Hi readers! I’m so excited to welcome author Kyra Kramer to Austenesque Reviews today! Kyra may be a brand new author to some of you because her lovely new release Mansfield Parsonage just came out last month! It looks to be a very interesting story as it is a retelling of Mansfield Park from the perspective of bad-girl, Mary Crawford! Kyra is sharing a little about what sets Mansfield Park a part a little from Jane Austen’s other novels and some excerpts from Mansfield Parsonage. We hope you enjoy!
Beneath the Surface of Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s least-loved novels, but it is also the one with the deepest undercurrents swirling under its surface. From slavery to incest, the novel is discursive in a way most of her other works are not and this narrative morality shows up in places where you least expect it.
- It was anti-slavery.
The fact that Sir Thomas Bertram owns a plantation in Antigua, and therefore almost certainly owns slaves, could lead one to believe that Austen was not strongly pro-abolition. That supposition would be wrong, however … but her method of undercutting slave-ownership was much more apparent to her contemporary readers than her modern ones. A case in point is the fact that the newlywed Mr and Mrs Rushworth take a house in Wimpole Street. To the modern reader this means little, except to think they could afford a large house in London. To Austen’s audience, Wimpole Street was a byword for slave-owners’ vice. In my novel, Mansfield Parsonage, I try to make this connection clear again when Mary Crawford writes to Fanny Price that the Rushworth’s new home once belonged to Lady Lascelles:
Mary stopped and wondered if should scratch out that last bit. Pointing out that Maria Rushworth, who was almost sure to turn that dimwitted Mr Rushworth into a cuckold, was living in the house once occupied by a family connected to one of most notorious jades in the Ton (which took some doing on the lady’s part) might be too shocking for poor Fanny. Almost the entirety of that area of Marylebone was a nest of slave-owners whose money came from the sugar plantations and trade of the West Indies, and there was a general notion of licentiousness about the place. Not that the rumours of lax morality would stop anyone from attending their dinners, balls, and parties, of course. Not unless they were caught. As Lady Worsley, the step-daughter of Edwin Lascelles, had surely been.
After some consideration, Mary decided to leave the sentence as it was. There was a strong chance that Fanny, sheltered and delicate as she was, had not been told about the accusation that Sir Richard Worsley, called Sir Richard Worse-than-sly in the scandal sheets and newspapers that permeated London, had acted as a pander and displayed his wife in her bath to her would-be lover, Captain George Bisset. Even if Fanny did know, it hardly signified; Sir Thomas Bertram had business dealings with the Lascelles – who were sugar factors — and must not be too shocked by the scandalous elopement between Lady Worsley and Captain Bisset since he continued to associate with the family.
Clearly, Austen believed that slave-owning was connected to avarice and indecency, and was thus connecting slavery with immorality.
- It reinforced gender norms regarding female domesticity.
It is tempting to see Austen as a proto-feminist, inasmuch as she writes such strong female characters and had a career as a writer, but this is a modern conceit. Austen had very pronounced ideas about what happened to women who ventured too far outside of their “natural” domestic sphere, and this is displayed in multiple ways in Mansfield Park.
In anthropology there is a concept of “pollution”, which is simply “matter out of place” and therefore “bad”. In Mansfield Park, women who did not relish and remain in feminine space of the home – represented by Mansfield Park itself, the marital abode, and the countryside – were depicted as sociocultural pollution, and as pollution they were scrubbed from the narrative in order to preserve the idealized harmony gendered relations.
The most obvious of these polluters was Mary Crawford herself. She came, like dirt or a virus, from outside the world of Mansfield Park and brought unwelcome change with her. Edmund Bertram, once happily attentive to the uber-domestic and feminine Fanny Price, was altered by this interloper. He became captivated by Mary even though she was not as delicate or ideally feminine as Fanny. Mary represented a danger to the proper order; a man being led from home and hearth (away from the woman he should love) by tempting womanly wiles. She even led Edmund into the heart of sin – London itself. Furthermore, Mary’s wiles were also disturbingly masculine in terms of wit and strength of character. She lacked the proper feminine meekness and subservience to Edward’s opinions. She violated domesticity by her presence, and gender norms by her personality. She was a terrifying threat to the natural order, and Edmund fled back to Fanny when he realized that Mary Crawford had a “corrupted, vitiated” mind that too worldly and practical, and hence was deviantly unfeminine.
Another obvious polluter was Maria Bertram Rushworth. She “prepared for matrimony by a hatred of home, restraint, and tranquility; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry”, which was the exact opposite of what a bride was supposed to think and feel. She loved neither domesticity nor her husband, and she violated the norms regarding both when she ran away from her husband to live with Henry Crawford. This violation was punished to the utmost by Jane Austen. Not only did Maria eventually come to hate Henry Crawford, who would not give her a renewed chance at domesticity because she did not deserve it, she was placed into a kind of hell wherein she and her Aunt Norris lived “in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.”
Aunt Norris was also being punished, not only because she had always been cruel to the protagonist Fanny Price, but because she was pollution in Mansfield Park. She had cut up the harmony of the Park with her unfeminine officiousness and manipulations long before she had ruined Sir Thomas’s eldest daughter with too much flattery. If she had been properly domesticated, and had treasured only the feminine ideal of following a man’s precepts in all particulars, and had encouraged her nieces to be as modest and meek as possible and eschew worldly pleasures, a great deal of damage would have been avoided. Now she and Maria would suffer for their gender violations together, two harpies locked in misery forever, because Austen never gives a time when they would be free of each other.
