Portsmouth: Two Voices

Laurie Campbell has talked of how when she first read the Portsmouth episode she was "somewhat offended by JA's pygerception of Fanny's poor relations," but that returning to the text once again a considerable time later she feels rather "that Austen is mainly showing what situtations can do to a person's personality." She asks if anyone else has had this experience. I have.

I have a vivid memory of my first reading of Mansfield Park , and especially of the copy I read it in. I liked the book very much. I remember thinking it was a "strong" book by which I probably meant stern, unbending, full of strong emotions; one of the episodes which gripped me had been the one of Fanny's visit to Portsmouth, and in response to Laurie's query I would like to say it distressed me, and made me uncomfortable. Here was Fanny facing up to how her parents made her ashamed. As my family was partly lower middle and working class, but had moved to an upper middle neighborhood, I had many times felt this way; but unlike me, Fanny did not seem guilty about feeling ashamed of her parent, did not try to repress such thoughts, but rather coolly appraised the people she found herself surrounded by. She simply faced up to her mother's indifference to her, to the slovenly coarse ways of her father; she hadn't tried to cover it over with sentiment or make excuses for her family members. She hadn't lied to herself about her ugly surroundings, hadn't tried not to see them, but had dwelt on those motes in the milk in the half-dirty cups. I think I admired Fanny for this in a way; she was truthful, but I didn't like her. I was aware of how she kept her thoughts to herself, and worried lest anyone else suspect what she was thinking. She was careful not to hurt anyone--until of course she saw they were capable of being hurt by anything she could say or mere words. I did see that Austen wanted us to realize how the others wouldn't have cared anyway, and thus shed a slightly bitter ironic light on Fanny's sensitivity towards the feelings of those who are obtuse or too exhausted and hardened by the world's demands to care.

Reading it again just recently what struck me this time was that Austen had brought into the mind of a 19 year old girl (her character, Fanny) the mature reasoned consideration of a 39 year old woman (the author herself). It's not so much that a 19 year old would not be able to see the situation in the jaundiced light of distanced emotions, because Austen has so set up the story that Fanny is not the child of the Prices that she would have been had she grown up in their household: Fanny is a product of Mansfield Park and her roots are not entangled in the emotional lives of the Prices--with the exception of William's--and now, with no-one else to turn to, increasingly Susan's. But it still strains credibility to attribute to the relatively innocent Fanny the kind of keen understanding of the hard circumstances of the Price's lives which the narrator intertwines with Fanny's thoughts: for example, the sad life of an ignored bedraggled woman (Mrs Price) whose one spot of sunshine is the walk she takes on Sundays; or, Mr Price's ability to look respectable and talk intelligently enough when he meets an obvious gentleman in the streets; and in particular, the psychology behind Betsy's fight for Mary's knife and the mother's siding with Betsy whose subtlety of analysis gives the episode its balance of moral persuasiveness. Thus when we leave Portsmouth we are relieved with Fanny that she has escaped the fate of these people, and also realize how different she might have been had she been "educated" there (Austen uses the word education in its widest application).

On my first read I saw the text as all one--all Fanny. Now I see two voices: one recounts the emotional anguish of shame and loneliness among those one is ashamed of; the other offers a reasoned judgement on how these Prices came to be with way they are.

Thus like Laurie I respond differently to the Portsmouth episode this time round. Partly it's that I can read with more understanding, see Austen's text more clearly. But also I have changed. One hardens with age, and I now can define what I called the strength\of the depiction: MP is a wholly unsentimental book. I like the steel and grit of the Portsmouth episode through and through. And allow me to say I loved Juliet Youngren's piece pointing how how exquistely effective is the description of the family walk on the harbor; the same incisive pictorialism makes the scenes in the Portsmouth household so hard to bear.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003