Sunday, 11 August 2013

Mansfield Park and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

It is strange that there are so many similarities between Mansfield Park and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne Brontë, rationalist and least romantic of the famous trio, has been compared to Jane Austen, and yet her stern, middle-class outlook is different from the gregarious gentry in Austenland. But Mansfield Park is different: it has a loser-girl for a heroine. Fanny Price does not get her way most of the time: she's poor, sickly, introverted and uncharming. She has one point in her favour: she's well-read and thoughtful and appreciates the Romantic poets, just as Anne Elliott does in Persuasion. She is also honest and principled, though unfairly condemned for being priggish. You can rarely have strong principles without priggishness. And yet Tenant is praised to the skies, and Mansfield Park roundly condemned. In one point are they condemned: priggish heroine. Anyway here are the similarities.

Both have a rakish suitor who pursue a moralistic heroine. In Tenant, Arthur Huntingdon pursues the naïve Helen Lawrence. After their marriage her moralistic strain comes out; she condemns her husband soundly for drinking, swearing, adultering, and raising their son wrongly. In MP, the rakish Henry Crawford pursues innocent Fanny Price, a prim moralistic girl. Both men, note it, are well-off; both girls do not have fortunes. Crawford flirts with Maria Bertram, and after her mercenary marriage to Mr Rushworth, commits adultery with her, and runs away with her, leaving Fanny Price. Unlike Helen, Fanny refuses Crawford's marriage proposal. Edmund and Fanny marry, after Edmund gets over his first love and Fanny refuses Crawford. Helen and Gilbert marry, after Huntingdon dies and Gilbert gets over his infatuation for Eliza Millward.

But it is startlingly similar. Huntingdon's mistress, Lady Lowborough was the former Miss Arabella Wilmot, who after his marriage to Helen, marries Lord Lowborough, a reformed drunk and rake. He reforms after his marriage to please his wife. Arabella married Lowborough for his money and title, just as Maria married Rushworth. Arabella had trouble getting married early because she was a big flirt. Maria is not old when she marries but it is likely Huntingdon married prudish Helen because he knew Helen would be faithful and look after the children well, and he may have thought Arabella an easy lay to sleep with - someone you don't have a long-term relationship with. He may have thought her unfaithful, as she proves to be with her husband. This may be why Crawford doesn't propose to Maria, which leads her to accept Rushworth. She is a flirt; he doesn't want to commit, he may think she's an easy lay, unlike virtuous Fanny, unattainable and trustworthy. (Also, there were no other girls to flirt with when Fanny's around). Still, he could easily flirt with Fanny without proposing to her. Either Austen made a mistake in his psychology, but Miss Sneyd of Mansfield Park blog says that it is significant Crawford is a plain man. Perhaps he has an inferiority complex with regards to flirtatious women, who may cheat on him. Though he is charming. He knows he will get the second bite of the cherry, so to speak, and the fact Fanny is an unplucked cherry may be a further incentive to pursue her. (Little does he know she is pining away for Edmund). He may be a beta male with alpha charm (a high beta though) and steals women easily. But he is a fun-lover and he likes fun-lovers, and he realises that these fun-loving women may cheat on him or lose interest due to his plain looks. They are experienced and and easily bored and will move on easily. Fanny has strong attachments, she is honest and virtuous and lacks experience, and will never cheat on a man.  This may be a hard pill to swallow but those days even rakish men actually liked to marry virtuous women. (Nowadays it is a stigma to be constant to one lover). Maria marries Rushworth when she realises Crawford will never marry her, whereas Fanny, despite knowing she has no chance with Edmund, sticks steadfastly to her love for him and refuses Crawford.

MP is more complex than Tenant, in that Huntingdon is almost pure evil: he drinks, philanders, abuses, etc. etc. He also has no learning. His only virtue is his charm and good looks (and money). Crawford truly appreciates Shakespeare, which makes Fanny respect (but not) love him - she is intellectually attracted but physically and morally repulsed. Helen is physically attracted to Huntingdon - perhaps socially. Nothing more. Fanny is lucky to be nearly sexless, in a sense, that attractive Crawford repulses her. Crawford is also capable of (partially) appreciating Fanny for her goodness, her virtue, and her cleverness. He will talk gossip and flashy plays to Maria, but solid Shakespeare to Fanny. Huntingdon has no use for his wife's intelligence. Arabella Wilmot is a terrible flirt and a manipulative bitch, and so is Maria, but we do see Maria's agony at not getting Crawford. Arabella is more obviously slutty than Maria too. So it's ultra-bastard and ultra-bitch. The villains of MP are more subtle and true. We also have the likeable Mary Crawford, not the real villain like Maria, but is Fanny's rival for Edmund's affections. I like Mary, but she is shallow, selfish and thoughtless. She is witty and friendly - she is not adulterous - she has qualms about hugging men in public, unlike Maria - but she accepts this in others. Edmund is disgusted by this attitude in her in the end, when she accepts adultery between her brother and his sister. She also likes Fanny, which makes her better than Maria, and is capable of seeing her goodness, but that is because there is no other genteel young lady in the area. She settles for Fanny for company and for a listening ear - she does not love Fanny for herself. Sure, she praises her, but we know Fanny is not her bosom buddy. I happen to know a few Mary Crawfords, and friends know several, and they are likeable people but not our best friends.

