24 March, 2010


Aha! The most recent Am Civ class has cast a wonderful light upon the Teufelsdröckh chapter whose references to Wagner so mystified me earlier. German Romanticism as it connects to American Transcendentalism! There, my friends, is the key. Henry Adams liked neither one, particularly as the wife who committed suicide during that 20 years of silence was an American (Concord) transcendentalist who followed in her mother's, aunt's, sister's and brother's footsteps in deciding that a clock-work universe with an indifferent God wasn't worth living in.

German Romanticism -> Transcendentalism -> Existentialism?

That's the question. I believe a defensible argument could be made for their essential similarity and, who knows, maybe Henry Adams has already made one. I will continue to read and see.

New Links

So, as you can probably tell, this past couple of days has been my "lets go do a ton of stuff to the blog that I've pretty much neglected for two weeks" week.

Aside from thinking obsessively about Romanticism, Moby Dick, Henry Adams, and Existentialism (oh you wonderful 19th century!) for the past semester, I've also been discovering and adding links for some excellent blogs.

Among the links on the sides, you'll find "Túrin Speaks", a blog by a fellow UD student who's quite widely read and is studying English as well (the blog also includes a fair amount of math posts for those readers who like numbers). "The Daily Kraken" is one I only just found, but seems to have some excellent things to say on religion, politics, and art; it also includes movie reviews. "Geopolitical" is less a blog than a series of well-polished articles by J.R. Nyquist: I've been reading these obsessively of late, so well does their content mesh with my current interests; they are both well-written and highly informed.

Do check them out if you have any interest in those sorts of things!

22 March, 2010

The Quest for the Force

No, this post has nothing whatsoever to do with the unfortunate science fiction trilogy (more than that now?), "Star Wars" (I will probably never be able to get past the execrable acting and dismally waffling philosophy of that series).

Happily, my subject is Henry Adams instead. First off, Please tell me not that this book is convoluted or confusing! Its complexity pales in comparison to, say, that of Moby Dick, which itself is not such an arduous read, though certainly (like HA) deserving of multiple readings which will only flesh out a single strongly coherent argument.

For instance, he spends three of his post-twenty-years-of-silence chapters ("The Dynamo and the Virgin", "Twilight", and "Teufelsdrockh") reiterating the same essential point: explaining (more explicitly than is his usual ironic habit) his search for education as a search for a dynamic Force that gives history some direction and thus some meaning. This search he frames in terms (quite brilliantly) of a conflict between the power of Science and the power of Woman (take that, ye twentieth-century feminists!). Is the Dynamo or the Virgin (Woman imagined specifically as imaged in the figure of Mary, the mother of God) the real driving force of history? That's something I'll have to get into later; it's largely the focus of "The Dynamo and the Virgin" and "Teufelsdrockh", whereas "Twilight" has to take a bit of a time out to return to Adam's age old argument for the idea that there should be such a force to identify at all.

People need to recognize someunifying force if they're going to think at all. He comes into the chapter presupposing that, and proceeds to explain a bit. While the multitudinous heirs of the Enlightenment were invested in bringing to light such a panoply of seemingly unconnected bits of information, a similarly multitudinous series of drastically opposing "explanations" for how these might be thought to fit together were springing up on every side--Darwinism, chemistry, physics, progressive history:
All one's life, one had struggled for unity, and unity had always won. The National Government and the national unity had overcome every resistance, and the Darwinian evolutionists were triumphant over all the curates; yet the greater the unity and momentum, the worse became the complexity and the friction.

A strangely ambivalent statement. You'd think the man whose nostalgia for the 18th century world of the Founding Fathers, even for the unified world of Christian Medieval Europe, would hardly identify unity and directionality in history as itself the very source of multiplicity and the confusion of the early modern (1901) era. Now that's a taste of his irony coming through. Yes, national government and Darwin are examples of modern attempts at a synthesis, but that doesn't mean they succeed, despite his ironic praise of "the Darwinian evolutionists"' triumph "over all the curates". All these efforts for unity prove is that everyone wants it, that "the wisest of men could but imitate the Church, and invoke a 'larger synthesis' to unify the anarchy again". In actuality, for the thinking individual, Darwin (and his analogues in other disciplines--Hegel, for instance) doesn't have the final answers: "The ganoid fish [a subject of evolutionists' study] seemed to prove--to him--that it had selected neither new form nor new force, but that the curates were right in thinking that force could be increased in volume or raised in tintensity only by help of outside force...a little more, and he would be driven back on the old independence of species" (my emphasis).

