Returning to Mansfield Park

Olive the smooth fox terrier. I briefly considered changing her name to Fanny Price.

I reread Mansfield Park, again. It was fantastic, but in a completely different way than before. I remember the last time I read it (in December 2008)  I had been researching a lot about daily life in the era in order to try to realistically describe Liam and Rachel’s journey to 1815, and I was struck by how much more household detail there is in Mansfield Park, compared with many other of Jane Austen’s books. Mrs. Norris’s ideas about housekeeping, for example, and her interactions with servants, such as a reported conversation with the housekeeper at Sotherton:

That Mrs. Whitaker is a treasure! She was quite shocked, when I asked her whether wine was allowed at the second table, and she has turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns.

It is the sort of remark that makes no real sense to the casual reader, 200 years later. But dropped at the end of the eventful chapter in which the party from Mansfield Park goes to visit the grand house of Maria Betram’s rich but idiotic fiance, it is not really confusing enough to make one stop, either: there is too much else going on, too much to enjoy.

What Jane Austen is doing here is giving expression to Mrs. Norris’s  avarice and nosiness through telling household details. She has been “spunging” as Maria puts it, wheedling a cream cheese and some pheasant’s eggs out of the housekeeper, meanwhile pressing her for details of how Sotherton is run, something no polite person would ever do. The “second table” refers to the dining arrangements for the less important servants, the rank and file: housemaids, scullery maids, porters, as opposed to the butler, housekeeper and cooks, for the servants’ world was made up of hierarchies as clearly defined  as that of their employers, with perks for the more important ones, like better food.

What may seem most strange to us now is that either group of servants would expect wine with dinner, but it was different world, with potable water a rare commodity, a world  where even children might drink small (weak) beer at breakfast.

And white gowns on housemaids? Wearing white was fashionable at this time, and a signifier of status in a world lacking Shout and automatic washing machines, because it was hard to keep clean for long, and hard to get clean once it was dirty. The message of  white gowns was that you had someone else doing your laundry, and lots of changes of clothes. But social striving being a constant across the centuries, it is reasonable to suppose that even housemaids would want to imitate their rich employers by wearing white, too — a species of putting on airs that Mrs. Whitaker was quick to detect and quash in the unfortunate housemaids, to the approbation of Mrs. Norris.

This time, I noticed different things:  the people. Julia and Maria, in their complacent narcissism, seem altogether modern. Described in slightly different words, you could easily imagine them starring in a reality show. The part in italics below seems to me a particularly insightful observation. Who has not known someone like that?

The Miss Bertams were now fully established among the belles of the neighborhood, and as they joined to beauty and brilliant acquirements, a manner naturally easy, and carefully formed to general civility and obligingness, they possessed its favor as well as its admiration. Their vanity was in such good order that they seemed quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs; while the praises attending such behavior, secured, and brought round by their aunt, served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults.

Henry and Mary Crawford  are also easily recognizable types found everywhere today: blase, amoral, mercenary, with a charm that conceals the void beneath. In the conversation between Mary, Fanny and Edmund in the chapel at Sotherton, Mary is saying exactly what most modern readers would probably feel about religion; her repeated determination to marry well (that is, to  find someone with money)  is also a common theme among a certain subset of contemporary women.

Fanny, by contrast, seems quite alien, and this is probably why she is hard for the 2010 reader to appreciate, along with the fact that her name has unfortunately become risible to modern ears. Her shyness, her humility, her physical weakness and her total lack of any sense of entitlement all seem like defects. The idea that she was might be a Christian heroine, a less flashy counterpart of Clarissa Harlowe or Beth March, is merely puzzling to the modern reader. Today she would be diagnosed with  low self-esteem and mild depression, a meek loser in a world where winners are people like her cousins Julia and Maria. She would probably be put on Prozac. And yet despite being afraid of practically everything, she is stubborn.  (An unlikely welding of traits, since we expect the nervous to be tractable, but also found in my dog, Olive,  above, to such a degree that I once thought of changing her name to Fanny Price.)

Fanny stands up for what is right,  resisting the theatricals with all her (limited) might, urging her cousin not to slip through the fence into the park (in one of the most symbolic moments in all Jane Austen’s writing):

“You will hurt yourself, Miss Betram,” she cried, “you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes — you will tear your gown — you will be in danger of slipping into the Ha-Ha. You had better not go.”

She was right, of course, in the end, but no one listened.  Fanny takes her stand for the unfashionable virtues: order, restraint and tradition; for meekness, humility and right-thinking. She is the person everyone ignores, the poor relation whose wishes count for nothing, even to herself. She is Jane Eyre, minus the grit. I like her more every time I read this book. But I do have to wonder what Jane Austen was thinking about when she created her. Did Fanny seem a bit annoying and goody-two-shoes even in 1814? Was Jane Austen’s own experience of being a poor relation, for example when staying at her brother Edward’s great house at Godmersham, filtered through fiction to be reflected in little Fanny?

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