2015 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: Living in Jane Austen’s World
Examine a single Jane Austen novel or several and show different ways characters engage with their culture, views, mores, or living conditions. How does participation in their world affect each character’s development? You might look at how a character approaches material culture, physical or emotional space, interpersonal relations, social class, wealth, or gender. You may consider elements of Jane Austen’s world that have inherently negative or positive influences on characters and events in the novels.
Mansfield Park: A Character Study
By Catherine A. Bodnar
When held up to the inflexible measuring stick of British upper class society, Fanny Price is found wanting in all estimations of wealth, power, name, and prestige. Branded a poor cousin in every aspect, Mansfield Park’s unexpected heroine seems destined to be perpetually the “lowest and the last” (178), of little consequence to the elite, who are bent on recognizing only external merit. Juxtaposed with the worldly and charismatic Miss Crawford, Fanny falls short of the expectations of readers as well, who anticipate another bold Elizabeth Bennett but find only the silent conscientiousness of a timid Fanny Price. Though readers and critics alike may see a more viable candidate in Mary Crawford, whose lively manner and sharp wit project to the level of Austen’s other confident and poised heroines, Austen embarks upon a new path in Mansfield Park. Striking an unlikely relationship between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, Austen quietly reveals the largely corrupting influence of sophisticated society by demonstrating its lack of influence in the heart of the former and its decidedly damaging hold upon the character of the latter.
In the beginning of the novel, a ten-year old Fanny Price finds herself in sudden foreign grandeur, abruptly plucked as she is from the bustling Portsmouth of merchants and seafarers and made to live with her wealthy relations. Though the swift alteration from disorderly poverty to respectable gentility proves an amendment to Fanny’s position—after all, comments Mrs. Norris, “a niece of [Sir Thomas’s] . . . would not grow up in this neighborhood without many advantages” (4)—the pastoral landscape of Mansfield Park also boasts of a carefully constructed social hierarchy under its tranquil scenery. Blood-ties, wealth, and physical attractiveness constitute an individual’s worth in this rigid societal structure, and Fanny, having neither striking beauty nor deep pockets, possesses no natural advantages which may promote her position in society or even allow her to wholly assimilate into the leisurely life of Mansfield Park. Rather, the obstacle of class—the vast rift between the Bertrams’ prosperity and the Prices’ penury—creates a noticeable and, as Sir Thomas later acknowledges, “misplaced distinction” (252) between Fanny and her cousins. The recognized discrepancies and unconcealed discrimination—in knowledge of French and music, in the Miss Bertrams’ going-outs and Miss Price’s staying indoors, in the Miss Bertrams’ roomy quarters and Fanny’s small, fireless attic room—are all designed to educate and prepare the poor cousin for “that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be [her] lot” (252).
The distinctions are not only imposed upon Fanny by others, but subtly enforced by Fanny’s own decisions. Unwilling to yield to the alluring taboo of acting, Fanny refuses a role in the morally questionable play Lover’s Vows, distancing herself still further from the culture which charitably took her in:
She alone was sad and insignificant; she had no share in anything; she might go or stay, she might be in the midst of their noise, or retreat from it to the solitude of the East room, without being seen or missed. (129)
Believing that she “can never be important to anyone,” Fanny does not expect to be elevated to a position of consequence and honor (20)—she believes herself to be as the “rough hedgerow” of the field: “never thought of as anything, or capable of becoming anything” (167). The poor cousin imagines herself to be insignificant in a world enamored by material possessions and connections. As such, she never dreams of the purely mercenary courtships her cousins readily engage in, judging herself incapable of attaining prominence and distinction. The deeply rooted prejudice of lowly birth and poverty that has grown alongside Fanny during all her years in the genteel countryside makes it impossible for her to act so freely as the others around her, to partake in their joys and irrationalities, and be captivated as others are with London life.
Curiously, Fanny’s visit to her family in Portsmouth reveals a different side to her character, suggesting that though Fanny may have escaped the corrupting influence of cultured society, she has nevertheless been molded by the gentility of Mansfield Park. Arriving at Portsmouth on the swift wings of “hope and apprehension” (305), Fanny soon discovers—much to her disappointment—that the family with whom she believed she could “feel herself the equal” (299) was only a figment of her imagination. In fact, the very home, the “scenes of her infancy” (299) which Fanny had so longed to visit become to her “the very reverse of what she could have wished” (316). What with the coarseness, “noise, disorder, and impropriety” (316), the Prices cannot command Fanny’s respect or affection; throughout her stay, she pines to return to the “propriety, regularity [and] harmony” (318) of the Bertram household. The jarring dissimilarity between the two societies of Portsmouth and Mansfield finally leads Fanny to exclaim “Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home” (351)—although her character may have evaded the disagreeable artificiality of aristocratic mores, Fanny’s nature has been quietly fashioned by Mansfield Park’s easy elegance, “cheerful orderliness,” and, above all, its “peace and tranquility” (318).
