20 May The literature questions the superficial values (ALAIN DE BOTTON)
Jane Austen began work on Mansfield Park in the spring of 1813 and published it the following year. The novel tells the story of Fanny Price, a shy, modest young girl from a penniless family in Portsmouth who, in order to relieve her parents, is asked by her aunt and uncle, the plutocratic Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to come to Mansfield Park, their stately home, to live with them and their four children. The Bertrams stand at the pinnacle of the English county hierarchy, they are spoken of with awe and reverence by their neighbours; their coquettish teenage daughters, Maria and Julia, enjoy a generous clothes allowance and have both been given their own horses; and their eldest son, Tom, bumptious and casually insensitive, spends his time in London clubs, lubricating his friendships with champagne while focusing his hopes for the future on his father’s death and the inheritance of an estate and title. Though adept at the self-deprecating manners of the English upper classes, Sir Thomas Bertram and his family never forget (and do not allow others to forget) their superior rank and all the distinction that must naturally accompany their ownership of a large landscaped garden upon which deer wander during the quiet hours between tea and dinner. Fanny may have come to live under the same roof as the Bertrams, but she cannot be on an equal footing with them. Her privileges have been given to her at the discretion of Sir Thomas, her cousins patronize her, the neighbours view her with a mixture of suspicion and pity and she is treated by most of the family like a lady-in-waiting whose company one enjoys but whose feelings one is
fortunately never under any prolonged obligation to consider. Before Fanny arrives in Mansfield Park, Austen allows us to eavesdrop on the family’s anxieties about their new charge. ‘ “I hope she will not tease my poor pug,” ’ remarks Lady Bertram. The children wonder what Fanny’s clothes will be like, whether she will speak French and know the names of the kings and queens of England. Sir Thomas Bertram, in spite of having proffered the invitation to Fanny’s parents, expects the worst: ‘ “We shall probably see much to wish altered in her and should prepare ourselves for gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions and a very distressing vulgarity of manner.” ’ His sister-in-law Mrs Norris states that Fanny must early on be told that she is not, and never will be, one of them. Sir Thomas avers, ‘ “We must make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see Fanny and her cousins very good friends but they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights and expectations will always be different.”’ Fanny’s arrival seems only to confirm the family’s prejudices against those who have failed to grow up on estates with landscaped gardens. Julia and
Maria discover that Fanny has only one nice dress, speaks no French and doesn’t know anything. ‘ “Only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together,”’ Julia tells her aunt and mother, ‘ “nor can she tell the principal rivers in Russia and she has never heard of Asia Minor – How strange! Did you ever hear anything so stupid? Do you know, we asked her last night which way she would go to get to Ireland and she said, she should cross to the Isle of Wight.” “Yes, my dear,” replies Mrs Norris, “but you and your sister are blessed with wonderful memories, and your poor cousin has probably none at all. You must make allowances for her and pity her deficiency.”’
Jane Austen, however, takes a little longer to make up her mind about who is deficient and in what capacity. For a decade or more, she follows Fanny patiently along the corridors and reception rooms of Mansfield Park, she listens to her on her walks around the gardens and in her bedroom, she reads her letters, she eavesdrops on her observations of her family, she watches the movements of her eyes and mouth; she peers into her soul. And in the process she picks up on a rare, quiet virtue.
Unlike Julia or Maria, Fanny is not concerned with whether a young man has a large house and a title, she is offended by her cousin Tom’s casual cruelty and arrogance, she flinches from her aunt’s financial considerations of her neighbours. Meanwhile Fanny’s relatives, ranked so highly in the standard county status hierarchy, are more tremblingly placed in that other status system: the novelist’s hierarchy of preference. Maria and her suitor, Mr Rushworth, may have horses, houses and inheritances, but Jane Austen has seen how they fell in love and she does not forget it:
‘Mr Rushworth was from the first struck with the beauty of Miss Bertram, and being inclined to marry, soon fancied himself in love. 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, as well as ensure her a house in town, it became her evident duty to marry Mr Rushworth if she could.’ Who’s Who or Debrett’s Guide to the Top Families of England might have held Maria and Mr Rushworth in high esteem.
After such a paragraph, Austen cannot – nor will she let her readers. The novelist exchanges the standard lens through which people are viewed in society, a lens which magnifies wealth and power, for a moral lens, which magnifies qualities of character. Through this lens, the high and mighty may become small, the forgotten and retiring figures may loom large. Within the world of the novel, virtue is shown to be spread without regard to material wealth. The rich and well-mannered are not immediately good or the poor and unschooled bad. Goodness may lie with the lame ugly child, the destitute porter, the hunchback in the attic or the girl ignorant of the first facts of geography.
Certainly Fanny has no elegant dresses, has no money and can’t speak French, but by the end of Mansfield Park she has been revealed as the one possessed of a noble soul, while the other members of her family, despite their titles and accomplishments, have fallen into moral confusion. Sir Thomas Bertram has allowed snobbery to ruin the education of his children, his daughters have married for money and paid an emotional price for their decision, and his wife has let her heart turn to stone. The hierarchical system of Mansfield Park has been turned on its head.
But Austen does not simply assert her concept of true hierarchy with the bluntness of a preacher, she enlists our sympathies for it and marshals our abhorrence for its opposite with the skill and humour of a great novelist. She does not tell us why her sense of priorities is important, she shows us why within the context of a story which also happens to make us laugh and grips us enough that we want to finish supper early to read on. As we reach the end of Mansfield Park we are invited to go back into the world from which Austen has drawn us aside and respond to others as she has taught us, to pick up on and recoil from greed, arrogance and pride and to be drawn to goodness within ourselves and others.
Alain de Botton