Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mansfield Park, chapters 1-3

Is there anyone who doesn’t have a problem with Mansfield Park?...Having just given the world one of its most irresistible literary characters, Jane Austen faced the same dilemma as a bowler returning to the lanes for the first time after scoring ten straight strikes: How the hell do you follow up a perfect game?  Most probable answer: You choke.

Though of course we’re taking literature, not tenpins, so the reality is likely to be more complicated.  My own take is that Austen was feeling a little guilty after Pride and Prejudice; in creating Elizabeth Bennet, she’d shamelessly pulled out all the stops, loading her character with every imaginable attraction, from sparkling impertinence to righteous recklessness.  There’s nuance in Lizzy, but it’s all brightly lit; everything about her is incandescent.  Here is a character pitched to reach the cheap seats, and successfully so; nearly 200 years later, we’re still hanging on her every word, our jaws parted in readiness for adoring laughter.

So perhaps Austen thought, this time I won’t make it so easy for myself.  This time I’ll try to construct a heroine with more shade—someone whose charm will be of the hidden variety, as opposed to the wagging-her-tail-and-doing-tricks kind.  Possibly she even thought of this as artistic atonement; and if so, she took it too far, like those 14th Century saints who scourged themselves with whips and licked the open wounds of lepers, because what she came up with was Fanny Price, a creature famously described by the great Kingsley Amis as “a monster of complacency and pride…under a cloak of cringing self-abasement”.  I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it is more than a little maddening that everything Fanny gains (and over the course of the novel she gains a lot) is obtained by withholding, withdrawal, refusal.  She embodies negation.  Her default setting is OFF.

Mansfield Park begins with the usual dollop of Austenian backstory, here concerning three sisters, all beauties, the eldest of whom marries a baronet (“All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it”), the second of whom marries respectably (a clergyman), and the youngest of whom marries, “in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connections, did it very thoroughly.”

This latter match results in a breach between the sisters.  The eldest, Lady Bertram, being “easy and indolent,” would be content with “merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter;” but the middle sister, Mrs. Norris, has, we’re told, “a spirit of activity,” and can’t rest till she’s written a thundering “J’accuse!” to the newly minted Mrs. Price, essentially condemning her to hellfire and brimstone and…well, even more hellfire.  To which Mrs. Price replies, essentially, You are not the bosses of me so you can both go suck the same egg.  With which epithet Mrs. Norris scampers to Lady Bertram, forcing Lady Bertram to raise her ire, which is the only actual exertion she’ll undertake during the entirety of the novel.

I love that Austen introduces Mrs. Norris as possessing “a spirit of activity,” which is apparently Regency code for “highly developed sociopathic egocentrism,” or in other words, extreme douchebaggery.  Mrs. Norris is a compendium of the worst traits of every Austen villain up till now: she comprises Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s bullying, Mr. Collins’s shameless sycophancy, Mrs. Bennet’s delusions of humility, and Fanny Dashwood’s martyr complex.  And to these she adds a fault all her own: triumphal miserliness.  By rights she should be a kind of Frankenstein monster, a mangle of elements that don’t mesh at all, but in fact she works beautifully, all these ghastly attributes integrating like cogs in an infernal machine, interlocking with each other and keeping them in perpetual motion.

One of the most delightful things about her, is the way she always has her eye on the main chance.  As we’ve seen, she was the one who basically orchestrated the breach with Mrs. Price (because, what did she think that lady was going to do, faced with all her scorn and derision?  Write back with, “Yes, you’re right, I’m so sorry”?), which gave her several years’ bragging rights at being the one who exposed the true depths of her sister’s perverseness and ingratitude.  But eventually Mrs. Price writes to mend the breach, having in the ensuing decade been humbled by a career of serial pregnancy, on top of “an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor”.  The newly contrite sister asks whether there isn’t something her grander relatives can do to promote the fortunes of one or two of her approximately eighty-six children.  And Mrs. Norris, sensing that righteous indignation, enjoyable as it is, has about exhausted itself in her repertoire, hits upon the scheme of responding instead with forgiveness and largesse—and thus convinces Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram that it would be an excellent idea to take one of Mrs. Price’s daughters off her hands.

Sir Thomas is initially wary of the idea, thinking “of his own four children—of cousins in love, &c.”, but Mrs. Norris, fixed now on setting herself up as an icon of magnanimity, talks him through that particular worry. 

“You are thinking of your sons—but do not you know that of all things upon earth that is the least likely to happen; brought up, as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters?  It is morally impossible.  I never knew an instance of it.  It is, in fact, the only sure way of providing against the connection.”

