the ascendancy of female relationships in the novels of Jane Austen is everywhere apparent. Sororal and matriarchal mentors enhance the lives of her fictional women, who likewise serve as one another’s role models, emotional supports, educators, companions, entertainers, audiences, and empathetic fellow strivers after selfhood in an often artificially constraining social sphere. In sum, “[t]he progress of the novels is . . . toward the achievement of a community of sisterly affection” (Dabundo). Individual female characters possess distinctive gifts whose effectual employment manifests the divine mark on their natures. Each heroine must recognize and pursue her vocation in order to find and create coherence: the true vocation that harmonizes with and reflects her inborn nature, not her worldly desire. Appropriately, women’s discernment and enactment of their calling, in Austen’s world, occurs in communion with other women.
In depicting this spiritual sisterhood, Austen draws on the traditions and ideals of medieval women’s religious communities in striking ways, and anticipates monasticism’s restoration in England with the Oxford Movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Her heroines manifest varying degrees and combinations of the active and contemplative lives, or charitable work and prayer, respectively. They also embrace the values of poverty (or the risk thereof), chastity, and obedience—three characteristics of the monastic lifestyle to which those entering religious orders commonly vowed adherence. Female characters’ cultivation of the virtues, or fruits of the spirit, produces fruit in the lives of others within their sphere of influence in a manner closely associated with the female conventual tradition. Education, counsel, charity, hospitality, healing, and prayer have long been hallmarks of monastic service to society.
Jane Austen was a devout Anglican. As Laura Mooneyham White aptly asserts, though “Austen was rarely explicit about her religious values” because she considered fiction an inappropriate mode for extensive religious discourse, “they are evident everywhere for those with eyes to see” (4). White enlarges, “The world of her novels is a Christian one in which worldliness competes against traditional orthodoxy and moral precepts. Living in the real world, Austen shows, is the best test of one’s Christian values, and the novels rest on this foundation of Christian purpose” (66).
More apropos of the present argument, Roger E. Moore makes the controversial claim that Austen participates in “a rich English tradition of nostalgia for the dissolved religious houses that began soon after the last monastery closed and intensified in the following two centuries” after King Henry the VIII’s 1536 Act of Suppression resulted in his “s[ale] and lease [of] the [monastic] lands to finance his costly wars” (61). Both Protestants and Catholics bemoaned the loss of these “monuments to the wisdom of the past as well as important conduits of hospitality and benevolence” and “could see that their elimination threatened the social fabric” (Moore 60). Moore cites as evidence of Austen’s pro-monastic sympathies her critique of Henry’s reign and the Dissolution in her juvenile satire on the History of England; Fanny Price’s and Catherine Morland’s magnetism toward sacred or “formerly sacred spaces” (57); and Catherine’s intuitive disapproval of the ways in which “greedy, unscrupulous gentry” (68) denigrated a former convent into a cold, inhospitable feeder of their descendent General Tilney’s self-indulgence.1 A former convent that served area residents has become the habitation of a tyrannical patriarch who serves himself. Austen’s work points toward the profound necessity for “a community to pass on its particular moral shape to the next generation” through “training and instruction in the expected virtues of the community” (Leithart 31, 29).2
Although Austen’s bildungsromane feature courtship plots and imply familial rather than monastic futures for their heroines, body is not excised from spirit or marriage from religiosity in Austen’s sacramental Anglican worldview. Characters’ marriages can also be read as religious allegories. Michael Giffin suggests that the union of Fanny and Edmund embodies “the mystical marriage between Christ and his church,” with Fanny as the Christ figure and Edmund as the church (129). More importantly, however, the spiritual gifts of the women exist independently of men as if a spontaneous outgrowth of the essence of their identities. They must awaken to and consciously embrace these gifts—the optimal exercise of which constitutes their vocation—before marriage as key to the self-knowledge that will enable them to continue their vocation through authentic and mutually fulfilling alliances and, by extension, healthy family lives. The circumstantial opportunities of daily living evoke Fanny Price’s instructorship, Emma Woodhouse’s hospitality, and Anne Elliot’s healing powers, for example, qualities that flow naturally from their own inner promptings, divine instincts. When Austen’s heroines attempt forcibly to pursue roles for which they possess no vocation or to abuse their known powers—as in Emma’s failed effort to play teacher to Harriet or Elizabeth Bennet’s assumption of the omnipotent judge role—moral and social distortions occur. When heroines follow their purest and often simplest instincts, however, their actions produce good for especially other women, who most often call into action the vocations of their biological or Platonic “sisters.” Thereby, the heroines enhance others’ spiritual development while gaining reciprocal advantages.3
