Alice in Wonderland, books, endings, Fiction, James Wood, Jane Austen, Jane Austen's juvenilia, literature, Mansfield Park, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, Ryder Kessler, The Sopranos, William Empson
Ryder Kessler is a Ph.D. student in English Literature at Columbia University, where he focuses on British and American novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with particular attention to George Eliot, George Gissing, and Edith Wharton. He tells me his graduate work – including a master’s thesis on The House of Mirth – “explores the interplay between character choice and chance events in the plots of realist and naturalist fiction.”
I met Ryder ten years ago, when he was a freshman at Harvard University and he took the writing class I taught called “Jane Austen and Civil Society.” He tells me his “scholarly love affair with Jane Austen, and discomfort with the ending of Mansfield Park,” began in that class. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, with a secondary field in English.
Ryder is currently on leave from Columbia as CEO of the tech startup DipJar, which makes tip jars and donation boxes for credit cards. DipJar, he says, “is interested in solving problems that have arisen as we’ve shifted from carrying cash to plastic: employees lose out on the tips that help supplement their hourly wage and charities miss out on donations. That’s where DipJar comes in, offering customers one-step collection and seamless disbursement of credit card gratuities.”
It was a pleasure to discuss Mansfield Park with Ryder a decade ago, and it’s a pleasure to introduce his post on the ending of the novel today.
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.
— From Mansfield Park, Chapter 48 (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2001)
What does Fanny Price look like? Do we know, and does it matter? In my mind she’s always been blonde, as petite as she is shy, awkward as Alice (if Alice had been raised in a convent and dressed by the mother superior) shrinking before a rather Mrs. Norris-like Queen of Hearts. But, as far as I remember, Austen doesn’t tell us exactly what to see.
Perhaps our mental pictures are more fleshed out in the earlier novels. Do you remember when Mr. Darcy first appears in Pride & Prejudice? Of course: the gilded ballroom doors fly open, and here he comes — one of a dapper and haughty entourage, his dark eyes, dark hair, and square jaw setting him apart from the crowd.
Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report, which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley….
— From Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 3 (New York: Longman, 2003)
Wait — maybe the picture isn’t so crystalline after all: Austen’s adjectives can be described as nothing other than vague. Bingley and Darcy are “good looking,” “gentlemanlike,” “pleasant,” “easy,” “unaffected,” “fine,” “tall,” “handsome,” “noble,” “fine,” and one is “handsomer” than the other. Tall is perhaps the only objective descriptor (applied earlier to Lydia and later to Miss Darcy), but height is relative; tall, too, is in the beholder’s eye. (I’d also argue that these scant instances of more objective description are those that work least. I never remember Lydia as taller than her sisters — her smallness of character suggests a smallness of person, while Jane stands out in the mind’s eye as tall and swanlike. But whether anyone else shares my mental images is unimportant: what matters is the richness of each reader’s minimally assisted mental picturing of the novel’s people and places.)
Reading Darcy’s entrance from a twenty-first-century vantage point, one might think of the first lesson now taught in creative composition classes: “Show, don’t tell” — and then of Austen’s stark but successful divergence from that now-cardinal rule. Don’t call a man handsome, an MFA professor might say, when you can identify his aquiline nose, square jaw, and penetrating ice-blue eyes. Don’t call a man a gentleman when you can bring into view the neatness of the part in his curly dark hair and the freshness of the white rose in his perfectly tailored jacket’s lapel.
Austen does not exactly “tell”: she shows, in vague strokes, the men “pronouncing” and the ladies “declaring” their unspecific impressions of the objects in their sight. Contrary to what we might assume, though, this vague description doesn’t preclude a detailed mental image from coming into view — in fact, it may even be the key to promoting the reader’s subjective painting of a personal image of the places and people brought into the text’s frame.
My experience of vividly picturing Mr. Darcy is echoed by Philip Hensher in a review of Claire Harman’s book Jane’s Fame:
What does Mr. Darcy look like? Anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice will be able to give an answer. I believe that he is tall, squarejawed, beetle-browed, slightly weather-beaten and dark-haired…. [O]n returning to the novel, we find a strange thing. The one feature in that list which I would have thought beyond dispute is that he has dark hair. … [But] Austen very rarely gives anything approaching a personal description of a character, and loses almost nothing by her decorous omission. Darcy might perfectly well be ginger; and yet not one reader in ten thousand by now believes him to be anything but black-haired (“Now universally acknowledged,” The Spectator, 4 April 2009).
We’re told very little, but we see very much. Hensher calls Darcy’s dark hair one of many “accretions” that the Austen canon has received over the two hundred years since the novels’ appearance, and he identifies Darcy’s dark hair as a shared — not a subjective — reality in readers’ experience of the text.
Indeed, one could claim that we have rich mental pictures of Pride and Prejudice only from seeing it so often on film. For me, though, this explanation cannot suffice: I’ve never watched the encyclopedic BBC adaptation with the shirtless Colin Firth, and I have only the faintest recollections of the liberally interpreted Keira Knightley film. Darcy’s dark hair (and his square jaw) are impressions that predate any exterior visual experience of the story, like my certainty of Jane Fairfax’s red hair and green eyes, and of the resemblance between Fanny Price and a more austere and retiring version of Alice — or, perhaps more accurately, of the little blonde girl in Velazquez’s Las Meninas.
