In 1954, Lionel Trilling declared, with regard to Mansfield Park, that “no other work of genius has ever spoken, or seemed to speak, so insistently for cautiousness and constraint, even for dullness” (11). Trilling’s assessment of Austen’s third novel as overwhelmingly concerned with “security, … fixity, and enclosure,” combined with his blithe dismissal of Fanny Price as a fundamentally unlikable heroine, has inspired perennial critiques and counter-readings. In “Lionel Trilling and Mansfield Park,” Paul Pickrel challenges Trilling’s claim that the novel is fundamentally static, arguing that events such as the ouster of Mrs. Norris and the disgrace of the Bertram sisters constitute change enough to undermine Trilling’s reading. Many elements in Mansfield Park would seem to recommend Pickrel’s view, not merely the fall of characters such as the Crawfords and the Miss Bertrams, but also the recurring presence of travel and resettlement in the novel. While these particulars suggest that Pickrel’s more charitable reading of the novel might supplant Trilling’s, there is a certain visceral immediacy or holistic veracity to Trilling’s sweeping statements about Mansfield. His commentary captures something fundamental to the experience of reading the novel, at least for the first time. Even Pickrel is forced to acknowledge this effect: “[s]ome readers who will grant inaccuracies in Trilling’s reading will nevertheless argue that it has some kind of psychological truth to it; it may not correspond at every point with the text but it certainly corresponds with the way they feel when they read the text” (618). Pickrel argues that this reaction stems entirely from Austen’s rhetoric –Fanny is threatening to the reader because of her distant relationship with the narrator and her propensity for “always being right” (619). Yet even this speaks to stasis and fixity. Fanny is struck by no thunderbolt, experiences no great recognition and reversal. There is an inexorable quality to her character that contrasts with the sudden shifts in perspective experienced by heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse.
How can the emotionally resonant claims of Trilling be reconciled with the “responsible reading” (620) put forth by Pickrel? Though Pickrel defends Fanny as a heroine, his contention that “there is no big discovery left for [Fanny] to make, and the big discovery must be made by others about her” (620) undercuts the importance of Fanny’s steady character to the progress of the novel. Slow growth, or steady change over time, is key to the movement of the plot in Mansfield Park. Fundamental to the novel is the concept of “bringing up”—Mansfield, more than any other major Austen novel, calls attention to the education and upbringing of its central characters. Similarly, changes of place and circumstance are crucial to the growth—or degeneration—of character in the novel. These influences—cultivation and transplantation, respectively—intersect with the nebulous eighteenth-century concept of “improvement” to determine the pace and tenor of Mansfield Park. Transplantation, cultivation, and improvement, then, provide a framework for understanding the controlled deliberation of the novel without full recourse to the compelling but problematic stasis reading put forth by Trilling.
Mansfield Park opens with a story—or, perhaps, a case study—of transplantation. Three sisters, each with sanguine expectations and seemingly equal potential, find themselves in disparate situations. Maria Ward is “raised to … the comforts and consequences of an handsome house” (1), while her sisters fall into successively lesser circumstances. In the short family drama that follows, the effects of these matches on their respective characters are readily perceptible. Mrs. Bertram, in her exalted position, has “a temper remarkably easy and indolent” (2). Mrs. Norris, whose income has fallen short of her expectations, possesses a vain and miserly “spirit of activity” (2). Mrs. Price, finally, has been narrowed, hardened, and humbled by her removal to Portsmouth. The tripartite structure of this setup, combined with its emphasis on character and situation, give it something of the didactic air of a parable—“[a]nd it came to pass, as he sowed, some [seeds] fell by the way side … and other fell on good ground” (Mark 4:3-9).