Analysis of Fanny Price as a kind of nun and eventual abbess offers a particularly intriguing example of an Austen heroine who discovers her true vocation through the cultivation and honoring of a spiritual sisterhood. According to Sarah Emsley, among all of Austen’s characters, Mansfield Park’s introspective Fanny Price “best exemplifies the contemplative life” (25) and “attempts to balance contemplation with activity” (108) from a communal perspective in which tradition, her adopted patriarch, and her own convictions are all honored (126). Moreover, she follows a “monastic” journey to the role of spiritual matriarch of her community. Austen’s depiction of sage spiritual advisors as women reflects the inheritance of medieval women’s mysticism, as represented in England by such figures as the anonymous author of the Ancrene Riwle, a guide book for anchoresses, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Christina of Markyate.4 Abbesses in European medieval tradition could lead their own monasteries, as in the examples of German mystic Hildegard of Bingen and Bridget of Sweden, and some abbesses or prioresses are known to have overseen men as well as women. The pattern of depicting spiritual guides as female also dominates both male- and female-authored texts of the Middle Ages, such as Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy and Christine de Pisan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, though depicted in different ways (Oestreich 254).
Contemplative spiritual advisor: Fanny Price’s novitiate and conventual order
Jane Austen remarks in a letter to her sister Cassandra that in Mansfield Park, she will explore “a complete change of subject—Ordination” (29 January 1813). In fact, the novel depicts heroine Fanny Price’s vocational journey to “ordination” in much greater depth than that of her cousin, Edmund. Fanny trains for her future as a supervisory educator and spiritual counselor during her “novitiate” at Mansfield Park, but does not fully actualize the role until her sister Susan necessitates it. The problematical Fanny Price has been called an angel, a Christ figure, a prig, and even a monster. Scholars tend to view her as a reactive victim of an abusive childhood and frustrated young adulthood, an empowered nay-sayer who tenaciously resists coercion, a paragon of virtue, and/or a prudish irritant. I propose, however, that the metaphor of novice and, ultimately, abbess best describes Fanny’s distinctive form of leadership, as will be explained in the following allegorical study of this much-debated heroine.
As a novice at Mansfield, Fanny learns the Rule of poverty, chastity, and obedience through a critical series of tests of character. Her aunts Norris and Bertram function as parodies of the active and contemplative dimensions of religious life, respectively, in a serio-comic critique of a Georgian church in need of reform. Austen was thoroughly familiar with the Anglican church of her day and would have been aware of its “problems of absenteeism, pluralism, non-residence, worldliness, and nepotism” while “implicitly” optimistic “that the Church will reform itself, given time” (White 23, 24). Manically meddling caricature-abbess Aunt Norris is devoid of any spiritual life, her soulless worldliness rendering impotent her “charitable” activity, whereas Aunt Bertram’s combined mental vacuity and physical stasis render her quietude an empty alternative to true contemplation.5
No one questions Aunt Norris’s authority over the other women at Mansfield, especially over Fanny, whom it is assumed on her widowhood she will relocate to her own home and supervise as a substitute mother figure or mother superior in a female order of sorts. Edmund respectfully defers to his aunt even when he disputes her treatment of Fanny, and he encourages his horrified cousin to move into the White House as a matter of course: “‘My aunt is acting like a sensible woman in wishing for you. She is choosing a friend and companion exactly where she ought, and I am glad her love of money does not interfere. You will be what you ought to be to her. . . . And I am quite convinced that your being with Mrs. Norris, will be as good for your mind, as riding has been for your health—and as much for your ultimate happiness, too’” (26-28). Edmund wishfully envisions his aunt as enlightening Fanny’s mind, and she her aunt’s temperament, in a mutually fulfilling female community set apart from but integrated within the Mansfield familial circle. Reality thoroughly contradicts the noble motives and plans he imputes to his aunt: she deliberately moves into the smallest eligible house and creates bogus excuses to avoid supporting her niece in any way. Aunt Norris’s calculated disloyalty sets up a contrast for Fanny’s generous mentorship of her younger sister Susan in a clear counter-example of devotion to spiritual sisterhood.
