Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lessons from Mansfield Park

Bitterly did he deplore a deficiency which now he could scarcely comprehend to have been possible.  Wretchedly did he feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters without their understanding their first duties, or his being acquainted with their character and temper.

Jane Austen wrote Mansfield Park just one year after finishing Pride and Prejudice, but the two novels are strikingly different--most notably in their protagonists.  Fanny Price couldn't create a greater contrast to Elizabeth Bennett.  

That is why, in fact, Mansfield Park is frequently ranked least popular among readers of Austen.  Reserved, passive, timid, vulnerable, and physically weak, Fanny doesn't seem to possess the qualities of a heroine.  Yet, having now read both books, it is she I would much rather emulate, even over the charming and witty Elizabeth Bennett.

By all appearances, Fanny Price was the least fortunate--and least important--person residing at Mansfield Park.  Fanny, the eldest child of a large family, was taken in by her rich uncle, Sir Thomas, and his wife, Lady Bertram, to relieve her impoverished parents of an extra mouth to feed.

Upon her arrival, it was made perfectly clear that Fanny's position at Mansfield Park was one of lower standing, especially when ranked beside Sir Thomas's children: Tom (an irresponsible gambler), Edmund (a morally upstanding young man bound for holy orders), and sisters Maria and Julia (well-mannered and talented, but spoiled and lacking strong principles).  Fanny, naturally docile and reticent, accepted her standing, anxious to serve and please her new family, without harboring resentment for her mistreatment.  

Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last...

Originally pining for the home she left, Fanny acclimated herself to Mansfield Park with the help of Edmund, who was the one individual who offered her friendship and concern, and who advocated on her behalf.  As the children became young adults, Fanny was scared to recognize the secret lying in her heart: she loved Edmund.

When Sir Thomas sets sail for Antigua and the stern and stringent master of the home is absent, the stage is set for trouble to brew.  There are two new residents of Mansfield Park, come to live with their sister at the parsonage.  Henry and Mary Crawfield hail from London, bringing along with them a secular outlook, city fashion, and penchant for flirtation.

A series of romantic entanglements inevitably occur.  Henry soon wins the affection of both Maria and Julia Bertram--always offering enough attention to convince each he is interested, but never pursuing either directly enough to socially commit himself.  Maria, engaged to the foolish but incredibly wealthy Mr. Rushworth, becomes increasingly in love with Henry.  Meanwhile, Edmund is captivated by Mary Crawford's charm and wit, which blind him to her faults.  

Fanny, the silent observer, possesses keen insight into a person's character and quickly becomes wary of the Crawfords.

The sisters [Maria and Julia], handsome, clever, and encouraging, were an amusement to his [Henry's] sated mind; and finding nothing in Norfolk to equal the social pleasures of Mansfield, he gladly returned to it by the time appointed, and was welcome thither quite as gladly by those whom he came to trifle with farther...Fanny was the only one of the party who found anything to dislike...

When Tom and his friend suggest that everyone put on a play, all these emotions and attractions are soon on blatant display.  Edmund and Fanny both resist the idea of acting, especially considering that the play selection is morally inappropriate and places the actors in comprising positions (for example, Maria and Henry embrace as "mother" and "son").  Edmund later succumbs to the plan, not wanting a stranger to play Mary's love interest.  And so, he takes the role himself.

Interestingly, though the characters are all "acting" onstage, it is in these stage roles they can be more honest than in real life.  It is off-stage that they act in their relationships with each other.  Maria cannot act upon her feelings toward Henry Crawford because it is socially and morally wrong, as she is engaged to another man.  But on stage, it is perfectly permissible; there is a different set of rules here.  There are no rules, and that is what makes  it so dangerous.

It is only Fanny who resists joining the play.

...had she received even the greatest [role in the play], she could never have been easy in joining a scheme which, considering only her uncle, she must condemn altogether.

Fanny's greatest test comes from an unexpected source.  Maria Bertram, pride wounded from failing to receive what was an expected proposal from Henry Crawford, married Mr. Rushworth.  The Rushworths, along with Julia Bertram, moved to London.  Henry Crawford, always the flirt, set his sights on the sole remaining woman at Mansfield Park: Fanny Price.  It was a fantastic challenge: could he woo the upright, noble Fanny?  Could he capture her heart?

In an ironic twist of fate, in his pursuit of Fanny, it is Henry himself who falls in love.  Once Henry truly studied Fanny and acquainted himself with her personality and nature, he realized her beauty, value, and allure.  And so, quickly enraptured by her in a way unlike anything he had previously experienced, Henry was determined to attach himself to her and commit--until "death do us part."

