Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why is Mansfield Park so filthy?

The novel, not the park.  Just one setting, really, Fanny Price's parental home in Portsmouth.

I am still on the road from Austen to Flaubert.  This is a very narrow approach to Austen, yes, absolutely.  Indirect, too.  I am pretending that art progresses, which of course it does, but only in retrospect.  If I first pick a fixed point, say Madame Bovary, I can then cast back and look for writers who were already doing whatever it is that I think is unusual about the point of reference.

My position is that most innovations in literature are closer to discoveries than inventions.  The “innovation” was there all along.  The innovator has just emphasized it more.  I do not know about you, but I am a reader who can use the help.  It may have been there all along, but I did not see it until the innovator pointed it out.

So it is Flaubert who helps me see this sentence in Mansfield Park:

She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father's head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebecca's hands had first produced it.  (Ch. 46)

If this were a Zola novel I would be treated to a three page symphony of filth, but Austen only occasionally reminds us how her heroine is repelled by the filth of her parents’ house.  Rebecca is their lone servant, either useless (according to Fanny’s mother) or making the best of a difficult situation.

[Fanny] was so little equal to Rebecca's puddings and Rebecca's hashes, brought to table, as they all were, with such accompaniments of half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks, that she was very often constrained to defer her heartiest meal till she could send her brothers in the evening for biscuits and buns.  (Ch. 42)

The milk is especially good, isn’t it?  Disgusting, but well described.  It reminds me of a passage of opposite purpose from a few chapter earlier, with Fanny now outdoors, observing the Portsmouth ships:

It was really March; but it was April in its mild air, brisk soft wind, and bright sun, occasionally clouded for a minute; and everything looked so beautiful under the influence of such a sky, the effects of the shadows pursuing each other on the ships at Spithead and the island beyond, with the ever-varying hues of the sea, now at high water, dancing in its glee and dashing against the ramparts with so fine a sound, produced altogether such a combination of charms for Fanny, as made her gradually almost careless of the circumstances under which she felt them.  (Ch. 42)

Both the first and last passages could be compared to paintings, a domestic scene and a sea scene.  Both are in reality static, but both create a sense of motion.  In the filthy parlor, Fanny is looking around, the disgusting bits are bobbing in the milk, and even the bread is somehow noticeably changing.  Even the still items have active verbs attached to them – notched, wiped.  And in the sea scene it is all motion, dancing waves and shadows playing tag.

I wonder where Austen got this.  Her 18th century favorites, Samuel Richardson and Oliver Goldsmith and Fanny Burney and so on, they were not writing like this.  I have only read Evelina (1778); maybe Burney changed.  Lawrence Sterne, alluded to in Mansfield Park, was working on entirely different problems.  Gothic novelists had a certain instrumental interest in detailed settings but I doubt the quality of their prose.  I assume Austen was picking this up not from fiction but from poets like William Cowper (also in MP) and perhaps nature writers like Gilbert White.  I don’t know, but there they are, more passages like these in Mansfield Park than in any other Austen novel.

A different kind of Austen reader is now saying “You literary aesthetes with your light and shadow effects!  Who cares!  If you like that so much, just look out the window.  People, this book is about people!”


  1. This is good stuff. When I think of Austen, I think of wit and social observation, the usual stuff; I don't think of her as a close observer of details in setting, or a writer of such fine prose. "the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue" is especially nice, with the alliteration and the repeated "in".

  2. Y'know, you're really messing with my head on this one. My reading of Austen has obviously been done while wearing the wrong corrective lenses. I've been blind to the qualities you've been highlighting. You're teaching the over-the-hill and out-of-work teacher. Bravo!

  3. I do not want to exaggerate the quantity of passages like this in Mansfield Park, but they are there, they are new, and they are good.

    What is crazy about Flaubert et. al. is that they saw a line that one about "blue milk" and said "I'm going to write an entire book like that." Lunatics.

    The more usual side of Austen, the emphasis on precise relationships of family, money, and status, that is certainly all in the book, too. Austen had that figured out in her 20s. But nothing like that milk.

  4. This has nothing to do with my Flaubert post. You lied to me, Tom!

  5. What about Swift? His poem "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed" is just one example of a brilliant diatribe against filth. I certainly hope Austen read Swift!

  6. I love the possibility that Austen read Swift. Even better is the idea of Fanny Price reading Swift.

    Miguel, the words "Flaubert" and "progress" are in close proximity, just like in your post. If I lied, it was for a good reason.

  7. Zola is a master of filth!

  8. Maybe Zola would give me five pages of filth. Or ten. But Zola would have been happy with the "motes in milk" bit.

  9. "I wonder where Austen got this."

    Could it be - I suggest this gently - that Austen was an innovator?

  10. I take that answer, that Austen was an innovator, as the beginning of the question, not the end. What exactly was the innovation? How am I so sure that no one else was doing it?

    The case of Walter Scott, who was independently coming up with some very similar innovations, greatly complicates this example. I didn't go into this. Why bore people with Scott.

  11. Surely Austen did read Swift, and Swift was, among other things, a satirist. The satirists of the late 18th century--Peter Pindar for example--were masters of sordid details.

  12. Jeanne, you put me right back to my want of expertise. What was the reception, in Austen's time and circle, or Swift and Pindar and so on? I know fragments and have guesses, but I could so easily be wrong.

  13. All this about Swift and others is interesting, but what strikes me is Hogarth, who worked in both oils and engravings and had a fairly keen knowledge of street life (and debtor's prison, through his father.) He was so very popular, and he painted or engraved a lot of scenes that have some relation to "Mansfield Park"--wealthy families at home, actors, private theatricals (notably a painting of a grand home performance of Dryden's "The Indian Emperor" ("As performed in the year 1731 at Mr. Conduit’s, Master of the Mint, before the Duke of Cumberland etc."), and his narrative sequences and satiric scenes.Movement is very strong in the scenes, and often what is shown is quite degraded though lively. All the oils were well known through engravings, and I think that "Marriage à-la-mode" is very interesting to consider next to the book--it's a kind of reversal, really, as it focuses on the downfall of the woman. Thackeray described its moral in part as "...don’t listen to evil silver-tongued counselors; don't marry a man for his rank, or a woman for her money; don't frequent foolish auctions and masquerade balls unknown to your husband..." In Hogarth, I see all the liveliness, filth, home theatricals, and condemnation of the marriage market that one could want.

  14. Hogarth, that's another one to track down some day. I mean the reception, how familiar Austen was with Hogarth. Hogarth prints were everywhere; she must have known some of them.

    Mansfield Park is so visual and theatrical, for Austen, I mean, that looking at visual sources makes a lot of sense.