PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.26, NO.1 (Winter 2005)

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Determining Authorial Intention

Melissa Burns

 

Melissa Burns (email: melissas@uga.edu), received her Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington in 2003.  She will receive her Master of Arts in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia in 2006.

 

if it is not already, then it should be a truth universally acknowledged that interpreting literature requires a high degree of suspicion by a critic.  The problem of determining authorial intent is nearly unsolvable in the absence of the author and yet it remains the ultimate goal in literary analysis.  The field of literary studies went through radical shifts in thinking about and analyzing literature in the 1960s with the emergence of new historicist schools of literary analysis (post-structural, post-colonial, and feminist schools included), which have come to dominate the field of literary analysis for current graduate students and scholars.  These schools have drifted so far to one extreme of the interpretive spectrum that not only has the author faded from the text, the author has been eliminated from consideration altogether.  While these schools of thought enable readers to determine the applicability of a given text, they have not thus far attempted to discover any original authorial intent.  It is difficult to believe that a writer, especially a writer from the nineteenth century, sits down to write a four hundred page novel without specific intentions; also, it is the purpose of the reader to attempt to discover what may have been the author’s probable intentions.

 

The deceptive simplicity of Jane Austen’s novels provides an ideal testing ground for attempting to ascertain authorial intention.  The paradigm of this testing lies in the paradox between what we know of her novels and what we know of her world.  Through a close reading of Mansfield Park and analysis of four evident themes, those which are the most commonly discussed in recent critical analysis, we are able both to theorize on probable authorial intent and to examine the value of such an exercise.  By way of this examination of Mansfield Park we can address the larger issue of determining an author’s intentions regarding his or her work as well as the value in attempting such knowledge.

 

The emergence of the importance of the reader in literary interpretation began with the elimination of the author, a strange juxtaposition given that the one does not exist without the other.  In “The Intentional Fallacy,” Wimsatt and Beardsley cast their lot with the text itself:  “The poem is not . . . the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it)” (946).  Once a literary work is completed and published, it leaves the author’s possession and becomes a public work; therefore, the author’s intentions must be entirely contained within the work itself if they are ever to become manifest to the reader.

 

In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes takes the elimination of the author a step further.  There are, at least, two distinct ways of reading this article.  The first is that the author should be killed off, annihilated, erased from the record of a given text.  For example, Barthes’s parting phrase, “the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the author” (1133), implies that the one can not exist in company with the other. 

 

There is another reading of this article, however, and it is a more accommodating reading.  The death that Barthes speaks of is not, in fact, the total removal of an author from a text, but rather the removal of the “cult of personality” associated with the given author. “The author is a modern character,” Barthes says, “no doubt produced by our society as it emerged from the Middle Ages, influenced by English empiricism, French rationalism, and the personal faith of the Reformation, thereby discovering the prestige of the individual, or as we say more nobly, of the ‘human person’” (1131).  Barthes addresses the conscientious construction of an author’s public face.  This construction has taken place partially through the perception of the public (i.e., the public has a specific image or idea in mind and the author shapes his/her public persona to fit the previously established image rather than to correct any misconceptions).  In the case of Jane Austen, however, this conscientious construction takes a much more dangerous road, interpretively.

 

The cult of personality surrounding Jane Austen was initially constructed by her immediate family.  Austen herself requested anonymity during her life as the author of her novels.  But the gregariousness of her elder brother, acting as her literary agent at the time, was impossible to suppress.   The truth leaked out while Austen was still alive, and she may have felt the pressure to live up to public opinion of the kind of woman she must surely be.  In her biography of Austen, Claire Tomalin writes, “The secret of Jane’s authorship was beginning to be more generally known.  A Miss Burdett . . . wanted to be introduced to her. ‘I am rather frightened by hearing that she wishes to be introduced to me.  If I am a wild Beast, I cannot help it.  It is not my own fault,’” complained Jane” (238).  This statement implies that Austen was aware that the public perceived a version of herself as a woman and an author that may have been different from reality.  Additionally, it is not her “own fault” because the persona of  “Miss Jane Austen” was created by her brothers, more specifically by her elder brother Henry Austen, who acted as a mediator with her publisher.  This persona was later furthered by James-Edward Austen-Leigh who published the first biography of his Aunt Jane.

