The Cold in the East Room and the Calm Night Sky

This conversation occurred on Litalk:

There have been so many interesting posts on Mansfield Park & children's literature today I feel like a child at a feast and can't decide which to try to talk to first. So I have decided to take the line of least resistance respond with a personal experience of living in England without heat. While Elvira Casal is right to talk of how accustomed to cold people may be in a country which is often cold, and that Penny may be making more of the cold than Austen intended, nonetheless people in such countries and rooms don't forget about it, and for someone brought up in a house where others have good fires, a room without one is by dramatic contrast chillingly cold.

For example, Austen herself never becomes inured to cold--when she's got a warm fire to sit near she tells us; when she sits in the damp cold she also speaks of it. Austen does not forget to mention Fanny sits there in a shawl. Well I lived in Leeds for 2 years in apartments without heat in any room but one, and that one had a gas fire. And I too had a shawl. I bought it in Sheffield, went over there because Sheffield had a reputation for good textile goods, paid 13 guineas (an enormous amount for a students--prices quoted in guineas always signals upper class), and how many an evening I wrapped that shawl round and round me--to little avail unless I was right next to that fire. The cold in England goes through your bones especially in winter. Austen also has Fanny assure one of her visitors (I am not sure it is not Sir Thomas) that she doesn't spend all that much time in the East Room.

On this one I should say Austen wants us to see Fanny as physically made to feel her not really belonging to this family. And I would say that although it is true such a house as Mansfield Park and its surrounding park and gardens--as well as Sotherton and its park and gardens--is clearly a status symbol, built as a sign of wealth, Fanny's love of nature is not that of a Maria Bertram who does take pride in the beauty of Sotherton insofar as it makes gives her status and tells everyone what a rich woman Mrs Rushworth will be. No Fanny loves the stars and the quiet calm night sky as much as she mourns the felling of the old oaks, victims of whatever is the latest visibilia of wealth.

Further on Elvira's posting about Edmund's peculiar standing, I have always thought that the presentation of the way Fanny came to occupy the East room in its cold state, with memorabilia of those things no-one else wanted and would have pitched in two minutes is not only there to keep us alive to Fanny's fragile position, but to blacken Aunt Norris. It is Aunt Norris who conditions that Fanny can have the East Room as long as it is understood there shall be no fire. The relationship between Fanny and Aunt Norris is complex. I hope no-one will think I can feel much sympathy for the conception which lies behind the figure of Aunt Norris, but in a curious way she is jealous of Fanny. Although at a later point (when Henry Crawford has proposed), the narrator says genuine ill-will animated Aunt Norris because Aunt Norris knew she was ever cruel to Fanny, Aunt Norris is below Lady Bertram; she lives in a tiny house herself. Her determination to keep Fanny down is a determination to keep herself at a distance from the other poor female dependent.

Which gets me to Edmund. Edmund is in a peculiar position. Remember how Tom tells Edmund not to worry about the house as it is he, Tom, who is to be concerned with the state of the property. Edmund is the second son. His living is going to be much diminished for the sake of Tom. These tiny differences today seem not important, but in Austen's time it was important to these people who came in and out of a room first. I incline to think that were it Knightley in this house, Knightley would have done something, informed Sir Thomas at the least. But this is playing games. Edmund himself seems to feel he has the power to protect Fanny only so far and no further. He is delighted with her room above far away from the others, envies her her retreat and sees it as that. (I really incline to agree with Lionel Trilling's reading of this novel by-the-bye.) So here let me agree with all that Elvira said about Edmund not being that sure of himself or powerful. In fact his position as second son hurts him in his relationship with Mary. With her income she could hope to marry someone "higher" and richer. This is an unspoken barrier between them, which is then reinforced and exacerbated in her mind by his willingness to become a country clergyman as a way of making his living.

Well I have gone on too long. Maybe later this week I will try to post something from Cowper. Fanny has now quoted Cowper a couple of times and the skein of literary allusion in this novel is something we ought to pay attention to. Like the slavery issue, Cowper (an avid hater of slavery) remains in the background in comparison to Elizabeth Inchbald's play, but his values are those we are to see informing Fanny's perspective and it is that perspective we dwell in again and again in this book--though of course as Elvira say it is qualified by the separate distanced presence of the narrator.

Ellen Moody

To this Elvira replied:

Yesterday, I answered Penny Klein's question about the cold in the East room (when Edmund and Mary visit it) without checking the text (because I really should be grading papers and more papers). However, after Ellen Moody's contribution to the thread, it occurred to me that the three of us (Penny, Ellen and I) might be missing something. So I did what I should have done in the first place and looked at the scene in question. It is in chapter 18 of the first volume.

Right after Mary arrives, "Fanny, quite surprised, endeavoured to show herself mistress of the room by her civilities, and looked at the bright bars of her empty grate with concern." Mary's response is "Thank you--I am quite warm, very warm. Allow me to stay here a little while, and do have the goodness to hear me my third act..." (I: 18, 168 --Chapman).

