Visual Beauty in Mansfield Park, with a good word for Mrs Norris thrown in

One of the striking things about this book is its beauty, how very pretty and alluring are the hinted at scenes.

In this posting I'd like to throw out the idea that the picturesque, the Cowpersque strain which Austen seems appear to mock in Sense and Sensibility is in Mansfield Park taken seriously. We might then see Mansfield Park as a step in a transition of taste in Austen herself as she appears in her novels from mocking the the picturesque to accepting it. In her juvenilia, in Northanger Abbey and again in Sense and Sensibility the picturesque is associated with shallow selfish romanticism; it's a kind of jargon even Marianne admits. It has no roots in reality, in fact defies reality: we all recall how in Northanger Abbey Catherine is so hopeful a pupil under Henry Tilney's tutelage she is ready to throw away all Bath as unworthy, and how in Sense and Sensibility Edmund says he prefers productive farmland and prosperous farmers to lightning-destroyed thorns, and refuses to ignore the dirt under his feet--an affectation to be sure, but one at least rooted in an appreciation of reality and what is beautiful for ordinary people in life. Then through using the imagined personality and inculcated values of a character like Fanny Price Austen for the first time makes a novel beautiful with fragments, details, images, allusions all of which are associated with the picturesque. Now these are honored because Fanny herself honors tradition, constancy, and is herself deep in feeling. She doesn't swing jargon around to impress others. (The next step is Persuasion_ where we found a number of sympathetic allusions to Charlotte Smith, Byron and Scott, a haunting autumnal beauty in the landscape, albeit even here Austen does not forget to say Captain Benwick ought to increase his intake of prose and of farmers who labor the purpose of their labor is to help spring come again). To demonstrate:

A significant dialogue in this week's chapters occurs when Fanny learns that in his desire "to improve" Sotherton Rushworth is ready to cut down aged oaks:

"Cut down an avenue!" What a pity! Does not it make you think of Cowper. 'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.' He {Edmund] smiled as he answered, 'I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.' 'I should like to see Sotherton before it is cut down to see the place as it is now, in its old state; but I do not suppose I shall.'" (Mansfield Park, Chapman II:6, 56).

Of course as we know Cinderella gets to go to this "ball." Edmund makes sure of that; he wants her to see those oaks. One should first of course say here that the oaks and Sotherton are also the visibilia of wealth, and valued by most of the characters as such. For example, Maria does values the oaks, but for the status they give her (what is called her "Rushworth feelings,Mansfield Park Chapman I:8, 82-3). Fanny really wants to see them. Her language at the table with Edmund is characteristically child-like and slightly overdone, but the shadow of sympathy is strong for her feelings--as it is not for Marianne's. The problem in the early book was Marianne mourned the loss of the oaks to her, she imagined they would miss her, and at length cried out how would she do without them, which was ludicrous when her mother and sister and herself were being ejected from Norland Park with little income to support them. Fanny's comment is by contrast brief, and is used against the Repton-kind of transformation of the landscape that is about to be attempted--or played at-- so that these wealthy Rushworths can show off all the more. If the church and cottages had not been far away from Sotherton, Maria would certainly have paid to have them moved.

Thus the deep sense of beauty in the whole of the Sotherton sequence has more reference than merely a transition in taste; the new taste is seen as an index of a moral fervour--Fanny's for old beauty, for churches, for what she has read in poetry of churches.

I'd like to say here that the earlier thread in which it was asserted that Austen never describes much --or the critical commonplace she doesn't until Persuasion is wrong. There is much description in MP, unsavory and dismal in Portsmouth (the greasy bread, the butter going stale, the motes in the thin milk in the dirty blue cup), refreshing for a moment in the dockyards (wind and sun on the ships) and here in Sotherton details of kitchen gardens, of lawns, woods, enclosed walks which are shadowed by trees from the sun glimpsed or explicitly caught as the characters move through them.

