‘Mansfield Park is a great novel, its greatness being commensurate with its power to offend.’
– Lionel Trilling
Lionel Trilling also once wrote that opinions about Jane Austen’s novels “are almost as interesting and almost as important to think about as the work itself”. In the century or so after her novels were first published, Jane Austen (1775-1817) received much appreciation but little criticism. In part this resulted from the careful management of her legacy affected by her family and its descendants who sought, through selective destruction and strategic interpretation of correspondence and memoirs, to refine her into an acceptable vision of genteel spinsterhood. As Reginald Farrar observed, in James Austen-Leigh’s 1865 A Memoir of Jane Austen, his aunt “does not even die for us of anything in particular, but fades out, with Victorian gentility, in a hazy unspecified decline”.
In 1928, Arnold Bennett felt compelled to preface his Evening Standard column thus: “The reputation of Jane Austen is surrounded by cohorts of defenders who are ready to do murder for their sacred cause”. Subsequently Austen’s works have received broader scrutiny, as scholars have sought to wrestle Austen from Janeite fanatics – ‘dear Aunt Jane’s’ Austen-Leigh inspired admirers – and to test or challenge the commonplace myth of Austenite perfection.
Projected as a talented but essentially amateur author, whose writing played third fiddle to family and Christian duty, whose worldly concerns were limited to a local round of genteel connections and whose social commentary extended no further than noting whose dance card went unfilled, Austen was left vulnerable to attack from those whose own objectives could be furthered by portraying her as complicit in an imperial and patriarchal conspiracy of the privileged to bolster the social and geo-political status quo. Mansfield Park (1814), Austen’s most profound and least typical novel, has become the chosen battleground upon which critics have individually carved out their positions and collectively challenged traditional and popular perceptions of Austen: such bipartisanship has resulted in an oft-times bitter discourse so polarised that it appears more an exercise in appropriation to a specific cause than one of illumination.
Edward Said’s treatment of Mansfield Park (Culture and Imperialism, 1993) exemplifies post-colonial interpretations of the novel. Said asserts his reading was undertaken “in the global perspective implied by Jane Austen”. While he affirms the novel’s right to a place in the canon of English literature, his typically post-colonial themes – empire, slavery, ‘Otherness’ and national identity – and particularly his questionable assumption of a vital connection between the Bertram’s slave-worked sugar plantations in Antigua and the sustenance of life at Mansfield, leads him to argue that Mansfield Park is “part of the structure of an expanding imperialist venture” which “opens up a broad expanse of domestic imperialist culture without which Britain’s subsequent acquisition of territory would not have been possible”. He concludes that Austen “appears to be more implicated in the rationale for imperialist expansion” than had been supposed.
Said’s analysis of Mansfield Park has been influential, triggering discussion and debate, in much the same way that his Orientalism (1978) influenced and polarised post-colonial studies, attracting as many detractors as followers. Said has been accused of poor research standards and factual errors: the reference to the “disgraceful profligacy of Lydia and Henry Crawford” certainly to gives cause to question whether his reading of Mansfield Park was as close as he claimed. Susan Fraiman argues that “Said’s attention to his chosen text is cursory: Austen’s references to Antigua (and India) are mentioned without actually being read”. Historians in particular have suggested that Said had only a weak grasp of the historical context. David Cannadine, for instance, argues “pace Edward Said and his ‘Orientalist’ followers, the British Empire was not exclusively (or even preponderantly) concerned with the creation of ‘otherness’ on the presumption that the imperial periphery was different from, and inferior to, the imperial metropolis”. Others claim that Said “wildly” overvalued “the importance of high literature in intellectual history […]. As he saw it, it was discourse and textual strategies that drove the imperial project and set up rubber plantations, dug out the Suez Canal and established garrisons of legionnaires in the Sahara”.
