2014 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
Silence Speaks: Refracted Subversion in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park
. . . 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 sight,
more yet remains for imagination.
Jane Austen’s narrator begins the final chapter of Mansfield Park by “let[ting] other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” essentially forfeiting narrative investments established over the course of the previous 47 chapters in a single breath (457). Although the narrator claims to restore “every body, not greatly at fault themselves, to tolerable comfort,” the final chapter of the novel suggests anything but a happy ending. Readers are reasonably puzzled by the narrator’s abrupt decision to “quit such odious subjects” as “guilt and misery” after having already spent 456 pages on just that, but it is this very sort of irony which gives Austen’s writing a power that is at once silent and subversive. Some may believe Jane Austen herself to have centered her writing around the less “odious subjects” of courtship and marriage over more serious matters of her time when, on the contrary, her social critique is not reflected on the surface of the texts, but rather is refracted in the subtext. Austen’s style is perhaps most striking due to its “evaluative opacity,” which, as Robert T. and Laura C. Lambdin point out, serves an important rhetorical function in Mansfield Park by leading readers to evaluate situations in a specific way without committing to the evaluation it unmistakably proposes (76). Austen’s message lies not in the words themselves, but in language’s inherent ambiguity, of which she takes full advantage in this novel. By employing such rhetorical devices as narrative silence and subtle irony, Austen unsettles conventional views her writing might otherwise seem to promote. The narrator’s claim to silence at the end of Mansfield Park places everything within and preceding the final chapter under a type of epistemological erasure and invites readers to re-engage with the refracted meaning behind every word uttered, as well as and especially those words left unsaid. In Mansfield Park, itself a study in the implications of strategic silence and (mis)interpreting rhetoric, Austen wields the mighty power she has cultivated in “let[ting] other pens dwell”—or at least appearing to do so (457).
Robert T. and Laura C. Lambdin attribute the imprecision of the early nineteenth-century expressions that make up Austen’s fiction to the classist male-dominated ideology they reflect, which aims to protect its privileges without actually revealing them: “Instead of refusing to use these words, Austen (or, her narrator) continues to do so, but surrounds them with a co-text in which they are both explained and un-masked” (76). As a result, the narrator’s ideological position can be seen as “at once acquiescent and subversive, parasitic and critical” (76). The narrator’s alleged silence in the final chapter of Mansfield Park is a strategic, almost “bait and switch” technique that serves to undermine the notions of authority and certainty that pervade the text’s seemingly conventional beliefs. Just as readers feel that the characters of Mansfield Park might be progressing, the narrator abruptly constructs an idealistic ending in which that development is completely relinquished in favor of comfort and convention. Yet, because it is in such contrast to the rest of the narrative, that “happy” ending seems absurd and only strengthens the argument against itself, inviting readers to consider the events of the text under this new light. First the narrator presents Fanny’s “happy” ending with Edmund in a manner that suggests quite the opposite: “My Fanny, indeed, at this very time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of every thing. She must have been a happy creature in spite of all that she felt or thought she felt . . . She had forces of delight that must force their way” (457, emphasis added). On the surface, one could easily assume Fanny’s happiness to be no matter of contest or concern, especially when its validity is narrated with such confidence and authority, but readers should take notice that the narrator uses the conditional in saying Fanny “must” be happy. This conditional phrase expresses an inference rather than a certainty and shows up multiple times in this and other Jane Austen novels, which suggests its significance as a stylistic technique that performs an ideological function. Austen could have clearly communicated Fanny’s unquestionable happiness by having the narrator say instead, “My Fanny, indeed, [was] very happy in spite of everything,” but she chooses to do otherwise (457).
