2014 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
“The Luxury of Silence”: Breaking the Bewitchment of Charm in Mansfield Park
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet taunts Mr. Darcy, saying that they both “expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb” (Pride and Prejudice, 63). When reading Mansfield Park, it is difficult not to notice that Fanny Price never says anything worthy of proverbial status. Readers who expect another Lizzie Bennet may see Fanny as weak and have little affection for her. Austen wrote that her own mother “thought Fanny insipid,” and critic Lionel Trilling declared later in 1955 that “Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park” (Auerbach, 445-446). This disrespect of Fanny, however, is a mistake. In Mansfield Park, Austen sets up several love triangles to manipulate. For example, her four central characters form themselves into two love triangles: Fanny loves Edmund Bertram but is courted by Henry Crawford, and Edmund must find out whether he loves Mary Crawford or Fanny Price. Through these two love triangles, Austen teaches the reader to trust actions over words and to associate silence with delicacy and sincerity, as well as to view words and wit as artificial or superficial. Austen uses this structure to force each of her main characters, Fanny and Edmund, into a choice between the obvious charms of the witty Crawfords and the deeper delicacy of silence. By the end of the book, the reader has learned with Fanny and especially Edmund to value silence over wit.
One of the primary love triangles in Mansfield Park revolves around the silent center of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price. Our interpretations of Fanny’s silences influence to a large extent our understandings of the novel. Many readers believe that Fanny’s silence is due to either oppression or weakness, both seemingly logical assertions. Fanny does have more than her share of oppression, and this could account for her shy subservience to her cousins and aunts. Her cousin Tom’s description of her as “creepmouse” (102) reinforces our thinking of her in this manner, as simply timid and fearful. It is true that Fanny walks the hallways of Mansfield Park in silence, fearfully submitting to the tyranny of her aunt Norris. This is one way of viewing Fanny’s silence, but it is not the only or the most correct interpretation. In Fanny, Austen also shows the reader an example of sincere and worthwhile silence. When Fanny experiences joy at the prospect of seeing her brother William, Austen describes her happiness then and always as “happiness . . . of a quiet, deep, heart-swelling sort; and though never a great talker, she [is] always more inclined to silence when feeling most strongly” (250). Much of Fanny’s silence is not, in fact, due to abuse and neglect but to inner peace. While Mary Crawford is busy performing and showing her wit, Fanny stargazes, content with silence. Fanny’s “quiet, deep, heart-swelling” silence is her way of responding to joy, not just fear. Fanny’s silence, then, shows her simple and delicate happiness. Fanny’s ways of interacting with others and the world at large are not charismatic, but they are sincere. She does not recommend herself to others by wit, but by well-chosen and meaningful words. When Fanny feels that she must object to things on moral grounds, such as refusing to participate in the play she finds so abhorrent or refusing Sir Thomas’s instructions to marry Mr. Crawford, she asserts herself with uncommon honesty and great passion. Though Fanny is often silent, it is not because she is timid or abused. Fanny’s deep and revealing silence shows her capacity for deep, heart-swelling inner peace, and highlights the significance and propriety of her rare assertions.
Henry Crawford’s courtship of Fanny is fueled and perhaps even inspired by his own wit, charm, and verbal skills. His agreeable wit has never failed him in securing admiration before, and it is Fanny’s “not caring about [him] which gives her such . . . charms and graces” in his eyes (158). Henry Crawford’s wit, however, is generally insincere and thoughtless of others. This is Mr. Crawford’s fatal mistake, and why instead of winning Fanny he manages to oppress her with his wit and convince her even more of his unsuitability. Mr. Crawford praises what Fanny deems unacceptable when he recalls the Mansfield play as “a pleasant dream,” and Fanny dwells in “silent indignation” on this example of his behaving “dishonourably and unfeelingly” (154-155). Not only is his statement inappropriate, but Fanny also recognizes it as largely insincere and calculated only to please. Fanny’s silence shows her delicacy and refusal to partake in or endorse in his witty indelicacy. Mr. Crawford also uses his excellent reading aloud as a way of wooing Fanny out of her indifference. Mr. Crawford’s reading is of “a variety of excellence beyond what [Fanny] ha[s] ever met with,” and it is in this reading that he comes closest to winning her over (228). While he reads, Fanny’s eyes “which ha[ve] appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day [are] turned and fixed on Crawford—fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction [draws] Crawford’s upon her, and the book [is] closed, and the charm [is] broken” (229, my italics). In the midst of her otherwise total coldness, Fanny gives Mr. Crawford her notice and attention while he reads. His artful words are capable of throwing a spell, or “charm” over people, especially those awake to beauty. When Crawford reads Shakespeare, his acting is of such caliber that he can take on some of Shakespeare’s “thoughts and beauties” (229). Fanny loses her cold silence when she can almost believe that Mr. Crawford’s witty words are sincere and true. When his attention is drawn back to her however, and she sees his true self, Fanny spurns his advances and retreats into her defendable silence. Crawford cannot win Fanny Price because he is addicted to acting. In the process of attempting to seduce Fanny and others, Henry Crawford has managed to seduce himself with his own wit.
