we can read to escape from our lives or to engage with our lives. Reading Jane Austen is sometimes seen as the ultimate in escapist fantasy. Instead of grappling with everyday problems or with serious issues that confront our society, Janeites, sometimes called the “frilly bonnet brigade,” retreat to a fictional world in which women drink tea and wear elegant dresses, men learn to treat women with kindness and reward them with marriage and riches, and political problems are always off-stage, easy to ignore. Or so the theory (sometimes) goes.1
But so much depends on how and why we read, and, of course, people read Jane Austen for a variety of reasons. To take just a few examples: some may read for escape, for entertainment, for a guide to life, for information about the historical period, for the pleasures of Austen’s style, for her insight into character, and/or for an understanding of her politics—and of course, the list could go on and on. Our focus here, however, is not on the range of different ways in which readers have responded to Austen—many others have written about this in depth already—but on imagining what kind of comfort or consolation readers might derive from one specific novel, Mansfield Park, which at first seems an unlikely choice for comfort-reading.2
Reading for comfort or consolation is not necessarily the same thing as reading for escape, and reading for escape doesn’t always have to be a negative thing, either.3 Hilary Mantel says, famously, “No one who read it closely was ever comforted by an Austen novel.”4 But we think it’s possible that reading for comfort could be a way of reading to find strength in dealing with difficult things—and that reading Austen closely may be both profoundly unsettling and profoundly comforting. The word “comfort” (from the Latin word “fortis,” meaning strong or brave) means “strengthen”—so it’s not just ease or lack of difficulty that we’re talking about, but sources of strength.
Pride and Prejudice is the Austen novel that’s most often characterized as a fairy tale, and the proliferation of prequels, sequels, and re-imagined versions in both fiction and film of Austen’s most famous novel does seem to suggest it’s the one that’s also most popular as a source of comfort. Even though Mansfield Park, like Pride and Prejudice, echoes elements of the Cinderella story, this later, darker, often disturbing novel is probably not usually the one readers turn to when they’re looking for comfort or consolation. Examining what comfort readers might derive from Mansfield Park, however, can tell us a great deal about both Austen and her readers.
The specific case we’ll examine is of one woman reading Mansfield Park aloud to a friend, apparently to console her after her baby had died. The bereaved mother was Mary Wodehouse, wife of Philip Wodehouse, the Commissioner of the Naval Yard in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the friend who read Jane Austen to her was Lady Sherbrooke,5 wife of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. Mary Wodehouse was mourning the loss of her first child, and the women read Mansfield Park together in the summer of 1815, just one year after the novel’s initial appearance. They read the novel decades before George Saintsbury coined the term Janeite, in 1894, which is why we’re calling them “proto-Janeites.”6
Examining the famous discussion of reading in Persuasion will help us explore some of these questions about reading for comfort or consolation. Anne Elliot suggests to Captain Benwick in his bereavement that it’s possible to read poetry the wrong way: she “ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely” (108). Anne’s prescription of prose indicates that she believes poetry is more likely than prose to be read the “wrong” way, if the reader indulges and perhaps even exacerbates feelings of “hopeless agony” (108). She advises Benwick to consider reading “such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances” (109). Yet whether one reads poetry or prose, the reader’s motive is still crucial. A reader determined to escape suffering or to wallow in it will probably be able to do so with either poetry or prose.
Later in Persuasion, Austen introduces a character whose example might inspire readers to practice fortitude instead of indulging in suffering. Anne’s friend Mrs. Smith has lost her husband, her money, and her health, but not her spirit. Indeed, Anne notices that it is not “a case of fortitude or of resignation only” (167). Mrs. Smith is cheerful and interested in life. She doesn’t just accept her lot. She seems to be naturally predisposed to be happy: “here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (167).
Mrs. Smith may not seem like a very good example of fortitude, because while she’s a model of good cheer despite bereavement and illness, Austen seems to suggest that her ability to sustain her good spirits is genetic, a divine gift. She seems to have a “happiness set point,” as we might call it these days, that happens to be higher than usual.7 She doesn’t appear to read much, so it isn’t reading prose by moralists that inspires her cheerfulness; however, in addition to her natural “disposition to be comforted” (167), there are two things that inspire her: work, and stories.
