provided by the survival of tragedy and the appreciation of tragedy. This is very short for Othello, who turns his grief into a ritualistic killing of the one he loves, a sacrifice to the gods performed by him, perhaps for the first time, as an act from which his consciousness is removed. For Macbeth, this period is somewhat more extended, as he resolves to be what he has become, and move ever deeper into blood.

The removal from one language to the next brings a quickening of the pace of the narrative in each tragedy because each level of language operates at its own speed. Events in the political world seem to move quickly only because there is so much talk and analysis of what people mean by each action they take. There are so many implications in any possible action that any action once taken seems a surprise, an intrusion on the never satisfied pace of deliberations. Any action is taken too soon for the significance of the last prior action to have been properly analyzed, and so there is certainly insufficient time left over for the contemplation of an impending event. Politics moves too quickly in real time to allow time for its analysis, and so seems always rushed.

Here is a passage from the first third of “Mansfield Park” which speaks the language of calculation, the prose of political discourse:


“The time was now come when Sir Thomas expected his sister-in-law to claim her share in their niece, the change in Mrs. Norris’s situation,and the improvement in Fanny’s age, seeming not merely to do away any former objection to their living together, but even to give it the most decided eligibility; and as his own circumstances were rendered less fair than heretofore, by some recent losses on his West India Estate, in addition to his eldest son’s extravagance, it became not undesirable to himself to be relieved from the expense of her support, and the obligation of her future provision. “

The language of poetry, for its part, can go on indefinitely exploring the meaning of nature for a new level of insight. Nature comes to mean whatever is eternal because it means what repays infinite contemplation. Nature is not rushed, nor is the plenitude of poetry that it stimulates, but there is no completion of that relationship, because it is timeless, and is altered only when the metaphysical and natural landscape which sparks the poetry is eliminated. Lear could have stayed on the heath forever, or at least only until he died, just as Hamlet could have wondered around Elsinore, forever contemplating the psychological dynamics of kinship and love, if he had not been moved by his thoughts to actions that had consequences. To alter the environment is to take away the object of contemplation, the seat of reverberations.

Now here is a passage from the second third of “Mansfield Park”. It speaks the language of poetry, which is, for Jane Austen, the description of the natural social situation, and is particularly well put by Edmund, Fanny’s true love:


“ “But, Fanny,” he presently added, “in order to have a comfortable walk, something more is necessary than merely pacing the gravel together. You must talk to me. I know you have something on your mind. I know what you are thinking of. You cannot suppose me uninformed. Am I to hear of it from everybody but Fanny herself?” “



These few lines are funny. They are also poetic in the conventional sense because “pacing the gravel together is such an apt image of a walk without conversation. It is also a reflection on the nature of conversation as that is put at a distance from the present occasion to which this wisdom applies. Staying silent when there is something on your mind means that others can reveal it and that is not a good thing if the two parties to the conversation are to consider themselves intimate friends. Edmund’s remarks also indicate that he is someone worthy of Fanny because of his wit and intelligence.

The final language of music is the most quickly paced because action is unhurried since action and language move at the same pace, the language now a direct expression of action, fully integrated with action. Characters, like Lear, need speak very little, and Hamlet can become terse, for actions seem decisive, decisions quickly made, events unfolding with a will of their own as the protagonists adopt the Shakespearean understanding of Stoicism: they appreciate that their own engagement in the world is part of the action of the world rather than merely a cause or a contemplation of actions in the world. They thereby succeed, for a moment, in achieving a kind of simultaneous distance from and acceptance of action.

The characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy hold true for “Mansfield Park”, except that the novel is set in the framework of Humean empiricism rather than the framework of Elizabethan Stoicism. The language of the novel moves from a way to cloak self-interest as good will, which is the way Mrs. Norris talks when Fanny first arrives, and which places Fanny as the outsider who must parse the language to find who are her friends and enemies, where her self-interest lies in the politics of Mansfield Park. The language then shifts, as Fanny becomes a member of the family, to a way to align self-interest with sentiment, which is the way Fanny and the other members of the Bertram family come to talk between themselves as they contemplate the eternal round of life that country life imagines itself to be, full of platitudinous and universal moral truths about the way life has to be, how reality is connected to illusion, and language to sentiments, and how each of us pine to find a way out of the metaphysical impasse of convention and self.

The language of the novel makes a second transition to being a language which is able to speak truthfully and therefore of the consequences of the events described, in which case words are meaningful and, far from being fluff, are all too accurate and lacerating. This new language allows the narrative to move along at ever greater speed, since events can be so quickly telescoped and their implications communicated, if the reader has learned his lessons, and been prepared by Jane Austen's instruction on how to read language and character. The novel can now move into the pace of actual life, rather than operate on the levels of, first, calculation and then, second, the obfuscation or poetry by which we make life managable or, at the least, commensurable.

And here is a passage from the last third of “Mansfield Park”. It speaks the language of the birds, which in this case means the rapid fire emotionally charged action where the events and the meaning are smoothlessly tied together, the events proceeding so rapidly that the characters have little time to consider what is being said but must get on with drawing conclusions. This passage takes place when Fanny has returned to Portsmouth:


”Mr. Crawford contrived a minute’s privacy for telling Fanny that his only business in Portsmouth was to see her, that he had come down for a couple of days on her account and her’s only, and because he could not endure a longer total separation. She was sorry, really sorry; and yet, in spite of this and the two or three other things she wished he had not said, she thought him altogether improved since she had seen him; he was much more gentle, obliging, and attentive to other people’s feelings than he had ever been at Mansfield;....”

Fanny makes instant and complicated judgments of which she feels very sure because that is what is now required by the circumstances but also by the author. Those rapid fire decisions, with which Jane's characters too often seem to indulge themselves, require considerable patience and insight by the reader if they are to be unravelled, even if it is the case that most of life does indeed go on at this pace and does seem to require what might anachronistically be described as simultaneous translation. The consequence of having to cope with subtleties is that life seems to go on much more slowly than it really does. Jane Austen seems to suggest that by careful instruction the reader can be liberated to follow the action quickly by apprehending language as if it were direct, rather than cope with the more realistic slow pace of language that, however accurate, makes the commission of literature so much harder. Literature is artificial because it makes language more accurate and more subtle and more effectual than it really is so that reality can be represented, as in Shakespeare, through eloquence and poetry as well as a music of words that can break through from feeling to action.