Edmund Bertram is Mr. Crawford’s rival for Fanny’s heart as well as his foil, but Edmund successfully uses silence and actions to achieve what Crawford attempts to do with words. The foremost qualities that make Edmund better than Crawford are his moral delicacy and his appreciation of silence. He and Fanny share in many comfortable silences of the deep and heart-swelling variety, and while Crawford’s courtship is focused on wit, Edmund’s unwitting courtship (pun intended) is almost completely comprised of actions. From the very beginning of Fanny’s stay at Mansfield Park, Edmund is sensitive to her needs, and shows kindness through actions rather than with words. He gives her the means to write to her brother William when she is utterly alone, and when Fanny is without exercise he is the only one to realize that “Fanny must have a horse,” and to supply her with one. The result of these kindnesses is that Fanny’s gratitude is “beyond all her words to express . . . [and] she regard[s] her cousin as an example of everything good and great, as possessing worth which no one but herself could ever appreciate” (27-28). Edmund’s silence makes his rare praise even more valuable. When at the Mansfield ball he compliments Fanny’s looks and makes her promise to keep two dances for him, “she ha[s] hardly ever been in a state so nearly approaching high spirits in her life” (187). Fanny knows that Edmund’s compliment is not only warm but sincere, and there is nothing false or indelicate about it. Fanny’s choice is simple for her. She loves Edmund because his silence has the same sincerity as hers, a sharp contrast from the bewitching eloquence of Mr. Crawford’s wit.
Edmund Bertram also has his own love triangle in Mansfield Park. He must learn to see that Fanny, and not Mary Crawford, is the match for him. Edmund, though kind and sincere, is not without his faults. While Mr. Crawford views Fanny as a personal challenge, Edmund errs on the side of taking Fanny for granted. In fact, Edmund almost fulfills his aunt’s prophesy that if they “breed [Fanny] up with [her cousins] from [childhood], and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister" (8). Edmund’s shortsightedness exemplifies his general tendency toward understatement and helps make his statements more sincere, even when blind. In addition, his lack of self-knowledge makes him vulnerable to the bewitchment of charm and allows the second love triangle to occur. Mary Crawford and Fanny Price both love Edmund, and he is in love with or at least enamoured of them both. Edmund’s situation as the chooser in his love triangle is more precarious than Fanny’s above, because while Fanny knows the merits of silence and distrusts wit, Edmund is open to being completely taken in by Miss Crawford’s wit and charm. Though Edmund values silence enough to be the match for Fanny, he needs to grow and undergo the bewitching effect of wit before he can ‘break its charm’ and learn enough to see Fanny as a possible bride.
