books, clergy, Edmund Bertram, Fanny Price, Fiction, Jane Austen, literature, Maggie Arnold, Mansfield Park, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, religion, religious vocation
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
But 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?
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 Sarah Woodberry.
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Carol Settlage said:
How delightful that you, Sarah and your friend Rev. Dr. Maggie read Jane Austen together in high school and have remained friends and shared this interest!
I enjoyed Dr. Arnold’s discussion about the vocation of a minister’s wife, and agree that Fanny would be an ideal one, and in today’s world probably would have gone on to become a clergy herself! How do you analyze Mrs. Grant? She was a kind and decent person, but there doesn’t seem to be much indication that she participated in the spiritual or humanitarian needs of the community, does there? But then she was probably better than Aunt Norris’s officious participation?! 🙂 It’s hard to even think of her as a Clergyman’s wife!
Sarah Emsley said:
Thanks, Carol! Yes, Maggie and I often talk about Austen. Maybe someday I’ll be able to persuade her to join JASNA…. Good question about Mrs. Grant. I’ll look forward to hearing Maggie’s thoughts on the contrasts between Fanny and Mrs. Grant, and then between Fanny and Mrs. Norris.
Maggie Arnold said:
Mrs. Grant is portrayed as kind and personable within her family, though it would seem that she lacks Fanny’s principled judgment, a quality that might have made her a better counsellor for her husband (in moderating his diet) and for Mary and Henry. Though Mrs. Norris has some qualities that might be useful in a pastor’s household and parish life, such as energy and economy, she is also not guided by principle, but by sentiment and selfish pride. Fanny would likely make a less busy parish visitor that Mrs. Norris, given what we are told about Fanny’s not-too-robust constitution, but clearly she would have been a more welcome one!
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Very interesting analysis of Fanny’s own vocation. The idea of a vicar and wife involved in the community and leading by example is quite appealing.
Now there’s the rub. St Paul warns us: “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” And the Bertrams behave most uncharitable towards Maria. Edmund himself thinks MC’s disapproval of the adulterous affair is not strong enough: “no harsher name than folly given!” Fanny agrees, adding charges to Mary’s indictment: “Cruel! … quite cruel. At such a moment to give way to gaiety, to speak with lightness, and to you! Absolute cruelty.” They must think themselves quite free of sin to cast stones like that. Maria is not allowed to return home – where is Christian forgiveness? Even hateful Mrs Norris shows more compassion. I know MC might not be seen as an ideal wife for a clergyman, but at least she comes up with a plan for the couple eventually to rejoin the community.
Fanny and Edmund share the same values and attitudes, so it would seem they’re well suited to each other. But what about being sent to save “sinners”? Edmund’s assessment suggests things could have turned out differently: “No, hers [MC’s] is not a cruel nature. I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper: in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings; in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did. She was speaking only as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined everybody else would speak. Hers are not faults of temper. She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to any one, and though I may deceive myself, I cannot but think that for me, for my feelings, she would–Hers are faults of principle, Fanny; of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind.” So, she’s not really bad, it’s only “the effect of education,” as Fanny puts it. Why not try to “reform” her then?. I know, now, because of what’s happened, Edmund cannot marry her. Social rules, of course, but it doesn’t sound so very Christian.
And finally, there’s the issue of slavery, which we’ve already discussed at length, but I really can’t pretend it’s not there. Fanny raises the question, and would appear to be against it. We’re told Antigua was not as terrible as other places, but the fact remains they all profited from slave work. We are privy to Fanny’s thoughts and conscience pangs about private theatricals, surely we would have been told if she’d been more concerned about the condition of plantation labourers. I know most wealthy families were connected in one way or another with slavery at the time, but again, not very Christian …
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Maggie Arnold said:
It’s certainly evident that Fanny and Edmund are focused on ministering to the parish by good example, orthodox teaching, and charity at the local level. Missionary vocations overseas or to the poor within Britain began to emerge about a generation after Austen (though one can think of a few contemporary examples, such as William Wilberforce), and became an enormous part of how Victorian Christians saw themselves, in movements such as F. D. Maurice’s Christian Socialism, the Salvation Army, Abolitionism, the Temperance Movement, etc. Mrs. Norris would have had much greater scope for her officious efforts, had she lived to become a Mrs. Jellyby from Bleak House. But in the second decade of the nineteenth century, I think that these groups and institutions were not yet well-developed or well-known enough for satire, though Mary Crawford hints at it when she labels the shocked Edmund a “Methodist”!
The treatment of Maria does not involve any attempt at her redemption, on either the characters’ or the author’s part. The concern to isolate her stems from the risk of her bad example to others in the neighborhood or even in the family, after the unmarried Susan comes to live with them. The dangerous power of others’ persuasion and influence in forming a weak or undisciplined character seems to be a strong theme of the novel, as with Edmund’s conclusions about Mary Crawford’s having been spoilt by the world. Less confidence is shown about good influence working in the opposite direction, except in the case of Fanny’s positive response to Edmund’s solicitude during her youth.
