Mansfield Park is melting in the dark

I’ve been reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which, as far as I can tell, is mainly about the varieties of servitude that early 19th century life had to offer women in England. That is to say it’s about property, which is maybe why it’s named after an estate and not a person. But it’s also about rituals of attention, and the implications of servitude contained within them.

The main character, Fanny Price, is a poor relation more or less purchased by her rich relatives, the Bertrams. Brought to the Bertrams’ mansion as a child, she is then subject to serial humiliations meant to remind her of her social place while she is made over into an uncompensated servant who performs endless amounts of emotional labor (as well as running around and fetching things for her indolent aunt) without having the wherewithal to complain. In fact, she more often than not professes gratitude for her uprooted condition (rejected by her immediate family and, by and large, demeaned by her adoptive one); she has been carefully programmed to defeat the “servant problem” that even then plagued the country — no need to wait until Downton Abbey times a century later. (When Fanny returns to her parents’ house as an adult, her mother can talk of virtually nothing else but her inadequate servants; that even the “poor relations” had domestic servants is a reminder of how pervasive it was.)

But there are cracks beneath the surface of this convenient arrangement. Though extremely introverted and reflexively self-effacing, Fanny is also a judgmental prig (like most of Austen’s heroines, though Lionel Trilling in his essay on the novel singles her out as being impossible to like) sanctimoniously obsessed with other people’s expressions of proper piety, though we are given to believe that her love for her cousin Edmund, clergyman-to-be, has led her to adopt his reproving discernment. When she is not being bullied by her aunts, she spends her time silently monitoring her other cousins and their friends for their perceived lapses and eagerly sharing her contempt with Edmund to try to win his approval.

Basically Fanny is a seething cauldron of resentment, but because she is also beautiful, she is expected to be obedient and obliging when men ogle her. Edmund tells her this in unambiguous terms after her rich uncle returns from his Caribbean plantation.

“Your uncle thinks you very pretty, dear Fanny—and that is the long and the short of the matter. Anybody but myself would have made something more of it, and anybody but you would resent that you had not been thought very pretty before; but the truth is, that your uncle never did admire you till now—and now he does. Your complexion is so improved!—and you have gained so much countenance!—and your figure—nay, Fanny, do not turn away about it—it is but an uncle. If you cannot bear an uncle’s admiration, what is to become of you? You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at. You must try not to mind growing up into a pretty woman.”

She protests that she is trying to respond to her uncle’s enhanced attention. She tells Edmund, “But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?”  Well done, Jane Austen. Very subtle. But her beauty means that she belongs to the men it attracts; it’s not an asset but something that leaves her indebted for the attention it generates. Earlier in the book Austen uses the apt phrase “the simplest claims of conscious beauty” to describe the attention a woman tries to get through her looks — she must be aware of how she affects people because it creates a claim; it lends power and validation to her, but the loan must be repaid. Such compliments are always conditional in the world of this novel. They are always currency, never a gift. Such is the way of things in polite patriarchal society.

Mansfield Park left me with the impression that Austen dislikes not merely the “claims of conscious beauty” — fine ladies parading their distinction around — but the whole social process of people paying attention to other people, especially non-family members. It’s a coarseness imposed on women by marriage markets, but it seems to run deeper, into a condemnation of urbanity as a whole. (Trilling sets up a country vs. city interpretation in his essay, though he is a bit obtuse about the related class issues.) There is this weird contempt for the whole idea of making a public show of your attention grants; any time attention is deliberately paid, it’s represented as some sort of scheme. (Austen hated social media before there was such a thing.) Of course, that is the upshot of the long section of the book about the young people’s plan to put on a play; calling attention to yourself by going on a stage is wrong, even when you are playing a role, because people will see through that to your hidden desires, or worse, will see that you are nothing but a series of roles and have no soul, no core. If you don’t seek attention, no one can prove your phoniness to you, so you remain genuine and pure.

Fanny is always made uncomfortable by attention, which merely makes her think about how much she doesn’t deserve it — an apparently ingrained class-based inferiority complex. And the women in the novel who court attention are consistently shown up as shallow and immoral. Trilling sees this as Austen celebrating “social stasis,” though I am inclined to call Mansfield Park an anti–social networking novel. Sharing with other people only causes trouble; better to stare at a landscape instead, as Fanny prefers. It can’t objectify you. Instead the pathetic fallacy can make the whole world part of your own subjectivity.