Fanny’s training at Mansfield for eventual headship of her own “order” includes the daily discipline of physical and emotional deprivation through obedience to demanding family members, in addition to her rigorous course of morally enlightening reading and Socratic dialogue with Edmund. Having come from the overpopulated, underfinanced Price household, she has already faced scarcity, but then encounters it superfluously in a wealthy household. She is assigned to a cell-like “little white attic” (150) for a bedroom and embraces a lifestyle of privation under the watchful tutelage of Abbess Norris, who ensures her denial of a fire in the “East room” she inherits as her study and book repository (151).6 These details of Fanny’s living spaces at Mansfield are reminiscent of medieval nunneries, in which the dormitories were generally secluded, and “the chapter house,” where “daily meetings of the community” took place and “[t]he head of the house would occupy a raised seat at the east end,” often occupied the “east range” of the cloister (Gilchrist 111, 166). Fanny’s gradual occupation of the East room as her own occurs naturally, and her adoptive family views it as justified. In keeping with the monastic “renunciation of private property” (Gilchrist 19), however, Fanny recognizes possessions as community property at both Mansfield and Portsmouth. The East room displays her cousins’ cast-offs mingled with the miscellaneous gifts she has received from them, like a mendicant’s museum. The East room represents her intellectual and spiritual character and her role in the Mansfield family, not her own space as such.7 It is accessible to both the men and the women “lay people” of her circle, as medieval nunneries apparently “were founded in order to interact closely with the local community” (Gilchrist 191).
As part of her asceticism, in addition to material self-denial, Fanny experiences regular mortification in the form of insults, scolding, and ordering about by Aunt Norris and exploitation and neglect by everyone. With quiet grace and self-restraint, Fanny obeys her aunt’s strictures and functions as a glorified servant to the family, even into adulthood. When her feckless cousin Tom declares, “‘we want your services,’” the narrator emphasizes that “Fanny was up in a moment, expecting some errand; for the habit of employing her in that way was not yet overcome, in spite of all that Edmund could do” (145). Edmund misinterprets Fanny here. Tom and others, indeed, selfishly use her. However, Fanny is on a spiritual quest in which her dedicated service to others, including those who do not merit her aid, represents the essential apostolic dimension of her dual active and contemplative monastic roles as well as her obedience to authority. She divides her time between labors for the community and observance of prayerful contemplation in the aptly named East room, performing only tasks that her conscience approves, as demonstrated by her refusal to perform in Lovers’ Vows. She is not a slave to the Bertrams but a novice scrupulously pursuing her spiritual discipline. Although Fanny refuses to act in the morally questionable theatricals, she aids the participants by performing menial tasks, serving as resident counselor, and coaching players like the hopeless Mr. Rushworth; she “was at great pains to teach him how to learn, giving him all the helps and directions in her power” (166). She finds “great pleasure in feeling her usefulness” (390) to others in diverse contexts. In assisting others with sewing and theatrical practice, she imitates medieval nuns, whose labors sometimes included handiwork such as sewing and weaving as well as the more cerebral copying and illumination of manuscripts, the composition and performance of religious plays, reading and study, and the education of children (Rushworth counts as a child), in addition to regular prayer and diverse charitable activities.
Fanny avoids experiencing too much gratification from her rare opportunities for personal enjoyment by enduring Aunt Norris’s ruthless guilting cant, which parallels her own resistance of unalloyed pleasure in worldly diversions. More than an abusive hater to Fanny, Mrs. Norris sometimes becomes the mouthpiece of her heightened conscience, its monstrousness personifying her increasing guilt over her negative feelings, such as toward the Crawfords and Edmund’s relationship with Mary. When Edmund initially surrenders his own place to enable Fanny’s expedition to the Rushworth estate, she appreciates but feels “pain” at his sacrifice and reflects that “her own satisfaction in seeing Sotherton would be nothing without him” (79). Yet he then pains her by going. On the carriage ride home after a day of entertainments overshadowed by Edmund and Mary’s flirtation and others’ bad behavior, it is as if Fanny’s superego delivers a biting chastisement through Aunt Norris to counteract her bitter feelings: “‘Well, Fanny, this has been a fine day for you, upon my word! . . . Nothing but pleasure from beginning to end! I am sure you ought to be very much obliged to your aunt Bertram and me, for contriving to let you go. A pretty good day’s amusement you have had!’” (105). Reminders of the primacy of selfless service over personal pleasure thus bookend Fanny’s uncommon share in an outing. Aunt Norris often vocalizes her niece’s perfectionist demands of herself as she struggles to achieve an altruistic spirit.