Furthermore, Fanny’s evident dismay over Henry Crawford’s unanticipated visit to Portsmouth points to another subtle influence of high society upon her character, namely the importance stressed over outward appearance. Though Fanny may scold herself for the apparent weakness of her reaction, she bears a private “shame for the home in which [Henry finds] her” (325), and only ceases to inwardly fret when all the family are dressed in their Sunday best, “now seen to advantage” (331). Moreover, Fanny is horrified when faced with the prospect of Henry’s “taking his mutton” with the Prices, imagining his revulsion at her family’s many “deficiencies” (331). Quietly appalled by her family’s failings, Fanny realizes that “[Henry] must soon [inevitably] give her up” (327) and cease to ask for her hand in marriage. The very thought leaves Fanny secretly ashamed:
There is scarcely a young lady in the united kingdoms who would not rather put up with the misfortune of being sought by a clever, agreeable man, than have him driven away by the vulgarity of her nearest relations. (327)
In her mind, the “cure” is worse than the “complaint” of being persistently wooed (327), showing that in this taste for outward appearances she had unwittingly assumed the attitudes of high society. Indeed, when Henry takes his leave of Portsmouth, Fanny “[can] not help being low,” for she associates more with his culture and refinement—reminiscent of the beloved Mansfield Park she left behind—than with the company of her own family among whom she feels “starved, both mind and body” (336).
Though these adopted views tie Fanny to the aristocratic circle which took her in, the aforementioned distinctions between Fanny and her cousins ultimately cut her off from wholly assimilating into polite society. For while Fanny is a fixture at Mansfield Park, gleaning from its mannerisms the refinement and ‘good breeding’ of a lady, she stops short of integrating the culture entirely into her character. Receiving neither the worldly education where “active principle had been wanting” nor enjoying the “excessive indulgence and flattery of [Aunt Norris]” (377) Fanny diverges from the superficiality of society’s assumed mores, developing instead the “sterling good of principle and temper” (385) that is untainted by egocentric ambition. As Edmund remarks to Sir Thomas, “You will find Fanny everything you could wish”: a strong sense of right and a steady character unpolluted by the worldly standards of sophisticated society. Fanny’s same unwavering nature, “as firm as a rock” in principle (284), finally leads her to refuse Henry’s hand in marriage despite the promise of great wealth and distinction, on account of his lack of principle—a decision unheard of in the fashionable world (254).
Fanny’s awareness of this deep dissimilarity between herself and her cousins, her own moral steadfastness and the latters’ self-absorbed, restless natures, does not imbue her own character with a self-righteous, hypocritical quality: though she confesses herself to be “graver than most people”—a difference her cousin Edmund believes to be because of a “more wise and discreet” nature (158)—Fanny’s own acknowledgement of her significantly lower societal position and utter dependence upon the Bertrams gives her a humbled and grateful heart, a heart “which [knows] no guile” (371).
So while Fanny’s cousins Maria and Julia are inevitably drawn to the appealing, gaudy excesses of high London society, Fanny cannot see the fascination in such seemingly trivial pursuits, gratified rather to revel in the “lovely scenes of home” (364). Society may hold in great estimation wealth and connections, parties and city-life, but Fanny is more content to admire the distant, innumerable stars (92), deriving her chiefest enjoyments from “inanimate nature” (65) and silent reflection.
Unlike Fanny, who lives in the circle of the upper class but is not entirely of that circle, Mary Crawford boasts of a nature indelibly formed by the expectations of high society—“her attention [is] all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively” (65). Raised “in a school of luxury and epicurism” (372), Mary looks to others’ approval and is readily influenced by the mores of London society, so that though “hers is not a cruel nature . . . the evil lies yet deeper in her total ignorance . . . [and] in a perversion of mind” (331).
Having participated in the extravagances of London society with wholehearted enthusiasm all her life, Mary does not even see the impropriety of her loose morals, which mirror those of the company around her. A regular chameleon, she assimilates with apparent ease to any social circle in which she may find herself, as ready to charm as to ridicule. In the Rushworth family chapel at Sotherton, Mary speaks flippantly about the church to Edmund, that is, until she learns of her companion’s upcoming ordination: “If I had known this before, I would have spoken of the cloth with more respect” (72). Her principles emulate the present society in which she finds herself, however virtuous or corrupt that society may be, so that the relatively quieter disposition Mary temporarily attains at Mansfield Park—a reflection of that countryside tranquility—grates unnaturally with the “high spirits” she displays under “the influence of the fashionable world” (342-343).
