Lynn Festa teaches in the English department at Rutgers University. I first met her more than a decade ago, when she was teaching in the English department at Harvard University and I was teaching in Harvard’s writing program, and it was great to reconnect with her at the JASNA AGM in New York in 2012. I’m excited to hear her plenary lecture on “The Noise in Mansfield Park” at this year’s AGM in Montreal.
A specialist in eighteenth-century British and French literature, Lynn is the author of a book on sentimental literature and empire, as well as essays on topics ranging from wigs (why did so many men shave their heads to wear someone else’s hair?) and cosmetics to early children’s literature featuring talking animals and the reasons behind a Parliamentary tax on dogs. She’s currently finishing a book on eighteenth-century definitions of humanity. I’m very pleased to introduce her guest post on conjunctions in Chapter 17 of Mansfield Park. Who knew there was so much to say about the words “and,” “or,” and “but”?
Julia did suffer, however, though Mrs. Grant discerned it not, and though it escaped the notice of many of her own family likewise. She had loved, she did love still, and she had all the suffering which a warm temper and a high spirit were likely to endure under the disappointment of a dear, though irrational hope, with a strong sense of ill-usage. Her heart was sore and angry, and she was capable only of angry consolations. The sister with whom she was used to be on easy terms, was now become her greatest enemy; they were alienated from each other, and Julia was not superior to the hope of some distressing end to the attentions which were still carrying on there, some punishment to Maria for conduct so shameful towards herself, as well as towards Mr. Rushworth. With no material fault of temper, or difference of opinion, to prevent their being very good friends while their interests were the same, the sisters, under such a trial as this, had not affection or principle enough to make them merciful or just, to give them honour or compassion. Maria felt her triumph, and pursued her purpose careless of Julia; and Julia could never see Maria distinguished by Henry Crawford, without trusting that it would create jealousy, and bring a public disturbance at last.
Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them. Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties. They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness.
The inattention of the two brothers and the aunt to Julia’s discomposure, and their blindness to its true cause, must be imputed to the fulness of their own minds. They were totally preoccupied. Tom was engrossed by the concerns of his theatre, and saw nothing that did not immediately relate to it. Edmund, between his theatrical and his real part, between Miss Crawford’s claims and his own conduct, between love and consistency, was equally unobservant; and Mrs. Norris was too busy in contriving and directing the general little matters of the company, superintending their various dresses with economical expedient, for which nobody thanked her, and saving, with delighted integrity, half-a-crown here and there to the absent Sir Thomas, to have leisure for watching the behaviour, or guarding the happiness of his daughters.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 17 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006)
In the three incisive paragraphs that close Chapter 17, Austen offers an anatomy of jealousy and its impact of the Bertram family, dissecting both the limited insight individual characters have into others and the ease with which sexual rivalry ruptures already-fragile familial bonds. The rage and hurt of Julia Bertram at witnessing her sister’s flirtation with Henry Crawford pass unperceived by almost all – the passage opens with the almost-universal failure to understand that “Julia did suffer” – but Austen’s omniscient narrator skillfully enters into minds that fail to understand other minds in order to help us sympathetically grasp the failure of sympathy.
It is striking that in a passage on the failure to connect Austen uses so many conjunctions: twenty-one “ands,” six “ors,” and one “but.” Conjunctions both join and sunder: they yoke individual words or the separate clauses of a sentence together, but they are also physically interposed between the parts they are supposed to unite. In this passage, conjunctions serve as barriers as much as bridges: “and” fails to conjoin; “or” fails to offer viable alternatives; and “but” fails to make an exception or mitigate the lack of connection it seeks to overcome.
