To call Jane Austen a public theologian is counterintuitive for two reasons: she does not seem much interested in things public, and she does not seem much interested in things theological.
With regard to the second point, Austen’s novels rarely deal openly with theological themes or issues, and even her private letters—the ones that survived her sister’s destruction—seldom speak of religious subjects. She was a lifelong member of the Church of England and her father and two brothers were Anglican ministers. By all accounts she was a Christian, yet she displays a high Anglican reticence about religious experience, and a similarly Anglican disinterest in the niceties of theological debate.
On the first point, Austen’s novels seem to be relentlessly concerned with private life, concerned with “three or four families in a country town,” as she put it in one famous letter. This is all the more remarkable when we consider the events of her lifetime. Though living through a period that witnessed the birth of an independent United States, the French Revolution and the Terror, the Napoleonic wars and the rise of revolutionary romanticism, the evangelical revivals and the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, she focuses on a few middling gentry families in rural England. Touches of the wider world sometimes impinge on Austen’s peaceful outposts—Wickham, a soldier, plays a prominent role in Pride and Prejudice, there are passing references to the British colonies and the slave trade in Mansfield Park, and the British navy’s preservation of England in the Napoleonic Wars is duly noted in Persuasion. For the most part, though, her characters go about their farming and their business, their follies and especially their romances, their dances and their games of backgammon and whist, as if nothing has changed. Soldiers and sailors, when they appear, are always on leave.
Well-read as she and her family were, it is impossible that Austen was ignorant of the transformations taking place around her. She read poetry and novels, including those from the Romantic period, and she knew the literature of her time well enough to parody it. We know too that her family was directly affected by a number of these events. Two of her brothers fought Napoleon as members of the British navy. Philadelphia Austen, Jane’s aunt, had a daughter named Eliza who married a Frenchman, Jean Capot, Comte de Feuillide. The unfortunate Capot was guillotined during the Terror, and his widow Eliza later married Jane’s brother Henry to become Jane’s sister-in-law. Her favorite brother, Henry, was a clergyman of evangelical stripe, and several letters show that Jane herself knew something of evangelicalism (she did not like it much, though her attitudes apparently shifted during her lifetime). Jane herself toyed with the idea of writing a biography of Napoleon.
Yet, to reiterate, this wider world has almost no role in Austen’s novels. I wish to maintain, however, that despite her apparent indifference to both theology and the public realm, she can be read as a public theologian.
What most interests Austen about Christianity is precisely its public and institutional dimension, its role as a national “teacher” of morals. Hence her recurring attention to the clergy. Two of her clerical characters, Mr. Collins (of Pride and Prejudice) and Mr. Elton (of Emma), are insensitive morons, and she has no toleration for the kind of hypocritical pomposity that they represent. Nor, in Mansfield Park, does she have much use for the vacuous religiosity of Dr. Grant, who is a pastor only in name and not in fact. This hardly means that she is anticlerical; some of the most severe satire of the clergy in church history has come from devout Christians incensed at the abuses of their leaders. Like them, Austen attacks false clergy not to destroy clergy; she attacks false clergy to defend the true.
On the other side, several of her heroes are ordained or soon to be so. Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility is a nonentity in this regard, and one fears that Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey is too detached and ironic to be much of a pastor, though he provides both intellectual and moral training for the heroine, Catherine Morland. The last of the clerical heroes, Edmund Bertram, is far and away the best model, and the issue of the public role of the Church takes on a great deal of importance in Mansfield Park. Still, the fact is that in half of Austen’s finished novels the hero is a clergyman, and two of the other novels have important clerical characters. (The only novel in which clergy play virtually no role is Persuasion, though even there Charles Hayter is destined for the cloth.)
Evidence of Austen’s theological contribution—and of my thesis—is strongest in Mansfield Park. When Austen wrote about it in a letter (to her sister Cassandra, January 29, 1813), she said she intended “to write of something else;—it shall be a complete change of subject—Ordination.” Indeed, that is its unlikely focus. As a result, Mansfield Park, frequently despised as Austen’s worst novel, is in fact her greatest and most important, though admittedly far from the most entertaining. Moreover, the novel presents one of the most searching and provocative accounts of modern individualism to be found in fiction. It is a thick description of the kinds of habits of speech and personal conduct, motivations and intentions, political and social views that emerge from uncontrolled individualism. And it traces this insidious individualism precisely to the marginalization of the Church in the life of England, the failure of clergy to be the makers of English manners, and the consequent intrusion of other forces as the makers of manners.
