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jane austen - mansfield park & persuasion

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Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and Persuasion

Austen’s often quoted analogy for her art as working on a little bit of ivory would seem to suggest her “apparent contentment to work artfully within restricted boundaries termed feminine” as Johnson put it, leading to Emerson’s famous comment that “the one problem in the mind of the author is marriageableness”.

The fact that Auster’s novels are seen as trivial because restricted to the parlour, as Fitzgerald says, can be seen as related to the value system which as Woolf says, judge books on war as "important," while books on "the feelings of women in a drawing room" are insignificant. However, as Gary Kelly notes, anti-Jacobean fiction is marked by the tendency to translate public issues into their private and domestic equivalents, as reactionary ideology which required women to be ‘feminine’ paradoxically infused domestic subjects, and in particular marriage, with a new dignity and urgency. As Vivien Jones notes, during the war of ideas definitions of femininity played a crucial part in wider redefinitions of social change.

Both Mansfield Park and Persuasion, written in the years which assured the reaction, revolve around the marriage plot. Like all Austen’s novels, they end with what Tanner calls the convention of marriage as felicitous closure. Both novels have been interpreted through a perspective which sees Austen as presenting her “pictures of perfection” as exemplary heroines modelled on conduct books, their marriages as paradigmatic marriages for society. Regarded externally, MP seems to be “the story of a girl who triumphs by doing nothing” as Tanner puts it, her extraordinary immobility rewarded in her promotion through marriage into a higher social position. MP has often been described as a stoic, static book which up an image of thoughtful tranquillity to a world of change.

Similarly, Butler has argued that in Persuasion, Wentworth’s final choice of Anna for a wife and “the discovery of true values which is implicit in that choice” is in line with conservative philosophy and plot of the dutiful daughter who puts the world around her to rights and is “implicitly the conscience and censor of her world”. This ending foregrounds the way Anna’s novels “give individual feeling moral authority” as Poovey notes, an aspect which can be seen as central to conservative ideology. However, Kirkham has argued that at this period of intense reaction for a woman “to become a writer was, in itself a feminist act.”

As Gilbert and Gubar note, the aesthetic problems conservative women writers faced began from the contradiction between their authorial role and their advocation female subordination. As Johnson notes, attempting to write while evading being aligned with Wollstonecraft, the hyena in petticoats, often meant developing strategies of subversion, taking advantage of the novel form which alone as Woolf put it “was young enough to be soft” in their hands. More importantly, the novel was often seen as women’s territory, ‘not clever enough’ for gentlemen as Catherine say in Northanger Abbey. Austen’s miniature art can be seen as a way to b “world conscious at slight risk”, in Bachelards words.

In both MP and Persuasion the heroines being contrasted to Maria and Ms Clay seem to indicate a conservative position, setting up a moral opposition between the fallen woman’s illicit liaison and the exemplary heroine’s lawful marriage. However it could be argued that this implicit chastising of the immoral woman was a technique which freed the author to advance reformist positions through the backdoor, something which critics have argued is the case with Hamilton’s carticature feminist Bridgetina Botherim.

The way Austen’s uses the types and situations of Burkean fiction but refuses to play them out in the same way can be seen in her problematizing the tradition of moral opposition in the representation of heroine’s rivals Mary and Louisa.

As Wiltshire argues any simplistic attempt to read MP as a conservative vindication of Fanny’s passivity is undermined by the fact that Mary and Fanny’s story parallel each other, both being brought up in an adoptive home. The similarities and the early friendship between them functions to decenter the prescriptive thrust of the plot, Austen according each almost equivalent narrative stature. Similarly, in Persuasion while Lousia’s independence is placed in opposition to Anne’s apparently commendable ability to suppress her feelings, Louisa’s speech can be seen not as an assertion of independence but as malleably conforming to WW’s influence to be rewarded by his praise. Both Mary and Louisa’s stories in this reading dramatise how and why female survival depends on gaining male approval , as Mary falls from favour and Louise falls to a debilitating dependency.