She carries the day, and puts the seal on her sanctity by assuring him that “I will write to my poor sister to-morrow, and make the proposal; and, as soon as matters are settled, I will engage to get the child to Mansfield; you shall have no trouble about it.  My own trouble, you know, I never regard.”

Since this plan has been from the start hers and hers alone, Mrs. Norris might be supposed to be the one who will take responsibility for the mail-order niece; after all, she has no children of her own, so a helpmeet of this kind would be just the thing.  But oh, no.

…Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance.  As far as walking, talking and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends…though perhaps she might so little know herself, as to walk home to the Parsonage after this conversation, in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.

And so it’s settled that the child will reside in the magnificence of Mansfield Park with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their brood; though Sir Thomas observes that they must strive “to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin”.  Mmmmm-hm.  That’ll happen.  No one in the narrative has yet twigged to the fact that they’ve set up the perfect conditions for a classic Wicked Stepsisters scenario.  Wicked Stepmother, too, except for Lady Bertram’s invincible inertia; you might as well ask for a Wicked Sofa, or Wicked Daybed. 

But never mind, Aunt Norris is happy to play the role instead.  “I only wish I could more useful,” she says obligingly; “but you see I do all in my power.”  What we see, actually, is that she desires—demands—the thanks of a grateful nation, and she wants it just for showing up.  This is the kind of woman who, on a good day, can inflict on you a lifetime of indebtedness for allowing you to serve her a cup of decaf. 

Yeah, it’s pretty easy to tell who my favorite character is, going into this baby.

Young Fanny Price now enters the novel, being met at Northampton by her aunt Norris, “who thus regaled in the credit of being foremost to welcome her, and in the importance of leading her in to the others, and recommending her to their kindness.”  Because, see, otherwise they might have just tied her to a post out by the burn pit.

Fanny at this point is ten years old and not much to look at, though certainly possessed of “nothing to disgust her relations.”  Austen is fond of this gambit: introducing her heroines by laying a stress on how unremarkable they are, though this is usually followed by the gradual amplification of their attractions by wit, courage, or integrity.  Not so with Fanny, who will remain a small, cringing, flinching thing for pretty much the full span of the story.  Even after she gets over her initial terror of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and her awe at her cousins, she still seems to scurry along the baseboards like a mouse.

She spends a good part of these early chapters curled up in secluded dark corners crying, which I suppose is meant to move us to pity, except excuse me, most of us modern readers are paying about 80 percent of our take-home pay on apartments the size of Lincoln town cars, so it’s tough to feel sorry for a kid who’s landed herself in a pad large enough to have an abundance of dark secluded corners. 

Eventually, the law of averages being what it is, someone eventually trips over her while she’s in the throes of one of these sob fests.  Fortunately it’s her cousin Edmund, the kindly second son.  The elder brother, Tom, is inclined to poke Fanny with the toe of his shoe and taunt her, as though trying to turn her into a fear-biter; while the Bertram girls can’t get over how thick-headed she is for not possessing such basic knowledge as “the Roman emperors as low as Severus” (these days it would be the Zodiac signs of the Jonas Brothers).  So yes, it’s lucky indeed that Edmund is the one to find her in distress on the attic stairs, and not one of the other children or, God forbid, the adults (though of course the only way Lady Bertram would come near the attic stairs is if someone lit dynamite beneath her chaise longue). 

Edmund is kind to Fanny, and draws her out of her sorrow by asking her about the family she left behind, who he’s sharp enough to realize she must miss; and by this means he discovers her special affection for her brother William, whose absence she feels most keenly.  When Edmund observes that surely William will write to her, Fanny agrees, but alas he’s instructed her to write first to him.

“And when shall you do it?”  She hung her head and answered, hesitatingly, “she did not know; she had not any paper.”

At this point you are forgiven if you put down the book, chuff in exasperation, and exclaim, “Sweet creeping jebus, kid, grow a goddamn pair.”

Edmund takes her into the breakfast-room where he not only supplies her with paper but rules her lines for her, “with all the good will that her brother could himself have felt, and probably with somewhat more exactness.”  Those of us who have read Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice now realize exactly where this is headed, and are free to settle back and wait for Mrs. Norris to push her way back into the plot.

It doesn’t take long.  Aunt Norris is taking her duties as Wicked Stepaunt seriously, and we find her encouraging the worst character traits of the Wicked Stepsisters, answering their reports of Fanny’s stupidity with the assurance that, “though you know (owing to me) your papa and mama are so good as to bring her up with you, it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are;—on the contrary, it is much  more desirable that there should be a difference.”  In other words, let Fanny’s dullness and dumpiness make you look all the more hawt by comparison.  Which is just the kind of advice these girls eat up with a spoon.  The author then notes:

…it is not very wonderful that with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility.  In every thing but disposition, they were admirably taught.