 

There is a point to this illustration.  Namely, this construction by her family of a specific persona of “Miss Jane Austen,” authoress of six novels, hinders the interpretive process.  The hindrance takes the shape of “authorial baggage” for lack of more eloquent terminology.  The authorial baggage in the case of Jane Austen includes the idea of a genteel, maidenly aunt sitting around in fine clothes and sipping tea.  Or perhaps what is suggested is the single-minded spinster who refused perfectly good marriage proposals in order to devote herself to writing.  There is the other one, more popular during her own time, which certainly associated her as the non-fictional form of her own character Elizabeth Bennet, or the comic genius writing jokes for her nieces.  In The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler writes, “Each of us has a private Jane Austen” (“Prologue”), and with authorial baggage, each reader can indeed have a private Jane Austen; each reader can pick and choose from the images offered just the one to suit his or her needs, but all or none of them may have been the real Jane Austen. 

 

The problem with authorial baggage and literary interpretation is simple.  People find what they look for.  In all aspects of life, literary scholarship is no exception.  Feminists who read Jane Austen may find her witty and sometimes scathing remarks assaults against men, marriage, and the lack of female empowerment.  When post-colonialist theorists read Jane Austen they find slavery and an endorsement of colonial expansion and the British Empire.  When Marxists read Jane Austen they find the family ills as a microcosm for the larger social ills of her world.  There are few enough people looking for the real Jane Austen and what may have been her intentions when she sat down to write her novels.  And by this argument, the death of the author is essential to literary interpretation.  For it is only through the death of the author and the stripping away of this authorial baggage that the text emerges as the central focus, and should not all literary interpretation begin with the text?

 

In approaching Mansfield Park, without focusing on the carefully constructed cult of personality of Jane Austen, four interpretive themes come into central focus:  order (Latin root ordo); slavery and empire (see Edward Said’s “Jane Austen and Empire”); the Bildungsroman within the context of the novel itself; and, finally, marriage.  These themes work together to reveal what Austen may have intended her readers to understand about Mansfield Park.

 

Why is order significant to determining authorial intention?  Because the theme of order takes three distinct forms, and repetition in a single work of literature ought not to be ignored (remember, when interpreting literature a high degree of suspicion is required).  Within the text of Mansfield Park, there is the order of Mansfield Park itself as contrasted with the chaos of Portsmouth, there is the literal ordination of Edmund as a clergyman to the Church of England, and, finally, there is the foreordination of Fanny Price as the truest heir of Mansfield Park. 

 

The order of Mansfield Park itself is contrasted with the chaos of its Portsmouth relations.  Austen’s narrator describes this contrast:

 

Such was the home which was to put Mansfield out of her head, and teach her to think of her cousin Edmund with moderated feelings.  On the contrary, she could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways.  Every thing where she now was was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony—and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of every thing opposite to them here. (391) 

 

Mansfield Park itself is shown to be a place of quiet contemplation, cleanliness, but also social order.  When Sir Thomas is present, a defined social rank is preserved; in his absence, this sense of social order deteriorates along with the moral order of all the characters present, Fanny only excepted.  These images reinforce Mansfield Park as a place of order as well as Sir Thomas Bertram and his role in his family as a condition of order.