Austen describes this kind of individualism, its origins and effects, without ever using the words “individual” or “individualism.” Individualism probably did not exist as a word (Tocqueville said in the 1830s that it was newly minted), and the word “individual” earlier meant “indivisible.” Instead, Austen, like Shakespeare, explores the phenomenon of individualism using the trope of “acting.” In a play, only the worst actors (like Bottom) want to change roles. The good actor has been assigned his role and does not want to become somebody else. If he did so, the play would fall apart. If Laertes suddenly became Hamlet or Oedipus changed places with Tiresias, that would, to put it mildly, disrupt the play—though, as Tom Stoppard has realized, if Rosencrantz changed places with Guildenstern nobody would notice (not even the characters). In a traditional society, the goal of life is to act well in the assigned role—to say your lines properly, to do what your role assigns to you. Everybody has a “fixed fate” set (perhaps) by his birth, and his purpose is not to find a new fate, but to adjust to it. In such a traditional society, ethics is bound up with playing the role well; the question “What shall I do?” always presupposes an answer to the question “What place do I have here? Who am I?”
Peter Berger summarizes this social and ethical vision:
A role . . . may be defined as a typified response to a typified expectation. Society has predefined the fundamental typology. To use the language of the theater, from which the concept of role is derived, we can say that society provides the script for all the dramatis personae. The individual actors, therefore, need but slip into the roles already assigned to them before the curtain goes up. As long as they play their roles as provided for in this script, the social play can proceed as planned.
And Berger goes on to point out that every social role has a particular identity attached to it. Some of the roles are fairly trivial and easily changed; others are nearly impossible to alter. But any change in role is a change in “who you are.” The ethical imperative is to grow into those roles. At first, the uniform may not fit; we may find ourselves dwarves dressed in the clothing of giants; but we are called to grow into our role.
In this sense, Austen’s conception of social order is traditional and theatrical. But she saw another kind of “role-playing” and another kind of “theatricality” being born in the society around her. In Mansfield Park she contrasts the traditional notion of social “role” with this new individualist notion, and shows the causes and effects of this change.
The heroine of Mansfield Park is Fanny Price, who comes from her crowded home in Portsmouth to live at Mansfield Park, the home of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. She grows up with Sir Thomas’ children—Tom, Edmund, Julia, and Maria—of whom only Edmund shows kindness to his cousin. Fanny is shy and retiring, always feeling that she is out of place in the house, a feeling reinforced by the bullying from her other aunt, Mrs. Norris, who since the death of her husband has lived with the Bertrams.
The action of the story depends on two visitors from London, Henry and Mary Crawford, brother and sister to Mrs. Grant, the wife of the local vicar. The Crawfords visit Mansfield while Sir Thomas is in Antigua on rather murky business involving his plantations. Henry quickly becomes the favorite of both Julia and Maria, even though Maria is already engaged to the idiotic but very rich Mr. Rushworth, while Mary sets her sights on securing the affections of Edmund Bertram. During the first part of the book, there are two important scenes. One is the visit of the whole company of young people to Sotherton, the Rushworth estate, during which Henry Crawford pursues his developing affair with Maria. The other is the plan to put on a play in Mansfield, a plan that both Edmund and Fanny object to for various reasons. In the end, the plan is foiled by Sir Thomas’ return, but these events put the theme of acting at the forefront.
The remainder of the story focuses on Henry’s plan to make Fanny Price fall in love with him, and Fanny’s resistance to his courtship. Eventually, Henry actually does fall in love with Fanny and proposes marriage, which Fanny rejects, out of distrust of his character. The other thread of the story is the developing romance between Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram; Edmund is infatuated with Mary, but she is firmly opposed to the notion of being married to a clergyman, and is continually trying to seduce him away. When Fanny rejects him, Henry runs away with Maria, who by now is married to Rushworth, and this is the final blow to Edmund’s inclination toward Mary. At first despondent, Edmund gradually realizes that Fanny makes a better minister’s wife than Mary ever could have, and they marry.
Tony Tanner has pointed out that Mansfield Park was written near the end of the Napoleonic Wars, during a time of tumultuous change and serious threats to Britain. The threats that Austen identifies in the novel, however, were not the obvious threats to England’s stability and peace—French invasions, Jacobins spying, and the like. Rather, she sees a threat embodied in a particular way of life, one that detaches moral principle from good breeding and mannerliness. That distinction is made explicit in the book during a conversation among Mary, Fanny, and Edmund in Part I. Edmund has insisted that the clergy shape the manners of a nation, but Mary does not believe it. Edmund responds:
“With regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of, might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principle.”