Fanny dislikes and is vigilant toward the hidden ugliness in herself that Aunt Norris both embodies and warns her against. When “[s]he was full of jealousy and agitation” (159) at Edmund and Mary’s intimacy during their flirty rehearsing, “reflection brought better feelings” (160) of humility, obedience to Sir Thomas’s likely wishes, and empathy for the jilted Julia. Similarly, after reading Edmund’s letter to her at Portsmouth, in which he reports Sir Thomas’s postponement of her return to Mansfield and obsesses over Mary, Fanny is “within half a minute of starting the idea, that Sir Thomas was quite unkind” and “almost vexed into displeasure, and anger, against Edmund,” narratorial qualifiers undercut by her inward diatribe against him for stupidly misreading Mary’s corrupt character (424). Although her indirect discourse showcases her anger, she soon drags herself back to righteousness: “Such sensations, however, were too near a kin to resentment to be long guiding Fanny’s soliloquies” (424-25). Fanny is resentful, but strives not to be. The combination of continual self-repression with the thwarting of her desire by nearly everyone produces emotional and ethical quandaries that intensify the habitual self-scrutiny that leads to Fanny’s insight into herself and others. She struggles to purge herself of worldly desires in order to fill herself with God—to fulfill her vocation.
The spiritual and psychological exercises Fanny practices at Mansfield improve her natural facility for the traditional monastic role of providing counsel to the community. During the actors’ rehearsals, “being always a very courteous listener, and often the only listener at hand, [she] came in for the complaints and distresses of most of them” (164). Others take for granted Fanny’s availability for empathy and support. Both Edmund and Mary seek her out, traveling to the East room as if on pilgrimage in quest of moral guidance from a wise nun or anchorite. Fanny’s pilgrims find her in a space apart from the worldly majority, where she performs “her works of charity and ingenuity” (151). She upgrades the former schoolroom of the family’s girls, where Maria and Julia received no education in character, to a retreat wherein to host needy visitors who should benefit from her discerning guidance. Edmund first solicits her approval to capitulate to others’ and his own inner desire to act opposite Mary in Lovers’ Vows: “‘Give me your approbation. . . . I am not comfortable without it. . . . If you are against me, I ought to distrust myself—and yet—But . . .’” (155). He views Fanny as his standard for moral conduct, almost as his conscience, though he rationalizes contradicting both.
Edmund and Mary individually solicit Fanny’s aid in rehearsing, subconsciously seeking justification (or more redemptively, correction) for what they know to be an indecent script for a disrespectful scheme. When Mary visits, Fanny conveys a hospitable spirit, “endeavour[ing] to show herself mistress of the room by her civilities, and look[ing] at the bright bars of her empty grate with concern” (168). Mary bluntly calls Fanny’s attention to multiple speeches in her part that she recognizes as objectionable, asking, “‘How am I ever to look him in the face and say such things? Could you do it?’” (168), as if almost confessing, confiding her concern as if she possesses moral standards and invites feedback on them from a trusted source. She quickly, however, answers her own question, rationalizing Fanny’s anticipated negative and rushing onward to do as she pleases. In forestalling the input of a female mentor of superior character and insight, Mary subverts a critical opportunity for personal growth; she rejects her potential better self. Mary’s later remark encapsulates her longing for genuine female community, which she misdirects toward manipulative marital schemes: “‘Who says we shall not be sisters? I know we shall. I feel that we are born to be connected’” (359). In another era, Mary, whose personality evokes the figure of the unreformed Mary Magdalene, might have applied her energetic intelligence to the greater good as patroness or abbess of a nunnery.
