by O.W. Firkins
Chapter IV: Mansfield Park
In Mansfield Park there is a concentration which contrasts pleasantly with the width and diversity which give the character of polypi to Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Mansfield Park is frame as well as title; for most of the book the fixture of the story at the Park seems as unchangeable as that of Lady Bertram herself, and the removal of the tale to Portsmouth, with the other baggage of Fanny Price, surprises us almost to the point of dismay. We had grown so used to acres and turbot. Again, the characters in the novel are relatively few, and form what may be called a closed circuit. The effect of cushioned and curtained privacy is highly marked, and the social animation, the provision of which throughout the tale is rather liberal, adds, as it were, the sparkle of firelight to this shielded and luxurious tranquillity. At this point, however, we face one of the baffling paradoxes of the book. The material enclosure seems to imply, almost to require, a corresponding moral intimacy, but the people whom Mansfield Park secludes and embosoms are not intimate, are scarcely even familiar. Between the two sisters, no sympathy; between the two brothers, no sympathy; between brothers and sisters, no sympathy. Between parents and children the case is hardly better: the father sits on a dais; the mother lies on a sofa. The sugared relations between Edmund and Fanny are agreeable enough in their studied way, but they neither compensate nor console us for the want of ease, of flexibility, in the propinquities of this divergent family. The leopardlike presence of the sinuous and faintly sinister Crawfords adds its modicum to the curious unrest, the sense of distance in proximity, of peril in an asylum, which foIlows the reader throughout this reassuring and disquieting tale.
Mrs. Price, wife of an indigent lieutenant of marines in Portsmouth and Lady Bertram, a rich baronet's lady in Northamptonshire, are sisters. The baronet's family offer to adopt Mrs. Price's eldest daughter, Fanny, and the hardships of rearing a,large family on a small income are revealed in the promptitude of Mrs. Price's grateful acceptance. Transferred to Mansfield Park, the ten-year-old girl grows up with the marvellous rapidity with which that operation--so tedious in real life--is accomplished by the heroines of fiction. Fanny has made haste to qualify herself for the part of heroine by forming an almost instant, ardent, and constant attachment for her cousin, Edmund Bertram, the only young person in the house for whom benevolence to a penniless cousin can take a brighter shape than amused or condescending toleration. With the engagement of Maria Bertram to a neighboring magnate, Mr. Rushworth, a transaction in which the young lady's heart is suavely neutral, and with the installation at the rectory of Henry and Mary Crawford, brother and sister of the rector's wife, the story is, in the sturdy parlance of the American street, "open for business."
An attraction speedily grows up between Edmund Bertram, who is destined for the church, and Mary Crawford, in whom a fondness for deriding clergymen is not the only symptom of worldliness. Miss Austen is adept in the accumulation of evidence, but in the evocation of moral or psychical process she has little skill, and the relation between Edmund and Mary is kept almost at a standstill, without engagement or unmistakable declaration, till very close to the end of the novel. There is affection and misgiving on both sides. If, to appropriate the language of Bishop Blougram, on Edmund Bertram's part it is a life "of faith diversified by doubt," on Mary Crawford's it is a "life of doubt diversified by faith." While in this quarter matters assume what we might describe as permanence in instability, Henry Crawford, after exhausting the piquancy of alternate courtship of the two Misses Bertram, centres his assiduities on Maria. A visit of the Mansfield party to Mr. Rushworth's place and the undertaking of an amateur play at Manfield itself are friendly to Mr. Crawford's success in this cruel and ignoble enterprise.
To Miss Austen they are no less friendly than to Mr. Crawford. In scenes half social, half domestic, where the characters are many, the setting compact, the regroupings facile, and the openings for minute but intimate and eestful diplomacy pretty frequent, her spirits rise and her art brightens, and the trip and play chapters must be classed with the signal enlivenments of the book. That Mr. Rushworth is a nullity for Maria and Maria herself is a nullity for the reader, that it is hard to tell whether her detachment front her brainless suitor is to be viewed as ruin or salvation, are drawbacks which are swept aside, for the time being at least, by the alacrity and monlentum of the narrative. Miss Austen's condemnation of the theatricals is unqualified does not prevent her from portraying them with that gusto which, in an impish world, is so often the associate of disapproval. A careful American parent would find no fault with the securitiy for propriety and innocence which accompany rehearsals of the play. There is no audience, no professional man except a scene-painter, no actors from outside except a guest staying in the house and the brother and sister of the parish rector's wife the mother of the family is informed, consenting, and on the spot. For all that, Miss Austen, who has a taste for wine, indulgence for cards, and approbation for balls, and who had seen her own kinsfolk taking part in private theatricals in her father's barn, is inexorable in her reprobation of the sport. Her Iningled rest and horror remind one a little of the comment of the maiden aunt, Franeiska, in Sudermann's Heimat, on learning that her operatic niece drank a mixture of coffee and chocolate, "Horrible-- but it must be good."
