Mansfield Park: Tanner on Mansfield Park

To Austen-l

July 6, 1998

Re: Tanner: "Quiet Thing": Fanny as the Cynosure of MP

The "context" for Tanner's argument about MP is another famous essay on MP which takes the same attitude towards Fanny and the novel that we find in Tanner: Lionel Trilling's "JA & Mansfield Park, which may be found in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage edited by BSoutham. In sum, in this essay Trilling writes lovingly of MP and finds in it a strong valuation of stillness, quietude, tranquillity, stability, solitude. Fanny is the cynosure of that still point of deeply private moral integrity from which beauty and permanent pleasure can spring. I believe Trilling quotes TSEliot from The Four Quartets. When we come to Duckworth we will find Duckworth belongs to the "school" of Trilling-Tanner. (So too does Stuart Tave in his Some Words of JA).

Differing from Trilling (and Tanner) we find arrayed the school of D. W. Harding ("Regulated Hatred" to be found in 1942 Scrutiny , Vol 8, pp 346-362) and the school of Marilyn Butler (JA and the War of Ideas). Harding argues Austen loathed many of the basic tenets and scenes of her world, but that she presented this in a quiet ironic way so as not to offend, for the very good reason that she needed to preserve her place in this society. Now Butler says Austen supported the basic tenets of her capitalist and repressive society, was deeply conservative for which Butler thinks Fanny stands.

I briefly summarize these people in order to place Tanner's piece--whom I agree with and think very rich.

Ellen Moody

Re: Tanner: "The Quiet Thing: MP"

I don't know if other people on our list are aware this essay by Tanner is well-known. It has been reprinted in anthologies and forms the introduction to his Penguin edition of MP. It is therefore influential.

Perhaps I have read it too often because as I went through I found myself getting restless and objecting here and there. Of course basically he's right about the book, and his meditation might be looked at as a reconciliation of the Trilling and Butler schools. Trilling and Butler agree the book centers on Fanny, that Fanny stands for a traditional form of integrity against a new society emerging from capitalism and its revolutionary ways of thought; the difference Trilling sees in the new society behaviors which are exploitative, inhumane, and joyless and looks back at the older feudal order based on bonds as one which provided a private space to breathe freely in for a few. I suppose that's part of the rub for Butler. It was only for a few. Most people in the 18th century had no attic to retreat to; they went out to work and died at young ages. Butler is also a strong feminist and she and others like her celebrate ambition and a drive for power; finally she writes from a leftist point of view. Of course all three differ from D. W. Harding who argues Austen personally loathed much about the world that imprisoned her, and criticized it not from some social agenda but out of her own soul. Harding can be seen as probably responding to MP much as Trilling and Tanner do, only he would not find in Fanny a figure we should admire, but rather a figure we should identify with (as put-upon, her self-esteem poisoned, her character made nervous and timid) without wanting to be that way ourselves. When we read out of Harding's view, Fanny becomes an early Jane Eyre.

What made me restless or object. Tanner exaggerates. For example, he argues that "Fanny is never, ever wrong." He says Austen endorses her every thought and movement. Rubbish. Albeit sympathetically and gently, Fanny is laughed at for her naivete and for her egotism. Like everyone else in the book she sees the world from her perspective and cannot easily see it from another's; her perspective may be that of a decent good person, but it is not one which can enable her to make accurate judgements on everything. Hence the dialogues between her and other characters (with Edmund, Mary, Sir Thomas, and even her Aunt Bertram) form a kind of debate on the nature of reality and the different kinds of minds that construct their own. She also has a good deal of learning to do and growing up.

Which gets me to my second complaint. I am irritated at all his uses of "has to," and "must." I don't think Austen is a schoolmarm teaching us that Fanny has to learn anything at all. She does learn because life forces her to change, but there is no particular direction that Austen endorses in any given situation. Austen sees that people do what they have to _out of their character and circumstances_ not as a result of some ideal.

I am also irritated at his use of "must" and "have to" as a way of arguing his readers into reading the novel as he does. Again and again he says the reader "must" feel this way; or the reader "has to understand" so he can feel the other. This will not do. People who read books don't have to do anything at all. We have had enough trolling about this book and honest debates too to show us how differently people will read the same passage. To argue for his interpretation by resting on how we "have to" or "must" think this way or that is useless and a waste of paper.

Another exaggeration I see in his essay this time round is the way he talks about Aunt Norris. I agree she poisons Fanny's existence. I loathe her. I agree "in her combination of malice and menace she is the nearest thing to evil in the book." But I don't think one can elevate her into an all-powerful representation of the evils of the world. She is just Aunt Norris. Austen presents her with enough depth so that we see she convinces herself she's a good person. She is also a dependent on Sir Thomas. By the end of the book she is broken in spirit (for the moment) over Maria. I agree the book indicts society but not through Aunt Norris especially. Rather the book explores human nature and in the characters of Mary and Henry Crawford particularly, but in all of them how people manipulate one another, compete, distort and pervert deeper emotional instincts in the service of prestige, money, and some notion of what's admirable as well as fun. Tanner is quite right to say the play is in fact no fun. But I think he yearns to find a social agenda for change that's not there.