3/9: Mobility and Manners in "Mansfield Park"

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“Upward mobility” is a sociological term coined to describe the movement of people from the social class into which they were born into a higher class during their lifetimes. It also refers to the movement into higher social classes across the generations, children outdoing their parents. The point of upward mobility, whether it is intra- or inter-generational, is that it is not merely a matter of increased position and wealth, but also a matter of changed perspectives. The upwardly mobile person has to adjust to the way of life of the class which is joined, and even then may be regarded as presumptuous for appropriating the ways of his betters.

For the most part, the Eighteenth Century drama of upward mobility was played out as a matter of self-interest, legitimacy, and marriage, that mix further tangled by passion or indiscretion. This presentation did not do justice to the difficulty of upward mobility, for the portraits of the different classes were less nuanced in England than were, for example, the portraits of different nationality groups, which were understood by Goldsmith and others to have different personality traits, as well as contrary interests. Just as children were little adults, the inferior social classes were thought of as just more deprived in wealth and position, given to liquor or licentiousness as a result of their situation, rather than because the differing situations of the differing social classes gave rise to differing perspectives about what made sense in the conduct of life. Moll Flanders is as articulate as her betters, and just as given to calculation. Even the characters in “Tom Jones” are differentiated by station and what is therefore their natural interests, rather than by a different sense of life. Every individual can be thought to calculate what is best in the same way and would arrive at the same conclusion, given the same particular set of circumstances. Utilitarianism is a calculus which is the same to the observer and the observed.

Jane Austen refocuses the calculation of interests by adding to it the differing sentiments which arise in particular social classes. She is a Humean who relies on human sympathy to help people coordinate their interests with one another and to make the social world a humanly recognizable one, a place for mutual cooperation as well as competition. The calculus of morals combined with sentiment and self interest is a complex one which she demonstrates in some detail. But she also accomplishes something else: she offers a set of classes who do not understand one another, where there is no common measure of moral worth which all classes accept. There is indeed an objective scale of classes, but each social class understands the virtues and vices which seem morally essential to each class differently. It could not very well be otherwise, since each class will prize its own virtues and see the virtues of the other classes as vices, so closely does a class identify its own way of life with the way things have to be, of right. Social classes are mutually intolerant, and so their intermingling leads to misperceptions by each of them of the meanings of the words and actions in the other social classes. To the extent that Jane Austen has a thesis she wishes to illustrate, this is it, but the social analysis which occupies the first third of “Mansfield Park”, the novel which most clearly addresses the ways the social classes rub off against and with one another, will give way to a second third that is tragic, and then to a lyrical vision, each of the three parts of the novel so well worked out that the author's ability to transcend her own terms of analysis, not once but twice, is intellectually and emotionally dazzling.

The deep dirty secret of “Mansfield Park” is that Fanny Price, its heroine, doesn’t much like or come to identify with her erstwhile benefactors, and they don’t have much use for her either. A generation before Jane Eyre is frightened but ready to fall in love with posh living and a dashing benefactor, Fanny does not lose her resentment at the slights which she might be expected to weather for having been introduced on the scene as the poor cousin of the Bertrams, brought to Mansfield Park out of the misplaced goodwill of Mrs. Norris, who makes some purely verbal gesture at doing something for a child of the poor sister of Lady Bertram. Even though Mrs. Norris never takes any responsibility for the child, refusing to take her into her own home even after she is widowed, and despite what she had promised to undertake, Fanny's fate is the result of the flippant and hypocritical words of Mrs. Norris. Fanny does not outgrow her grudges.

The world into which Fanny is introduced is full of hypocrisy. All the words mean the opposite of what they would seem to mean. People exercise power by claiming they are doing something for other people, when they are in fact arranging matters in their own favor. Language seems to serve the purposes of making excuses for doing things in one's own interest, and a person is a master of language to the sense that they can craft it for those purposes.

Fanny comes to see that the class inflected language increases her own condition of dependance. She is at first not equipped to speak it at all. Her introduction to Mansfield Park has the Dickensian quality of a child observing the fulsome speech of their elders without yet having the wit to defend herself or the sophistication to hide her own immediate concerns. Fanny arrives on the doorstep at Mansfield Park tired after a long journey, and acts the way a child would under such circumstances, and this is taken as the sign of the class from which she has come. This also is a Dickensian touch, blaming the lower class for being merely human, rather than demonstrating some superhuman virtues which the betters could not themselves offer.

Fanny is hard pressed to survive in this environment. She makes some room for herself by never by asking too much or demanding too much. Rather, she simply waits around so that something can be offered out of the generosity that overcomes the giver because of the awkwardness that results from her being a member of the family deprived of such simple amenities. How Fanny gets her horse is a good example of this. She pouts and resents until Sir Thomas Bertram finds a horse for her, while Maria, a “legitimate” daughter, has no trouble getting her’s. The lesson Fanny learns is that you get what you are entitled to by pouting and not forgetting the humiliation you have to go through to get what should not need to be asked for. Fanny bears the scars of her ordeal. She takes Mrs. Norris too seriously, thinking herself unworthy of more than the crumbs she gets; she falls back upon herself, and her own wit, in which she can take some pride, and the moral righteousness she shares with Edmund, the cousin to whom she is closest.

Fanny is at first thus dependant, but then, as the years of courtship approach for the older girls in the family, she becomes entwined in the family life, still inferior in station, but allowed to hear conversation of a domestic sort which shows that language is not just for the purpose of disguise, but a complex matter of meshing sentiment and family feeling with social obligations. It becomes clear to the more mature Fanny that people are willing to shed the proprieties when it suits them because the proprieties are only that people need gentle language only when they are dependant upon it, which is what happens so that people manage to survive the day, needing company so they can do their needlework. People are useless, and social life is claustrophobic, but nonetheless essential, for without it people would be without emotional sustenance and the support that allows them to think well of themselves, because they are under such pressure to think poorly of themselves. The cripples helping the cripples.