On the arrival of Sir Thomas Bertram from Antigua, the theatricals dissolve--the word is exact--and Henry Crawford rides away to Bath. The brusqueness of his treatment of Maria seems almost copied by Miss Austen in her cavalier desertion of an affair with which she has lingeringly and solicitously dallied. The train so heedfully laid is not touched off, and the novelist, who is as unfeeling toward Maria as Henry himself, despatches her "agony" in a summary paragraph. Maria bears her loss with a fortitude which culminates in her marriage with Mr. Rushworth.
The story has now reached a halting-place. (It must be understood that all this time the Edmund-Mary affair has been going on or, better, standing still, or better yet, has attained a combination of going on and standing still by simply oscillating.) Miss Austen has no sooner despatched Henry Crawford to Bath than she discovers that she has the most urgent occupation for him at Mansfield. That occupation is the courtship of Fanny Price. This move is disconcerting to the reader. If there is no positive answer to the question, "Why should Henry Crawford fall in love with Fanny Price?" there is likewise no positive answer to the question, "Why should he fall in love with her?"; and the absence of an answer to the second question is in effect an answer to the first. When a certain point in novels has been reached, all new events should be traceable pedigrees; and this movement of Crawford's resembles the Merlin of the older Arthurian tales in being a child without a father. It might be defined with equal accuracy as a father without a child. It is the main business, if not the major interest, of the remainder of the book, yet its removal in a block from the tale would not alter the conclusion by a line. Indeed, its effect is worse than neutral; it is a hindrance to the conclusion. It forces Miss Austen into at least the seeming improbability of allowing a man to elope with a married woman whom he does not love to the certain ruin of his not uncheerful prospects with the woman whom he loves sincerely. What, then, is the motive for the episode? Miss Austen designs a testimonial to Fanny on the grand scale, but the reader has two difficulties. The grandeur of the scale is not wholly clear, at least to a man who does not share Miss Austen's womanly sense of the immeasurable importance of wicked charmers; and, in the second place, he finds it hard to triumph for Fanny in the very circumstances in which he is called upon to suffer with her.
Crawford conducts his suit with that mixture of acuteness and stupidity which marks the abler and coarser mind in its dealings with the simpler and finer one. In the strategy of his assault, I am more sensible of Miss Austen's cleverness than of faithfulness in the report of actuality; the abatement of prejudice on Fanny's side is handled with delicate and authentic insight, and Miss Austen comes closer to emotional process in this episode than in any other place in her works which I recall. The caution of the novelist arrests the process in its nonage, almost in its infancy; it never reaches a stage which imperils either Fanny's heart or Edmund's prospects.
The outcome of the novel is rather skilfully manoeuvred. A double suspense has been created with regard to Edmund Bertram's courtship of Mary Crawford and Henry Crawford's pursuit of Fanny Price. A stroke of masterly contrivance enables one event to furnish a solution for both these problems. Crawford elopes with Maria Rushworth--Maria who has been kept so long in the background that she has almost the effect of being resuscitated for the commission of this enormity. Crawford's prospects with Fanny are destroyed, and Edmund's hopes of Mary are equally shipwrecked by the worldliness and levity of mind revealed in Mary's comments on the scandal.
Miss Austen, however, makes a mistake in the remoteness and chariness of her handling of the elopement, which is not only the mainspring of her two dénûoments, but the event to which the preparations in the first half of the book look forward with unswerving constancy. Miss Austen recoils from her, own crises. She resembles those persons whom Max Piccolomini in the first act of Wallenstein described as calling up a spectre in their need, and shrinking away from it the instant it reveals itself. She sage plainly: "Let other pens dwell on grief and misery I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can." To which the answer is very simple: If you object to dogs, you should not rear puppies. For dogs at a polite distance, in a judicious half-light Miss Austen appears to have a real partiality. At all events, at the very moment Maria Rushworth is eloping with Crawford, Julia Bertram is eloping with Mr. Yates, though in this latter case nothing worse than a clandestine marriage is the outcome of the adventure. This is rather too much; the reader raises a protesting eyebrow. Maria, yes; some sort of black lamb was doubtless owed to Hecate. But why Julia? Julia was entitled to the shelter of insignificance.
