Friday, May 16, 2014

Why is Jane Austen so mean?

No, I am not going to write that piece, although there is a lot to it.  Someone else can write it.  Mrs. Norris, the horrible aunt in Mansfield Park, is perhaps Austen’s greatest monster, and Austen could hardly be more explicit that some of her characters are truly stupid, like Mr. Rushworth and Lady Bertram, so unimaginative that she names her pug Pug.  The 18th century satirical strain was still healthy in Austen.  It obviously suited her temperament.

Now, here we have, at the beginning of the novel, two well-to-do little girls learning to get along with their poor cousin Fanny:

They could not but hold her cheap on finding that she had but two sashes, and had never learned French; and when they perceived her to be little struck with the duet they were so good as to play, they could do no more than make her a generous present of some of their least valued toys, and leave her to herself, while they adjourned to whatever might be the favourite holiday sport of the moment, making artificial flowers or wasting gold paper.  (Ch. 2)

In case anyone thought Mary Delany’s papercraft flowers were a pure fluke.  It is the word “wasting” that jumps out.  It can belong to no one but the narrator.  She is even mean to little girls.  They know no better; they were badly raised.

The girls are likely up in their schoolroom, the East Room, that is later given to poor mouse Fanny Price when the girls are old enough to no longer want it:

Her plants, her books — of which she had been a collector from the first hour of her commanding a shilling—her writing-desk, and her works of charity and ingenuity, were all within her reach…  (Ch. 16)

Is it not well-known that Jane Austen had no such room and no such desk, that she wrote her novels to some extent in the very presence of her family?  Fanny is sorely treated by the exigencies of the plot, but Austen in recompense gives her this lovely fantasy room of her own.

The room was most dear to her, and she would not have changed its furniture for the handsomest in the house, though what had been originally plain had suffered all the ill-usage of children; and its greatest elegancies and ornaments were a faded footstool of Julia's work, too ill done for the drawing-room, three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlight lake in Cumberland, a collection of family profiles, thought unworthy of being anywhere else, over the mantelpiece, and by their side, and pinned against the wall, a small sketch of a ship sent four years ago from the Mediterranean by William, with H.M.S. Antwerp at the bottom, in letters as tall as the mainmast.

William is Fanny’s beloved brother who spends most of the novel drinking rum, eating salt horse, and sinking Napoleon’s navy.

Those transparencies are fascinating.  I should look them up somewhere, find out what they are.  Is it possible that Tintern Abbey and the Lake District are not expressions of interest in the poetry of Williams Wordsworth?  Fanny is a great reader of poetry, memorizing and quoting William Cowper and Walter Scott, so she is keeping up with recent stuff and is interested in Romantic poetry.  “Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself” (Ch. 40) – note that Fanny is perhaps a bit snobbish about fiction.  It is her shallow cousin Maria Bertram who alludes to Lawrence Sterne.

I have wandered from the 18th century into the 19th.  Sensibilities are changing, and so is literature.  I feel that I am rooting around in the components of what I find new in Mansfield Park.  But I do not really know.  I need expert help.


  1. Obviously after Northanger Abbey there's a world of Austen waiting for me. These posts have been great, Tom, and I always thought Austen was an early 19th century bore!

  2. Many bores have been inspired by Austen, I will not deny that. But it is good fun to watch her sharpen her teeth on a character.

  3. I am very much enjoying your commentary. You certainly do not need expert help -- at least not in the sense of help from an expert literary critic. Your keen observations have a pernicious effect on me though: I am envious. Shame on me! Still, I look forward to what you will write next.

  4. Thanks, RT.

    Here I need the kind of expert who has done the hard archival work, who knows what Austen read and what she might have read, and who is familiar with not just the famous poets but all of the forgotten ones who are too dreary for amateur readers to bother with. The expert with more knowledge.

  5. Well, I did not connect the Tintern Abbey or Lake District transparencies with Wordsworth. Shame on me! So, you'll do for an expert for me. Also, I've got to read more slowly, more carefully.

  6. Judith, this is just why I need a real expert who can say "Oh, that's not Wordsworth, but rather X's book about Y which both Austen and Wordsworth read" or something like that. You never know. I mean, I never know.

    I am never sure how careful I am, but I am always looking for this kind of baited hook, at least. I am an eager fish, easily caught,