'God made the country, man made the town' or the 'Active' Rich Lady and Her Harp

This is written partly in response to Nan LoBue's posting. The line is again from Cowper's The Task. First I agree that a city or town versus country perspective operates very strongly in MP. In the scene between Edmund and Mary over the hay we are to take her comments as those of a city-dweller or seemingly sophisticated urbanite who is really very ignorant about some of the bases of existence.

This is again an important dialogue (there seem to be so many). Let us recall that Mary Crawford has a regular income which she derives from money. Where does she get this money? She may have it in the funds, but her original inheritance is probably based on land and that means rents. Where do these rents come from? Peasants and farmers--the people who she laughs at because they are so ridiculous as not to allow her a cart to carry her harp in. She is irritated they are angry at her. But she is not unwilling to take the cream off the money they make on that hay and must make to pay their rents. If they don't pay their rents, they are evicted. If she doesn't get her harp for a few weeks, she can amuse herself some other way. She can wait; as Edmund says, the hay can't.

I would agree that the emphasis of the scene is on Mary as a city-dweller versus Edmund as a country-man. But what Mary is ignorant of is agricultural work, what life in the country demands. The money angle is important in understanding what Austen is getting at: Mary brings it up herself. She would have thought money "well-tim'd and properly apply'd" (that's from The Beggars's Opera) buys anything--and this is meant to make us see her as ignorant and uncaring about the hard work of the world which supports. What I am trying to get at is Austen goes beyond the simple cant of country=good and city=bad. Yes the city-dweller is shown to be one who is cut off from simpler ways, from nature, the natural landscape, his or her roots in tradition. But Mary is also ignorant of the basis of ordinary existence upon which she too depends (compare for example Fanny who wants to know about the slave trade from her uncle).

There's another conversation where the same opposition between city and country is brought forward, and this time we get another aspect. I refer to Mary's conversation with Mrs Grant a bit later in the book where Mary assumes that the life of a city-dwelling housewife must be easier than that of the country-dweller because the city-dweller can go to the poulter's and not have her own turkeys plucked; Mrs Grant differs and says, no the vexations of city and country life are different, but both are irksome and tedious. Again a value is placed on country knowledge and disillusioned realization of how an individuals desires have always to be limited by the real world, a lowering if you will of pride and expectations of what pleasure or content any world offers us.

Finally late in the book when Edmund turns up to London he and Mary find themselves estranged. I think Austen has so set up their relationship in London that we could say that if Maria had not run off with Henry, Mary and Edmund might not have married anyway, and if they had they would have made one another very unhappy. In a later conversation (in just a couple of chapters) we see how different they are as to values (he's the country parson and she the one who values style, prestige, uniform, and cares nothing for doing any work in the world for real, doesn't believe anyone does that for its own sake at all); but at the close of the book we are told that at the houses of her city friends, Mary was arrogant and cold to Edmund, offhandishness and anything but friends in public with him. She is embarrassed because he is a clergyman, grateful he doesn't wear a collar. She doesn't want him to be him. Edmund in fact begins to think she does love him--and never did. We are to believe that Mary's values are the result of her city upbringing and her behavior once she leaves Mansfield Park is the result of the influence not only of her friends but of the corrupt city itself.

Now one may say this is naive. I would agree. But this belief that the country is superior to the city is central to novel's vision, and lies behind the use of Mansfield Park as an Arcadia. It may be intermixed with corruption, based on the hard labor of others, but it is at least as a place to grow up in, live in, free of the sophisticated courtly (and therefore false it is implied) manners and the intrigues of the Crawfords--as well as the implied sordid maneuvrings for money. Under the aegis of Sir Thomas Mansfield Park is a place where order, peace, comfort, and apparent respect for one another can be depended upon. The point of this week's chapters is the plan to ruin Sotherton with a new and false sophistication as understood by the empty-headed Rushworth who would cut down trees which took generations to grow.

Ellen Moody

Then in response to Dorothy Gannon I wrote:

RE: The City Versus Country Opposition in Austen

In response to Dorothy, I'd like to say that what I meant by naive was that it seems to me Austen does condone or suggest that the city itself corrupts Mary, and insofar as Austen really thinks this it takes away from the unsentimental nature of her book. It is sentimental to think people in the country are somehow more moral than people in the city. I do agree with Susan Faust that this theme can be found in other of Austen's novels but it seems to me strongest in MPwhere it is used to bolster Austen's opposition between the top couple, Edmund and Fanny, and the second couple, Henry and Mary. It's not enough that the first pair are presented dramatically and from within as serious and sober, with deep feelings, integrity and compassion (&c&c) and the second as frivolous and charming, but much shallower, unthinking of any harm their conquests may do to others, without any inner life that they can measure themselves by and act upon alone, or without the adventitious encouragement of someone else (Henry really looks to Fanny to encourage him to do good at Portsmouth--he is swayable); no Edmund and Fanny must be connected to the country, brought up there, and Henry and Maria connected to the city, and have their downfall (together with Maria Bertram) there.

Ellen Moody

Finally when we discussed the above chapter on Litalk, Sara Gadeken talked of Mary Crawford as someone who was helpless and poverty-stricken simply on the basis that she is a woman and argued that Mary is active and therefore admirable and Fanny passive and therefore somewhat contemptible. RE: MP, Vol I, Ch 6:

I beg to differ on Mary Crawford's economic impoverishment. Mary Crawford has 2000l per year. To marry Edmund is to marry down, and there is a dialogue between her and Henry in which she is delighted to see Henry is going to marry way down (Fanny) because it makes her condescension more palatable. The reason she does not live alone is it is not done. Mary is controlled by custom, but custom favors her. It is Fanny who has nothing and is no-one.

As to the playacting it's mean and awful in the spirit of it. Everyone is ugly in their use of the play. Activity is not in itself admirable. What we see in the playacting is activity in the service of vanity, of triumph over other people (who gets what role is the what everyone is interested in, and it almost stops the playacting, human beings being what they are), in the service of abuse of sexual vulnerabilities and appetite (as in Henry Crawford's case) and jeering (at Rushworth). And let us not forget Mrs Norris and her green curtains complete with their festoons. She gets to take that home. It is all selfish and mostly mean behavior at every point. Hearts of iron is what these characters have. The whole train of this coming week's scenes is one of continual vexation, unhappiness, and frustration. Honesty and sincerity are out the door. Kindness is nowhere to be found--except in Fanny and towards Rushworth and Julia.

There are times when not to act is goodness. Not to be coopted.

The precise choice of play itself is also distasteful in what it brings out in most of the people and what it leads to once the characters are divvied up. This play, as I suggested, writes large in front of our eyes what is worst or what is the truth beneath the veneer of politeness in many of the characters who participate in it. As Hamlet watching the play, learns, so we watching this play learn too--about Henry Crawford especially. The play is his instrument to betray two women and to display Rushworth for his amusement. They get to expose Edmund's weakness for Mary. What fun that is. Of course they keep their grins to the corners of their mouths. Nice of them.

And Fanny does act--she helps everyone else, listens to their misery, supports them, sorrows for them, knows everyone's lines, prompts everyone; she even endures watching the man she loves make love to another woman. It is Mrs Norris who accuses Fanny of doing nothing. Those who similarly accuse Fanny are on the side of Mrs Norris--that implacable work ethic which sees merit only in personal aggrandizement in the world's eyes.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003