2014 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner Graduate Division
“ . . . easy manners, excellent spirits, a large acquaintance, and a great deal to say”: Eloquence, Artfulness, and Actors in Mansfield Park
In Jane Austen’s novels, eloquence, or even an enjoyment of speaking, is often attributed to characters that are either foolish or wicked, whereas moral characters are often defined by their ineloquence, by the very awkward conversational skills which sometimes lead to their trouble throughout the course of their stories. The instances of this connection span all Austen’s novels and are not limited to one gender or class. Jane Bennet’s shyness, which is so much an aspect of her shining character, is precisely what leads to the misrepresentation of her feelings to the persuadable Mr. Bingley. Catherine Morland’s inelegant, unpretending conversational style may be unfashionable, but it is proof of an inner innocence which is her most laudable quality. On the other side are Elizabeth Bennet, whose enjoyment of a turn of phrase encourages her to criticize both quickly and wrongly, and Emma Woodhouse, whose superior conversational skills enable her to both injure and manipulate her friends. The pattern continues through Jane Austen’s men. Heroes such as Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, and Mr. Darcy are characterized by their awkward, inelegant, or at least terse and unpleasantly honest conversational styles, whereas villainous Willoughby and Wickham are superb conversationalists, adept at using language to charm and mislead whoever will attend them. Again and again, language is used as a tool for deception while silence is the banner of the innocent, and nowhere is this theme more apparent than in Mansfield Park, where the ability to speak is closely linked to the ability to act, and those who can act, both on stage and in life, wield power over those who cannot.
On one end of this spectrum is Mr. Crawford, who is “considerably the best actor of all” (Austen 184) and whose “pleasing address” and “countenance” transform him from one who is “absolutely plain” to “the most agreeable young man the [Bertram] sisters [have] ever known” (72). This transformation is not one of his person, but of his audience’s perception of him, and this perception is promoted by both his social performance and his staged one. He speaks to please or to manipulate, not to communicate truth, finagling his way into the role he desires via “a short parley of compliments” (154), and then, when Maria and Julia descend into a “short silence” in which they each hope to be “pressed” by their fellow actors into accepting the role of Agatha, Mr. Crawford handily uses a compliment to Julia—“‘I could not stand your countenance dressed up in woe and paleness. The many laughs we have had together would infallibly come across me’”—to secure the role for his true favorite: Maria (155). Later, when he attempts to cajole Julia into accepting the less-desirable part of Amelia, he again uses flattery, applying his voice almost like a hypnotist—“The influence of [Mr. Crawford’s] voice was felt. Julia wavered” (157)—and he fails to persuade Julia only because he has already exposed himself to her distrust. Once thus revealed, he looks “rather foolish... as if he [does] not know what to say” (157), but that will pass when he again finds his words, and, in recovering his words, his most valuable weapon.
On the other end of the eloquence spectrum is “awkward, shy and socially displaced” Fanny Price (Byrne 150), who “[can] not act any thing” (Austen 166). “Act” here can be understood in several ways: as staged performance, as social pretense, and, more generally, as agency. Most obviously, Fanny is unable to act on the stage. This handicap is not a result of fear for the “half a dozen speeches” which she would have to learn (166), but for the sake of, first, propriety—her scruples in that area are made clear when she reacts to the content of the chosen play (158)—and, second, because of her inability to pretend at anything. As she says to her cousins, “[acting] would be absolutely impossible,” and she would only “disappoint” them if she were to attempt it (166). Beyond the context of the literal play, Fanny has no agency. She is powerless, both because of her situation as a dependent in her uncle’s home and because of her inability to wield the social weapons—“talent, manner, attention, and flattery” (244)—that Henry and Mary Crawford brandish so expertly.
