15 February 2012

Mansfield Park

There is a great deal of romantic intrigue and social jockeying in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Early in the novel, Maria Bertram marries the pompous and extremely boring Mr. Rushforth (I never approved of this connection, by the way) as an affair of convenience. The visit to the Grants of the young Crawfords, Henry and Mary, brings not only an air of chaos and irreverence to Mansfield Park, but leads to a variety of potential flirtations:  Edmund Bertram, the younger brother, falls in love with Mary, and the flirt Henry vows to make Fanny fall in love with him. In the process, he falls in love with Fanny but knowing too well his character, repulses him. Besides, Fanny loves Edmund.  Of Mary’s affections we are never too privy, but she seems receptive to Edmund’s approaches.
And then there is the explosive (well, at least for an Austen novel!) finale when Henry Crawford suddenly runs off with the married Maria (Bertram) Rushforth and her younger sister, Julia, elopes with Mr. Yates. The Bertram family is crushed, and their troubles only increase when the older son, Tom, becomes dangerously ill and close to death after a debauched week in London drinking and eating. Things do not look good at Mansfield Park. Of course, all ends somewhat happily: Fanny and Edmund marry, and Susan, Fanny’s sister, assumes Fanny’s place at Mansfield as ward. Tom survives a chastened man. The Bertrams resign themselves to Julia’s marriage, though they cannot forgive Maria’s sudden flight with Henry Crawford. No matter, his soon tiring and casting off of her and Maria’s eventual retirement with her bothersome aunt, Mrs. Norris, justly condemns her to a solitary, dull but rather contentious life away from Mansfield Park.
But with all of this talk of love and marriage, it is remarkable to me how suppressed the passion in the novel remains. That passion must be all buried in the prose. I cannot imagine any one of the characters ever taking off his or her clothes in front of the other, much less engaging in sexual activity. Kissing seems out of the question, and except for an occasional arm linking during a casual stroll on the grounds or on the ramparts in town, there is no evidence of physical touching. Though Fanny wishes to be in the company of Edmund, and though Henry avows his strong, undying affection for Fanny; though Edmund longs for relationship with Mary Crawford, there is no evidence of any feverish desire or passionate drive to couple. It is as if the characters are chess pieces whose moves are determined by the rules of the game. There is a stiffness and propriety that denies all evidence of passion and life.
But towards the end the narrator—who occasionally appears as “I” in the text—reports Edmund’s growing interest in Fanny Price; he comes to accept that she could be his wife. And the narrator says of this change in Edmund: “I purposely refrain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people.” Passion here is something to be overcome by the establishment of formal relationships. But the next phrase complicates the issue:  ‘”unchanging attachments” may be transferred from one to another, though in what time scheme depends very much on the nature of the individual. Thus Austen suggests that what remains unchanged is the passion that has established the relationship in the first place though the object of that passion can be varied. Passion underlies the behavior, though custom and propriety suppress its appearance. The constancy is passion.


Anonymous Dottie Obeck said...

Where can I found an access to a copy of this ballad novel? It's really hard for me to have instant copies of these novels because I am located for away from bookstores and even in town. I am really a bookworm of these novels and I hope someone could deliberately give the best answer to my request.

22 February, 2012 23:25  

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