Wow! great work Ann! Loved it!! (NFM)
Posted by Haley on September 18, 1997 at 14:10:04:
In response to A Theory of Mansfield Park, written by Ann on September 17, 1997 at 18:28:19
] I have been reading the various Crawfordite/Bertramite threads and began to wonder why so many people reject Austen’s ending to Mansfield Park. People are ready to believe in Henry’s goodness, even when Austen creates in him a character that is not good. That made me ask the question: Why doesn’t Austen let him reform? There must have been a purpose behind his character as she wrote him. This is what I came up with:
] Jane Austen is not a writer of romance novels; each of her books speaks to and illuminates some aspect of society or human relations; they are not merely girl-gets-boy stories. Sense and Sensibility deals with people who are too much one thing or another, too much the romantic, or too much the pragmatist. Pride and Prejudice deals with the way we pigeon-hole everyone as soon as we meet them, and then must struggle to overcome our own reluctance to reassess our first impressions. Persuasion deals with second chances and how we are sometimes in so much pain that we can fail to take advantage of them. Emma deals with a young woman learning to put aside her youthful presumptions and grow into a mature adult. None of these novels is about the romantic cliché: love conquers all. I do not believe that Austen believed in that ideal, and she certainly did not make that the central theme of her books.
] Which brings me to Mansfield Park. I believe the reason Austen wrote this novel was to show how many people are taken in by the surface of things, without questioning what lies in the interior. Mansfield Park is about facades. In this, the book is about much more than the other novels--it is not about the follies, nonsense, whims and inconsistencies of human behavior--it is about something darker: how we are all often tragically deceived by the appearance of things.
] This theme runs through the entire book, beginning with the setting itself. Mansfield Park is a beautiful house situated in a pretty park, but the beautiful house is financed and maintained by the hideous practice of slavery and the lashes falling on the backs of the men and women on Sir Thomas’ plantation. Austen generally stayed away from the events and history that surrounded her, but she brought slavery into this book, I think, because she needed it to help make her point.
] The theme of the facade also runs through many of the characters who live in or near the Park. Aunt Norris talks about charity and how good it will be for Fanny to live at Mansfield Park, then she turns out to be a cold-hearted, money-pinching and, at times, cruel woman. Lady Bertram, Maria, and Julia are all pretty, but entirely shallow and selfish. The Crawfords seem to fit in well at Mansfield Park, in part because they echo the fundamental flaw of the place--neither are entirely what they seem. Mary is beautiful, but she is shallow in her search for money and her desire to reject Edmund because he will be a relatively poor clergyman and will miss out on the high life in London. As often happens in Austen’s works, the characters we least expect to do so often speak the truth. It is Mary that spells out Austen’s theme, using religious observances at Sotherton as her example:
“It must do the heads of the family a great deal of good to force all the poor housemaids and footmen to leave business and pleasure, and say their prayers here twice a day, while they are inventing excuses themselves for staying away.”It is hypocrisy, shallowness and duplicity that Austen is dealing with in Mansfield Park.
] Fanny is not entirely immune from the theme of the book, but it is from within the story that Fanny is not seen to be what she truly is. While she is at heart a good and charitable woman, she is seen to be a troublesome, ungrateful child and is not well liked by those around her. She is seen both from inside the book and by readers to be weak, physically and emotionally. While she might be weak in body, needing her daily exercise in order to maintain her health, she is not so emotionally. Emotionally she is greatly tried throughout the book, but she always holds her own (should I try to make my argument that Fanny is a feminist?). As our own Mr. Churchyard pointed out a while ago, Fanny has an unsubstantiated reputation for crying, simpering, and whining--she does little of any of these things--she is, in fact, a stoic, taking everything that comes her way without complaint. Her tears in the book are few and far apart, and many of them are shed in the beginning when, as a child, she is taken away from her home and placed in the cold company of Mansfield Park. She also turns out to have a will of iron. She will not accept Henry, despite the insistent urging of all those around her. What Fanny is, and what she is seen to be are two different things--thus the facade theme even touches her.
