2014 JASNA Essay Contest Second Place Winner High School Division
“Let Us Have the Luxury of Silence”: Silence and Communication in Mansfield Park
“She was always more inclined to silence” (Austen 320), Jane Austen wrote of Mansfield Park’s notoriously reticent protagonist Fanny. Austen, we assume, meant it as a compliment; but to generations of readers, Fanny’s – and Edmund’s – silences have posed too great a contrast to the witty banter that characterizes Austen’s most beloved characters. This discontent stems, however, from a lack of understanding of the unique theme of Mansfield Park as opposed to that of Austen’s earlier novels, such as Pride and Prejudice. While in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy forge their relationship through their common skill with words, Mansfield Park’s Fanny and Edmund are drawn together primarily by silence and by “happiness . . . of a quiet, deep, heart-swelling sort” (Austen 320). In this, Austen’s most misunderstood novel, the roles of Pride and Prejudice have effectively been reversed: silence serves as the most powerful agent of communication, while speech creates confusion and draws people apart.
In many of the novel’s best-drawn relationships, silence, rather than speech, is the characters’ preferred method of communicating their affection and regard. The most obvious of these is, of course, the romantic relationship between “exceedingly timid and shy” (Austen 11) Fanny and her cousin Edmund, self-described as “a very matter-of-fact, plain-spoken being” (Austen 83). While they converse plentifully throughout, in the course of Mansfield Park these two develop a very deep and meaningful relationship that does not need to be expressed in words: according to Austen scholar June Dwyer, “Speech is not necessary to the silent understanding that he [Edmund] and Fanny share” (176). It is a mark of this mutual penchant for silence that the pair dances at the Mansfield ball in almost complete quiet. “‘I am worn out with civility,’ said he [Edmund]. ‘I have been talking incessantly all night, and with nothing to say. But with you, Fanny, there may be peace. You will not want to be talked to. Let us have the luxury of silence’” (Austen 242). Even the pair’s final union is narrated in few words. Austen merely states, simply and beautifully, that “there was happiness . . . which no description can reach” – a fitting conclusion to a relationship characterized in the most part by a quiet but enduring love.
While Fanny’s relationship with Edmund is the most defined by silence, Henry Crawford also grows to appreciate Fanny’s reserved ways. After many unsuccessful attempts to draw Fanny out of her shell – his clumsy attempts to garner her affection during the Parsonage game of speculation (Austen 206-214) stand out as a prime example – Henry slowly gains an understanding of her wordless, but nonetheless effective, methods of communication. Later in the novel, when he bears her the news of William’s promotion, Austen writes that “Fanny could not speak, but he did not want her to speak. To see the expression of her eyes, the change of her complexion, the progress of her feelings . . . was enough” (259). While he ultimately remains an unworthy partner for Fanny, Henry demonstrates the depth of his affection for her by thus altering his ideas of traditional romantic communication.
While silence in Mansfield Park often serves to express characters’ affection for each other, it can also be used as a tool of censure. Edmund’s strategy to dissuade his family and friends from participating in the ill-fated production of “Lovers’ Vows” follows these lines: “though Julia . . . observed, in a sarcastic manner, and with a glance first at Maria, and then at Edmund, that ‘the Mansfield theatricals would enliven the whole neighborhood exceedingly,’ Edmund still held his peace, and showed his feelings only by a determined gravity.” The efficacy of this approach is proven by the relentless – and eventually successful – attempts of the actors to convert him to their side; had his silent disapproval not caused them severe qualms of conscience, it is unlikely they would have tried so determinedly to overcome it. Edmund also uses this strategy with Mary, as when she light-heartedly abuses the Admiral: “Edmund was sorry to hear Miss Crawford . . . speak so freely of her uncle. It did not suit his sense of propriety, and he was silenced” (Austen 51). While, unlike his father, he refuses to lecture those whose behavior he disapproves of, Edmund’s more effective methods of communication ultimately allow him to be more of a guiding force for virtue in the lives of his family than is the distant and critical Sir Thomas.
Fanny, while her timidity prevents her from showing her feelings as plainly as Edmund does, also uses silence to communicate her disapproval. Faced with Mary’s flippant remarks about the church, she is “too angry for speech” (Austen 77); irked by Henry’s relentless declarations of love, she merely “turn[s] . . . away, and wish[es] . . . he would not say such things” (Austen 352). At the beginning of the novel, indeed, these silent criticisms go almost wholly unnoticed or ignored, lending point to Edmund’s early comment that Fanny is “one of those who are too silent” (Austen 171). But as appreciation of Fanny’s abilities grows, her influence among family and friends also grows; and her unobtrusive method of communication helps her to exercise it without provoking any of the tangled vanities and egos that hinder more direct censure.
The effectuality of silence as a form of communication is contrasted by the unusual confusion and estrangement that results from Austen’s characters’ attempts at verbal expression. Often, this confusion results from one character’s purposeful deception of another through words. Despite her commendation of herself as “a woman of few words and professions” (Austen 6), Mrs. Norris is continually falling into this trap and impeding her own communications in the process. For example, her self-aggrandizing comments about her own generosity lead to her being expected to provide room and board for Fanny after Mr. Norris’s death (Austen 25), and her overall approbation of dishonesty – especially as regards Maria –results in her eventual exile from Mansfield. While her lies and guiles may benefit her temporarily, they ultimately result in her being disliked and rejected by nearly all of her friends and family.
