2014 JASNA Essay Contest Second Place Winner Graduate Division
The Unidentified Bridesmaid: The Narrator’s and Fanny’s Silences in Mansfield Park
In the wedding ceremony that is to marry Maria Bertram to James Rushworth in Mansfield Park, the narrator informs the reader that the bride has “two . . . duly inferior . . . bridesmaids” (Austen 170) attending her; however, only Julia Bertram leaves with the newlyweds from the church to the couple’s home at Sotherton Court (171). Given Julia’s position as the bride’s sister, it makes sense that she would be a member of Maria’s bridal party. But the narrator does not reveal the identity of the second bridesmaid to the reader. Even after the wedding, the text never explicitly discloses who she is and why she is left behind. The narrator’s strange silence on the subject of the second bridesmaid’s identity is my point of departure for an argument about the revelatory roles of silence in Mansfield Park. In this paper, I will demonstrate that the novel’s heroine, Fanny Price, serves as the second bridesmaid to Maria, and that the narrator’s silence on this point both exposes and censures the treatment of Fanny as a lesser individual in the Mansfield Park household. I will further show how this silence anticipates Fanny’s struggle to act according to her own principles when her fellow characters pressure her to enter a loveless marriage. Furthermore, I will demonstrate how Fanny’s own consequent silence allows her to overcome these pressures. Through the narrator’s concealment of the bridesmaid’s identity and Fanny’s own later reticence, Mansfield Park teaches its readers to recognize the inherent worth of an individual, and teaches that such insight is only attainable through deliberate and careful close-reading.
In order to ascertain the second bridesmaid’s identity, one must consider the possible female characters – both known and unknown to the reader – that may fulfil this role. Potential candidates include: a friend of Maria who is not her blood relative (Mary Crawford, for instance); a relative of Maria who is not Fanny, such as another female cousin; a female member of the groom’s family; or Fanny herself. Modern-day wedding experiences familiar to twenty-first century readers may initially render the first three options plausible; however, a closer examination of standard British Regency period1 wedding practices negates these options. According to Laura Boyle, “[e]ven fashionable weddings [during the Regency period] were but sparingly attended, usually only by close relatives . . . The bride did have a few attendants, mainly unmarried younger sisters or cousins” (“Weddings During the Regency Era”). Given the exclusivity of this event and its general restriction of not only bridal attendants, but also all guests at the ceremony, to family members, any unrelated friend of the bride probably does not serve as Maria’s bridesmaid. Next, Maria has no female cousins by Mrs. Norris and, at this point in the novel, none by Mrs. Price who have set foot on the grounds of Mansfield Park, except Fanny. Mansfield Park further gives no indication, direct or indirect, of Sir Thomas Bertram’s children having any cousins on their father’s side, or of Mr. Rushworth’s having an unmarried sister. The first three proposed options are therefore impossible or highly unlikely. Fanny, however, seems the most promising candidate for the role, befitted by her position as an unmarried, younger female cousin of the bride and her current residence with the bride’s family at Mansfield Park. What’s more, Fanny informs the reader later in the text that she had received a very “fine” new dress for Maria’s wedding from Sir Thomas (Austen 186), thereby confirming her attendance at the wedding and further suggesting that she held a place in the bridal party.
One may argue that the narrator’s decision not to reveal Fanny’s position as a bridesmaid is merely trivial; however, both the syntax and content of the text from the description of the wedding to the end of the chapter subtly draw the reader back to this moment of silence. The narrator does not mention Maria’s having “a bridesmaid” or “bridesmaids” in general, but specifically “two bridesmaids [who] were duly inferior” at the ceremony (170, emphasis added), suggesting that quantity is important here. Despite two bridesmaids serving, the paragraph ends with only “the bride and bridegroom and Julia” (171) leaving the church together. In decidedly not writing “the married couple and Julia” or “the bride, bridegroom, and Julia”, phrases that both read more smoothly than “the bride and bridegroom and Julia” (171, emphasis added), the narrator specifically separates each of the three bridal party characters from one another through the repeated use of “and.” Through the clear distinguishing of each individual, the reader’s attention is drawn back to the earlier reference to two bridesmaids. Consequently, the reader could be left wondering about the absence of the contrarily non-individuated second bridesmaid who does not participate in this journey. This method of singling out all the characters except Fanny also re-occurs later in the chapter, when the narrator informs the reader that “Julia was to go with [the newlyweds] to Brighton” (171). By placing Julia as the stand-alone subject of the first sentence in a new paragraph, and with a now second reminder to the reader of Julia’s joining the Rushworths in their travels, the narrator recalls the construction of the earlier reference to Julia’s participation in their venture. In so doing, the narrator further points to the exclusion of Fanny from the bridal party. Such exclusion of the heroine, while subtly displayed here, has many precedents – for instance, earlier in the novel, Edmund and Mary leave Fanny to sit by herself on the grounds of Sotherton (83). Therefore, the syntax in this passage not only draws the reader back to the narrator’s silence about Fanny’s serving as bridesmaid, but further expands upon the meaning of that silence in light of previous textual events that have similarly marginalized Fanny.
