The Orphan of the Castle, the Recluse of the Lake, Emily St Aubert, and Fanny

Mansfield Park has always seemed to me the novel most rooted in later 18th century of all Austen's novels, and there are many references in it to contemporary aesthetic and political movements. One small article I have come across may be of interest. Frank Bradbrook in Notes & Queries 208 [1961], 222-4 reveals a number of close parallels between Fanny Price and the heroines of two gothic novels, Emmeline and Ethelinde of Charlotte Smith's novels of the same title (with subtitles: "the Orphan of the Castle" and "the recluse of the Lake" respectively) and between Fanny and Anne Radcliffe's Emily St Aubert of Mysteries of Udolpho fame. What interesting about this little piece is it helps to delineate wherein Austen is deeply sympathetic and fond of her heroine, and wherein she parts company with her. Fanny shares an urge to retreat from the world with Emmeline and Ethelinde. Ethelinde is into making her little spaces into comfortable nest-like retreats filled with objects which stir her memory. Fanny's attic room seems to be modelled on Emily's; all four are of course great readers, and susceptible to arousal to reveries of sublime quietude in natural landscape. Fanny may have read Wordsworth (the transparency of Tintern Abbey), but it's clear she's also into Gilpin (the transparency of Cumberland). At the close of Ethelinde Grasmere is described, and all of Mrs Smith's works are much influenced by the picturesque. Although Radcliffe's characters don't find volumes of Shakespeare lying about, there are various allusions to his text in her novels.

At the same time the lines quoted by Mrs Radcliffe lack just that gentle touch of humor, that slightly debunking feel which turns "elegant arts" and the most exquiste of "musical instruments, with some favourite birds and plants" into three transparencies, a writing desk with books and plants nearby as well as "works of charity and ingenuity," and the left-over remains of Julia's sewing. Nothing so serious or specific as Lord Macartney's travels to China--which are however referred to by Edmund in such a way as to suggest Fanny imaginatively travels there when everyone leaves her gratefully behind. The case is similar with the situations in Smith which are high romance. No-one in these two novels by Mrs Smith is remotely threatened with Portsmouth or dirty blue china cups whose milk is thin, filled with motes, walls which show the lines of heads lent upon them, or greasy butter on the bread. Such things appear not to exist.

The parallels are striking, and I recommend anyone who is interested to have a look, but what I'd like to stress is just that element of realism, of fond distancing humor in Austen which can give us a feel of how Austen's regarded her Fanny. To read Austen in the context of these books is also to see how really "real" & rooted in ordinary things and some not so pretty (like slavery, rents, getting in the hay, Christopher Jackson, Sir Thomas's good friend) her Mansfield Park is despite its deep beauty

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003