 

In Mansfield Park, one of the central characters (the second son, Edmund Bertram) chooses to make the church his profession and joins the clergy.  His choice faces determined conflict and debate from the woman that he desires to marry.   Mary Crawford, the artful sophisticate raised in London, disapproves of his choice.  The Southerton chapters become the airing grounds for their difference of opinion on this subject.  Mary Crawford makes her objection, “‘But why are you to be a clergyman? . . .  For what is to be done in the church?  Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines [soldier, sailor, law, or heir], distinction may be gained, but not in the church.  A clergyman is nothing’” (92).  Edmund’s oft cited reply defends his choice of professions.  He states,

 

“A clergy man cannot be high in state or fashion.  He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress.  But I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally—which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.  No one here can call the office nothing.  If the man who holds it so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.” (92)

 

A clergyman—at least a good clergyman—brings order, Edmund is saying implicitly, and when he fails to do his duty and “step[s] out of his place” there is chaos.  This statement is Edmund’s declaration, not only of what a clergyman should be but also of what he himself desires to be.   Fanny Price is brought to Mansfield Park from her poor family in Portsmouth to be raised and educated by her mother’s sisters.  Through the course of her stay at Mansfield Park it becomes evident to the reader that she is the foreordained heir of all, not by birth but by merit.  In Fanny, the Bertrams have their true daughter.  Their own natural daughters, Maria and Julia, descend into licentiousness.  That Fanny is the daughter that the Bertrams should have had is evidenced not only by her upstanding character and her patience, but also by the role that she plays within the family dynamic.  In her marriage to Edmund, she legally becomes the foreordained daughter.

 

The theme of order as manifested in these examples within the text creates an established pattern for readers to follow.  In order to understand Mansfield Park and what Austen intended readers to understand from her text, we cannot ignore repetitive patterns like this one.  The pattern is established with the cycle of life at Mansfield Park itself: beginning in order, descending into chaos, and reemerging again in order.  Ordination is a subject of ongoing debate and resistance between Edmund and Mary Crawford.  Fanny’s foreordination, while never stated explicitly, is contrasted repeatedly with the behavior of the Bertrams’ natural children.  By recognizing this pattern, readers are able to more fully understand what Austen may have intended them to understand.

 

The theme that has drawn by far the most attention over the past two decades is that of slavery.  Perhaps this attention is due to the evolution of new historicism, perhaps it is due to greater social consciousness, but, whatever the reason, the focus on slavery has generated bold misreadings of Mansfield Park.  In “Jane Austen and Empire,” Edward Said attempts to highlight the issues of slavery and the slave trade within the novel.  In actuality, he examines the elements of slavery or implicit slavery within the text from a twentieth-century perspective, and then he attempts to magnify these few elements in order to weave Mansfield Park into a debate to which this novel does not solidly belong.

 

While reiterating the fact that readers and critics find what they go looking for in a text, it must also be acknowledged that something can not be found if it is not really there.  There are thematic elements of slavery within Mansfield Park.  There are direct references to an estate held in Antigua by Sir Thomas, and implicit in these references is the presence of slaves on such a plantation; this implication is never stated explicitly.  The novel was written and is set in a time when slavery was still practiced within the British Empire, though the buying and selling of slaves was by this point illegal.  There is only one direct reference to slavery, however, and for that reason it is unwise to assume that any meaning within the text rests exclusively (or solidly) in slavery, or, for that matter, to place too much interpretive weight on so few direct textual references.  Within Mansfield Park there are perhaps a dozen references to Antigua, but only to Antigua and Sir Thomas’ business there; there is only one direct reference to the slave trade. Since there is only the text itself, completed by Austen and released to the public as it is, if readers are to infer any probable authorial intent from the text, they are confined to the contents of the text alone.  And with such a lack of textual evidence, how can readers argue that Mansfield Park is a novel about slavery?

 

The first problem with Edward Said’s argument is that it requires not only the reader  but also Jane Austen to have read “ahead” nearly one hundred years.  Surely, this reading ahead is not possible, not even for Austen.  Said writes,

 

We must first take stock of Mansfield Park’s prefigurations of a later English history as registered in fiction.  The Bertrams’ usable colony in Mansfield Park can be read as pointing forward to Charles Gould’s San Tomé mine in Nostromo, or to the Wilcoxe’s Imperial and West African Rubber company in Forster’s Howard’s End, or to any of these distant but convenient treasure spots in Great Expectations, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Heart of Darkness, etc. . . .  [I]f we think ahead to these other novels Sir Thomas’s Antigua readily acquires a slightly greater density than the discrete, reticent appearances it makes in the pages of Mansfield Park. (Said 93) 