This meditation on the effects of place on character segues seamlessly into the question of Fanny Price’s relocation to Mansfield. Here, considerations of transplantation and cultivation have been foregrounded, and hopes for Fanny’s shift to Mansfield are described in almost horticultural terms. Fanny is “delicate and puny,” but might be “materially better for change of air” (9). The Bertrams, here, also position themselves as cultivators: “[w]e 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” (8). The fact that Fanny’s transplantation follows the story of the three sisters both raises the stakes and calls the outcome into question. The story shows that situation—the fertile or barren soil upon which a seed might fall—is the determining factor in the shaping of a character. At the same time, the characters of the Bertrams and Mrs. Norris, the “gardeners” who will, ostensibly, be tending to Fanny’s growth, have been called into question. In true Austen fashion, this first chapter contains the germ of a question that occupies the whole novel: Will Mansfield be fertile ground for Fanny Price?
Mansfield does not merely open with transplantation. The entire novel is concerned with the disposition of characters to thrive or wither in novel circumstances, a consideration that applies not only to Fanny but also to the young Bertrams and Crawfords. In “’Young Ladies Are Delicate Plants’: Jane Austen and Greenhouse Romanticism,” Deidre Lynch conceives of situations such as Mansfield and London as hothouses, hotbeds, and forcing houses (705). These constructions, with their overtones of coercion and their separation of nature and art, have particular application in the case of Mary Crawford’s transplantation. Even at her first arrival, Mary’s ability to thrive in the neighborhood of Mansfield is brought into question:
Mrs. Grant, having by this time run through the usual resources of ladies residing in the country without a family of children—having more than filled her favourite sitting-room with pretty furniture, and made a choice collection of plants and poultry—was very much in want of some variety at home. The arrival, therefore, of a sister whom she had always loved, and now hoped to retain with her as long as she remained single, was highly agreeable; and her chief anxiety was lest Mansfield should not satisfy the habits of a young woman who had been mostly used to London. (35)
Mrs. Grant, tired of raising “plants and poultry,” will now divert herself with Mary, a project as suggestive of the agricultural as it is of the familial. Unlike the Bertrams’ apprehensions about Fanny, however, Mrs. Grant’s anxieties about taking on a “young woman … mostly used to London,” are largely borne out. Mary’s natural attractions are, at first, set off by the environs of Mansfield: “[a] young woman, pretty, lively, … placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart” (57). Yet Mary’s insensibility to the attractions of Mansfield bespeaks the London education that ultimately prevents her from putting down roots in the neighborhood. When confronted with Fanny’s rhapsodies on nature—“ How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen!” (185)—Mary responds with all the transport and feeling of a solipsistic city dweller: “I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV.; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it” (185).
Mary can credibly be considered a greenhouse specimen, the product of the morally suspect “hotbed” of London. Her inability to appreciate the walks of Mansfield, like her inability to appreciate Edmund’s moral qualities, suggests that she is maladapted to her new environs. In recounting his final interview with Mary, Edmund himself seems to attribute her degeneracy to an unnatural London upbringing: “[t]his is what the world does. For where, Fanny, shall we find a woman whom nature had so richly endowed? Spoilt, spoilt!” (407) Mary, a flower raised in a London hothouse, has not survived transplantation to Mansfield. Instead, her inborn attractions have been “spoilt,” a term redolent of natural decay. Mary’s fate, that of an unsuccessful transplantation, is also shared by the Bertram sisters, whose upbringing under the indolent Mrs. Bertram and the indulgent Mrs. Norris have failed to prepare them for transplantation to ground that is morally fallow. Yet Lynch’s “forcing house” paradigm does not apply, at least directly, to Fanny. While Fanny may walk the “analogical thoroughfare, [which] … connected people and plants, in general, and women and flowers, in particular” (Lynch 689), her path is not a straight one. Fanny’s growth over the course of the novel is less the forced product of a torrid hothouse than the serious, steady struggle of a primeval wood.
