Discerning a Vocation in Mansfield Park – But Whose?

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Twenty-first in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.

The Rev. Dr. Maggie Arnold is currently serving as Assistant Rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Massachusetts. Many years ago, she and I read Pride and Prejudice together in a high school English class in our hometown, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I’m very pleased to introduce her post on the important topic of “ordination” in Mansfield Park. I’m also grateful to her for the lovely illustration of a country house she contributed to “An Invitation to Mansfield Park.”

An Invitation to Mansfield Park

Maggie holds degrees in Fine Arts from NSCAD University in Halifax and The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, a Master of Divinity from Boston University’s School of Theology, and a PhD in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University. Her dissertation, “Mary Magdalene in the Era of Reformation,” compares Protestant and Catholic interpretations of the Magdalene in the Early Modern Period, especially as they related to the question of women’s public ministry.

Mansfield Park“We shall be the losers,” continued Sir Thomas. “His going, though only eight miles, will be an unwelcome contraction of our family circle; but I should have been deeply mortified if any son of mine could reconcile himself to doing less. It is perfectly natural that you should not have thought much on the subject, Mr. Crawford. But a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach, without giving up Mansfield Park; he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.”

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 25 (New York: Modern Library, 1933)

In re-reading Mansfield Park at a distance of some twenty years from my first acquaintance with the novel, I am now struck, as I was not then, by the repeated discussions of the role and nature of religion and the clergy. Edmund Bertram is to be ordained, and one strand of the story’s plot involves his working out of just what claims that profession will make upon him and how he will live up to them.

"Interior of a Church," by J.M.W. Turner

“Interior of a Church” (1819), by J.M.W. Turner

Early in the story, when the party from Mansfield Park visits Sotherton and sees the chapel, Fanny describes her image of a space for domestic piety: “melancholy” and “grand.” The topic of faith leads to Mary Crawford’s discovery that Edmund is himself to take orders, and to his defense of that vocation. In a later conversation with Mary Crawford, Dr. Grant, the holder of the Mansfield living, is revealed to be a bad clergyman because of his gluttony and selfish temperament.

Other posts in this series have explored some of these passages and what they may demonstrate about the values and virtues advanced by Austen. (See “Why Tom Bertram is right that Dr. Grant will ‘soon pop off,’” by Cheryl Kinney, “Something from Nothing,” by Mary Lu Roffey Redden, and “Dr. Grant’s Green Goose,” by Julie Strong.)

In my text, an exchange between Sir Thomas Bertram and Henry Crawford, Sir Thomas lays out his reasons for believing that a pastor ought to live within his parish. A good pastor must know the affairs of the community intimately, caring about them as his own, and he must provide a present example of Christian discipleship to his congregation.

Taken together, these discussions serve to show a sympathy of mind and spiritual commitment that unites Fanny and Edmund. This agreement makes their ultimate marriage the right one, after the mistaken attachment Edmund forms for the frivolous Mary Crawford, and the danger of Henry Crawford’s proposal to Fanny. Fanny and Edmund share a high ideal of the church’s place in society and of ordained vocations as a call to servant ministry. Many of the concerns the author gives to Edmund and Fanny would be animating principles of the Oxford Movement, which began less than twenty years after Mansfield Park’s publication. The Tractarians were likewise preoccupied with a reform and renewal of local parish life and with the spiritual formation of the clergy.

Of the young couple, however, it is Fanny more than Edmund who possesses the character of a Christ-like servant. She displays this character in her relations with family and friends, ministering patiently and with quiet humility in the household. Her nature does not permit her to forget even the needs of the officious and ungrateful Mrs. Norris, or the indolent and narcissistic Lady Bertram.

The Oxford MovementBut beyond being an angel in the house, Fanny is also a more public apologist for Christianity. She is passionate and articulate in advocating a righteous church, joining heartily in theological discussions with Edmund and even initiating them, as in the conversation in the Sotherton chapel. Indeed, her description of the chapel she would rather have found there resembles an Oxford Movement church, with moody, neo-Gothic decorations and literary references. It is surely not insignificant that in her most visible moment before Mansfield society, at her coming-out ball, her only desired ornament is a cross.

Fanny is finally able to fulfill her own religious vocation as the wife of a clergyman, a prominent role that had evolved in Protestant culture since the innovation of a married clergy in the Reformation. Pastors’ wives were models of faith as well as of its application in marriage, the raising of children, the running of the household, and charitable work in the parish. Though this was the happy ending of Mansfield Park’s early nineteenth-century context, among the tragic elements of the novel for twenty-first century readers must be the limitation placed on the career of a woman so faithful in her ministry to her neighbours and so eloquent in her vision of what the church could be.

Born two hundred years later, would Fanny have succeeded naturally to the living at Mansfield Park and overcome her shyness to preach redemption for latter-day Bertrams and Crawfords?

Katharine Jefferts Schori

Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the E.C.U.S.A. (from The Grand Island Independent)

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Hugh Kindred, Natasha Duquette, Margaret Horwitz, and Syrie James.

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