ArtSunday: Sweet Jane…and the problems of writing…

And so we come to Jane Austen.

Jane Austen portrait by her sister Cassandra (courtesy Wikimedia)

Be forewarned. I have read each of Austen’s novels at least 10 times – some more. I wrote my master’s thesis on Austen’s novels (using Rogerian theory as a device to explain the social integration problems of each heroine – and, by the way, I would argue, as do some other scholars, that Marianne Dashwood, not her sister Elinor, is the heroine of Sense and Sensibility). I used to read all the novels every couple of years – a practice I continued for some two decades until drifting away from it several years ago. My 2013 reading list contains two Austen novels – the subject of this piece, Mansfield Park, perhaps Austen’s most problematic work, and what is perhaps her finest piece of writing (I use the term in its most technical sense referring to the achievement of the author as writer), Emma. I think it is safe to say that I have both a scholar’s and reader’s love of the great Jane.

Mansfield Park is a valuable book for any writer, whether an accomplished author (I suppose we can make that silly, dilletantish differentiation and use the latter term to refer to writers who’ve published their work) or an aspiring one. If one can see an author with as great a command of language and subject matter as Austen displays effortlessly so much of the time struggle with her writing, then one can accept both the joy and frustration of one’s own efforts with the greatest equanimity.

The writing problems in Mansfield Park are multiple, and they arise from two main areas: Austen’s choice of subject and her development of her main character. It is clear what she intended – to look at what happens to a child who is taken from a home that Austen herself describes as “slatternly” and placed in a home of wealth, refinement, and advantages. This she accomplishes very neatly by having the girl, Fanny Price, daughter of a “black sheep” sister who has committed that nearly unpardonable sin of “marrying down” go to live at the home  of her aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram at Mansfield Park.

After this, the novel goes awry. Austen, a comic novelist, wishes to satirize the foibles of the the Mansfield Park Bertrams by allowing us to see them through the eyes of Fanny. The problem is, Fanny is such a mess of a character that what may have started out as Austen’s comic effort becomes more like a Dickensian ordeal. Fanny, as we learn from some brief introductory chapters, is bullied or ignored by her cousins Maria and Julia and teased or ignored by her oldest male cousin Tom as she grows up. Only Edmund, the second son (in a primogeniture system of inheritance a person of no great importance – not unlike Fanny) is kind to her. But even his kindness fails to free Fanny from her shyness and low self-esteem. And sadly, in trying to fit into the Bertram social milieu, she grows up to be part cipher, part prig.

Fanny’s character, through which we see the world of Mansfield Park, makes the complications of the novel – ill-considered amateur theatricals in Sir Thomas’s absence, the romantic attentions of the frivolous brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford to Fanny and Edmund respectively, Fanny’s visit to her long neglected mess of a family – all become, because seen at least in part through Fanny’s over developed sense of propriety, much more serious than Austen intended. Fanny solemnly disapproves of the theatricals, solemnly disapproves of Henry Crawford’s attentions to her (and to his sister Mary’s tortuous relationship with Edmund), solemnly disapproves of her birth family’s chaotic home – and we as readers see these events with the same solemnity that Fanny does. (The serious complications of the plot – Crawford’s affair with the married Maria which disgraces her and her family, Julia’s elopement with the unsteady Yates, Tom’s health collapse from his hedonistic lifestyle – are, of course, necessarily solemn business.)

This undercuts Austen’s primary aim in the novel – the comic critique of the upper classes through the eyes of a thoughtful “outsider.” Fanny’s serious mindedness puts Austen in a box as a writer – she cannot make us laugh at the foibles of the Bertrams without making us laugh at Fanny. Thus, despite its interesting plot events and engaging characters (Henry Crawford is an interesting amalgam of  Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility and Wickham from Pride and Prejudice and anticipates Frank Churchill from the transcendent Emma), ultimately Austen writes herself  into a nearly insoluble dilemma.

Since Austen’s novels must end in the high comic style for which she is famous – with the heroine united to the proper husband – Austen is forced to admit her error, which she does with charm and wit:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and have done with all the rest.

Once she’s made this admission, Austen can resolve the great issue of the novel: Fanny’s long suffering love for her cousin Edmund. She does so by first having Edmund see the inappropriateness of Mary Crawford as a mate, then having him turn to Fanny first for sisterly consolation, then for companionship, and finally for love and matrimony. To Austen’s credit, her description of this is as elegantly lovely  as any scene of romantic commitment in her work:

Timid, anxious, doubting as she [Fanny] was, it was still impossible that such tenderness as hers should not, at times, hold out the strongest hope of success, though it remained for a later period to tell him [Edmund] the whole delightful and astonishing truth. His happiness in knowing himself to have been so long the beloved of such a heart, must have been great enough to warrant any strength of language in which he could clothe it to him or herself; it must have been a delightful happiness! But there was happiness elsewhere which no description can reach. Let no one presume to give the feelings of a young woman on receiving the assurance of that affection of which she had scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope.

And so the novel closes with Edmund and Fanny married and happy. The perfect Austen ending – even if she had to contrive it.

A writer always faces problems that must be worked out, overcome, or got round. In Mansfield Park, we get to see how Jane Austen does it.

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Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

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