I have thus far slighted an element in the tale which protests rather loudly against omission. In the last half of the book Fanny spends several weeks at her parents' house in Portsmouth. The reason for this visit is peculiar. Sir Thomas Bertram, anxious to reconcile his niece to the desirable match with the wealthy Heery Crawford, resolves that she shall learn the value of riches by a brief but drastic experience of the hardships of poverty. In this reasoning Sir Thomas is hopeful rather than lucid. Fanny's alternative is not Crawford or Portsmouth, but Crawford or Mansfield. Portsmouth was in every way qualified to teach her the superiority of comfort to poverty. But the only thing that it can be in the least profitable to teach her is the superiority of opulence to comfort, and her mother's house is the last place in which that not indisputable thesis could be verified. The Portsmouth chapters have been warmly praised, and there can be no question that the exactness of their particulars is impressive. I cannot, however, rank them with Miss Austen's very best work, because, if I may trust my instinct, while they have exactness, they lack pliancy; I miss the ease and suppleness of life. If Miss Austen is ever like Gissing--and I should think twice before affirming that she was--she is like him in this Portsmouth interlude. It is all schooling, all exhibit; every one of its clean-cut particulars is tilted at the precise angle at which the admonition to Fanny is unmistakable. This accumulation of salutary warnings to a recalcitrant young person who finally rejects them all and prospers in her contumacy impresses the reader as uncalled for.
Mansfield Park is a combination of two genera: it is a biography, the biography of Fanny Price, and it is a novel, the novel, roughly speaking, of the Bertrams and the Crawfords. Now biography, evea in the most artistic hands, is congenitally loose, and Miss Austen, though skilful, is not punctiliously skilful. Naturally enough, she has not succeeded in tucking all the loose ends and ravellings of the biography into the compact parcel of the novel. For example, Mrs. Norris's services to the plot are virtually over after the first few chapters in which her mendicant benevolence--it deserves no better phrase--brings Fanny Price to Mansfield. After that she is installed as a permanent incumbrance in the biography, while her relation to the novel is merely that of spectator or invader. The conclusion of the work is evidently hurried. Miss Austen has even the barbarity to withhold from the reader the sight of the final mutual confession of Edmund and Fanny.
The moral or morals of Mansfield Park are doubtless sound enough, but I do not feel that they are powerfully or skilfully enforced. In Chapter 48, almost at the end of the book, there is a formal and solemn exposition of the errors in the training of the two Misses Bertram. The passage reads like an afterthought. Until I came to these paragraphs, in which the elders are loaded with the misconduct of the children, I own that I had failed to realize that the rearing of the Misses Bertram had been vicious, and was obliged to run hastily through the book to discover if Miss Austen or myself had failed in vigilance. My diligence was rewarded with one short paragraph in which a hint of unwisdom was unmistakably lodged, but I was harsh enough to feel that the need of research to obtain this information wsts almost as sharp a criticism on the novelist as the failure of research to obtain it would have been. Authors, like other parents, sometimes discover too late their oversights in the early treatment of their children. After all, it is hard to see anything in the bringing-up of these girls which would account for Maria's desertion of her husband and elopement with a gallant. They had a sensible father, a harmless, if helpless, mother, and an injudiciously flattering aunt. To assert that vice is the logical outcome of these conditions is to magnify unduly the ascendency of aunts.
A similar warning against the evil fruits of unwholesome training is clearly intended in the case of the two Crawfords. But a relation between training and its consequences cannot be made effective in a book in which the training is not presented, or is presented only in a few passing words of hurried retrospect. The evils of parental folly may be again Suggested in the picture of the slatternly Price household, but if, in the Crawford matter we have the conclusion without the premises, in the Price affair we have the premises without the conclusion. On the whole, we cannot but feel that the lessons of Mansfield Park, though doubtless far from insincere, were somewhat adventitious. Miss Austen probably made the confection to please the sprightly, and later discovered its virtue as cough medicine in order to placate the discreet.
Mansfield Park is Fanny Price's book; indeed its faithfulness to Fanny is almost canine. It is a technical flaw perhaps that a book which scarcely leaves Fanny's side should admit a brief dialogue here and there from which she is shut out. this very little, however, because I think disapproval which arises in the critical re-survey of a book matters much except as the sequel of a displeasure in the original uncritical reading. In point of fact, I read the book without the slightest perturbation from this error in consistency, and even now I am not sure that Miss Austen would not have done well to part from Fanny oftener and more freely. The love-affair between Edmund and Mary Crawford is seen only in parcels and through slits, because it is seen only through the eyes and ears of Fanny Price.