Mary, however, finds a marked change from her lavish London lifestyle in Mansfield Park, where she slowly and unwillingly acquires a “better taste” for “domestic happiness” (383). Coming to Mansfield with the intentions of wooing Tom Bertram, heir of the estate, she begins to fall for the younger Edmund. Unlike Fanny, who approaches material culture with a wary heart, recognizing that happiness cannot be bought with money, Mary sincerely believes that “a large income is the best recipe for happiness [she] ever heard of” (171). It is unsurprising, therefore, that Mary, whose motives for marriage were influenced foremost by “selfishness and worldly wisdom,” should be angry with Edmund’s decision to become a parson—a seemingly demeaning position in the eyes of fashionable society (376). In her eyes, a “clergyman is nothing” (74). Though she may love Edmund, she repeatedly and hotly spurns his choice of occupation, despite the pain such ungrounded reprimands elicit:
Be honest and poor, by all means—but I shall not envy you; I do not much think I shall even respect you . . . I must look down upon anything contented with obscurity when it might rise to distinction. (172)
The friendship which springs between Mary and Fanny, then, is quite unanticipated. Considering Fanny’s decided inclination for obscurity and Mary’s fondness of others’ attention, no two characters could be more dissimilar: “In some points of interest they were exactly opposed to each other” (231). Yet, it is in the littlest correspondences between Mary and Fanny that the reader becomes acquainted with the true nature of Mary Crawford’s character, and how that character was irrevocably shaped and spoiled by the materialistic culture of polite society.
Upon Fanny’s arrival at Portsmouth, which she deems an “exile from [the] good society” of Mansfield Park and all its “happy ways,” Fanny engages in a sporadic correspondence with Mary, eager to retain that fading link to her home in the countryside (318-319). While such letters do connect Fanny to the seemingly distant Mansfield Park, they also offer a glimpse into the nature of the correspondent, Mary. From the letters Fanny learns of the superficiality of Mary’s attachment to Edmund, and is “ashamed” of a woman who “could speak of [Edmund], and speak only of his appearance!” (339). At Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford may seem to have a strong character, yet in London, “surrounding by those we [give] all the support of their own bad sense,” Mary proves to have a “weak side of her character” which is only the shadowy reflection of the corrupt and vain society she readily embraces (343). As Fanny bitterly muses, “they have all perhaps, been corrupting one another”—the immorality of one building upon the ethical depravity of the other.
Moreover, when Tom, Edmund’s older brother and heir to Mansfield Park, falls dangerously ill, all Mary can write about are her own schemes to marry Edmund provided that Tom has died. Blinded by her own “cold-hearted ambition” (355) which had so long been molded by the equally hardhearted avaricious pursuits of those around her, Mary herself strips the metaphorical blindfold of love from Edmund’s eyes, and he finally realizes that the woman he had esteemed, the “creature capable of everything noble” (343) had long ago succumbed to the damaging influence of high society’s artificiality.
As Fanny declares to Henry on the steps of her family’s residence in Portsmouth, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it” (335). It is a small piece of advice which Fanny herself utilizes in the course of her stay at Mansfield Park, and which Mary Crawford consistently ignores. For while Fanny holds firm in her convictions, Mary merely grasps at shallow societal mores for guidance. And so, Fanny’s virtue and steadfastness, untarnished by corrupt society, become her reward in her marriage to Edmund, while Mary, who has “enough of vanity, ambition, love, and disappointment” (383), becomes an illustration of the harmful influences of mainstream culture.
Mansfield Park: Culture, Character, and Consequences
By Jessica F. Skoudis
Three women. Three cultural messages. Three outcomes. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, characters Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, and Fanny Price are all presented with societal messages about marriage, morality, and social position. For these women, heeding the culture’s view of marriage and class structure usually leads to ruin, while heeding its view of morality reaps rewards. Throughout the novel, each woman engages with these messages differently. In the end, it is each woman’s choice between positive messages and negative messages that shapes her development and determines her ultimate fate.
Much of the action in Mansfield Park stems from the prospect of marriage. Indeed, the novel’s very first lines recount the marriage of Maria Bertram’s mother, Miss Maria Ward:
About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward . . . had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park…and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and a large income. (3)
This is the society that Maria Bertram is born into—a society in which marital “good luck” lies neither in love, nor in character, nor in principles. No, according to the culture, the primary prerequisite for a good marriage is wealth. For, when Austen wrote Mansfield Park, women possessed little means of earning money, and, thus, their principle strategy for attaining a fortune was to marry one (Sturrock).
Steeped in this mercenary view of marriage her entire life, Maria Bertram believes that marrying for money is not merely favorable but absolutely imperative (Sturrock). In chapter four, Austen declares,
Being now in her twenty-first year, Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s…by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty was to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could. (Austen 36, my italics)
Today, one rarely associates the phrases “duty” and “moral obligation” with a large income. However, money is so important to Maria that earning it is the primary–if not only–item on her moral code. Thus, when Maria meets Mr. Rushworth, her “moral obligation” is put to the test. Mr. Rushworth is a blundering, bungling, utterly “stupid fellow” (38) whom Maria “despise[s] (431). However, he earns a hefty “twelve thousand a year” (37), prompting Maria to swiftly swallow her “contempt of the man” and marry him (187).
