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Mansfield Park Symposium, Jane Austen Festival Australia, 2014 (Part 1)

May 15, 2014

The seventh annual Jane Austen Festival Australia, which was held in early April, is establishing itself as a comprehensive affair. Originally focusing primarily on Regency times and activities, it has gradually increased its literary content. This year it introduced a new feature, a half-day literary symposium dedicated to in-depth discussion of the year’s feature novel, Mansfield Park. It hasn’t been given the publicity that Pride and prejudice garnered last year, but 2014 marks the novel’s 200th anniversary.

Six speakers were originally scheduled to speak, but the two male speakers – for family and health reasons – had to withdraw at late notice. That probably didn’t hurt in the end, much as I looked forward to hearing the absent speakers, as the four remaining speakers provided more than enough thoughtful content for a morning.

I’ll report, as best as I can, on the speakers in order … covering the first two in this post, and the second two in a follow-up post.

Janet Lee, Addicted to letter-writing

Lee is a doctoral student at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her thesis is that sister Cassandra was Austen’s muse. Austen, as many of you know, was a keen letter-writer and most of the letters she wrote were to Cassandra. Consequently, Lee chose letters as the subject of her paper.

Given the importance of letters to Austen, it’s not surprising that she used them in her novels. Indeed, we believe that Pride and prejudice and Sense and sensibility started as epistolary novels. Lee argued that letters drive Mansfield Park. Letters, in fact, are strategic turning points in most if not all of Austen’s novels. Remember Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth after she rejects his proposal?

Back, though, to Mansfield Park, in which letters feature consistently – and touch pretty much all the main characters. Austen uses letters to further the plot, but she also tells us about the politics of letter-writing and their use at the time. Letters, Lee reminded us, are critical in the opening paragraphs of the novel. Angry letters between Mrs Norris and Mrs Price (Fanny’s mother) on the occasion of the latter’s marriage set up a distance between the three sisters and their families that lasts until, many years later, Mrs Price writes another letter requesting the Bertrams take one of her children. This results in the re-opening of relationship between the families. In this way, said Lee, Austen “anchors and orients the novel with letters”.

And so it’s letters, for example, which carry much of the plot development when Fanny is in Portsmouth, bored and waiting for news. It is how she, and we, mostly learn about what is happening at Mansfield Park – but again, Lee demonstrated, we also learn about the art and politics of letter writing. For instance, Fanny receives a letter from Edmund in which he rather off-handedly passes on, at the end, his mother’s gossip about the Grants:

Everybody at all addicted to letter–writing, without having much to say, which will include a large proportion of the female world at least, must feel with Lady Bertram that she was out of luck in having such a capital piece of Mansfield news as the certainty of the Grants going to Bath, occur at a time when she could make no advantage of it, and will admit that it must have been very mortifying to her to see it fall to the share of her thankless son, and treated as concisely as possible at the end of a long letter, instead of having it to spread over the largest part of a page of her own.

This letter, though, conveys unpleasant news for Fanny – Edmund’s continuing fascination with Mary Crawford – so unpleasant that Fanny, who had been pining for a letter from Edmund, thinks “I shall never again wish for a letter to arrive”.

For Lady Bertram, though, things look up because, in the same chapter, she, who Austen tells us “rather shone in the epistolary line”, does get to write a letter of importance – about the illness of her eldest son Tom!

Early in the novel, Edmund talks to Fanny about her writing home and discovers Fanny has no paper. Not only does he furnish her with paper and pen, but tells her that her uncle (his father) will “frank it”. Readers of the time would know that in those days it was normally the receiver who paid for the postage. Edmund’s offer is kind, but it also subtly shows his rank and his power over a poor relation.

In Chapter 6, Mary complains that men, referring primarily to her brother, write poor letters in which all is told “in the fewest possible words”. But Fanny’s brother, William, is quite the opposite, and thus Austen conveys the depth of Fanny’s relationship with her brother versus that between Mary and Henry. And yet, Lee said, Henry Crawford is adept at letters, when he wants to be, and uses them as power over women.

Lee also spoke of Austen’s own letters written at the time she was writing the novel. They show her researching facts regarding ships (to her naval brother), houses, gardens (to Cassandra, about hedgerows). She also reports in her letters some pre- and post-publication responses to the novel, and asks her niece in one “to make everyone at Hendon admire Mansfield Park”.

Lee concluded by referring us to the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts website, which includes Austen’s record of people’s reaction to the novel. If you’ve never read them before, do. They make interesting reading, particularly in the light of the ongoing mixed reactions to the novel.

Dr Heather Neilson, Mansfield Park and education

Neilson, from the University of New South Wales in Canberra (aka the Australian Defence Force Academy), commenced by apologising that she had the least experience in the room of Mansfield Park, and had in fact only read it for the first time in the last year.

She began by talking about her own education in Mansfield Park – about reading Edward Said and his critique regarding the significance of Sir Thomas Bertram’s plantation in Antigua, and about her view that Patricia Rozema’s film of Mansfield Park may not be an exact adaptation but is “faithful in concept” (Hear, hear, I said under my breath!).