A few paragraphs later Sir Thomas realizes his own parental mistakes have contributed to Maria’s downfall, and suddenly the notions of absolute power and certainty his character represents are further diminished and destabilized. Sir Thomas realizes that in trying to “counteract what was wrong in Mrs. Norris by its reverse in himself,” he exacerbated the negative effects of her excessive praise and taught his daughters “to repress [read: silence] their spirits in his presence, so as to make their real disposition unknown to him” (458-9). The narrator informs readers of this pattern early on, well before Sir Thomas himself becomes aware: “In everything but disposition, they were admirably taught. Sir Thomas did not know what was wanting, because . . . the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of their spirits before him” (50). This dynamic comes to the fore when Sir Thomas suspects Maria’s indifferent feelings toward Mr. Rushworth and decides to speak with her about the issue directly. Although Maria does not plainly communicates her feelings on the matter, the description of her response to Sir Thomas’s query contains enough silent rhetoric in a single word to suggest his assumptions are correct. Despite her father’s duplicitous offer to give up the advantageous connection, Maria hides her true disposition in favor of earning his paternal approval: “Maria had a moment’s struggle as she listened, and only a moment’s: when her father ceased, she was able to give her answer immediately, decidedly, and with no apparent agitation” (216, emphasis added). By commenting on her ability despite “a moment’s struggle,” and describing her composure as showing no “apparent agitation,” the narrator’s rhetoric subtly suggests her success in hiding these feelings from her father and perhaps even from herself. Sir Thomas is decidedly satisfied with her response: “It was an alliance which he could not have relinquished without pain; and thus he reasoned . . . happy to secure a marriage which would bring him such an addition of respectability and influence, and very happy to think any thing of his daughter’s disposition that was most favourable for the purpose” (216-17). Sir Thomas’s own ulterior motives cloud his judgment to such a degree that he ignores the silent signals seeping through the cracks of his daughter’s postured disposition, choosing instead to believe what he knows to be untrue in order to serve his own purpose. He and Maria willingly accept the barrier of contented expressions that keeps them divided, a barrier Austen constructs using specific stylistic and rhetorical choices that reflect a subversive narrative in the shadows of an otherwise conventional novel. All of this serves to elicit a question without actually revealing it in words: If the estimable, unwavering patriarch Sir Thomas can make a mistake, who else might be mistaken? The answer to this question provides a point of access for approaching Mansfield Park’s “happy” ending not as Jane Austen’s attempt to appease escapist readers with a romantic ideal, but as a rhetorical device she employs to suggest something altogether different and much more subversive than an unlikely heroine’s romantic wish finally coming true.
Silent ulterior motives like Sir Thomas’s course through the veins of Mansfield Park—most obviously in the ever-scheming Mrs. Norris, most openly in the Crawfords (who all but admit to them outright), and perhaps most surprisingly in the principled Fanny Price. As illustrated by the example with Sir Thomas and Maria above, the miscommunication that occurs as a result of these silent motives propels the novel forward in the form of negative consequences. Many of these ulterior motives arise out of cultural evils so enmeshed into a character’s psyche that he/she is not even aware of them: “In any given human life, cultural evil usually comes first: from family and friends a child absorbs the culture’s pervasive ideas and attitudes toward an oppressed group, participating in the injustices before she or he understands the situation” (Ellwood). The relationship between Edmund and Fanny is deeply embedded in these ideological ulterior motives, so deeply in fact that they manage to remain completely oblivious to them. Everything on the surface of Mansfield Park’s narrative arc suggests that Fanny has progressed as a character and established her own agency, that Edmund’s eventual settling on Fanny is a natural progression with pure motives, and that their future together will be a bright one. Yet bubbling beneath the surface, a silent subtext challenges this romantic vision by suggesting instead that Fanny relinquishes the agency she has developed over the course of the novel in her ultimate acts of submission—to Edmund, to the subtle evils governing Mansfield Park, and thus to the constraints of its patriarchal power structure—in exchange for the comfort, wealth and protection they supply. The cultural evils of Mansfield Park, which range from class and gender biases to slavery and oppression, have become so enmeshed in Fanny’s way of life that she is unwilling or unable to admit to her own role in them. Of course, like many women of her time, Fanny’s options are extremely limited; the financial security alone could prove enough of an incentive to submit to the role of a modest ideal woman. However, her devout disapproval of the theatre, paired with her near-hyperbolic reaction to Maria’s affair as “too gross a complication of evil, for human nature, not in a state of utter barbarism, to be capable of,” reveal just how successful Sir Thomas has been in “impress[ing] his sexist values on to her” (Austen 440; Ellwood). Like Lady Bertram, Fanny holds Sir Thomas’s word in the highest regard; she does not question his authority and believes if he says something, it must be so. For example, when Henry visits Fanny in Portsmouth, he expresses concern about the effects her lengthy stay appears to be having on her health. Warning that it may be a very long time before Sir Thomas comes to retrieve her, he offers to take her back to Mansfield Park himself. Although Fanny is tempted by the offer, she ultimately finds relief in the fact that “she was not left to weigh and decide between opposite inclinations and doubtful notions of right . . . She had a rule to apply to, which settled everything. Her awe of her uncle, and her dread of taking a liberty with him, made it instantly plain to her . . . [that] she must absolutely decline the proposal” (434, emphasis added). So, even though Fanny has exercised her agency in refusing yet another offer from Henry, her motives for refusing reflect the submissive role she maintains throughout.
