Archive for April 1st, 2008

Trilling on Mansfield Park

April 1, 2008

Inspired by Metropolitan, I finally got around to reading Lionel Trilling’s essay on Mansfield Park.1 Hie yourselves to a library and find a copy, all you academically inclined Janeites out there; it’s in this collection. It’s readable, entertaining, and thought-provoking (yes, readable and entertaining lit. crit.!), but I would advise against mistaking even the best of essays for anything like the novel itself, as Tom does in Metropolitan.

Trilling begins with a discussion of irony, and concludes that Mansfield Park seems not to have any:

But there is one novel of Jane Austen’s, Mansfield Park, in which the characteristic irony seems not to be at work. Indeed, one might say of this novel that it demonstrates that there are no two ways about anything.

But Trilling himself is being ironic here: as he later says:

…Mansfield Park proposes to us the possibility of this deception. If we perceive this, we cannot say that the novel is without irony–we must say, indeed that its irony is more profound than that of any of Jane Austen’s other novels. It is an irony directed at irony itself.

Really he means “irony” as a sort of synecdoche for style over substance, for artifice and insincerity over genuine morality. My reaction exactly.

Consider Sir Thomas and Mrs Norris’s attitude towards Fanny vis-a-vis the Betram daughters:

“Should her disposition be really bad,” said Sir Thomas, “we must not, for our own children’s sake, continue her in the family; but there is no reason to expect so great an evil. We shall probably see much to wish altered in her, and must prepare ourselves for gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner; but these are not incurable faults; nor, I trust, can they be dangerous for her associates. Had my daughters been younger than herself, I should have considered the introduction of such a companion as a matter of very serious moment; but, as it is, I hope there can be nothing to fear for them, and everything to hope for her, from the association.”

[Mrs Norris to Maria and Julia] “To be sure, my dear, that is very stupid indeed, and shows a great want of genius and emulation. But, all things considered, I do not know whether it is not as well that it should be so, for, though you know (owing to me) your papa and mama are so good as to bring her up with you, it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are;—on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference.”

Fanny, of course, proves to be far superior to the Betram girls in every sense that matters.

And the irony goes deeper. Trilling points out that Austen (in her other novels!) plays with you, dear reader, in an ironic way:

In irony, even in the large derived sense of the word, there is a kind of malice. The ironist has the intention of practicing upon the misplaced confidence of the literal mind, of disappointing comfortable expectation. Jane Austen’s malice of irony is directed not only upon certain of the characters in her novels but also upon the reader himself.

Good heavens, is there any novel of which that is more true than of Mansfield Park? I can speak only for myself here, but I don’t recall ever having been so practiced upon in all my life. Take Trilling’s stark declaration

Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.

Well, I liked her, but not at first. Fanny at first seems nothing but weak and insipid. It’s hard not to be annoyed by her, especially in comparison with Austen’s other heroines. But Fanny is in her way just as strong as Elizabeth Bennet: her strength is entirely moral, and not at all obvious, either to the other characters or to us. Part of the brilliance of Mansfield Park is that Fanny’s inner fortitude only becomes apparent to us slowly. We are set up to despise her, but come to admire her.

And then there’s Mary Crawford:

…Mary Crawford is conceived–is calculated–to win the charmed admiration of almost any reader. She is all pungency and wit. Her mind is as lively and competent as her body; she can bring not only a horse but a conversation to the gallop. She is downright, open, intelligent, impatient. Irony is her natural mode, and we are drawn to think of her voice as being as nearly the author’s own as Elizabeth Bennet’s is. Yet by the end we are asked to believe that she is not to be admired, that her lively mind compounds, by very reason of its liveliness, with the world, the flesh, and the devil.


We begin to hear something disagreeable in their intonation: it is the peculiarly modern bad quality which Jane Austen was the first to represent–insincerity. This is a trait very different from the hypocrisy of the earlier novelists. Mary Crawford’s intention is not to deceive the world but to comfort herself; she impersonates the woman she thinks she ought to be.

I am not convinced about the novelty of Mary Crawford as the Type of Insincerity, but the greater point is well-taken. Mary is the anti-Fanny; we love her at first, and only later realize we have been taken in by her charm.

Viewing Mansfield Park as a polemic against artifice and insincerity may help to explain one the novel’s most confusing–to us moderns–aspects, the ado over the amateur performance of Lovers’ Vows. Now the theater has always had a reputation, sometimes well-deserved, as a great fomenter of immorality (my wife tells me of a community theater production of South Pacific that broke up nineteen marriages). But Fanny and Edmund’s horror at the play seems far out of proportion to the thing itself, and even to Sir Thomas’s inevitable disapproval. But, Trilling suggests, perhaps their reaction was not so much to the simple naughtiness of the play as against the very idea of “impersonation”:

…the fear that the impersonation of a bad or inferior character will have a harmful effect upon the impersonator, that, indeed, the impersonation of any other self will diminish the integrity of the real self.

Well, I’m not completely convinced, but it’s as plausible an argument as any I’ve come up with myself.

Mansfield Park is easily the least accessible of Austen’s novels to modern readers; in Trilling’s words

It scandalizes the modern assumptions about social relations, about virtue, about religion, sex, and art.

But I’m not sure its as little of a piece with the others as all that. All are in a sense about the constraints of society, about duty, and about virtue. Mansfield Park makes explicit exactly what duty and virtue mean, divorcing them from externalities. Elizabeth Bennet unites both internal and external virtues; Fanny Price and Mary Crawford divide them, and allow us to see which is superior.