The modern reader is left to ponder Mary Crawford’s idea for reintegrating Maria and Henry. On the one hand, it does sound more humane to let them return to society. On the other hand, her only real plan to save them is based on what wealth and status could have accomplished. Poor and working-class women in similar situations would have faced complete ruin. In the last chapter, Austen hints at her hope for a more equal treatment of male and female actors in sexual scandals; the justice she metes out in the novel at least does not allow the purchase of easier circumstances for a prosperous few.
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I appreciate your taking the trouble to read and reply to my comment. Things make certainly more sense when considered from a historical perspective and both your post and your reply are fascinating in this respect.
I see MP more and more as a rural bulwark against the evil influence of “great cities,” where people take refuge from the world and will rather marry their cousins than be corrupted by outside forces. Better to remain diffidently isolated and preach to the choir than risk contamination through contact with different ideas and lifestyles.
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Arnie Perlstein said:
What do you think about Jane Austen using her novels as a form of ministry to the needs of women of all kinds (unmarried & married, young & old, pregnant & sterile, high-status & low-status) who’ve gotten the shaft in that extremely patriarchal society?
And I also read Mary Crawford as a covert minister in that same vein, with a flock of one–Fanny. I am convinced that if not for Mary’s subtle teaching by modeling, Fanny would not have been able to summon the will to defy Sir Thomas.
Maggie Arnold said:
The idea of the novels themselves as a form of ministry to women is interesting. There is certainly advice given for conducting one’s self well in a variety of difficult circumstances, and analyses of character and virtue. The supplying of satisfying endings might even be seen as a form of consolation and encouragement.
I find the identification of Mary Crawford as a covert minister to be less convincing. She does try to persuade Fanny into seeing things as she does, but her motives are entirely self-centered. Fanny resists Mary’s desires, too, in resisting Sir Thomas on the question of marriage to Henry. Finally, Mary is presented as a model of willfulness, not strength; Fanny’s principled stance comes from a quite different source.
Sharon T said:
despite Mary’s selfishness, I find it commendable that she noticed how badly the family neglected Fanny and spoke up for more equal treatment of her. That was even early in the story before it seemed in her interest to do so.
Arnie Perlstein said:
Exactly so, Sharon!
Arnie Perlstein said:
“The idea of the novels themselves as a form of ministry to women is interesting. There is certainly advice given for conducting one’s self well in a variety of difficult circumstances, and analyses of character and virtue. The supplying of satisfying endings might even be seen as a form of consolation and encouragement.”
I have a very different idea than yours about Jane Austen’s literary ministry. I take my cue from the following remarkably Zen Buddhist comment by Elizabeth Bennet: “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”
So it’s not the explicit advice and analyses of character (which are almost all from Fanny’s highly subjective point of view) where Jane Austen’s ministry will be found, but in the subversively feminist “not-teaching”–and that is why I see Mary Crawford as an alter ego for Jane Austen the AUTHOR—she teaches what is worth knowing by the back door.
Thank you for a great post reminding us of the importance of the clergy in Jane Austen’s time and novels. I love the idea of Fanny succeeding to the living at Mansfield Park and have no doubt that she could deal with the latter day Bertrams and Crawfords. “Timid, anxious, doubting as she was…” (ch. 48) Fanny has come to know her own mind and learned to act as she must.
In this passage Sir Thomas has a clear vision of his son’s role in the clergy. Too bad he lacks such a clear vision of his daughter Maria’s role in marriage. Sir Thomas was “happy to secure a marriage which would bring him such an addition of respectability and influence…” (ch 21) even though it would ultimately lead to Maria’s downfall. However, by the end of the novel even he has come to appreciate Fanny’s worth as a clergyman’s wife. “Sick of ambitious and mercenary connexions, prizing more and more the sterling good of principle and temper, and chiefly anxious to bind by the strongest securities all that remained to him of domestic felicity, he had pondered with genuine satisfaction on the more than possibility of the two young friends finding their natural consolation in each other for all that had occurred of disappointment to either…” (ch 48). In the end good character is recognized and wins out.
Maggie Arnold said:
Thank you! Sir Thomas’s ability to recognize Fanny’s worth is so important to the resolution of the novel and the reassertion of justice.
I had forgotten how wonderful a Christian wife Fanny turns out to be. I’ve been rereading Mansfield Park, and now I’ll keep that in mind! Especially now that I’m a Pastor’s wife and housewife like her.
Maggie Arnold said:
Fanny is such a great model in her care for her family and in her deeply sincere and thoughtful conversation. She is inspiring!
Sharon T said:
Yes, she even cared about her Aunt Norris’s feelings even though she knew Aunt N did not deserve it! Amazing.
At this juncture of the story, Mary Crawford’s unholy and insensitive remarks against Edmund’s desire to take orders raised red flags for me. From that point on, I realized Mary and Edmund would never be destined for each other and all I could see was “villain” pasted all over her intentions from there on out. From almost the beginning Fanny became my “heroine of all Jane Austen heroines.” One can only imagine what a loyal, compassionate, and godly helpmate she would make for Edmund’s work in the church. Many critics have labeled Fanny as “insipid” but I’ll take on all comers regarding that. Her faithfulness and depth of feeling are astonishing.
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