Maria’s society not only imposes cultural messages about marriage but also about morality. As Karen Taylor points out, during Austen’s time, women were expected to be “spiritually pure,” “keepers of traditional values,” and “moral guardians of the family.” Throughout the novel, Maria utterly fails to live up to this standard. In fact, Maria only behaves decorously when her scrupulous father is at home, “repress[ing] [her] spirits in his presence so as to make [her] real disposition unknown to him” (Austen 30). For Maria, propriety is not internal but external, a mere mask to be worn around certain audiences. As Austen says, “Something must have been wanting within [Maria]” (430). Clearly, Maria’s most blatant act of immorality is her affair with Mr. Crawford. Indeed, even before Maria’s adulterous act, Austen paints a symbolic picture of the consequences of Maria’s wantonness (Toner 224). While at Southerton, the engaged Maria and unengaged Mr. Crawford cross over a locked gate to enter a vineyard (Austen 93-96). Here, their literal surmounting of the gate symbolizes their figurative circumventing of propriety and foreshadows their future illicit sexual affair (Toner 224). Significantly, Austen has placed spikes on the gate that come alarmingly close to tearing Maria’s gown (Austen 94), representing the inherent danger in the pursuit of impropriety. Maria should have recoiled at the spikes and heeded her culture’s dictates of morality. However, all Maria heeds is Mr. Crawford’s charms, and, thus, through the “gate” of sexual promiscuity she goes, first flirting and finally fornicating with Mr. Crawford (93-96, 434-35).
Another cultural dictate that Maria faces is that of societal position. In Austen’s time, class distinctions were rigid; the upper classes often looked down on the lower classes (Davies). As seen in her relationship with her cousin, Fanny Price, Maria fully embraces these rigid class distinctions. While Maria is the daughter of a prestigious gentleman, Fanny is the daughter of a lowly sailor (Austen 1-7). Thus, Maria views Fanny as merely an “occasionally acceptable companion” (17) to whom she should give “a generous present of some of [her] least valued toys” (13). Here, Austen’s satirical tone perfectly portrays Maria’s attitude: By giving Fanny her “least valued toys,” Maria thinksshe is being “generous” while, in reality, she is behaving selfishly and arrogantly, upholding the cruel class distinctions of her day.
Ironically, after all of her snubbing, Maria becomes the one who will be forever snubbed. Just as Austen prophesies, the spikes inherent in immorality ultimately ensnare Maria, as her affair leads to a fate worse than death—exile from society and eternal banishment with her cantankerous Aunt Norris (432). Unfortunately, Maria’s sense of superiority causes her to avoid friendship with Fanny Price, a steady, upright girl whose influence could have benefited her. Instead, Maria is influenced by her culture’s monetary idea of marriage, becoming a miserable wife (188) and, ultimately, a miserable adulteress (434-35). Clearly, then, Maria’s interaction with her society’s messages negatively impacts her life.
Mary Crawford is also steeped in her society’s mercenary conception of marriage. Like Maria, Mary touts that marrying for money is not just a preference but an obligation. “‘It is every body’s duty to do as well for themselves [in marriage] as they can,’“ she declares (269, my italics). However, when Mary Crawford is presented with Edmund as a potential husband, she is forced to reconsider her “duty.” Indeed, Mary is genuinely attracted to Edmund—his “sincerity, his steadiness, his integrity . . . [please] her” (62). At the same time, though, Mary is infuriated with Edmund since he only aspires to be a clergyman, who will never be “very rich” (198). Throughout the novel, Mary struggles between her culture’s view of marriage and her own preference, sometimes determined to remain “indifferent” (212) toward Edmund, other times determined to marry him (427).
Mary not only vacillates between marrying for money and marrying for love, she also vacillates between morality and immorality. Unlike Maria, Mary seems to have a certain internal sense of propriety, for, as Austen points out, Mary is almost “purely governed” by “good feelings” (139). However, Mary often rebels against these “good feelings,” prompting Edmund to declare that she has a “corrupted, vitiated mind” (424). Indeed, Mary teeters dangerously on the brink of right and wrong as her good actions, such as her defense of Fanny against the abuses of the Bertrams (139), are constantly being followed by bad actions, such as her disparagement of the clergy (88-89). Ultimately, it is Mary’s culturally-induced monetary outlook, her belief that there is “nothing of consequence but money,” that thrusts her into impropriety (405). For example, at the end of the novel, Mary inappropriately states that the possible death of Edmund’s brother, Tom, would actually be a blessing since Tom’s “wealth” and “consequence” would “fall” into the “hands” of Edmund—her potential husband (403).
Mary is also confronted by her society’s perspective on social status. However, unlike Maria, Mary does not snub Fanny. Instead, Mary walks with Fanny, talks with Fanny, and even invites Fanny to listen to the harp (191). In fact, based on her treatment of Fanny, Mary does not seem to have absorbed her culture’s pompous perception of class categorizations. However, when interacting with Edmund Bertram, Mary displays a shockingly different and openly classist side of her character. For instance, when she discovers that Edmund wants to be a clergyman, Mary brusquely remarks that clergymen have little “‘influence and importance in society’” and that Edmund is “‘really fit for something better’” (88-89). What accounts for Mary’s simultaneously selfless and snobbish character? Because Mary is not directly affected by Fanny Price’s social status, Mary is willing to befriend Fanny. However, Edmund’s social status could greatly impact Mary since she is considering marrying him. And, according to Mary, a clergyman’s wife is “a situation” to which “she would never stoop” (212). Thus, Mary’s classism is thinly veiled, hidden during her interactions with Fanny but openly visible in matters concerning her own life.