 

How can slavery be a significant element of Mansfield Park if readers cannot find solid references to the slave trade in the text itself?  How can slavery be considered a dominant theme of the text if readers must first think ahead to these other novels while reading about the Antigua estate and the implicit presence of slaves there?  Why did Edward Said choose this text if it is not possible for every reader to find the slave trade explicitly therein?  The answer is simple.  Said himself appears to be seizing upon the authorial baggage implicit with the name of Jane Austen.  He is writing this article to his specific intended audience, those who will read anything by or about Jane Austen rather than Forster, Conrad, Rhys, or Dickens.   Said’s analysis of the slave trade and the practices associated with such a trade is compelling, but he deals so unsatisfactorily with the text of Mansfield Park itself that one wonders why he bothers with it at all.

 

Edward Said stops just short of expressing his own doubt on the subject when he writes,

 

All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff.  And everything we know about Jane Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery.  Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, “there was such a dead silence” as to suggest that one could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both.  That is true. (96)

 

There is no common language for Jane Austen and the slave trade because the slave trade was not the story she was writing.  This post-colonial analysis is interesting as a reading, as a means of bringing readers and scholars to the original text, but this interpretation is not what Jane Austen intended. 

 

A theme of greater significance within the text is that of the Bildungsroman—the coming of age story.  Since the progress of the story coincides with the maturation of Fanny Price, it should not, and indeed, can not be ignored.  This maturation is marked within the text by Edmund’s reference to comments made by Sir Thomas.  He states,

 

“Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter.  Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and any body but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does.  Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—Nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle…. You really must begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. (197-98)   

 

Edmund’s direct reference to Fanny’s figure is all the implication the reader needs to know with certainty that Fanny Price is no longer a child.  She has a woman’s body; therefore, she is eligible for masculine notice and marriage.

 

The beauty of literary interpretations is that there are a number of layers through which one can excavate meaning.  On the surface, Mansfield Park is simply the story of a very young girl, taken from her home and family, having known nothing but poverty and neglect her entire life; now, she is placed among wealthy relations who educate her but also mock and abuse her, who have little if anything at all to do with her; and through this experience, Fanny Price grows up.  That is all.  The passage cited above illustrates this fact.  She goes through puberty, adolescence and all that that entails, and by the end of the novel she is her own person.  This interpretation is simple and obvious but can be complicated by the time frame.

 

When Fanny Price arrives at Mansfield Park she is ten years old, the final year of her childhood.  By the end of the novel she is eighteen and marriageable material.  Claudia Johnson picks up this theme in “What Became of Jane Austen? Mansfield Park.” In this article Johnson writes that “[a]t the height of her powers, Austen in Mansfield Park undertook the considerable challenge of creating, with great sympathy, a profoundly withdrawn heroine who spends the vast majority of the novel feeling out-of-step with the sorts of sexual development and sentiment that people expect of her as a matter of course, as inevitable, as normal” (63).  The example of Fanny Price’s physical development alone means relatively little given that Fanny Price is still a fictional character, but if shown in context with other images of female maturity, sexuality, and development, Fanny Price’s situation takes on new interpretive significance.

 

For example, readers first encounter the mature Fanny Price at the age of seventeen or eighteen in light of the arrival of the Crawfords.  Mary Crawford is the woman with whom Edmund fancies himself in love through much of the novel.  As a contrast to Fanny Price, she is an interesting study.  Fanny Price is modest, quiet, and reserved; Mary Crawford is flashy, confident, and outspoken (her confrontation with Edmund is a good example).  Fanny Price is sedentary: she sits, she thinks, she sits, she listens, she sits, and she helps her Aunt Bertram.  Mary Crawford is nearly perpetual movement itself: she walks, rides, dances, and plays a variety of games.  Fanny Price determines that she “‘cannot act’” (145), while the whole of Mansfield Park is consumed with a home theatrical; Mary Crawford takes the lead female role.  Fanny Price is the first to be shocked about and to condemn Henry Crawford’s behavior and treatment of Maria Bertram (later Rushworth), while Mary Crawford consistently excuses her brother’s behavior and even condones the worst of it.

