Twenty-second in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.
Hugh Kindred is Emeritus Professor of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with special interests in international and maritime law. He has also conducted research on the naval career of Captain Charles Austen in Canada, Bermuda, and the United Kingdom. He’s a regular participant in JASNA Nova Scotia Regional meetings and he frequently attends the Jane Austen Society (UK) annual meetings at Chawton House and meetings of the JAS Kent Branch.
When our JASNA Nova Scotia group meets each December to celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday, it is Hugh who regularly proposes an eloquent birthday toast, which is always accompanied by a brief reading from Austen’s novels or letters. At the 2012 JASNA AGM in New York, Hugh and his wife Sheila Johnson Kindred presented a fascinating breakout session on “Naval Prize, Power, and Passion in Persuasion.” Today, it’s my pleasure to introduce his guest post on the character of William Price.
William had obtained a ten days’ leave of absence to be given to Northamptonshire, and was coming, the happiest of lieutenants, because the latest made, to shew his happiness and describe his uniform.
He came; and he would have been delighted to shew his uniform there too, had not cruel custom prohibited its appearance except on duty. So the uniform remained at Portsmouth, and Edmund conjectured that before Fanny had any chance of seeing it, all its own freshness and all the freshness of its wearer’s feelings, must be worn away. It would be sunk into a badge of disgrace; for what can be more unbecoming, or more worthless, than the uniform of a lieutenant, who has been a lieutenant a year or two, and sees others made commanders before him? So reasoned Edmund, till his father made him the confidant of a scheme … .
This scheme was that [Fanny] should accompany her brother back to Portsmouth, and spend a little time with her own family. … Edmund considered it every way, and saw nothing but what was right … [and] good in itself … . This was enough to determine Sir Thomas; … [yet] his prime motive in sending her away, had very little to do with the propriety of her seeing her parents again, and nothing at all with any idea of making her happy. He certainly wished her to go willingly, but he as certainly wished her to be heartily sick of home before her visit ended; and that a little abstinence from the elegancies and luxuries of Mansfield Park would bring her mind into a sober state, and incline her to a juster estimate of the value of that home of greater permanence, and equal comfort, of which she had the offer.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 25 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988)
William Price is only a minor character in Mansfield Park, yet he is a significant one. Of the several places that he crops up in the novel, I have chosen this passage because it points to the most obvious of several ways to think about his role in Jane Austen’s creation. Why Austen formed him as she did is all speculation, of course, but Austen wrote with such care, finesse and deliberation that, even as I wonder at her prose, I constantly find myself wondering about the larger implications which lie beneath the surface of her stories.
So how should we read the character of William Price in Mansfield Park? First and foremost, he is a useful creation to advance the novel’s plot. Sir Thomas, in presenting his scheme in the passage above, rightly anticipates that Fanny will jump at the chance to travel with William to Portsmouth to see him dressed as a freshly minted lieutenant and to see him off to sea as an officer on HMS Thrush. Perhaps William’s part is not absolutely necessary, for Fanny might well have seized the opportunity to visit her family and her old home whether William was present or absent. But William’s presence makes Sir Thomas’ offer to Fanny that much more certain of acceptance as well as capable of execution. The latter consideration would have been important because Fanny could not have travelled to London and thence to Portsmouth except in the company of a suitable male, which William’s presence supplies.
It is made clear, of course, pace Edmund’s innocent approval, that Sir Thomas’ generosity is not altruistic. He wants Fanny to experience what he correctly supposes will be the relative misery of her family home in comparison with the civility and well-being of her adopted home at Mansfield Park and thus to appreciate fully the opportunity before her of attaining her own home of equal comfort by reversing her obstinate rejection of Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage. He wants her, in short, to make this visit in order to come to her senses, as he projects them. William is the very convenient yet unknowing agent of this scheme.
It is not clear whether Sir Thomas has anything to do with Henry Crawford’s subsequent arrival in Portsmouth to importune Fanny. His “dignified musings” are not said to have included any intention of reporting Fanny’s presence in Portsmouth to Crawford, who, in any case, could readily have been informed by others at Mansfield Park. Absent any evidence, Sir Thomas cannot be accused of the further infamy of deliberately putting Fanny in the way of Crawford in even more traumatic circumstances for her than at Mansfield Park. In this passage Sir Thomas appears controlling but well-meaning, by his lights, and not callous. And, though the scheme does not work out as Sir Thomas, at the time, desired, it serves Jane Austen very well to move her story forward.