Like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, who discovers that “There is nothing like employment, active, indispensable employment, for relieving sorrow” (513), Mrs. Smith has learned that the work of making “‘little thread-cases, pincushions and card-racks’” to sell keeps her hands busy and her mind away from her troubles (168). Her attendant, Nurse Rooke, not only helps her sell these items, but also amuses her with stories: “‘Hers is a line for seeing human nature’” (168). Mrs. Smith acknowledges that these stories might be called gossip, but she defends the tales and the teller: “‘she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable: something that makes one know one’s species better’” (169). Nurse Rooke tells stories that are both amusing and useful. She isn’t a moralist; she’s more like a novelist in that she offers insight into the human condition.8 Jane Austen suggests in Persuasion that reading, or listening to stories, can help someone who’s grieving. Learning about human nature and “the happiest delineation of its varieties” through wit, humor, and “the best-chosen language” (Northanger Abbey 31) can help the suffering person not only by taking him or her away from life, but by showing how to go back to it.
We don’t know exactly what Lady Sherbrooke was thinking when she read Mansfield Park to her friend, but we can’t help wondering if she thought that “‘Mansfield shall cure you’” (to borrow Mrs. Grant’s words in Chapter 5 ). This story of Lady Sherbrooke, Mary Wodehouse, and Mansfield Park gives us an early example of reading a Jane Austen novel in the aftermath of the death of a loved one. To understand why this seems to be the case, we need to know more about Mary Wodehouse’s past history and the nature of her friendship with Lady Sherbrooke.
Mary’s life had been happy until quite recently. She had always enjoyed a life of privilege, for her father was Sir Charles Cameron, Governor of the Bahamas, and her grandfather was the 15th Earl of Errol. Her wedding in Halifax to Philip Wodehouse, a young man described as “intelligent, warm and kind-hearted” (Gwyn 76) took place on 7 May 1814 at Government House, the fine Georgian stone mansion and official residence of Sir John and Lady Sherbrooke.9 “Several weeks later, at a ball in Government House to honour the King’s birthday,” Mrs. Wodehouse “made her appearance as a Bride, and opened the Ball with Admiral Griffith,” Senior Naval Officer of the Halifax Station (Haliburton 137). In the months that follow, Mary Wodehouse is frequently mentioned in Lady Sherbrooke’s diaries. She called often at Government House in Halifax, and she and her husband were regular guests at Birch Cove, the Sherbrookes’ handsome country estate on the Bedford Basin end of Halifax Harbour.
In early January both women attended a ball celebrating the Queen’s birthday. On this occasion, Lady Sherbrooke tellingly observes that “Commr. and Mrs. Wodehouse went home before Supper” (Haliburton 167). This was not surprising, for by then Mary was eight months pregnant. Soon afterwards, a supportive Lady Sherbrooke called on her friend and “sat with her” (Haliburton 168). Happy news arrived at Government House on 26 February, when, according to Lady Sherbrooke’s diary, “the Commissioner called and gave me a very good account of Mrs. Wodehouse and the little Boy” (Haliburton 171).
But less than three months later Philip Wodehouse sent a sad, short note informing the Sherbrookes of “the death of his little Boy, who had expired at ten o’clock last night” (Haliburton 177). The next day, 11 May, the baby was buried, with the father, General Gosselin, and Col. Dixon of the Royal Artillery in attendance. It was not the custom for women to attend funerals.
Lady Sherbrooke immediately sprang into action. Within several days of the child’s death, Mary Wodehouse was at Government House, where she remained until 29 May. Lady Sherbrooke’s diary for the next months records the usual round of social events and official engagements, but there is also an unmistakable pattern of invitations, kindnesses and diversions that she planned and carried out for the benefit of her bereaved friend. She kept Mary occupied with sewing, walking, reading, and conversation; that summer she invited her to spend whole days at Government House in Halifax and longer stays at Birch Cove. While at the Cove, the two women often sat outside and often walked regularly in the garden or sometimes as far as the Lodge.10
Halifax was a busy military base that was frequently visited by British naval captains. One such visitor was twenty-three-year-old Captain Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer, who arrived in port in late June 1815. He dined with the Sherbrookes at Birch Cove, part of a party that would have included Mary Wodehouse. He may have been acquainted with her already; we do know for sure that, while in Halifax, he lent her a copy of Mansfield Park, which he had aboard his vessel, the Cygnus. (It’s worth noting that Captain Spencer was only lending his copy; he was willing to share it but not to give it away.) Very shortly thereafter, Lady Sherbrooke and Mary Wodehouse were absorbed in the reading of Mansfield Park. According to Lady Sherbrooke’s diary entry on 1 July, it was “A fine morning—Mrs. W. [Mary Wodehouse] & I went out to pick Strawberries, but were not very successful—[ . . . ] In the Evening it rained and we did [not] go out—I read aloud all the Evening. Captn. Spencer having lent Mrs. Wodehouse ‘Mansfield Park,’ a novel we were both very anxious to see” (Haliburton 184). Thus it appears that they began to read Mansfield Park for consolation. It looks as if Lady Sherbrooke is taking the initiative to read Mansfield Park to her friend, and to read it now and with express priority.
