Trilling on Mansfield Park

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.


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3 Responses to “Trilling on Mansfield Park”

  1. The Jane Austen Book Club « Michael Lauer’s Weblog Says:

    […] Jane Austen Book Club Still more Janeblogging! Sort of; rather than real Austen, this is all about the fluff. Yes, I saw The Jane […]

  2. Friday, and I’m very glad about it - anecdotes Says:

    […] blogger’s thoughtful response to Lionel Trilling’s essay on Mansfield Park (which you can and should find in this book, if […]

  3. DRush76 Says:

    [“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.”]

    The problem I have with this comment is your use of the word “we”. I am aware of Mary Crawford’s flaws. Fine. She’s flawed. But so isFanny Price. Unfortunately, Fanny’s flaws are rarely, if at all,

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