Now please don't dismiss Mr. Adams as a stodgy old conservative afraid of scientific ideas. He was actually obsessed with science to an almost amusing degree throughout his life, and quite the rabid Darwinian (by his own account) as a young man. No, he's not afraid of evolutionary theory as it exists in biology. What he's protesting against is that that single biological concept (not less than physical theories about magnetism and electricity a little later) is being held up as an alternative to traditional faith. These modern "wise men" would have us believe not merely that Darwinism explains something, but that it explains everything.

Truly the animal that is to be trained to unity must be caught young. Unity is vision; it must have been part of the process of learning to see. The older the mind, the older its coomplexities, and the further it looks, the more it sees, until even the stars resolve themselves into multiples; yet the child will always see but one.

Aside from being an excellent bit of prose, this comment helps (ironically, once again) to further refine his position. Both the old mind and the child as depicted here are seeing part of a truth, but each one is to some extent missing the whole. The child--seen again and again in Henry Adams' depiction of his younger self--thirsts for the type of unity that all these theories attempt to provide, and has faith in man's potential to find it. In a way, the child is right. Unity is real, and it can be accessed by men. What he doesn't have such a strong natural instinct for is the idea that it can't be discovered by men. "For human purposes a point must always soon be reached where larger synthesis is suicide." In this, Henry Adams is shamelessly hearkening back to the traditional Christian conviction of the necessity of revelation to provide the final "synthesis" of history that human reason cannot discern for itself. As appealing as their claims to authority may be, Darwinism, Hegelianism, Marxism, Scientism, etc. are ultimately misleading in the way they narrow the meaning of the universe to whatever their proper discipline can comprehend.

This latter point is precisely what the older mind comes to comprehend. Attempted on a purely human level, the synthesis seems an impossibility, an invitation to ruin, an intellectual suicide. Complexity seems unavoidable as one begins to learn that while Darwin might have a decent explanation for the meaning of life and Hegel a slightly different one, the physicist and chemist is in possession of a hundred other facts that reduce the former to a jumble (though maybe one that can still be synthesized). And none of these have even the slightest explanation for the mysterious power of Woman--Adams' way of figuring those other forces of duty, faith, love, and family. Yet to ignore these (as is so often done) is to mutilate human history; one must simply take everything up to Descartes and lop it off ("Oh, those were just the 'Dark Ages'"), then proceed to explain the post-Cartesian believers in such antiquities as fascinating sociological relics of a long-extinct Age of Ignorance.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Woman vs. the Machine is a fight to save for a later post. All I'm trying to get at is the idea that once you've seen more of the world than the young Darwinian or young Hegelian, one human explanation for everything begins to seem a bit pale. Blast! Can't we have a sythesis after all then? Maybe we should just do as the turn-of-the-century society was beginning to do: "throw up [our] hands and [avow] that progress depended on studying each rock as a law to itself." Why not? Well, it all comes back to the very quotidian fact that we can't think, we can't see ("Unity is vision") except in context...of something. The mid twentieth century would begin to admit utter meaninglessness as a possible "explanation" for the world; cf. Jean-Paul Sartre and the other Existentialists for whom nothing means anything and only the stark fact of free choice has any reality. Henry Adams is not an existentialist. And who can blame him? Existentialism is really the most logical answer to anyone who tries to locate the core of reality in human measurements of a physical world, or even in human measurements of what various theoretical models of that world, but no one wants to be one. Sartre's students had an unfortunate tendency to throw themselves off bridges when hearing one of his particularly dismal proofs of the meaninglessness of life.

There's an alternative, of course. You could--but don't do it: you'll be anathema to the orthodoxy of modernism--you could search for that meaning...outside of human society. You could admit the fact that perhaps the faith of the Church, which Adams so frequently refers to in ironically degrading-but-really-uplifting-because-he's-echoing-the-modernists terms. Because that's what Adams wants you to get out of these chapters, "Twilight" in particular.

Henry Adams' desperate protest rather reminds me of Puddleglum's heroic speech in The Silver Chair, when the witch is trying to enchant away the childrens' belief that there is anything real beyond the dim, two-dimensional reality of her cave world: "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones."

Anyway, more to come, most likely. The book certainly deserves it.

Fall of the Republic?