Jane Austen’s family were, according to her biographer Claire Tomalin, old-fashioned country Tories, and the Regency era Tories were dead set against change and Enlightenment political ideologies. All Enlightened modernism, whether social or political, was dangerous and most likely a sure path to misery. Mary Crawford represented not only a dangerous change in Fanny Price’s life, she represented the worldly and liberal new views of the Enlightenment and threatened to overthrow the social order by rejecting the traditional rules regarding conduct.
This unnatural and potentially evil hankering for Enlightened modernism is particularly apparent in Mary’s disdain for the pillar of Regency England’s morality – the church. Mary’s dismissal of the clergy, even without taking into account that Austen’s family were clergymen, was nothing less than summation of the Enlightenment assault on religion as a whole. But how could there be morality, decency, and modes of behaviour if there were no church to guide the individual? This dangerous streak of humanism, the belief that people could be moral without the guiding influence of duly appointed representatives of the deity, was spreading all over England, along with “low church” adherents and evangelicalism. Whether Enlightenment atheism, deism, or Baptist insistence on a personal relationship with God, these new forms of theology were challenging the authority of the church as moral arbiter of British life.
Considering that every character who does not take the Anglican Church seriously enough comes to a bad end in Mansfield Park, it is obvious that an Enlightenment-inspired rejection of the church’s teachings regarding social responsibility is dangerous and leads profound unhappiness.
The Enlightenment was also seen in a preference for urban life, with its access to newfangled technologies, ideologies, and entertainments. Real happiness, it implies, is to be found in the country, among one’s own family, where, as Mr. Rushworth explained, people were “a great deal better employed, sitting comfortably here among ourselves, and doing nothing.” Sir Thomas, as the embodiment of the conservative patriarchy, agrees. He assures Rushworth that “I am happy to find our sentiments on this subject so much the same. It gives me sincere satisfaction.” Inasmuch as three of the Bertram offspring, Tom, Maria, and the youngest sister Julia, were embracing the modern enthusiasm for home theatricals, Sir Thomas also makes the point that as an older and wiser man it is natural that his “value for domestic tranquility, for a home which shuts out noisy pleasures, should much exceed theirs.” Only those, who like Sir Thomas, dislike the noisy pleasures of producing a play in their home, will find themselves truly happy in Austen’s novel. Those who seek modern pleasures will also become unhappy due to modernistic immorality. Tradition, not Enlightenment, is the true key to happiness.
I attempted to draw this parallel between modernism and tradition in Mansfield Parsonage, but unlike Austen, I was firmly on Mary’s side of the debate. Mary, from the earliest chapters, is forthcoming about her Enlighten sympathies, including universal suffrage, the emancipation of Catholics, and women’s equality.
- It is an inadvertent praise of incest.
While I hold no credence with the idea that Jane Austen had a sexual relationship with her own sister, Cassandra, it is equally true that Austen had extreme difficulty forming emotional attachments outside of her own family. Never-married, Austen’s only notions of intimacy with men were the deep connections she felt to her brothers who, in all innocence, became surrogate husbands and lovers in her novels. Austen’s first two books, <Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, were written when she was a young woman, still enjoying courtship. The heroes of those novels typically come from the exterior of close familial connections. However, the romantic attachments of Emma and Mansfield Park are practically the heroines’ brothers. Mr. Knightly is the much-older brother-in-law who has known Emma since her birth and indulged her as a little sister, while Edmund Bertram is both Fanny Price’s first cousin and de facto brother.
Mansfield Park is a psychologist’s dream of subtextual, subconscious emotional incest. Take, for instance, Fanny’s relationship with her real brother William. As narrator, Austen explains that in terms of ideal relationships “even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal… …Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing. But with William and Fanny Price it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness, wounded by no opposition of interest, cooled by no separate attachment, and feeling the influence of time and absence only in its increase.” There is no hint of sexuality here, and it was a time and place where single siblings would live together without undue and obscene suspicion, but it is easy to see that Austen believed love – even romantic love – was best found within the family.
Furthermore, Fanny has been in love with Edmund Bertram, her first cousin and acting brother, since she was a child. When Edmund is broken-hearted over Maria’s disgrace and his break-up with Mary Crawford, he came to Fanny and “pressed to his heart with only these words, just articulate, “My Fanny, my only sister; my only comfort now!” He would shortly thereafter discover that in this ‘sister’ was a balm for his sorrows:
“Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, a hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love …“
To the modern reader the relationship between first cousins, even barring the fact they regarded each other as sister and brother, is unpalatable. Nonetheless, marriages between cousins were still very much the norm in Austen’s time, and were not considered in any way incestuous. There is every likelihood that Austen was completely oblivious to the hidden incestualized message of Mansfield’s romance. I doubt she gave much thought to Fanny and Edmund’s marital bed. For Austen, that kind of heated intercourse seems to have been for impure forms of love, such as Maria and Henry Crawford’s liaison, unconnected to the spiritually blessed union of matrimony.
There you have it – four aspects of Mansfield Park you may not have thought about before. Hopefully you will read Mansfield Parsonage and review it so that I can know what you think about both books and how they compare. I cannot wait to find out!
Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post, Kyra! It truly is fascinating to see all the subtext in Mansfield Park. Undercurrents like the ones you mentioned above seem to be more prominent in Mansfield Park than any other Jane Austen novel. I wonder why that is…
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Today Kyra generously brings with her ONE copy of Mansfield Parsonage (paperback or ebook) for me to give away to ONE lucky winner!
To enter this giveaway, leave a question, a comment, or some love for Kyra below!
- This giveaway is open worldwide. Thank you, Kyra!
- This giveaway ends March 8th
My thanks to Rozelle and Kyra for making this blog tour possible! I was thrilled to take part!