Happy holidays, everyone, and thank you very much for celebrating Mansfield Park with me this year!
It’s a great pleasure to give the last word in this series to Sheila Johnson Kindred, my friend and frequent collaborator on Austen-related projects, and my fellow co-chair of the Programs Committee for JASNA Nova Scotia. Sheila and I meet regularly for tea to discuss our research and writing and our plans for upcoming JASNA meetings. This past year, we focused on our breakout session for the 2014 JASNA AGM, “Among the Proto-Janeites: Reading Mansfield Park for Consolation in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1815.” I’m pleased to report that we had a wonderful time presenting the paper in Montreal and discussing the story of Lady Sherbrooke and Mary Wodehouse with our audience – many thanks to everyone who attended! – and that the paper has just been published in Persuasions On-Line. Read about why we think Hilary Mantel is wrong to say that “No one who read it closely was ever comforted by an Austen novel” – you can find our essay at this link.
There are so many good things to read in this new issue of Persuasions On-Line, including essays by Theresa Kenney, Kathryn Davis, and Elaine Bander, all of whom contributed to “An Invitation to Mansfield Park,” and the 2013 Jane Austen Bibliography by Deborah Barnum, who was also a contributor.
For many years, Sheila Kindred taught in the Philosophy Department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. She has done extensive original research about the life of Jane Austen’s naval brother Captain Charles Austen and his associations with his sister’s novels, and she has presented her research at JASNA AGMs in Quebec City, Philadelphia, and New York. She was invited to speak at two Jane Austen Society (UK) conferences, in Halifax in 2005, and in Bermuda in 2010. Her work has been published in Persuasions and The Jane Austen Report, and in the collection of essays I edited for the Jane Austen Society following their 2005 Halifax conference, Jane Austen and the North Atlantic.
What begins must eventually end and it is now time for the “last post.” Sarah’s “Invitation to Mansfield Park” has sparked a wonderful set of blog posts and an ongoing debate. Thank you, Sarah, for making all this possible. There has been much enjoyment and much food for thought. I consider it a pleasure and a challenge to have a last word on Jane Austen’s last words in Mansfield Park. Here are her two concluding paragraphs:
With so much merit and true love, and no want of fortune or friends, the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be. – Equally formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort; and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living by the death of Dr. Grant occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase in income, and to feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience.
On that event, they removed to Mansfield, and the parsonage there, which under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as every thing else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been.
– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 48 (London: Penguin, 1985)
Jane Austen begins her final chapter with the words “let others dwell on guilt and misery.” She wishes instead to “restore everybody not greatly at fault to tolerable comfort.” She clearly signals the novel is about to culminate in a happy ending. In fact, Austen gives us a double deal. The final two paragraphs present two equally happy endings but from different perspectives. Or do they? In considering the double endings of the novel, I also want to address their intent and impact.
In the first paragraph, Jane Austen invites us to track selected events in Fanny’s very happy marriage to Edmund. The tone of the narrative voice is warm and approving; their reward is to enjoy more than “tolerable comfort.” We are told that their “home [at Thornton Lacey] was a home of comfort and affection.” (Notice that Austen repeats, for emphasis, the important idea that this place is a home.) Then “the picture of good” is completed when the Mansfield parsonage suddenly becomes available on the death of Dr. Grant. We learn just enough to sustain an ongoing interest in the course and chronology of Fanny and Edmund’s married life. It is evident that they will be more financially secure (it has been estimated that the two livings of Thornton Lacey and Mansfield could be worth as much as £1500 annually). This fact, together with their wish to be closer to the “paternal abode,” prompts speculation about why these changes in circumstances are so welcome. It seems as if Fanny may be pregnant, if not already the mother of young children, a state of affairs which would surely add to their married happiness.
In this concise description of Fanny and Edmund’s current situation, there is the suggestion of a natural, even organic progression of events. The parsonage conveniently became available “just after” they had reason to desire it for themselves. This ordering of occurrences underlines the conviction that it is right that Fanny and Edmund are to become the meritorious custodians of the parsonage and that Fanny will be influential in the moral, social, and cultural sphere of the Mansfield estate.
Here is a natural happy ending for the novel. But it does not conclude here for Jane Austen adds a further tantalizing paragraph. Note how the narrative voice changes. This last paragraph continues the factual account of the previous one, but it moves away from a description of where and when Fanny and Edmund will be making their home. Rather, it records Fanny’s own greatly altered attitude to the parsonage. As in much of the novel, Fanny’s inner life is brought sharply into focus. We are reminded of her former negative thoughts and intense feelings about the parsonage owing to those who had previously lived there, feelings which are now replaced by positive emotions, terms of endearment and the language of superlatives. To the extent that Mansfield Park is, perhaps more than any other of Austen’s novels, save Persuasion, the story of the heroine’s internal and reflective life, this paragraph also presents an appropriately happy conclusion: Mansfield Park and the parsonage become in the end “thoroughly perfect in [Fanny’s] eyes.”