Not only is the narrator silent regarding the second bridesmaid’s identity, but she holds this silence almost throughout the remainder of the chapter: she refuses to name Fanny at all. While the names “Maria” or “Mrs. Rushworth”, and “Julia” occur several times in this segment, as do references to Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, and Mrs. Norris, “Fanny” does not occupy its own allotted space on the page. Again, the heroine does not receive the same recognition as an individual that is given to the rest of the characters by the narrator. What is intriguing, however, is that, despite the narrator’s prolonged silence, the chapter still cannot help but end by giving a thought to Fanny. The narrator informs the reader that Maria and Julia were already being missed by “their tenderhearted cousin, who wandered about the house, and thought of them, and felt for them, with a degree of affectionate regret which they had never done much to deserve!” (171, emphasis added). The narrator breaks the retained silence regarding Fanny only at the very last line of the chapter; in so doing, she highlights the familial stratification that results from the Bertrams’ devaluing of Fanny, and which separates Fanny from her cousins throughout the novel. However, this line simultaneously admonishes the very silence that bespeaks the unfair treatment of Fanny: for, in the first description of the bridal party, the narrator does to Fanny precisely what her fellow characters do to her – overlook her. Nevertheless, in spite of ignoring her, the text cannot help but mention Fanny (albeit without naming her), and thereby draws her to the reader’s main attention in its concluding moment, even if the other characters won’t do the same. Thus, the narrator puts Fanny in an inferior position for two complementary reasons: both to echo the voices of those who commit this injustice against her on a regular basis (such as Maria), and, by highlighting Fanny’s tenderness of heart rather than her name, to underscore the value of her virtue and silence these same discriminating voices.
The precise nature of this narrative silence and the means by which it is broken also emphasize the importance of the reader’s role at this point in the text. The fact that the very nature of this silence is so subtle – the reader would hardly recognize its existence in this short passage if not for the “two” in front of the word “bridesmaids” – allows for its being easily overlooked. Just as the narrator purposefully passes over Fanny, so too are we, as readers, prone to skim over the narrator’s silent treatment of her as well. The very act of not reading this moment in the text closely, therefore, implicates any readers of Mansfield Park in the devaluing of Fanny. The deplorable nature of such mistreatment of Fanny, on the part of the other characters and the readers, is all the more effective given the text’s emphasis on the supposed propriety of such treatment. The narrator describes the wedding as “very proper . . . Nothing could be objected to when it came under the discussion of the neighbourhood . . . the etiquette of the day might stand the strictest investigation” (171-2). Three times the narrator stresses that the event conforms to proper social norms. And the hint of two bridesmaids serving instead of one and the description of only the bridal couple and Julia leaving the church together are sandwiched between these three repetitions. The text thus highlights the true abhorrence of such treatment of Fanny by underscoring its casual acceptance by the community – a society that includes both Fanny’s fellow characters and Austen’s readers.
The narrator’s silence regarding the bridesmaid’s identity and Fanny’s name brings to light the extent of the heroine’s devaluation by her family members (and readers). So too does the silence’s prolonging and the final reference to the “tenderhearted cousin” point to Fanny’s function as Maria’s foil. As Maria’s bridesmaid, Fanny occupies a role that has defined her up to this point in the novel – someone’s “second.” Fanny is only second in importance to the central ceremonial bride figure. However, a threat surfaces later in the novel when Fanny is faced with the possibility of becoming Maria’s second in another way: by replaying Maria’s marriage plot. Like Maria, Fanny too faces the trials of a half-hearted courtship by Henry Crawford, an impending marriage into which she does not want to enter, and a serious questioning by Sir Thomas about her romantic feelings (or lack thereof) prior to her marriage. Indeed, it is no accident that the narrator’s silence regarding Fanny’s serving as bridesmaid occurs almost exactly half-way through the novel: the first half of the text focuses more on Maria’s courtship narrative than on Fanny; the second half (starting in the chapter immediately following the one just analyzed) acknowledges Fanny’s “consequence increas[ing]” (173) once her cousins leave and changes its focus to Fanny’s coming out in society and her own potential courting by Henry Crawford. Therefore, Fanny’s position as bridesmaid foreshadows the position in which her fellow characters will later place her to repeat Maria’s narrative.