Fanny begins her vocational training with a tough crowd—people who may recognize her wisdom and good example but resist gaining spiritual benefit from them—but then applies her gifts more fruitfully in the new “order” she establishes on being sent back to Portsmouth. Like some medieval women, Fanny seems to enter a convent space (of her own founding, in this case) partly to avoid a forced marriage to a man she dislikes, Henry Crawford. She quickly bonds with her sister Susan, a kind of younger double, whom she prepares for a future of benevolent service by being a far more effectual mentor than Aunt Norris was for her. Portsmouth tests both sisters with its material, intellectual, and spiritual impoverishment. They confront the daily horrors of filth, noise, and chaos bred by ignorant, neglectful parents with limited means. Fanny quickly discerns both the domestic conditions and Susan’s temperamental strengths and weaknesses in endeavoring to address them. Circumstances “placed Susan before her sister as an object of mingled compassion and respect” (396), the phrasing “placed . . . before her” suggesting a divine prompting, as if the movement of the Holy Spirit. Although Fanny recognizes the errors of her sister’s ways,
she began to hope they might be rectified. Susan, she found, looked up to her and wished for her good opinion; and new as any thing like an office of authority was to Fanny, new as it was to imagine herself capable of guiding or informing any one, she did resolve to give occasional hints to Susan, and endeavour to exercise for her advantage the juster notions of what was due to every body, and what would be wisest for herself, which her own more favoured education had fixed in her. (396)
Fanny models and trains Susan in the combination of the active and contemplative life, work with reflection, which benefits her pupil and her familial micro-village.
The gesture the narrator identifies as the catalyst for Fanny’s authority with Susan epitomizes this blend of action and reflection: “Her influence . . . originated in an act of kindness by Susan” (396) in which she purchases a silver knife for their younger sibling, Betsey, so that Betsey relinquishes Susan’s memento of a deceased sister. The practical gesture “thoroughly answered” in winning Susan’s confidence as well as restoring domestic peace (397). The silver knife is both useful and decorative, like Fanny herself, who exemplifies a mode of intervention that delicately cuts through to address concrete problems while preserving a decorous equanimity. Unlike any of the women Fanny serves at Mansfield, Susan both seeks and follows her guidance, beginning by confessionally “acknowledg[ing] her fears, blam[ing] herself for having contended so warmly” for her possession (397). Fanny and Susan Price share a painful history of being unloved by the women who have exploited their authority over them. By contrast, Fanny’s humble, sensitive mode of spiritually intuited instructorship helps to preserve the mutuality of her and Susan’s true community: “The intimacy thus begun between them was a material advantage to each. By sitting together up stairs, they avoided a great deal of the disturbance of the house; Fanny had peace, and Susan learnt to think it no misfortune to be quietly employed” (398).
Thus, Fanny quickly establishes a new East room at Portsmouth, an alternative upstairs space for her female “order” that serves but is set apart from the rest of the community represented by the Price household. Having spent some of her funds purchasing the peace knife, Foundress Fanny then spends money on a circulating library membership that enables her to school Susan in and reinforce in herself the balancing of an active life of service with the intellectually grounded contemplative life that should direct it. The upstairs represents contemplation and the downstairs, action, in this typology. The sisters “came to spend the chief of the morning upstairs” in reading and discussion of the books Fanny chose for Susan’s “improvement” (398) and in conversation about Mansfield’s people and ways, as if the elder sister prepares the younger for the next stage of her novitiate in service there. The pleasures of cultivated thought and conversation open a world of culture to Susan that showcases the catalytic interplay and interdependency of knowledge, virtue, meditated action, and social harmony, and the purity of the personal fulfillment that arises therefrom. She experiences the cultivation of self for others that monasticism has historically nurtured in society and that the narrative indicates produces a level of self-actualization for women that the wasteland of either mere domesticity or genteel female accomplishments—Mrs. Price’s world or the Bertram and Crawford women’s world, respectively—cannot engender. In a spirit of selfless egalitarianism, Fanny equips her sister with the intellectual and reflective tools for a moral life; the thanks she receives is a reciprocal supportive empathy from another woman, a true sisterhood that she has never previously experienced: “Susan was her only companion and listener on this, as on more common occasions. Susan was always ready to hear and to sympathize” (428).
