Sunday, 21 October 2012

Classics Challenge: Mansfield Park

This month's prompt by Katherine is to jot down some notes on a chapter of a novel. I've chosen Mansfield Park Chapter 43.  It's when Fanny returns home to Portsmouth after her stay at Mansfield Park.
Susan was growing very fond of her, and though without any of the early delight in books, which had been so strong in Fanny, with a disposition less inclined to sedentary pursuits, or to information for information's sake, she had so strong a desire of not appearing ignorant, as with a good clear understanding, made her a most attentive, profitable, thankful pupil. Fanny was her oracle.  Fanny's explanations and remarks were a most important addition to every essay, or every chapter of history. When Fanny told her of former times, dwelt more on her mind than the pages of Goldsmith; and she paid her sister the compliment of preferring her style to that of any printed author.  The early habit of reading was wanting. 
Unlike Fanny, Susan has not been well-educated at Mansfield Park, as their parents are poor. Fanny was taken in by her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram.
Fanny Price with books from the circulating library. Susan asks her why spend all the money on those books.

The passage shows that Fanny is the deeper, more superior sister, because she genuinely enjoys reading for its own sake, unlike Susan who only reads to appear genteel. Jane Austen here is having a sly dig at those people who are intelligent enough to read good books, but don't care to be intellectual. While Fanny is intellectual and thoughtful, Susan is merely quick and intelligent. The originals of an idea or thought should be read to appreciate the author's thoughts the best, and yet Susan prefers Fanny to interpret those works for her, because Fanny is easier to understand. This shows Susan can be shallow, and is learning only for self-vanity and interest. Susan is overall a sympathetic character, so I hope you don't dislike her. Many of us are more like Susan than we care to admit.
Goldsmith's History of England. A staple for school education in the 18th and 19th century. Mind you, I heard Thomas Carlyle was creating a revolution in history when he wrote his work on the French Revolution.

Note that Susan has a disposition less inclined to sedentary pursuits. Why not make Susan more quiet and calm like her sister Fanny? Jane Austen I think deliberately did this, to contrast the sisters, and also to make her own point, which resounds strongly throughout the book.  Those who are lively, vivacious and like outdoor activities are rarely ever seen to be intellectual or bookish. On the other hand, weak, quiet Fanny is intellectual and bookish like Edmund. Edmund would be somewhere in the middle - he goes into society because he likes people, and also because it's expected of him, but he enjoys his quiet moments too, and finds society quite shallow.  Susan like most of the shallow people in the book is active, and therefore less likely to be interested in books. In the end, she proves to be better adapted to the life at Mansfield than Fanny, because she is more spirited and extroverted, and therefore has a similar wavelength to the rest. Austen was trying to show us that the lively ones are accepted better but not the timid ones like Fanny. Fanny's timidity is never really resolved in the novel but she is still a paragon. "Aha!" Austen might be saying. "Here you are - you think you like those paragons, but look at how people don't care for Fanny." And the readers didn't care for Fanny. Perhaps they felt despised. If they did, they deserved to be despised.  Anyone who thinks Fanny is a complete detestable prig deserves to be despised.
Susan and Fanny Price from Mansfield Park 1983.

I think it's true of many of us. If you prefer a lively life above everything you have less time for books and are less likely to be attached to them. If you're clever and quiet you have more time for books. And this reflects a part of Jane Austen. It is said by Miss Mitford that before the publication of her novels, Jane Austen was a poker no one cared about, but now her books had been published, she is still a poker, but a poker that everyone is afraid of. She caricatured society: no wonder people were afraid. To her family she was fun, warm and lively: to outsiders, cold, reserved and awkward.  Is Fanny Price a part of Jane Austen? Cassandra Austen couldn't stand Fanny Price, but curiously Jane Austen did not defend Fanny or say much about her. I think she didn't want people to associate her with that character, which is why Fanny's background in Jane Austen's letter remains in the shade. Jane Austen was having a rant at those shallow, proud extroverts in favour of the intelligent introvert - a bit too strong at times, but I can't help feeling I would pat her back and tell her to carry on the slander.
Mary Russell Mitford, acquaintance of the Austens, and good friend of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

"Look at those accomplished misses," Miss Austen might be saying, "they are intelligent, but they only study to appear of consequence in the world to suit their position in society. They do not read for pure delight." Echoes of this appear in Pride and Prejudice, when Darcy remarks very few women actually read for intellectual pleasure. When you consider the Regency era was a frivolous age, it makes sense for Jane Austen to protest against the flirty wit in favour of the subdued but intellectual bluestocking - the latter which became the staple of Victorian fiction. Victorian girls were less flirtatious than their Regency counterparts, better-educated in mathematics especially, but the ideal of the heroine changed. The 18th century heroine was a quiet, virtuous prig, who stands out among the noisy flirts and wits around her. The Victorian heroine was different. She had spirit, even if she was quiet, and she is less a paragon than her predecessor. She stands out among the submissive girls of her time. Though the submissive girls are not always quiet sorts. The Victorians had social and psychological realism. I suppose the heroine must be the opposite of the general type of young lady at the time. Since the 18th century ladies were hussies you had a prig for a heroine. Since the Victorian ladies were subdued, reserved and comparatively meek, you had a spirited, intelligent more rebellious heroine. Though the spirited heroine wasn't necessarily a flirt and an extreme extrovert, as you can see from Molly Gibson and the Brontë heroines. Margaret Hale is somewhere in the middle - a social reformer, with spirit, and yet not a brazen hussy. I suppose the Victorian heroines are more varied, though the major ones are spirited and dare to think for themselves. But I'm being unkind to extroverts - some of whom I really like and whose intellect I respect. (They are not the norm, by the way, so this is not statistical).

This scene is also touching, because it shows a new rapport between Fanny and Susan. Before this Fanny didn't seem to have any particular emotional connection or equal friendship with anyone apart from Edmund - certainly not with any girl her age. So coming home secures her a companion, and both sisters appreciate each other. Susan appreciates Fanny's knowledge and genteel manners, and Fanny appreciates Susan's willingness to learn and her acceptance of Fanny. Despite being superior to many of the middle-class circles in Portsmouth they shun Fanny after a while because she isn't accomplished or (what is more) interesting. If she had an interesting character her lack of accomplishments wouldn't matter. They only spoke to her thinking she was genteel and therefore superior. But because she hasn't been as well-educated as the Bertrams too bad. False friendship this is. Yet Austen emphasises Fanny's studies, so surely she must be accomplished? Not so. You can read the Edinburgh Review, Hazlitt's lectures and Lamb's Essays but it doesn't mean you can play the harp, the pianoforte and speak Italian. Lizzy Bennet is well-read but isn't talented at many things, like Fanny. Whereas the more accomplished ladies don't read as much as she does. While ladies are merely talented, Fanny has intellect and deep feeling. Austen could be having a go at those who equate accomplishments with intelligent and superiority but have no taste for fine feeling or poetry. I think this thing still persists today. We want super-talented students who have no taste for reading things beyond their syllabus, who don't read deep things like Paradise Lost (for example).
Charles Lamb, co-author of Tales from Shakespeare. In his time he was known as the author of Elia's Essays.

Fanny may be slow, and so may be the intellectual people Austen alludes to, but it doesn't mean they're stupid, unfeeling and unthinking. They are deeper than the shallow talented people. To appreciate a literary criticism requires some intellect and interest, not merely talent. This elevates the slower Fanny above the rest.

By the way, if you're interested I wrote a guest post on The Squeee's blog, on Friendships with Men in Jane Austen's World.

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