I received my reading guide for Mansfield Parkby Jane Austen via electronic mail on Monday, Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2011. The guide included a few brief paragraphs about the book and Ms. Austen (about half a page for each). Never having read an Austen novel, and being at least half finished with it by the time I received the guide, imagine my chagrin when I learned Mansfield Park is sometimes referred to as Austen’s ‘problem novel.’
However, I had no qualms while reading the novel, expecting a slower pacing when compared to 20th or 21st century literature. I appreciated the circumstances surrounding of Fanny’s life, family and friends, as presented by the author. Austen’s third novel falls under a broader definition of Victorian Literature; to me it’s a precursor to that era, a transition from the Regency era, and more pleasantly readable prose than later Victorian didactic sledgehammer-esque efforts. The guide also included a brief biography of Jane Austen (1775- 1817), stating she wrote as she lived, with nuance and realism.
I arrived fifteen minutes early to the Plaza Branch, seeking directions to the appropriate gathering place, in the ‘large’ meeting room between the non-fiction section and the children’s area. By 6:30 p.m., I was one of a packed room of thirty people, all of them female with the exception of one besieged stalwart male who participated graciously and gallantly. I should have spoken up in his support; first, because, while female myself, I suffer under the auspices of a gender-confusing name (yes, it’s pronounced just like “John” not some strangely misspelled “Joan”) and, second, because I rarely ever read anything of a romantic nature, unless it happens to slip in as a subplot to an epic fantasy, space opera or science fiction novel.
Andrea Broomfield began her lecture (complete with dimmed lights and a PowerPoint), of which I will briefly recap from my illegibly scribbled notes. First question up for discussion involved why Mansfield Park would be considered a Victorian novel. Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in June of 1837, twenty years after the death of Jane Austen. Yet transformations to society began prior to the 1830s, burgeoning in the late 18th century, during the life of Jane Austen and as expressed in Mansfield Park‘s internal chronology (roughly thirty years spanning 1783 to 1813). Professor Broomfield related that Punch magazine actually coined the phrase “Victorian” sometime in the 1840s.
The time span encompassing the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to her death in 1901, provides a frame of reference to discuss the impact of industrialization on society. Industrialization transformed the existing land and power structures and encouraged the rise of the middle class as society transitioned from an agrarian based (i.e. cottage industries) economy to an industrialized one. The Evangelical movement within the Church of England helped to abolish slavery and became the foundation for promoting what we now refer to as Middle Class Values (more on that later).
But who are the Middle Class? They are well educated (engineers, accountants, lawyers, professors, bankers, merchants, etc.) and well paid, but non-aristocratic in origin. This fostered unrest, as only the aristocracy (those who owned land) were allowed to vote, and essentially a small group of people (approximately 5,000 families) controlled the government and the church. With such examples as the American and French Revolutions to fuel the fire, the established gentry felt threatened by the burgeoning wealthy middle class, who, in turn, began to demand a voice in their destinies.
Queen Victoria not only accepted middle class values, she championed them, including piety, sobriety, morality, monogamy, hard work. At this point, I should have spoken up, because I saw a parallel hear between middle class values and Wesley‘s Methodist Means of Grace. Mary Crawford scathingly referenced Methodism when she showed her true colors to Edmund’s unveiled eyes late in the novel. Austen, a village parson’s daughter, should have been aware of her contemporary, John Wesley (1703 – 1791), even though he died while she was but a teen.
Professor Broomfield continued with a bit of history around the time Mansfield Park was written and published (1813-4), often referred to as the Regency era, or the period when King George III went mad and his young son ruled as Prince Regent. A dominance of aristocratic values are portrayed in Austen’s characters of Mr. Yates (idleness), Mr. Rushworth (waste of money/resources), Maria Bertram (laziness) and Henry Crawford (flirtation). The only obligation the aristocracy had was to maintain the status quo, which meant siring a male heir to secure the land for the next generation. Thus, they did as they pleased and set their own standards of conduct. The rest of society, the working class and rising middle class, viewed the aristocracy with contempt, as corrupted and completely depraved.
One of the slides from Professor Broomfield’s presentation displayed Austen’s home at the Steventon rectory, exemplifying the typical middle class modest home with divided rooms (in contrast, the working class often lived, dined and slept in a single or at most two room homes). The Reform Act of 1832 let off the steam of the bubbling boiling uneasy middle class, averting bloody revolution by changing the electoral system of England and Wales.
