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.