… “as the starling said”. Through the lens of Mary Wollstonecraft, what does it mean to be free in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park?
In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft composed A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, turning the energy of change and revolution in late 18th century Britain to the cause of women. She sought to emancipate her sex from the “perpetual childhood” imposed by a patriarchy which saw women as innately weaker than men both physically and mentally. It is in Vindication that she makes the radical claim that, by denying equal education, “man chains the very soul of woman, keeping her forever under the bondage of ignorance”.
Chiefly referencing Rousseau (who, Wollstonecraft notes, saw women as both innately incapable of reason and yet – bizarrely – in charge of educating children), and John Gregory (whose A Father’s Legacy To His Daughters advised young women to be silent and submissive in order to attract a husband), Vindication challenged conventional notions of who and what a woman should be. Wollstonecraft called for women to become intellectually equal, physically strong and their own moral agents.
Two decades later, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park occupies a similar theoretical space. For this reason, I am using Vindication as a reference point to the central themes of education, morality and womanhood found in Mansfield Park. Looked at in a Wollstonecraftian light, these topics are questions of liberty: explorations of – and quests for – freedom.
Austen’s text tells the story of Fanny Price, an impoverished young girl who is sent to live with her wealthy relatives, the Bertrams. From humble beginnings, Fanny emerges as the heroine and moral figurehead of the text, and her story ends with the happy marriage to her (cough) cousin Edmund, for whom she has secretly and some say creepily pined all along.
Fanny’s journey is sharply contrasted with that of other female characters – particularly her cousin Maria and her foil, Mary Crawford, who acts as a serious rival for Edmund’s affections. It is through these contrasts that Wollstonecraft’s key models (and potential effects) of women’s education and femininity – Rousseau’s, Gregory’s and Wollstonecraft’s own – can be identified in Mansfield Park. The previous generation, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, can also be seen as adaptations of the ideologies of Gregory and Rousseau: Sir Thomas, a country-house baronet with business in Antigua, teaches his daughters to “repress their spirits”, while his docile wife, Lady Bertram pays “not the smallest attention” to educating her daughters. Instead, she spends her time “sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa . . . thinking more of her pug than her children” – a characterisation that strikingly recalls Wollstonecraft’s warning of the dangers of a woman educated without “the sober, steady eye of reason” by asking “[is] it surprising that such a tasteless being should rather caress [a] dog than her children?”
The Bertram sisters – the result of this type of upbringing – are correspondingly framed as being statutorily educated but not sensible or empathetic. Raised in a value-system that sees education as a rite of passage ending at seventeen, they learn by rote such things as “rivers in Russia” and regard Fanny’s ignorance of music and drawing as “odd and…stupid”. However, they leave her with “their least valued toys” while returning to their own activities of “wasting gold paper”, revealing an absurdity to their logic. Metaphorically, the precious ‘gold paper’ of education is wasted on ‘accomplishments’ that, in the words of Wollstonecraft “make women the creatures of sensation”. The danger of this in the universe of Mansfield is later confirmed by their unhappy fates. Maria Bertram, torn between sensation and social propriety, particularly meets an unhappy end.
Maria chooses an unsatisfying marriage to the wealthy Mr Rushworth as a “rule of moral obligation”, and the only way to flee “the restraint which her father imposed”. While freedom is equated to escape, and ‘escape’ achieved through a marriage of social duty, Maria is not impervious to other possibilities of flight – and love – before this marriage takes place. Visiting Sotherton, the prestigious country estate of her future husband, Maria flirts with Mansfield’s cad character, Henry Crawford with a reference to Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey during a tour of the garden.
“I cannot get out, as the starling said–”
Referring to the iron gates that stand in this scene as a metaphor for “restraint”, and are used as a playful invitation to flout the rules, the quote’s reference to a bird shadows the warnings of Wollstonecraft. Maria’s education, which has taught her to look good, to think little, to seek shelter, has left her “confined”, in Wollstonecraft’s words “in cages like the feathered race” that “have nothing to do but to plume themselves” (see full quote here). As such, Maria is in a dangerous and vulnerable position, for without the ability to reason, she is what Wollstonecraft would call a “slave of sensibility”.
