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Mansfield Park Symposium, Jane Austen Festival Australia, 2014 (Part 2)

May 16, 2014

WORDPRESS GREMLIN: Those of you who subscribe to my blog will have received two notifications yesterday of my Part 1 post – as the result of what was rather a nightmare. I published the post. Up popped WordPress’s successfully published screen as usual, and then POOF it all disappeared. It was nowhere to be seen – not publicly, not administratively. It still isn’t anywhere that I can see, though I gather when you click on that first notification, you are taken to a page. Fortunately, I had previewed it not long prior to publishing and still had the preview tab opened, so I was able to copy and past that content and republish! Phew, I was planning to use the two posts as preparation for my Jane Austen meeting this month so would have been devastated (relatively speaking) had I lost it!

Continued from my previous post covering the first two speakers at the Mansfield Park Symposium.

Gillian Dooley, No moral effect on the mind: music and education in Mansfield Park

Dooley, from Flinders University, focused on music, making the point that music played big part in Jane Austen’s own life. She argued that Jane Austen seems to share John Locke’s view that learning (education, I presume she meant) is subservient to qualities developed through upbringing and experience.

Like Neilson, she sees Mansfield Park as being about education, particularly women’s education. She reminded us of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the rights of women which was published in 1792, when Austen was 17 years old*. Austen, she said, shows the “larger” passions in Fanny that develop in her along lines of Wollstonecraft. Fanny is not a musician. Her cousins, Maria and Julia, say she doesn’t want to learn music and drawing, but Dooley suggests Austen is showing Fanny’s resilience, determination and her desire not to be showy. Fanny has noticed, Dooley said, that such skills haven’t made them better people and she would not went to emulate them.

Despite their accomplishments, in fact, Maria and Julia are not shown to have much feeling for music. Sir Thomas realises, too late, that “to be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had … no moral effect on the mind”. In Chapter 20, just after Sir Thomas has returned home and discovered, to his horror, the acting scheme, emotions are running amok. Music is used ironically it seems to cover up the lack of harmony:

and the music which Sir Thomas called for from his daughters helped to conceal the want of real harmony.

For the Bertram girls, and for Mary Crawford, Dooley said, there is a dependence on material trappings and external appearances, on female trappings, that betrays their lack of the moral character we see in Fanny.

For Mary Crawford, musicality is an important part of a woman’s armoury. Jealously, she asks if the Owen sisters, whom Edmund is visiting, are musical:

“That is the first question, you know,” said Miss Crawford, trying to appear gay and unconcerned, “which every woman who plays herself is sure to ask about another…”

Mary certainly uses music as part of her armoury, Dooley explained. Mary’s appeal is increased when she plays the harp, and she sets out to charm Edmund. As Austen writes:

A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.

Dooley argued that the harp symbolises fashionable modernity and wealth. (It comes up in Emma, too, where Mrs Elton suggests Jane Fairfax would be better if she played a harp as well as piano.)

The saga of harp’s arrival tells, Dooley said, of Mary’s belief in the London maxim that everything can be “got” with money, including marriage. She is surprised when country values see her priorities rather differently. But Mary, as Fanny puts it, has “a mind led astray”. She, aligned with city values, is careless as a woman and a friend.

Fanny, on the other hand, is aligned with things country and natural. Early in the novel, she stands at a window looking out into the night, after Mary Crawford has left them to join a glee, and is joined by Edmund:

 “Here’s harmony!” said she; “here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”

Scenes like this point to Austen’s being on the threshold of Romantic era.

Anyhow, at the end of this scene, Edmund moves towards Mary taking part in the glee, leaving Fanny to her musings..

Austen, Dooley said, is not black-and-white on the issue of music. Mary Crawford truly enjoys music, is not just a coquette, and, while Fanny prefers reading, she also appreciates and enjoy music and dancing. Austen is however critical of the place of music in education. The musicians in this scene are judged as having wasted their time in developing their music skills. Fanny, in fact, says Mary’s faults come from her education. Fanny’s education, on the other hand, had been directed by Edmund (which ties neatly with Neilson’s thesis about “good” education).

At the end of the novel, Austen, through Sir Thomas, praises the effects of the Price family’s hardship – “the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure” – but during the novel we see that much about the Price family is not admirable. Dooley suggests that Austen’s point is probably that the Price family does not value decorative accomplishments. Musicianship, in other words, isn’t condemned but neither is it seen as necessary for a girl.

This paper is, apparently, adapted from her article in the June 2006 issue of Sensibilities.