The crucible of Austen’s life and times included the rise of evangelicism, the abolition of slavery (see William Wilberforce for more information), the ascendancy of the British Navy and the accentuating of class differences. Professor Bloomfield gave an apt illustration of those differences using poetry as her example. Poetry (and poets) comprised an ‘elite’ art form, reserved for the aristocracy. Yet an educated middle class yearned for entertainment of a more accessible flavor, creating a void for literature that authors like Austen eagerly filled. Victorians are idealistic, always in earnest, convinced they can solve all the world’s problems and most assuredly not cynical.
With less than thirty minutes left for our five discussion questions, Professor Broomfield opened up the floor with the following:
If you have read other Austen novels, then you likely see some differences between Mansfield Park and Austen’s other works. What are those differences? Why might critics consider this novel to be the most ‘Victorian’ of Austen’s novels, even though the novel was published before Victoria became Queen of England?
Mansfield Park is considered a ‘Condition of England’ novel. In these types of novels, the author uses fiction as a means to critique the culture around her/him. What aspects of English culture come under Austen’s scrutiny? How does Austen use her main characters — the Crawfords, the Bertrams, Fanny and William, Mr. Rushworth and Mrs. Norris — to comment on what people should and should not value?
Do you find Fanny to be a likable heroine? Do you find Edmund to be a likable hero? Why or why not?
What is the purpose of the attempted play at Mansfield Park, both before and after it is aborted?
Consider any dramatized versions you have seen of Mansfield Park and how they differ from the actual Austen novel. Are the plot, narrative voice, and characters of Mansfield Park simply too old-fashioned or outmoded for a contemporary audience’s sensibilities?
We only managed to tackle three of these questions. In response to the first question, comments included a feeling that Austen was just coming into her voice, a more mature voice as compared to her other more popular titles. Fanny’s reticence and control upheld and exemplified.
With respect to the second ‘Condition of England’ novel question, the disparity between rich and poor as seen through Austen’s characters in Mansfield Park began with Mr. Rushworth, described as a ‘rich boob’ or a ‘buffoon,’ a terrifying thought since his like were ruling England, the figure of a man with little or no substance. Many readers enjoyed Mary Crawford, despite her faults: wanting to marry for money, position, privilege, power; self-absorption.
This led to a discussion of the philosophical debate contemporaneous to Austen’s times on why people marry. Fanny (as well as Austen) believed marriage should be made for love while Mary Crawford stood for opportunistic marrying for position. Edmund wants to blame her upbringing as a rational explanation for Mary’s lack of a moral compass. Mary epitomized the ‘Old England’ while Fanny portrayed the ‘New England’ as it ‘should be.’
Austen uses her characters to force her readers to think and her novels always have an economic component to them; jockeying for position, especially among the women. Professor Broomfield took a few minutes to read Edmund’s dialogue on pp. 424-6 of the Penguin Classics edition, where Austen attempts to teach us why we should like Mary. Mary is telling Edmund that if Fanny had married Henry, none of the scandal would have happened. Edmund realizes he fell in love with an imaginary Mary. Mary’s sarcasm and cynicism clashes with Victorian ideals, and appears to us (in the 21st century) as a very modern attitude. Edmund, blinded to Mary’s un-virtues for much of the novel, is now disgusted by her, yet he is always sincere. Fanny, poor neglected and ignored Fanny, might as well have been an orphan, curtailed by her ambiguous class position throughout most of the novel. In contrast to the pale, wispy Fanny, Marilyn Flugum-James, seated next to Julienne Gehrer (a representative of the local Jane Austen Society), likened Mrs. Norris and Mary Crawford to ‘bright colors on the canvas of this novel.’
With only five minutes left, Professor Broomfield quickly skipped to the final question about any dramatizations we may have seen of Mansfield Park. I vaguely remember watching the much maligned 1999 film version, but only remember it as a period murder mystery (so perhaps I need to re-visit that film now). Many readers touted the 1980s era Masterpiece Theatre mini-series. The A&E version was also mentioned, but not as highly regarded.
And thus ended my second evening foray into the 19th century literature I managed to avoid both in high school and college (engineering and mathematics not lending studying time to the finer arts). I had a very enjoyable evening and look forward to next month’s discussion of Jane Eyre, published in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë under a masculine pen name. Professor Broomfield posed these questions in closing to ponder as we read (or re-read) Jane Eyre:
What makes this novel radical (when published, it created a huge scandal)?
What makes it Victorian?
I read Jane Eyre last year, not for this group, but rather as a prerequisite to reading Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. Ironically, Mr. Fforde headlines the signature event for the other winter adult reading program sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library on Thursday, March 17th. Look for a future blog post on my progress through some of the Altered States suggested readings.