By 1815, many of those in aristocratic circles knew who had written Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and would thus know immediately from the title page that here was another Austen novel. This group of individuals in the know most likely included the Spencer family of Althorp, to which Captain Spencer belonged.11 His aunt Henrietta, Countess of Bessborough, was a self-declared fan of these novels—she had enthusiastically described Sense and Sensibility as a “clever novel,” which was “all the rage at Althorp” (Gilson 9). Captain Spencer’s young sister-in-law, Esther, Viscountess Althorp, had her own copy of Mansfield Park.12 It may be that Lady Sherbrooke and Mary Wodehouse already knew they were reading a Jane Austen novel, and had read the earlier books, or perhaps Captain Spencer told them of the author’s identity.
Once they got further into Mansfield Park on 1 July, both women were fully engaged with the book. However, they were also occupied with other responsibilities, and Lady Sherbrooke’s time was not always her own. On Sunday (2 July), the Sherbrookes, with Mary Wodehouse in company, attended both morning and evening services at St. Paul’s Church eight miles away in Halifax. A devout Anglican like Lady Sherbrooke would be expected to avoid reading fiction on Sundays. In fact, she dutifully records that she “read a sermon in the evening.”13 Her presence was expected at official dinners on both Monday of that week (3 July) and Wednesday (5 July).
Once again, it appears that “There is nothing like employment, active indispensable employment, for relieving sorrow.” Perhaps the combination of a busy schedule and an absorbing book helped to relieve some of Mary Wodehouse’s sorrow. On Monday, 3 July, domestic obligations, such as dressing the flower baskets, claimed some of Lady Sherbrooke’s time and attentions, but she and Mary had the pleasure of finishing the first volume and Lady Sherbrooke records with satisfaction: “we were much interested in MP and I began the Second Volume in the Evening” (Diary). As the week progressed they moved steadily toward the conclusion. On 5 July, with a note of triumph, Lady Sherbrooke records that “we finished ‘Mansfield Park’” (Diary).
Although neither of the women recorded why they chose Mansfield Park or whether the choice was specifically intended to console Mary Wodehouse after the death of her son, we can make some reasonable guesses about the situation. Mary Wodehouse likely had deep feelings of regret at the loss of her first born child, so the familiar voice of a friend reading a novel could potentially effect a soothing influence, focusing her mind on something other than her present anxiety. Lady Sherbrooke was well-practiced in the art of reading aloud and knew the benefits it provided for the listener. She often read Shakespeare or Scott to Sir John in the evenings, and she seems to have proposed reading aloud as a diversion for her bereaved friend. While we can’t make any grand claims about how Mansfield Park cured Mary Wodehouse of her sadness, we can use this brief story as a starting point to ask what it is about Mansfield Park in particular that may offer comfort or consolation to any reader, at any time.
It must have been a happy discovery for Lady Sherbrooke that a key theme in Mansfield Park had some resonance with her friend’s situation. Mansfield Park is not just any novel, but a sensitive story that draws the listener into a rich imaginary world and that upholds hope and eventual happiness through steadfastness of character. Although Fanny Price has not lost a child, she is no stranger to loss. Her immediate biological family have been distanced from her since childhood; her favorite brother William is at sea and thus seldom in her company. Worse still, for most of the novel she fears she has lost her beloved Edmund to the designs of Mary Crawford. Yet in the course of the novel Fanny shows the strength of character to find ways of coping.
According to Lady Gordon, whose views Jane Austen included in her collected “Opinions of Mansfield Park,” “In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you the least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A-s works, & especially in MP. you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family.”14 If Lady Gordon noticed the emotional richness of Mansfield Park and the very personal response it invites, then it seems likely that Mary Wodehouse in her stressed condition would also have been moved by it. Like many readers of Austen, Lady Gordon felt as if she knew the characters. We can hope that Mary found inspiration to carry on with family life just as courageously as Fanny Price does in the novel. It also seems likely that for Lady Sherbrooke, reading Mansfield Park aloud to her friend was an important and potentially very satisfying way to soothe her friend’s sorrow.15
Lady Sherbrooke and Mary Wodehouse were reading this particular novel because it was the new one, the one available to them. They didn’t have the luxury we have, of choosing a favorite comfort-read from Austen’s six novels, because only three Austen novels had been published by 1815. We don’t know if the two women had read the first two novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), but we can guess that they had read at least one of them, given that they said they were “very anxious to see” Mansfield Park. This is the sort of remark a reader makes when she expresses keen anticipation at the prospect of reading a favorite author’s newest novel. Mansfield Park could offer—and might have offered to Mary Wodehouse—the assurance that fortitude will see you through a period of suffering. Fanny Price’s patience and forbearance with her difficult circumstances throughout the novel show how it’s possible to bear up under pressure, and her heroic resistance to the arguments of her suitor, her uncle, and her cousin is a model of moral strength. Fanny is never as cheerful as Anne Elliot’s friend Mrs. Smith, but she’s certainly strong in the face of adversity.