With regard to “refinement and courtesy,” the Crawfords are without equal in the book. But that does not mean they conduct themselves according to good principles, which is the true meaning of “good manners.” Fanny’s comments elsewhere on the variety of nature apply here: it is wondrous that the same (English) soil and the same sun should produce “plants differing in the first rule and law of their existence.” The first rule of existence for the Crawfords is quite different from that of the other characters.
This distinction between good breeding and good principles is developed and broadened in connection with two other main themes. As mentioned above, the first of these is acting. A central scene in the book is the home theatrical production that the young people plan during Sir Thomas’ absence, over the objections of Edmund (at least initially) and Fanny. (This is one of the main charges against Fanny—she is a prude because she is so resolute in condemning a harmless entertainment. I shall return to this point below.) But the acting theme is pervasive. Henry is a natural actor on stage, and a public reader of considerable power. Even when Fanny is trying to resist his advances, she cannot help but be fascinated by his reading of a passage from Shakespeare. Henry is a wonderful actor because he is always acting. Fanny recognizes this from the beginning—he trifles, he flirts, at every moment he is playing a part—but, importantly, it is never the same part twice. That makes him charming, not least to many readers; but we as readers are supposed to be learning to see through his play-acting to search instead, as Fanny does, for strong principles and upright character, for some semblance of a permanent role beneath the Protean exterior.
The second related theme is a geographic one. Space almost plays the role of a character in the book. Not only do certain towns have important thematic associations, but the living space has a subtle influence on character. Fanny’s life is divided between two locations. Early in the novel, she moves from her family’s home in Portsmouth to live with her uncle and aunt Bertram at Mansfield Park. Her large family lived in cramped housing, and Fanny is at first overwhelmed by the size of everything at Mansfield:
The grandeur of the house astonished, but could not console her. The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease; whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry; and the little girl who was spoken of in the drawing-room when she left at night, as seeming so desirably sensible of her peculiar good fortune, ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep.
To make the Park a livable space, Fanny sets up a little “nest of comforts” in the East room, where she retreats to read and think. Even there, the fact that she is marginal to Mansfield Park is emphasized by the fact that Mrs. Norris allows no fire in the room.
Fanny eventually adjusts to the space of Mansfield, and this is most dramatically evident during her return trip to visit her family in Portsmouth in Book 3:
Fanny was almost stunned. The smallness of the house, and the thinness of the walls, brought every thing so close to her, that, added to the fatigue of her journey, and all her recent agitation, she hardly knew how to bear it. Within the room all was tranquil enough, for Susan having disappeared with the others, there were soon only her father and herself remaining; and he taking out a newspaper—the accustomary loan of a neighbor, applied himself to studying it, without seeming to recollect her existence. The solitary candle was held between himself and the paper, without any reference to her possible convenience; but she had nothing to do, and was glad to have the light screened from her aching head, as she sat in bewildered, broken, sorrowful contemplation.She was at home.
Space may be cramped, but she is as distant from everyone as she ever was as a child at Mansfield. The only light is the candle held by her father, and she is screened from it by her father’s newspaper. Instead of creating a circle of light in which two might sit, the light illumines only one.
Fanny’s story is symbolized by this move from Portsmouth to Mansfield and back. She comes from the chaos and disorderliness of Portsmouth, and is formed into a young woman by Mansfield. Mansfield has the classic English virtues of repose, quietness, and stoic endurance. It is a country place in contrast to the bustling port city of Portsmouth. It takes the raw material of a Portsmouth and transforms it into a noble woman. The influence of place on character and even appearance is highlighted by Fanny’s contemplation of her mother’s looks during their walk to church:
Her poor mother now did not look so very unworthy of being Lady Bertram’s sister as she was but too apt to look. It often grieved her to the heart—to think of the contrast between them—to think that where nature had made so little difference, circumstances should have made so much, and that her mother, as handsome as Lady Bertram, and some years her junior, should have an appearance so much more worn and faded, so comfortless, so slatternly, so shabby.
That was Fanny’s future, but for the intervention of Mansfield Park. To this extent, the novel could be seen as a celebration of the values of the English nobility.