Rather than join the ranks of the actors, Fanny operates as “audience,” “prompter,” and “sometimes as spectator”—useful without being important (184). During the aforementioned scene in which Mr. Crawford manipulates the Bertram sisters into the roles he desires for them, Fanny is “a quiet auditor,” observing the foibles of her cousins and understanding more than any of them (157). It takes a “quiet auditor” to see through Mr. Crawford’s charade. When the group is attempting to decide on a play, Fanny is “not unamused to observe the selfishness which, more or less disguised, seem[s] to govern them all” (153). She witnesses the insincerity of their conversation, but does not participate in it. Instead, she “look[s] on and listen[s]” (153), set apart, as usual. In these scenes, as Bharat Tandon points out, “not all the emotive stage business is happening on stage” (207); however, Fanny is neither an actor in the play, nor in the scenes of manipulation and intrigue unfolding before her. Edmund is the only one who gives her a voice, who entreats her to communicate her feelings (Austen 350-1), and it is this attention that singles him out as superior to his companions, and which attaches Fanny to him with the steadfastness of a sincere, unpretending heart (52).
Edmund Bertram lies somewhere in the middle of the eloquence spectrum. He “talk[s] no nonsense” and “[pays] no compliments,” but his “sincerity... steadiness... and integrity” have a certain “charm,” if not the air of fashion (92). Consider how Austen describes Mary Crawford’s first impression of the Bertram sons: “their manners, particularly those of the eldest, were very good. [Tom Bertram] had been much in London, and had more liveliness and gallantry than Edmund, and must, therefore, be preferred” (75). Tom Bertram has “easy manners, excellent spirits, a large acquaintance, and a great deal to say,” and these are the qualifications which make him, to Mary Crawford’s mind, “the sort of man to be generally liked” (75). “Manners” here suggest style more than substance. Edmund’s mind might be better-informed, but Tom’s mind is geared toward fashionable expression, regardless of substance or sincerity, and, on Mary Crawford’s accustomed superficial level, Tom’s “manners,” therefore, are preferable to Edmund’s.
These are the impressions created by the Bertam sons on the world stage, and on the level of the play, again, Edmund is no actor. He initially refuses to take part in the play, since “‘private theatricals are open to some objections’” and putting on a play while their father is away would be “‘highly injudicious’” (147). When entreated again, he insists that he “‘should be sorry to make the character ridiculous by bad acting’” (165, emphasis added). Yet Edmund is willing to act where Fanny is not. He performs logical backflips in order to accept the role of Anhalt, playing opposite Mary Crawford (173-5), and he later makes excuses for Mary Crawford’s flippant use of language, insisting to Fanny that Mary’s anger is they type “‘to be talked of, rather than felt’” (356), implying that Mary’s speech does not reflect her feelings any more than her true feelings are likely to be reflected in her speech. As Paula Byrne notes, “Mary Crawford’s faults are primarily attributed to a lack of the right sort of education” and “[h]er verbal indiscretions are the indelible marks of her educational deficiencies” (Byrne 159). Guided by Edmund, Fanny has received an education in “good principles and morals” instead of Mary Crawford’s “fashionable accomplishments” (159). Fanny’s skills may hold less fascination than Mary’s, but, in the end, they hold more moral value. As for Fanny and Edmund, they say what they mean. The difference between them exists not within their degrees of sincerity, but within the strength of their respective understandings and the extent of their blind spots.
Such is the spectrum of eloquence within the novel, from Crawford to Price to everything in between, and based on this scale the characters fall into varying stations of influence within their singular social class. Austen uses the play which the Bertram youth and their guests nearly produce as a microcosm for the reality of this Mansfield Park world, where skillful acting leads to influence and power, and where even the bumbling idiocy of Mr. Rushworth’s performance is valued above Fanny’s silence and inaction. To act in the literal play is to participate in life; to abstain is to withdraw, to accept the sort of social marginalization that Austen herself succumbed to while still in her twenties (Tomalin 183). The characters that are at the helm of the production—Tom and Maria Bertram, Henry and Mary Crawford—are also at the helm of the action of the novel, driving activities forward, hastening drama, resisting stagnation. If a main character is one who propels the action of a novel forward, then those four would appear to be the main characters, while Fanny, whose strongest moments occur when she resists the advances of others, is mere periphery. Every plot point within the novel is instigated by some choice or action of one of those other four—Maria engages herself to Mr. Rushworth; Tom suggests they produce the play; Henry endeavors to make Fanny love him; Mary endeavors to convince Edmund to choose some other line of work. They are the doers, the actors, the speakers, and their doing, acting, and speaking is all the merit they need to be valued in a society based on appearances, regardless of their moral integrity.