Fanny herself interests and attracts us, though we yield to her charm with a shade of reluctance and a measure of reserve. Her position as the poor dependent in the great house is as advantageous for heroineship as it is undesirable in reality. She is by no means the pining and whining orphan of nursery fiction; she is fairly well treated at Mansfield, though she lives at her uncle's on a curiously mixed footing which permits her the luxury of a horse and denies her the comfort of a fire. Her virtue is a little formidable even in a heroine from whom we have learned to expect no moderation or self-restraint in that particular. Fanny does not allow our admiration the breathing-space which the commission of a single fault in the course of well-nigh three hundred pages would afford. She is permitted to dislike only those persons whom it is permissible, even laudable, to dislike. For her offenses in this mind she has the excuse of youth and inexperience.
This very excuse, however, becomes the source of another difficulty. Fanny, at the time when we see most of her, is eighteen, absolutely ignorant of the world, shrinking and docile to an appealing, almost a pathetic, degree. But her mind is about twenty years older than her physique or her character. She is set down in the Mansfield Park circle as Miss Austen's delegate and mouthpiece. She observes with Miss Austen's keenness, and condemns with Miss Austen's severity. We are disconcerted by the hardihood with which this fragile and trembling girl holds out in her own mind against the judgment of the very persons who, so far as we can see, are responsible for the formation of her judgment. Literature has not hesitated to combine the mildest and sweetest of dispositions with perfect clearness d head and unbending precision of verdict. Hilda, in the Marble Faun, is a case in point, but Hilda, a solitary American girl in Rome, is predestined by her very part to unhesitating self-reliance. But Fanny has never left her dovecote or rookery. If in the Emersonian phrase, she had a Delphi in her own breast, the case might be altered; but Fanny is quite innocent of any such appenage; her opinions are formed by that society in which the people she condemns are judges and leaders.
We like to associate keen judgment with active force, and Miss Austen has done Fanny an ill turn by transporting her to her mother's house in Portsmouth, where her want of practical efficiency recieves a peculiar--almost a sardonic--emphasis. In the squalors of that riotous household Fanny, apart from her encouragement of Susan, can do nothing but lose her appetite and her color, retreat into herself, and pine for Mansfield. In one way, all this is right and shrewd. The nursling of the aristocratic leisure in which Fanny has been dandled would no doubt have been powerless to cope with the grimy situation at the Prices', and the reader who dreams of an Esther Summerson, shepherding a meek flock of renovated Jellybys, must not be peevish at the snub to his romanticism. There is, however, something narrow and mean in viewing these young and onl ne'er-do-weels solely in relation to their success or failure in conciliating the taste of Mansfield, and I fear that Miss Austen can hardly be acquitted of complicity in the littleness and egotism of this view. What is Miss Austen's expedient for helping tbe child of a drunken father and a slipshod mother? Apparently she has nothing to suggest but adoption into a rich family. When told that the French poor had no bread, Marie Antoinette is said to have replied: "Why, then, let them eat cake." I have no doubt that Miss Austen would have been duly amused at the artlessness or heartlessness of the young queen's reply.
There is another trait in Fanny which, if hardly to be classed as a fault, is, in my own case at least, a bar to enjoyment. About half the time Fanny is in a state of fright, or at least of flutter. She is like Spenser's almond-tree on Mount Selinus,
Whose tender locks do tremble every one
At every little breath, that under heaven is blown.
Further, this fright can never be taken for granted and pushed aside; it must always be recounted with care, with detail, with affectionate and solicitous assiduity. We all think that Miss Austen's mind was strong, if matched with Miss Burney's, and herculean in comparison with Mrs. Radcliffe's; but not Evelina in the novel she names, not Emily in the Mysteries of Udolpho, is more fondled and cosseted on the score of nervousness than Fanny under the wing of the robust authoress of Mansfield Park. The trait had for the novelists of that day all the holiness of a convention, a convention to which; the martial and feudal Scott did not hesitate to subscribe in the portrayal of his heroines. But Scott had at least the excuse of giving his heroines something to be frightened about, and the emotion in its alternation with joy and love had for the her the romantic charm which the eye felt in the of blush and pallor across the maiden's face. Austen, as a realist, profits less by these excuses, and her constant presentation of the trait as an elegance is at war with the modem reader's indignant refusal to view the matter in that light. Fanny's charm, moreover, lies largely in the orderliness, the thrift and neatness of her compact and shapely little mind, and to this charm flutter is adverse.