But all is not well at the Park either, and that is so largely because a third location is also thematically significant—London. Henry and Mary Crawford come to Mansfield Park from London, and bring London with them. London is the maker of manners, the Hollywood of early-nineteenth-century England, the pacesetter for all things fashionable—or so the Crawfords think. Mary cannot wait to get back to London, but in the meantime, she and her brother help to set up an outpost of London manners at Mansfield. The Crawfords desire for entertainment, their need for amusement, their impatience with old ways, and their eagerness always to be attempting some novelty infects the rest of the young people at Mansfield Park. Henry agrees to act because it is among those pleasures he has never had, and he talks persistently about “improvements” at Rushworth’s Sotherton and even at Edmund’s parish home in Thornton Lacey. London is a city of actors, full of people who, having no settled place in life, are constantly trying on some new role. One dimension of the conflict of the novel lies here: Who is to be the maker of manners? London? Or the Church?
Individualism arises from the detachment of breeding from true manners—symbolized by acting and by the influence of London values on the wealthy inhabitants of the Park. One of the most profound aspects of Austen’s novel is her rich and detailed depiction of two perfect individualists. Henry is thought plain by everyone, until his charming and flirtatious ways, as well as his large income, begin to inflame Maria’s and Julia’s imagination. Only Fanny remains convinced that he is quite plain. Mary is pretty and lively, and shows an immediate interest in Tom Bertram, though she shortly shifts attention to his brother Edmund. Henry’s manners are so good that Mrs. Grant, his sister, imputes to him all other good qualities, and, though initially finding him “plain and black,” the Bertram sisters are so taken by his manners that they decide that he is exceedingly good-looking. “Manners” here should be taken in the sense of flirtatious attentions, which Henry bestows in great measure. Henry’s “manners” in one sense are bad: he does not conduct himself well. But he is so adept at playing social roles that his manners in another sense please everyone—everyone but the perceptive Fanny, who takes time to look and think.
Henry’s behavior does not flow from or produce order and decorum; on the contrary, his conduct leads to continuous upheaval and chaos. Though elegant and rich, he is a Satan, who delights in the chaos that he causes. It is not merely that he has no “fixed role” and no “calling”; he refuses to recognize the “fixed fate” of others, and attempts to seduce them from their vocations. During one of his early conversations with his sister, he says that he prefers the engaged Maria Bertram to her younger sister Julia:
“An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged. She is satisfied with herself. Her cares are over, and she feels that she may exert all her powers of pleasing without suspicion. All is safe with a lady engaged; no harm can be done.”
This turns the purpose of an engagement upside down; engagement does not free the engaged woman to flirt without suspicion, but limits her relations with other men. Henry would turn engagement into disengagement.
Henry’s delight in chaos is even more explicit later, when he reflects on the fun the young people all had planning the play:
“I shall always look back on our theatricals with exquisite pleasure. There was such an interest, such an animation, such a spirit diffused! Everybody felt it. We were all alive. There was employment, hope, solicitude, bustle, for every hour of the day. Always some little objection, some little doubt, some little anxiety to be got over. I never was happier.”
Fanny silently condemns him: “Never happier than when behaving so dishonorably and unfeelingly!—Oh! what a corrupted mind!”
Another important dimension of Henry’s individualism is evident in a conversation later in the book, which significantly takes place during a game of “speculation.” Sir Thomas first begins to discern Henry’s attention to Fanny, and speculates about their future relationship; Fanny speculates about life at Mansfield after Edmund has left to take up his pastoral charge at Thornton Lacey; and Henry indulges in speculations of his own, mainly about the “improvements” that could be made to Edmund’s future home. Edmund will be satisfied to give the home “the air of a gentleman’s residence,” but Henry is not content with such minimal improvements:
“You may raise it into a place. From being the mere gentleman’s residence, it becomes, by judicious improvement, the residence of a man of education, taste, modern manners, good connections. All this may be stamped on it; and that house receive such an air as to make its own be set down as a great land-holder of the parish, by every creature traveling the road.”
Henry is still insisting on “improvements” that would make Edmund’s pastoral home into something other than it is. More than that, Henry is still conspiring with his sister, in this case not to snare Fanny but to snare Edmund. While Henry speaks, Mary has been speculating about going with Edmund to his new home, but is shocked when she is “no longer able, in the picture she had been forming of a future Thornton, to shut out the church, sink the clergyman, and see only the respectable, elegant, modernized, and occasional residence of a man of independent fortune.” Henry and Mary are interested in the parish home at Thornton only so long as they can remove the parish.
