Persuasions #13, 1991 Pages 28-32
Apricots, Raspberries, and Susan Price!
KATHLEEN L. FOWLER
Ramapo College of New Jersey, Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah, NJ 07430
At the heart of Mansfield Park Jane Austen plants for us an emblem for the entire novel, the moor park apricot tree. The tree emblem functions similarly to that of the hickory nut in Persuasion and, because Austen rarely employs such rhetorical flourishes, deserves similar close attention. Austen’s emblems are almost always natural metaphors, unobtrusively worked into the text. Mrs. Norris has been boasting of the apricot tree “against the stable wall” which had been planted at the parsonage and “which is now grown such a noble tree, and getting to such perfection …” (MP 54). Dr. Grant’s contempt mortifies her and she responds defensively:
“Sir, it is a moor park, we bought it as a moor park …”
“You were imposed on, ma’am,” replied Dr. Grant; “these potatoes have as much the flavour of a moor park apricot, as the fruit from that tree. It is an insipid fruit at the best; but a good apricot is eatable, which none from my garden are.”
“The truth is, ma’am,” said Mrs. Grant, pretending to whisper across the table to Mrs. Norris, “that Dr. Grant hardly knows what the natural taste of our apricot is; he is scarcely ever indulged with one, for it is so valuable a fruit, with a little assistance, and ours is such a remarkably large, fair sort, that what with early tarts and preserves, my cook contrives to get them all.” (MP 54-55)
In this passage, Austen evokes a children’s story by Maria Edgeworth entitled “Forgive and Forget” (The Parent’s Assistant, 1800) (PA 2: V). In Edgeworth’s story, we find another Grant, associated with exceptional fruit. “Grant had some remarkably fine raspberries. The fruit was so large, as to be quite a curiosity …. [They] obtained the name of Brobdignag raspberries” (FF 2: V: 222 emphasis added). The raspberries are nourished by seaweed and “… litter from the stable. These strawberries are usually of the largeness of a middle sized apricot, and the flavour is particularly grateful” (FF 2: V: 237 emphasis added). When Grant’s neighbor, Oakley, requests some raspberry plants, Mr. Grant sends a reply that they are not his raspberries but his son’s, and that it is the wrong time of year for planting in any case. A garbled version of this message offends Oakley, who therefore initiates a suit over Grant’s plum tree:
There was in Grant’s garden a plum-tree, which was planted close to the loose stone wall, that divided the garden from the nursery. The soil in which the plum-tree was planted happened not to be quite so good, as that which was on the opposite side of the wall, and the plum-tree had forced its way through the wall, and gradually had taken possession of the ground which it liked best. (FF 2: V: 231-232)
Austen’s transformation of Edgeworth’s material is revealing. Rather than directly appropriating it, Austen accumulates details from her source and rearranges them in new contexts. In Mansfield Park we find reappearing the name of Grant, the tree planted close to the wall, the remarkable size of the fruit, the reference to the stable, the discussion of soil and flavor, and even the reference to apricots. The allusion to Edgeworth’s plants reinforces several of Austen’s themes. In Mansfield Park, Austen draws an unflinching portrait of a family whose own soil is not good and who, therefore, feel free to take over the grounds around them. Moreover, this is a family which does not forgive and forget. Sir Thomas’s harsh sentence on Maria Bertram is a repeat of Lady Bertram’s earlier treatment of the imprudent Mrs. Price: “Lady Bertram, … was a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent [who] would have contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter” (MP 4).
The ”moor park apricot,” along with other horticultural images in Mansfield Park, reflects the themes of cultivation, rootlessness, and transplantation which resonate throughout the novel. Words like “transplant,” “supplant,” etc., are used in a variety of apparently natural contexts in the novel. For example, we are told that Sir Thomas, at the ball:
… was proud of his niece, and without attributing all her personal beauty, …., to her transplantation to Mansfield, he was pleased with himself for having supplied every thing else; – education and manners she owed to him (MP 276 emphasis added)
Mary Crawford foretells her own fate and that of all the young Bertrams when she declares: “All are supplanted sooner or later” (MP 277 emphasis added). Another reference to the plants in the Parsonage gardens is equally prophetic. Mrs. Grant worries about the unusually mild weather:
“… here are some of my plants which Robert will leave out because the nights are so mild, and I know the end of it will be that we shall have a sudden change of weather, a hard frost setting in all at once, taking every body (at least Robert) by surprize, and I shall lose every one ….” (MP 212)
The Bertrams and the Crawfords are indulged thoughtlessly by their elders who foresee no risks in the “mild nights;” “the sudden change of weather” does take everyone by surprise, wreaking disaster on them all.
