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.