2014 JASNA Essay Contest Second Place Winner College/University Division
Personal Voice and Transformation in Mansfield Park
In Mansfield Park the narrator often uses the motif of communication to either advance the plot or provide insight into the true nature of the characters. While the forms of communication presented in the novel range from letters and gossip to the second-hand recounting of conversations, the attention paid to the speaking habits of the characters themselves becomes a lens through which the reader is able to uncover each individual’s moral make-up. It is widely acknowledged that Jane Austen’s initial character descriptions contain seemingly trivial details that in fact foreshadow the person’s true character and fate. This fact rings true for Mansfield Park, as several of the characters’ introductions include details of their speaking habits. The quiet Fanny Price who speaks “modestly” and only when prompted is juxtaposed with characters such as the opinionated Mrs. Norris and Mary Crawford, who is described as “a talking pretty young woman”(20,40). When considering the fate Austen creates for her talkative characters, it is easy to assume that she is punishing them for their unrestrained communication. However, focusing on the talkative characters as being corrupted ignores the conflict caused by Fanny’s silence and unwillingness to express her opinions. Instead, by having her heroine gradually cultivate her own voice Austen is able to champion Fanny’s morality, thoughtfulness, and rationality and condemn the selfishness and immorality of the unfiltered supporting characters.
Early on in the novel Austen presents Fanny’s difficulty with individual expression by establishing Edmund as her sole advocate and voice. By supplying Fanny with letter paper shortly after her arrival at Mansfield Park, Edmund metaphorically provides her with a voice within a home where she is silenced by her Aunt Norris’ comments such as, “I do beseech and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins”(196). Her position as an outsider at Mansfield Park causes Fanny to rely on Edmund to be her defender and confidante. This relationship is made clear when the narrator states, “Fanny would rather have had Edmund tell the story, but his determined silence obliged her to relate her brother’s situation”(53). Fanny freely shares her opinions with Edmund, and statements such as “I want to consult- I want your opinion” illustrate the degree to which he values her insight (137). This dynamic helps Fanny navigate a house in which she is constantly reminded of her inferior position. In several instances, such as the proposed trip to Sotherton, Edmund challenges Mrs. Norris or Lady Bertram’s unfair treatment of Fanny. Simply put, “Edmund had been her champion and her friend; - he had supported her cause or explained her meaning”(136).
This relationship with Edmund provides Fanny with an outlet through which she feels comfortable sharing her thoughts, but this over-reliance on others to be her voice leads to conflict once Mary Crawford permanently alters the dynamic. While Fanny believes she and Edmund could never hold differing opinions, his inability to recognize Mary’s true character in the midst of his blinding infatuation forces Fanny to rely on her own opinions in a way she had not previously. Edmund’s blindness is evidenced by his defense of Mary Crawford even after she makes several improper statements. His remarks to Fanny that Mary “has great discernment” and that “she does not think evil, but she speaks it” illustrate the extent to which he has lost the ability to discern a person’s character, which he and Fanny once shared (177, 242). By compromising Fanny’s surrogate voice and fellow rational observer, Austen creates a shift that requires Fanny to reconsider her reliance on others to express her opinions.
Forcing her heroine to break her silence might suggest Austen is aligning her with the novel’s talkative individuals, but the way Austen punishes these secondary characters emphasizes the distinction between the nature and motivation behind their communication and Fanny’s. Mrs. Norris’ support of Maria and Mary Crawford’s self-condemning statements represent improper uses of speech, meaning these characters illustrate the type of voice Fanny does not develop. The guilt of the immoral, talkative characters is further emphasized by Austen’s descriptions of their silence. Unlike Fanny, whose silence is caused by her reserved nature and lack of confidence in her observational skills, these characters are only silenced when their inappropriate behavior is discovered. Following Sir Thomas’ interruption of the play rehearsals the narrator notes, “not a word was spoken for half a minute”(154). Even the assertive Mrs. Norris is described as “being silenced as ever she had been in her life” out of shame for not seeing the impropriety in performing the play (166). Austen permanently silences Mrs. Norris by having her leave Mansfield Park, further emphasizing how her outspoken nature shapes her fate.
Mary Crawford is the character most explicitly punished for her talkative nature but only because her speech is often inappropriate, unfiltered, and inconsiderate. While Mary believes her shocking statements and flirtatiousness imbue her with a certain power to manipulate those around her, in reality her teasing and daring pronouncements deprive her of the marriage to Edmund she desires. Throughout the novel there are several instances where Edmund is “silenced” by Mary’s comments because he views them as improper (50). Her ability to create silences with her suggestive remarks and mocking of the clergy emphasizes the danger of speaking when the comments are not appropriate. Edmund mirrors this belief when he states, “I do not censure her opinions; but there certainly is impropriety in making them public”(57). Mary’s impudent comments following Tom’s illness and Henry’s scandal represent the extent of her ignorance as to what constitutes appropriate and productive communication. Austen uses this ignorance to cultivate Edmund’s disillusionment with Mary, which positions her as yet another figure undone by her communicative behavior.