"It appears that in all great crises of world history most people utterly deceive themselves as to where they stand, just as if Providence had drawn a veil over the impending disaster."
--Wilhelm Roepke

Quoted in an excellent and timely article by J.R. Nyquist.

In another article, this one specifically on the Fall of the Roman Republic and also worth reading, Nyquist examines the conception of liberty in law as being the unforced but ordered pursuit of a non-subjective justice. A pertinent passage

Cicero was the first to systematically promote the idea of a government of laws and not of men, based on justice. A commonwealth, said Cicero, is “an assemblage of people in large numbers associated in an agreement with respect to justice and a partnership for the common good.” According to Dickinson, “For Cicero the essence of tyranny is lawlessness; the two are synonymous. Where there is tyranny, there cannot be a state in any proper sense, since the essential characteristic of the state is law.” We may be reminded of George Orwell’s characterization of totalitarian socialism in his novel, 1984, as a “lawless order.” With Cicero we find that legitimate authority is always lawful, while illegitimate authority has the character of lawlessness. This line of thinking, developed by Cicero, heavily influenced modern thinkers from Montesquieu to Locke and Adam Smith. In Cicero’s view, freedom was made possible by a system of checks and balances in which no man or party could tyrannize over society. In this way, power could be limited, and all would be subject to the same rules. The objective of government, said Cicero, was to foster a harmonious state “by agreement among dissimilar elements, brought about by a fair and reasonable blending together of the upper, middle, and lower classes, just as if they were musical tones. What the musicians call harmony in song is concord in a State, the strongest and best bond of permanent union in any commonwealth; and such concord can never be brought about without the aid of justice.”

21 March, 2010

From Pope Gelasius' Letter to Emperor Anastasius

"There are two orders, O August Emperor, by which this world is principally ruled: the consecrated authority of the pontiffs, and royal power [auctoritas sacrata pontificum, et regalis potestas]. But the burden laid upon the priests in this matter is the heavier, for it is they who are to render an account at the Divine judgment even for the kings of men. Know, O most clement Son, that although you take precedence over the human race in dignity, nonetheless you bend your neck in devout submission to those who preside over things Divine, and look to them for the means of your salvation. In partaking of the heavenly sacraments, when they are properly dispensed, you acknowledge that you ought to be subject to the order of religion rather than ruling it…For if the ministers of religion, acknowledging that your rule, insofar as it pertains to the keeping of public discipline, has been given to you by Divine disposition, obey your laws, lest they seem to obstruct the proper course of worldly affairs: with what good will, I pray, ought you to obey those who have been charged with the dispensation of the holy mysteries?"

20 March, 2010

The Education of Henry Adams

This is a marvelous book. And I must say, that's not hyperbole in the least, despite the fact that beyond a few remaining strongholds of stodgy academia it's barely known. And that is despite the fact that it's a Pulitzer prize winner consistently reaching the pinnacle of lists of "Best Non-Fiction of all Time".

It is perhaps a tough read in certain respects. At least, if you go into it expecting a clear and direct account of precisely what Mr. Adams thinks about 19th and early 20th century America, you'll most likely toss the book across the room before getting through the first few chapters, frustrated by what seems egregiously scattered thought and woefully ambiguous attitudes towards everything he mentions. Don't read it that way. It's ironic, and obviously so, as long as you're alerted to the fact (I came into it alerted, fortunately).

It's superficially an account of Henry Adam's attempts to educate himself, yet its underlying aim is to delve into the heart of what America really means, to provide an account of the purpose of this country during a time when various attempts at consolidation of Senatorial power and the growth of utilitarianism throughout the western world was challenging the Founders' original conception of its purpose. Did I say challenging? The entire structure of academia and the practice of government at the time directly contradicted the idea that we're a government not of liberty for license but of liberty for excellence; that the Declaration of Independence was affirming not freedom from traditional structures, but recognizing the contemporary European attempts (especially in England and France) to collapse the boundaries between Church and state as antithetical to one of the most essential tenets of Christianity since the late Roman era (see Pope Gelasius' declaration of the necessary separation of Church and state all the way back in 492 AD: "There are two powers by which chiefly this world is ruled: the sacred authority of the priesthood and the authority of kings."). Puritains, Cavaliers, Non-Conformists, Scottish Presbyterians, Irish Catholics all came to America to evade the tradition-squelching bulldozer of the modern homogeneous nation-state, in particular the Leviathan state of the British parliament (which drew into itself first religious, then royal power before absorbing the Scottish and Irish parliaments).