Henry has no love for Maria (and he will later propose to Fanny), but his toying with her heart will leave an indelible mark; it will illuminate to her the prison of her later marriage to Mr Rushworth, her status as a caged bird, and her need for sensation.
Maria’s eventual adultery with Henry (when Fanny has rejected him) can, in this light, be seen as a bid for liberty, but it is also revealed as a false freedom that leads to her downfall. Once exposed, and divorced, Henry too will abandon her, and she is shipped off to another country in disgrace. In nineteenth-century English Society, the only modes of escape Maria can fathom are part of the iron gates of a patriarchy that dismiss her feelings and condemn her, in the text “to a retirement and reproach which could allow no second spring of hope or character”. She becomes an unredeemable fallen woman, banished from home.
THE SHADOW OF LADY BERTRAM
Maria’s fate would, in Wollstonecraft’s opinion, be the consequence of incapable motherhood. In Vindication she warns:
“the weakness of the mother will be visited on the children! And whilst women are educated to rely on their husbands for judgment, this must ever be the consequence”
Mothers, to Wollstonecraft, hold the key to emancipation, which is an interesting position to relate to Mansfield, a text that unites all of its key female characters by the absence of maternal guidance. The Bertram sisters are educated by a governess and their mother is nothing more than a softly lit shadow on a sofa, indolent and passive. Fanny’s mother too is portrayed as ineffective through having too many children and being too poor to care for them. Living with her Aunt also subjects Fanny to the Bertram Sisters’ mother-free education.
However, Wollstonecraft advocates the same education for women as exists for men, and on this level, Fanny succeeds, for she is also taught by her cousin Edmund. Edmund’s experience of the best in English schooling (from Eton to Oxford) works in parallel with that of Fanny’s governess.
Miss Lee taught her French, and heard her read the daily portion of History; but he . . . encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment: he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise.
With the tools of a male education, Edmund strengthens Fanny’s ability to reason and in many ways treats her almost as a Wollstonecraftian project. He “consult[s]” her, encourages exercise (“Fanny must have a horse”), and stoically insists she has a voice (“Fanny would rather have had Edmund tell the story, but his determined silence obliged her [to speak]”), all traits that are central to Wollstonecraft’s manifesto of “strength of body and mind”. This dialogic method of encouragement and correction is evident in the exchange between Fanny and Edmund over the arrival of the lively, beautiful and husband-hunting Mary Crawford.
“Well Fanny, and how do you like Miss Crawford now?”[…]
“Very well—very much. I like to hear her talk. She entertains me; and she is so extremely pretty […]
… “She has a wonderful play of feature! But was there nothing in her conversation that struck you, Fanny, as not quite right?”
“Oh! yes, she ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished […]”
“I thought you would be struck. It was very wrong—very indecorous.”
“And very ungrateful I think.”
“Ungrateful is a strong word”
However, Edmund’s concluding comment, “I am glad you saw it all as I did” reveals how Fanny’s moral agency is problematic. The exchange clearly demonstrates that it is Edmund – a man – who is in the control of forming reasoned principles in Fanny’s mind. His pleasure at her thoughts here is undermined, later, by the brushing away of any valid disagreement she registers. For example, when he seeks her advice over the moral dilemma of his participating in a play (cue Regency horror at such inappropriateness!) as Mary Crawford wishes, Edmund’s response to Fanny’s opposition is “I see your judgment is not with me. Think it a little over”. This all-authoritative position of “having formed her mind and gained her affections” could be seen as a foreshadowing of Fanny as Lady Bertram, whose “whole comprehension” is filled by her husband.