“[W]ith her mind in so great a degree formed by his care,” Edmund holds a particular sway over Fanny’s value system (465). Ellwood points out that her condemnation “of the theatricals arises partly from a misguided acceptance of Sir Thomas’s ideal of the modest woman-child,” and her submissive behavior in general suggests a desire to uphold this standard rather than to challenge it. In one sense, Edmund’s guidance—however pure his conscious intentions—serves to slowly and silently preserve his patriarchal status in ways that ultimately ensure Fanny’s passive role in society. Although Miss Lee teaches Fanny to read, Edmund “ma[kes] reading useful by talking to her of what she read[s], and heighten[s] its attraction by judicious praise” (52, emphasis added). Of course this service is useful to Fanny in that it results in her literacy, but the narrator’s use of the word “judicious” to describe Edmund’s praise signals its usefulness in a much broader scope. By making his praise “judicious,” the narrator assigns Edmund’s silent ulterior motives a refracted significance: influencing Fanny’s interests and beliefs in a manner which protects his patriarchal authority at Mansfield Park and society as a whole. The narrator remarks multiple times on the extent to which Edmund has formed Fanny’s mind to think like his and makes repeated references to her submissive behavior towards him. Additionally, the narrator provides numerous examples of just how adept Edmund has become at communicating to Fanny the exact message suitable to his purposes, one being the few lines he writes “purposely to give her a clearer idea of his brother’s situation” (428, emphasis added). By acknowledging Edmund’s effective use of language in “purposely” clarifying details for Fanny, Austen’s narrator silently draws attention to the long, dark shadow his authority casts in order to reveal just how easily he could do the opposite. Without engaging in an open confrontation with the ideology in question, the narrator expresses and promotes his or her concern regarding Edmund’s control over the information Fanny receives. It is this sort of silent rhetoric that establishes Mansfield Park as what Lambdin refers to as a “masterpiece of indirection,” much like Fanny’s description of the sun’s glare in Portsmouth: “a stifling, sickly glare, serving but to bring forward stains and dirt that might otherwise have slept” (438). Exhibiting the qualities of a well-bred lady, Austen does not “portray her feelings or actions out of keeping with her place” (Johnson qtd. in Ellwood). Rather than openly questioning ideals, Austen uses “informationally marked expressions . . . [that] can be figuratively represented as small waves disturbing the surface of a calm, oily sea” (Lambdin 64).