Even with the element of the Cinderella story, in which poor Fanny Price is rewarded with a better social position, Mansfield Park is not fantasy. Cinderella is never tested in the way Fanny is. With her belief that, as she tells Henry Crawford, “‘We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be’” (478), Fanny holds to what she believes is right. She doesn’t wait for a fairy godmother to rescue her; indeed, Edmund Bertram, who’s the most likely candidate to play fairy godmother or father, given his generosity and kindness to her early in the novel, is set against her and tries to persuade her to ignore the guide in herself.
Jane Austen’s main focus in Mansfield Park is not the marriage at the end that gives Fanny a secure social position, or the elevation, in material terms, of a poor young girl. The central drama of the novel involves Fanny Price’s refusal to give in to misery, even when everyone she cares for is trying to persuade her to do something she knows to be wrong. Readers often think of Mansfield Park as a romance with a somewhat disappointing, hastily narrated ending, but focusing instead on the intensely dramatic scenes in which Fanny repeatedly and heroically says “no” can help to show that the novel is better understood as a tragedy—a tragedy with a happy ending. Fanny recognizes that marriage to Henry Crawford would be disastrous, and she averts disaster by refusing him.16
The ending of the novel shows us the kind of happiness that’s won after traversing loss and destruction. Mary Wodehouse’s situation is very sad, but it isn’t itself a tragedy, because it lacks the element of choice and self-inflicted suffering. Nevertheless, it’s quite possible that a tragedy with a prosperous, hopeful outcome is just what’s needed when a reader is grieving. We do need to acknowledge that it’s possible to read Jane Austen just for fun, just for an escape from the stresses, and the terrors, of our own twenty-first century world. But when we read the novels attentively, we can see what Austen has to say about confronting, rather than escaping, misery. Hilary Mantel is wrong when she says that “No one who read it closely was ever comforted by an Austen novel.” Reading Austen’s novels closely may well offer more comfort.
In his Carol Medine Moss Keynote Lecture at the JASNA 2012 AGM in New York, Cornel West talked about what readers may gain from the experience of reading Jane Austen’s novels and thereby entering into a world that provides a “stark contrast to so much of the nightmarish, catastrophic world that we inhabit every day. Not in the form of cheap escape: we are not talking about a cheap form of intellectual refugee status, but of an alternative world that allows us to get critical distance so we can reengage the real world. And by reengaging that world we have a power, a power of self, a power of soul, a power of mind, and, most importantly, courage” (118). We’d like to repeat that, as he did, for emphasis: “Most importantly, courage.”
Jane Austen’s characters, especially Fanny Price, but also her other heroines and some of her secondary characters, can show us how to be morally strong (and practice the virtues of courage and fortitude) in a time of suffering—whether that suffering is pressure from family (as in the case of Fanny, or of Anne Elliot), illness (Mrs. Smith), bereavement (Captain Benwick), or financial problems (the Bennets and the Dashwoods). The stories of Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Morland might seem to be different in kind, yet even in Emma and Northanger Abbey, moral education and the process of learning to see the world clearly are central to the plot.
We don’t mean that we ought to read the novels as moral conduct books, that Austen will tell us how to live, but we do want to suggest that reading her may serve to remind us to ask ourselves how to live—including how to respond to grief or suffering or misery or injustice. “‘We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.’” When Jane Austen died, her sister, Cassandra, wrote to their niece Fanny and asked if she would prefer a mourning ring or a brooch to remember Jane by. Whether we make use of jewelry—turquoise rings or amber or topaz crosses—or Regency gowns or even “frilly bonnets” when we honor Jane Austen’s memory, it’s reading the novels and learning from them about our lives and our collective life that can provide the most lasting pleasure and effects.
1. Hilary Mantel, for example, talks about Austen fans who “retreat into a dimity Neverland where only hearts bleed” (qtd. in Juliette Wells, “New Approaches” 77). Deidre Lynch refers to “the so-called frilly bonnet brigade” (8).
2. Claudia Johnson, Deidre Lynch, Bharat Tandon, Annika Bautz, Claire Harman, Emily Auerbach, Juliette Wells, and Katie Halsey are among the critics who have studied Austen’s readers, both scholarly readers and the “ordinary” or “common” reader.