Yet, in identifying Fanny’s happy state of mind, Austen establishes a sharp counterpoint with her earlier feelings towards the parsonage which she “had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint and alarm.” In a single sentence we are reminded of the torments of spirit that Fanny has suffered, which were administered by the evil Mrs. Norris and the conniving Crawfords. Mrs. Norris’s treatment of Fanny over the course of eight and a half years, before she was banished with Maria from Mansfield, was simply intolerable. Mary Crawford’s conduct towards Fanny made her feel uncomfortable and restrained. Fanny was perpetually on guard and felt constrained to hide any hint of her own love for Edmund. She was increasingly distressed that Mary might win Edmund’s affections and become his wife. As for Henry Crawford, she found his determined pursuit of her affections utterly alarming.
Austen’s acknowledgment of Fanny’s history of painful sensations is telling, for it reminds us that, as the novel progresses, Fanny did find the strength to be less timid and the courage to be more autonomous. Fanny was greatly discomforted but not cowed by her tormentors. In fact, Fanny displays courage, fortitude, and forbearance. Austen seems to invite us to approve this behaviour as virtuous conduct. Fortitude and forbearance are necessary in Fanny’s miserable circumstances to sustain her in holding to her principle regarding marriage. For Fanny, that is marriage to Edmund, not Henry, for happiness in marriage is, in Austen’s lexicon, only achieved with someone both truly loved and esteemed.
With that fulfilled by her union with Edmund, it is not surprising that Fanny’s concluding endorsement of Mansfield Park is so fulsome. But is Fanny justified in subjectively reaching this conclusion, or is her view of the situation an example of seeing Mansfield through rose-coloured glasses? She was often treated in a way that required gratitude and subservience, states of mind which did not encourage independent and critical thinking. She has been the victim of cruelty, discrimination, and misunderstanding on the part of many of its inhabitants. How could Fanny have forgotten this treatment?
To answer this question we need to look back into the history of Fanny’s earlier judgments about Mansfield Park and to the ostensible reasons for them. Her disquiet and discomfort in living at Mansfield are relieved by the news she is to return to her original home in Portsmouth. But her joy at the imagined warmth of her reception and life among her immediate family is dispelled by its real condition – all noise and squalor. At Portsmouth she “could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways.” She recalls its “elegance, propriety, regularity and harmony and – perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquility” (Chapter 39). Fanny’s sentiments at this point may exhibit wishful thinking – the desire to call to mind all the positive features of Mansfield that her memory can conjure up. Certainly her point of view seems highly coloured.
Yet within the first week back among the Prices she realizes that “though Mansfield Park might have some pain, Portsmouth could have no pleasures” (Chapter 39). She persists in this attitude. After three months in the Prices’ home, she reflects on the realization that “Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home” (Chapter 45). It is at Mansfield Park that she feels useful and wanted. Indeed her sense of self is tied to the Mansfield community despite the misfortunes she has had to endure there in the past.
By the end of the novel (Chapter 48), all Fanny’s miseries and anxieties have been dispelled, and replaced by a truly congenial atmosphere at Mansfield Park. The bad influences – Mrs. Norris, Maria, Mary and Henry Crawford – have been permanently excluded from the Mansfield community. Sir Thomas has realized the errors of his ways as head of the Mansfield family and has reformed his attitudes, especially towards Fanny, with whom he has established a “mutual attachment” which was “very strong.” The change of personnel is probably sufficient reason for Fanny’s fond conclusion about the excellence of Mansfield Park. But Austen gives us a further insight. She points us towards the happy improvements that Fanny herself will make possible. She leaves us with a Fanny who is no longer the timid, meek girl who arrived at Mansfield Park at the age of ten. She has been replaced with a young woman of sense and strength of character, who is now confident of her place in the Mansfield community. Fanny has become the “true daughter of Mansfield Park,” and her standards and convictions will set an ongoing example of goodness and virtuous behaviour.
To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Many, many thanks to everyone who participated in the series, by reading, by contributing guest posts and comments, and by sharing links to the series with other readers.
This is the first time I’ve hosted a party that lasted for the better part of eight months. Back in the fall of 2013, when I first mentioned to Sheila and to Elaine Bander, Coordinator of the 2014 JASNA AGM, that I was thinking of putting together a celebration of this complex, challenging, endlessly fascinating novel, I had no idea just how big the party would become, or how much of 2014 I would spend corresponding with contributors and talking about Mansfield Park over email, in person, and on the blog. It’s been a delight to introduce you to each other, to listen to the conversations at this party, and to participate in some of the discussions as time allowed.
I continue to be in awe of Jane Austen’s achievement in this brilliant novel. Hosting this blog series has been a fabulous experience, and I’m grateful to all of you for coming to the party.
Let me know if you’re interested in celebrating 200 years of Emma with me in 2016….
In the meantime, however, I’ll see you in 2015. Best wishes for a wonderful year!