Fanny remains, after all deductions, a kind and good girl whose fortunes and feelings one can follow with sincere, if somewhat patronizing, sympathy. Miss Austen reveals some of her most delicate psychology in the strokes of nature that now and then rise like bubbles to the smooth surface of Fanny's impeccable decorum. Miss Austen's infinite respect for very good little girls cannot always blind her shrewdness to the fact that they are human beings like the rest of us.
I now pass to Fanny's relatives at Mansfield Park. They are, first of all, an imaginable family, differing in that respect from the Bennets, who are only a parcel loosely knotted together by an hereditary string. Sir Thomas Bertram does not rank in interest or power with Miss Austen'sprime successes, but in one point he is a capital illustration of the delicacy of her workmanship. To split a character in two, and make it half ridiculous, half estimable or lovable, is a feat to which the dexterity of artists has long accustomed us. But to split a man's dignity in two, and make one-half ridiculous and the other half estimable is a rarer and subtler, though not necessarily a more valuable, accomplishment. Sir Thomas is a worthy and a stilted man; he is to be exposed and vindicated at the same time, and the instrument of his exposure and vindication alike is the faskion of his speech. That speech involves a great deal of the "mild majesty and sober pomp" which Burke praised in the anglican ritual. It is pleasant to see the cunning with which Miss Austen protects Sir Thomas in the very act of demolishing his defenses. Her sense of the mixture in things is finely evinced in the art which allows Sir Thomas to be indignant with the household for refusing a fire to Fanny at the precise moment when he is himself angry with her for rejecting a desirable suitor.
Miss Austen's hand is consummate in the tiny Portraiture of Lady Bertram. Even the initial strokes are final. She is done perfectly, and done all at once. Continuance adds nothing to clearness, though it adds much to pleasure. In Lady Bertram, fortunately, there is very little of that pyrotechnic quality which exaggeration sometimes confers on Miss Austen's instant and vigorous effects. She is one of those woolly characters who roll themselves into balls, make themselves their own wrappage, as it were, and offer the minimum of exposure to the incursions of a teasing world. If her selfishness is unlimited, equally unlimited is her good-nature. Such beings, if happy, may be real alleviations of the inclemency of life for other people. A cat, the most selfish of animals, is sometimes the most agreeable of companions though the warmth shed abroad by its complete success in ministering to its own welfare. We half despise, half envy, the position for which comfort is pleasure. In her abandonment of responsibility in her mature life, Lady Bertram is not unlike two married women of contemporary fiction, the Mrs. Gaylord of Howells's Modern Instance and the Mrs. Folyat Mr. Cannan's Round the Corner.
Tom Bertram is drawn with a free and light fortunate touch. Miss Austen likes him pretty without minding him very much, and this is a of mind that is favorable rather than otherwise success in portraiture. His type is much comm in the English novel in general than in Miss Austen corner of the field. She favors either the brilliant and plausible scapegrace, the Wickham, Willoughby, or Churchill type, or the mild and discreet young men, the Ferrarses, Bingleys, and Edmund Bertrams. Tom Bertram is of the type prefigured in the Tom Jones of Fielding and carried forward in the Tom Brown of Mr. Hughes's Rugby, and stands about midway between his two namesakes in point of time and rakishness. A single sentence will show the discretion with which Miss Austen portrays a character wbich the ordinary novelist is tempted to fondle or buffet. "Tom listened with some shame and some sorrow; but escaping as quickly as possible, could soon with cheerful selfishness reflect, firstly, that he had not been half so much in debt as some of his friends; secondly, that his father had made a most tiresome piece of work of it; and thirdly, that the future incumbent, whoever he might be, would, in all probability, die very soon." One of those sicknesses which flourish in the third volumes of novels, with a view to the inducement of repentance in the hero or relenting in the heroine, waylays Tom Bertram; a moral convalescence accompanies the physical, which Miss Austen, whose respect for truth is highly variable, prolongs beyond the date of recovery. It may be added that Tom's brusque and hearty unconcern is perfectly evident and pleasantly evident through the shapely and decorous periods in which he confesses his filiation to Sir Thomas and to Jane Austen. Scott faced and mastered a similar difficulty in his delineation of George Robertson in the Heart of Mid-Lothian.