Even after her move to Mansfield, Fanny’s adaptability is tested by threats of further transplantation. Yet these dangers, while real, ultimately serve to underscore her steady, gently resisting character and her ultimate suitability for her environs at Mansfield. The first crisis of this kind comes when Mrs. Norris, after the death of her husband, is called upon to take charge of Fanny at the White House. At this early stage, the Bertrams display an indifference toward Fanny’s situation that suggests she has not yet put down deep roots in their home: “It can make very little difference to you, whether you are in one house or the other” (21). Even Edmund, her strongest advocate, downplays the difference her change in location will make to her relations with the Bertrams: “you will belong to us almost as much as ever” (22). Readers, of course, cannot be so confident about her removal to the care of Mrs. Norris, a character described by Joel Weinheimer as one incarnation of the novel’s “tripartite standard of evil” (186). Yet while the brief threat of Fanny’s removal to the White House suggests only a desire to put down roots at Mansfield, the crisis of her visit to Portsmouth demonstrates that she has, indeed, created lasting attachments at the Park. At Portsmouth, the site of her first nine years of upbringing, Fanny is as out of place as a Kobayashi bonsai at a village market. Her alienation from her Portsmouth family, and the tumult and disorder of their house, bring on reflections that indicate her fundamental compatibility with life at Mansfield:
She was at home. But, alas! it was not such a home, she had not such a welcome … What right had she to be of importance to her family? She could have none, so long lost sight of! … It did pain her to have Mansfield forgotten; the friends who had done so much— the dear, dear friends! … No, in her uncle’s house there would have been a consideration of times and seasons, a regulation of subject, a propriety, an attention towards everybody which there was not here. (341)
In this passage, the ordered harmony of Mansfield is contrasted with the dirt and disorder of Portsmouth. Rather than raising her spirits with the beauty, air, and openness of nature, Portsmouth disgusts Fanny with the filth and noise of too-close living. Ruth Bernard Yeazell connects the dirt at Portsmouth to the moral degeneracy of the Bertram sisters, observing that “Fanny’s disgusted perception of dirt and spoilage among her immediate kin at Portsmouth thus directly anticipates her shocked verdict on … her great cousins in London. The squalor of Mrs. Price’s housekeeping is inevitably swallowed up in the horror of Mrs. Rushworth’s adultery, and the scandalized Fanny is soon summoned back to Mansfield and away from the mess on the family table” (134). Not only does Fanny’s time in Portsmouth reveal her incompatibility with her former abode, but her stay also determines the unsuitability of three of the four Bertram siblings for their respective milieus. Her painful separation from Mansfield reveals the deep roots she has put down among Edmund and the elder Bertrams, all of whom express their desire for her expeditious return to the Park.
While Fanny’s tenure in Portsmouth is a turning point in her relationship with Mansfield and the Bertrams, another instance of transplantation is crucial to Fanny’s putting down roots at the Park. This is the expedition of Sir Thomas to his plantation in Antigua, a journey that alters both his character and his relationship with his niece. Sir Thomas’s shift from Mansfield to the West Indies is, arguably, the most carefully scrutinized event in the novel. Critics have, by turns, accused Sir Thomas (and Austen) of colonialism, patriarchal despotism, and willful ignorance. While Austen, certainly, does not tackle the injustices of slavery head-on, the “dead silence” with which the Bertram siblings meet Fanny’s questions to Sir Thomas on the slave trade suggests a pointed, if perhaps too subtle, critique, or at least a reference to the progressive, if not radically abolitionist, notion of slave amelioration (Boulukos 362). A less ambiguous indication of Austen’s feelings on the slave trade is her depiction of Sir Thomas’s colonial adventure as a hardship. On his return, Sir Thomas is transformed in both his person and his relationship to his family. After great apprehension over the reunion, Fanny is surprised by the remarkable change in the itinerant Sir Thomas: “he was grown thinner, and had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate” (157). While his appearance and bearing indicate the hardships of his time in Antigua, Sir Thomas’s temperament, particularly his attitude toward Fanny, appears to have drastically improved:
He had never been so kind, so very kind to her in his life. His manner seemed changed, his voice was quick from the agitation of joy; and all that had been awful in his dignity seemed lost in tenderness … He inquired next after her family, especially William: and his kindness altogether was such as made her reproach herself for loving him so little, and thinking his return a misfortune … (157)
While Sir Thomas may not be any less a patriarch following his visit to Antigua, his travels have made him a benevolent rather than indifferent steward for his young charge. Sir Thomas’s travels even manage to chip away at the monolithic indolence of his wife: “she began particularly to feel how dreadfully she must have missed him, and how impossible it would have been for her to bear a lengthened absence” (158). Yet his return also underscores the hard-heartedness of Tom and the Bertram sisters. Henry Crawford seems to capture the sentiments of the younger Bertrams—saving Edmund—when he expresses a wish that Sir Thomas had not arrived so soon: “if Mansfield Park had had the government of the winds just for a week or two, about the equinox, there would have been a difference. Not that we would have endangered his safety by any tremendous weather—but only by a steady contrary wind, or a calm” (200).