While the downfall of the talkative Mary Crawford might appear to support Fanny’s silence, the issues that arise and cause Fanny to overcome her reserved nature suggest that Austen was not condemning the sharing of one’s opinions. Instead, Austen expresses how silence can be equally dangerous as inappropriate speech when the opinions being silenced are virtuous and rational. Despite detecting an ingenuous quality in Henry Crawford’s character and an inappropriate intimacy in his relationship with Maria, Fanny avoids communicating her suspicions. When describing Fanny’s uneasiness with Henry Crawford, Austen writes:
Fanny was the only one of the party who found anything to dislike; but since the day at Sotherton, she could never see Mr. Crawford with either sister without observation, and seldom without wonder or censure; had her confidence in her own judgment been equal to her exercise of it in every other respect, had she been sure that she was seeing clearly, and judging candidly, she would probably have made some important communications to her usual confidant. (104)
The irony of this quote is that unlike the people who surround her Fanny clearly contains the observational skills and clear judgment that she doubts in herself. In addition, it is suggested that even if Fanny trusted her intuition she still would have only confided in Edmund, further illustrating how Fanny passes on her communicative abilities and knowledge onto others rather than trusting her own voice. By hiding her suspicions concerning Maria and Henry, Fanny prevents anyone else from discovering the impropriety before it is too late.
Fanny similarly thwarts the power of her own moral compass when she does not share her uneasiness with her family’s decision to perform “Lover’s Vows.” Despite feeling the characters are “unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty” and harboring a sense of propriety the others lack, Fanny fails to express her concerns (122-23). Instead she believes that Edmund will soon put an end to the play. Austen writes that Fanny “longed to have them [her cousins] roused as soon as possible by the remonstrance which Edmund would certainly make”(123). Although Edmund shares Fanny’s belief that the play is improper, his infatuation with Mary Crawford later causes him to join the production. In the end Fanny is forced to help prepare for the play, but as the narrator describes; “her silence concealed a very absent, anxious mind”(149). It is this personal distress when attempting to hide her opinions is yet another manifestation of the danger in suppressing one’s voice.
Austen creates tension in the novel by having the narrator constantly recount Fanny’s personal opinions but not having Fanny share them aloud. Early on in the novel the narrator explains, “few young ladies of eighteen could be less called on to speak their opinion than Fanny”(42). This timidity causes conflict for Fanny because “her motives had often been misunderstood, her feelings disregarded, and her comprehension undervalued” when her family makes assumptions about her opinions (136). It becomes clear that Fanny only speaks if she has to or to relieve awkwardness such as when Mary Crawford insults Edmund’s chosen profession. These small instances of Fanny speaking out illustrate a mastery of language which Mrs. Norris and Mary Crawford lack. While Mary and Mrs. Norris attempt to communicate with others to get what they desire, Fanny uses manipulative language as a last resort in order to resolve conflicts. For example, when placed in the awkward position of waiting for Mr. Rushworth after Maria and Henry have walked off, Fanny attempts to downplay their affront by suggesting that Mr. Rushworth pursue them. These situations emphasize Fanny’s avoidance of speaking to others and sharing her thoughts.
A major turning point in the cultivation of Fanny’s voice is her refusal of Henry Crawford. This rejection is foreshadowed earlier in the novel when Fanny pointedly disagrees with his lamentation over Sir Thomas’s disruption of the play. Austen writes, “she had never spoken so much at once to him . . . and never so angrily to anyone; and when her speech was over, she trembled and blushed at her own daring”(201). Although in this scene Fanny is surprised by her ability to confront Henry Crawford, she shows more strength later on when she endures Sir Thomas’s anger over her rejection of the proposal. Even during his attack Fanny is still able to defend herself, realizing that “she had no one to take her part, to counsel, or to speak for her”(288). What is significant about Fanny breaking her silence and facing Sir Thomas is that she is acting upon her intuitive dislike and distrust of Henry Crawford. Unlike characters such as Mary Crawford or Mrs. Norris who often speak without thinking, Fanny chooses to speak when she feels passionately or when she believes it is the right thing to do. In addition, her refusal of Henry Crawford highlights her new ability to express her opinions without Edmund’s assistance.
By having Fanny gain this voice Austen brings to the forefront the intuitiveness and virtuousness Fanny embodies, which was discussed previously only by the narrator. Upon her return to Mansfield Park from Portsmouth, Fanny’s presence is more fully appreciated as the characters that surround her become cognizant of the quiet intelligence and rational advice she brings to the household. What sets Fanny’s breaking of her silence apart from Mary Crawford’s talkativeness is her lack of what Edmund describes as Mary’s “faults of principle” and “corrupted, vitiated mind”(413). Fanny’s opinions were always based on rationality and observation, and never included the impropriety that plagued Mary’s comments. Through the narrator these virtuous thoughts were always made apparent to the reader, but Austen carefully charts how Fanny gains confidence and accrues the ability to speak individually and not rely on Edmund to share her opinions. While through their speech some characters expose their selfishness and immorality, Fanny is able to reveal the virtuous, intuitive and intelligent nature that was always hidden below her reserved surface, therefore allowing her to develop a stronger sense of self within Mansfield Park and in her relationship with Edmund.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: Book-of-the-Month-Club, 1996. Print.