Others have sought to focus on the text itself to refute Said’s indictment of Mansfield Park as tool of validation and facilitation, portraying the novel as undermining rather than enabling empire and slavery. Gabrielle D V White, for instance, uses textual reference to build a case for both Fanny and Edmund as abolitionists, with Sir Thomas sharing their view. In Edmund’s case, for instance, White recalls the strong links between the evangelical and abolitionist movements and then uses internal evidence, such as Mary’s assertion that when she next hears of Edmund “it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts”, to establish Edmund’s evangelical tendencies and thus by implication his anti-slavery position. Similarly she argues that in the context of contemporary criticism of absentee landlords, it is striking that Austen associates the Crawfords and not the Bertrams with the prominent absentist Lascelles family: it is Mary Crawford who says Maria “will open one of the best houses in Wimpole Street. I was in it two years ago, when it was Lady Lascelles’s’”. For White, Austen’s later fiction, including Mansfield Park, “undermines the status quo of chattel slavery” and Said’s “view is not warranted”. Her interpretation attributes Austen’s quietness in condemnation to a concern to avoid alienating large parts of her potential audience: “she could not afford to trigger resistance to anti-slavery thought. To Austen this imperative may have been a moral rather than financial one: her contemporary, William Wilberforce, in drawing Parliamentary attention to the cruelty and self-interest of West Indian planters, aroused not general reproach but “a cry of assent” which “was heard in several parts of the House”. Paul Edwards argues that such incidents demonstrate that if the abolitionist movement was to be successful, it first had to prove that Christian virtue was compatible with economic prosperity.
Rajeswan Sunder Rajan goes further, reworking Mansfield Park into an overtly abolitionist text: “Said’s reading is not without problems, both as a matter of historical interpretation of Austen’s style […] as well as historical understanding (of her position on abolition for instance)”. Fraiman similarly argues that when Fanny’s inquiry regarding the slave trade is met with ‘dead silence’, “Austen deliberately invokes the dumbness of Mansfield Park concerning its own barbarity precisely because she means to rebuke it”.
Such textual reconfiguration brings Said’s interpretation into question but is unconvincing. If Austen intended Mansfield Park as coded anti-imperial and abolitionist call-to-arms, it was an ambition in which she was singularly unsuccessful. Contemporary and near contemporary audiences not only failed to recognise the hidden message but almost completely ignored its publication entirely. None of Austen’s novel’s sold in spectacular numbers during her lifetime but even against the standards set by Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Sense and Sensibility (1811), contemporary sales of Mansfield Park were disappointing. Moreover, unlike the two previous novels, Mansfield Park “rather curiously” went unreviewed at publication. Even Walter Scott, who almost alone among his contemporaries distinguished Austen from the romantic writers who filled the circulating libraries, of all her previous works omitted only Mansfield Park from discussion in his later review of Emma (1815). It is hardly credible, given the abolitionist movement’s skill at using literature in its cause, that Mansfield Park would not have been recruited, as the children’s book, Little Truth Better Than Great Fables was, if the ammunition which some claim it contains had been recognised at the time.
It is surprising that few have challenged the fundamental of Said’s argument – that Mansfield Park is an enabling pre-figuration of empire, and tainted precisely because of its ‘dead silence’: it is not what Austen says but what is left unsaid that is held offensive. Said argument’s is unsophisticated in its appreciation of Austen’s political and historical context and anachronistic. Anachronistic because Said charges Mansfield Park with complicity in a crime that had not been committed, not yet conceived if we accept the ‘pre-configuration’ element of his argument, when it was written; and unsophisticated because Said fails to appreciate the distinction between the different phrases of Britain’s imperial experience or the continuity between those phrases. Mansfield Park can be read as an endorsement of the imperial, slavery-based status quo: Fanny’s rescue of the Bertram family, consolidating rather than challenging their way of life, argues for a continuation of imperial expansion and consolidation by settlement that had given Britain status and wealth. Yet the empire which Said says Mansfield Park pre-configures is not of that nature, rather it is one based upon conquest, subjugation of native populations and remote imperial rule. At the same time, a post-colonial reading does not allow for the continuity between the pre and post-Napoleonic Wars phases of empire which many historians, such as D K Fieldhouse, identify: the claim of pre-configuration negates the historical fact that Britain’s imperial experience dates back to at least early modern times. Said’s attempted construction of a ‘myth of origin’ for Victorian imperialism is as retrospective and unconvincing as that which identifies Elizabeth’s I granting of a charter to the East India Company as the start of a deliberate plan for English domination of the sub-continent.
The unsatisfactory nature of critical debate invites further examination to find justification for those post-colonial critics who have found the novel offensive. The actual evidence is rather thin. Antigua, a colonial, slave-employing possession is a constant presence in the novel, providing both an income which contributes to the Bertram’s lifestyle and, as a dramatic device, a cause for Sir Thomas’s long absence, but there are only a handful of actual references. Slavery is mentioned explicitly only once.
