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

Lorrie Clark is an Associate Professor of English at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, where she teaches courses on Milton, eighteenth-century literature, Romanticism, history of the novel, tragedy, Jane Austen, and Joseph Conrad. She has published a book on William Blake, and she says initially she was especially interested in Jane Austen’s relation to Romanticism in Persuasion. I’m very happy to introduce her guest post on the “garden-gazing” scene in Mansfield Park.

Eighteenth-Century FictionMansfield Park has made me realize,” Lorrie says, “the extent to which Austen vigorously, consciously engaged in the eighteenth-century ‘Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns’ about Aristotelian vs. modern scientific ideas of ‘nature,’ a quarrel with profound implications for understanding the foundation of morals in her novels. My blog post here attempts a small part of a much fuller argument on that subject published recently in Eighteenth-Century Fiction titled ‘Remembering Nature . . . in Mansfield Park’ (ECF 24:2, 2012).”

Lorrie has reviewed numerous books on Austen (including my own Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues, in The Dalhousie Review), and she has given talks at several JASNA AGMs and Toronto JASNA chapter meetings. She says she’s really looking forward to the upcoming AGM in Montreal, “on what is certainly, because of its extraordinary depths, my favourite Austen novel.”

“This is pretty – very pretty,” said Fanny, looking around her as they were thus sitting together one day: “Every time I come into this shrubbery I am more struck with its growth and beauty. Three years ago, this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never thought of as any thing, or capable of becoming any thing; and now it is converted into a walk, and it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or as an ornament; and perhaps in another three years we may be forgetting – almost forgetting what it was before. How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient – at others, so bewildered and so weak – and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! – We are to be sure a miracle every way – but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say; and Fanny, perceiving it, brought back her own mind to what she thought must interest.

“It may seem impertinent in me to praise, but I must admire the taste Mrs. Grant has shown in all this. There is such a quiet simplicity in the plan of the walk! – not too much attempted!”

“Yes,” replied Miss Crawford carelessly, “it does very well for a place of this sort. One does not think of extent here – and between ourselves, until I came to Mansfield, I had not imagined a country parson ever aspired to a shrubbery or any thing of the kind.”

Evergreens“I am so glad to see the evergreens thrive!” said Fanny in reply. “My uncle’s gardener always says the soil here is better than his own, and so it appears from the growth of the laurels and evergreens in general. – The evergreen! – How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen! – When one thinks of it, how astonishing the variety of nature! – In some countries we know the tree that sheds its leaf is the variety, but that does not make it the less amazing that the same soil and the same sun should nurture plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence. You will think me rhapsodizing, but when I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wondering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.”

“To say the truth,” replied Miss Crawford, “I am something like the famous Doge at the court of Lewis XIV; and may declare that I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it.…”

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 22 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990)

Jane Austen’s novels are so exquisitely designed that we can see the whole novel in any given part. This makes it an almost overwhelming task to discuss this passage in a short blog post, but I’ll do my best!

This is one of only two “metaphysical” passages in all of Austen’s fiction. Both are in Mansfield Park: the celebrated “star-gazing” scene in which Fanny and Edmund reflect upon the beauty, order, and harmony of the night sky (Chapter 11); and this “garden-gazing” scene where Fanny reflects upon nature, including human nature, specifically, the human mind. I call these scenes “metaphysical” because through Fanny’s meditations Austen rises quite uncharacteristically to express her understanding of the universe and our place within it in ways that remain implicit in her other novels. This makes Mansfield Park the most explicit expression of Austen’s credo as an Aristotelian Christian, marking her “coming out” as an author as much as it marks Fanny’s coming out in society and Edmund’s ordination as a clergyman.

Mansfield ParkFanny engages here in her most characteristic activity: reflecting aloud on nature and human nature. And while she often does this in solitude – alone on a garden bench at Sotherton (Chapters 9 and 10), or in her East room – she “converses” also with others, especially Edmund, and here, Mary Crawford. This scene in which, sitting with Mary, she gazes at Mrs. Grant’s garden and attempts to engage Mary in her “rhapsodizing” and “wondering” reflections on the beauties and mysteries of nature and human nature, contrasts greatly with the earlier star-gazing scene with Edmund. There, we experience with Fanny and Edmund a sense of profound harmony, tranquillity, and beauty, elevated to a shared sense of transcendence by “the sublimities of nature” understood as an ordered cosmic whole, one “Mind.”

Here, by contrast, we experience not harmony but dissonance: Fanny’s reveries do not lift Mary into equally wondering, enthusiastic appreciation of nature as a universal whole or Mind. Mary is “untouched and inattentive”; she is distracted, absent-minded; her mind is wandering, much as she earlier jokes that young people’s minds “wander” when they are sitting in church (Chapter 9). She at first has “nothing to say” because she sees “no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it.” “Incurably selfish,” as she earlier cheerfully boasts about herself (Chapter 7), Mary is distracted by a vision of “self” that obscures any sense of a larger cosmic whole or “other” external to it.