There is a curious likeness and interesting difference between Sir Thomas Bertram and his younger son Edmund. Sir Thomas is something of a prig; Miss Austen knows it, likes him in spite of it, and succeeds in conveying both the knowledge and the liking to the reader. Edmund is a worse prig thap Sir Thomas, but Miss Austen draws him under the impression that she is drawing nothing worse than an agreeable and exemplary young man, and the reader feels the full virus of the priggishness. Edmund is once--just once--allowed to do wrong. He consents to take part in an amateur theatrical performance to be given in his father's house among brothers and sisters and two or three intimate friends. I wish to give Edmund due credit for the solitary misdemeanor, but I feel bound to point out that a single act, however iniquitous, cannot redeem a long career of hardened and unblushing virtue to which even the excuse of thoughtlessness is wanting.
Edmund is a worshipper of decency, and which is a part of decency and indeed the prime decency, has a claim to his unqualified respect is shocked with Mary Crawford for letting him that her real objection to the Crawford-Rushworth elopement is the damage to respectability. He suspects that this is the real trouble with Edmund himself, but to avow it as the real trouble is opposite of respectable. There are situations where respectabihty makes a point of subordinating its own claims, where it shocks all the conventions to give primacy to the conventional shock. We like Edmund's kindness to Fanny, and we do not feel that Fanny's virtues are rated too high in the award of Edmund as their recompense. As a husband his kindness will be unvarying, and he will treat Fanny with a condescension so delicate that both he and Fanny will mistake it for respect.
Of the two Misses Bertram very little is made. Julia, the younger sister, is clear, though slight, and the slightness is hardly a fault in a story in which Julia's position is obviously secondary. But Maria's case is very different. Maria is a mainstay of the plot, and why should Maria be grudged the boon of individualixation in the Austen temple where even the small pillars are caryatids? The reason is quite dark to me. Maria is cheap ware certainly, but Miss Austen's interest is not confined to porcelain.
Mrs. Norris, Lady Bertram's sister, is the outstanding figure of the book. Goldwin Smith says of her: "Short of criminality, nothing can be more odious; nor has Jane Austen painted anything which we should say was more worthy of hatred. Mrs. Norris is harsh, ill-natured, mean, and artful. Her mind is thoroughly low. . . . Yet what character is dearer to us than Mrs. Norris? even Mansfield Park be without her? What would It is to the bad characters in novels and plays that we are debted after all for the excitement and the fun." My own feeling about Mrs. Norris is more closely approximated in Henry James's comment on another famous exemplar of acrimony and bullying, the Mrs. Proudie of Trollope's Barsetshire series. "She is exceedingly true; but I do not think she is quite so good as her fame, or as several figures from the same hand that have not won so much honour. She is rather too violent, too vixenish, too sour." For me Mrs. Norris is loud herself, and Miss Austen's portrayal of her is simply boisterous. Nowhere has Miss Austen's hand been more brilliant or incisive; nowhere has it been more unbridled in the neglect of shading and the disdain of moderation.
Mrs. Norris, like Lady Bertram, belongs to what might be called the single-stroke type of character. She is shrewish and she is stingy, and the delineation consists of little else than the defiling past the reader's mind of successive illustrations of these major traits. Mrs. Norris has been cited in proof of the alleged complexity of Miss Austen's deliniations, but I think she offers no ground for serious discomfort to supporters of the thesis that Miss Austen is anything but complex. Besides the parsimony and the acrimony we are invited to contemplate her flattery of the young Misses Bertram, but this flattery, of which we have only one marked exhibition in a very early chapter, never dominates or permeates the drawing. Indeed, it has rather the effect of being provided by a charitable afterthought as a crutch for a tardy and tottering moral. Perhaps I am a little ill-natured in quarrelling with the strokes for falling so uniformly into two groups when almost every stroke is masterly. Fortunately for herself, Miss Austen, who excels in the concrete and delights in the abstract, is forced, in one side of the presentation of Mrs. Norris, to forego her preference and exercise her faculty. Love, hate, wrath, and shame may promenade in the abstract, but frugality positively refuses to renounce its adhesion to the concrete. If you save, you must save green baize or shirt-buttons or their equivalent.