Fanny was stupefied and believed him to be playing a cruel joke.  But when she realized his genuineness, she found herself in a terrible predicament.  For Sir Thomas, such a match was ideal.  Ignorant of the previous misbehavior between his daughter and Henry, Sir Thomas felt Mr. Crawford would be a perfectly wonderful husband for Fanny.  She would have everything she could need; the world would be open to her.

Fanny knew her uncle's wishes.  She wanted to please him and prove herself grateful for his generosity, as well as obedient.  She thought of her family, struggling financially, and what a marriage to such an affluent man would mean for them.  

And yet she knew his character.  As heartfelt his declarations, she doubted the faithfulness that lay beneath.  She knew her own heart, too, and that it harbored no love for this man, but only for another.  

Though everyone she knew encouraged the match, though no one understood or agreed with her judgment, Fanny refused Mr. Crawford's offer.  

...she trusted, in the first place, that she had done right, that her judgment had not misled her; for the purity of her intentions she could answer; and she was willing to hope, secondly, that her uncle's displeasure was abating, and would abate farther as he considered the matter with more impartiality, and felt, as a good man must feel, how wretched, and how unpardonable, how hopeless and how wicked it was, to marry without affection. 

It is Fanny's heroic moment and, for a time afterward, she incurs punishment for it.  Her uncle is displeased.  He sends her back to her family, to live with them for a few months and endure first-hand the poor conditions in which she would live, if she were to still resist the offer of the affluent Mr. Crawford.  

Yet, in the end, Fanny's judgment is proven true.  Henry Crawford and Maria commit adultery and run off together, causing a tremendous scandal in the Bertram family.  Mary Crawford condemns their lack of secrecy--as opposed to the evil act itself--and thus Edmund's eyes are opened to her real nature.  As he later explained to Fanny,

No, her's [Miss Crawford's] is not a cruel nature.  I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings.  The evil lies yet deeper; in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings, in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did.  She was speaking only, as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined every body else would speak.  Her's are not faults of temper.  She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to any one, and though I may deceive myself, I cannot but think that for me, for my feelings, she would--Her's are faults of principle, Fanny, of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind.

Mary Crawford's flaw is a fault of principle; Fanny's advantage is a strength of principle.  

This is where I see the greatest lesson from Mansfield Park.  What is it that truly matters in the formation of one's character, in how a child is raised?  It isn't knowledge of history or science, nor is it talent in music or art.  It isn't charm, but constancy.  

Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout, who has been consistent.

The goal in forming a child is to help him or her know the right principles and stay the course, no matter the storm.  Mary had the charm; Fanny had the constancy.  In the end, it is Fanny--once the least important person--whose virtue and principles elevate her to be the most important person at Mansfield Park.

Fanny seems the inactive character, a passive observer, unwilling to take the stage (literally and figuratively).  But hers is an inner activity of discerning another's character correctly and resisting temptation in order to stay the course.  This is what makes her the hero. 

Fanny's lack of charm is crucial to Jane Austen's intentions.  For charm is the characteristically modern quality which those who lack or simulate the virtues use to get by in the situations of characteristically modern life...And the charm of an Elizabeth Bennett or even an Emma may mislead us, genuinely attractive though it is, in our judgment on their character.  Fanny is charmless; she has only the virtues, the genuine virtues, to protect her, and when she disobeys her guardian, Sir Thomas Bertram, and refuses marriage to Henry Crawford it can only be because of what constancy requires.  In so refusing she places the danger of losing her soul before the reward of gaining what for her would be the whole world. ~ Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

When Fanny returned to visit her family after so many years apart, she was astounded to realize the manner in which they lived: house disordered and people equally disordered in conduct.  

She might scruple to make use of the words, but she must and did feel that her mother was a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, whose house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort from beginning to end...

Fanny realized then the incredible blessing of her upbringing at Mansfield Park, which was in fact her true home.  But how was it that Fanny grew to be a woman of principle and virtue, and her cousin Maria--raised in the same household--not?  

Fanny's upbringing was one that included hardship and discipline at a very early age.  She never knew the doting and praise Maria constantly received from their Aunt Norris.  Both girls learned the order and decorum Mansfield Park taught, but it was Fanny who learned virtue through her suffering.  

Too late did Sir Thomas perceive his error when he realized the daughter he always yearned for was actualized in Fanny, not Maria.  Their aunt, Mrs. Norris, encouraged his daughter's vanity and indulgence; he himself, stern and distant to counteract this behavior, never acquainted himself with her real nature.

Here had been grievous mismanagement; but bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education.  Something must have 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.  To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments--the authorised object of their youth--could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind.  He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them. 

As my husband and I raise our children, we hope to make them well-educated and well-mannered.  But even more important is to form them as children of principle.

I would be happy if my Mary is as charming and witty as Elizabeth Bennett.  But I would be even happier if she is as virtuous and steadfast in principle as Fanny Price.