Fanny, sensing this, first “[brings] back her own mind” from its reveries, and then attempts to bring Mary’s “mind” and attention out of its distractedness and inattentiveness by appealing to “what she thought must interest”: Mrs. Grant’s aesthetic “taste” in designing her garden walk. Fanny knows that both Mary and Henry Crawford are “aesthetes,” acutely attuned to the beauties of language and acting (Henry) and of music (Mary). The Crawfords appreciate all the “arts” – theatre, music, landscape gardening, architecture, fashionable dress – and are themselves “theatrical,” public performers as Fanny in her natural modesty, privacy, and humility is not.

Fanny’s ploy works: Mary is brought to respond, albeit “carelessly,” commenting that indeed she would never have expected a clergyman, a “mere nothing,” after all, to “aspire” “to a shrubbery or any thing of the kind.” She assumes clergymen are so humble, impoverished, and severely morally “virtuous” that they would never rise – or would that be, “fall”? – to the vanity and expense of an ornamental shrubbery in their gardens. (Edmund endorses such clerical severity in several places when he admits he’s too “plain-spoken” to be witty and amusing, his sermons aren’t delivered with sufficient “theatricality” of the sort that Henry has mastered, and he wants less “ornament” and more “utility” at Thornton Lacey.)

Mixed Evergreens

Yet Fanny takes equal if not even greater pleasure than the Crawfords in “prettiness” and “beauty,” that is, “aesthetics.” Her idea of “taste” however is not limited to merely aesthetic taste, the pleasures of the senses. For Fanny, the truly “beautiful” must have a kind of moral beauty about it: the moral beauty of “mind” that went into forming it with certain moral ends, intentions, or purposes behind it. She takes pleasure in Mrs. Grant’s moral character as expressed in the design of her garden: “There is such a quiet simplicity in the plan of the walk! – not too much attempted!” Most significantly, Mrs. Grant has recognized the inherent potential for “improvement” in something that may not have seemed to have much potential at all (“nothing but a rough hedgerow, … never thought of as anything, or capable of becoming anything”). Out of this apparent “nothing” she has made a garden walk that is both useful and beautiful: “it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or as an ornament.”

This is of course an exact analogy of what Edmund’s tutelage in the Bertram household, together with her own reflections, have done for Fanny. Like Mrs. Grant, Edmund recognizes the inherent potential of what seemed a mere forgotten “nothing,” “a rough hedgerow,” to become “something,” “assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures” (Chapter 2) such that she is now a young woman of whom it would be difficult to say whether she is most valuable for her usefulness or her newly emerging prettiness and graceful manners. Flourishing in her transplanted soil, she has blossomed into both: neither the merely useful “servant” Mrs. Norris wished to confine her to, nor just another polished but vacuously “ornamental” Bertram woman. Fanny has become that most morally beautiful and useful of human beings, a rationally critical yet also affectionately comforting “friend.”

The passage thus emphasizes the centrality of landscape gardening as one of several metaphors for education or “improvement” throughout the novel (the others being the Pulpit and the Theatre, extremes of severely moral vs. indulgently aesthetic education Austen rejects as such). Fanny notes that a certain species, the evergreen, flourishes better in Mrs. Grant’s garden than in her uncle’s because the soil there is better, like her own better flourishing when transplanted from Portsmouth to Mansfield Park. She also notes with wonder how plants “differing in the first rule and law of their existence” (deciduous vs. evergreen varieties) can nonetheless be nurtured by “the same soil and the same sun,” acknowledging by analogy the enormous “variety” of human nature, a natural inequality of potential that is perhaps shocking to our modern, egalitarian sensibilities. What is this “first rule and law of [our] existence” by which we “differ” both from other species and within our own?

Quite simply, our capacities of “mind” or memory, the faculty that Aristotle calls “nous.” In his view, as human beings, our highest capacity, our highest potential for human flourishing, health, and happiness – our highest pleasure, both moral and aesthetic – lies in the exercise of our minds, the activities of both practical and contemplative wisdom that Fanny so quietly yet strenuously “exercises” here and throughout the novel. Her own habits of mind, reflection, and memory are what she tries to instil in all the characters, attempting to give all of them, not merely Mr. Rushworth, a memory, a “brain,” a mind. This is the greatest force for “improvement” and “cure” in Mansfield Park; and what all of Austen’s novels are about: forming minds.

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Laurel Ann Nattress, Elaine Bander, Maggie Arnold, and Hugh Kindred.

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