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

Sarah Woodberry is a writer and editor who has contributed to various print and online publications, including Reuters, SKI Magazine, and More Intelligent Life. She tells me that it wasn’t until about the third time she read Mansfield Park that she really began to appreciate the novel’s complexity. When she’s not rereading Jane Austen’s novels, she enjoys reading essays about them and browsing Janeite blogs. She says she “credits the lively online community of Janeites as providing some comfort against the hard reality of the finite number of words written by Austen herself.” I agree, and I suspect many of you will, too. Today she’s contributing to that ongoing conversation with this post on the challenge of being civil in Mansfield Park. Sarah lives in Connecticut. You can find her blogging about reading and writing at WordHits, and you can also connect with her on Twitter @WordHits.

The art of civility

“I am worn out with civility,” said [Edmund]. “I have been talking incessantly all night, and with nothing to say. But with you, Fanny, there may be peace. You will not want to be talked to. Let us have the luxury of silence.” Fanny would hardly even speak her agreement. A weariness, arising probably, in great measure, from the same feelings which he had acknowledged in the morning, was peculiarly to be respected, and they went down their two dances together with such sober tranquillity as might satisfy any looker-on that Sir Thomas had been bringing up no wife for his younger son.

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 28 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003)

One of the great pleasures of reading Jane Austen is that while you are lured along by her refined and carefully measured prose, suddenly off the page jumps one of her distinctive zingers: “I am worn out with civility,” says Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park.

So often when reading Austen’s novels, I catch myself laughing out with surprise. Her vibrant, teasing social commentary still rings true after 200 years. Who hasn’t felt a touch of misanthropic fatigue after a long night of socializing and small talk?

Civility, or the lack of it, is a recurring theme in Austen’s works. She plays with it to challenge and define her characters, fine-tuning a Goldilocks scale of decorum. On one end, haughty and unfriendly behavior is the mark of villainous characters. Mrs. Norris, who torments Fanny in Mansfield Park, leads a cast of colorful Austen adversaries, which includes the Bingley sisters, Elizabeth Elliot, “Mrs. E,” and Fanny Dashwood—who is never to be confused with Fanny Price. Pre-transformation Darcy is a noted exception to this rule, as is perhaps the crotchety Mr. Palmer. At the other extreme, characters who are overly keen with their friendship and “happy manners” also turn out to be somewhat scheming and nefarious: Lucy Steele, Frank Churchill, Mr. William Elliot, the infamous George Wickham, and of course Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.

Jane Austen’s heroines, however, exhibit just the right amount of “artless” civility, in that they are decorous and friendly with no ulterior motive other than to act properly. Although Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse each stumble with immaturity and a touch of thoughtlessness, none of Austen’s heroines is deliberately rude or unkind. Furthermore, they consistently—and rather impressively—resist the urge to retaliate when provoked by incivility. When Austen does allow one heroine to fire off a jab—Emma’s unfortunate ridiculing of Miss Bates—Emma regrets it fervently. This incident and its repercussions become a pivotal plot point. Certainly, Jane Austen did not approve of mean girls … or mean boys, ahem, Mr. Elton.

Although Austen does not allow her heroines to issue severe retorts, as narrator she often pokes fun at characters for them. Here in Mansfield Park, she is taking aim at Edmund. He complains, boasts almost, that he is “worn out with civility,” while at the same time he treats poor Fanny in a very off-handed manner. He’s so myopically distracted by Mary Crawford that he does not even notice how difficult this coming-out ball is for introverted Fanny, who also shrinks from “the toils of civility.” To boot, Fanny’s being stalked by the rakish Henry Crawford, and her heart aches because her dear brother William will be leaving in the morning, perhaps for years. Instead of concerning himself with Fanny’s troubles or comporting himself with the same manners he offers mere acquaintances, Edmund demands “silence” from her.

The first time I read this, all I could think was, “sad, unrequited Fanny.” Despite the lack of “tender gallantry” from Edmund, “her happiness sprung from being the friend with whom [he] could find repose.” I thought her as delusional as Caroline Bingley. In a moment of literary bewilderment, I was actually rooting for Henry Crawford. After all, he was so solicitous of Fanny when Edmund was not. But this being Austen, things are not what they seem. (You might think I would have learned from Wickham and Willoughby!)

Fanny and Mr. Crawford

“Conducted by Mr. Crawford to the top of the room.” Illustration by C.E. Brock.

What I mistook as Fanny’s desperation is actually a sign from Austen that these two are perfectly suited. Edmund’s distress arises from Mary Crawford’s cruel, and repeated, belittling of his chosen vocation as a clergyman. He’s drawn to Mary but conflicted by a growing realization that she is not for him. “It was not her gaiety that could do him good: it rather sank than raised his comfort.” One can only imagine that if Austen had paired them off, Edmund would likely have retreated to his library for good like Mr. Bennet. Unlike the social-climbing Crawford siblings, Edmund and Fanny both seek a quieter path.

Still, I’ve always found it interesting that Austen gives this “worn out with civility” line to Edmund, in a moment of benign insensitivity. It would’ve had more brio (à la Lady Catherine de Bourgh) had it been delivered by the cruel Mrs. Norris or the callous Bertram sisters. Perhaps this is Austen’s way of indicting Edmund for standing by and letting his family treat Fanny so abominably for so long? Indeed, Fanny endures years of demeaning treatment from the Bertrams, and as a result, she is generally slighted by all her acquaintance.

But what makes the incivility so grueling in Mansfield Park, compared to other Austen novels, is that Fanny has no support system. Lizzie Bennet can confide in Jane, and, at a particularly low moment, her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner whisk her off to tour the countryside. Likewise, the Dashwood sisters have each other and their caring mother. Anne Elliot, though dismissed by her father and sister, has Lady Russell, Mrs. Smith, and the good opinion of her neighbors. Finally, Emma has her entourage. But Fanny is alone—a sort of Cinderella step-child, who for solace retreats to the abandoned attic schoolroom with its unlit fireplace. Nevertheless, Fanny’s good and gracious nature prevents her from growing bitter towards the Bertrams, or anyone. Instead, Fanny serves as a paragon of forbearance and civility. As such, she proves herself far superior to her cousins Maria and Julia Bertram despite the deliberate effort made to raise Fanny as their subordinate—another delicious Austen irony. Ultimately, Fanny comes to love and to bring out the good in the Bertrams.

While all turns right and perfectly happy for her, and for Edmund who sees the light, going through all this with Fanny quite puts one through the wringer. Indeed, Mansfield Park is best read with a restorative cup of tea in hand. Each time I close the book I cannot help but say, on Fanny’s behalf, “I am worn out with civility!”

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by John Baxter, Sharon Hamilton, and Sara Malton.

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