Fanny survives by becoming a moral icon. Since she has come to this way of life late, she learns it as a lesson, a process of assimilation, and is therefore less likely to alter it, to treat it as malleable and circumstantial. She internalizes propriety while for others propriety is simply a social fact. This accomplishment comes to be a weapon with which she shames others, though largely unintentionally, since she gives off the aura of morality when in fact morality seems the natural way to act since that is what she has learned to identify as the way of life of the society which she has joined. She takes aristocratic respectability more seriously than do those born into the aristocracy. This is so much the case that when she first hears Mary Crawford, a visitor to Mansfield Park, criticize the family that had adopted her--adoption not seeming to be a strange though not therefore unremarkable an occasion, Fanny is scandalized. People don’t say such things about people on whom they are dependant. Fanny and Edmund come to the same explanation for this failing that the people at Mansfield Park had given for her own shortcomings: bad child rearing.

Not that Fanny is immune from gaffes. Her concern for her gown is comic and pathetic; her wearing of the jewelry given as gifts to her is absurd. But Fanny is taken as a person for whom it is a given that their manners are imperfect, and so that must be set aside if she is to be appreciated. Which results in the converse, that when she is appreciated, her poor manners and slightly off putting manner must be set aside. This also contributes to her character as a moral icon, since it is a characteristic to be perceived through her very visible frailties, as is also the case with Yoda, and so is a tribute to those who can observe her to have that deeper, more sublime, kind of virtue.

Fanny moves from being dependant to being part of a mutually dependant community, each member having to exhibit the social traits suitable for the social class from which they come. James Rushworth is such a failure when he takes them to visit his estate because a man of such a high station should be able to carry off the visit without a hitch, and should act as if he does not care when things go badly, for it is not he who should try to impress them, but they who should be grateful for what he condescends to offer them.

In such a world, how do people court? By where they sit on a stage, or who they walk with, because such events have double meanings: acceptable in their own right as innocent, but capable of interpretation as significant. Only when the burden of such ambiguous moments builds up, does one have the right to take them as signals of courtship, so that a declaration of love, when unambiguously stated, has been long prepared, and every indication has been given it would be accepted, because no event contrary to such an interpretation is available, even though any number of events can still take on an innocent gloss. That is why Henry Crawford’s declaration to Fanny is so dramatic even if he has made an eccentric choice and why Fanny's rejection seems so perverse in spite of that because she was in no position to do any better.  But the decorum of courtship also shows that there is a hairline of difference between events which can be interpreted and those which declare themselves to be what they are. There is always a dramatic gap between what is as yet unannounced and its announcement. This provides the suspense and the interest of these love stories, because it emphasizes the way in which all love stories turn triumphant or tragic on the basis of correctly or incorrectly understood intentions.

Fanny moves from group dependance to self-dependance. She falls back, in the third part of the story, to being her own guide, which is a role she has been prepared for, but did not want to undertake in so powerful a way, but which was unavoidable because so many unforeseen opportunities for which their is not a simple moral calculus, given her position and dispositions.

It is from this posture that she must make her judgment of Portsmouth, her original home to which she returns as a “mature” woman. Portsmouth is not easy to accept or reject, and  the reader is likely to trust Fanny's judgment because she is, despite everything, the character with the clearest and most objective sense of class since she is the one who moves most easily between them and retains her intellectual and even a bit of emotional distance. Although Fanny is at first taken aback by the material insufficiencies of her mother's house, that is not her final judgment. It is that these are not nice people, no nicer than the people at Mansfield Park.

How are we to separate out the issues of class circumstances, the culture of a class, its state of disorganization, and the individual personalities? It was not at all clear then or now. Are people more virtuous in one class rather than another, or is it simply a confusion of morals with manners? Fanny appreciates the question, but thinks the poorer people do not simply speak in a more vulgar way, or have to contend with meaner conditions, which leads them to concentrate on more vulgar concerns, but are, in fact, baser sorts of people when everything is added up. She will not make a joke of it and so, like Henry Higgins, declare Eliza Doolittle’s father to be a superior kind of moralist.

These are the issues which have become familiar from social analysis of upward mobility in any age, but are best applied to Jane Austen by understanding her usage of terms properly. What could she mean when she presents people as lacking manners? Is that an attribute of their social class? It is, if we understand the term “manners” properly. There is a conceptual gap between Fanny’s world and the world of today that is the result of just a shift in meaning. Manners do not mean today what they meant in Jane Austen’s time. Today, “manners” means a code of conduct which allows people to be civil to one another whatever are their feelings toward one another. People who have good manners will not embarrass other people out of a sense of tact and what is proper behavior for a civilized behavior at the moment. Manners are today the province of--well, Miss Manners, and also of Emily Post and all the others who write about etiquette, they quick to point out that they are not concerned about whether a reader uses the right spoon but whether a person tries to put another person at ease and otherwise tries to smooth out the bumps in social relationships, whether that means telling someone an uncomfortable truth because it might relieve the person told or telling of an uncomfortable burden, or not to tell a hidden truth because it will bring with it unnecessary pain.

But in Jane Austen’s time, as her characters make clear, manners refers to a person’s manner, what we might even call their personality, because it is about how a person presents themselves to others, whether that person can help being that way or not. A manner is a presentation, how the person comes across, whether as gruff or arrogant, or winsome, or argumentative, or flirtatious and oh much too well mannered, as is the case with Mr. Wickham, who uses his manners to seduce Lydia in “Pride and Prejudice”. So manner may be feigned or inevitable, but they are the revelations of character not always to be trusted, as is the case when Elizabeth early on finds Darcy to be arrogant and standoffish only later to find that he is decent and honorable and devoted even if he still is arrogant and standoffish.