 

Mary Crawford is not the only female character to provide this contrast with Fanny Price and therefore highlight Fanny Price’s coming of age. Fanny’s cousins Maria and Julia Bertram take an equal share in illustrating the significance of Fanny’s maturation.  Maria and Julia are both older than Fanny Price and have only known a life of ease, privilege, and education; as such, they should have made Fanny Price’s life a little easier perhaps, even showing her the ropes, if the expression can be permitted.  Instead, they mock her for her ignorance and dispense with her when she is no longer useful to them.  The entrance of the Crawfords into the neighborhood highlights their sexuality and ease in society, just as the same event highlights Fanny Price’s awkwardness and discomfort.  Maria herself carries on an ostentatious flirtation with Henry Crawford, only to elope with him after her marriage to Mr. Rushworth.  Together Mary Crawford, Maria Bertram (later Rushworth), and Julia Bertram (later Yates) all serve to magnify the significance of the Bildungsroman theme throughout the novel.  Because it is Austen’s deliberate choice to situate the time frame of her novel around the development and maturation of Fanny Price, this theme evolves as one of her intentions to her readers. 

 

The final theme of marriage is tightly intertwined with female sexuality. The more significant part of this discussion, rather than who marries whom, is for what reasons do individuals within this text marry.  There are four marriages that take place over the course of events and there are four significantly different views on marriage.

 

The first to marry among the characters is Maria Bertram.  Maria Bertram marries Mr. Rushworth for no other reason than the obvious one:  money.  Sir Thomas discerns the truth about his daughter’s relationship with her fiancé: Mr. Rushworth is “an inferior young man, as ignorant in business as in books, with opinions generally unfixed, and without seeming much aware of it himself” (200).  Cold, careless, and indifferent, Maria obviously “did not like him.”  The narrator goes on to explain Maria’s preparations for her marriage: “In all the important preparations of mind she was complete; being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry” (202).  The only justification ever given for her attraction to Mr. Rushworth is his money; the only justification for her marriage is her desire for “independence.”  Although financial concerns figure into many of the marriage discussions within Austen’s novels, she is particularly condemning of the mercenary tactics within Mansfield Park, and it is this condemnation, repeated and adamant, that cannot be ignored.

 

Tony Tanner, in “The Quiet Thing: Mansfield Park,” describes Mary Crawford’s views on marriage.  He writes, “Mary, for instance, regards marriage as ‘a manoeuvring business’ and a true Londoner, thinks that ‘a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of” (154).  Mary Crawford is the marriage anomaly of Mansfield Park.  She “falls in love” with Edmund, all the while wishing his elder brother Tom dead so that Edmund would be his father’s heir to the baronetcy and lands, and with the lands their income.  She leaves Mansfield Park, “perfectly resolved against ever attaching herself to a younger brother again, [but Mary] was long in finding among the dashing representatives, or idle heir apparents … anyone who could satisfy the better taste she had acquired at Mansfield” (469).  Austen stops short of giving the details of Mary Crawford’s marriage, implying only that it took her a while to find someone suitable, not that it was impossible altogether.

 

Julia Bertram is perhaps the most pathetic of the three.  Maria requests her presence on the honeymoon and later takes Julia with her to London where Julia begins a flirtation with Tom’s friend Mr. Yates.  After Maria Rushworth elopes with Henry Crawford, Julia, faced with returning to the solemnities of Mansfield Park, elopes with Mr. Yates.  Little is revealed about the elopement, except for the fact that Julia

 

had been allowing his attentions some time, but with very little idea of ever accepting him; and, had not her sister’s conduct burst forth as it did, and her increased dread of her father and of home, on that event—imagining its [Maria’s elopement with Henry Crawford] certain consequence to herself would be greater severity and restraint—made her hastily resolve on avoiding such immediate horrors at all risks, it is probable that Mr. Yates would never have succeeded. (466-67) 

 

Julia Bertram elopes with Mr. Yates to escape her father’s home. 