Upon the dissolution of the playacting group, the moral epiphany belongs to Edmund, not Fanny. He realizes that Fanny’s abstention from acting—in effect, her silence—was actually the correct moral action for the moment (Austen 204). The parallel between this realization and his realization at the end of the novel—that Fanny is “a very different kind of woman” and perhaps “a great deal better” than Mary Crawford (465)—is almost too explicit for the otherwise subtle and delicately-themed novel. Austen clearly wants to make her point understood: those who speak are rarely the ones worth listening to. Fanny Price, “though never a great talker,” is “always more inclined to silence when feeling most strongly” (372). In contrast, note the unmistakable irony in the length of Henry Crawford’s speech—a full twenty-nine lines of elegant prose—when he tells Fanny that his “conduct” rather than his “protestations” will “speak” for him (348). Even off the stage, Mr. Crawford is acting a part. His feelings, though expressed well, cannot be deeply felt. His moral epiphany at the end of the novel involves the realization that inaction is sometimes better than action: if he had left Mrs. Rushworth alone instead of “exert[ing] himself to subdue [her] proud... display of resentment” (463), then much agony might have been spared them all.
But if inaction and silence are the superior moral instincts, then what is to be made of Austen’s free indirect narrator? After all, out of a cast of eager-to-speak characters, no one says more than the narrator herself. However, on many subjects of interest, Austen remains, like her heroine, silent. As biographer Claire Tomalin notes, “[Jane Austen’s] silence about politics is famous,” but Austen is also silent about such salient topics as women’s rights and religion (Tomalin 139-42). Austen abstains, like Fanny, from speaking on a great many topics, never attempting to manipulate her readers into believing one thing or another, unless irony and adept characterization might be considered tools for manipulation. D. A. Miller remarks on Austen’s stylistic silence when writing about the experience of reading Austen as a child:
We rapt, admiring readers might feel we were only eavesdropping on delightful productions intended for nobody in particular. And in the other constituents of person—not just body, but psyche, history, social position—the voice was also deficient, so much so that its overall impersonality determined a narrative authority and a beauty of expression both without equal. (Miller 1)
Austen’s silence deepens her meaning, just as Fanny’s silence reveals a greater depth of emotion than Henry or Mary Crawford’s fascinating and elegant speeches. Perhaps “a talking pretty young woman like Miss Crawford . . is always pleasant society” (Austen 75), but Fanny is the one who knows herself best, who never role-plays, and who expresses the truth.
The argument has been made that Fanny’s silence “fulfills the Western ideal of the silent woman” (Harris 9), but Fanny’s silence is more complex than that of mere reticence; it is not the silence of a woman abiding by anything as transient and superficial as an etiquette book. If Austen’s silence allows her readers to draw their own conclusions regarding important issues like women’s education and the role of religion in society, then Fanny’s silence enables her companions to reach their own understanding of her merits and to arrive at their own moral epiphanies. Though this tactic might be less active and less expedient than the self-aggrandizing speeches of actors such as Henry Crawford, Mary Crawford, and Mrs. Norris, the effect is more lasting, the realization more complete. In the end, the eloquence and artfulness which give Henry Crawford power at the beginning of the novel are the very qualities which lead to his downfall, implying that language is a double-edged sword. It can be both a powerful weapon and a means for self-destruction and should, therefore, be used as sparingly and honestly (and ironically) as possible. Austen’s narratorial silence implies the necessity of a sort of reverence for language, a fear of saying too much, for, as Fanny understands, sometimes “it [is] safer to say nothing” (215).
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. June Sturrock. Ontario: Broadview Press Ltd., 2001. Print.
Byrne, Paula. Jane Austen and the Theatre. London: Hambledon and London, 2002. Print.
Harris, Jocelyn. “Silent Women, Shrews, and Bluestockings.” The Talk in Jane Austen. Ed. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg. Alberta: Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2002. 3-22. Print.
Miller, D.A. Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. Print.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: a Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Print.
Tandon, Bharat. Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation. London: Anthem, 2003. Print.