And that is the case in “Mansfield Park”. Fanny has a poor manner in that she is greedy and pouts a lot and has to get her way, even if she has learned how to eat properly. As in Shakespeare, what appears to be the case really is the case. Richard III is in his soul as ugly as he is as a person. Jane Austen translates that insight into meaning that people are their manner: what you see is what you get. Fanny is what she is and will continue to being that however much love or the appearance of love is sent her way. Why people are the way they are is perhaps beyond Jane Austen’s understanding, as it is beyond ours. But what Austen offers is the very conservative message which is not to trust people to be any better than they apparently seem to be, which is very different from the liberal message that people can be improved and are improved, are elevated in their social class, even if their manners are better given that their manner is not. The conservative message is to trust to social categories such as race and social class, while the liberal message is to trust to essential humanity, and these two messages are so in collision that we, today, recognize them as conflicting feelings rather than conflicting ideas. We sense them to be the bedrock on which political positions and social viewpoints can rest.


2/9: Tone and Texture in "Pride and Prejudice"

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Tone is a set of feelings evoked by a novel and we have long established names for characteristic sets of feelings. These are the names of the genres: comedy, tragedy, melodrama, romance, and all those others, the hybrids, such as tragicomedy, referred to by Hamlet in his speech to the players. Texture, for its part, is the way these characteristic features are established through the stylistics of the text: how a text combines dialogue with description, how it leaves ironies hanging in the air; what it takes to be a joke or a resolution or even a mere development in a conflict. Jane Austen who, as the narrator of her novels, is a distant, jaundiced and amused authorial voice, works her will largely by how she structures her scenes so as to allow for verbal confrontations, a playwright as much as a novelist, which makes sense given her debt to Shakespeare.  But as a novelist, she was quite good at changing and managing different tones within the same novel. This is certainly the case in "Pride and Prejudice", where there is a conflict between two families that differ in much more than wealth. The Bennets and the extended family of Mr. Darcy differ in tone. The Bennets are comic, always being a bit silly, though not always as much as Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth desperately wants to escape from that. The wealthy families, on the other hand, are given over to melodrama. They take themselves very seriously, and they exaggerate their emotions, as when Darcy finds the first ball he attends terribly dull. They are also touched by tragedy, which is what happens when Mr. Wickham ruins Darcy's sister, though the reader does not find that out until much later, when Darcy reveals his family disgrace to Elizabeth and so clinches the case that he really loves her by going into an intimacy that would be, at the time, truly shocking and from which his sister would not be expected to recover.

Darcy and his family also have the virtue of taking situations into hand when they need to with resolution as if a good deal depended on how you handled life rather than just responded to it. Darcy is not judgmental about Lydia falling for Mr. Wickham. Foolish girls will do such things. He just sets out to do the things that will make the situation right. He arranges for a marriage by paying off Wickham's debts and may have had a hand in seeing him assigned to a military post in the north where he and Lydia will be out of the way, seen only occasionally on visits. Darcy's first marriage proposal to Elizabeth may seem unromantic but it was full of good sense. There is a problem in the marriage of people of such different wealth and disposition and so his willingness to create structures that will help resolve the differences between the two shows just how much he loves her even if he cannot put it that way and comes over, eventually, to her view that a marriage must brook no such impediments: it must be done for purely romantic reasons and so Darcy puts aside his misgivings about how well Elizabeth will do as mistress of Pemberley. For her part, Elizabeth has to put aside her amusement at Darcy's haughty manner and take him to be the recently converted non-snob he now claims to be, knowing full well that he cannot give up that part of his character, nor would she want him to.

Texture, on the other hand, refers to the various techniques of writing that are used in moving ahead the plot through whatever tone or combination of tones the author chooses to engage. Texture is created by the balance between dialogue and narration, in the nature and type of authorial voice used in the novel, in the extent of the description of such atmospherics as furniture or architecture or countryside, in whether scenes are long or short, and on whether the author indulges in subplots to pass the time or give some relief from the central action of the novel. Dickens was long on subplots and atmospherics while having a strong authorial voice inclined to sympathy for the unfortunate lives being portrayed, while Jane Austen was short on subplots and atmospherics while also having a strong authorial voice inclined to a rational appreciation of the circumstances that drove her characters to have the deep emotions that they only sometimes expressed.

So how is it that these two people, Elizabeth and Darcy, being of such different temperments, of two different styles, come together? They are brought together by Mr. Binkley and Jane Bennet, Darcy accompanying Binkley on his visits to the Bennet household, events that seem deeply unpleasant to all concerned, even to Mrs. Bennet who so much wants to move them in the right direction. Binkley and Jane, it is pointed out over and over again, are simple souls who do not see the complications of themselves falling into a love match, while Elizabeth and Darcy, at the beginning of their love affair, can see nothing but the obstacles that stand in their way. That is the way, by coincidence, that their love affair is able to prosper.

Consider the way Jane Austen uses both tone and texture to distance the reader from the scandal of Lydia's elopement, which is not just a shame on the family but a disaster for it because it means that none of the young women will be able to make a suitable marriage. The incident is rendered comic because Mr. Collins, when he comes to console them, candidly speaks of the very bad news in just the condescending and censorious tone that is likely to make the family regain a sense of amour propre. Only Mr. Collins would be so full of gloom and doom, however much what he says is true. No politeness here. Small mindedness may be rampant everywhere, but nowhere so clearly as in Mr. Collins. And the texture of the novel also distances the rendition from the emotions conveyed by the events themselves. The story of the elopement is revealed through letters concerning Lydia's disappearance, then her location, then her marriage, and then her impending visit, when, only then, does Lydia let the cat out of the bag by referring to something she was not supposed to, which was Mr. Darcy's presence at her wedding. So all becomes clear to the discerning Elizabeth, as it never becomes clear, fortunately, to the obtuse Lydia, that Darcy had arranged it all, and so introduced himself back into the story of the lives of the Bennet family, and contributed to changing Elizabeth's mind to him--clinched it, really, in that Elizabeth had already softened to him. That prepares the stage for he and his friend, Mr. Bingley, to reappear in the neighborhood, and propose their respective marriages, never mind that Lydia and Mr. Wickham have been moved off the stage so that their very unpropitious marriage can work itself out. What will happen when Wickham runs out of money this next time is not discussed by Jane Austen.