America, Adams argues (though not explicitly till after the chapter "Twenty Years After") is the land of those free to abide by their traditions, not of F.J. Turner's frontiersmen, stripped of their tradition by their encounter with the State of Nature, not of Benjamin Franklin's utilitarianism that would have us all be finding happiness as nice, comfortable, productive machines (traditions? holidays? Holy Days? Ritual? what useless bosh!). It is a deliberately UNprogressive place, he holds, though his younger self whom he sometimes mercilessly parodies in the earlier chapters at times seems to find the Progressive model of history appealing in its claims to bring about "The Perfection of Human Society".

At the risk of sounding a bit self-important, I must say I think some of my earlier posts might be helpful if the idea of liberty for excellence seems extremely alien, so I've been linking to them throughout (plus they help to round out what must necessarily be a skeletal account of things if it is to avoid being far too long for a blog post). It's not a popular idea nowadays, as Henry Adams already discerned all the way back in 1918. If you really want some good stuff on that idea though, I recommend Cicero's De Officiis (how we can understand man's natural rights in terms of his moral obligations), Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, John Paul II's "Veritatis Splendor" (intrinsically evil acts), or Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's account of women's experiences in slavery (Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South).

This is a book that I will almost certainly keep writing about from time to time. However simple its main point may be, it is rather brilliantly complex on a more detailed level, making its point in a hundred different ways, using a thousand different images for what he means. And any of the chapters that relies heavily on a concept that you may not be familiar with (as I was not familiar with the overall meaning of Wagner's oeuvre while reading "Teufelsdröckh") automatically becomes a bit more difficult as it demands that you do a bit more leg work to get at his meaning than you may be accustomed to (unless you're a classics major or something).

17 March, 2010

St. Patrick's Day

Time to savor just a few examples of what Catholic Ireland has given the world over the past 1000 years.

Nell Flaherty's Drake

God Bless England

The Croppy Boy

The Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, The Chieftains, etc.


Irish Cottage Bread:

Irish Whiskey Cake:


Tons and Tons of Poetry:

Ag so an cogadh do chriochnaigh Éire
s do chuir na milte ag iarri dearca...
Do rith plaig is gorta in aonacht

("This was the war that finished Ireland and put thousands begging, plague and famine ran together")

Caithfidh fir Éireann uile
o haicme go haonduine...
gliec na timcheall no tuitim

("All Irishmen from one person to all people must unite or fall")

Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad,
tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár;
níl trácht ar Chill Chais ná a teaghlach,
is ní bainfear a cling go bráth;
an áit úd ina gcónaíodh an deighbhean
a fuair gradam is meidhir thar mná,
bhíodh iarlaí ag tarraing thar toinn ann,
is an tAifreann binn á rá.

What shall we do from now on without timber?
The last of the woods is gone.
No more of Kilcash and its household
And its bells will not ring again.
The place where that great lady lived
Who received esteem and love above all others
Earls came from overseas to visit there
And Mass was sweetly read.

Antoine Ó Raifteiri (Last of the wandering bards)

Má fhaighimse sláinte is fada bheidh trácht
Ar an méid a bádh as Eanach Cuain.
'S mo thrua 'márach gach athair 's máthair
Bean is páiste 'tá á sileadh súl!
A Rí na nGrást a cheap neamh is párthas,
Nar bheag an tábhacht dúinn beirt no triúr,
Ach lá chomh breá leis gan gaoth ná báisteach
Lán a bháid acu scuab ar shiúl.
Nár mhór an t-íonadh ós comhair na ndaoine

Á bhfeicáil sínte ar chúl a gcinn,
Screadadh 'gus caoineadh a scanródh daoine,
Gruaig á cíoradh 's an chreach á roinnt.
Bhí buachaillí óg ann tíocht an fhómhair,
Á síneadh chrochar, is a dtabhairt go cill.
'S gurb é gléas a bpósta a bhí dá dtoramh
'S a Rí na Glóire nár mhór an feall.

If my health is spared I'll be long relating
Of that boat that sailed out of Anach Cuain.
And the keening after of mother and father
And child by the harbour, the mournful croon!
King of Graces, who died to save us,
T'were a small affair but for one or two,
But a boat-load bravely in calm day sailing
Without storm or rain to be swept to doom.
What wild despair was on all the faces

To see them there in the light of day,
In every place there was lamentation,
And tearing of hair as the wreck was shared.
And boys there lying when crops were ripening,
From the strength of life they were borne to clay
In their wedding clothes for their wake they robed them
O King of Glory, man's hope is in vain.