In Austenspeak, this is some serious slammin’. 

Meanwhile, Edmund takes on Fanny’s education, and of course she’s a willing pupil—she reacts to every kindness like a dog that’s spent its whole life being beaten.  He “recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise.”  Maybe it’s too harsh to say that he’s building his own personal Stepford Wife, but dang, isn’t he?...If there were one recorded instance of Fanny exhibiting independent thinking—daring to disagree with him on some matter, and thereby proving that what he’d made of her mind was more than just a reflection of his own, I’d be contented.  But what we get instead is what we’ll be getting for the foreseeable future: grateful Fanny…unworthy Fanny…grateful, unworthy, grateful, unworthy. 

I have to wonder what Austen was thinking here—what, exactly, she made of her new heroine.  The Austen I know and love—the keenly intelligent, fiercely independent, poison-tongued mock-maker—would have had Fanny Price for breakfast.  I’m certain, in fact, that she must have met many such girls at dances and balls, and at the sight of these dutiful, humble little dormice she must have sharpened her metaphorical knives, and had a simply wonderful evening carving them into ribbons.  Yet here, she’s giving us this quivering blancmange as our presumed point of reference.  Jane, honey…you got some issues you wanna tell us about?

Anyway, we come to our next plot point.  Mrs. Norris’s husband expires (dying just as he lived: offstage), which leaves his living vacant.  Edmund, who’s meant for the clergy, was intended to have it, but his older brother Tom has run up so many gaming debts that Sir Thomas has to sell the living to another candidate to make up for it, leaving Edmund without any prospects.  Sir Thomas, deeply feeling the injustice to Edmund, rips Tom a new one over this, but alas, his son’s the kind of charming rogue who has a built-in bounce-back feature.

Tom listened with some shame and some sorrow; but escaping as quickly as possible, could soon with cheerful selfishness reflect, 1st, that he had not been half so much in debt as some of his friends; 2dly, that his father had made a most tiresome piece of work of it; and 3dly, that the future incumbent, whoever he might be, would, in all probability, die very soon.

When the living eventually goes to one Dr. Grant, his being “a hearty man of forty-five” seems at first to negate Tom’s third point; but no—“he was a short-neck’d, apoplectic sort of fellow, and, plied well with good things, would soon pop off.”

Hard not to like Tom, though I know we’re not supposed to.

Another repercussion of Mr. Norris’s demise, is the general expectation that Fanny will now leave Mansfield Park to live with his widow.  Her chief objection to taking Fanny in the first place had been Mr. Norris’s poor health, which couldn’t stand the activity and noise of a young girl in the house (because you know, Fanny is such a hellion), but now that Mr. Norris is beyond the reach of teenage torment, the way is clear for Fanny finally to join her aunt in her new household.  Fanny spends several pages panicking over the idea, to the point that even Edmund can’t comfort her; but she might’ve spared herself.  Because Aunt Norris again reveals herself to be a strategist of almost Napoleonic wiliness:

…Mrs. Norris had not the smallest intention of taking her.  It had never occurred to her, on the present occasion, but as a thing to be carefully avoided.  To prevent its being expected, she had fixed on the smallest habitation which could rank as genteel among the buildings of Mansfield parish; the White house being only just large enough to receive herself and her servants, and allow a spare room for a friend, of which she made a very particular point;—the spare-rooms at the parsonage had never been wanted, but the absolute necessity of a spare-room for a friend was now never forgotten.

Outmaneuvered, the Bertrams resign themselves to keeping Fanny, despite the waning of their fortunes—which, we learn, isn’t due only to Tom’s recklessness, but also to troubles in Sir Thomas’s estates in Antigua, from whence most of his income derives.  His wife has one last go at her sister, commenting that anyone would think Mrs. Norris would be glad of some young company and household help, which provokes an absolutely hilarious outpouring of self-styled victimhood, in which Mrs. Norris—whose will and energy might be sufficient to shift the entire foundation of London by thirty degrees if she thought it might earn her a few pence—paints herself as too broken in spirits and in health to look after a robust teen.  She concludes in high style:

“Dear Lady Bertram! what am I fit for but solitude?  Now and then I shall hope to have a friend in my little cottage (I shall always have a bed for a friend); but the most part of my future days will be spent in utter seclusion.  If I can but make both ends meet, that’s all I ask for.”