] Fanny is at the center of the book, but the book is not much about her. She sees all--that is her function in the novel. Many people do not think that Fanny works well as a character. I think she does, but perhaps she fails in some eyes because Austen places a very heavy burden on her shoulders--showing the readers what hides below the surface. Fanny asks Sir Thomas about what is happening on his plantation, when no one else will, in order for the reader to get a glimpse at the evil that underpins Mansfield Park. Fanny sees how Julia and the engaged Maria seek to win Henry’s favor, this shows us the vanity of their true characters. Fanny sees the weakness and amorality in Mary’s character--and the weakness in Edmund’s infatuation with Mary. Most importantly, Fanny is not fooled by Henry. Fanny always sees through the surface to the corrupted interior. She is a plot device, who Austen uses to show us the hidden truths. She must be both very observant and always right, or Austen would have no way of conveying the point of the book
] Which brings me to Henry. Henry, of course, takes the theme of the facade to extremes. He is a pleasant and well-mannered man, who is an instant hit with everyone--even the usually critical Sir Thomas. Beneath the surface, though, is a weak, vain, and ultimately immoral man. In his quest to seduce Fanny he was callous, but I believe he did eventually feel something for her. As Edmund had been with Mary, I think that Henry was more infatuated with Fanny than in love. She was the one thing he couldn’t have, and, as Darcy learned, there is nothing more intriguing than what is unattainable. (To quote one of my favorite musicals: “What so intriguing or half so fatiguing as what’s out of reach?”--Into the Woods.) In the end Austen could not allow Henry to completely change and to win Fanny, as her sister, Cassandra Austen, may have wished, because to do so would be to reject what she had been trying to do in the book. Henry must be found out--his true character exposed to everyone or the book becomes nothing more than a romance novel.
] The characters in the book receive a great shock when the truth about Henry is exposed--so do the readers. The facade crumbles. The shock this produces is both Austen’s greatest success with this book and her greatest failure. Through most of the book, she succeeded in making Henry likable, even while his true character was always visible to us through Fanny’s observations. We were as devastated by Henry’s betrayal as Sir Thomas, Edmund, or Fanny were, but the characters in the novel have a disadvantage over us. They are not allowed to become like characters in a Pirandello play and rip out the last few chapters and rewrite them more to their own liking. They must learn to face up to their own blindness--one of Austen’s all-time favorite themes--and reevaluate just how they could have been so deceived by the Crawfords.
] This is what Austen wanted us to see and do as well. We were also blinded by the seemingly pleasant and well-mannered Henry, who in the end turn out to be corrupt. Austen was trying to force us to ask ourselves why we liked Henry. Was it his because of his fun-loving and devil-may-care attitude towards life, or was it because of the strength of his character? Was it because we had a good time around him, or because he was a good man? Did he deserve our affections, or did he cheat us the way he cheated Fanny? Austen’s failure with Mansfield Park, and why, perhaps, it is not one of Austen’s most-loved novels, was in making Henry so likable to so many people that, instead of rejecting Henry, the readers were forced to reject the author who made him fall. Austen asked us to question our attraction to Henry Crawford, but instead we questioned her and her ending of Mansfield Park.
] Mansfield Park might be Austen’s greatest achievement because of this failure. More than in any of her other books, she led us down a path and made us think the way she wanted us to think--then she pulled the rug out from under us. She tried to get us to look deep within ourselves and question our own values. This was a far more ambitious task than those she set herself in the other books, which, while they might give life lessons, don’t cause the type of emotional reaction that Henry’s betrayal caused. She was not just handing us a nice story about the follies of a group of upper middle-class men and women, she was handing us a story about ourselves and our own blindness.
] In a sense we became a part of this story, we became the message. Austen could say: It is not just these characters who were blind, but I got you too, didn’t I!? That some people persist in seeing Henry as they want to see him, instead of as Austen wrote him, is an ironic confirmation of the strength of theme of the book--we want the facade preserved and our own good-judgment confirmed. We are all often too blind to see the truth, and we would rather rewrite or alter the facts than be forced to change our own opinions. Austen denied us that comfort by stripping away the surface. So if Mansfield Park was a success or a failure, either way, Jane Austen makes and wins her point.
] With all the talk of Henry being like Darcy (a supposition I find unfathomable), I thought it was time to revive my Henry Crawford=Frank Churchill Theory.
] Quite some time ago I pointed out that Henry Crawford and Frank Churchill bear a striking resemblance to one another. Their situation in life is much the same--they are both wealthy and idle. They both fall in love with a woman who is too good for them: Fanny and Jane Fairfax. Both must fight to win and maintain that love. Both must convince the woman they love of their own sincerity. But one succeeds and the other fails.
] Emma was begun shortly after Austen completed Mansfield Park. It is my opinion that Austen took the Henry/Fanny story, dropped it into Emma, and gave it a different ending. Henry became the fundamentally good, but weak, Frank, and Fanny became the long-suffering Jane Fairfax. Because she was restricted by the theme of Mansfield Park, Austen could not allow Henry to become a moral person, but perhaps she fell in love with him as so many others have done. Therefore, she gave him a second chance in a novel which did not require him to fall. She made Frank moral, where Henry was not, and therefore, she could give him his happiness with Jane Fairfax.
] So if you want Henry to end up with Fanny, perhaps you are more a Churchillian than a Crawfordite.
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