 

Fanny Price is the only one of the four young, marriageable ladies who actually marries the man of her choice, and for love.  Readers learn early in the text of her fond attachment to Edmund due to his early kindness to her.  The tension grows and progresses as Edmund pines for Mary Crawford; but, finally, Fanny is rewarded for the goodness of her character and for being, in contrast to the other women in the novel, the only one of any strong moral fiber.  Austen rewards Fanny’s moral superiority at the end of the text: “exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire” (470).  Incidentally, this marriage is the only one complicated by questions of sexuality, since Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram have been raised, first cousins in actuality, as brother and sister. 

 

Claudia Johnson writes that most people mistake Jane Austen’s fiction as prudish, when in fact it is layered with sexuality.  Johnson finds that “even though legally it is not incest,” the relationship between Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram “feels too close emotionally” (66).  Johnson argues that this relationship is the reason that the love between the two is tainted with shame.  Yet, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are the only two characters within the world of the text who are moral equals.  Henry Crawford, who makes advances to Fanny Price, is so morally corrupt as to make it obvious to everyone but himself that those two can never marry; the same problem exists with the relationship between Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford.  The omnipresence of the marriage theme throughout the course of the novel makes it impossible to ignore and points to Austen’s intentions in the text.

 

E. D. Hirsch states that “no one can establish another’s meaning with certainty.  The interpreter’s goal is simply this—to show that a given reading is more probable than others” (236).  This goal is not the interpreter’s alone, it is every reader’s goal—to establish another’s meaning.  And this goal is not restricted to reading and analysis: from the breakfast table to the classroom to the halls of congress, all human beings who are sentient and communicative are attempting to understand one another, to interpret their intentions and meaning through word and gesture.  P. D. Juhl writes that “all great literary works are inexhaustible and that every age must understand the great literary works in its own way or in its own terms” (36).  This inexhaustibility explains why, after nearly two hundred years, there are interpretations of Mansfield Park as a text about slavery or sexuality or any number of other topics of the moment.    

 

Throughout Mansfield Park, Jane Austen returns to certain themes that recur with different characters and situations; however, these themes spiral together to form a cohesive whole.  There is a final thread running throughout Mansfield Park, and while Austen’s intentions as to the meaning or meanings of her text are impossible to determine with certainty, the thread of individual authenticity is pervasive, intertwining with the four principal themes I have discussed.

 

Know thyself.  Individual authenticity in Mansfield Park is manifested in all of the themes and in all of the central characters.  Fanny Price, naturally, as the central character, is the primary examplar of individual authenticity.  She is the only character who knows who she is; she does not, and cannot, act in opposition to her own character.  Austen uses the home theatricals, staged in the absence of Sir Thomas, to illustrate how quickly some characters (Henry and Mary Crawford; Maria, Julia, and Tom Bertram; Mr. Yates) abandon their own selves in favor of playing a different role, any role within the context of the play.  And for some characters, Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram especially, these roles continue outside the world of the play as well.

 

Edmund rallies to his own authenticity in confrontations with Mary Crawford over his chosen profession.  She would have him abandon the church in favor of the military or law, but he knows himself well enough to reject those professions not cohesive with his own character.  Regardless of her mocking, her arguments, and her open loathing of the office, he steadfastly takes orders and goes ahead with his own plans for his future.  He remains authentically himself in the face of her attempts to change and manipulate him into something different.

 

Mansfield Park itself has an authentic self.  It is a place designed by Austen to represent the possibility of all that is good, orderly, tranquil, and moral.  The absence of Sir Thomas Bertram leads to the deterioration of that authentic self, but that validity returns when he returns, and even in his absence the authenticity of Mansfield Park lives on in Fanny Price.