Further, the details of beauty function morally as well as aesthetically. For example, when Maria (again, poor dear) tells us of the church not too near by, it is a mark against her; when she wants not to see the poor, it shows the same boredom she apparently exhibited when the topic of slavery was brought up. When we are given an exquisite glimpse of the exact placement of the oaks behind the house, it is "Rushworth" or money and status feelings which are operating to present the details. Similarly, it is Mrs Rushworth, as a guide perfect in her memorized cant, who says suggestive things like" "Here are the greatest number of our plants, and here are the curious pheasants." And then it is Crawford who aggressively "moves forward" to examine "the capabilities" he thinks in his petty vanity he will improve upon:

"The law, bounded on each side by a high wall, contained beyond the first planted area, a bowlling-green, and beyond the bowling green a long terrace walk, backed by iron palisades, and commanding a view over the tops of the trees of the wilderness immediately adjoining" (Mansfield Park I:9,. 90).

But, says Miss Crawford, how "insufferably hot" it is out there, so they find a door which is not locked and move onto

"A considerable flight of steps [which] landed them in the wilderness, which was a planted wood of about two acres, and though chiefly of larch and laurel, and beech cut down, and though laid out with too much regularity, was darkness and shade, and natural beauty, compared with the bowling-green and the terrace" ( Mansfield Park Chapman I: 9, 91).

There is much to be said for these firm commonplace nouns of "darkness and shade and natural beauty." They are enough.

But let me suggest that all through what is the difference between this novel and the ones that came before is Austen's moral purpose. On the one hand, she does not celebrate the visual for itself, but what it represents. First it comes to us partly through Fanny's perceiving consciousness as the narrator moves in and out of it; and second Fanny loves the place for what it seems to stand for, the time it took to make it, she loves the church, looks at the inner life of the things as she has imagined them from her reading of poetry (Scott). Yes she's naive and laughed at--she's so disappointed in the chapel, it's not the way it seemed as she was reading her poems--but her deep feelings are honored.

On the other hand the beauty of the natural world is felt as beautiful when compared with the characters who are moving through it. The feeling is most of them are unworthy; luck has brought them there, and only luck and the difficulty of actually "improving" a landscape may stop them. Let us recall Austen's joke about Mrs Dashwood's plan to "extend" and "improve" her cottage; it is "only throwing out a wall" here and adding a staircase there. In addition, Fanny seeks in this beauty some rest, some peace, an escape from the sordid happenings around her, which are made especially emphatic through Mrs Rushworth's mouthings of history whose meaning she has no feel for or understanding of beyond it's signalling her wealth for owning its remnants, through Crawford's cool attempts to create and then enjoy the internal havoc in Maria and Julia, and then through the dialogue in the chapel between Edmund and Mary over what is to be valued, religion or making a show in the world? To Mary Crawford the house is boring; it's not enough of a show, not in the new mode. Here at least Mrs Norris has her feet on the ground--let us give Mrs Norris credit for this one, it's so rare she gets any in this book: "'Oh! for shame!' cried Mrs Norris. 'A prison, indeed! Sotherton Court is the lovliest old place in the world'' (Mansfield ParkChapman I:6, 52). Let us do Mrs Norris justice here. Let us not ignore this. Never let it be said we are one-sided on this list.

To conclude, in this novel the picturesque is used to convey depth of feeling and sincerity; both elements underlie the beauty people often associate with this book. Fanny's sorrow over the oaks which must be cut down which begins our sequence this week and her dismay in the chapel which ends it reinforces the value of the beauty. It's curious to put it this way but the beauty of the book comes from a moral valuing of stillness, quietness, unchangingness, in the commoner language tradition, custom, memory. The novel does have a deeply conservative bias in just about every way if we can eliminate the usual association of conservatism with a piling up of money and prestige as an index of the individual's success.

Ellen Moody

RE: _MP_ Delicious Malice

There is a great deal of delicious malice in MP. I don't know why we, as a list, don't simply enjoy it. Actually I do.

Imagine me ducking.

This is so short because I'm afraid if I picked out all the instances and said why I found them so funny I'd enrage just about everyone somehow or other. Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003