* We don’t have evidence that Austen read Wollstonecraft, but we know from her extant letters, which start in 1796, that she was a prolific and wide reader. It’s hard to imagine she was not well aware of Wollstonecraft’s work and ideas, whether or not she had actually read the book.

Dr Christine Alexander, The genius of place: Mansfield Park and the genius of place

Alexander, from the University of New South Wales, focused on place, and how it relates to aesthetics and moral values. She commenced by suggesting there are three critical questions to ask:

  • Why is Mansfield Park set in countryside on an estate?
  • Why is the visit to Sotherton important?
  • How does all this relate to Fanny?

The country estate setting, she said, facilitates exploration of the city-country clash. Austen is following here the classical tradition in terms of the town versus country debate, which had flourished in the 18th century. This clash had cultural and aesthetic implications. Changes in agriculture, like that depicted in Downton Abbey (albeit a century or so later), were resulting in the collapse of rural patterns of life.

At the same time, cities were growing. An increase in trade brought wealth to the cities. But, contemporary attitudes were ambivalent. Cities represented art, culture, luxury but they were also characterised by sewers and filth. William Cowper’s most significant work, “The Task” praises country values over what he saw as the dehumanisation of industrialisation in the cities. Dr Johnson said of London that it “sucks in the dregs of each corrupted state”. And so, the Crawfords are seen as bringing to Mansfield Park their contaminated city values. The harp saga epitomises this clash: the harvest takes precedence, rather to Mary’s surprise, over the transport of her harp. Mary’s faith in “the true London maxim, that everything is to be got with money” is tested by “the sturdy independence of your country customs”!

Alexander reminded us of Sense and sensibility, and Marianne’s “feeling all the happy privilege of country liberty, of wandering from place to place in free and luxurious solitude”.  There is a sense here of returning to nature for moral insights and virtue. Similarly, Fanny’s response to sublimity is that nature can inspire virtues, reflecting a Wordsworthian view! Alexander suggested that in the scene in which Fanny and Mary sit in the shrubbery we see the superficial improvement of a woman set against real moral intelligence.

Yet Austen, she said, is not naive about country. The Crawfords reflect the variety and excitement of the city lifestyle, of the temptations of an undefined and unconstructed social space where people can live out their more “dubious inclinations”. The city is also where people acquire aesthetic sensibilities. Generally, in Austen’s novels, the influence of London is regretted while the country house ideal. She quoted Pope and his promotion of the “right use of riches”, of a “life of rural simplicity”. Ostentation, typical of the city, satisfies vanity and pride, in contrast to unpretentious plainness.

Fancy homes, she suggested, often disregard “the genius of the place”, a phrase used by Pope to mean the need to respond to/draw from nature and the inherent sense of a place. But this was a time of absurd grandeur, of conspicuous consumption by Whig magnates. The Mansfield Park community, by contrast, still fulfils country traditions even if some of the behaviours within run counter to those traditions. Sotherton, however, is in more upheaval under its new owner. Rushworth is overturning his mother’s traditions, manifesting the contemporary fashion for improvement.

In fact, Alexander argues, the idea of improvement is a significant part of the novel’s plot and moral structure. Austen uses the characters’ attitudes regarding aesthetic values and improvement to identify their moral values. In Chapter 6, Fanny listens to Rushworth on Sotherton and says nothing until he talks of chopping down trees, at which point she says:

“Cut* down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”

Alexander suggested that contemporary readers would have recognised the reference to Cowper’s “The task”. Most readers would have known the next lines: “once more rejoice/That yet a remnant of your race survives.” Edmund’s reaction that:

“… had I a place to new fashion, I should not put myself into the hands of an improver. I would rather have an inferior degree of beauty, of my own choice, and acquired progressively. I would rather abide by my own blunders than by his.”

shows him to be the perfect partner for Fanny.

Jane Austen, we know, approved picturesque views and approves judicious improvement (such as that at Pemberley in Pride and prejudice) and the creation of social spaces (such as Catherine’s bower). But, said Alexander, Austen, like landscaper Uvedale Price, disapproved the cutting down of ancient trees. Note, she said, that Fanny has same surname! In other words, Austen ridicules excessive improvement that fails to account for “the genius of the place”. In Mansfield Park, Rushworth on Sotherton and Henry Crawford on Edmund’s parsonage at Thornton Lacey, reflect this rush to improve. Henry suggests cutting down the trees, and altering the stream, so:

you may give it a higher character. You may raise it into a place. From being the mere gentleman’s residence, it becomes, by judicious improvement, the residence of a man of education, taste, modern manners, good connexions.

Henry’s improvements are not appropriate to Edmund’s role and, thus, argued Alexander, in vey bad taste.