The change in character brought about by Sir Thomas’s transplantation, a major turning point in Fanny’s adaptation to Mansfield Park, also suggests the importance of stewardship and cultivation in the novel. The centrality of “bringing up” in the novel has, as its corollary, the importance of educators and cultivators to the development of a variety of young Crawfords, Bertrams, and Prices. Sir Thomas, the cold and distant patriarch who ultimately warms to Fanny, is ultimately refashioned through other trying experiences of cultivation. In addition to postcolonial and patriarchal readings of his character, a number of other schemas have been applied in an attempt to understand Sir Thomas’s progressive transformations, first by his experience of cultivation in Antigua and later by his failure as steward of his natural daughters. Walter E. Anderson traces the novel’s principal dramatic arc to Sir Thomas’s role as cultivator. In Anderson’s plot-centered reading, Mansfield is a novel about Fanny’s search for a home, and it is the problematic “relationship between Fanny and Sir Thomas … [that] generates the principal tension” (18). Early in the novel, Sir Thomas is indeed placed in the position of cultivator with regard to Fanny. However, he takes care not to be seen as raising a wife for one of his sons: “breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either” (5).
Although the suggestion that Sir Thomas wishes to “bring … up no wife for his younger son” (248) resurfaces throughout the novel, it is in fact the younger son who largely brings up a wife for himself. Fanny, in despairing of Mary’s hardness to Edmund’s improving moral influence, seems to imply that she herself has been molded by his upstanding character: “she may be forgiven … for looking on the chance of Miss Crawford’s future improvement as nearly desperate, for thinking that if Edmund’s influence in this season of love had already done so little in clearing her judgment, and regulating her notions, his worth would be finally wasted on her even in years of matrimony” (327). Fanny’s own love for Edmund seems to suggest that she has already passed through her own season of influence, and that her development has been shaped by his steady character. This slow cultivation of Fanny’s character, performed primarily by Edmund but also later by Sir Thomas, creates an effect of implacable steadiness and passive strength. Fanny endures, and, in enduring, grows strong. Unlike Mary, Maria, and Julia, who are raised like coddled greenhouse orchids, Fanny must survive the constant low-level depredations of her aunts and the hostility of a chilly environment, both emotionally and literally. Even Fanny’s strongest detractors recognize this quiet strength. John Halperin delivers a sort of backhand compliment in comparing Fanny’s outlook with that of Oliver Twist (7), while Trilling grudgingly concedes that “[a]t a certain point the author retrieves this situation and sees to it that Fanny becomes taller, prettier, and more energetic,” despite a first impression “of a heroine who cannot cut a basket of roses without fatigue and headache” (12). Whether Fanny is being forced to stoop in the hot sun or sleep in a fireless chamber, her ability to endure slowly strengthens her character to the point where she can credibly withstand the joint pressure of Henry Crawford and Sir Thomas to marry against her morals and inclination.