Mary Crawford is to Fanny in much the same way that Henry Crawford is to Edmund: a foil whose wit and artifice points to the value of silence. Though Mary can achieve the same bewitching artistry with words as her brother, she also creates many an awkward silence. Miss Crawford seeks Edmund’s hand in marriage, and exerts the full force of her charm in a nearly-successful campaign to gain him. Unlike her brother Henry, Mary uses her wit not for acting as if she has delicacy but rather for ridiculing things, whether they deserve it or not. Her “lively mind can hardly be serious even on serious subjects,” as Edmund puts it, and this is because Miss Crawford will use anything as fuel for her wit (62). Mary’s ridicule generates awkward silences quite different from the peaceful ones. Her indelicate witticisms cause others to feel embarrassed for her or to bristle on behalf of the thing she has ridiculed. When Mary crudely criticizes her uncle, Edmund is “sorry to hear Miss Crawford, whom he [is] much disposed to admire, speak so freely of her uncle. It [does] not suit his sense of propriety, and he [is] silenced, till induced by further smiles and liveliness to put the matter by for the present” (42). Edmund’s silence speaks to his credit, since he will not join her in the indelicacy of making fun of a parental figure. It is only Mary’s “smiles and liveliness” that restore her temporarily to Edmund’s good graces. Again at Sotherton Mary ridicules customs of religion, a subject dear to Edmund’s heart, and “he [needs] a little recollection” before he can politely refute her statement (62). In the end of the book, it is also Miss Crawford’s wit that proves her downfall in her quest for Edmund’s hand. When at the serious subject of their siblings’ adulterous elopement she “give[s] way to gaiety [and] speak[s] with lightness,” “the charm is broken [and Edmund’s] eyes are opened” (309, my italics). Mary Crawford’s bewitching wit had Edmund under a “charm,” the same charm her brother put on Fanny with his reading. Ultimately, however, Mary’s wit achieves the opposite of its purpose. It breaks its own charm and opens Edmund’s eyes to her amoral indelicacy, prompting him to decent and reflective silence.
Edmund’s real love, obviously, is none other than Fanny Price. Through actions rather than words, Fanny quietly shows her love for Edmund throughout the book: he has only to recognize it and realize that he feels the same. Though Fanny loves Edmund deeply, she never confesses her love to Edmund. Even when Edmund invites Fanny to give her opinion about her rival Miss Crawford, Fanny does not voice her doubts about Mary’s suitability. She refuses to advise him at all, saying “If you only want me as a listener, cousin, I will be as useful as I can; but I am not qualified for an adviser” (184). Even though Edmund’s marrying Miss Crawford would ruin Fanny’s chances of happiness, she would rather keep her own love secret than risk Edmund’s losing a possibility of happiness as he perceives it. This silence alone proves her selfless love for Edmund. Fanny and Edmund are also able to share happy silences, something Edmund does not share with the restless Mary. At the ball, Edmund says “‘With you, Fanny, there may be peace. You will not want to be talked to. Let us have the luxury of silence.’ Fanny . . . hardly even speak[s] her agreement” (191). This mutual understanding of the propriety and peace in silence makes Fanny and Edmund the perfect couple at the end of Mansfield Park. Edmund grows to see that Fanny’s quiet sincerity is far superior to Mary’s insensitive wit, and that only Fanny makes him truly happy.
Austen’s two love triangles not only force the reader as well as her main characters to compare Fanny with Mary Crawford and Edmund with Henry Crawford, but also to make a choice between silence and delicacy on the one hand, and wit and charm on the other. First, she establishes that silence such as Fanny’s can have positive connotations, not just those of apprehension and timidity. By comparing Henry and Edmund’s ways of courting Fanny, Austen shows that silent acts of kindness are superior to artificial witticisms and bewitching reading. Austen presents Edmund as much more susceptible than Fanny to the charms of wit because he undervalues Fanny. By having Miss Crawford’s thoughtless wit betray her and letting Edmund see that Fanny’s quiet sincerity is far superior, Austen firmly establishes in the minds of her characters and her reader the value of silence over wit. Austen ultimately uses her love triangles to teach that words and wit are often artificial or superficial, while silence can show delicacy and deeper kindness. She likens wit, in the cases of both the Crawford siblings, to an evil “charm” that must be “broken” (229, 309). This message came as a surprise to Austen’s readers in the 1814, especially to those who only one year after the publication of Pride and Prejudice expected another Lizzie Bennet who “dearly love[s] a laugh” (Pride and Prejudice, 39). The anti-charm message still surprises readers 200 years later. In a world dominated by the witty and the charismatic, it is foreign to many to step back and view the situation as Austen does. Edmund’s praise of “the luxury of silence” is dear to Austen’s heart, and should be to ours as well. Surrounded as we are by the deafening and dubious charms of noise and artifice, sincere and delicate silence is indeed a great luxury.
Auerbach, Nina. “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought about Fanny Price.” Mansfield Park. By Jane Austen. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. Norton Critical Editions. New York: Norton, 1998. 445-457.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. Norton Critical Editions. New York: Norton, 1998.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray. Norton Critical Editions. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2002.