Surrounded by stories of female falls from autonomy, Austen’s heroines are “easily persuaded they must look to men for security, though their mothers prove how debilitating marriage can be”. While Austen ridiculed the idea that the only events worth recording were marriage proposals, the fact that her novels are limited to topics revolving around the heroine’s marriage implies its importance as the “only accessible form of self definition” for women at the time as Gilbert and Gubar put it. In this sense Austen’s restricting her novels to marriage as “the only honourable provision” as she put it in Pride and Prejudice can be seen as a way to explore the limitations of her heroines lives, as her “silences on other subjects becomes itself a kind of statement” commenting both on the deficient life of her heroines and testifying to her own deprivation as a woman writer.

As Jan Fergus notes, Austen can be seen to be exploring complex power relationship between women and a social world that reduces their options, exposing the contradictions of patriarchy which in MP both commends and suspects female modesty, as in Persuasion Wentworth both commends female strength and believes in women’s delicacy as a reason to keep them off ships, treating women as “fine ladies not rational creatures”.

In contrast, isisting that men and women share status as rational creatures, Mrs Croft’s statement takes the progressive position of Wollstonecraft, and as Jan Fergus notes, this independence reveals the narrowness of the lives of gentry matrons such as Mrs Musgrove. As Johnson suggests in Persuasion, Austen combines the 18th century liberal tradition of psychology Jonson referred to with social criticism to suggest the extent to which as Emma says, living in a small and inferior society makes one “cross and illiberal”.

In Persuasion the unnourishing world of ‘fine ladies’ is represented primarily through Elizabeth, whose spiritual impoverishment Austen connects to the “sameness” of her life”, as well as through Mary who responds to domestic drudgery with feminine invalidism. Similarly in MP, while Sir Thomas imagines Maria’s feelings are like Mrs Bertram’s not “acute”, her rebelliousness is concealed, because she knows she “cannot get out”.

Even Fanny, who is often read in terms of her sickly anti-vitality is as Gilbert and Gubar point out, preoccupied with her want of a horse. The dangers of solipsism and insularity represented in MP through the language of disease as Mrs Grant tells the Crawfords that MP will cure you, but it is soon revealed that it is not the newcomers who need to be cured but the house itself.

MP as Johnson argues can be seen as a “work of demystification” Austen’s ‘silence’ permitting her to “rewrite the lexicon of conservative discourse” as Burkean models of parental authority embodied in Sir Thomas and Mrs Bertram go awry, and what Burke called the “decent drapery of life” revealed to be obscuring the pretences of patriarchal myth. Similarly, in Persuasion family is revealed to be in danger of becoming an empty form, as Mrs Smith says “the smooth surface of family union seems worth preserving though there may be nothing durable beneath.”

Tanner argues, Persuasion is deeply shadowed by the sense of “changes, alienations, removals”. Similarly as Auerbach argues the world of MP is revealed to be terrifyingly malleable, threatened by newly opening spaces and economic fluctuations. While Fanny like Sir Thomas privileges the family circle, Persuasion charts Anne’s progress towards a realisation of the freedom of being “a citizen of many commonwealths” and the need for “elasticity of mind” and “finding employment”.

Unlike in Austen’s other novels where marriage has been seen as an emblem of the ideal union of property and propriety, Anne does not found her marraige on the basis of property. as Weisman points out she faces the possibility of being restored to her true home and old status, but refuses it as she confronts her mother’s unhappy marriage as a potential lifestory. She moves from regret at giving up Kellynch Hall to feeling that it is in “better hands” which Tanner argues passes verdict on the defection of a whole class.