In contemporary realism, a specific detail that rings true in the mind’s ear and eye — a detail that has what James Wood might call “thisness” — reifies the reality of the moment on the page and, metonymically, establishes the metaphysical grounded-ness of the person and scene it describes (How Fiction Works [New York: Picador, 2008]). “By thisness,” Wood says, “I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion.” He includes a long list of examples from authors from Pushkin to Beatrix Potter to Flaubert: “By thisness, I mean the moment when Emma Bovary fondles the satin slippers she danced in weeks before at the great ball at La Vaubyessard, ‘the soles of which were yellowed with the wax from the dance floor.’” But Austen eschews thisness for a descriptive vagueness that embraces the imaginative possibilities of ambiguity. (Wood says about Austen that she “gives us none of the visual furniture we find in Balzac or Joyce, and hardly ever stops to describe even a character’s face. Clothes, climates, interiors, all are elegantly compressed and thinned,” but he does not delve into how this “compression” and “thinning” also works.)
In Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), William Empson elucidates “vagueness” by pointing us to texts that draw attention to unseen subtextual meanings by their lack of clear textual meanings. Quoting Max Beerbohm: “Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Do not suppose that she was anything so commonplace; do not suppose that you can easily imagine what she was like, or that she was not, probably, the rather out-of-the-way type that you particularly admire.” This is an ambiguity of the sixth type, “when a statement says nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant statements; so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own….” The description tells us nothing except what is not there — we must fill in the content. Or, as Empson says: “it is not obvious what we are meant to believe at the end of it. But it cannot be said to represent a conflict in the author’s mind…” (New York: New Directions, 1966).
We see this type of ambiguity in Austen’s childhood novel Jack & Alice, in the description of Lady Williams: “Tho’ Benevolent & Candid, she was Generous & sincere; Tho’ Pious & Good, she was Religious & amiable, & Tho’ Elegant & Agreable, she was Polished & Entertaining” (www.pemberley.com). These antitheses tell us little as they close off the space in which Lady Williams can exist — instead, they open up a deeper space in which we must go find her. The technique appears earlier in English prose. In John Lyly’s Euphues and his England, Philautus spots the perfect woman, described in a long list of antitheses, ending “And more easy it is in the description of so rare a personage to imagine what she had not, than to repeat all she had.” (Euphues and his England  in S. L. Edwards, ed., An Anthology of English Prose [London: Cambridge University Press, 1953]). The space left open by vagueness requires readerly work to be filled in.
Shifting imaginative work onto the readerly plane not only serves to engage, but it also strengthens Jane Austen’s greatest writerly accomplishment: free indirect discourse. Our consciousness is joined with the characters’ as we are spurred to co-create the visual world through their eyes. By extension, then, our imagination models the interpretation we must do as readers — like the interpretative work the characters are doing in examining the world around them and themselves. Is Mr. Darcy essentially good? Is Henry Crawford reformed? Is Edmund worth waiting for? We, like Austen’s heroines, have limited information — the world is thick with moral vagueness — and we must fill in the picture from the little information we can get.
But what happens when Jane Austen’s narrator fails to provide basic descriptive information that has moral — and not just sensory — content?
I cannot think of an instance other than Austen’s “purposeful abstention” at the conclusion of Mansfield Park in which the strategy of vagueness is acknowledged in the text itself — in which the narrator invokes the power of vagueness as a mode for shifting imaginative and interpretative work from the text to the reader. Let us revisit it:
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire. (Chapter 48)
This is a clear repudiation of responsibility through the withholding of fact: the narrator does not give us event or speech and then leave it to us to mine moral meaning — such as when we see Fanny’s conversations with Mary Crawford, or letters from Henry, or chats between Fanny and her uncle or between Fanny and Edmund.
This is not vague description after all: it is a renunciation of fact altogether. Remember the ending of “The Sopranos” that so angered viewers — a sudden cut to black? Similarly, Mansfield Park leaves us not with information we must interpret, but with no information at all.
Why? Because fact, here, would undermine the union Austen has secured for her heroine. “[It] is not obvious what we are meant to believe at the end of it. But it cannot be said to represent a conflict in the author’s mind”: Austen, I think, is unconflicted about joining Edmund and Fanny at the novel’s close. But is this marriage mere weeks later? Months? Years? A short period might read as too little time for those who question the end of Edmund’s caprice; a long gap might be too much for those who question the certainty of his commitment.
And this doubt stands in for broader doubt about the morality of their union, shifted, as they have, from sibling-like cousins to lovers. The details cannot be named: if named, they would be fixed. And if fixed, they would force the reader from the ambiguity of the unnamed to confrontation with events that, like a weak-chinned Mr. Darcy, very well might fail to ring true.
In Austen’s other novels, marriage happens only after epiphany. Elizabeth and Emma realize that until this day they never knew themselves; then, with this new self-awareness and interpretative ability, they see the men they love. But Fanny does not change, and Edmund never leaves behind his changeability. This, I think, is why I’ve always felt that Mansfield Park ends in a rather minor key, without the convincing cadence of the other novels. And it is a difference exemplified by Austen’s uncharacteristic withholding of basic information — not vagueness, but refusal.
Fanny’s great triumph is her steadfast virtue, but its steadfastness crowds out room for growth. If Austen’s narrator did not abstain from providing the fact of when the main couple’s union takes place — mirroring, in her abstinence, the chastity of her main character — she would, in Wood’s words, “center our attention with its concretion.” And, for Mansfield Park, this concretion would be weight around the feet of an ending that the novel wishes would soar.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: the last post, on the last two paragraphs of the novel, by Sheila Johnson Kindred.