Archive for March, 2022

putting the mans in mansfield park

The title is Jeremy’s excellent joke about Bridgerton, occasioned by my return to reading Austen (“Do you read novels?” “Yes! All six, every year.”) I began this time with Mansfield Park, long my least favorite for all the reasons it’s usually people’s least favorite; Fanny and Edmund are a bit dull. Reading it this time around, though, I was struck by how very much this book is not a romance novel or any kind of love story.

The title Mansfield Park could be arguably related to the judge whose famous verdict stated, “The state of slavery… is so odious… whatever inconvenience, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore, the black must be discharged” (White). The irony of such a title would no doubt have appealed to Austen.  Bertram’s country estate was supported by a slave driven economy.  By naming his estate Mansfield Park, Austen was delivering a quiet jab at slavery, an institution against which its namesake struck a blow thirty years earlier.

Austen and Antigua – Slavery in Her Time

The third act of Mansfield Park consists of Henry Crawford’s proposal to Fanny, and of the efforts of Sir Thomas, Mary and even Edmund to persuade Fanny to accept him. Henry is rich. His feelings for Fanny, once frivolous, have become sincere. She is a good influence on him. Fanny herself is poor. Henry is offering far more than she can reasonably expect to command on the open marriage market; there will never be another offer like it. Sir Thomas – her uncle, the slaveowner – is at pains to point this out to her; along with the fact that Fanny owes Sir Thomas for her care and education since she was nine years old. This would be an acceptable return on his investment.

Fanny says no. Being Fanny, she doesn’t say it with the panache of Lizzie Bennet rejecting Mr Collins or Darcy Proposal #1, but she does say no. Despite the awful powers arrayed against her, of family feeling, obligation, economics, reputation, and even (in Edmund’s case) real affection for her and concern for her interests, she holds to her inner truth, which is that she dislikes Henry and always will.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane said of Mansfield Park: “Now I shall try to write of something else, & it shall be a complete change of subject–ordination.” Edmund’s taking orders is part of the plot and the main driver of his conflict with Mary. His ambitions are modest, but through the church he hopes to have a small part in making the world a better place. Mary’s ambitions are vast and selfish; at her peak, she hopes for Edmund’s brother to die, so that she can marry an Edmund who stands to inherit his father’s baronetcy and estate.

But I wonder sometimes if Jane was hinting at the other meanings of ordination. Putting things in their proper order: Tom is the first son, and Edmund is the second. Plotting co-ordinates on a Cartesian plane: a place for everything, and everything in its place. Social order: no one getting ideas above their proper station. Austen never directly compares Fanny’s position to those of Sir Thomas’s slaves in Antigua, thank God, because that would be unconscionable. But Fanny’s constraints are real. She can’t have a fire in her room. She can’t choose to visit her family, and once there, she can’t choose to return to Mansfield Park.

Fanny has precisely two degrees of freedom. She can think, and she can feel. She thinks a lot. She’s a reader and a nature lover. Her eye for gardens and landscapes, which I skimmed over when I was younger, is a lot more resonant now that I have arrived at my own connection with my ecosystem and watershed.

And she feels, most notably, antipathy towards Henry. Her steadfastness in refusing him overturns the social order, which dictates that she has no choice but to accept such a superficially advantageous match. In refusing him, Fanny sets his material wealth at a lower value than her own integrity. It’s an affront in a society like hers (and ours) that prioritizes extractive capitalism – cruelty and greed – over every other consideration, including personhood and the sustainability of the planet itself.

Settler colonialism works by violently severing the connection between a person and their personhood, and between communities and their land. The potential energy released by that severance is captured and hoarded as wealth and inequity. In this year of our Lord 20 and 22 we still struggle to know the truths of our own secret heart, because the state would prefer that we didn’t transgress its preordained categories for us. Those of us who are settlers still live in alien countries on stolen land, the names of whose wild things are lost. We haven’t moved past Mansfield Park. We haven’t even started.

orwell’s roses, by rebecca solnit

Authoritarians see truth and fact and history as a rival system they must defeat.