3. Juliette Wells quotes Harold Bloom in her chapter on “Reading Like an Amateur” in Everybody’s Jane: “If reading is, as he contends, ‘the most healing of pleasures,’ this effect comes about because the mind is expanded, not anesthetized” (66).
4. Hilary Mantel, “Jane Austen” (Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature, ed. Joseph Epstein [Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2007], qtd. in Juliette Wells, Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination ). Katie Halsey argues that those who read for “health” and “consolation” could be seen as “resisting [Austen’s] challenges to ideology.” But she also suggests, “it could be argued that these readers are in fact interpreting Austen more accurately, that whatever the energies of the prose style, the eventual result of the novels is a confirmation or affirmation of domestic sociability, peaceful country life and happy marriages” (209). Both Halsey and Wells remind us to take the interpretations of the “common reader” seriously, and Wells challenges scholars to “build on our common ground” with “fellow readers.” For more on the idea of Jane Austen “therapy,” see Sarah Emsley, “Canadian and American Readers of Jane Austen’s Happy Endings.”
5. She was Katharina Pyndar before her marriage to Sir John Coape Sherbrooke on 24 August 1811. In 1815 Lady Sherbrooke was thirty-two years old, and Mary Wodehouse was twenty-two.
6. Our title “Among the Proto-Janeites” is inspired by Deborah Yaffe’s book Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom. The publication of A Colonial Portrait: The Halifax Diaries of Lady Sherbrooke, 1811-1816, ed. G. Brenton Haliburton, prompted us to undertake further research regarding the story of Lady Sherbrooke and Mary Wodehouse and their experience of reading Mansfield Park, which included examining passages from the diary that were not included in Haliburton’s edition but may be read at the Nova Scotia Archives.
7. “Happiness set point” (or “hedonic set point”) is a term used to describe the way in which people supposedly return to a particular level of happiness after major changes in their lives, whether those changes are positive or negative.
8. The example of Mrs. Smith suggests that turning to stories and work in a time of grief and suffering can be beneficial. Peter W. Graham calls reading and studying Austen “the labor of leisure.” Writing in the aftermath of the events of 9/11 and the shootings at Virginia Tech, where he is Professor of English, he wonders about the purpose of reading and teaching literature, and he concludes, “Studying the humanities is one of the best ways of cultivating clear thought, imagination, sympathy for people unlike ourselves, and moral judgment. We participate in a long conversation that aids in the nurture of qualities as necessary as blood in our sad world, or maybe even more necessary . . .” (174).
9. Philip Wodehouse was the younger son of John, 1st Baron Wodehouse. When he left the Naval Yard in 1819, he received a memorial from the men citing the “gratitude of ourselves and our families [for his] many disinterested acts of munificence” (Gwyn 76). As Commissioner, Wodehouse was responsible for the efficient delivery of all the Halifax Naval Yard’s services. It was the principal place for the necessary refits and repairs of naval vessels, as well as the distribution depot for supplies (food, drink and equipment) and ordnance (guns and ammunition).
10. This building was the former mansion of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent—and future father of Queen Victoria—and was where he had lived with his companion, Madame St. Laurent, during his tenure in Halifax as commander-in-chief of the army, 1794-1800.
11. Captain Spencer, the third son of the second Earl Spencer, was the great-great uncle of Diana, Princess of Wales.
12. Viscountess Althorp’s copy of Mansfield Park is now in the collection of the Library at the University of Alberta (Gilson 53).
13. Lady Sherbrooke’s Diary, Volume 4, 18 August 1813-16 August 1814, Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management.
14. “Opinions of Mansfield Park” (Later Manuscripts 234). Lady Gordon was Harriet Finch, wife of Sir Jenison Gordon and sister of George Finch-Hatton, owner of Eastwell Park, near Godmersham Park, Kent, the home of Jane Austen’s brother Edward.
15. Both women had cause to celebrate when a year later Lady Sherbrooke stood as a sponsor to another Wodehouse child, a little girl born in April 1816 (Haliburton 200). However, she and Mary did not have the good fortune to share another new Austen novel, whether for emotional comfort or intellectual pleasure, or both. By the time Emma was published in December 1816 the Sherbrookes had moved to Quebec, where Sir John had assumed the post of Captain General and Governor in Chief of British North America.
16. For an analysis of Mansfield Park as a tragedy with a “prosperous outcome,” and details about Aristotle’s claim that this form of tragedy is one of the best, see Sarah Emsley’s “The Tragic Action of Mansfield Park.”
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