This global distrust of attention-seeking possibly explains the bizarre section of the book where Henry Crawford, a wealthy bachelor, announces his intention to make Fanny fall in love with him for sport. It’s one of the few sections where we are not limited to Fanny’s consciousness, which makes it read as though it is her bizarre fantasy of what sort of cruel games a gregarious person like Crawford would enjoy playing. But when he is captured by his own game and falls in love with her in earnest, Fanny is expected to return his feelings automatically because he can more or less buy and sell the likes of her. Interestingly, with respect to the 18th century attitude toward absorption I wrote about in this previous post, he falls for her when he sees how engrossed she becomes in her brother when he visits:

He … saw, with lively admiration, the glow of Fanny’s cheek, the brightness of her eye, the deep interest, the absorbed attention, while her brother was describing any of the imminent hazards, or terrific scenes, which such a period at sea must supply.

It was a picture which Henry Crawford had moral taste enough to value. Fanny’s attractions increased—increased twofold; for the sensibility which beautified her complexion and illumined her countenance was an attraction in itself. He was no longer in doubt of the capabilities of her heart. She had feeling, genuine feeling. It would be something to be loved by such a girl, to excite the first ardours of her young unsophisticated mind! She interested him more than he had foreseen. A fortnight was not enough. His stay became indefinite.

That fits pretty well with what I was trying to get at the other day. It’s “sensibility” in action, doing what it does best, making a woman pretty. Absorption is the only way other people can see your sincerity, can visibly see the “warmth of your heart,” as they liked to put it then. It makes Crawford perfectly ignored by her and thus perfectly transcendent; he can gawk at her without worrying about her reciprocating or challenging him. Fanny can never know that he’s noticed her here because that will ruin the beauty of her absorption for everyone. Oh, and Austen stirs in some old feminine-ignorance-as-authenticity for good measure here too: absorption suggests naiveté, virginity — unlike that saucy knowingness. But the main point here is that attention is meant to be absorbed, not paid and not circulated. Then it’s truly beautiful. It’s all Austen feels comfortable allowing Fanny.

Not long after this, Crawford proposes, and naturally Fanny refuses him. This causes her uncle to go bonkers. He lectures her pitilessly:

I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence. But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse; that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you, without even asking their advice.

He goes on to say that she’ll likely never be so lucky to have a rich man like Crawford pay her any mind again and that she is an ingrate to be behaving as she does. She sulks about this for a while and doubts herself and her right to have independent feelings even if she doesn’t bother to express them openly (the problem is that her social dependence means her inner feelings get expressed no matter what as a part of the expectation she is always at others’ disposal). But when discussing matters with her moral rock, Edmund, she is driven to make this seditious speech, the essence of Austen’s sexual politics:

“I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by some one of her sex at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself … How, then, was I to be—to be in love with him the moment he said he was with me? How was I to have an attachment at his service, as soon as it was asked for?”

The expectation is that women on the marriage market do have for any eligible suitors “an attachment at his service.” That’s the only way such markets could work. The woman, as object for sale, must adapt her subjectivity to suit that condition and make herself feel what the reality of her situation has already demanded. The effort to remake herself internally ultimately helps make the value of herself as object higher. It becomes a bonus feature. Her feelings become a reified supplement to the total package she offers those shopping for a wife. Austen implicitly condemns all of this emotional servitude. Better to exert a radical stubbornness than to give up on the possibility of sincere attachments. But the sincere attachments end up being precisely the sort of bonds of servitude the novel everywhere else implicitly condemns.

Trilling argues that Austen is the first to capture “sincerity” in action as a moral issue and suggests that the modernity of this approach explains her lasting popularity. ” Yet we at times become aware of the terrible strain it imposes upon us,” he adds, “of the exhausting effort which the concept of personality requires us to make and of the pain of exacerbated sensitivity to others, leading to the disgust which is endemic in our culture.” In the years since Trilling wrote that, the exacerbation of sensitivity has only intensified. The saturation of the personal with the social (rather than the spiritual as in premodern times) has reached a new apotheosis, with marketers urgently insisting that consumer goods and services have “social” built into them. (That the word social is increasingly used as a noun is indicative of how it’s become a governing abstraction, like labor.) The ubiquity of the social makes concerns with personal authenticity both pointlessly parochial and inescapable at the same time. We have no Mansfield Park to escape to in order to retreat from the possibility of attention.