The way Jane Austen organizes her dialogues is so characteristic that it can be abstracted out to be a principle of organization and so part of the texture of the work as a whole. We have already observed the way she manages the conversations that take place at Netherfield between Elizabeth and Darcy, others present in the room. The dialogue is abbreviated, a quick set of piercing exchanges that leave the others in the room far behind and so bored but the conversations themselves crackling with bon mots and devastating insights. In the last one of these, Elizabeth says Mr. Darcy is mean and Mr. Darcy says that Elizabeth deliberately misunderstands people. Both are correct. There is nothing more to be said because each has reduced the other to some basic insight about the person: an emotion that is core to their characters.

Ending a conversation after hitting some bedrock after the preliminaries are out of the way is not the way most conversations in the real world proceed. Rather, people return over and over again to old themes and insights, to digressions, to newly invented rejoinders and side issues. But it is the way in which Jane Austen conversations operate because she is a rationalist who thinks that conversations actually do something. They clarify issues, get down to axiomatic disagreements, and then there is nothing left to say and so they are over. That is very much in keeping with Jane Austen's view of the novel itself, each of her own not simply giving the reader a window into a way of life with which the reader is unfamiliar and delicious to savor, but so as to solve a problem that Jane Austen has set up in the early pages of the novel. "Pride and Prejudice" opens with two eligible gentlemen of means coming into the neighborhood doubtlessly in search of brides, and by the end of it have been married off to girls who are either early or late all too glad to have them. Similarly, "Mansfield Park" is about how a poor relative taken in by a wealthy family makes her way with the family, changing it more than changing herself, and "Emma" is about a busybody who finally has to grow up and cope with her own feelings rather than the feelings of others. How will she manage that? "Persuasion" is also simple and straightforward in its story. How does a romance get rekindled, if it can, some years later, between people whose prior romance had not worked out? That is an intellectual problem for Jane Austen to contemplate, even as it is an emotional one as well, "Persuasion" having the most poignant of all her plots.

That this is Jane Austen's approach to dialogue and to plotting--start with a problem and end it with a solution or at least a recognition that there is no where else to go--is telegraphed many times, perhaps most successfully in Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth, which is farcical and always included in the movie versions of the novel because the irony of the scene is so readily grasped: that Elizabeth wants nothing to do with the man and that he persists anyway totally oblivious to her feelings. In spite of her not even wanting to be alone with him so he could propose, he clears the room, thanks to Mrs. Bennet, and then gives the rational basis for his decision--his comfortable position and the fact that his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, thinks he should marry--and when Elizabeth tries to let him down gently, he claims that is because girls are likely to turn down a proposal the first time out of modesty, and when she perseveres, saying that something as important as a proposal is not likely to be turned down a first time out of form lest the proposal not be repeated, Mr. Collins says right out loud why he thinks she should not turn him down: the family estate is entailed to him anyway and this is the only way for the family to get out of that difficulty, and that Elizabeth is not likely to attract another suitor. All of this is hardly gallant or likely to win over a girl. Elizabeth says her answer is final and flees the scene, but Mr. Collins will not accept that a conversation is terminated when it is over and so appeals to Mrs. Bennet to get Elizabeth to reconsider before he changes his mind, and so she appeals to Mr. Bennet to interceded, at which point, Mr. Bennet, fully aware of the disaster to his family that his judgment portends, says he will not speak to Elizabeth if she accepts the proposal, and Elizabeth, of course, is much more concerned with the judgment of her father than of her well-meaning but marriage obsessed mother.

The same principle applies to other instances of conversation in "Pride and Prejudice". There is a point to Lady Catherine de Bough's chatter, which is to intrude herself into everyone else's decisions about how they live their lives and even about things she knows nothing about, such as music, when she claims authority without being able to play herself, and people do not quarrel with her about that. She criticizes Elizabeth's family for having done without a governess and having introduced all the daughters into society, and is piqued at Elizabeth unwilling to declare her age, that to her an impertinence, however trivial a matter it is, so that Elizabeth complies by admitting to being twenty-one. So we know what conversations are about at Rosling: hearing what Lady Catherine has to say. Lady Catherine, however, is not Wilde's Lady Bracknell. She is neither wise nor witty; she is, instead, boring and boorish and no one should have to put up with her but they do simply because she is rich.

There is a different purpose in Elizabeth's conversation with Mr. Fitzsimmons, who provides crucial information to Elizabeth when she makes casual reference to the fact that Darcy seems to look after Bingley, perhaps trying to probe into a relationship where one seems so clearly the intellectual superior of the other. What Fitzsimmons reveals is that Darcy had helped Binkley by discouraging him from an inappropriate and unnamed relationship, which Elizabeth quickly enough recognizes to have been the one with her sister. So the exchange of gossip, as that takes place when any of us discuss friends who are not present, results sometimes in useful information, and that is the purport if not the intention of such conversation. Talk has purpose.

The reader has been so well schooled in Jane Austen's view of dialogue, which is that it is over when it is over, and that extending it is ridiculous and shameful, that we are prepared to see Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy's first proposal just as she perhaps did not mean it to be: categorical and final, the end of the matter. That is the person she is, not a dissembler in the manner of Mr. Collins. Darcy understands that and, given that he is not very articulate in person, sends Elizabeth a letter where he candidly admits to having intruded between Bingley and Jane, but defends his behavior towards Wickham. In a letter, Darcy can deliver an extended argument that makes clear that he is both candid, showing his real motives, owning up to those that the one who receives the letter will disapprove of, as well as feeling honorbound to explain what others might misunderstand. He does in writing what Elizabeth does in speech: make points.This theory of conversation is also why it is very brave of Darcy to raise the question of marriage one more time, much later, after the Lydia-Wickham marriage, and after Lady Catherine has already informed Elizabeth of Darcy's continuing interest in her. This time, true to form, she does not hesitate, but quickly gives her consent, which means that it is an actual and rational and fully emotional assent, true to both her own and Jane Austen's sense of dialogue.

