Mansfield Park: Trilling on Mansfield Park

To Janeites

August 27, 1999

Re: Trilling on Mansfield Park

I was really looking forward to reading this one. While I think I have read it before, I didn't remember it very well, but rather what other people have made of it. When we read it, we ought to remember that it was written _in response to many strongly hostile essays on Austen's MP. The climate at the time was the first one in which Austen's books were subjected to an intense and serious scrutiny of the kind previously given to Milton or Shakespeare or Dickens.

One rhetorical technique when trying to argue with others is to concede parts of their argument in order to present something which trumps it. Perhaps he concedes too much: not everyone dislikes Fanny; not everyone agrees that the novel rejects vivacity (or vitality), wit and style, and so on. As I read I kept thinking of Gard's beautiful piece empathizing deeply and inwardly with Fanny's nervous sensitivity and wishing Trilling could have read it.

On the other hand, Trilling presents some arguments in favor of MP which gave rise to great books or essays by people who further developed these. Avrom Fleishman's great reading of MP takes up the religious perspective suggested by Trilling. I like Tony Tanner's development of the value of stillness, quietude, peace against the materialism (getting and spending as Wordsworth calls it) of the increasing capitalist faster-moving world of Austen's time (never mind our own). That's what Fanny's attic, her books, her pictures are for: for retreat to gain strength in order to sally forth again to endure and to build. I think Tave too carried much further Trilling's argument about how as we read the novel a second time and again watch Henry and Mary Crawford we see them as small, insufficiently aware, devaluing the human worth of other people based on a notion of admiration for having triumphed over someone else. I

Trilling used the same phrase that came to mind last night when I wrote about Chapter 29 of S&S: the terrrible strain of it. Nan LeBoe interprets 'it' to mean 'the forces of superficiality and materialism that drive us to sell our souls to fulfill the expectations of our neighbors' false values.' The Terror Fanny holds out against is then embodied in the Crawfords, and the Terror Marianne and Elinor hold out against embodied in Fanny and John Dashwood, the Middletons, one to which Willoughby bent his neck; this makes sense in terms of a familiar interpretation of Lawrence and Joyce as liberating. I see a more wide-ranging and elitist (in Gard's sense) interpretation; maybe I am generalising from the above, but Trilling also writes:

'we [are] to judge not merely the moral act itself but also, and even more searchingly, the quality of the agent'.

It's not so much what you do, but who you are and why you do it. The same act performed by two different people for different kinds of reasons means and therefore counts differently. Trilling quotes Nietzsche: we are to look at the 'real -- that is, the unconscious intention of the agent'. Not what the person professes even to himself. Now we see why it's a strain, because what is asked is that over some abyss of non-meaning of amorality, of pragmatism, people assume a selfhood others will probably misinterpret and hold to it anyway. That's how I see Elinor Dashwood who goes one better than Trilling envisages because she can rise above her _disgust_ for motives like those of Mrs Jennings (particularly early in the book) as when she so complacently boasts about selling Charlotte, getting rid of her to Mr Palmer. The joke of the name is Mrs Jennings palmed Charlotte off on him.

I had trouble with an earlier passage. I am not sure what Trilling means when he writes that we have to demonstrate our understanding that there are these dark and dubious places of the heart which we keep under control, and 'exhibit signs of our belonging to the number of the secular-spiritual elect.' (JA: Critical Essays, ed Watt, Prentice-Hall, p. 138, paragraph beginning 'It was Jane Austen who first represented the modern personality.) Trilling has earlier said this elect group will be mostly misunderstood, and certainly not rewarded for being what they are. And what's the point of exhibiting the quality of one's choices?

Austen's Marianne is what she is not in order to show others she's above their vulgarity or meanness, but merely because she can't be any other way. It's either silence, secrecy, and lies (Elinor's tact), refusing to acquiesce and living according to principle (this exhibition is not going to be sympathised with by most) or withdrawal. The end of S&S shows us withdrawal, and so does MP -- into the world of the park. I did like Trilling's choice of quotation from Yeats to express the meaning of the park as opposed to the Price house in Portsmouth:

How but in custom and ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
MP slowly on Austen-l a few years ago, I was struck by how the novel is centered on Sir Thomas: the opening scene is between him and Mrs Norris; it closes on his learning that he was inadequate in his acceptance of her and the way he brought up his children. Key crisis scenes revolve around him and Fanny, especially the one where Fanny holds out against his desire to marry her off to Henry -- and then puts a fire in her cold room anyway. I like Trilling's reading of Sir Thomas.