The Forge
Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

The Book of Kells:

Daniel O'Connell:

"The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood"

"Gentlemen, you may soon have the alternative to live as slaves or die as free men"

"... the domination of England is the sole and blighting curse of this country. It is the incubus that sits on our energies, stops the pulsation of the nation’s heart and leaves to Ireland not gay vitality but horrid the convulsions of a troubled dream."

"Good God, what a brute man becomes when ignorant and oppressed. Oh Liberty! What horrors are committed in thy name! May every virtuous revolutionist remember the horrors of Wexford!"

Castles (defense against Normans and English) and Cottages :

St. Brigid of Ireland:

I'd like to give a lake of beer to God.
I'd love the Heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.

I'd love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I'd put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.

White cups of love I''d give them,
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I'd offer
To every man.

I'd make Heaven a cheerful spot,
Because the happy heart is true.
I'd make the men contented for their own sake
I'd like Jesus to love me too.

I'd like the people of heaven to gather
From all the parishes around,
I'd give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.

I'd sit with the men, the women of God
There by the lake of beer
We'd be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.

"Known as "the Mary of the Gael," Brigid founded the monastery of Kildare and was known for spirituality, charity, and compassion. St. Brigid also was a generous, beer-loving woman. She worked in a leper colony which found itself without beer, "For when the lepers she nursed implored her for beer, and there was none to be had, she changed the water, which was used for the bath, into an excellent beer, by the sheer strength of her blessing and dealt it out to the thirsty in plenty." Brigid is said to have changed her dirty bathwater into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink. Obviously this trait would endear her to many a beer lover. She also is reputed to have supplied beer out of one barrel to eighteen churches, which sufficed from Maundy Thursday to the end of paschal time. A poem attributed to Brigid in the Brussel's library begins with the lines "I should like a great lake of ale, for the King of the Kings. I should like the family of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal."

St. Patrick himself:

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God's Power to guide me,
God's Might to uphold me,
God's Wisdom to teach me,
God's Eye to watch over me,
God's Ear to hear me,
God's Word to give me speech,
God's Hand to guide me,
God's Way to lie before me,
God's Shield to shelter me,
God's Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the deck,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

04 March, 2010

Morals or Preference: Education in Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park is in more ways than one a story of education. Jane Austen not only chronicles the growth of her protagonist from a timid eight-year-old to a strongly principled young woman here; she also traces the miseducation of a panoply of characters from Maria Bertram to Mary and Henry Crawford. While Fanny flourishes under Edmund's tutelage, others—most strikingly the Crawfords—have personal charm and good nature to spare, yet are corrupted through lack of guidance and bad example. One brief episode from Fanny's visit to Portsmouth in the final third of the novel isolates this theme, framing the question in simpler terms than would be appropriate among the finely nuanced characters inhabiting Mansfield with their complex interrelationships. The basic narrative of the episode is simple: Fanny reacquaints herself with her younger sister, Susan, eventually discerning the girl's excellent nature, and gradually gains the confidence to guide her in refining her actions to accord with this. Yet behind Austen's satire here is the serious question of whether education might not be overrated as encouraging true morality when its true effect is to make one agree with the tastes of respectable, upper-middle class England. While Fanny essentially identifies herself as an inculcator of morality, her reliability is called into question by her overall attitude towards her childhood and adoptive homes, which often seems more a matter of personal taste than the weight she lends it would warrant. Ultimately, the narrative resolves the question by finding in the great literature of the world an objective standard by which both Fanny and the reader can evaluate what sort of behavior is morally praiseworthy.