In the end, Mary’s mercenary view of marriage, less than admirable morals, and disrespect of the clergy and lower classes all turn Edmund away in disgust (425-27). Therefore, Mary’s responses to each societal message negatively affect her life. However, Mary’s choices are far less ignominious than Maria’s, revealing that Mary is a more redeemable character. Thus, at the novel’s conclusion, Austen mercifully offers hope for wayward Mary, hinting that Mary may learn from her mistakes and even benefit from them in the long run (Wells). For, according to Austen, Mary has “acquired” a “better taste” from her experience at Mansfield and now longs, not for money, but for good “character and manners” in a potential husband (Austen 436).
Like Maria and Mary, Fanny Price is presented with a suitor: the charming, charismatic, and—most importantly—wealthy Mr. Crawford. When Lady Bertram discovers Mr. Crawford’s interest in Fanny, she promptly reminds Fanny of the financial “duty” of marriage: “‘[Y]ou must be aware, Fanny, that it is every young woman’s duty to accept such . . . [a fortunate] offer as this’” (308, my italics). However, unlike Lady Bertram, Maria, and Mary, Fanny rejects her culture’s monetary idea of marriage—Fanny Price cannot be bought for a “price.” Instead, Fanny examines men’s hearts, seeking certain principles before consenting to marriage. To Fanny, Mr. Crawford’s heart is an “abhorrence” (303); he is an incurably vain, flirtatious man who would only make her “‘miserable’” (296). Indeed, even before Mr. Crawford proposes, Jane Austen foreshadows that Fanny and Mr. Crawford are simply incompatible through her use of symbolism: Before a ball held in her honor, Fanny is given two chains (239-52). One chain is from Mr. Crawford; the other is from her true love, Edmund (239-244). Mr. Crawford’s chain is, by far, the showier of the two (242), representing the flashy personality and tremendous wealth he has to offer. However, his chain simply does not fit through Fanny’s pendant (252), symbolizing that, despite his charms and riches, Mr. Crawford is just not the right “fit” for Fanny. So, when faced with the prospect of marrying Mr. Crawford, Fanny agrees that “[s]he must do her duty”—not her “duty” to money but rather her “duty” to principles (306). Thus, Fanny rejects Mr. Crawford’s proposal and waits for the man whose chain is the right “fit”—Edmund Bertram.
Fanny is also faced with her society’s standard of morality. Unlike Maria, Fanny does not view propriety as a mere mask. No, for even when Fanny is pressured to behave immorally, she remains steadfast, demonstrating that, for her, morality is not superficial but internal. For instance, Fanny’s heart prompts her not to participate in her cousins’ theatrical performance, a play she dubs “improper for home representation” (130). Adamantly, Fanny’s cousins entreat her to act, but she resists, demonstrating her tremendous inner strength and morality. (137-38). It is this virtuousness, this “goodness of heart” (237), that compels Mr. Crawford to declare that Fanny has “some touches of the angel in [her]” (319).
Finally, throughout the novel, Fanny is bombarded with her culture’s view of societal position. Before Fanny even arrives at Mansfield Park, her aunt, Mrs. Norris, and her uncle, Sir Thomas, contrive a nearly impossible social status for her: Fanny is to be treated as just enough of a sister to avoid an inappropriate relationship with either Tom or Edmund but not enough of a sister to be considered the equal of the other two Bertram girls (6-7). Fanny’s actions throughout the novel demonstrate that she accepts this inferior position. For instance, Austen states that Fanny “ranks her own claims” so lowly that she actually believes that she does not deserve the comfort of riding home in a carriage (205). Further, during a ball that is held in her honor, Fanny is appalled that she must dance first and “open” the ball (256). She feels unworthy to be “placed above so many elegant young women,” and, thus, she is greatly distressed (257). For her, a joyous event has transformed into a doleful one because of her low view of herself.
In the end, then, Fanny’s feelings of social inadequacy cause her self-inflicted discomfort and anguish. Yet, other than her acceptance of her inferior position, Fanny’s interactions with her culture are far more beneficial than Maria’s and Mary’s. Fanny’s rejection of monetary marriage leads to her fortunate rejection of the unscrupulous Mr. Crawford (291). Further, Fanny’s acceptance of the moral norms of her time gains Sir Thomas’ favor, causing him to support Fanny and Edmund’s marriage and to admit that Fanny is “the daughter that he wanted” (438). That being said, Fanny’s story would have ended far differently if not for Austen’s intervention (Halls). For example, as the theatrical rehearsals continue, Fanny finally agrees to participate in the play (Austen 161). It is only Sir Thomas’ chance arrival that prevents Fanny from becoming more involved in the performance (162), and, thus, Austen uses Sir Thomas to save Fanny from moral culpability. Further, Austen clearly declares that, if Mr. Crawford had not run away with Maria, “Fanny must have been his reward” (434). Here, once again, Austen gently weaves the plot in Fanny’s favor so that Fanny can marry, not Mr. Crawford, but her true love, Edmund. Therefore, with the aid of Austen’s merciful pen, Fanny’s interaction with her society’s messages positively impacts her life.