 

Throughout the novel, Henry Crawford lacks a consistent, authentic self.  A consummate actor, Henry constantly plays a role, if not literally in the home theatrical, then figuratively as the seducer of Maria Rushworth, the suitor of Fanny Price, or the sponsor of William Price.  In four hundred pages he does not have one single speech that is authentically his own; they all seem to have been written for an actor on the stage rather than for an individual in a novel.  Likewise, Maria and Julia Bertram are easily swayed into believing themselves in love with him because they too, lack authentic selves; they assume the characteristics of those who surround them.  For example, when Maria Rushworth moves to London with her husband and her sister, its corruptive influence is manifested almost immediately on the two women.

 

Throughout her coming of age, Fanny Price is the only character to sincerely grow into and to sustain her own authentic self.  She is surrounded by people who lack an authentic self, deny their authentic self, or are unable to maintain their own authenticity and so do not.  She is pressured to marry a man who has no authentic self, and she is also pressured to abandon her own authenticity in order to become his wife.  Throughout the turbulence of Henry Crawford’s courtship, her brother Williams’s promotion, and her exile to Portsmouth, she is steadfast.  She knows herself, and she can not deny who she is anymore than the earth or the stars can deny themselves and the rules that govern their existence.  It is the perfect harmony of nature and art coming into focus in one central character: Fanny Price.

 

So what?  What is the point of authorial intent, interpretation and meaning, if it does not signify something to someone one at some point?  Juhl writes, “it is reasonable to assume that at least some works survive not only because they are still capable of satisfying certain emotional needs, but also because they continue to ‘say something to us’” (225).   Mansfield Park continues to draw so much discussion, debate, and intense visceral responses because it has continued to speak to us for two hundred years—perhaps because the problems illustrated in the novel are human problems, timeless in that they have existed in some form or another as long as we have; or perhaps because the author’s intentions for her readers are virtually unknowable and yet remain the crowning prize for which to strive.  The language of Austen’s novels is deceptively simple, but as one reads and rereads one comes to see the complexity of the language and depth of the themes and storylines. 

 

The significance of individual authenticity is that as a race, human beings still struggle with determining their authentic selves, alone and collectively.  The truth remains that humans, like all other mammals, assume the characteristics of those around them in order to survive, and by so doing there remains a part of their authentic self that is erased from the whole.  In declaring that literary works are read and reread with every generation because “they continue ‘to say something’ to us,” P.D. Juhl is striking at the material point, that literature, real literature, continues to be relevant regardless of how old it is or what the central themes or storylines are.  And it is literature as the author intended it, rather than literature as scholars would interpret it in order to forward their own ideas and ambitions that remains the enduring masterpiece.

 

There is no certainty in any of this interpretation.  There is no manual written out defining how to read Jane Austen’s novels and what readers should get out of them.  This silence on the subject is precisely the reason that Austen’s novels continue to be read and reread with every generation. There is a fascination, a puzzle to be solved.  There is only probability; this interpretation is probable in that it works cohesively with four of the central themes that are evident in what Jane Austen wrote.  Beyond that, there is no certainty.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that when interpreting literature, a high degree of suspicion is required.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Adams, Hazard, ed.  Critical Theory since Plato.  USA: Thomson Learning Inc, 1992.

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. New York: Oxford UP 1997.

_____.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Barthes, Roland.  “The Death of the Author,” in Critical Theory since Plato.  Hazard Adams, ed. USA: Thomson Learning Inc, 1992.  1130-33.

Fowler, Karen Joy.  The Jane Austen Book Club.  New York:  G. P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2004.

Hirsch Jr., E.D.  Validity and Interpretation.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.

Johnson, Claudia L.  “What Became of Jane Austen? Mansfield Park.”  Persuasions 17 (1995): 59-70.

Juhl, P. D.  Interpretation: An Essay in the Philosophy of Literary Criticism.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Said, Edward.  Culture and Imperialism.  New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Tanner, Tony.  Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen: A Life.  New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Wimsatt, W. K. and Monroe C. Beardsley.  “The Intentional Fallacy.”  Critical Theory since Plato.  Hazard Adams, ed. USA: Thomson Learning Inc, 1992.  945-51.

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