And speaking of the contrast with P&P, I think I disagree with Trilling. He writes

[P&P’s] social doctrine is a generous one, asserting the right of at least the good individual to define himself according to his own essence. It is animated by an impulse to forgiveness…

Almost the opposite can be said of Mansfield Park. Its impulse is not to forgive but to condemn. Its praise is not for social freedom but for social stasis. It takes full notice of spiritedness, vivacity, celerity, and lightness, but only to reject them as having nothing to do with virtue and happiness, as being, indeed, deterrents to the good life.

Well! First, I don’t think P&P assert any “right of the good individual to define himself according to his own essence.” Elizabeth and Jane Bennet do manage to stay true to their “essences,” in that they do not have to marry for money alone, as does Charlotte Lucas. But they certainly don’t escape the constraints of society. They are simply lucky enough to fall in love with rich men. In all of Austen’s novels, those who stay true to their principles are rewarded, but always within society’s constraints. There is perhaps a grain of serious comment when Elizabeth Bennet dates her love for Darcy “from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”

And to the larger point, that Mansfield Park rejects spiritedness and vivacity as being deterrents to the good life: I don’t think Mansfield Park actually rejects them, it merely shows that they must not be confused with the true virtue.

One last quibble. I feel I really have to stand up for Mr Bennet, of whom Trilling says

It weighs heavily against Mr Bennet that, his estate being entailed, he has made no effort to secure his family against his death, and by reason of his otiosity he is impotent to protect his family’s good name from the consequences of Lydia’s sexual escapade. He is represented as being not only less a man but also less a gentleman than his brother-in-law Gardiner, who is in trade in London.


The fathers of the heroines of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion, all lack principle and fortitude; they are corrupted by their belief in their delicate vulnerability–they lack apatheia.

That certainly applies, in different ways, to Mr Woodhouse and to Sir Walter Elliot, but not I think to Mr Bennet. Perhaps I’m overly sympathetic because of his “quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice,” but I don’t really see what else he could have done. He is as trapped by society as his daughters. And he supports them in their determination to marry for love.

1 Yes, I am that geeky.

Why study grammar?

April 1, 2008

A couple of posts at the always-excellent Language Log ridicule an article by James Kilpatrick entitled, “Why do we study grammar?” Now I agree with everything the language-loggers say—Kilpatrick earns their scorn—but I think that he does have a point in there somewhere. Admittedly it’s hard to tell, as rather than actually make it he provides a couple of silly and patronizing analogies, and then veers off into Just-Plain-Wrongness.

Quoth Kilpatrick:

Grammar is what she wears in a world beyond her living room. Kathryn is not going to drive to Portland dressed in a polka-dot bikini. She might complete her mission, but people would talk. And at a certain level they would not say pleasant things.

Is good grammar a false value? At one level of human relations, it is certainly a lesser value — even a minimal value. The boy who drops out of school can live a happy life as a hod carrier, and if he don’t speak no good English he pays the rent and, you know, it’s like he treats his wife real good. He probably makes a greater contribution to society than some public officials one could mention.

What I take him to mean here, perhaps stretching a bit, is that “good grammar” (really “standard American grammar”) is a calling card, a bona fide, a shibboleth. Using standard grammar (and spelling, and punctuation) shows that you have taken the trouble to observe the norms of society. It is evidence that you have put at least some thought into whatever it is you’re writing.

As a possibly poor example, in my time-wasting perusal of the vastness of the internet, I ignore without much thought anything that deviates wildly from standard grammar (or containing too many misspellings, or too little punctuation, or TOO MANY CAPS, or too few). Sufficiently slapdash grammar (and spelling and so on) in blog posts and comments is, in my experience, almost invariably a sign that whatever content they may have is worthless, even for time-wasting purposes. (Not that worthless content can’t be couched in flawless standard grammar, of course). For the internet my standards are pretty loose. I have similar but higher standards for printed material—and for job applications I happen to review.

Very interestingly—and I doubt Kilpatrick would agree here—NON-standard grammar makes an excellent shibboleth. My tweenage daughter’s crowd would be quick to pick up on minor deviations from their tween syntax and vocabulary. And such has it always been: language provides an easy and fun way to sort out the cool from the uncool (the uncool including, of course, parents: parents have never been able to imitate their children’s argot correctly, and have always been soundly and rightly mocked for it when they try).

Other examples might include, oh, I don’t know, hip-hop culture; the Lolcats (I don’t know whether it’s clear to anyone what lolspeak’s rules are, but you can sure tell when people get it wrong); professional jargon of many sorts, and so on.

Another point I’d make, possibly vaguely related to what Kilpatrick says, is that formal rules of grammar and spelling and punctuation uniformitize the style of a piece of writing, helping its form “disappear” in favor of its content. That is, if you, dear reader, see only the syntax you’re expecting to see, then you don’t notice it. You are left free to focus on the content, which is presumably what the author wanted. Grammatical clunkers–to Kilpatrick a split infinitive or deviant usage of “that” and “which,” to me a run-on sentence–distract the reader from the business of reading.

I assume that’s one reason why the big “middlebrow” magazines—The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s—have such strict editing standards. They impose a level of aesthetically pleasing and distraction-free uniformity of tone across their articles. The style guides differ from place to place, giving each a certain amount of subtle individuality: I’m particularly fond of the diaereses The New Yorker puts in “coöperate” and “reëlected.”

Gangsta Progamma Rap

April 1, 2008