Fanny’s lack of physical strength is also a characteristic she shares with Lady Bertram. Delicate and prone to headaches and tiredness, she is also the only character besides Lady Bertram to be associated with a sofa. By contrast, Mary Crawford (also motherless, raised and educated by an aunt) is defined by her need to be active – as seen during the visit to Sotherton where, as D.D Devlin remarks, Fanny acts as the “still point” in a scene famous for its strategic movements around the ‘boundary’ of a ha-ha.
After sitting a little while Miss Crawford was up again. “I must move,” said she; “resting fatigues me. I have looked across the ha-ha till I am weary”
Nina Auerbach claims that Mary Crawford’s vitality is one of the characteristics that affiliates her with Mary Wollstonecraft, a keen champion of female physicality. Correspondingly, Mary receives a very different kind of education from Edmund: a riding lesson, seen through the eyes of a forgotten Fanny waiting for the return of her horse.
Active and fearless, and, though rather small, strongly made, she seemed formed for a horsewoman; and to the pure genuine pleasure of the exercise, something was probably added…in the conviction of very much surpassing her sex…by her early progress, to make her unwilling to dismount.
As Kathleen Anderson observes, this is by no means presented as a more positive model of femininity. Mary is quick to learn, but her appetite for the lesson is presented as troubling. In appearing “unwilling to dismount” Mary’s physicality also points to selfishness. Meanwhile the insinuation of sensual pleasure suggests that there is something dangerously sexual or excessive about Mary Crawford. Her “enjoyment of riding” could therefore be read as one of two things, the first being a threat to patriarchy, in that Mary is opposing the Gregory model that advises women not to exhibit strength (of which Wollstonecraft rejoins “why should not one woman acknowledge that she can take more exercise than another?”).
Instead – as Anderson notes for different purposes – Mary uses her physicality to assert her power and appear free. She challenges notions of female weakness, forthrightly stating “I am very strong” and communicating to Edmund her ability to support herself when taking his arm, inciting him to comment “You scarcely touch me…You do not make me of any use”.
The second reading is an opposite one, a Wollstonecraftian warning of the dangers of Rousseau’s naturally sensuous woman who has no self-control.
By the end of the novel, it is this interpretation that resonates. The “tinge of wrong” perceived in her by Edmund and Fanny as the “effect of education” is deemed too greatly ingrained, too malevolent. Edmund relates to Fanny his parting of ways with Mary in these words:
I heard the door open behind me. ‘Mr. Bertram,’ said she. I looked back. ‘Mr. Bertram,’ said she, with a smile—but it was a smile ill-suited to the conversation that had passed, a saucy playful smile, seeming to invite.
Mary’s “saucy” smile is given while leaning from a doorway, forming a visual allusion to prostitution. Wollstonecraft’s distinction between liberty – which is the path to virtue – and what Barbara Taylor sees to be ‘license’ is made manifest in this final, damning portrait of Mary Crawford.
In contrast to Auerbach’s analysis, such a reading makes Mary the very opposite of a Wollstonecraftian woman. Arguing with Rousseau’s position that women’s real power lies – and belongs – in their innate sensuality, Wollstonecraft comments
Educate women like men,” says Rousseau, “and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us.” This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.
Mary Crawford makes the mistake of seeking power over men rather than power over herself. Her rebellion against ‘proper’ social conventions thus ultimately equates to another false freedom, acting merely within the confines of existing patriarchal models.
Although Fanny emerges as the virtuous heroine while Mary Crawford and Maria are exposed as corrupt or corruptible, there are lingering problems with reading into this a resolution of ‘freedom’, which seems to agree with Wollstonecraft’s argument that all women are slaves.
Moira Ferguson makes a link between the language of slavery in Wollstonecraft’s writing and the conceptual context of it in Mansfield. she explores how both writers, from a postcolonial point of view forge an association between the master-slave dynamic and gender relations in British society to identify the place of Mansfield as an allegory of the slave trade, thus assigning certain characters with dual identities and realities.