The movie versions of "Pride and Prejudice" are not true to either the novel's tone or its texture. Elizabeth as played by Greer Garson is too regal and self-possessed to be Elizabeth, while Laurence Olivier has just the right tone of arrogance and even a bit of meanness, though he is made out to be more articulate than he is in the novel. That film becomes a romantic comedy where spats rather than issues are at stake, demonstrating only that these are independant and therefore well matched people, sort of like in Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies. The very well received, and deservedly so, multipart BBC production of "Pride and Prejudice" stars a much too beautiful Jennifer Ehle who is matched in her sweetness by a heartthrob Colin Firth, and so there is established a tone of not at all bittersweet romance, the emotions syrupy rather than rough. Keira Knightley, in the 2005 version directed by Joe Wright, is also regal and so self-possessed that no one could fault her virtues, thus betraying the real conflict that is going on in Darcy's soul, and which Jane Austen, who is no great fan of her heroines, is out to portray, while her soulmate, the most recent Darcy, is more moody than arrogant, a Heathcliffe without the moors, and so providing a drama that is deeply Romantic, full of feeling and poignant and pregnant expressions.

I much prefer the authorial voice of Jane Austen herself, which is clearly present in her narrative, ordering her story so that it is clear what happens first and what goes next and how complications ensue and are resolved, ever mindful, that voice, of how people respond to their good sense and not just their emotions, and come to decisions that are reasonable under the circumstances. Jane Austen is an Enlightenment, not a Romantic, writer, however much her sense of the thickness of custom and culture, in that it is real rather than imaginary obstacles that get in the way of our lives turning out as we would like, and that people are amazing in their ability to thwart what in other times would have been thought of as their fates, which, in the case of this novel, is that all of the Bennet girls would have been condemned to very unsatisfactory even if necessary marriages.

The third movie version takes an interest in the atmospherics of nature that is true to a Romantic consciousness but not to Jane Austen, who did not show much interest in descriptions of nature. Elizabeth stands on a bluff and Darcy arrives through a mist. In that movie, Elizabeth also lives in a house where pigs wander through, and so much too ramshackle for this respectable if not wealthy family. That a house befits your station is important to Jane Austen. Darcy's Pemberley is grand, while the Bennet house is not, although comfy enough, as in the Greer Garson version, and Mr. Collins' house is even more bare than that, with only a mere suggestion of a garden.

The movie versions are a backdoor way of making another distinction between tone and texture. Tone and texture are two characteristics of literature that are particularly relied on as resources for the novel, while structure and language are more important in lyric poetry and drama. The tone of a novel is front stage. It is what preoccupies the reader. How will the story turn out? What are the motives of the characters? The texture of a novel, on the other hand, is what is upstage, the scenery, as it were, of the novel, and so absorbed indirectly by the reader. The texture of a novel has to do with the social world it creates, the kinds of situations and social circumstances which people encounter. The costumes, manners, occupations, beliefs, institutions, of the society provide the texture of a novel, and the reader, like the audience to the movies that are the lineal descendants of the novel, is awash in that world which is an alternative to the present one for its vividness and its strangeness, but not so off as to be unrecognizable as the world of understandable situations that the reader does inhabit. In that sense, all novels are historical novels, in that they create a world just slightly different (and a bit before) the actual present, and embellish the setting so that it seems exotic and so sets off feelings which are perhaps more familiar to the time or setting of the reader than of the place and time described. That is one reason why the novel is told in the past tense: because it is a chronicle of what is past, although it contains information and characters new to the reader who has not heard this novel before. The reader wants to know what will happen to Elizabeth and Darcy but is also caught up, inevitably, in the manners and manors of Regency England: how people speak and how they live.

1/9 Jane Austen: Dialogue in "Pride and Prejudice"

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery, London

“This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.”

George Saintsbury, a most neglected early Twentieth Century literary critic, ranked Jane Austen, along with Charles Dickens, as the most distinguished of the English novelists. I would go much further than that and assign to her the title of greatest novelist I have ever read. That is because, when it comes to technique, she can organize a gigantic set of characters into a plot that moves at the pace of a play, and write dialogue that both crackles with wit and complexity, revealing levels of character it takes a lifetime of study to fully appreciate, and she also evokes a social ambiance that is fully aware of the historical and economic forces at work, all this while seeming only to offer up an amusing diversion about the restricted lives of the country gentry in Regency England. Moreover, while her novels may all involve courtship as the defining feature of their plots, each novel is different, exploring different aspects of the nature of life, such as the nature of the past in “Persuasion” and, in “Pride and Prejudice”, the very difficult to access aspects of class differences that lie beneath the obvious ones, such as wealth and manners, which are so easy to ridicule-- something which Austen is by no means reluctant to do. Fun is to be had, but there are more serious issues afoot which are ubiquitous and yet amorphous. Jane Austen’s themes are universal and as deep as it gets. I sometimes wish that Jane Austen were used to train Senators and diplomats and psychoanalysts in how to do their jobs. Rereading Jane Austen shows her to be even better than we remember her to have been.

This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.

A first cut at establishing the greatness of Jane Austen as a novelist can be done by comparing her to another great Nineteenth Century novelist, Leo Tolstoy, who also describes courtships that take place at balls and large social gatherings where people who are largely strangers to one another converse, flirt, and dance with one another. Leo Tolstoy is a describer. A central moment in “Anna Karenina” occurs when Anna dances with Vronsky at the ball. They have flirted with one another, but that is all. Something happens during that dance that moves them into being potential lovers. Tolstoy decided not to let the reader hear what it is that they said to one another, like a movie director who shows an argument or some other impassioned conversation taking place behind a window or a glass door, the lips moving, but not letting the audience know exactly what is being said, only indicating its purport. So is conveyed the information of a death or other bad news or the particularly good news of the declaration of peace after a war.