Throughout Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram, Mary Crawford, and Fanny Price all engage with the societal messages about marriage, morality, and social status differently. Ultimately, it is this interaction with their culture that helps to shape both their development and their destinies. For these women, accepting society’s messages about marriage and class structure is often deleterious, while accepting its messages about morality is typically beneficial. Maria utterly fails in her approach toward her culture, leaving Austen no choice but to banish her. Mary also receives her society’s signals injudiciously, but she does have some redeeming qualities and displays great potential to right her wayward soul. Finally, Fanny comes closest to appropriately approaching her society’s messages, but it is only Austen’s beneficent construction of the plot that allows Fanny to marry her beloved Edmund Bertram in the end. Thus, through the interaction of character and culture, Austen creates Maria’s mournful, Mary’s hopeful, and Fanny’s fortunate future.
Austen in Transition
By Erica Yee
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and likewise that a single lady, whether or not she has a good fortune, is in want of a husband. In each of Jane Austen’s first five novels, the heroine eventually marries into the same social class or higher. In her last completed novel, however, Austen distinctly shifts her focus from marriages based on class to circumstances where class does not confine in the changing society. Persuasion’s protagonist Anne Elliot, though she has an inheritance and an estate, marries down the social ladder. In the worlds of Pride and Prejudice or Emma, this marriage would be disastrously scandalous. Yet in Persuasion, this modern outlook will actually bring prosperity. Through the characters in Persuasion who represent both traditional and changing norms of society, Jane Austen reconciles her strong belief in England’s aristocratic culture with an optimistic view of the inevitable shift towards a meritocracy.
Austen portrays unfavorable aspects of English class-based society through traditional female characters. She famously uses these archetypal characters to satirize the gentry fixation with wealth and appearances. In a culture where a person’s status determined his or her opportunities, women especially depended on good marriages for security and stability. Accordingly, though both Anne and her sister Elizabeth are of spinster age, Elizabeth is still expected to marry well because of her beauty. She may possess all the superficial requirements of a good noble wife, but she ultimately remains the unmarried maid. The incongruity of a prized female candidate for marriage unable to marry frames Austen’s perception that appearance and rank no longer guarantee marriage in this changing society. Mrs. Clay, a widowed friend of their father Sir Walter Elliot, has a youthful, if not beautiful, appearance. She is described as a “clever young woman, who understood the art of pleasing; the art of pleasing, at least, at Kellynch Hall . . . ” (Austen 36). Kellynch Hall—the Elliot’s estate—represents the old order of landed inheritance, in which property and rank guaranteed stability and respect. But the great irony of Persuasion lies in the Elliots’ removal from Kellynch Hall, which traditionally would continue to house their descendants for man generations to come. In parallel to the loss of the family home, Mrs. Clay’s skills in pleasing no longer engender the admiration she might have received more readily many years ago. Lady Russell, another family friend and Anne’s well-meaning mother figure, represents part of Austen’s struggle to unite the practices and beliefs of the past with the promise of the future. Though wise and judicious, Lady Russell’s tight hold on tradition led her to persuade Anne against accepting Frederick Wentworth’s proposal eight years earlier. As a daughter of a baronet, marrying a poor soldier would have disgraced her family. Austen clearly promotes some of the positive aspects of gentry life through the character of Lady Russell. Yet she also asserts that English society needs time to balance long-held traditions with the rise of people who earn their place and wealth.
Austen previously created characters through which she advocated the importance of true character over rank and wealth. Yet she augments her own pattern by creating proto-feminist characters in Persuasion who also exemplify women’s changing role in society. To maintain their standard of living, the Elliots decide to rent out Kellynch Hall to Navy Admiral Croft and his wife. Mrs. Croft, having lived out at sea almost as long as her husband, is depicted with an agreeable though weather-beaten face, implying Austen’s favorable view of her character (Austen 69). In her introduction to the Signet Classics edition of Persuasion, Margaret Drabble comments on Mrs. Croft’s lack of “girlish bloom”— standard of beauty— but possession of “something just as attractive and less conventional” (xiv). She differs from the other female characters in that she is more adept with business matters than her husband. Their union survived the spontaneity and uncertainty of life in the navy, perhaps because they lived their marriage as a partnership. In Mrs. Crofts’ success story, she marries a naval officer, and they have gradually become very wealthy while still preserving their good marriage. This is the kind of marriage Anne anticipated with Frederick had she not been persuaded against accepting his hand. In this way, Anne embodies a seemingly proto-modernist ideal for Austen’s time. She possesses a unique beauty—elegance of mind, patience, compassion—albeit wholly unappreciated. She takes care of Kellynch Hall, a role customarily given to men. Mrs. Croft, sincere and practical, serves as inspiration for Anne through the older woman’s unusual yet prosperous marriage and lifestyle.