Yet Mansfield Park was penned in the context of empire, slavery and abolitionism. The title is itself suggestive, bringing to mind Lord Mansfield’s 1772 ruling that an escaped slave, could not be taken from England and returned to slavery in Virginia against his will. Nor is it plausible to argue that Jane Austen may have chosen the title unwittingly. She was familiar with abolitionist literature: as one of her letters makes clear, she read Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament (1808) with enthusiasm: she recalls reading “an essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire […] I am as much in love with the author as I ever was with Clarkson”. Austen’s conception of Lady Bertram evokes Mrs Barbauld’s abolitionist verse, Epistle to William Wilberforce (1791), which includes the lines:
Lo! where reclined, pale Beauty courts the breeze,
Diffused on sofas of voluptuous ease;
With anxious awe her menial train around
Catch her faint whispers of half-uttered sound;
See her, in monstrous fellowship, unite
At once the Scythian and the Sybarite!
Mending repugnant vices, misallied,
Which frugal nature purposed to divide;
See her, with indolence to fierceness joined,
Of body delicate, infirm of mind,
With languid tones imperious mandates urge;
With arm recumbent wield the household scourge;
And with unruffled mien, and placid sounds,
Contriving torture, and inflicting wounds.
There are clear similarities between Lady Bertram and Mrs Barbauld’s Epistle, composed during Parliamentary hearings which made public shocking incidences of cruelty inflicted on slaves by the wives and daughters of West Indian slave-owners. “The prominence of the sofa in Mansfield Park, upon which the languid and indolent Lady Bertram lolls with her pug” thus becomes suggestive of Austen’s familiarity with contemporary abolitionist rhetoric. Cowper, a fervent abolitionist and a poet favoured by Austen who was read aloud in the family home, revealed his position in his writing: The Task (1785) contains a “tirade against slavery”.
Despite the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, slavery as an institution was still a current discourse in England. By the time Mansfield Park was published in 1814, the number of abolitionist petitions in England had grown to an annual average of 900. More directly, the “close connections between certain members of the Austen family and the Antiguan sugar plantocracy” be should not be ignored. James Langford Nibbs, whom the Rev George Austen, the novelist’s father, met at Oxford was the third generation of a prominent Antiguan slave-owning plantation family and became godfather to Jane’s eldest brother. His son, George Nibbs, lived alongside Jane in the Austen family home at Steventon, receiving schooling from her father. Rev Austen later became the principal trustee of the Nibbs’s Antiguan estates (a near contemporary map of Antigua reveals these holdings to have been extensive). Austen’s awareness of West Indian slavery would have been reinforced by correspondence with her sailor brothers; Francis, to whom she was close, in particular. Following the 1807 Abolition Act, the Royal Navy’s role had shifted from defending slave trade shipping to enforcing its prohibition and Commander Francis Austen was involved in policing shipping activities in the Americas. He reported revulsion at the slave system, writing that “slavery however it may be modified is still slavery”. Add to this Austen’s own imperial connections through her friend and cousin Eliza, who lived in the same house as Austen at times over several years and eventually married one of her brothers. Eliza, widowed by a French émigré, was the goddaughter, and rumoured to be the natural daughter, of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal: whatever the truth of the rumour, Hastings settled £5000 on Eliza and persisted in kindnesses to the Austen brothers.
Austen’s awareness of Antiguan circumstances is implied by the close correlation between the fictional economic pressures which force Sir Thomas to set sail and the actual contemporary circumstances of the sugar industry on the island. Some have argued that the internal dating of the novel is a “deliberate puzzle”. But if one accepts Southam’s contention that Mansfield Park’s action unfolds between 1810 and 1813, Gregson Davis’s argument that “it is by no means difficult to relate Bertram’s personal financial crisis to the economic fortunes of the leading Antiguan planter families” during that time becomes persuasive.
A post-colonial cultural indictment and a family-generated vision of narrow gentility come together to provide a damning picture indeed: “See Jane sit, in the poise and order of Mansfield Park, not much bothering her pretty head about the fact that […] Sir Thomas Bertram’s country estate, is sustained by slave labor on his sugar plantations on Antigua”. Thus, in 1992, despite the scholarship of critics such as Patricia Meyer Spacks and Sandra Gilbert, Said can conveniently ignore “two decades of intensive feminist commentary”, continue to identify Tony Tanner’s 1966 work as “the best account” of Mansfield Park, and agree that “the consolidation of authority [in Austen] includes, indeed is built into the very fabric of, both private property and marriage, institutions that are only rarely challenged”. Feminist accounts have, in contrast, focussed on Austen’s subtle challenge to the gender injustices enshrined in such institutions.