All this said, I like the essay still. It is rich in insights and brings to bear upon MP relevant texts and movements of the time. This is unlike his essays on NA and P&P where he is constantly running away to texts that seem to have little real relationship with Austen's novels. I thought his discussion of the picturesque good; he is also helpful to readers who have not read Lovers Vows because he shows out the play within the book reinacts what is going on at MP. I agree with him that Austen's remark that she was going to write a book about ordination is to be taken as descriptive of one part of her purpose in MP.

Some favorite passages and lines:

I liked his analysis of the characters of Mary and Henry Crawford. I think he understands what happens in the final scene between Mary and Edmund and what a cool customer Henry is. I am not sure Henry did not fall in love with Fanny, but I think Austen gives us enough to believe that once he had her he would have grown bored and been cruel. Tanner's remark that Henry Crawford's "relapse into adultery is a reversion to his true self" is probably right. (Do others know Tanner has a book called Adultery in the Novel? I've not read it.)

On the other hand there is much more sympathy for Maria than Tanner will allow. Yes Austen is malicious and bitchy about Maria's feelings upon marriage, but there is real understanding of this girl's frustration and alienation and hurt (when Crawford leaves her) early and late in the novel. Like Sterne's darling, she wants to get out and can't. There's nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide to find the kind of triumphant gleeful joy, release and freedom she wants--given human nature.

Tanner was good on the ending of the novel. In a few well-chosen concise words she refers us to "the strange shifts in passional manoeuvrings and adhesions, the unfathomable process of falling in and out of love." I would only say Austen does not believe in this love as being so very real. She thinks people love themselves primarily and always, and love for others comes in as it feeds this first love.

He does try to answer the critics who say the book speaks for "repression and negation, fixity and enclosure, the timidity of caution and routine opposed to the exhilaration of risk and change." Instead of saying "if we were sympathetic" (a version of his "we must"), he might have said these ideas come out of an optimistic view of human nature which won't hold up. Again and again he simply agrees with those who want to find a social agenda for change. As if real change were possible.

I would say Austen denies this, and then turn to Fanny and use Tanner's words to assert Fanny stands for _us all_ as she is "subjected to persuasion, victimisation, coercion, and opposition." Here she holds hands with Maria. Maria is subject to these too. All she ends up doing is making the chains wring her flesh more than ever. Her problem is she won't look inside. That's Fanny's secret. She lives in and on herself. Tanner writes taking off from Trilling that "Jane Austen knew that "virtue was a hard affair and morality might involve renunciation, sacrifice, and solitary anguish." Yes but unlike Tanner's ideas about pain and labor which he then emphasizes, I would go on to say it's not all sacrifice. Turn away to her books, her prints, her attic, and with someone congenial like Edmund and Sir Thomas's money and place, and she will have joy and contentment -- insofar as it is possible in this world. The book offers us an alternative way to find individual happiness if we can hold out and are lucky. Austen's Mrs Smith (in Persuasion) is Fanny grown old and not lucky. Anne Elliot is a Fanny to whom the Fates have offered a fairy tale reprieve.

To be sure, MP is a sombre dark book.

Ellen Moody

Re: Tanner: MP: and Restoration and 18th Century Drama In June's earlier posting on Tanner's essay on NA, she brought out the importance of houses and landscapes in Austen. Again here the place is symbolic. A good deal of modern British fiction plays upon the ruined house, the one fallen in desuetude. One sees that in Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh.

She writes:

"Lady Bertram is indolent and quiet and ineffective as a guardian. (However, Mary Lascelles, whom we read next, makes a cogent observation of her, which we will discuss then.). "

Lady Bertam is smarter than the careless reader supposes, I agree. She didn't "rise" (perhaps I should say lie down and then sit up) to her position with no effort on her part. She has a good instinct for what is in her interest, and follows--and advises Fanny to do likewise. Her little bits of conversation are worth paying attention to.

There is a book which is a delight to read -- not dull -- John Harrington Smith's Gay Couple in Restoration Comedy. He shows one "origin" for our sober pair (Fanny and Edmund) and our witty ones (Mary and Henry) is to be found in the drama of the period. As I recall the drama also tended to have groups of characters who could be lumped together and opposed in just the way Tanner outlines.

I think MP is Austen's greatest book, and is more than ever relevant to our society. Capitalism, anonymity, the breaking of bonds, the celebration of ruthlessness, money, power, ambition are stronger than ever.