Why did Tolstoy do what he did? It is not that he does not have the talent to do conversation. He does many conversations between Pierre and Andre, between Levin and Kitty. But he hides the most important conversations because they are not the active forces in moving along the narrative. The actions that would be enunciated in words are already established, predetermined, by the characters and the circumstances of the people involved. We know why Anna would fall in love with Vronsky, and we know why he would fall in love with her to the extent he could. Words do not make things happen; they only can be used, therefore, to describe feelings and thoughts that are there for otherwise established reasons. Tolstoy is less concerned to explain what happened between Anna and Vronsky then to investigate its causes and consequences, even to her humiliations and eventual suicide. Indeed, one of the few times words count in “Anna Karenina” is when Anna’s husband speaks overtly to her about what is going on and gives a cynical account of how he will hide her secret for the sake of propriety. He reveals to the reader what had not been known to the reader before: how callous a man he is, one who took out the insult to his self respect by a refusal to acknowledge even his own feelings, not even willing to tell Anna how hurt he had been in his own soul by her action. It makes the reader think about what their personal life had been and whether that had not provided reason enough for Anna to look elsewhere for male companionship.

But that pulling back of the curtain on the intimate life of a Russian Victorian couple is used only to suggest what had already happened, not what was made to happen in the words, however much words had sealed the doom of the relationship. The words made neither of them free. This strategy of Tolstoy’s, to shroud pivotal conversations, is used in “War and Peace” and in “Resurrection”, and even in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, where there no conversation about death but only an internal monologue. That fact suggests Tolstoy’s sense of how alone people are at the time of their deaths, as well in the lives they lived before that.

Jane Austen, for her part, is a writer of dialogue, perhaps because she was so influenced by Shakespeare and Milton, neither of whom had much time for description but a lot of time to have their characters wax on at great length about one thing or another, some of those words, amazingly many of them, crucial for the movement of the narrative. Consider some scenes from “Pride and Prejudice” that serve the same function as the dance scene in “Anna Karenina”.

Elizabeth later admits to her sister and father that it was not love at first sight between herself and Darcy. Indeed, most of her early encounters with Darcy had been contentious. But over the long run, she had so grown on him that she says to her sister, when she does not think he will ever call on her again, that she very much regrets that he may be out there in the world thinking poorly of her. That is as fine a declaration of love as there is.

The long courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy over the course of years, takes place at occasional meetings that are remarkable for the slow pace of the developing candor between them. In fact, at first they barely speak to one another. Elizabeth overhears Darcy making a disparaging comment about her looks. At subsequent occasions, he finds himself trailing her and thinking more kindly of her looks, Jane Austen catching on to the fact that men who begin to think about a woman seriously gradually find her to be more attractive than they originally thought, their sense of a woman’s character informing their perception. Elizabeth notices that he has been overhearing her conversations and calls him on it, and he does not respond, but Darcy’s sister notices what is happening, and jumps ahead to tell Darcy that he should expect Mrs. Bennet to be a mother-in-law who is constantly visiting.

The first extended contact between the two takes place when Elizabeth walks three miles through the mud to visit her ailing sister at Mr. Bingley’s estate, and the women of the family comment on how much worse for wear Elizabeth looks, Darcy keeping to himself his admiration for Elizabeth’s devotion to Jane. That evening, in response to Mr. Hurst’s platitude about how accomplished women are, Jane downplays her own education and remarks that it is not much of an accomplishment to do the things that women do (or as we might say today, are allowed to do), such as stitching screens, and when Elizabeth leaves the room, the woman think it rude for Elizabeth to have disparaged her own sex, Darcy again left to cultivate his own thought that what Elizabeth said constituted an insight, allowing himself only to say that women who do something that is cunning, which is to say, requires some mind, are thought despicable, a remark that leaves others troubled for reasons they cannot say, perhaps because it is too foreign a thought for them to consider. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are caught up in a world of philistines, men and women who are devoted only to card playing and eating and gossip when they are in one another’s company.

Next day, Mrs. Bennet, another uninvited guest, shows up to see how Jane is doing and manages to be provincial enough to defend country living over town living, which even Elizabeth thinks is going too far, but that does not keep Elizabeth from offering another original thought, which is that love poetry puts an end to love because it substitutes for it and serves as a way to end a relationship. Darcy finds this piquant observation amusing rather than just contrarian.

And so the days pass while Jane convalesces. As if to outdo herself, or merely because she cannot resist the urge, Elizabeth does indeed turn rude in dealing with her host, Mr. Bingley, when he remarks that he dashes off his own correspondence while Darcy labors over his. Elizabeth says that he claims a false modesty because, in fact, he is proud to do things quickly, even if thoughtlessly, and so to say he would leave this estate if he took a mind to, it would mean he would neglect whatever business had been left undone, and so leave his life to chance. Darcy enters the conversation to say that a friend who asked someone to leave their estate to immediately attend upon him had offered no reason and so such a request should not be honored, to which Elizabeth replies, raising the moral stakes, that a friend need have no reason to make such a request, friendship sufficient reason to honor the request. Bingley is getting hot under the collar and Elizabeth plunges the dagger in all the way when she says that being simple does not mean being of bad character, something Bingley cannot take as a compliment. Bingley will have no more of arguments, and one wonders whether Darcy has no other friends that he spends so much time consorting with a person who is so much his intellectual inferior.

It is out of such conversations that a courtship is constructed: talk that is abbreviated, elusive, about apparently more general matters such as what is the meaning of friendship, and usually in the presence of others so that Darcy and Elizabeth do not have to confront or contend with one another, especially since their obviously growing interest in one another meets with the disapproval of all those around them. That has not changed by the time Darcy makes his first proposal to Elizabeth. He blunders about it, as if there could not have been a way to refer to their difference in positions in a less insulting way, though he is so conflicted about it, so much a prisoner of convention, that it would have been difficult for him to form a better way of saying it even if he had been much more clever than he is or nearly as clever as Elizabeth, who is able to meet not just him but Lady Catherine on equal rhetorical terms.

Early on in the novel, Jane gives forth with a sententious statement, something unusual for her, as the narrator notes, but which is key to understanding the novel. Jane says that pride is a belief in one’s own powers, while vanity is a concern with what other people think of you. Darcy is guilty of both. He is so prideful that he remains mute before most of the people with whom he associates, while he is overly concerned with the prejudices of his relatives about Elizabeth as ungainly, unmannered and overly intellectual and what they will think of her should she become his bride and so someone who has risen far above her station. So he is the one who has to overcome pride and prejudice while Elizabeth is not particularly prideful, but rather dismissive of her own accomplishments, and is not vain in that she is unmindful, to a fault, of how she might come off to other people. It is up to Darcy to see the diamond in the rough and attend to it accordingly, invoking and transforming his own feelings and beliefs. That is the gravamen of the novel: it is up to the man to be up to the task, even for an Elizabeth worthy of his love.