Though she introduces this chapter with an epistolary portion and ends it describing Fanny's expectation of another letter, Austen focuses exclusively on the situation at Fanny's home in Portsmouth throughout the central portion. Much of this central panel is descriptive rather than plot driven: Fanny analyzes her sister's character, her opinions channeled through narrative use of free indirect discourse, as when she admits to herself that “Susan tried to be useful, where she could only have gone away and cried” (Austen, 388). Musing that it was not “wonderful” that a “girl of fourteen acting only on her own unassisted reason, should err,” Fanny begins to understand that Susan is constantly busy and argumentative not with the same viciousness as Mrs. Norris habitually displays, but through a genuine but uninstructed desire to help her family (Austen, 388). Yet despite her ability to see “much that was wrong at home” and to attempt to “set it right” she clearly needs direction in how to put these aspirations into effect. Reticent by nature, Fanny cannot at first “imagine herself capable of guiding or informing anyone”; yet her meditations on the matter embolden her and she exerts herself increasingly to assist her sister, first by giving her “occasional hints,” then by settling the knife controversy between Susan and Betsey (Austen, 389). Ultimately identifying Susan's difficulty as lack of a “cousin Edmund to direct her thoughts and form her principles” Fanny begins to imitate Edmund's method of directing principles through encouraging reading (Austen, 390). “Daring” in her new wealth, she subscribes to a “circulating library” and creates an upstairs retreat reminiscent of her own apartment at Mansfield in which she and Susan could work, talk, and read (Austen, 390).

As well-intentioned as Fanny herself is, this decision to take the moral education of her sibling in hand may appear almost presumptuous. The “deficiencies” she perceives at Portsmouth are less problematic than she assumes; the narrative comment that “the men appeared [my emphasis] to her all coarse, the women all pert” is tinged with an irony that recalls Fanny’s complaints about her family in the previous chapter (Austen, 387). It is surely not quite dysfunctional, still less morally problematic, for a large family to be boisterous, though her criticisms of her parents’ indifference may be justified (Austen, 383). Moreover, the letter that opens this narrative further calls into question whether Fanny’s principles might not be more a matter of taste than of morality. Though hardly Miss Crawford’s friend, Fanny is “really glad to receive [Mary’s] letter,” finding in it a vicarious return to the “good society” from which she is presently exiled (Austen, 386). The satirical comments about Maria and Julia and the upsetting recollection of Henry’s newfound preoccupation—which compose the bulk of the letter—Fanny summarily passes over as “food for…unpleasant meditation”: any news from good society, even framed in biting terms, is to be preferred to the riotousness of Portsmouth (Austen, 387).
Yet even interpreted in these unflattering terms, Fanny’s response to Susan admits of a compelling defense. Fanny’s slight snobbery does not discredit her entire understanding of morality. She is often, as seen in her reaction to the Crawfords, the only one capable of discerning the presence or absence of integrity in a character. Much of what she sees in Susan is in need of some correction, as we see when the latter contentiously adheres to her own will throughout the longstanding quarrel over “the sore subject of the silver knife” (Austen, 389). And it does not require a stretch of the imagination to conceive that an active, orderly, helpful child whose “looks and language” are “very often indefensible” in their argumentativeness might, if neglected, grow up into a second Mrs. Norris (Austen, 388-89).

Moreover, while Fanny does consider herself privileged by “her own more favored education” to have “juster notions of what was due to every body,” her delicacy and timidity about interfering in the first place suggest that she will not simply be attempting to impose her tastes on Susan (Austen, 389). More crucially, although this is mentioned only at the close of the account, books are carefully highlighted as of primary importance in both Fanny’s memory of her own education and Susan’s present curriculum. To read a good book is to intend some sort of “improvement” that is not tied to the likes and dislikes of one’s associates, but to a tradition reaching back to the beginnings of Western literary history. Certainly an educator must have good principles himself to be the “chuser of books” if the education is to be good, but this is no impediment for Fanny, just as it was not for Edmund years before. The “biography and poetry” in which Fanny delights essentially allow her to transmit her notions of what is good without expressing them solely in her own potentially biased terms (Austen, 391).

This chapter as a whole mirrors the structure of the entire novel, which centers on the narrative of Fanny’s education, and then branches out to complicate the depiction of her upbringing with the advent of the Crawfords, whose charm and initial appearance of conversion calls into question whether education is truly crucial for a person to develop a good character. The outcome of the book clearly affirms that education is necessary to prevent the corruption of the well-meaning Fanny and Susan into the second generation’s Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris by checking their respective tendencies to passivity and aggressive activity. Yet here, as in the denouement of the novel, Austen resolves the question by invoking a higher moral authority than that of Fanny alone. While the Crawfords are ultimately condemned and Fanny’s education implicitly endorsed by the universal verdict of Edmund, Fanny, Sir Thomas, society in general, and even the readership, this minor dilemma is resolved when Austen reminds us that fallible as even Fanny is, her tutelage will find its support in books. Despite the fallibility of human teachers, Austen affirms, the benefits of education may be preserved through an effort to delve into the annals of tradition and learn from great men and women long dead the means by which a good life can be achieved.