Even after he has declared his intention to settle down and marry Fanny, Henry does not grasp the significance of that decision. This point is again made in a conversation dealing with Edmund’s calling. After Henry has read a passage from Shakespeare to good effect, he and Edmund discuss the importance of clerical reading. Edmund agrees that “distinctness and energy” in reading “may have weight in recommending the most solid truths.” But Henry’s treatment of the subject reduces liturgical reading and preaching to another form of acting:
“A sermon, well delivered, is more uncommon even than prayers well read. A sermon, good in itself, is no rare thing. It is more difficult to speak well than to compose well; that is, the rules and tricks of composition are oftener an object of study. A thoroughly good sermon, thoroughly well delivered, is a capital gratification. I can never hear such a one without the greatest admiration and respect, and more than half a mind to take orders and preach myself. There is something in the eloquence of the pulpit, when it is really eloquence, which is entitled to the highest praise and honor.”
Sermonizing is another “role” that Henry would dearly love to play (since it would be new), so long as he could preach only to educated congregations. And not too often: preaching occasionally would suit, but “not for a constancy; it would not do for a constancy.” But constancy, perseverance, a long obedience in one direction—this, of course, is precisely the difference between acting a role and accepting a role as a vocation. When Henry realizes that Fanny has noted his objection to “constancy,” Fanny replies: “I thought it a pity you did not always know yourself as well as you seemed to do at that moment.” Henry is addicted to novelty and will try anything new because it is new.
Mary Crawford is the female version of her brother, an actress and opportunist. Her character is established in part by contrast with Fanny. One particularly striking example is found in Book 2 (chapter 22), during a conversation in which Fanny rhapsodizes on the beauties of evergreens. Fanny is commenting on the wonderful changes that have taken place in the grounds at Mansfield Park, and this leads her into an astonished meditation on memory:
“How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind! . . . If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control!—we are to be sure a miracle every way—but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.”
This is a striking statement in many ways: it is a celebration of memory worthy of Augustine, whose Confessions remains the classic on the subject. The “past finding out” is clearly a biblical or liturgical reference that indicates that Fanny is attributing the mystery of memory to God. But the most striking thing about this statement is Mary’s reaction: “Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say.” Not only does Mary have no sense of the beauty of the creation or the wonders of the human mind. She simply has no memory; she is all and always new. An actor needs no memory of a past, since he can always adopt a new past at will; an individualist wants no past, since having a past would limit his choice of new roles in the present.
The Crawfords are also individualists in another, more subtle, but profound sense. In all her novels, Austen displays her assumption that moral life is always lived in community. We need others to guide and teach us, and several of Austen’s novels hinge on the ability of a woman to find a suitable mentor (Emma finds Knightley, Catherine Morland finds Henry Tilney). Living in community also means recognizing that our actions are not our own, but always affect others. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguished between different sorts of action on the basis of what they produce outside the actors:
Production (poesis) is different from action (praxis). . . and so the reasoned state that is capable of action is also different from that which is capable of production. Hence neither is included in the other; because action is not production, nor production action.
Though this seems innocent, it has tremendously broad implications. For Aristotle, ethics deals with action and not with production, and this means that the whole realm of arts and economic activity is outside the strict boundaries of the ethical. But the distinction rests on a fundamental mistake—namely, that our actions can be confined to ourselves, that we can engage in praxis without producing anything outside ourselves. However Aristotelian Austen was in other respects, she implicitly rejects Aristotle’s distinction between praxis (actions whose effects remain with the actor) and poesis (actions whose effects go beyond the actor), for she knows that every action is “poetic.”
Henry and Mary Crawford do not recognize the inherent poetry of life. They are individualists in the sense that they follow their own desires regardless of what authorities say or do. When Sir Thomas is away on business, they take part in a theatrical production, and in fact press for it, even though they are warned that the master of the house would disapprove, and even over the initial objections of Edmund, who is responsible for managing the house in his father’s absence. More subtly, they have no sense that their actions have consequences beyond the individual. When Henry runs away with Maria, now Mrs. Rushworth, Mary Crawford is still hoping that Edmund will want to marry her. She is utterly insensible to the fact that Henry’s scandal might affect her in any way.