But Fanny and Helen, though moralistic and virtuous, develop differently. Fanny does not appear to develop, because she is always right. But she does - she realises that Crawford has good points in his Bardolatry, and yet resists him. She develops as a person when Edmund forsakes her for Mary. Her refusal of the eligible Crawford despite the fact Edmund loves Mary, not her, is all the more courageous, because she has no hope, and yet she clings on to principle.  The fact Edmund jilts Mary is a lucky fluke that happens later in the story. She develops when she moves back home for a few weeks and realises despite its faults, Mansfield Park is superior to Portsmouth because it is well-ordered and cultivated, and not vulgar. It may have immoral people like Maria and gang, but at least it was there she learnt her lessons from Edmund and saw worldly creatures like the Crawfords. She knows now that she is superior to Portsmouth and her former life with her parents. The fact she is passive is due to her shy, poor, uncharismatic nature. She cannot be otherwise because no one will support her. Her one active deed is to refuse Crawford and even so she is brave. Helen more noticeably develops because she realises her husband is cruel and sordid till she runs away from him with their son. She meets a goody-goody man and marries him when her husband is dead. Fanny has loved a good man from the start - and Mr Right. Helen went from Wrong to Right. People appreciate Helen more because she has made a mistake, but Helen is luckier because she is beautiful, she is accomplished and connected and she has friends. Fanny is friendless outside her family, who torment her. Helen has a brother who gives her a rent-free home and money for her paintings, which he purchases (I think). Fanny has similarities to Molly Gibson of Wives and Daughters fame, but people like Molly better. Molly is luckier and her stepsister's charisma is less shown that Mary Crawford's. The fact Helen does a daring thing like run away from her husband rouses everyone's sympathy and admiration. Fanny's passivity invoke our scorn and resentment. But is it not more daring for a poor uncharismatic heroine to assert her defiance than a beautiful charismatic one? Gentlemen do seek the heart of Helen after all, unlike poor Fanny. Gilbert the goody-goody wants Helen, but Edmund doesn't want Fanny until much later. Fanny's brother can't help her much, unlike Helen's brother Frederick Lawrence.

Helen was more refined and dignified than Eliza; so it is natural for Gilbert to fall for her. It was easy. Fanny had to suffer because Edmund loved Mary more than her, and he was deeply infatuated by the latter's charms. He eventually loves Fanny, but it is a steady, settling-down kind of love. Fanny is also inferior in accomplishments, class and attractions, whereas Helen is superior to Eliza. So Fanny suffers more in the course of true love.

We should forgive Helen for being silly to marry Huntingdon in the first place, what with his scandalous reputation. But is it not commendatory that Fanny resists the charms of an attractive wealthy young man in favour of a poorer and duller man who doesn't love her? Does it not show the depth of character insight in her? Does it not show that her reason is not dulled by her romanticism?

We get the impression Helen marries Gilbert isn't just his goodness, it's because there is a lack of good men in her life, and perhaps she is a bit desperate. They don't even get to bond the way Fanny does with Edmund.  Fanny's refusal of Crawford indicates that desperation does not influence her choice of man, but love and familiarity. I also like the fact Edmund helped to develop Fanny's intellect and keen appreciation of nature. Gilbert does not; Helen appears to be smarter than him.  Edmund and Fanny appreciate each other's goodness, principles and intelligence; we do not feel the same with Gilbert and Helen. Gilbert seems to be struck by her beauty, refinement and higher class; whereas she, tired of a Regency rake, is longing for an honest country swain to take her into his arms.

But because the morality is better-marked in Tenant, it is more powerful, and then it has the power of description. Anne Brontë describes the larches and the gloomy aspect of the scene, something Jane Austen never does. She puts them into Fanny's mouth instead. Fanny is a fan of Walter Scott and Cowper, and Helen likes poetry, but Helen does not quote poetry the way Fanny does. Fanny's emotions are more highly stirred by poetry. You see the landscape in Tenant the way you do not in MP.

To this end I left the more frequented regions, the wooded valleys, the corn-fields, and the meadow-lands, and proceeded to mount the steep acclivity of Wildfell, the wildest and the loftiest eminence in our neighbourhood, where, as you ascend, the hedges, as well as the trees, become scanty and stunted, the former, at length, giving place to rough stone fences, partly greened over with ivy and moss, the latter to larches and Scotch fir-trees, or isolated blackthorns. The fields, being rough and stony, and wholly unfit for the plough, were mostly devoted to the posturing of sheep and cattle; the soil was thin and poor: bits of grey rock here and there peeped out from the grassy hillocks; bilberry-plants and heather - relics of more savage wildness - grew under the walls; and in many of the enclosures, ragweeds and rushes usurped supremacy over the scanty herbage; but these were not my property. (From Tenant of Wildfell Hall)
Tenant is about doing the wrong thing and getting punished for it; MP is about doing the right thing and getting persecuted for it (but it all ends happily, because it is a Jane Austen novel). Not that I disliked Tenant; the wild cruel scenes held a power of their own, and I enjoyed it, because Anne Brontë was a good author, but it did not emotionally affect me so deeply as Mansfield Park, the more realistic and complex novel.

1 comment:

  1. Great review.
    I've just reread MP for Austen in August. My appreciation of it grew immensely this time around. I like how you compared it to ToWH - makes me want to move it higher up my TBR pile :-)

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