Posts Tagged ‘Mansfield Park’

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.

Metropolitan, and Mansfield Park

February 22, 2008

We saw Metropolitan last night; my first Whit Stillman film. Rich (and one not-rich) preppy college students are home in Manhattan for Christmas break, they go to debutante parties and after-parties; they talk at great length and with great pretension and wit; not much happens. It’s one of those low-budget indie films that makes me like low budget indie films. The (Oscar-nominated) script struck me as stilted but at the same time so witty and engaging I didn’t care. The acting was (with one exception, see below) was, well, the acting of indie film actors-still-learning-to-act, most of whom (AFAICT) have done little since, but again, they were all endearing enough that I liked them anyway: the very sweet Carolyn Farina especially grew on me. The score was fabulously perfect.

Allegedly (that is, according to some random person who said so on the IMDB) it’s a “loose adaptation” of Mansfield Park. Really it’s not at all, except in a sort of vague thematic way, in that both are about manners and morals and why they’re important. And the heroine was rather a Fanny Price. Indeed, Carolyn Farina was a much better (at least in terms of being faithful to the book) Fanny than either of the two in the actual adaptations I saw recently–Frances O’Connor is a fine actress, but her Fanny bore little resemblance to Jane Austen’s.

And there is a great discussion of Mansfield Park in the movie, in which our hero eventually reveals that he formed his opinion of it based only on a Lionel Trilling essay, and sees no need to read the book itself; it ends:

Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom Townsend: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.

The lone really good actor I mentioned above was Chris Eigeman, whom I had previously seen mostly as Mr. Herkabe, Malcolm in the Middle‘s hilariously evil teacher. In Metropolitan he’s just as witty and smart and pretentious and funny, just not evil. I was also thought he looked frighteningly like Frankie Muniz. Mr. Herkabe is supposed to be sort of a bitter and burned-out older Malcolm, so I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense. I wonder if that had anything to do with his casting?

Mansfield Park(s)

February 11, 2008

Mansfield Park is the least accessible of Jane Austen’s novels to us moderns. Its heroine is literature’s greatest doormat. Its romantic hero is perhaps Jane’s dullest, a nice enough fellow, but no romantically aloof Mr Darcy or dashing Captain Wentworth. And above all, the whole story hinges on notions of morality and decorum that seem at best quaint now–what, after all, is so very wrong about privately staging a silly and mildly suggestive play? Fanny does prove to have an inner moral strength, but it is not apparent in any way that makes much of an impression on our modern sensibilities.

So it’s hardly surprising that film and television adaptations don’t really really do the book justice. I imagine the only two options are to be unfaithful to the spirit of the book or to be boring. Last week we watched the recent ITV production on Masterpiece (Theatre as was), and it opted for a bit of both. I never could take Billie Piper seriously as Fanny; she tried, I suppose, but she was just too darned perky for the part (also too breasty, I think, but I somehow reconciled myself to that). I have to admit I got bored and lost interest after a while; maybe it picked up after the halfway point.

By way of contrast we then netflixed Patricia Rozema’s far more compelling 1999 film. It wasn’t terribly faithful to the book, but at least it veered off in interesting directions. Rozema was after deep and dark subtexts–never mind that they really weren’t in the novel. The fact that the Bertram estate in Antigua was worked by slave labor, only briefly mentioned in the book, was made explicit here. Tom was no mere dissolute rake; he was a tortured soul trying to escape the horrors he had witnessed on the family plantation. Sir Thomas himself, creepily played by Harold Pinter, had depths best left unexplored. Mrs Price was a desperate drudge, Lady Bertram a blissed-out opium addict (both well-played by Lindsay Duncan). And despite all that (and unlike other Austen adaptations I might mention) Rozema somehow managed to remember that the book was in fact a comedy.

Mansfield Park does at least provide a pair of Jane’s best quasi-villains in the Crawford siblings, and (unlike the ITV film) Rozema found actors who could do the parts justice. Alessandro Nivola was not much as I had imagined Henry in the book, but I liked what he did with the part; he was a cad, but a driven, needy, obsessive cad. Gorgeous Embeth Davidtz, on the other hand, was exactly as I had imagined Mary, even if her best scenes were not in the book. I have to admit to very much liking the little frissons of lesbian attraction between Mary and Fanny, which I remember causing a bit of a stir when the movie was first released.

And speaking of Fanny, Frances O’Connor was so likable I can even forgive her her spunkiness in the part. If you’re going to make her a writer, well, you may as well take her writings from Jane herself. I do remember the ads for the movie called her something to the effect of “Jane Austen’s most spirited heroine.” I have to assume here that the tagline-writers had never read the book, and probably not seen the movie. Fanny is Jane Austen’s least spirited heroine (the most spirited being, of course, Elizabeth Bennet).