An optimistic spirit regarding the future of female monasticism is suggested by Susan’s transportation to Mansfield and even greater success than Fanny in fulfilling her role there. Fanny graduates to the role of implicit reigning spiritual head of both Thornton Lacey and Mansfield and the influential, sought-after companion of the reformed Sir Thomas’s nearly daily existence. Meanwhile, Susan is promoted from Fanny’s back-up and assistant to her yet more effective replacement as Lady Bertram’s resident aid and the entire Mansfield household’s immediate force for communal good:
Susan became the stationary niece—delighted to be so!—and equally well adapted for it by a readiness of mind, and an inclination for usefulness, as Fanny had been by sweetness of temper, and strong feelings of gratitude. Susan could never be spared. First as a comfort to Fanny, then as an auxiliary, and last as her substitute, she was established at Mansfield, with every appearance of equal permanency. Her more fearless disposition and happier nerves made every thing easy to her there. . . . [S]he was soon welcome, and useful to all; and after Fanny’s removal, succeeded so naturally to her influence over the hourly comfort of her aunt, as gradually to become, perhaps, the most beloved of the two. In her usefulness, in Fanny’s excellence . . . and in the general well-doing and success of the other members of the family, all assisting to advance each other, and doing credit to his countenance and aid, Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all, and acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure. (472-73)
This passage appears in the third-to-last and longest of the three concluding paragraphs of the novel. Another emphatic her appears earlier in the same paragraph that refers to the importance of Fanny, whereas the second her quoted above refers to the newly indispensible Susan. In fact, Sir Thomas lists Susan first in his mental summation of the redounding good of supporting the two adoptive Price women; Fanny infuses her moral excellence into Susan’s bold energy to perpetuate an ongoing sisterhood of social beneficence in which strong female community magnifies into the social unity of “all assisting to advance each other” (473) like never before.
Sir Thomas over-credits himself for the fruits of a lineage of female sacrificial influence that began with the sacrifice (albeit tempered with selfishness) of Fanny’s mother in releasing her daughters from her maternal hearth, not unlike a medieval mother relinquishing her daughter to monastic life. This pattern is further mirrored in Fanny’s adoptive mother Lady Bertram’s similar liberation of her in the adoption of Susan. The narrator conveys that “struggle and endur[ance]” (473) constitute components of the courageous young women’s and, to a lesser extent, their mother figures’ intervention to better other women’s lives as part of a larger socio-symbolic monastic devotion whose feminocentric focus escapes Sir Thomas. The next “her” to supplant Susan will inevitably be Betsey, whose wayward feistiness, redirected through solicitous sisterly mentorship, will continue the pattern of “repeated, and for ever repeated” (473) female preservation of spiritual sisterhood and, consequentially, societal renewal.
As we repeatedly see reinforced in Austen’s novels, women of diverse temperaments and giftedness can and do fulfill powerfully effective vocations in their distinctive ways; key to this phenomenon is their sincere desire to learn from and show fidelity to other women through the combined enactment of what Sir Thomas implicitly recognizes as the distinct virtues of “usefulness” (Susan) and “excellence” (Fanny) or active and contemplative lives (473). Fanny’s Bertram family, including Sir Thomas, must accept that “individuals whose merits make them particularly valuable to their group may claim special authority,” which results in a “new order at Mansfield” that “no longer center[s] on a single authoritarian head, but will allow full adult status to family members in a way that Sir Thomas’s position of power has in the past prevented” (Lenta 172, 181). That Fanny earns a position of leadership at Mansfield through others’ recognition of and dependence on her discernment marks a shift from a hierarchical to a more meritocratic dynamic. This opens new opportunities for all family members to contribute their talents to the community.
Fanny transforms her Mansfield micro-community as the natural outgrowth of her most effectual role as the intellectual and moral teacher of her sister and, by extension, an implied succession of women. She first develops her spiritual discipline and ventures into an advisory position at Mansfield; then at Portsmouth she learns in part from Susan how to exercise the courage to embrace her unexpected call to authority. Fanny swiftly discerns her sister’s gifts of initiative and tenacity, humbly reflecting that “Susan tried to be useful, where she could only have gone away and cried” (395). Once Fanny discovers how to direct her wisdom into self-assertion, she is ready to assume matriarchal moral authority at Mansfield.
A combination of contemplative and active dimensions—of Fanny and Susan Price, if you will—is essential to female monastic communion, though the degree and kind of these qualities varies in different women. Fanny’s daring offer of guidance gains her the reward of an expanded sisterhood in the proximity of Susan, as Laura Dabundo points out, and I would suggest that the newly humbled Julia joins this community as well, in addition to Betsey Price, who will one day take Susan’s place, and eventually the family’s female descendants as well. Austen’s best heroines support their sisters’ development: Elizabeth Darcy and Jane Bingley adopt Kitty, and Elizabeth adopts Georgiana; Eleanor Tilney mentors Catherine Morland; Anne Elliot encourages and gently advises Mary and befriends the Musgrove girls; Mrs. Jennings mothers the Dashwood sisters, and Elinor guides her mother and sisters. Women’s authentic use of their spiritual gifts results in a beautiful coherence that inspires other women’s like recognition and cultivation of their true gifts. Truth to self is truth to other women, which explains why Austen’s heroines cannot marry until they have first reconciled with their biological or social sisters. Spiritual sisterhood inspires individual women to realize the best of what they can be for others.
