A Novel One of Whose Themes is Ordination

Although in a letter to Cassandra, Jane Austen's brief comment: "Now I will try to write of something else;--it shall be a complete change of subject-- Ordination" (Complete Letters, Le Faye, p 202) occurs in a paragraph whose other details refer to MP (she asks whether "Northamptonshire is a Country of Hedgerows"), and after a paragraph on her "delightful" Elizabeth and Pride and Prejudice, critics have felt uncomfortable in applying the remark to MP because ordination seems but one theme of many in the book. People would have preferred her to have said "a complete change of mood--one of whose subjects is ordination," but she wasn't writing to us, and I would say ordination is at least an important theme in the book.

It is in fact through Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram's opposed attitudes towards ordination that Austen expresses a traditional world view which (in Mary Evans's words in Jane Austen and the State) in which Austen deplores "the aggressive conservatism of contemporary monetarism," "ruthless self-interest" and is closer to the ideals of socialism. In the long and significant conversation before us in Chapter 22 Edmund is led to defend and Mary to attack Edmund's choice of profession. As in their previous conversations we find once again he finds the life of a clergyman to be a worthy useful important vocation, and she disdains it as one without large monetary rewards. She says they would not be not respected for real by the powerful and rich in society, and scorns the modest life in the country that as a married couple they would have to lead in the country in order for him to give daily hours to helping other people of all economic classes. Again what she more frankly than ever and bitingly asserts is what she wants is a luxurious life among the richest and most powerful in a city full of entertainment with people one can hire to do all the work. Duckworth says that throughout her books Austen supports a "political vision in the 'communal economy of the traditional world" and shows "contempt" for the kind of selfish materialism and adulation of prestige (in whatever form it comes) for the Thatcher-like "ideology of individual freedom" and "liberal [meaning laissez-faire] political economy which has become the reigning accepted rule of our day (Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate, p xii).

What's interesting about this particular dialogue though is that unlike the others the two lock horns so sharply that we can see why morally Mary's is the choice which would demand that both of them cast aside all moral scruples at the outset. Edmund's choice stands for drawing a line and saying there are some things I will not do for money, and it's at that place that Mary breaks off because she is not willing to admit that in order for someone like Edmund to "rise to distinction" he will have to do things that not simply are inimicable to his nature and his highest ideals but will ask that he take from others regardless of the moral consequences to them what they have so he can have it. Mary's argument is basically an accusation: she sneers at him as a hypocrite and coward, and says everyone wants as much wealth as they can command, and anyone who sticks at anything they might have to do to get it is to be "looked down upon:" "I must look down upon any thing contented with obscurity when it might rise to distinction" (Chapman II:4, 213-4). It is impossible to refute a sneer except by suddenly being earnest and frank taking an issue to its crux. So he asks, "how may it [obscurity] rise to distinction?" How is this done in this our world? To this she only registers embarrassment and says he is so good with words he ought to have gone into "Parliament" or maybe "the army ten years ago" (214)

William Price is presented as a simple kind of young man who does not ask himself serious moral questions. He dreams of promotion, and we are told that in his fancies when he replaces the first lieutenant he is not very kind to the man next to him, i.e., he imagines him "popping" off as Tom so lightly puts his hopes that Edmund will eventually have a double income. In fact the kind of careless unscrupulous behavior we see in Tom (which has resulted in a significant loss of income to Edmund which is part of the reason that Mary hesitates to marry him) is echoed by Mary when she writes her letter to Fanny asking if Tom is about "to pop off" (I:3, 24) because then Edmund does become a man she would marry. We accept this behavior in William because it is so unconscious; we accept it in Tom because he is shallow; we are led not to accept it in Mary because she understands just what she is about. That is why her letter to Fanny inquiring whether Tom will die is so ugly; she salivates because she gets it fully. William, by contrast, does not ask what these battles are about, who is being killed and why, what the prizes are for. He accepts with a kind of bright sunniness that to gain honor is to shed blood and thinks no more about it than how grand and adventurous and exciting it is, and "come Fanny look at my uniform" is as much as he can articulate because he doesn't think much. His basic instincts are good, but he is an instrument the world will use--to for example, uphold slavery. But like Mary Edmund can think and would refuse to act unscrupulously, ruthlessly, which is what the morality of this book is about.

Morality in Austen is not just a matter of sex, and it certainly not about whether we are having a good time or not which seems to be the standard of measurement for some of the members of this list. This is the talk of a child who looks no further than the laugh of the present hour. MP is a book for adults. The subject of ordination may be regarded as a kind of litmus test, but the attitudes towards it as displayed by Mary and Edmund are played upon and presented again and again over different matters and in different contexts. For example, in the third of this week's chapters we have Henry and Mary's dialogue over whether he ought to take as his occupation--he would not "eat the bread of idleness," no, not he--the taksof "making a small hole in Fanny Price's heart" (II:6,229-32). What really fascinates me about this dialogue is how Mary has no real compunction about allowing Henry to wound Fanny perhaps as permanently as we have just seen him wound Maria Bertram. She laughs lightly over the "moderation" of what he desires to see Fanny do for him at his slightest approach. It is an amusement; the language of the pair of them is close in tone and even in what's meditated to that of Valmont and Madame de Merteuil as they plot his seduction of the innocent heroine of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Mary Crawford with her "French" sensibilty" is the grandmother or ancestress of Madame Merle in James's A Portrait of the Lady. That Mary has no loyalty to women as a woman is underlined for us when she tells Fanny on Henry's behalf much later in the book that "very few young ladies have any affection worth caring for" (III:5, 363). I am always amazed when feminists defend Mary; she would have had Fanny leap like a famished dog at Henry's offer. Like Lady Bertram she thinks all women ought to sell themselves simply to the bidder with the deepest pockets.

The conversation between Henry and Mary over Fanny echoes the conversation between Edmund and Mary because in both Mary refuses to look at the consequences of what she is prepared to countenance. She refuses to see that for one person to triumph often means another will be destroyed. With Edmund who is so careful and moral it is the probability down the road he therefore will not take; with Henry is the the game at hand. The narrator too tells us that Fanny was susceptible; the narrators underlines this by ironically referring to those "unconquerable ladies of eighteen" who we read about in novels; "doubtless" there are such, but Fanny is not one of them (232). What keeps her "heart-whole" is the painful secret she keeps locked up in that aching heart of hers: her love for Edmund guards her (as Emma's love for Knightley had guarded her against Frank Churchill). That MP is a novel whose mood differs strongly from that of P&P no-one will dispute. It is also a novel in which Austen writes of "Ordination," a vocation which has reference to God and when sincerely earnesly carried out (as Edmund and his father intend for him to do--he will work as hard in his way as William). It about a choice of life. Are you willing to live a life and make your choices with respect to the good of the people around you? or is it just an amusement in which all seek the pleasure of triumph--Mary through that glittering salon in London she asserts is what she wants Edmund at least to try to obtain for her, Henry through making women do whatever he wishes in order to bask in his smiles. William and Tom's choices and personalities fit into the scheme. So does Fanny who regards Maria's marriage to Rushworth with abhorrence, who reciprocates what is done for her, but who refuses to marry Henry not only because she has no affection for him, but because she has observed how cruel he can be, and only begins to turn towards him when he begins to display the communal virtues of a landlord who cares for his estate, his tenants, and shows an ability to understand how to be kind and decent to all the people around him who, given his wealth and intelligence, are more vulnerable than he. And he does show such an ability. But that is another post.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003