Beyond obvious raptures on nature and discussions of estate improvement (which Alistair Duckworth has skillfully traced), Austen uses plants to help delineate the characters with which they are associated. The elegant Misses Bertram make “artificial flowers” (MP 14), while the life-draining Mrs. Norris dries roses (MP 73). Fanny, by contrast, airs her geraniums (MP 152) and praises evergreens (MP 209). Evergreens, hardy plants which survive any climate (like the Prices?), call to mind their opposite, deciduous trees, brilliant only in season (Maria and Julia? The Crawfords?). Nor is it only of her physical surroundings that Fanny observes: “the same soil and the same sun … nurture[s] plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence” (MP 209).
The moor park apricot also serves to reveal character – that of the two Grants and of Mrs. Norris, who discuss it. The first question raised by this text is one of taste and discernment. Dr. Grant, says his wife, cannot even recognize the genuine article. But he is not alone. Over and over, characters fail to recognize “the natural taste” of real fruit. The failure of the Bertrams and the Crawfords to recognize Fanny’s virtues has been discussed by a number of critics. Fanny in turn fails to recognize real strength and “natural” behavior in her Portsmouth family.
In its very ambiguity, the moor park apricot stands for the novel itself, a riddle which suggests the deceptive nature of appearances within the work. Characteristically for Austen, the apricot tree is presented with two equally plausible, but mutually exclusive, interpretations. We are invited by the apricot tree discussion to see Mansfield Park as a “good soil” and the Bertrams as real “moor park apricot” who have been transformed at an early age into elegant “preserves.” Alternately, we may suspect that we have been “imposed upon,” that, while a “noble tree” with “remarkable large, fair fruit,” – we are repeatedly reminded how “tall and fair” the young Bertrams are – what Mansfield Park produces is insipid at best.
The other subtext of the moor park passage may be Biblical, especially since the speaker is the clergyman, Dr. Grant. The passage seems to echo Matthew VII: 16-20. “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?/Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.” If the Biblical text is applicable – Mansfield Park is a “corrupt tree.”
The Price branch of the family tree, surely not “moor park apricot” (perhaps even “potatoes”), produces, in contrast to the Bertrams, a flourishing, vital and thoroughly successful fruit. Hence, if we remain with the Biblical text, the Prices must be a good tree. The Price family, particularly William, and the Price household emerge, on closer look, as the measure against which all (including Fanny herself) are tested and most clearly found wanting. Fanny, least sound of the Price children, becomes the acknowledged superior of the Mansfield Park family in morals, judgment, and steadfastness. Unfortunately, vulnerable by reason of physical debility and nervous temperament, Fanny is ultimately contaminated by her environment at Mansfield Park.
Fanny Price (at least as a little girl), and, even more so, her younger sister, Susan, recall another Edgeworth story. This tale, “Simple Susan,” of another Susan Price, is from the same collection as “Forgive and Forget.” It is unusual for Austen to depict the character and experience of a child in any detail. It was a topic which apparently little interested her. She tells her novel-writing niece, Anna Austen: “You are but now coming to the heart & beauty of your book; till the heroine grows up, the fun must be imperfect …” (Sep. 9, 1814 JALC 401). Edgeworth, on the other hand, is remarkable for the vitality and credibility of her portraits of children, and Simple Susan is one of her most vivid creations. Edgeworth’s Susan Price, like the young Fanny and Susan of Mansfield Park, “had always been important as playfellow, instructress and nurse” to her brothers and sisters (MP 14). Edgeworth’s Susan is the admiration of all the poor children in the village: “Nothing can be done without Susan! – She always shews us where the nicest flowers are to be found in the lanes and meadows,” said they. (SUS 1: II: 53).