Anne is older and more mature than other Austen heroines, yet she does not simply settle for tradition alone. In her dissatisfaction with vain and shallow characters, Anne hearkens back to Elizabeth Bennet. But the Pride and Prejudice protagonist eventually marries up the social ladder—to a man she loves, yes—but assuredly into greater wealth and security; Anne’s fate sails a different course. After rejecting Wentworth, she loses her youthful bloom and resigns herself to the life of a spinster as society would dictate. Laura Mooneyham details this struggle in her analysis of Anne Elliot’s name and its “conflict of interests which determine both her identity and her destiny” (156). As an Elliot, she is part of a corrupted but longstanding baronage. As Anne, she differs from the typical “Mary’s and Elizabeth’s” of her family line, particularly her superficial sisters (Austen 24). Her family thinks she will never improve her status through a good marriage. Instead, she eventually creates her own heritage through marrying a naval officer. She is liberated at the conclusion from the restrictive aspects of customary British society. The earlier Austen heroines were more than satisfied with marrying gentlemen with permanent homes. But in Persuasion Austen constructs a character who finds true love and happiness with an unpredictable life and future, in which “worth is not embodied in a permanent, stable home, but earned via new goings, piratical, nautical adventures” (Brownstein 98). Persuasion is a strong testament to her forward-looking view of marriages outside the traditional class structures.
To further her critique of established English society, Austen portrays the Elliot family males negatively to illustrate her grievances against the gentry. Mr. William Elliot, heir presumptive of Sir Walter, has all appearance of being a good match. Yet his good manners mask unforgivable rigidity and cruelty. Manners were definitive standards of respect in high society, which Austen undoubtedly endorsed. But the uselessness of Mr. Elliot’s manners “must be taken as an important indication that [Austen] is aware that the old order is rapidly losing prestige and authority” (Monaghan 76). He may be the paradigm of propriety, but Anne rejects his proposal even before learning of his malicious intentions. Austen advocates caution towards those whose excellent outward manners do not match their internal character. Mr. Elliot was “rational, discreet, polished,” but he was never emotionally open (Austen 186). Anne favored the eagerness and sincerity of the more contemporary characters. Mr. Elliot eventually settles for Mrs. Clay as his mistress, remaining rooted in traditional gentry values, as does Sir Walter Elliot.
The conceited Sir Walter represents the inherent weakness of a society that focuses solely on reputation and appearance. “Vanity was the beginning and the end of [his] character . . . Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did,” Austen states clearly as the novel opens (24). The Elliots are forced to leave Kellynch Hall because Sir Walter’s extravagant spending has pushed them into financial instability, the worst scenario for a baronet. He obsesses over the Baronetage, lists of all the nobility, including the Elliots. Because these names are only significant in a society that values hierarchy, Austen’s ridicule of Sir Walter here demonstrates her displeasure with the flawed social structure. Neither good manners nor high social standing can compensate for the irresponsibility of the gentry in discouraging unconventional values and character. This theme is evident in virtually all of Austen’s writings: that people should be judged by their character and integrity rather than social and financial status. Sir Walter’s initial reluctance to allow an officer to rent Kellynch Hall represents the old gentry view of the navy as a means of “‘bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honors which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of . . . ’” (Austen 39). He clings so desperately to the attitudes of the past for worth that he blinds himself to the decreasing weight of mere titles, and increasing importance of merit. Austen herself needs to accept that societal norms are changing, such as in the Elliots’ forced removal from their home. A new age is forthcoming—one in which accomplishment transcends rank by birth. She advocates for these changes because she recognizes the dysfunction of the old traditions. Society ultimately stagnates when the best and brightest are left outside the confines of places of power and influence.
Sir Walter pored over his Baronetage; most everyone else followed the navy list and the heroic soldiers it enumerated. Around the time Austen wrote Persuasion, the navy became highly respected because of their past achievements in the Napoleonic wars. Austen’s positive depictions of characters in the navy, also in Mansfield Park, contrast with her portrayal of the wily army officer George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. The navy’s “travel and travails on behalf of their country also gave rich naval officers an aura of sophistication that sat well with the gentry . . . ” (Drum 107-108). Austen’s opinions of the navy embodied the general viewpoint of the rest of her country. Though clerical and legal professions were also quite respected at the beginning of the 19th century (and made minor appearances in earlier novels), these vocations often still depended on the gentry. The burgeoning middle class was still relegated to essentially outsider status among the gentry. Officers of the military, especially the navy, earned good reputations and admiration because of their ability to rise through a system of meritocracy. In Austen’s time, ascending military ranks was one of the only ways a man of low birth could gain financial and social respectability. In her “portrait of Captain Wentworth and his seafaring fraternity, we glimpse the possibility of another more enterprising, more active world” (Drabble viii). As Austen watched English society shift dramatically from the era of landed gentry, she affirmed that progression wholeheartedly in crafting a world in which naval soldiers flourished.