The steady, almost organic growth of Fanny’s character, strengthened over time by both kindness and adversity, is mirrored in the novel’s concern with improvement. Linked to the concepts of transplantation and cultivation, improvement was a uniquely eighteenth-century concept of aesthetic development that is, in Mansfield, joined inextricably to the moral growth of characters. Throughout the novel, those characters most concerned with fashionable notions of improving their grounds are shown to be lacking in integrity, a correlation that is firmly established during the disastrous trip to Sotherton. Fanny, naturally, is not afflicted with improvement fever, favoring instead the wildness and old growth of unreclaimed walks. When the foolish Mr. Rushworth, speaking “on the subject next his heart,” suggests that an improver would likely cut down the avenue of trees running along the west side of Sotherton, Fanny is moved to an uncharacteristically forward exclamation: “’Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? “Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.”’” (49). Fittingly, Fanny, whose own development has the quality more of an old-growth avenue than a “forcing house” flower, has a sentimental regard for unimproved land. As with the abortive theatrical production of Lover’s Vows, the vogue for improvement is treated as a distracting, expensive folly, and both pastimes are accompanied by asinine speeches, social disruption, and questionable morality.
In “Mansfield Park: Reading for ‘Improvement,’” Gerry Brenner, in a surprising move, suggests that all improvement in the novel is treated ironically, and that, fundamentally, no character or situation is truly bettered at any point in Mansfield. Brenner, who largely ignores the questions of taste raised by eighteenth-century disagreements about the aesthetics of improvement, contends that Fanny is both complicit in her silence about Henry and the Bertram sisters and morally inflexible in her obstinate refusal of Henry:
Hence, though only she senses the wrong of Henry’s, Maria’s, and Julia’s behavior, she dismisses any moral obligation to acquaint Sir Thomas with it … Fanny renders herself incapable of improving any situation, for to do so requires directed moral action. Further, though her sustained refusal of Henry might seem a directed moral action, it little more than mimics her customary inaction and rigid moral reflexes (29)
Brenner criticizes Fanny not only for failing to speak up about the play, but also for declining to sharing her concerns about Mary with Edmund. While these instances of silent passivity are held against her, the strength she demonstrates in resisting Henry Crawford and Sir Thomas is discounted because it is founded in her habitual passivity. These criticisms, besides being unfair—Fanny resists the play to the best of her power—are contradictory. In condemning Fanny and Mansfield Park, Brenner recapitulates Trilling’s static reading of the novel: “[a] moral monolith, Fanny’s only obligation is to be, not to do. Only in a world that makes doing unnecessary, such a world as static Mansfield Park, is she at home” (29). Yet is Fanny unchanged at the close of Mansfield Park? And has the Park passed unscathed through the tribulations of the Bertrams?
Few novels, and few heroines, have irritated critics as successfully as Mansfield Park and Fanny Price. John Halpern’s commentary, in particular, is engagingly venomous:
Jane Austen’s worst mistake in this novel of brilliant patches and stultifying flaws is her … several chapters set in Portsmouth. For these chapters tell us how vivid and dynamic life outside of Mansfield is, and by contrast make the idealized Mansfield of the later chapters seem even more vacuous. Such, clearly, was not Jane Austen’s intention; but in detesting Portsmouth and regretting Mansfield as she does, Fanny Price testifies eloquently to the poverty of conception and the misjudgment of life so clearly betrayed by this most eccentric of Jane Austen’s novels. (6)
Halpern, like Trilling and Brenner, objects to stasis and passivity and pines for dynamism and activity. Yet Trilling, despite disliking Fanny and reading the novel largely in terms of stasis, draws a line that Halpern unthinkingly crosses. Trilling describes the taste of the modern reader who values activity and agency above all else, and allows that Austen, in penning Mansfield, addressed this audience only inadvertently. Yet Halpern’s reading assumes that, to any reader, the morally, intellectually, and economically impoverished environment of Portsmouth would be preferable to a Mansfield associated with dullness and passivity. Mansfield should not seem to have been “written by a neurasthenic nun” (6), and the fact that it could be taken that way is more a commentary on the modern reader than it is on Austen. Yet these hostile readings are understandable—the pace and shape of Mansfield is unusual, and it can be difficult to fully engage with the plot of the novel, particularly on a first reading. However, on successive readings, it becomes clear that Mansfield’s relationship with the natural world is present not only on the surface, but also in the fundamental structure of the novel.
