Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park
by Joyce Kerr Tarpley
Catholic University of America,
288 pages, $69.95
“Nobody has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is overtly virtuous and consciously virtuous,” Lionel Trilling once said, but she has had some admirers apart from Henry Crawford, perhaps most intriguing among them, Alasdair MacIntyre. In After Virtue, MacIntyre points to Jane Austen as the “last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of [Christian and Aristotelian] thought about, and practicing of, virtues,” and to Fanny Price as the heroine who embodies that virtue which makes other virtues possible: constancy.
In Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Joyce Kerr Tarpley illustrates Austen’s development of her concept of virtue through Fanny’s continuous search for the context that will give her life narrative unity and her efforts to be faithful in her daily actions to the ends proposed by that narrative.
Tarpley, who teaches at Mountain View College, argues that Austen both synthesizes classical and Christian concepts and adds to the ethical tradition she inherited. For example, while her constancy is in some way like Aristotelian practical wisdom—both allow the person who has them to determine the actions appropriate for achieving a well-chosen end—Aristotle would surely consider Fanny’s refusal to marry Henry Crawford unwise. Her decision is not unwise, Tarpley explains, but made in light of her Christian understanding of a higher end. The Christian context in which Fanny finds herself allows her to see that beyond the good of financial security and obedience to her uncle, there is a higher good in marriage, a union which ought to signify the mystical unity of Christ and the Church.
Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a work of academic literary criticism with all of the footnotes to prove it, and readers interested in a concise consideration of virtue and Christian themes in Mansfield Park would be better served reading Trilling’s brilliant essay on the book or C. S. Lewis’ “Note on Jane Austen.” But any reader vexed by Austen’s least “light and bright and sparkling” novel will find the book, ultimately an apologia for Fanny Price and Mansfield Park, well worth the read.
Meghan Duke is assistant editor of First Things.