So there is a reference to the lack of fire, and Mary specifically states that she does not feel cold. Now, is she lying politely or telling the truth?

I tend to think that she is telling the truth. For one thing, it is just a little past noon. The room is called the "East room" which implies that it gets the morning sunlight. Even in late fall, a room at the top of a house (heat rises) which had been getting sunlight all morning might very well be warm enough for someone who has just been walking from Mansfield Parsonage to the Park (which is what Mary just did).

I was also struck by the way in which strong emotions seem to "warm" the people up. I think Penny's suggestion that one reason Edmund and Mary don't notice the cold is that they are so absorbed in each other is probably correct. Both of them are feeling strong emotions. These emotions "warm" them. For Fanny, the situation is more complex. I've always read this scene as representing an invasion of Fanny's retreat. The East room is where she goes to escape the family and the stresses of the play. She is followed there by the two people who, together, can give her the most personal pain. ("In watching them she forgot herself; and agitated by the increasing spirit of Edmund's manner, had once closed the page and turned away exactly as he wanted help" [170].) The "agitation" warms her up too, I should guess.

To conclude, I think that while Ellen is right that the room was probably very cold at times, we need to distinguish between how the room feels after noon in late fall (when Edmund and Mary are there) from how it feels on a winter morning when "there was snow on the ground" (III: 1, 312 --Chapman) and Sir Thomas finds Fanny sitting there without a fire shortly after breakfast. Therefore, it should not surprise us that neither Mary nor Edmund seem to feel the cold in the first scene while the cold is the first thing that Sir Thomas remarks on. The room is colder when Sir Thomas visits it.

Elvira Casal

Then I wrote:

This is to register how much I enjoyed Elvira's piece on the East Room in which she went carefully back to the text. I'm still not convinced the room wasn't cold--my memory of the sun in England is that except in summer it radiates precious little heat--but that the characters themselves don't feel the cold, especially once Mary and Edmund begin to rehearse I'll agree with. I also concur with the idea that the East Room is Fanny's retreat, that in this place of memories and thoughts, books, pictures, and quiet, she regenerates and slowly over the years matures. I would qualify her comment on Fanny's not loving landscape not being a symbol of how much she loves money which I agree with in this manner: I submit Elvira psychologizes the character too far here. Fanny is young in some ways, but in others she is older than her years. Like many characters she shares traits with her thirty-plus year old genius of an author (Elinor Dashwood too is not 19, nor Marianne 17). I see her obliviousness to the money behind the beauty of Sotherton as an aspect of her as spectator-observer-outsider. None of it is hers. She expects to own none of it. She is grateful for being allowed some crumbs. It's in character. I would say that she does realize that a lack of money made the difference between Mrs Price on Sunday and Lady Bertram, but that her emotional roots are deeply entangled in Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram's ways.

Which gets me to my comment on Fanny's "real" parents. I take Fanny to be the "real" daughter of Sir Thomas. The scene between her and him to come is one of the most powerful Austen ever wrote, because she is defying the man who has become her father. She has imbibed the best of his values as no-one in the home but Edmund seems to have. She is also stern like him; Sir Thomas leaves her in Portsmouth because he wants her to appreciate Henry Crawford's wealth; he only lets her come back when Henry runs off with Maria; I see Fanny as similarly stern towards the disorder and louche ways of her parents. I also take her "real" mother to be Lady Bertram. Lady Bertram misses Fanny all the time; she mentions it every hour. Yes she's shallow, but as far as she can she's made Fanny her dearest companion up until then. Of course Fanny can be replaced--by a Susan, who is a version of Fanny but livelier. It's too late for Fanny to love Mrs Price. I believe there is a comment by the narrator through Fanny on just this point. I can't see Mrs Norris as mother, more anti-mother, the one who taught Fanny to endure and (though she never meant to, Mrs Norris meant to break Fanny's spirit) strengthened her.

Best of all I did like Elvira's comment on Fanny's East Room. I find memory a central theme in the novel--as embodied in tradition, in time, in roots. Another author at the back of this book in terms of milieu is Edmund Burke.

Yes it's a deeply conservative book in some ways.

Ellen Moody

On which Rachel Youdelmann commented:

The chapter in which Fanny retreats to the former school room to find solace, the room rejected by everyone else, made me reflect on architectural space and how it inspires various emotions.

For example, the interior of a church can be very awe-inspiring. It is sometimes enough to make one believe in some god. But it is not the religion so much as the inspiring power of the interior space that fills one with awe.

I think that this scene in MP is meant to highlight the poignancy of Fanny's position. She is in a room with no warmth of a fire, alone, reflecting on her alienation, no one else has any use for the room, but it gives her some comfort.

Rachel Youdelman

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003