Sir Thomas is absent landlord, Lady Bertram is “slatternly plantation mistress” and Fanny is both the slave and “good overseer”. Ferguson establishes Mansfield as a “post-abolition, Eurocentric” text that, in aligning the institutions of patriarchy and colonialism, raises both as belonging to an old, fading order that must modify its tyranny only in order to maintain power. This reading adds weight to the female quests for freedom in Mansfield by emphasising the significance of ownership and control.
Mary Crawford appears to most vocally challenge the social constructs of the English country-house that represents the ‘old order’ of power. She mocks her uncle, questions organised religion (“[It] is safer to leave people to. . .chuse their own time and manner of devotion. The obligation of attendance, the formality, the restraint . . . is a formidable thing”) and even dismisses time; she “cannot be dictated to by a watch”. However, she does this without the understanding that – as with Maria Bertram’s conundrum – her position in life is driven by what Wollstonecraft terms a state of “slavish dependence” on men to supply economical stability and a home.
Taking this into consideration, it is the enslaved mind that will now be the focus, beginning with how Mary Crawford and Edmund attempt to align their mutual attraction with their non-mutual value systems. Edmund’s impending career as a clergyman is something that Mary cannot conceive as a ‘choice’ because, according to her, “men love to distinguish themselves, and [in other careers] distinction may be gained”. When Edmund asks about her intention to be “very rich”, she replies, confidently “Do not you? Do not we all?”
Within the moral positioning of the text, this mercantile reasoning and social ambition stands as flawed. However, it is made clear that Mary sees love and money as synonymous. She believes Edmund “could have no serious views, no true attachment, by fixing himself in a situation which he must know she would never stoop to”. The text thus exhibits the mental pathways that have formed through the social codes Mary has internalised. Her feelings for Edmund are genuine but, unable to reconcile them with her ‘shaped mind’, she can “hardly understand” them.
This is an example of what Wollstonecraft calls “habitual slavery”, whereby the childhood education that has developed Mary’s mind can “seldom be disentangled by reason” once an adult. “One idea” Wollstonecraft continues “calls up another, its old associate, and memory, faithful to the first impressions, particularly when the intellectual powers are not employed to cool our sensations, retraces them with mechanical exactness”. In Mansfield, this process of internal conflict is emphasised during Mary and Edmund’s final parting. When Edmund denounces Mary’s virtue, he reports her reaction to be “a great, though short struggle—half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame—but habit, habit carried it”.
Other characters also encounter conflict with incomprehension, an inability to imagine beyond their own thought constructs. Sir Thomas in particular exhibits a “mechanical exactness” in his delivery of speech as he grapples with Fanny’s resistance to Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal.
“This is very strange!” said Sir Thomas, in a voice of calm displeasure. “There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach”
As Ferguson intimates, what relevance could Fanny’s feelings have to Sir Thomas, who belongs within the transactional nature of the marriage market?
Fanny rejects the logic of the marriage market/slave auction by exerting choice. Noting this as Tony Tanner’s example of ‘negative will’, Elaine Jordan dubs Fanny a “heroine of resistance” – with resistance being an assertion of freedom. From a postcolonial perspective then, it is Fanny’s expression of liberty that is “beyond” Sir Thomas’s frame of reference, both as a patriarch and a colonialist of, as the text describes, “absolute power”.
This section also serves to direct the reader across different pathways of thought that create alternative but equally plausible perspectives. Sir Thomas’s dismay at Fanny’s refusal shows that he, like Mary Crawford, is imprisoned within the framework of his own references. He checklists “a young man . . . with everything to recommend him . . . in life, fortune, and character . . . with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to everybody . . . not an acquaintance of to-day” to identify all the ways in which the union meets the criteria for a suitable match.
It is indeed from this mindset that Sir Thomas puts on the ball that leads to this exchange. Perceiving Fanny’s “improvement in health and beauty” as a readiness for matrimony, the events of the night “convinced him that the suspicions whence . . . this very ball had in great measure sprung, were well founded”. Fanny, however, “had not been brought up to the trade of coming out; and had she known in what light this ball was . . . considered respecting her, it would very much have lessened her comfort”. The characters therefore experience the ball under a different – but dual – reality, coded by their own structures and signifiers of meaning. Fanny, like the text, frequently straddles worlds. Between them, emerges a gap.