I admire the portrait, but I cannot exult in its merits in the unreserved fashion of the ordinarily temperate Goldwin Smith. The picture tries me almost as much as it exhilarates. I feel that a criticism which Scott in his review applied, and, on the whole misapplied, to the Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse of Emma is unassailable in relation to Mrs. Norris. The criticism may be restated thus: there is a class of portraits in which the material repels faster than the treatment can attract. In the mimicry of a bagpipe it is conceivable that inaccuracy orinadequacy might be a blessing. I know that the uglinesses of art, like the distresses of love, are sectors in a circle of which delight is the circumference; yet even the salubrity of art acts but feebly on the asperity of Mrs. Norris. The laceration of Fanny is the less forgivable because the service to the plot is simply zero. We suffer keenly with Cosette in the claws of the Thenardiess in Hugo's Les Misérables, but we suffer stoutly, because this barbarity is of the very grain and tissue of a story to which our hearts are joyously and unreservedly committed. But, after the first chapter, the footing of Mrs. Norris in the Mansfield Park story exactly coincides with her position in the Mansfield Park household; she is tolerated superfluity.
Miss Austen has kept some of the slyest of pungencies for the verbal chastisement of Mrs. Norris, but I have my doubts if the essence of the character be truly humorous. Humor is masquerade and the parsimony and acerbity of Mrs. Norris hardly seek the protection of a mask.
At times, indeed, the meanness is altogether too barefaced. I quote a paragraph.
While Fanny's mind was engaged in these sort of hopes, her uncle was, soon after tea, called out of the room; an occurrence too common to strike her, and she thought nothing of it till the butler re-appeared ten minutes afterwards, and advancing decidedly towards herself, said, "Sir Thomas wishes to speak with you, ma'am, in his own room." Then it occurred to her what might be going on; a suspicion rushed over her mind which drove the colour from her cheeks but instantly rising, she was preparing to obey, when Mrs. Norris called out, "Stay, stay, Fanny! what are you about? where are you going? don't be in such a hurry. Depend upon it, it is not you who are wanted; depend upon it, it is me (looking at the butler) but you are so very eager to put yourself forward. What should Sir Thomas want you for? It is me, Baddeley, you mean; I am coming this moment. You mean me, Baddeley, I am sure; Sir Thomas wants me, not Miss Price."A master of a house often wishes to see a servant, and Fanny is a relative; Mrs. Norris's disbelief in the possibility of her being sent for is an insult to the reader's common sense. The instance is extreme, and most of Mrs. Norris's speeches and acts, taken singly, are credible enough. It is their reiteration and concentration that provides trials for the reader's faith. Miss Austen is not the historian, is not the judge; she is the prosecuting attorney whose business is not the probing of the truth, but the collection of incriminative evidence. One rebels and admires. Mrs. Norris pounds at Fanny, and Miss Austen pounds the reader with Mrs. Norris. The picture is as swashing as it is brilliant, and is no less a hardship than a joy.
The two Crawfords, brother and sister, are much alike both as persons and as portraits. The relation of Edmund to Mary is not wholly unlike that of Fanny to Henry. In each case the serious character feels both a charm and a danger in the worldly one. The same catastrophe, the elopement, puts an end to both uncertainties. Edmund's support of Crawford's suit is curiously parallel to Mary's countenance of Henry's. Neither brother nor sister occupies a front place in the Austen gallery. Each is more than a failure, but each is less than a success, and ia both cases the half-failure seems assignable to the same cause, to lacunae in the portrayal, the absence of connective tissue.
The problem of the young woman of the world whose heart is drawn to a young clergyman is one of vigorous appeal. If one had to pick out a more penetrating problem, it would be that of the young clergyman whose heart is drawn to a woman ol fashion. When these two first-rate situations face each other, the material becomes almost inestimable. In one respect the planning of Mary Crawford's character is worthy of this splendid opportunity. She is not a bad woman, not even a wholly frivolous woman. The difference between her and the wholly baleful influence is the difference between Calypso and Circe. On one occasion in the theatrical squabble, the author has made her truly kind to Fanny, not to mention the many occasions on which she is politely or politicly kind. She loves the world; she loves Edmund Bertram; her preference is hidden from herself. She is old enough to know the value of circumspection, and young enough to rejoice at times in throwing it off. She has principle enough to protest, though far from strongly, against her brother's plan to divert himself with Fanny.
Nevertheless, I must own to a feeling that I cannot get at Mary Crawford, and I have sometimes the temerity to think that Miss Austen shares my embarrassment. There are two marked difficulties; we are obliged to see her brokenly through Fanny Price's interrupted vision, and obliquely through Fanny Price's biased eyes. Her love for Edmund, its feature, its profile, is absolutely withheld from us, and even for the other side of her character we are obliged to depend on scattered hints and surface indications. Again, while the contiguity of the two elements in her personality has been finely and naturally conceived, I do not feel that their amalgamation has been brought to pass. The synthetic view by which dramatic elements are unified into a human being is not perceivable in the treatment of Mary Crawford. Miss Austen dislikes her, and while intent on controlling the dislike, is betrayed here and there into a flash of malice. One such flash is her reference to Tom Bertram's illness: "I never bribed a physician in my life." This is worse than cruel on Miss Austen's part; it is tactless. It does not take Miss Crawford out of nature, but it vulgariees a worldliness whose interest lay largely in its delicacy.