The pattern of female monastic imagery in Mansfield Park clearly celebrates the critical impact of sisterhood on the revelation and development of individual women’s true vocations. Such monastic contributions as spiritual counsel, education, hospitality, charity, healing, and the modeling of virtue produce a ripple effect of benefits that contribute to society’s true Communion. In Austen’s imaginative world, to borrow Mary Crawford’s phrasing, all human beings are “born to be connected” (359).
1. Moore also claims that Catherine “loses her sensitivity to the past and her indignation at the consequences of the Dissolution. In silencing Catherine, the Tilneys foreclose any criticism of the manner in which they gained their wealth and exalted status” (77).
2. Some social historians argue that “sibling and cousin relationships reached a peak of intensity reflected at emotional and cultural levels, including a high incidence of cousin marriages” and more than one brother or sister in one family marrying into another (Davidoff 412). This pattern reflects a heightened concern with the preservation and perpetuation in social memory of a morality grounded in tradition.
3. For example, Anne Elliot’s sister Mary demands and Louisa Musgrove depends upon Anne’s restorative influence as a crisis manager and healer, and I would argue that it is the Bateses and Harriet, not Mr. Knightley, who cause Emma to abandon her false path and rediscover her true one.
4. According to Elissa Hansen, anchoress “Julian constructs herself as an intermediary for the community she addresses” in her mystical writing, as “[a] spiritual adviser and intercessor” (188) who strongly associates herself and her role with the Virgin Mary and “desire[s] to comfort, advise, and pray on behalf of her evenchristen” (194).
5. I explore Fanny’s discovery of the mean between her two extreme aunts in terms of female physical health and its social and psychological resonances in “Lounging Ladies and Galloping Girls: Physical Strength and Femininity in Mansfield Park.”
6. Even when Sir Thomas discovers this circumstance, he is careful to avoid undermining Aunt Norris’s authority or image with Fanny, imputing better intentions to her than likely motivated her unkind intervention. Though he overrules her mandate by ordering a fire for Fanny, he arguably does so more as part of the effort to manipulate Fanny’s actions through her emotions than from true concern for her welfare.
7. Gilchrist also discusses upper-class women’s interiorized domestic habitation in castles and separation from men in social activities as influencing “nunneries of the highest social status” in which “medieval religious women” eschewed “communal dormitory and refectory in favour of separate households, or familiae” (168).
Anderson, Kathleen. “Lounging Ladies and Galloping Girls: Physical Strength and Femininity in Mansfield Park.” Women’s Studies 38.3 (2009): 342-358.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-66.
Dabundo, Laura. “The City of Sisterly Love: Jane Austen’s Community as Sorority.” Persuasions On-Line 30.1 (2009).
Davidoff, Leonore. “Kinship as a Categorical Concept: A Case Study of Nineteenth Century English Siblings.” Journal of Social History 39.2 (2005): 411-28.
Emsley, Sarah. Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues. New York: Palgrave, 2005.
Giffin, Michael. Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Gilchrist, Roberta. The Archaeology of Religious Women. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Hansen, Elissa. “Making a Place: Imitatio Mariae in Julian of Norwich’s Self-Construction.” Reading Memory and Identity in the Texts of Medieval European Holy Women. Ed. Margaret Cotter-Lynch and Brad Herzog. New York: Palgrave, 2012. 187-209.
Leithart, Peter J. Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen. Moscow, ID: Canon P, 2004.
Lenta, Margaret. “Androgyny and Authority in Mansfield Park.” Studies in the Novel 15.3 (1983): 169-82.
Moore, Roger E. “The Hidden History of Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen and the Dissolution of the Monasteries.” Religion and Literature 43.1 (2011): 55-80.
Oestreich, Donna J. “Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies: Paradigmatic Participation and Eschewal.” Representations of the Feminine in the Middle Ages. Ed. Bonnie Wheeler. Dallas: Academia P, 1993. 253-75.
White, Laura Mooneyham. Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. Burlington: Ashgate, 2011.