Ellen Moody

RE: Tanner: Fanny as Cinderella with a Migraine Headache

I am glad Aysin pointed out how Tanner concedes altogether too much to the Fanny-haters when he writes:

"Tanner says MP "is the story of a girl who triumphs by doing nothing. She sits, she waits, she endures; and when she is finally promoted, through marriage, into an unexpectedly high stoical position, it seems to be a reward not so much for her vitality as for her extraordinary immobility."

Doing nothing? Here is a girl who has a migraine headache at the end of the day, the direct result of her having picked flowers for hours in the sun, and walked a couple of miles back and forth to Mrs Norris's house on a hot August afternoon. She sews away during the play, learns everyone's lines so she can prompt, is never without a real chore. She is her Aunt Bertram's brains, hands, feet, and produces conversation and reads aloud to boot.

These notions come from a mistaken idea about what is activity. In many feminist books activity seems to be only that which is aggressive in the service of the self. It is equated with active antagonism. The key to Fanny's success is she holds out for her truer self far more than Mary. Mary is for sale -- until she meets Edmund, and then she dumps him when he says he will be clergyman. Fanny is the character who is truer to women than Mary. When Mary says, just wait till Henry gets you to Everingham, I worry. I am glad Henry never got full power over Fanny.

I also agree the notion that she won a prize she was aiming for the whole book distorts it again from a modern perspective.

Tanner is just so wishy-washy as he bows to those who misunderstand the book. There is a point where concession becomes capitulation.

Ellen Moody

I agree with Cassia that many contemporary readers are uncomfortable with an ideal of stillness, quiet, and unchangingness. As she described the Crawfords, I also remembered the opposition between Marianne and Elinor Dashwood. Marianne's idea of joy is rushing down a hill, the breeze in her face, while Elinor's is sitting quietly drawing. The second is safer, but the first is energy, release. We might see an opposition between Persuasion and MP here: Anne Elliot must learn romance, she must try for risk to achieve intense joy; Fanny of course is presented in such detail psychologically that we understand how she came to be what she is from her outcast state in childhood.

What I think I finally like best of all about MP is the complexity of vision it includes. It is the first of the 19th century inclusive novels. One feels all is there, all imagined thoroughly through suggestion.

Ellen Moody

Re: A Defense of MP and Looking forward to Duckworth

While it is popular nowadays to read MP as a conservative book, and Tanner does all he can to try to 'rescue' MP from this attack, I think he takes the wrong perspective on MP. The problem throughout Tanner's book is he accepts the values of those who inveigh against Austen for not dealing with social issues in the way they would. He not only accepts their assumption that great art must be socially conscious, but he accepts their assumptions about what is valuable in human nature and our world today. Among these is a near-worship of ambition, power, money, and aggression for its own sake; among these is a contempt for those who don't seek these things as somehow hypocrites, or too weak, or crippled. This is at heart capitalism internalized. As Duckworth writes, from S&S on Austen 'trenchantly declares her contempt' for the policies and practices that have become associated with laissez-faire capitalism and what was called liberalism in the 19th century. To gain power in order to protect the vulnerable is an evil necessity for those who understand what human nature is.

Mary Evans's Marxist JA and the State takes the same view of all her books. They argue against 'ruthless self-interest' in every quarter of the soul. Of course it's hard in these days of aggressive capitalist oriented feminism to talk in this way. It is also unpopular in academic deparments which are often more reactionary in their structure, voting procedures and assumptions than law firms.

MP is though not just about retreat. It is about building a world of integrity within the heart. I think Fanny is close to a number of Austen heroines: Elinor Dashwood for self-control, but Marianne for deep emotionalism and romanticism; she is a young fond Anne Elliot.

It is also about sex. Centrally. It understands the sadism of a Henry Crawford, his cruelty, and the attraction he has for women.

It is also beautifully structured; the depiction of Sotherton is rich with symmetries, glimpses of nature. Austen's Portsmouth shows us what intellectually Burney was trying to get at but hadn't the visual and linguistic gifts.

I think its manipulation of letters through time remarkable.

It is a great book. One of the great ones of the 19th century. I don't think Tanner's essay comes near it because he cannot cast aside the Marilyn Butlers and is uncomfortable among the Trillings. He is also a normalizer. He can't admit how important it is to hate what is hateful. I don't say his essay is not interesting. It is socially acceptable to academics and it's reprinted and influential and accurate insofar as it goes. But it is not bold. It is tame. It bows to those who worship power and aggression.

The book consoles and strengthens one in its refusal to give up. That's how I take the lines: 'the consicousness of being born to struggle and endure.' Life is little to be enjoyed and much to be endured' is but one of Johnson's truths at the heart of the book.

We will meet a braver understanding of the poignance and tragedy of life inscribed in MP in Duckworth, and of course Lascelles is wonderful on the art.

Ellen Moody

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