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!”