“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.