But if Mrs. Norris suffers the most for her deceptive actions, it is Mary who is most adept at verbal trickery; throughout the novel, she uses this skill “as a weapon to win selfish conquests” (Dwyer 176). As Dwyer points out, her letters to Fanny – actually meant for Edmund – are a prime example of her chicanery (176); so, too, is her carefully-worded, indirect lie over the issue of the gold chain (Austen 225). Perhaps Mary’s least forgivable deception, however, is her selfish attempt to manipulate Fanny’s affection for her own ends. By pretending deep feelings for Fanny – “I feel it quite impossible to do anything but love you” (Austen 311) – in a bid for Edmund’s approval, Mary demonstrates her own shallowness and lack of consideration via the medium of words, resulting in a complete emotional estrangement from Fanny even while they remain outwardly close.
While purposeful deception adds to Mansfield Park’s sum of verbal fiascos, well-meant but misguided phrases do an even greater amount of harm. Mary realizes this keenly after she attempts to lure Edmund with her sharp tongue and ready wit, as in Chapter IX, when an impudent joke about the clergy backfires upon the realization that Edmund himself is bound for orders (Austen 78). Fanny’s naïve judgment – “How distressed she will be at what she said just now” (Austen 78) – is probably an understatement; Austen makes sure that Mary, although she never repents of her loose-tongued ways, is properly humiliated throughout the novel for her tendency to talk without fully knowing her listeners. Even Mary and Edmund’s eventual breakup is caused by misguided words, this time regarding Henry and Maria’s shocking elopement: “I cannot recall all her words,” Edmund explains to Fanny, “and I would not dwell on them if I could . . . She had been inflicting deeper wounds in almost every sentence” (Austen 395-398). Had Mary been better able to control her tongue, Austen implies, she and Edmund might have continued their relationship despite their siblings’ scandals.
Fanny’s stay at Portsmouth also demonstrates the pain that misguided words inflict on Austen’s characters. From her first welcome – “Mr. Price now received his daughter; and having . . . observed that she was grown into a woman, and he supposed would be wanting a husband soon, seemed very much inclined to forget her again” (Austen 330) – to her final relieved farewell, Fanny suffers under her family’s loudness and lack of true communication. The complete absence of silence in the home is something that Fanny “hardly . . . [knows] how to bear” (Austen 331); it is noteworthy that only with Susan, when she finally has “peace . . . [and is] quietly employed” (Austen 346), is she able to gain any enjoyment from her visit.
Perhaps the most direct example, however, of how words in Mansfield Park serve more to impede communication than to further it is Edmund’s fruitless attempt to comfort Fanny about Henry’s proposal. This conversation comes at an unpropitious time in the narrative: Fanny has recently been forced into the unwelcome position of disobeying Sir Thomas, whilst Edmund has inadvertently been tormenting her by his open admiration of Mary. Not surprisingly, relations between the two are unusually strained. The extent to which they have drawn apart from each other, however, is not evident until Edmund expresses his opinion that “If she did not need counsel, she must need the comfort of communication.” Fanny estranged from him, silent and reserved, was an unnatural state of things; a state which he must break through, and which he could easily learn to think she was wanting him to break through” (Austen 299). Corrupted by Mary’s influence, Edmund has ceased to appreciate and enjoy Fanny’s silent ways; instead, he sees them as “unnatural” (Austen 299). The forced conversation that follows demonstrates the uselessness of words in Mansfield Park’s world, as, after a difficult and awkward attempt to draw Fanny out, Edmund realizes that her worry cannot “be talked away” (Austen 308). His misguided attempt at conversation only serves to draw the two further apart: Edmund himself believes that he is “perfectly acquainted” with Fanny’s feelings on the subject, while Fanny is surprised and hurt that even her closest friend has ceased to understand her. Their former intimate relationship is not fully restored until their silent and emotional reunion after the revelation of family scandal, in which Edmund almost inarticulately (Austen 387) expresses his love for Fanny, after which “She could say nothing; nor for some minutes could he say more” (Austen 387).
Mansfield Park, Dwyer writes, is a story meant “to demonstrate that silence is often deeper than words, and that seriousness is finally deeper than humor” (177). In essence, it is Austen’s celebration of a side of human nature too often lost in her era and level of society: the side that is constant, quiet, humble, and enduring. Silence, throughout the novel, comes to represent these qualities, unique to Fanny and Edmund among all the varied characters of Mansfield, Sotherton, and Portsmouth. By the end of the story, thanks to Austen’s careful handling of the juxtaposed themes of silence, speech, communication, and confusion, even those readers to whom Henry and Mary will always remain attractive have gained a better understanding of the value inherent in mature, steadfast personalities like those of Austen’s least popular, but most meaningful pair of lovers.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Scholastic, Inc. 2007.
Dwyer, June. “Mansfield Park: The Portrayal of Quiet, Complex Love.” Readings on Jane Austen. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.