If the scene of Fanny’s ball is her ‘coming out’ debut (whether she knows it or not), then it acts as the formal declaration of her womanhood. In this gap between worlds, what kind, model, or mode of woman is Fanny coming out as?
This question is best addressed by exploring her choice of jewellery for the occasion. Having been given a gold chain by Edmund, and another by Mary (as a covert symbol of Henry’s affection), Fanny is placed in a dilemma of which one to wear. Ferguson reviews these necklaces as symbols of slavery- literal and figurative ‘chains’ of ownership. That Fanny in the end wears both is significant but ambiguous. On one hand, she performs the same “double duty” as the horse that carries both her and Mary Crawford, and at the same time, to extend Devlin’s analysis into this scenario, she “rejects all worlds and asserts a value found in none” by, as Anna Despotopoulou puts it refusing to be the “bearer of meaning” to others. This, according to Devlin “is her only freedom of choice”. It is possible, then, to view Fanny as simultaneously free and unfree – both appear to be valid ways to interpret the text.
Does Fanny’s freedom exist between the lines – or bars – of established conventions, or outside of them? Could it be both? Here, it is Lady Bertram’s sister Mrs Norris, who offers some insight.
“there is a something about Fanny, I have often observed it before,—she likes to go her own way to work; she does not like to be dictated to…she certainly has a little spirit of secrecy, and independence, and nonsense, about her”.
Independence, according to Wollstonecraft, is “the grand blessing of life” and “the basis of every virtue”. It makes sense that Mrs Norris, Fanny’s oppressive aunt in one ‘world’ and ‘slave overseer’ in another, regards it with hostility, but it is the use of both “independence” and “secrecy” here that is telling. Mrs Norris seems to perceive the space ‘in between’ that Fanny occupies, the interior world that can’t be reached or subjugated.
This corresponds with Nina Auerbach’s assertion that “Romantic imagination is in large part an imagination of confinement”. Fanny’s interior space is made manifest – and nurtured – by an actual space and actual things. The plants (symbolising nature), books (education) and gifts (feeling) that she nurses as a “nest of comforts” within the patriarchal prison walls of Mansfield are crucially stored in one particular place: the deserted school-room. Fanny therefore establishes the physical space of education, pointedly making “use of what nobody else wanted” as her own place of self- cultivation. This space is where she seeks reflection and “consolation” from “anything unpleasant” in the ‘real’ life below.
Mary Crawford and Maria, who both end, emblematically, as fallen women, have no such resource. Their stunted education has left them with nowhere between the bars of different types of enslavement to go, either physically or mentally. Fanny, however, can slip and slide between.
Instead of Mansfield being what Auerbach reads as “a fluid world, one with no fixed principles”, perhaps then, this fluidity is what lurks within the gaps of what is fixed, formed and un-moveable in 19th century English country-house society. It is here that the ideas and hopes of Wollstonecraft echo throughout the narrative, none firmly with answers or direction, for in the confined world of Mansfield, even the text will not commit itself to concrete states. It makes clear, for example that, had Henry “persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward”. On the periphery of the narrative, there is always a hint of what might have been, or what lingers in the imagination.
Fanny’s final position as new matriarch of the Bertram family exemplifies this.
Her eye fell everywhere on lawns and plantations of the freshest green; and the trees, though not fully clothed, were in that delightful state when farther beauty is known to be at hand, and when, while much is actually given to the sight, more yet remains for the imagination.
The text outlines a scene that invokes not quite amelioration, but rather a process of becoming – the fixities of what is, and the fluidity of what could be. The reference to both “lawns” and “plantations” indicates that this is one of nation-relations as well as gender, of society as well as soul.
Perhaps in the land of Austen, the shadow of hope, of unending, is the only true freedom there is?