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.

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