In the second half of the novel, the text threatens Maria and Fanny with the same fates in ways that exactly contrast the temperaments of each. The narrator takes from the hitherto lively and vocal Maria her voice and she is never again heard from (or even heard about, until the end of the narrative). Conversely, after her own inaudibility during Maria’s wedding, Fanny becomes the subject of so much attention by the narrator and her fellow characters that her own natural inclination toward peace and solitude is often antagonized. Nowhere is this distinct treatment of the two characters more clear than in the way in which the narrator presents the two women’s interviews with Sir Thomas. Just prior to the wedding scene, the reader receives a single paragraph-length account of Maria’s response to her father. But Fanny’s own later interview spans several pages. Maria’s contrived claim to a “high [ . . . ] esteem for Mr. Rushworth’s character and disposition, and [lack of] doubt of her happiness with him” (169) is only the narrator’s curt re-telling of Maria’s real response. While Maria may actively choose to give her answer “immediately, decidedly, and with no apparent agitation” (168), the absence of her exact words suggests her lack of agency. Fanny’s own uncomfortable interview, on the other hand, is almost entirely comprised of dialogue; indeed, when Sir Thomas asks Fanny about her position regarding the engagement, he asks, three times, for a confirmation of her refusal of Mr. Crawford’s proposal (262). By writing Sir Thomas’ inquiry as a successive series of direct questions – “refuse Mr. Crawford . . . Refuse him? . . . Refuse Mr. Crawford!” (262) – the narrator extends the conversation for the longest possible time, thereby vivifying the intensity of Fanny’s discomfort, and keeping her within the interview’s confines.
However, unlike Maria, Fanny does overcome the fate that threatens her by responding to the narrator’s treatment of her and her fellow characters’ wishes that she marry Henry Crawford with her own silence. Through her reticence, Fanny holds firm in her own esteem of good moral character and reveals a self-respect that in turn does not allow her to be victimized by the characters who do not respect her. Fanny’s silence regarding Mr. Crawford’s character, the reader learns, arises from the fact that “for her cousins’ sake, she could scarcely dare mention [her opinion of Henry Crawford] to their father. Maria and Julia, and especially Maria, were so closely implicated in Mr. Crawford's misconduct, that she could not give his character . . . without betraying them” (264). Fanny conceals her feelings from Sir Thomas, as does Maria just prior to her own wedding; however, the heroine uses a different silence from that used by the narrator during the wedding scene – one that attests to Fanny’s consideration of others and one that allows her to actively protect her female cousins from their father’s judgment. The two references to Maria here (again, references to Maria after the wedding are infrequent until the end of the novel), clearly outline the parallel between Fanny’s possible fate and that of Maria. But they also depict Fanny as the “tenderhearted cousin” who thinks and feels for her cousins, a depiction that recalls the narrator’s eventually broken silence about Fanny after the wedding. Since Fanny’s actions are motivated by compassion for others and not by selfishness, her reticence demonstrates why the narrator must break the silence at the end of the wedding scene without naming Fanny directly: the heroine’s tenderness of heart speaks louder than the treatment that attempts to overlook her in cold silence.
The narrator’s devaluation of Fanny in the wedding scene can thus be read as a microcosm of the novel as a whole: Fanny’s position as the unnoticed, unnamed “second” to the bride quietly alludes to the heroine’s mistreatment by her fellow characters before the start of her courtship narrative, and even implicates the novel’s readers in her mistreatment. The subsequent continued silent dismissal of Fanny throughout the rest of the chapter until the final line foreshadows the attempts that will be made by several characters to ensure Fanny stays Maria’s second and repeats the latter’s narrative. Finally, the reference to the “tenderhearted cousin”, albeit brief, speaks to Fanny’s later moment of silence to protect her female cousins. This moment further demonstrates, in spite of the narrator’s retained silence, that Fanny’s decision to live by her principles cannot be overlooked, and will have a lasting positive effect on her fellow characters. This scene, therefore, leaves its readers with two important lessons: first, through its requirement for close-reading, readers can recognize and value the individuals that their own societies tend to overlook; and second, readers learn that a selflessness and tenderness of heart like Fanny’s can speak louder than words to one’s enemies, even if such virtues are displayed through silence.
1. Please see Southam’s “The Silence of the Bertrams” for a grounding of the setting of Mansfield Park in the Regency period (specifically during the years 1812-1814).
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd., 2009. Print.
Boyle, Laura. “Weddings During the Regency Era.” http://www.janeausten.co.uk/weddings-during-the-regency-era/. Jane Austen Centre, 20 June 2011. Web. 4 May 2014.
Southam, Brian. “The Silence of the Bertrams.” Times Literary Supplement [London, England]. http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/archives/. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, 17 Feb 1995. Web. 4 May 2014.