Shame in Austen and Juliet McMaster's 'God Gave Us Our Relations'

I'd like to bring one more aspect of the Portsmouth episode in Mansfield Park before going on to the elopement and endgame. Again and again someone asserts on this list that Mansfield Park is somehow different from all Austen's novels in this way or that, but it seems to me that whatever is asserted as in Mansfield Park so different or alien from Austen's other novels when examined against those other novels is not so at all. Fanny is somehow different from all other Austen heroines; not so, if she is a prig, then so is Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, and Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse too. Edmund is too sober, without easy conversation, exacting in his moral judgements, and therefore the last male in the world anyone should want to marry; but then, so too are Edward Ferrars, Fitzwilliam Darcy, George Knightley and Frederic Wentworth close self-scrutinizers, aloof, Calvinistic in their judgements of what is and is not worthy the label virtuous.

An important subject in Mansfield Park which forms part of its basic core and makes it a novel people find hard to be comfortable with, much less love is shame, and especially family shame. I bring this one up because I recently read for only the second time Austen's The Watsons and then Juliet McMaster's essay on it, "God gave us our relations': The Watson Family" (reprinted in her JA the Novelist). I would say that although we often hear how people today are indifferent to shame, this is not so. They are only indifferent to certain kinds of shame, and even then, the indifference is disputable. I am especially thinking about our so-called frankness about sex on TV; I would agree with the New Yorker piece who likened the popular talk show to the older 19th century freak side-show in a circus where what makes money is precisely the lurid emotion which is projected out at the viewer as the exhibitionist tells "all."

Austen deals with shame in all its phases. The incident between Miss Bates and Emma which has led to so much conversation on this list is one in which Emma publicly shames Miss Bates. More quietly Jane Fairfax is torn with shame when Miss Bates loudly thanks Mr Knightley for the apples, signalled to the sensitive reader by her not being able not to say to her aunt: "'Yes... we heard his kind offers, we heard everything'" (Emma, Penguin, Ch 28, pp 250-2). A central feel in the excruciating quality of the many pivotal scenes in Austen's novels which I have discovered occur in all but Northanger Abbey and Sanditon on Tuesdays is shame. Elizabeth is shamed at the Netherfield Ball; we feel even her father has gone over the top with his pointed comment to Mary at the piano; Marianne is deeply shamed by Willoughby's behavior at the ball, mortified to the quick of her heart by his letter, and again shamed for Elinor who is too proud and hurt to show it by Mrs Ferrars's open snub at Fanny's Tuesday dinner part. Other more minor occasions depend on an examination of why and how people are shamed: Anne Elliot is, ironically to herself, finds herself ashamed because her father and sister have no pride--when it comes to Lady Dalrymple. No currying of favor is beneath them. Even the epiphanies in the books make use of this emotion: Catherine Morland is ashamed of the nonsence she has been making up about Henry's father and mother when he throws the clear light of common sense upon her fantasies; Elizabeth who had thought herself such a good judge is ashamed in front of herself to see her pride and prejudice.

The theme of family shame is often especially acute. It is I submit one we in the 20th century don't like to admit to. We want to believe we are above class consciousness; it's a curious new kind of pride to deny the reality and effect of all the social stigmas and wounds we receive and give daily, the latter sometimes unconsciously (but sometimes not). Well in Austen's The Watsons and the episode of Fanny's sojourn in Portsmouth Austen is more truthful about this less than socially acceptable emotion than many of us can endure. I'd like to quote Juliet McMaster's summary of Emma Watson's plight because it really exactly coincides in its central aspects with Fanny's at Portsmouth:

"[Emma Watson] coming from a sojourn of fourteen years in her aunt's home, she is catapulted into immediate intimacy with a set of strangers. She is an alien by her own fireside. She has had no shared life in which to growthe love that will make candour easy. Neither has she developed those mental calluses that habit brings, whereby she will cease to be chafed by the family bristles and roughnesses" (McMasters, pp 62-3).

Make that 14 into 11 and you have Fanny's case, albeit with the important difference (pointed out by McMasters) that "Fanny knows she can go back to Mansfield Park, and besides is no financial burden on her family." I do wonder if Fanny knows this with the certainty of a Julia Bertram; I like to think that if it had been Fanny who ran away with Crawford whether Sir Thomas would have found a place for her in the country with a companion, but I'm not sure.

According to McMaster, Jane Austen "may be said to have specialized in this kind of mortification" (to be ashamed of those you cannot rid yourself of). McMaster quotes a scene from Dickens's Great Expectations where "Pip, mediating between his blacksmith brother-in-law and the stately Miss Havisham, is driven nearly frantic by Joe's bumpkin maunderings. And when Joe proposes to come and visit Pip and his new genteel friends in London, Pip is appalled:

'Let me confess exactly, with what feelings I looked forward to Joe's coming.
Not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; not; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money'" (McMasters, pp 62-3).

I think what some readers don't like about Fanny is she tells us truths about ourselves we don't like to admit to. I wonder had the people on this list who said how good it was for Miss Bates that she should be so shamed been in her place, they would have reacted with Miss Bates's beautiful humility on the Hill, taking on herself the fault, and then with the gallant generosity and courtesy of her way of accepting Emma's apology by pretending not to hear it. Juliet McMasters says Brian Southam wrote of The Watsons there is a "failing in generosity and a loss of creative power," and presents her essay on shame in Austen in order to disagree with him. I will go a bit further than her and say not simply is there not a failing in generosity or loss of creative power in either The Watsons or Mandsfield Park but a strong surge of truthfulness which relates to herself because she seems to me to be saying "there but for the Grace of God go I" (and not only about Fanny or Emma but also about Miss Bates--in the former case her family apparently being kinder to her, at least publicly, and in the latter her genes having rescued her), but more but here is the bad dream of daily life which makes no eruption in its apparent surface but rather does its dirty corrosive work underneath.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003