It must be recognized that in speaking up at certain points in the novel, Fanny appears to assert her agency in the face of patriarchal oppression. Yet even her actions have passive motives and thus work to maintain rather than disturb the calm surface of the aforementioned sea. Henry Crawford represents an opportunity for Fanny to incorporate into her life the agency she develops in the second half of the novel, yet she relinquishes that agency in refusing his proposal and accepting Edmund’s instead. Fanny’s choice between Henry and Edmund is more accurately presented as a choice between speech or silence, action or submission, reading or being written, respectively. The Bertrams, Edmund included, speak of needing and wanting Fanny’s presence (read: usefulness), while the Crawfords speak of loving and missing her. Unlike Edmund, who “scarcely notices” the “cognitive and moral dissonance with which she must struggle,” Henry sees through the haze of Mansfield and the harm it continues to cause Fanny—even under the guise of benevolence (Ellwood). Henry gets Mansfield: “I know [Mansfield’s] faults towards you. I know the danger of your being so far forgotten [at Portsmouth], as to have your comforts give way to the imaginary convenience of any single being in the family . . . This will not do” (412). Not surprisingly, Henry is correct in his predictions: Sir Thomas originally plans to wait until after Easter to “fetch” Fanny from Portsmouth, and only then “when he has business in town” (423). Edmund wants Fanny home as well, but only to get her “opinion on Thornton Lacey” (423). Of course after news of the scandalous affair breaks, Sir Thomas, according to Edmund’s letter, urgently “wants” Fanny back at Mansfield Park: “He is anxious to get you there for my mother’s sake” (441, emphasis added). Henry, on the other hand, expresses in his own words a deep respect for marriage and an admiration for Fanny as-is; even if he is not the perfect companion, his love–according to the narrative and rhetorical evidence–serves no ulterior purpose outside of his desire for her. The most important aspect of his relationship with Fanny, for the purposes of this theory, is how he inspires her to be active rather than passive. When he arrives unannounced in Portsmouth, the narrator remarks: “Good sense, like hers, will always act when really called upon; and she found that she had been able to name [Henry] to her mother . . . though she could not previously have believed herself capable of uttering a syllable at such a moment” (401).
Despite her capabilities, along with the selfless support Henry has to offer and the agency she develops while away, Fanny ultimately prefers the silence of Mansfield Park over the “incessant noise” she hears in Portsmouth: “At Mansfield, no sounds of contention, no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence was ever heard; all proceeded in a regular course of cheerful orderliness” (393, emphasis added). Even her description of the Mansfield sound is passive–heard rather than spoken–and the safety that passivity represents inspires Fanny to follow suit. Robert T. and Laura C. Lambdin point out how the marriages in the beginning of the novel are in “perfect tripartite symmetry, reversed and completed at the end of the novel by the marriage of Fanny and Edmund” (72). By accepting Edmund’s proposal, Fanny submits to the patriarchal structure that resides over Mansfield Park and ensures the perpetuation of this way of life. Sir Thomas’s overall satisfaction provides an eye-opening snapshot of what the future holds for Mansfield Park:
In [Susan’s] usefulness, in Fanny’s excellence, in William’s continued good conduct, and rising fame, and in the general well-doing and success of the other members of the family . . . [all] doing credit to his countenance and aid, Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated, reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all. (468)
With Fanny’s apparent wedded bliss and the allegedly lucrative opportunities afforded the other two Price siblings, Mansfield Park certainly appears to have changed its ways. However, the only actual change seems to have come in the form of Fanny’s memory loss and repression: Fanny’s “need for nurturing and sheltering parents is so great” that she recasts Mansfield Park in a pristine mould, disregarding the fact that “the continuance of [their] opulent lifestyle depends on the continuance of the violence underlying these ill-gotten gains” (Ellwood). So even if Sir Thomas successfully proves to himself and others that the ills of Mansfield are to be rejoiced and repeated, it should be quite clear by now to readers that the evil, like Jane Austen’s silent subversion, is always lurking in the shadows.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. ed. June Sturrock. Orchard Park: Broadview Press Ltd., 2001. Print.
Ellwood, Gracia Fay. “‘Such a Dead Silence’: Cultural Evil, Challenge, Deliberate Evil, and Metanoia in Mansfield Park”. Persuasions Online 24.1 (Winter 2003). Web. 1 May 2014.
Lambdin, Robert T. and Laura C. “Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park.” A Companion to Jane Austen Studies. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000. eBook Collection Database. 1 May 2014.