Mrs. Norris has scored a victory over her relations, but she doesn’t have long to enjoy it; because when Dr. Grant moves into the parsonage, it soon becomes evident that his wife is a very liberal housekeeper.  She “gave her cook as high wages as they did at Mansfield Park, and was scarcely ever seen in her offices.  Mrs. Norris could not speak with any temper of such grievances, nor of the quantity of butter and eggs that were regularly consumed in the house.”  She complains bitterly about this prodigal behavior to her sister, but Lady Bertram has her own reasons to resent Mrs. Grant:

She could not enter into the wrongs of an economist, but she felt all the injuries of beauty in Mrs. Grant’s being so well settled in life without being handsome, and expressed her astonishment on that point as often, though not so diffusely, as Mrs. Norris discussed the other.

For a brief, exhilarating moment we get a feeling we’re being set up for a venerable English comedy of manners—a tug-of-war for supremacy between three indomitable ladies.  Sort of like Mapp and Lucia with special guest-star Lady Bracknell.  Then we remember we’ve still got Fanny hanging onto the narrative, like a wad of gum to the sole of a shoe, and there goes that.

Then, unexpectedly, a sliver of genuine darkness descends.

Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs, and he took his eldest son with him in the hope of detaching him from some bad connections at home.  They left England with the probability of being nearly a twelvemonth absent. 

There’s a narrative reason for taking Sir Thomas offstage at this point.  His daughters have grown about as horrible as they can, given the restraint his presence imposes on them; with him gone—and with no compensating authority in their somnambulant mother, and with an aunt who so far from checking their arrogance, actively encourages it—they can now become really worthy foils to Fanny Pureheart.  Austen is just taking Aunt Norris’s principle and reversing it: for Fanny to look even more angelic, all that’s required is for her cousins to go completely Moll Flanders.

And, given that Sir Thomas has to go, it seems only natural that he be dispatched in a manner consistent with gentlemen of his time and place.  Many among the aristocracy of 18th century England grew rich from trade in sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations in the West Indies; Austen would surely have known that.  It must have seemed to her the most natural thing in the world, that Sir Thomas Bertram would have such an interest, and be called on to manage it.

But what’s less clear is the extent to which Austen understood how such operations were run.  She may have known, and in fact almost certainly did know, of the slave trade that supplied the labor for such places; but did she know—could she even have conceived—of the appalling brutality of the conditions forced on those human beings kept there in servitude against their will?...Austen, like most of polite Regency society, is silent on the issue; slavery was, to a great extent, the elephant in the room for her contemporaries in what was then the emerging imperial power in western Christendom.  I’d like to think that Austen—the chaste daughter of a provincial nobody—had never encountered anything that would allow her to grasp even the minutest horror of the inhumanity suffered by the people “owned” by Sir Thomas Bertram’s real-world corollaries. 

But we can grasp it.  We know full well what the lives of these people were like; and their endless wretchedness, the shrieking injustice of their condition, reverberates down the centuries.  We can’t not know it; there’s no excuse for ignorance of it—the hideous details are only a point-click away.  When Sir Thomas Bertram departs England for Antigua to address the problems plaguing his enterprise there, we modern readers are immediately assailed by appalling images: of slave uprisings, violent reprisals, corporal punishments.  From this moment on, it’s impossible for us to feel any warmth or sympathy for Sir Thomas; he’s become deeply, criminally suspect in our eyes.  Worse, it’s now become difficult—almost impossible—to think of Mansfield Park itself with any of the romantic longing we allow ourselves when we contemplate, say, Pemberley; because we know that the great house sits on a foundation of human blood and bone.  This, as much as Fanny Price’s insipidity, is the reason so many of us just can’t warm to Mansfield Park.

However…I will try.  My aim in this blog is to document the development of Jane Austen’s prowess as a social satirist on the level of Swift and Voltaire.  To that end, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt; I’ll presume (as indeed I do anyway) that she writes in ignorance of the horrific excesses of the slave economy that allowed landed gentry like Sir Thomas Bertram to flourish; I’ll presume that for her, persistent troubles in Antigua are merely a convenience for her narrative.  And I’ll keep my focus where I think she would’ve wanted it: on the frictions, frissons, and fireworks that occur between her cast of characters.

And when Sir Thomas does eventually reenter the narrative, I will attempt to take him at face value as well.  This current post is to be my only foray into the economic underpinnings of Mansfield Park; in any case, they’ve been written about much more piercingly elsewhere.  But while I may be setting them aside for this particular endeavor…let me just assert that, in general, they shouldn’t be set aside at all.  We owe those who suffered at least that much.
For the remainder of my analysis of Mansfield Park, see the collected Bitch In a Bonnet, which you can purchase from AmazonBarnes and Noble, or other fine sites, or dowload as an ebook for Kindle or Nook.