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

Mary Lu Roffey Redden is the director of Halifax Humanities 101, a program that offers non-credit, university-level Humanities studies (philosophy and literature) to adults living below the poverty line. It’s wonderful that Halifax has a program like this, and I’ve been very interested to learn from Mary Lu about similar organizations across Canada and elsewhere in the world.

Inspired by the Clemente Course in the Humanities founded in Manhattan in 1995 by Earl Shorris, Halifax Humanities 101 is “based on the premise that the insights and skills offered by study of the traditional Humanities disciplines can provide people with crucial tools for gaining control over their lives.” In Shorris’s words, “the Humanities provide the most practical education. The Humanities teach us to think reflectively, to deign to deal with the new as it occurs to us, to dare.” Among the many faculty from universities in the Halifax area who have taught in the Halifax Humanities 101 program are two contributors to “An Invitation to Mansfield Park”: Judith Thompson and John Baxter.

Halifax Humanities 101Last year, when so many of us were celebrating the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, there was a Pride and Prejudice-themed fundraiser for Halifax Humanities 101 hosted by the Weldon Literary Moot Society at the University of King’s College: Mr. Darcy sued Mr. Wickham for defamation of character. I missed it because I was in Boston that week, but I hear it was both hilarious and successful.

Our Regional Coordinator for JASNA Nova Scotia, Anne Thompson, attended. Here’s what she had to say about the event:

The P&P Moot Court fundraiser was extremely clever, with Mr. Wickham on trial for making slanderous remarks about Mr. Darcy. Presiding over the case was an actual NS Judge, the Honourable Jamie Campbell. We knew the perfidious Wickham was winning when his mother-in-law tried to bribe the Judge with cookies – at the expense of her other son-in-law – and the Judge asked Wickham for his autograph (for his kids, of course!). Oh dear! No surprise, the defendant, Wickham, actually did win the case.

Halifax HumanitiesMary Lu has a BA (Hons) in Philosophy from Huron College, University of Western Ontario and an MA in Philosophy of Religion from McMaster University, and she was a Ph.D. Candidate in the same field. She has taught community college courses in Business Communications and university courses in Comparative Religion. You can follow her on Twitter @HalHum101.

For the past twenty-five years, Mary Lu’s husband has been an Anglican rector in both city and rural parishes. Being raised Roman Catholic and thus unaccustomed to the position of “clergy wife,” she says, she has done a fair bit of study and writing on the topic of the clergy wife in English history, and her interest in the topic prompted her to examine the passage in Mansfield Park in which Mary Crawford learns that Edmund Bertram is going to be a clergyman.

[Mary to Edmund] “But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to choose before him.”

“Do you think the church itself never chosen, then?”

Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation, which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”

“The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the office nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.”

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 9 (London: Penguin, 1985)

The Canterbury TalesMary Crawford’s reply to Edmund’s planned ordination may be cynical about the church – “A clergyman is nothing” – but she is also surprisingly insightful about issues that still resonate for clergy: what is the difference between a vocation that may mean relative poverty and social obscurity and a profession in which one seeks advancement, a good salary and some social standing? Mary’s challenge to Edmund becomes an opportunity for him to think through his own sense of vocation, in a time when being a clergyman often was the “last resort” position for a second or third son. Edmund takes on the idea of the “nothing” of being a clergyman head on. His comments have a history in English literature.

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer depicts two kinds of clergy: “the Parson of Good Renown” who is both learned and devoted to his parishioners, visiting them all, rich and poor, with equal concern and able to live with a modest income. In contrast, Chaucer describes the absent cleric who “runs off to London to earn easy bread / By singing masses for the wealthy dead.” In the Prologue, Chaucer has this wonderful line about the ministry: “And shame it is to see – let priests take stock – / A shitten shepherd and a snowy flock” (quoted from Nevill Coghill’s translation).

The Country ParsonThe poet George Herbert wrote a lengthy treatise on the ministry in the 1630’s entitled The Country Parson in which he lays out exactly this contrast: the clergy person is to live modestly, without any sense of shallow social importance, so that by his example (and that of his family) he will be the community guide in matters of morals. One of his most famous lines: “In the house of a Preacher, all are Preachers.”

The “nothingness” of a clergyman is nothingness by worldly standards, seemingly the only standards Mary Crawford understands. A clergyman, replies Edmund, is nothing in terms of “state or fashion.” But in his “nothing,” Edmund hopes that the clergyman will find his “something”: “the guardianship of religions and morals.” Just as Chaucer and George Herbert claim, the clergyman takes on a profound responsibility: “the cure of souls.” Mary’s challenge to Edward becomes the opportunity for him to think through this rather daunting “something” of a clerical vocation. Mr. Collins – take note!

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Deborah Yaffe, Julie Strong, Juliet McMaster, and David Monaghan. Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the Mansfield Park party!