Criticism characterised by feminist concerns tends to have dealt with Mansfield Park almost as harshly as Said and his post-colonial followers, criticising Austen’s apparent acceptance of the use of women as pawns to prop a patriarchal society – whether, as in the case of Maria as tradable asset in the marriage market or, as in the case of Fanny, as a domestic guardian of moral values and a homely figuration of tradition and stability acting for the greater good – and certainly it is hard for modern audiences to warm to such a puritanical and insipidly passive character. Although Mansfield Park triggered similar revulsion in some earlier readers, such as Mark Twain in whom Austen evoked an ‘animal repugnance’ or Reginald Farrar who called Fanny the most terrible incarnation we have of the female prig-pharisee […] Gentle and timid and shrinking and ineffectual as she seems, fiction holds no heroine more repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice”, it is striking that earlier feminists sought at times to appropriate Austen to their cause as much as post-colonialists have weaponised Mansfield Park for theirs. Millicent Fawcett’s 1880s account of Austen laid “stress upon her sisterhood, her ordinariness as a woman”, calling her both a great writer and “thoroughly womanly in her habits, manners and occupations”. But attempts to claim Austen as a feminist have been met with equally powerful rebuttals. Oliver Elton’s Survey of English Literature (1912) called Austen “feminine to a profound degree” but his approbation was qualified with severe chauvinism: for Elton, Austen was not a female Shakespeare but a “feminine Congreve”, cool, detached and unattractive. He concludes by calling her “the women, our enemy”.
Trilling’s view of Mansfield Park as a novel in which greatness and offensive are matched was not based on a feminist reading of the novel, still less a post-colonial one, but rather on an examination of Fanny as a heroine. His detection of offensiveness lies closely within the character of Fanny herself. Revealing a Hegel-like interest in the nature of self, Trilling argues that towards the end of the eighteenth century a different type of self emerged, distinct because it could be defined against the cultural milieu which shaped it. This change, for Trilling, was signaled by the fall of the Bastille in 1789, not because the “gross injustices and irrationalities which the Bastille represented were terminated” – patently they weren’t – but with its fall, “the image of the prison came to represent something more […]. Men began to recognise the existence of prisons that were not built of stone, nor even of social restrictions and economic disabilities. They learned to see that they might be immured not only by the overt forces of society but by a coercion in some ways more frightful because it involved their own acquiescence”. As a young woman of the early nineteenth century, imprisoned by class, family, economic circumstance and gender, Fanny would be expected to share such sensibilities; and if, as Trilling argues, the modern self was “born in a prison” and it “assumed its nature and fate the moment it perceived, named and denounced its oppressor”, Fanny’s sin is not one of complicity in imperialism or patriarchy but one of failing to exploit her own potential, her own responsibility, to liberate herself. Trilling’s disappointment is Fanny’s outmoded and self-debilitating lack of self-recognition or, as Fraiman puts it, the “heroine’s inability to speak her hurt”.
Susan Fraiman, highlighting Sir Thomas’s “bid (successful in Maria’s case if not in Fanny’s) to put female flesh on the auction block”, argues that for the “casual import of and export of Fanny Price, the slave trade offers a convenient metaphor”. Conflating slavery and proto-feminism was not unusual in contemporary literature. Austen uses the device in Emma when Jane Fairfax compares slavery as the sale of human flesh to the position of governesses as the sale of human intellect. In Maria, or the Wrongs of Women (1797), Mary Wollstonecraft asks “Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?” Examples can also be found in the works of Hannah More and Anne Radcliffe. Slavery historian David Brion Davis argues that this fusion “seriously weakened the anti-slavery cause”. Here, then, is perhaps the deep-rooted cause of offence: not that Mansfield Park fails to make explicit an abhorrence of empire and slavery or that it intentionally focuses on the proper role and position of women in society but that in acknowledging the context of slavery and then choosing gender positioning as her primary discourse, Austen creates great capacity for offence to be taken by more progressive readerships; by those who see any “analogy between white women and blacks” as “a deeply conservative one, concerned to uphold and maintain the racial hierarchy that grants white women a higher status than black people”, and, secondly, by those who are offended by her offering a flawed prescription for women’s rights and doing so at the expense of providing a prescription for the abolition of slavery and a cultural barrier to imperialism. Mansfield Park offends primarily because it endorses rather than challenges the status quo of the early nineteenth century. While recognising the flaws within contemporary society, it conservatively calls for redemption rather than revolution and thus offends those who find the institutions of the times unsupportable. As Fraiman concludes “Women did, of course, help to rationalise imperialism, and Austen is guilty along with the rest” but the post-colonial “balance sheet”, despite complicating feminist criticism, “has her paying more than her share of the bills”.
© Jessica Mulley, 2006, 2014
Postscript: This is a very slightly edited version of an essay I wrote while studying with the open university. The original did not have accompanying illustrations.
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