A second way to consider how William Price appears in the novel involves the personal attributes that Austen ascribes to him. Compared to all the “gentlemen” at Mansfield Park, who are all tarnished products to varying degrees, though they are supposed by their breeding to know and do better, William Price is the only unblemished male. He is young and so has had less time than the others to learn or practise errant ways, but I also suggest that the personality and character given to him by Austen might be regarded as a standard of the ideal male in development, against which we readers may compare all the rest of them.
The novel’s narrator appears to imply approvingly that William Price is a young man who is going about life the right way to make something of himself, despite his lowly starting place, and doing it with a cheerful spirit and an open heart. Jane Austen seems to suggest there is virtue in hard work and endurance in the face of difficulties and hardship, for which there should be recognition and reward by society as readily as their attainment by idle inheritance. At the same time, she intimates that work and struggle are not by themselves sufficient without opportunity for education and refinement of mind and conduct, of the kind that Mansfield Park can offer.
There is ambivalence in these sentiments. The real world when Jane Austen was writing Mansfield Park was changing very rapidly, as she knew. The slave trade had been outlawed in England and the returns from slave based sugar plantations in the Americas, which were sources of sustenance for estates like Mansfield Park, were beginning to decline. (See the seventeenth post in this series, by Deborah Barnum – “Jane Austen’s ‘dead silence,’ or, How Guilty is Sir Thomas Bertram?” – and the ensuing online discussion.) The Napoleonic wars by sea and by land threatened the whole population and imposed an enormous economic and social burden on the country. A new cash-based economy centred on the cities and towns was challenging the ancient rural values of landed estates and family settlements. In this larger context, William Price may, perhaps, be viewed as the hopeful new man for the new conditions, even as Jane Austen approves the civility of the passing era of Mansfield Park.
But will William Price succeed, as he deserves to? Here is a possible third consideration in thinking about Austen’s construction of this character. Being an efficient and effective midshipman or an outstanding leader as a lieutenant, and thus deserving to be “made up” to higher rank and income, may not have been enough for advancement. Promotion depended partly and inevitably on the varying national need for warships and officers, which was diminished after Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and British ascendancy over the seas was assured. It was also significantly influenced by a system of patronage, which was jealously controlled and applied by the upper classes. Jane Austen knew all about this system too, as she lets her characters tell us most directly.
First, Midshipman Price himself speaks despondently of ever becoming a Lieutenant: “I begin to think I shall never be a lieutenant, Fanny. Everybody gets made but me” (Chapter 25). William does become a lieutenant, to his great satisfaction and the delight and pride of Fanny, but only through the intervention of Henry Crawford. Hoping to advance himself in Fanny’s affections, Crawford applies to his uncle, who happens to be an Admiral, and persuades him to exercise his influence within the Admiralty. William benefits from this act of patronage by being appointed second lieutenant on HMS Thrush.
Will Lieutenant Price rise further? Certainly not at the bidding of Crawford: his intervention was a once-only act of patronage out of his own selfish objectives, not a deed of generosity for the advancement of a young man of whom he cared or approved. Edmund shows that he understands the situation when he makes the second despondent comment about William’s future. In the second paragraph quoted at the head of this post, Edmund foretells that William’s prized new uniform as a lieutenant will, in a year or two, become a “badge of disgrace” as he sees others promoted to commanders before him.
Jane Austen clearly understood the chequered chances for advancement of a naval career by an aspiring and estimable candidate who was but a poor cousin of the upper class. But is she accepting of the part played by patronage or is she espousing the claims of merit in the way she presents the character of William Price in Mansfield Park? It is intriguing to think about William Price as the new man of the age who should rise more by ability than entitlement. We will never know whether Jane Austen had any such views in mind, and we are at liberty to read the character of William Price as we wish. But Jane Austen does give a possible hint of her opinions on the last page of the novel in making note, in passing, of “William’s continued good conduct, and rising fame” (Chapter 48).
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