This brings us to what is perhaps the central critical judgment against Mansfield Park—Fanny Price. In Whit Stillman’s intriguingly Austenesque film, Metropolitan, Tom Townsend, the young man from across town who has been befriended by the group of debutantes and preppies, is astonished when Audrey Rouget, the leading female character, reveals that she enjoys Mansfield Park. Everyone knows, Tom says, that Mansfield Park is the worst novel Jane Austen wrote, and nobody likes the book’s heroine, Fanny Price. Audrey, the moral center of the film and very much a Fanny Price character herself, protests simply, “I like Fanny Price.” It is later revealed that Tom has never read Mansfield Park, or anything else by Jane Austen for that matter. He prefers to read critics. At Audrey’s urging, Tom eventually reads some Austen and is delighted with it.
Tom certainly had his choice of critics to support his hostility to Mansfield Park and Fanny Price. To be sure, Mansfield Park has not always been as sharply criticized as it is today. During Austen’s lifetime, it vied with Pride and Prejudice as Austen’s best-loved novel. Even today, Tony Tanner perceptively (and, in my judgment, accurately) calls Mansfield Park one of the “most profound novels” of the nineteenth century. Yet the novel, and its heroine, have endured sharp attacks. Lord David Cecil said that Fanny was “a little wooden, a little charmless, and rather a prig.” Kingsley Amis was vicious: Fanny is “a monster of complacency and pride.” Another saw her as “the most terrible incarnation we have of the female prig-pharisee,” and C. S. Lewis found little to admire: Fanny has “nothing except rectitude of mind; neither passion, nor physical courage, nor wit, nor resource.” Others have suggested that Fanny makes a fatal mistake in rejecting the vivacious, interesting, and very rich Henry Crawford in favor of the dull and stiff clergyman Edmund Bertram.
These attacks on Fanny show that their authors are as incapable of seeing her qualities as Mrs. Norris is, and indeed incapable of following Austen’s clear directions for judging Fanny. It is often pointed out that of all of Austen’s heroines, Fanny is one of only two (Anne Elliot is the other) who is not treated with irony, who does not make any serious misjudgment, whose behavior is always supported by the narrator. Elizabeth Bennet willfully misjudges Darcy, Emma misjudges everything, Catherine Morland is for most of Northanger Abbey too ignorant to form judgments, and even the sensible Elinor Dashwood collects enough mistakes to fill a small cupboard. Unless we are to suspect Austen of a hyper-ironic stance where Austen’s lack of irony toward Fanny is a way of reinforcing irony, then we should accept at face value that Austen considers Fanny morally and intellectually exemplary.
To be sure, Fanny—physically weak, easily fatigued, often painfully shy and backward, with little wit—suffers in many respects by comparison to the other characters in the book. She is indeed an unusual heroine. Mary Crawford is thoroughly her brother’s sister, full of wit and life and sparkle, a secular angel who charms Edmund Bertram by playing the harp. Julia and Maria Bertram, Edmund’s sisters, are more accomplished than Fanny. Of the male characters, Edmund is surely the least immediately attractive. Not only Henry, but Tom Bertram, Edmund’s wastrel older brother, and John Yates, the fervent actor, seem more interesting. Rushworth, who marries Maria, is a dolt cut from the same cloth as Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, but his very doltishness makes him fun to read about. In such a company, Edmund and Fanny are definitely not the standouts.
Yet given Austen’s clear signals that they are the most moral and the central characters in the book, we have to say that this contrast is deliberate, and, further, that critics who side with the Crawfords against Edmund and Fanny are falling into the same trap as those Blakean critics who think that Milton was on the devil’s side without knowing it. No doubt other characters are more immediately and superficially brilliant—but that is just the point. Austen wants our judgments about her characters to be shaped by the principles they display, not by their ability to charm. Charm deceives, and many are the critics who are taken in by it. Fanny’s weakness and immobility are also part of the point. She shares much with classic Christian heroines like Constance in Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale,” who are heroines of perseverance. When Fanny refuses to marry Henry, these are precisely the issues in play. She distrusts Henry’s character and his principles, and her heart is already committed to Edmund. Consistent with this perseverance, Fanny spends much of the novel in a single location, Mansfield Park, while many of the other characters come and go, and in several scenes, Fanny sits in the center of a swirl of activity. This is not a fault. Her very immobility, her stillness in a world running after vanity, makes her a heroine. She has a fixed fate, and she accepts it with gratitude. As she says during the controversy over the theatrical production, “I cannot act.” She is a still point in a turning world.
