07 July, 2007

Mansfield Park

Oddly enough many people I've talked to seem to have a lot of trouble warming up to this book. It's true that it is much less obviously hilarious than Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice, but it does have its pricelessly funny characters, and has witty observations in profusion.

The most common complaint does not refer, anyway, to book's comparative "lack of humour", but to a perceived lack of interesting-ness on the part of the main character, Fanny Price. She is, many people say, far too good to be real, and far too predictable to be interesting. I think that this is a rather unfair accusation. Fanny is quite a morally upright character it's true, but if you look at the theme of the book from at least one standpoint, you have to admit that her goodness is absolutely essential.

After this philosophy class, it's hardly a shock that I'm going to relate the approach I'm inclined to take to the book back to that phenomenal essay "Leisure, the Basis of Culture." In the book, Mansfield Park is the center of activity by being the still point around which the rest of the action revolves. It is a distinctly quiet and sedentary place (not always a good thing) but Fanny rather treasures the peace it offers.

The title is enough to tell you that the book tends to view things from the perspective of Mansfield. Not from the perspective of the inhabitants of Mansfield, mind you. They tend to exhibit various perversions of peace - most particularly apathy and laziness (the most obvious example of such a character is Lady Bertram). But the central "good" of the novel does without doubt lie in an undistorted peace which is simultaneously one of Fanny's highest amibitions and the only possible resolution of the story's plot.

This is most distinctly seen in several chapters towards the end of the book in which Fanny visits her very large, lower-class family. She is unremittingly distressed by their loudness and lack of manners, as well as by the general disarray of the house and family activities. Anyone in a large family will probably be struck first off by the irony of Fanny's expectations - she is, after all, expecting from her family all the "manners" and "neatness" which servants enable the higher classes to attain. That observation is slightly immaterial from the perspective of the book's point however. The desire for neatness and peace, for everything to be be naturally as it should be is the crux of these scenes, at least when viewed from this angle. (Yes, the irony of Fanny's discomfort, now that I mention it, appears even more pronounced - that alone would probably be enough on which to found a good-sized paper)

She is not, however, an interfering hypocrite like her odious Aunt Norris. Although she is perhaps wrongly distressed by natural family craziness, she tries to help correct tendencies which are at least mildly bad by working quietly herself, not making a fuss, but working quite diligently. This characteristic of being able to quietly do what she believes needs to be done, while managing not to become meddling or complaining seems to point to a quality of "being able to be at leisure". This rather long phrase is one of the concepts that lies at the heart of Pieper's essay. True leisure, he says is not only the ability to rest in God, but also to have the great boldness to rest in oneself. It is the rare person who can see himself as he really is, and to have the confidence to be at peace both with what God has made him, and with what he has made in turn of God's creation.

Fanny's stubborn refusal to act against her conscience denotes the former part of this aspect of leisure. And although the second part is displayed in many ways, I should think her denunciation of playacting shows it off particularly well. By almost any other interpretation, this attack on acting would be pretty near inexplicable. After all, not only does almost every kid have fun "putting on plays", but Jane Austen was very often among the foremost actors in family theatricals. I believe that the critique here is aimed at an attitude which the theater only symbolizes - an attitude which is contrary to the second definition of leisure. Notice that the best actor in the theatricals - Henry Crawford - is also the best actor in real life. He is in fact so thoroughly an actor that he seems unable to distinguish his own desire for happiness from a desire to play a dramatic role in life. He ends up making a rather big fool of himself. (I can't really elaborate or I'd totally wreck the story, unfortunately.) He, like most of the other characters involved in the "acting chapters" is skewed by being too at ease playing a part and not enough at ease being genuinely himself.

Many critics seem to take issue with Fanny's goodness. They appear offended by what they must see as caving to respectability on the part of the "rebellious" creator of Elizabeth Bennet. I think Fanny's strong, if unvarying moral backbone provides the only possible support to a story which is very much about rest. Not, as in much angsty modern literature about a restless search for a peace which the anti-hero eventually thinks in despair to be impossible, but actual peace. Seen from that perspective, I don't think the retiring Fanny Price is quite such an obnoxious goody-goody after all.

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