Superficially, Mansfield Park’s thematic connections to the natural world are obvious. Alone, the presence of “field” and “park” in the title is enough to suggest such a link, and the novel is filled with references to flora, fauna, and natural sites. More interesting, however, is the way natural concepts—transplantation, cultivation, growth—are bound to the novel’s structure. Gardens are not places of rapid turns and sudden developments, but of steady growth and the slow effects of patient influence. It is tempting to read Mansfield in light of the regulated patriarchy of Sir Thomas or the simple moral dichotomies suggested by the differences between Fanny and Mary. Yet such readings, which tend to emphasize the static nature of Mansfield, disregard the real changes that take place at the Park. At the beginning of the novel, Fanny is a fresh transplant inadequate to the demands of her new environment. By the end, she has thrived, and her roots have grown deep beneath the foundations of the estate. This alteration is powerfully echoed in Fanny’s own description of changes in the “verdure” at Mansfield:
“every time I come into this shrubbery I am more struck with its growth and beauty. Three years ago, this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never thought of as anything, or capable of becoming anything; and now it is converted into a walk, and it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or an ornament; and perhaps, in another three years, we may be forgetting—almost forgetting what it was before. How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time” (184)
By the end of the novel, it is easy to forget what Fanny “was before,” failing to take note of the slow, incremental changes that have taken place in her character because they have done so over time. It is also easy to disregard other alterations that have taken place at the Park. During Fanny’s tenure, Mansfield undergoes a pruning. Those undesirable characters that have prevented her from thriving have been weeded out, and no Crawfords, Norrises, or Bertram sisters remain to crowd her. Similarly, Sir Thomas has been altered by his travels, and has grown from an obstacle to a true steward. Finally, Susan, another Price, has herself been transplanted to Mansfield, an occurrence that speaks to the continuity of the newly conducive conditions at the Park.
Mansfield Park presents a paradox. According to Trilling and others, the experience of reading the novel is one of frustrating stasis and passivity. However, all of the characters at Mansfield (with the arguable exception of Mrs. Bertram) undergo profound changes over the course of the narrative. These observations, the foundation of the controversy between Lionel Trilling and Paul Pickrel, are not irreconcilable. Natural processes—transplantation, cultivation, growth—are so firmly embedded in the structure of Mansfield Park that even profound but steady changes in character and situation seem as still and unmoving as a secluded garden on a windless day. Yet despite this deliberate pace, the arc of the novel is clear. Fanny’s attachment to Edmund is inextricably linked with her attachment to Mansfield, and threats to one, such as relocation to the White House or a marriage to Mary Crawford, are threats to both. As Edmund observes, “the man who means to make you love him … must have very uphill work, for … before he can get your heart for his own use he has to unfasten it from all the holds upon things animate and inanimate, which so many years’ growth have confirmed” (309). Fanny’s story is not, first and foremost, a romance, but a battle for place. Her firm position at Mansfield ultimately speaks to “the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure” (423). It is for this reason that the passage that finally connects Fanny with Edmund, so mysterious to those reading Mansfield Park as a romance, perfectly fits the structure of the novel:
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire. (421)
Fanny and Edmund’s marriage at a time that is “quite natural,” echoes Austen’s own emphasis with regard to the pace and shape of Mansfield Park. In the novel, appearance of action in the moment is immaterial, but gradual progress toward a worthwhile outcome can, with care, be perceived. This is why, as Fanny grows slowly on Edmund, Mansfield Park often grows slowly on those who return to the novel: when the shape of Austen’s work is better understood, Fanny’s gradual improvement can more easily be detected. While a tree may not appear to grow in the moment, for the patient gardener it can bear startling fruit.
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