In Henry Crawford the discerning endeavor to balance good and evil is equally noticeable, but the success is even more imperfect. Henry Crawford leaves ruin behind him, but even in power he lacks significance. He talks very freely, but his utterance is inexpressive. Don Juans as a class are tenuous, the sort of persons whom ghosts can discipline and statutes kill, and Crawford is an attenuated Don Juan.
At the close of the book he runs off with a woman whom he despises to the certain loss of the woman whom he really loves. We touch here on the powerful suggestion that the penalty of pursuing caprice at the expense of others' comfort and one's own conscience is the final sacrifice to this tinsel god of one's own profoundest and most passionate desires. Wilfulness thwarts our will. Striking as this reflection is, in Mansfield Park it is hardly more than a reflection, or indeed an implication. It remains on the verge of the story where its influence on the book is naturally slight. Crawford is the leisurely, the placid, the indolently supple ladykiller, the huntsman to whom the chase is more than the game, and his elegance in the saddle more than the chase. With Fanny his heart is touched, and alacrity is more apparent. I do not know whether Miss Austen is blind to the real insolence of the means he adopts in his pursuit of Fanny--means which reek with latent insult and which would settle his fate once for all with any spirited woman. I incline to think that Miss Austen views his wooing as refined and diplomatic. I think she erred in denying him personal beauty; the fear of the obvious has impaired, or at least imperilled, the naturalness of the portrait. A man whose mind and manners are only moderately winning could not safely dispense with the reënforcement of good looks.
The other characters are of small account. A stroke or two makes Dr. Grant absolutely clear-- clearer than his wife to whom many more strokes are less profitably devoted. The contents of Mr. Rushworth's mind are so meagre as hardly to furnish even the needful equipment for an adequate imbecile. At a distance he excites pity. William Price, the midshipman, is agreeable and unobtrusive; Susan is clinched in a few deft touches; and the other Prices, of whom Miss Austen is almost inhumanly contemptuous, are distinct enough in their clamor and squalor.
I may note, finally, that in Mansfield Park there is a partial disparity between the form--at least, the apparent form--of the book, and its contents. It purports or claims to be made after an ancient and approved recipe by which the tediums of generations have been salved. There is the nestling of poverty who becomes the nursling of wealth, the penniless girl brought up among the chilly bounties of rich relations. There is the handsome young heir (or cadet) by whom an instant and constant attachment is inspired. There is the wicked knight or amorous conjuror who uses all his arts to draw the young girl within the fated circle of his malign influence. There is, finally, the ogress (Mrs. Norris) who dogs the heroine's steps. This is the kind of tale to be read stretched out lazily upon the hearthrug or doubled up in the cosiness of the sofa-corner to read it in a chair is unpermisaible), and the effect of lamplighted and carpeted interiors in Mansfield Park fits in with these agreeable conditions. This is not quite the book that Miss Austen wrote, it is the book she feigned to write. The feint is not unskilful, and lovers of this particular brand of literary sweetmeat are not the persons whom deceivers find most troublesome. It is this cousinship with a more popular and insinuating type of fiction that helps to account for the appearance of its name seven times on the slips of paper with which, according to Goldwin Smith, a party of men of letters balloted for the novel affording the most pleasure.
I have very little faith in this "tradition," as Goldwin Smith himself circumspectly calls it, and I doubt if Mansfield Park has largely profited by the attempt to couch a serious study of life in the frame of a fairy tale. The frame is too slight, and its fragility must not be overstrained. The width of character congenial to Miss Austen is shut out, and Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris are the only characters in which the novelist rises to her full height. The elopement of Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth in a story of this kind is like the firing of a pistol shot at an afternoon tea. The story, naturally enough, flees to the nearest hiding-place, crouches down, and puts its fingers in its ears. The fairy tale is a little too elemental or exotic for Miss Austen's free and robust hand. We feel that Edmund is overstarched, that Fanny is oversweetened, and that the two Crawfords are unfortunate in their resemblance to unstable chemical compounds. The book has much that is valuable and attractive, but in soundness of plan, in fundamental health, it impresses me as notably inferior both to Emma and to Pride and Prejudice.
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.