“And” is an unstable bond in a world in which couples keep turning into triangles. As a result of Henry Crawford’s flirtation with Maria, the reciprocity of sympathy – the connection promised by “and,” the mutual interchange of “or” – becomes perverted into the reciprocity of revenge, a kind of arms-race of ill-will between two sisters now become each others’ “greatest enemy.” An exultant Maria gloats over Julia, while Julia wishes future ills to fall upon Maria’s head in anticipation of the novel’s ending. (It is perhaps worth noting how little of Julia’s rage is directed at Henry Crawford who, here as in the closing chapter, gets off more or less scot-free.) The “easy terms” on which the sisters had hitherto subsisted are dissolved with equal ease: they have not been fortified by the necessary labor that builds true bonds.
In an exquisitely crafted sentence, Austen describes a sisterly relation that flourishes only in the absence of impediment, ordering the words in such a way that the reader must reverse the seeming meaning as she progresses through the sentence. The sentence begins with the appearance of harmony – “With no material fault of temper, or difference of opinion,” – before reversing the affirmation midway through by presenting positive traits as negative barriers – “ to prevent their being very good friends while their interests were the same.”
Austen recasts friendship as a coalescence of interests, whose dissolution produces war: “the sisters, under such a trial as this, had not affection or principle enough to make them merciful or just, to give them honour or compassion.” The “or” which typically creates alternatives – “affection or principle” – here instead forecloses options: the Bertram girls possess neither the tender virtue of “mercy” nor the stern principle of “justice,” neither the noble merit of “honour” nor the sentimental relenting of “compassion.” They lack, in other words, the qualities associated both with an older aristocratic order and with the new age of sensibility. In offering an exhaustive array of possible compensating traits (“or,” “or,” “or”), the narrator exposes the lack of redemptive values in the girls.
Likewise in the final paragraph, utter disregard for others is the inevitable by-product of self-absorption: for Tom, Edmund, and Mrs. Norris, the “fullness of their own minds” leaves no room for anything beside themselves. Here too the conjunction “and” fails to conjoin, as Edmund finds himself caught between “his theatrical and his real part, between Miss Crawford’s claims and his own conduct, between love and consistency” – a split subject in every sense of the word. No different from Tom and Mrs. Norris (at least in this instance), Edmund is revealed to be so full of himself (or his selves) that he cannot register the feelings of his sister.
Interposed between Julia’s and Maria’s malevolent insight into each other’s minds and the self-absorbed obliviousness of Tom, Edmund, and Mrs. Norris is a brief three-sentence paragraph about Fanny, representing the possibility of compassionate understanding. Although Mansfield Park often exploits free indirect discourse to present ironic critique of Fanny and other characters, this passage presents a peculiar moment of complicity between the narrator and the heroine. After the reader has been given privileged insight into the relations between Julia and Maria, the narrator describes what Fanny has perceived. “Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them.”
Even Fanny’s insight and compassion cannot overcome the abyss that separates the two women. The presence of the word “outward” in the sentence suggests the possibility of a form of inward fellowship, and of course Julia and Fanny share a common experience, for Fanny is afflicted with a jealousy every bit as all-consuming as that which devours Julia. Yet the parallels in experience do not produce commonality: “Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties. They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness.” The balance of clauses of the two sentences tips first on the fulcrum of and and then on an or. If the “and” here serves as a conjunction that fails to conjoin, the “or” performs the non-reciprocity of an empathy which fails to connect.
Yet Fanny’s delicate and tactful refusal to overreach into another’s consciousness is countered by the narrator’s relentless incursion: the shared consciousness is not only Fanny’s, but also the narrator’s and the reader’s. Austen, in her masterful yet merciless dissection of the Bertram family, relentingly proffers to her reader the possibility of another form of conjunction: the one that enables us, like Fanny, to enter into minds that are unable to enter into the minds of those around them.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by David Monaghan, Diana Birchall, Deborah Barnum, and Laurel Ann Nattress. Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the Mansfield Park party!
Tomorrow marks the three-month anniversary of this celebration of Mansfield Park — watch for a special blog post listing all the guest posts that have appeared so far in the series. Just in case you need to catch up on your reading…. I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on the fascinating conversations that have been happening here over the last three months.