However, while Poovey sees Persuasion in terms of a “state of total collapse” of a “social and ethical hierarchy superintended by the landed gentry” David Spring points out that it wasn’t until 1870 that the “erosion of the landed society” gathered force, and it could be argued that as Johnson says, in Persuasion the ruling society has not lost power but prestige and moral authority for the heroine. Anne’s autonomy seems to be a contrast to Fanny’s dependency and the absolute power behind Sir Thomas’s ‘advice’ in MP, however as Taylor notes Fanny’s refusal to marry for social advantage implies an assumption of self-responsibility.

While Fanny insists on the need for respect for male authority figures, there is as in Persuasion a suggestion of the erosion of patriarchy’s moral ground in that as Johnson notes she can only remain clean by defying authority figureheads, as conservative ideology’s basic imperatives are “wrested from their privileged claims and made like Edmund to relinquish their moral elevation.”

As Auerbach argues, Fanny is the “outsider who silently moves into the interior”, revealed to be the only one who has “judged rightly”. Similarly Anne as Wiltshite notes is initially without power in her family as at first without dramatic presence in the text. Both heroines gradually take up a central position, taking over the interpretative role of the narrator, as the other characters turn to them for help. As in MP, Edmund and Sir Thomas are “silenced” by Maria’s elopement and Mary’s outspokenness, in Persuasion Wentworth doesn’t know what to do when Louisa falls, speaking what are as Tanner notes unusual words for a hero: “is there no one to help me?” in a role reversal in which Anne finally finds that “her words were listened to”.

In the central scene which becomes the novels climax, what Tanner interprets as the “loaded incident” of the pen falling carries a suggestion of openness to an unscripted relathionship in which old patterns have been dropped. As Litz notes, in Persuasion Anne is “denied retreat into the obsolete manners symbolized by MP”.

Tanner has argued that in MP Fanny’s marriage symbolises a purgation and reconstitution of the social order, in contrast to Anne’s which signifies nothing larger than her own reconstituted happiness, society to far gone to be put to rights. In both novels however Austen does not complacently celebrate the status quo. As Tanner says “at best society has to be purged, at worst rejected.” In Persuasion, this rejection suggests an alternative unlanded society in the navy which as Spacks argues represents an openness towards new horizons. Gilbert and Gulbar point out that this ending represents a union of male and female spheres as men partake in domestic life and women contribute to public events. Happiness is finally achieved not in great houses but in the dispositions of people who “walk along in happy independence.”

However it could be argued that reading MP as conservative and Persuasion as moving towards a progressive position is simplistic. As Gilbert and Gubar note, that Anne can only replace the Barontage with a Navy list suggests the limits of this alternative society, and in this sense Persuasion like MP seems to bear out Fraiman’s argument that Austen’s heoines often offer an observer's perspective on women's inferior position in society, but are then quickly reincorporated back into that patriarchal society.

However as Auerbach argues, in MP the ‘reconstituted’ household of collapsed hopes bears little resemblance to the place Fanny had grown up in, and the marriage itself rather than being a paradigmantic marriage for society is undermined, as Johnson points out, by the suggestion of incext and the usual parodic elements in Austen’s conclusions, which often seem in Gilbert and Gubar’s words to “bring the couple to the brink of bliss in such haste the entire message seems undercut”.

As Tanner notes, the ‘lesson’ in Persuasion, which is articulated in Lady Russel’s realisation that she had been “pretty completely wrong” is “not in itself revolutionary or subversive but represents a radical turn away from old values, an in-between uncertain status”. This indicates that as Johnson argues, during a time when all social criticism came to be associated with the radical cause, Austen “defended and enlarged a progressive middle ground”.

As Margaret Ann Doody has said, the peculiar difficulty which confronted women in the 18c was that “a woman was not supposed to be judgemental,” problematising the notion of authorship and authorial self styling. Giordano argues that “the way out of this conflict was…a circuitous route of creative avoidance,” as women writers developed strategies of subversion, not rejecting the convections at their disposal but reinventing and exploiting them to suggest their inadequacy, in a way which allowed them in de Lauretis terms to “answer deviously…to quote (but against the grain).”


written: 2008
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