This point is more than adequately made by the last of the conversations at Bingley’s estate, which again takes place with others in the room. Miss Bingley asks Elizabeth to stroll around the room with her and Darcy declines to draw them insisting that there are only two reasons the two woman would do that, and he is prompted by Miss Bingley to name them: either to share a confidence or else to show off their figures. Noone is shocked, however candid Darcy may be, and Elizabeth enjoins Jane’s distinction between vanity and pride to get Darcy to say that pride will get a man to control his vanity, which leads to something of a direct confrontation, Elizabeth saying that makes Darcy perfect, if he says so himself, which brings Darcy out enough to defend himself by saying that he does not trust his own temper and that a bad opinion once formed is not likely given up. Elizabeth does not give up in spite of the fact that such self-deprecation on Darcy’s part might be thought a way to make peace. She finishes him off by saying that his propensity is to hate everyone, and the best he can reply to that is that her defect is to misunderstand him, which is true enough. Darcy emerges from the encounter warning himself that he will never get the better of her and so pursuing her is a dangerous thing to do. Elizabeth and Jane return home in the next chapter. The couple, not yet a couple, know well enough what they are each about, though they have not yet learned to see what they take to be vices are also virtues.

The pace of a Jane Austen novel picks up as it reaches its end. What had been told at a leisurely pace, as we shall see again when considering “Mansfield Park”, turns feverish or even operatic. What that means in the case of “Pride and Prejudice” is that the quality of the many important conversations that take place towards the end of the book change from being stilted or out of control to being eloquent, each character coming to say exactly what they want to say, nothing more and nothing less. This happens when Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth and tries to get her to promise never to marry Darcy, which, as Elizabeth notes in her response, must be a prospect more real than she would have thought it to be for otherwise Lady Catherine would not be here to get a denial and a promise. Elizabeth does not go further than she wants to, as she often has before, especially as she had in denying Darcy’s first proposal, because all she says is that she is not engaged to Darcy but will not promise what will happen in the future. So Elizabeth is forewarned of what will happen when Darcy does show up again, he clearly having discussed what a marriage to Elizabeth would mean for his family, his sister already thinking well of her, whatever Lady Catherine might think. So she can accept his apology for her having treated him so badly after he first proposed, even if he had very clumsily though not untruthfully put the question of the differences between their stations in life. She had over-reacted then, but not this time, accepting him for the snobbish and proud man that he is because he is also a person of depth and integrity who seeks to right wrongs, very much a knight who had embarked on a quest to save the honor of Lydia through the means appropriate in Regency England: no duels, just payoffs.

And then Elizabeth handles her father in just the way he has to be handled to give his consent to the marriage, as if he could do otherwise even if he does not want to lose the apple of his eye. Elizabeth treats his permission as something that is freely given, not just to secure a fortune that would get his family out of hock, by declaring, truthfully, what her feelings are, which is that she truly loves Darcy. A father would not be fooled by a false declaration. As Jane Austen well knew, that scene brings a tear to every reader’s eye, and is a meaty scene for whomever plays Mr. Bennet, whether it is Edward Gwenn, Benjamin Whitrow, or Donald Sutherland. Mr. Bennet is shown to have deep feelings rather than just the avoidance of feeling that might come from having been cooped up in his library to avoid the nagging wife he must have found charming twenty years before. And so the next generation embarks on its life journey, as that is always measured by the circumstances of courtship and marriage, which may seem to be and are rendered comic, but is for most people the dramatic highpoints of their life, when they themselves become heros and heroines rather than character actors who fill up the background.

I have been told that Jane Austen’s portrayal of the courting dynamics of two hundred years ago do not hold up for the present generation which is given up to a “hookup” culture where a series of one night or abbreviated sexual relationships do not provide the basis for a long term relationship because the premise of long term relationships is that there is a process of delayed gratification whereby people try to come to understand one another before they become committed to one another and so afterwards become sexual familiars. But people can engage in sex while still holding in abeyance whether they want to have a long term relationship. People can start a new relationship, as Madonna puts it, “for the very first time”. Romance is possible even after previous sexual experience. Courtship is the process of making up one’s mind about having a stable rather than a temporary relationship. The point about stable relationships is that they are stable. People know who they are sleeping with every night, what their habits are like, what they smell like. There is less tension than there is in unstable relationships. People fall into an emotional division of labor as well as a financial one that suits their personalities and capacities. Couples become codependent. The desire to do that does not seem to have changed even if circumstances present different difficulties in Jane Austen’s time, when there were not enough eligible men in the neighborhood, and so one would have expected any girl to take up the first offer, which Elizabeth does not do, though it is suggested to her that she ought to, and the circumstances in our own time, where there is a plethora of men to pick for one night stands and therefore girls have to use other criteria to decide whether one of these or a man drawn from another pool is a subject for courtship.

The insight Jane Austen has is that courtships are conducted through conversations in which people either explain who they are or give off who they are through their words. Not everyone is equally articulate. Elizabeth pays an unwarranted compliment to Jane when she says her sister always reports what she thinks, which is perhaps because Jane is so pure so as not to be able to lie, but may also be because Jane does not have the mental equipment to dissemble. Her courtship with Mr. Bingley is an easy one because they are so well suited to one another’s personality that they cannot but be candid, while the courtship between Elizabeth and Darcy is fraught with difficulty because both of them have their reasons not to be candid: he to protect his wealth and the feelings of his family a well as his own privacy, she to overcome the embarrassment of her family. But most of us communicate well enough to engage in courtship, to plight our trow, according to the customs of the time, and that is the drama of courtship that remains fascinating whether in romantic comedies or in farces or in romances or in the serio-comedies and tragedies of Jane Austen.