The Opening Phase

As we begin this book, I'd like to call attention to its austere style of irony, to the restrained nature of the satire, and the kind of compression of meanings that go into using irony so that Gooneratyne (in her Jane Austen) can write 5 pages on the opening paragraph of Mansfield Park. Many assumptions about life and an ironical perspective on those assumptions is packed into a sentence like:

"All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle the lawyer, himself, allowed [Miss Maria Ward] at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it" (MPChapman I:1, 3).

In fact in this ironical reference to assumptions and mockery yet acceptance of them, the opener of Mansfield Park recalls the famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice : "It is a truth universally acknowledged...."

And by-the-bye I see the phrase "captivated" as referring to sexual allurement. Sir Thomas's attraction to Miss Maria came from the same source as Mr Bennet's to Mrs--although they formed very different kinds of unions because of the difference between Sir Thomas's and Mr Bennet's minds: Mr Bennet looked for companionship in a wife; Sir Thomas does not. In fact in these two opening chapters Sir Thomas talks far more to Mrs Norris than he does to his lady.

Another technical feat (I'd call this restrained or understated irony a technical feat) of these chapters, or obstacle overcome in order to gain intensity and realism, is the use of a child as a central perceiving consciousness, for in Chapter 2, and very soon after Fanny arrives we begin to see events from Fanny's point of view. I would say on this that the opening of this novel closely recalls in overt circumstances Charlotte Bronte's analogous orphan child, Jane Eyre.

Now one of the reasons we readily accept the child Jane's presentation of her situation as a nightmare filled with ogres who openly humiliate her is that Bronte uses the 1st person narrative; Austen has given herself the harder task of using a 3rd person, of moving into seeing the world from the child's point of view, at the same time as Austen qualifies it by that of her narrator and those of other characters (sober-minded adults) so that the indifference, lack of real concern and understanding, and callousness of everyday life which Fanny confronts--made so much the stronger by her lack of status or money--remains believable, not overblown, not overdone (as some might say it is in Jane Eyre) and intensely touching because we feel Fanny's misery because we see it through her child's eye, and to a child suddenly ripped from her home and brought to this strange grand place and told she is nobody and ought to be grateful for the least crumbs and to cry is not to be grateful, these opening days are indeed somewhat traumatic. Not crushing mind, but sufficiently shocking that the child will not forget and it will affect her character and sense of her place and rights in her new "home."

I'd like to stress that these two opening chapters are of enormous importance in the novel and it's good Carolyn has chosen to begin with just these two. There is a sense in which the atmosphere of the whole book hinges on Fanny's upbringing in these first 9 years; we are to understand why she is so unsure of herself, why she shrinks so from notice as a result of her own mother's dismissal of her (hinted at in these chapters) but the quite ordinary but painful treatment she receives at the hands of Mrs Norris, Lady Bertram & the girl cousins, (how very stupid she is--and Edith should rejoice to see how Austen sympathizes deeply with Fanny because everyone is calling her stupid over and over again). The well-meaning (but dense) Sir Thomas actually plans to depress her spirits, does it deliberately.

On the issue of who is worse, Lady Bertram or Mrs Norris, which is an element in these two chapters, I see neither as acceptable toAusten. Which is worse? the cunning who are also cruel and insinuating (Mrs Norris) or the dense and mostly unfeeling (Lady Bertram) who do good deeds almost in despite of themselves, like make Fanny feel welcome with almost no effort at all, merely by smiling)?

Further to this, in considering the two aunts it has often been said or written (or should have been) that it is the great irony of the book that it was Mrs Norris who brought Fanny Price to Mansfield Park. But here I'd remark that it was Lady Bertram's impetuosity which led to her words, let's do it for real. Yes the opening conversation of this book is that between Sir Thomas and Mrs Norris, surrogates for mother and father for Fanny, and that's significant. Those of us who have been on Austen-L and participated in our previous group reads will remember the opening of Pride and Prejudice is the sparkling wit of Mr and Mrs Bennet; of Sense and Sensibility the harsh grating conversation of John and Fanny Dashwood, of Emma, the crazily sweet conversation between Emma and Mr Woodhouse on the night of poor- Miss Taylor-that-was's wedding, of Persuasion, that between Sir Walter and his rental agent.) But look it is Lady Bertram who gets the first line; it is she who said, as the narrator comments:

"Lady Bertram agreed with her instantly. 'I think we cannot do better,' said she, 'let us send for the child'" (Mansfield ParkChapman I:1, 5).

I wouldn't count Mrs Norris's line (just above) as a first dramatic line for it is thrown into indirect reported speech--it's in the third person, that is encased in the narrator's stream. It is also still considering on herself, on her benevolence and the scheme in general.

I conclude with a quotaton in which we see how skillfully Austen modulates into the child's view and out again while keeping us aware that Fanny is overreacting but understandablyso:

Fanny, whether near or from her cousins, whether in the school-room, the drawing room, or the shrubbery, was equally forlorn, finding something to fear in every person and place. She was dishearted by Lady Bertraim's silence, awed by Sir Thomas's grave looks, and quite overcome by Mrs. Norris's admonitions. Her elder cousins mortified her by reflections on her sixe, and abashed her by noticing her shyness; Miss Lee wondered at her ignorance, and the maid-servants sneered a her clothes; and when to these sorrows was added the idea of the brothers and sisters among whom she had always been important as a play-fellow, instructress, and nurse, the despondence sunk her little heart was severe. The grandeur of the house astonished, but could not console her. The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease; whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry; and the little girl who was spoken of in the drawing-room when she left it at night, as seeming so desirably sensible of her peculiar good fortune, ended every day's sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep. A week had passed in this way, and no suspicion of it conveyed by her quiet passive manner, when she was found one morning by her cousin Edmund the yhoungest of the sons, sitting crying on the attic stairs (Mansfield ParkChapman I:2, 14-5)

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003