Edmund Bertram is also a man with a “fixed fate,” an assigned role. He is destined to be a clergyman, much to the astonishment of Mary Crawford, who thinks that clergymen are “nothing.” Several of the key conversations in the novel are concerned with the issue of calling, the role of the clergy in the nation, and the contrast between the clergy of London and the clergy in the rest of England. The quotation from Edmund above is part of his defense of the indispensability of the Church for the health of the nation, and the illness that the upper classes of the novel are suffering is symbolized by the neglected and vacant chapel at Rushworth’s Sotherton. Mary expresses the modern secularist mind-set: When told that morning prayers have been discontinued at Sotherton, she smiles and says, “Every generation has its improvements.” Improvements again!
Edmund’s calling lends an almost allegorical tone to the story. Edmund, the future guardian of morals, is attracted to the flashy novelty of Mary Crawford of London, and fails for some time to see her true character. Choosing this temptress would lead him far from his calling and, because the clergy are the protectors of morals, would contribute by omission to the decline of English morals. Eventually, however, he chooses the modest and moral Fanny Price. He is set up to choose between Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly, between the true Church and the false. (If there is a meta-irony in Mansfield Park, it is not that Austen secretly mocks Fanny; it is rather that Austen, the ironist, the realist, the literalist, is in the end Bunyan’s blood-sister.)
As noted above, when Austen talked about the purpose and theme of Mansfield Park, she said she was writing on the subject of ordination, with the related themes of vocation or calling. That referred of course to Edmund’s calling to be a clergyman and the temptation to abandon that vocation when Mary appears. The challenge before Edmund is to persevere in the role that he has been ordained to fill, and to resist the temptation to become an actor-individualist. And this is the same temptation that confronts Fanny. She has been “ordained” to love Edmund, and she must persevere through persistent temptations from Henry Crawford. Austen brings the two “vocations” of marriage and ordination into direct connection. While everyone is eagerly awaiting the Mansfield ball, Edmund has his mind on other things, being “deeply occupied in the consideration of the two important events now at hand, which were to fix his fate in life—ordination and matrimony.” If there is allegory here, it cuts both ways: not only must the shepherd resist the allurements of the false woman, but the bride must resist the advances of a charming but ultimately scurrilous suitor. Both must be faithful to their “fixed fates,” unmoved by tempter or temptress.
“Vocation” is set in direct contrast to “acting.” Both have to do with taking on or playing “roles,” but the meaning of “role” in the two cases is quite different. An actor might adopt many different roles, none of which defines who he is. Actors have no “fixed fate” in life. Thus, in contrast to the “actors” of the story, Edmund is “called” to a particular “vocation.” Though, as he emphasizes to Mary, he has chosen to pursue the ministry, in a more profound sense he has been chosen. And his role is determined not by the whims of the moment but by assuming a particular position within English society, a position established by the ritual of ordination, which determines the role he is going to play. He is not free to choose another “role” tomorrow. For a called man or woman, his or her role is not a mask that can be removed at will. The mask sticks so closely to his face as to be permanent. The health of Mansfield, of England, depends on which path is chosen, on whether the next generation chooses to be “actors” or to accept “ordination.”
Both Fanny and Edmund are tempted to give up their “fixed fates” and become “actors,” and this is symbolized by their day at Sotherton. The geography of the walk at Sotherton is important. The immediate grounds of the house are bounded by a wall and a gate, and then the “wilderness,” a wooded and wilder area. During this walk in the “wilderness,” Miss Crawford attempts to dissuade Edmund about his clerical calling. It is a kind of temptation scene, in a garden-wilderness, with Mary herself as the forbidden fruit. Austen adds another touch to indicate just how dangerous a position Edmund is in: the entire conversation takes place off the “great path” in the “serpentine” path of the wilderness walk. Edmund is tempted to give up his clerical “role” for another; he is tempted to become an actor, to leave the great path that is fated for him.
The denouement of the book comes through a series of letters, which completely unveil the Crawfords as the unthinking individualists that they are. When Tom Bertram becomes seriously ill, Mary writes to express the hope that the Bertram fortune will now fall into Edmund’s more deserving possession. She is willing to accept a clergyman husband, so long as he is sufficiently wealthy and potentially stylish. Even when Henry runs away with Maria Rushworth, Mary thinks that there is no barrier to her continuing connection with Edmund. Mary describes Henry and Maria as “foolish,” and the mildness of that judgment offends Edmund: “No harsher name than folly given—so voluntarily, so freely, so coolly to canvass it!—no reluctance, no horror, no feminine—shall I say? no modest loathings!—This is what the world does.” Newly ordained pastor that he is, Edmund is surely using “world” in its fullest biblical sense; worldliness leads only to disaster.