Neilson’s talk was fascinating and I hope, given the time that has elapsed, that I have managed to remember her main arguments (from my sketchy notes at the time). One of her main points concerned Sir Thomas Bertram’s own education – about his poor education of his daughters. It occurs in the last chapter (48) of the novel. The people who must change the most, Neilson said, are Sir Thomas and Edmund. Like Mr Bennet in Pride and prejudice, Sir Thomas had not done well by his daughters. Neilson argued that his “enlightenment is complete”, that he will live with his regrets for the rest of his life. He has been educated, she said, by the scandalous behaviour of his own children:

Too late he became aware how unfavourable to the character of any young people must be the totally opposite treatment which Maria and Julia had been always experiencing at home, where the excessive indulgence and flattery of their aunt had been continually contrasted with his own severity. He saw how ill he had judged, in expecting to counteract what was wrong in Mrs. Norris by its reverse in himself; clearly saw that he had but increased the evil by teaching them to repress their spirits in his presence so as to make their real disposition unknown to him, and sending them for all their indulgences to a person who had been able to attach them only by the blindness of her affection, and the excess of her praise.

Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self–denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.

Bitterly did he deplore a deficiency which now he could scarcely comprehend to have been possible. Wretchedly did he feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters without their understanding their first duties, or his being acquainted with their character and temper.

Neilson argued that Austen distinguishes cleverness from moral intelligence, and that Fanny is shown to be guiding her sister Susan with affection in contrast to the way Sir Thomas had brought up his girls. She also referred to Mary Crawford’s less-than-happy upbringing. When Mary’s aunt (and guardian) dies, Austen writes that:

Admiral Crawford was a man of vicious conduct, who chose, instead of retaining his niece, to bring his mistress under his own roof.

Neilson wondered what Mary might have witnessed or even experienced with such a man! Critic Lionel Trilling argues that Mary impersonated the women she thinks she wants to be. She could have been educated by Edmund, but it’s too late. Her past experiences have set her.

Henry, Neilson suggests, is plausible. His devotion to his sister is creditable, he has talent for reading, is intelligent, and wealthy. Mrs Norris and Mary both blame Fanny for the Maria-Henry catastrophe. Neilson argued that we could discount these assessments on the basis of their sources but, she said, even the narrator suggests at the end that Henry would have been better had he succeeded with Fanny. He needed to be more patient, Neilson said – but of course, that’s the very point, he wasn’t. He was, rather, “ruined by early independence and bad domestic example” (like his sister).

Neilson said that Austen makes clear that Henry loves Fanny, but that we are warned against Henry. His reading of Shakespeare “was capital”, but it was from Henry VIII, which could be Austen’s code that he’s an unsafe husband. The novel’s unanswered question is whether a woman like Fanny could reform (educate?) him.

Neilson briefly discussed Austen’s narrative technique. John Wiltshire, she said, argues that in this novel in particular, the narrative moves between the consciousness of the characters. When you are in a character’s head you are more likely to have sympathy for them. Consequently, the fact that we are often privy to Mary’s private thoughts can make us feel at times that she is the heroine. (This adds, methinks, to the complexity of this novel and the fun to be had in discussing it!)

Neilson made some comparisons with Jane Eyre which is also a Cinderella story with two suitors. Both Jane and Fanny move from fringe to the centre but Bronte inverts the Mansfield Park story: Jane Eyre does not end up with her cousin. In fact, Neilson argues, in Mansfield Park the best possible marriages (from an education/reform point of view?) are perverted.

Finally, she briefly referred to Canberran Ros Russell’s recently published sequel/fan fiction novel, Maria returns. She suggested Russell had taken to heart Said’s theory regarding the relationship between Mansfield Park and the Bertrams’ plantations in Antigua, and the implications for British values. I don’t generally read fan-fiction, but Ros will be addressing my local group’s meeting in July, so I will read it for that.

To be continued …

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2014 4:00 am

    So very interesting! I never really paid that much attention to how important letters are in Austen but, yes, they do seem to be. And the speaker on Sir Bertram was fascinating too. An interesting point about the (mis)education of (mostly) daughters. I hesitate to say Austen was making a good point for education for girls, but I don’t doubt she personally believed it important. Looking forward to part two!

    • May 16, 2014 7:38 am

      Thanks Stefanie … You read it all! There’s more on education,from a slightly different but interesting slant, in Part 2. Austen certainly valued the development of a good mind over “accomplishments”.

  2. May 16, 2014 10:55 am

    This is an excellent report, though it does make me wish that I’d been there! Maybe next year. I’m particularly interested by the mention of the local postcolonial rewriting, and will try to find time to explore that further!

    • May 20, 2014 12:27 am

      Hmmm, sorry Jessica … I replied to this a few days ago via my iPad. A few comments written there seem to have gone astray. It’s clearly not a stable device for weblogs! Anyhow, I haven’t read Ros Russell’s work yet but she is an historian with a PhD (have you come across her here in Canberra?) so hopefully has some interesting things to say/suggest.

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