Austen, Alexander suggested, is critical of the changing relationship between nature and artifice. In the visit to Sotherton, Fanny retires to shady trees, after being being sorry to see the dilapidated state of the chapel. Mansfield Park promotes the value of natural process and growth, of necessary improvements made judiciously over time. Alexander suggests that this process applies not just to the landscape, but to Fanny herself.

It’s important to note, though, Alexander said, that the word “improvement” is used contradictorily throughout the novel. You need to notice who is using it or in what context it is being used.

When Fanny returns to Mansfield Park after Portsmouth, she looks at the landscape again. These nature passages, Anderson argued, suggest growth and deepening of Fanny’s character, and reflect both traditional and romantic values. Fanny needs needs nature to recover. The old estate is suffering from spiritual impoverishment. It is not rich in the spiritual or moral values that Fanny is rich in. Fanny acts, she said, by refusing to act – and could be seen as “the genius of the place”. She assumes role of an improver, when she returns: she takes the place of the daughters, she is the faithful remnant of the older order and value system. But, Alexander said, appropriating the past does not mean being dominated by it. It means incorporating the best values as you change over time.

And so, she concluded, Mansfield Park‘s values are conservative, but Austen was trying to engage in a serious discussion about the state of the nation. Emphasising traditional values is part of her moral purpose. This is a conservative Austen “but with promise”. Fanny is open to change, to the romantic aspect of nature and natural beauty, but her idea of change is one attuned to “the genius of the place”, to what is appropriate, perhaps, for the context.

QUESTION: There was a question regarding Austen’s statement that she was writing a novel about ordination. Alexander replied that it is very much about Edmund’s ordination. Sotherton chapel’s dilapidation suggests that it no longer represents the spiritual heart of the estate. Mansfield Park explores, perhaps, where the church stands in relationship to changing values.

* During the Q&A at the end, the point was made that in the movie The King’s Speech reference was made to Wallis Simpson cutting down 700-year-old trees.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim KABLE permalink
    May 16, 2014 10:52 pm

    Yes, some sense of free fall re the WordPress difficulties – but all is (gulp) well that has ended well! Just two days ago I received a bundle of books written/photographed for by garden chronicler/writer Holly Kerr FORSYTH. This afternoon I both skimmed and/or read deeply in various parts – Country Gardens, Country Hospitality; The Gardener’s Book of Days; and Remembered Garden 1788-2000. In the latter volume: page 23 (un-numbered in my copy – though all other pages are – maybe it’s something which makes my edition rare?) is a reference to Cottesbrooke Hall (begun in 1702 – Queen Anne – similar period to Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Duncombe Park) – said to be, by Jane AUSTEN scholars, the setting for Mansfield Park – the author’s most “landscaped” novel! Something zeitgeist in all of this – no? I read Mansfield Park so long ago I scarcely recall anything at all – I was 13. 1962. From 2014 I feel that my self then was almost within (pardon the image) spitting distance of Jane herself! Thanks again for fascinating thinking on the novel.

    • May 16, 2014 11:13 pm

      Such coincidences are always fun aren’t they, Jim. I hadn’t heard that about Cottesbrooke Hall, but have now perused the website. Sounds like a gorgeous place.

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    May 16, 2014 10:53 pm

    Remembered Gardens!

    • May 16, 2014 11:15 pm

      LOL thanks Jim … gotta get these things right. They sound like great books. I love visiting gardens when we travel and now have another one for my list.

  3. May 17, 2014 1:56 am

    Two more interesting takes on the novel. What a interesting time you had! Did anyone else from your JA group attend so you could have a good discussion about the event?

    • May 17, 2014 8:50 am

      Yes, about 4 or 5 of us … And discussing it is the topic of today’s, Saturday, meeting. Should be great.

  4. May 17, 2014 3:42 am

    Oooh, I like the in-depth look into music. And thank heavens you didn’t lose the other post! You had enough troubles with WordPress and saving posts on your trip to Canada 😉

    • May 17, 2014 8:52 am

      Thanks Hannah … Yes, I was panicking there for a minute as it had taken forever to massage into shape. The whole music/accomplishment thing is interesting, particularly in the light of P&P too.

  5. Jim KABLE permalink
    May 19, 2014 10:31 am

    What I meant to say, too, in my posts just above, WG, was that your first post (with all the problems) was with me – and no doubt all your other recipients – and could have been copied back to you – for future reference – had you sent out the necessary cry of anguish!!

    • May 19, 2014 1:38 pm

      Thanks a bunch Jim … I reckon I would have if I hadn’t had that preview. I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should subscribe to my own blog!

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