The tour at Sotherton is also important for seeing how Austen diagnoses the ills at Mansfield Park, for seeing how Austen treats the sources of disruptive individualism. As Maria says with pride, the town church is well situated at a distance from the house: “The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the Great House as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible.” The church is acknowledged only for its contribution to the aesthetics of the town; so long as it does not intrude too closely on the life of the Great House, all is well. Every generation has its improvements, as Mary might say. Similarly, the chapel is remarkable for being “fitted up as you see it, in James the Second’s time,” and because at one time “the linings and cushions of the pulpit and family-seat were only purple cloth.” In short, “it is a handsome chapel.” And that is all.
It is in this chapel that the first conversation about clerical office begins. Fanny believes that a family at regular prayer is part of “what such a household should be,” but Mary disagrees: “It is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects.” Even in politics, Mary is an individualist, defending liberty of conscience in religious matters. She is shocked, then, to learn that Edmund intends to be ordained, and even more shocked that he should have chosen the Church as a profession: “A clergyman is nothing,” she says, referring to his social standing. Edmund gives a spirited defense of the essential place of the clergy in the nation:
“A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the tone in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally—which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the office nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by forgoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.”
Mary cannot believe that the clergy have such weight, since one sees any of them “so rarely out of his pulpit.” But here the contrast of London and the rest of England comes into play, as Edmund insists that a proper clergyman is not merely a pulpiteer:
“A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighborhood, where the parish and neighborhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct, which in London can rarely be the case.”
Several things are happening in this conversation. Clearly, Austen’s sympathies are with Edmund, who speaks in tones not unlike his great namesake, Edmund Burke. Edmund’s choice is for a high calling, one that does indeed direct the manners and conduct of the nation. Sotherton is “improving,” and closing the chapel is one of these improvements. But a house so improved is destined to fall, and Sotherton will fall resoundingly before the end of the novel. Moreover, Mary’s worldliness, her sense of being on the cutting edge of social evolution, is undercut here with sharp irony. She believes that in knowing London she knows the world: “The metropolis, I imagine, is a pretty fair sample of the rest,” and that means if a clergyman is nothing in London he is nothing anywhere. On the contrary, Edmund argues, London is a very small and very special world; knowing London does not give Mary knowledge of the world. It is provincial and parochial. Especially here, the thematic conflict of the novel takes center stage: London versus the Church.
Of course, the perversion of the nobility at Mansfield Park is not altogether London’s fault. Even before Henry and Mary arrive, it is clear that something is amiss. Good breeding and good conduct have already been separated, as Sir Thomas has singularly failed to pass on his own sense of propriety and morals to his children. Maria and Julia are well educated “in everything but disposition,” and though they mock Fanny for not knowing the “principal rivers in Russia,” they are “entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility,” all subjects in which Fanny excels. Tom, the eldest Bertram, is even worse, a ne’er-do-well who has none of his father’s sense of responsibility for the moral climate of the Bertram house or for the repute of the Bertram name. In part, Austen is focusing attention on the collapsing morals of the upper classes of England. Mansfield Park’s cast of characters is socially much higher than the characters in Austen’s other novels. Henry and Mary have been exceedingly rich for some years, Rushworth has £12,000, the Bertrams have no monetary wants or cares. Put energetic young people in a house, remove adult restraint, stir in vast sums of money: that, Austen thinks, is a recipe for trouble.
Sir Thomas recognizes too that “this is what the world does.” He recognizes the failures of his parenting of his daughters:
Something had been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting, that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers, by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice.
Like the Rushworth family, Sir Thomas had, symbolically if not in fact, discontinued the prayers that make a house, and left the chapel disused and empty. Without a guardian, without a pastor or guide, his daughters had fallen in with “how the world goes.”
Nearly seduced by the world, nearly led astray by the world to abandon his vocation and become a mere actor, Edmund in the end accepts his calling. “I cannot act,” Fanny says, and indeed she cannot, and neither can Edmund. In the end, they both accept, gratefully, their ordained roles, their “fixed fate.”
Austen was not an unthinking defender of traditional social order. Not uncommonly, her heroines are upwardly mobile, particularly through the agency of matrimony. Yet she sensed the corrosive effects of individualism, and her uncanny intelligence and attention to the details of social surface enabled her to give us one of literature’s sharpest portraits of this emerging reality. That she also recognized the absence and failure of the Church in combating this decay makes her a public theologian to reckon with.
Peter J. Leithart is Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow. This article is adapted from his book Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen, forthcoming from Canon Press.