Both Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth, the two naval officers in Persuasion, are approved enthusiastically by members of the gentry families. Admiral Croft enters as recently retired from his successful career in the navy and is ready to settle down. Though initially reluctant to rent out Kellynch Hall, especially to a non-nobleman, Sir Walter eventually allows the Crofts to rent Kellynch Hall because letting “my house to Admiral Croft, would sound . . . very much better than to any mere Mr.—’” (Austen 44). The Elliots are homeless in a society where the estate is esteemed, but the navy soldiers enter the scene and compensate where the gentry lack. Ironically, the Crofts rent Kellynch Hall when the Elliots can no longer afford to maintain their standard of living. While the traditional Mr. Elliot is “too generally agreeable,” Frederick Wentworth has a “glowing, manly, open look” (Austen 186, 81). This confident and ambitious naval officer is the perfect character to usher in a new era. Every character who interacts with him in Persuasion admires him, from simpering girls to even Lady Russell, who disliked him greatly eight years ago. Anne had severed their engagement not only because Lady Russell persuaded her it was improper, but because Anne herself thought she would impede Wentworth’s career (Austen 48). Perhaps a marriage at that time would have limited his subsequent success, as he may not have traveled so much as a married man. However, as a risk-taker, Wentworth represents the prominent difference between a society based on personal achievement, and one based on land and inheritance; he is self-sufficient. Despite freely spending his war prizes, he knows he can gain more money by actively serving in Her Majesty’s navy. Any young woman who catches the Captain’s eye would be fortunate to be his wife, Austen implies. Suddenly, the man who ascended into prestige from a low birth and through a precarious lifestyle is one of the best candidates for marriage. In the perspective of most of her countrymen, even gentry, Austen commends the hard-earned success of the navy with their positive portrayal.
In spite of Austen favoring society’s transition to a meritocracy, the shift of traditional English culture does not lack more complications. Anne Frey emphasizes some of these weaknesses in her critical view of Austen’s use of the navy. Frey argues that in, “rejecting the aristocracy as a class . . . Austen also rejects the model of nation the aristocracy embodies, [a model] based on organic connection to one’s country, a shared past, or shared qualities, traits, or values” (215-216). The navy’s victories against Napoleon were a “source of nationalist pride” (214). Frey suggests that Austen participates in this hero-worship without defining how the navy influences national identity. Austen is at least in part swept up in the evolution of a culture where ideas of nationalism are radically changing. In her previous novels, Austen undoubtedly views England as a nation defined by landed inheritance, but here the navy provides an alternative. Using the navy here as a source of national pride foregoes the individual in favor of government structures. Frey makes valid points on this subject: Austen hardly mentions any of the less glorious moments in navy life, and the gentry almost blindly revere Captain Wentworth. But, though she undoubtedly heard of navy life from her brothers, Austen does not describe the naval officers performing their professional duties in this novel. The navy here functions chiefly to represent the fact that society is starting to look past class and lineage, and towards respecting professionals. Austen summarizes this view in the last line of the novel: “[Anne] gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (Austen 283). The life of a naval officer necessitates constant anxiety for him and his family. Yet through a combination of both good luck and hard work, this profession is ultimately an honorable way to live. Despite the risks, Austen champions boldness and change as essential components for redefining worth within a society.
Austen knew that as this era of meritocracy fast approached, holding onto traditional values and practices would limit progress. Sir Walter, the epitome of such values, compliments both Admiral Croft as the “best-looking sailor” he ever met, and even Anne on her “improved looks” as she regains her youthful bloom (Austen 52, 170). But Austen still perseveres in some aspects of her longstanding belief in England’s aristocratic culture, especially the value of family. Though Anne did not consider Mr. Elliot’s proposal, the idea of “having the precious name of ‘Lady Elliot’ . . . of being restored to Kellynch, calling it her home again . . . forever, was a charm which she could not immediately resist” (Austen 185). The prestige of an esteemed family name and estate does not just disappear with the rise of professions. After Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth finally reconcile and affirm their love for each other, “ . . . they returned again into the past . . . exquisitely happy” in preparation “for all the immortality which the happiest recollections of their own future lives could bestow” (Austen 271). Austen is not supporting a complete abandonment of the traditional order, but rather supporting the idea that the old is opening to a new component—an acceptance of meritocracy as maybe strengthening the culture in its egalitarianism. Achievement in an honorable realm such as the military is as attractive and important as noble lineage. At the end of the novel, Austen’s characters appreciate the positive aspects of their past while looking forward to the future. At the end of her own life, Austen likewise values tradition even as she welcomes the rise of a meritocracy.