When Edgeworth’s Susan meets her brothers, one of whom is named William, they respond enthusiastically: “ ‘Oh, there’s our Susan!’ cried her two little brothers, running, leaping, and bounding up to her” (SUS 1: II: 127) The entire group is treated to an entertainment by an itinerant harpist who delights them all, especially Susan herself. Austen’s Fanny had apparently, enjoyed such rare and delicious moments in her childhood at Portsmouth. Her brother William reminds her of when “ ‘we used to jump about together many a time, did not we? when the hand-organ was in the street?’ ” (MP 250).
While Fanny has acquired quieter tastes in her stay at Mansfield Park, the remaining Prices evidently are continuing to conduct their lives energetically and volubly at Portsmouth. Austen must clearly be remembering the depiction of Edgeworth’s Susan in the midst of the schoolchildren who:
crowded round her, to talk of their plays, for Susan was easily interested in all that made others happy; but she could not make them comprehend, that, if they all spoke at once, it was not possible that she could hear what was said. The voices were still raised one above another, all eager to establish some important observation about nine-pins, or marbles, or tops, or bows and arrows. (SUS 1: II: 127).
In staging Fanny’s reunion with her Portsmouth family, Austen allows the scene to be dominated by excited simultaneous chatter about the arrival of the Thrush and hasty preparations for the departure of William and Sam. Fanny’s reaction, however, is markedly different from that of Edgeworth’s Susan. She is unsettled by the boisterous talk and frenetic motion and feels physically assaulted.
Even the ineffective bustle of Mansfield Park’s Mrs. Price has its counterpart in the incapacity of “Simple Susan’s” mother; Edgeworth’s Mrs. Price is too ill to be of much help in getting her husband ready for the army and Susan must take over the responsibility:
“But he’ll want, he’ll want a hundred things,” said she, starting up; I must get his linen ready for him. I’m afraid its very late, Susan, why did you let me lie so long?”
“Everything shall be ready, dear mother, only don’t hurry yourself,” said Susan.
And indeed her mother was ill able to bear any hurry, or to do any work this day. (SUS 1: II: 80)
Edgeworth’s Susan works efficiently and without hesitation:
Susan’s affectionate, dexterous, sensible activity was never more wanted, or more effectual. She understood so readily, she obeyed so exactly, and when she was left to her own discretion, judged so prudently, that her mother had little trouble and no anxiety in directing her …. Susan was mending her father’s linen .... (SUS 1: II: 80-81).
Austen’s Fanny Price also tries to compensate for her mother’s helplessness in getting her brother’s linen ready for his first sail, but Fanny’s assistance is far less effective and tinged with disapproval of her mother and with self-congratulation for her contribution:
[She] set about working for Sam immediately, and by working early and late, with perseverance and great dispatch, did so much, that the boy was shipped off at last, with more than half his linen ready. She had great pleasure in feeling her usefulness, but could not conceive how they would have managed without her. (MP 390)
Austen’s Susan Price is even closer to the original Susan. She genuinely attempts to be useful, and her cheerfulness, energy, and “well-timed kindnesses,” more nearly resemble the selflessness of Edgeworth’s Susan. In “Simple Susan,” Susan’s simplicity, industry, honesty, and caring prove an “overmatch” for the machinations of the shrewd Attorney Case and his spoiled, cunning daughter, Barbara. In Mansfield Park, Austen recalled Edgeworth’s cheerful, optimistic, and triumphant little girl – emphasizing the debt by adopting the same name. She does so, however, in order to draw the grimmer and more realistic portrait of the inevitable fate of such a child were she to be adopted by and retrained by an Attorney Case and his family, i.e., the Bertrams. Austen enforces the devastating comparison by repeating the transplantation process at the end of the novel when Susan is, in turn, removed from general usefulness in Portsmouth to become the “stationary niece” of the Bertrams. We can only hope that this Susan’s roots have already been sufficiently nourished and grown deeply enough to allow her to survive in this alien environment, but the symbolism of the moor park apricot and the inability of the Bertrams to “forgive and forget” make us fear otherwise.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934.
———. Jane Austen’s Letters, to her sister Cassandra and others, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford University Press.
Edgeworth, Maria. “Forgive and Forget” and “Simple Susan” in The Parent’s Assistant, London, 1800.