I was intrigued by Trilling's comment that Lady Bertram is, irony of ironies, part of the perfection of Mansfield Park. In the 1983 BBC MP the actress who played Lady Bertram (Angela Pleasance) seemed at times to echo a mood of nervousness at the edge of apparent calm which was repeated in Nicholas Farrell's emotional Edmund. It somehow worked, and made her relationship with Sir Thomas more believable from her standpoint.

I was disappointed in Trilling's acceptance that there is something we need to reject in Austen's rejection of the theatricals in MP. Maybe he ought to have read Lovers Vows itself and seen the parallels; he is also probably conceding to critics here. The theatricals do have a pernicious effect on everyone given the situation and how the acting is being used. It does allow Mary and Edmund to get together, but not on a true basis of understanding, tender affection. Only by casting off roles can we sympathise with one's another's unhappiness (which is what Fanny does). Perhaps the best marriages are those built on sympathetic unhappiness :). Austen is not condemning sexuality but the use of it in this play-acting. Trilling does see this when he gets to Henry Crawford who Trilling says sees sex as a game, an exprssion of one's will over someone else, of power -- 'an impersonation' (p. 133).

At the opening of Trilling's essay where he tries directly to deal with not only those who have loathed MP but those who have loathed Austen and her books. As he says, Austen provokes violent responses: people love her, and others (like Mark Twain) have been revolted by her books. I like how Trilling generalises out from the obvious sexual reasons for seeing Austen's books as repressive, especially of male brutality. Says Trilling:

'the sexual reason for disliking Jane Austen must be subsumed under another reason which is larger, and, actually, even more elemental: the fear of imposed constraint' (p. 126).

People who dislike her books so intensely see her as accepting the right of society to 'limit the condition of the human spirit'. Austen is conservative, and shows us the terrible risks involved in Marianne's stance against this imposed constraint. According to Trilling, no other great novel (meaning MP) has

'so anxiously asserted the need to find security, to establish in fixity and enclosure, a refuge from the dangers of openness and chance'.

This interests me because it is also in part one of the objections to Trollope's works. Can you forgive him for justifying society's constraints and impositions?

For my part while with Fanny Price I long for and value peace, quiet, security, safety, and with Elinor Dashwood understand that one must at least keep some distance from savagery and deal with it through controls partly of mutual self-interest, yet I see the problem of withdrawal. The human spirit finds ecstacy in danger and challenge, and out of understanding and experience of these areas of life one finds more wisdom and solace in quiet. I like how Perkins mourns for Marianne at the end of S&S, though I like the conception of Brandon and know that over the long haul of life Marianne will be happier. I am oddly more satisfied with the book because Marianne did have whatever she did with Willoughby, because she reached heights of feeling alive to the very edges of physical and emotional consciousness. Perhaps Austen was moving towards more of an inclusion of this concept in the closure of her novels (closings are so important) in Persuasion's final paragraphs and sequences by the sea, in an autumn landscape and in Bath hich do justice to the deeply romantic imagery of the book (a heavily allusive number of skeins run through it) and a character like Frederic Wentworth. Not that I doubt that we are to feel Darcy had some dark saturnine facets to his mind: he did. Why else seek out Wickham so steadfastly. But these are kept undercurrents, not brought out strongly.

Cheers to all,
Ellen Moody

To Janeites

August 27, 1999

Re: Who is the heroine? Trilling writes:

'In Emma the heroine [by whom he means Emma] is made to stand at bay to our adverse judgement through virtually the whole novel, but we are never permitted to close in for the kill -- some unnamed quality in the girl, some trait of vivacity or will, erects itself into a moral principle, at least a vital principle, and frustrates our moral blood-lust' (JA: Critical Essays, ed Watt, p. 125).

What I like about this is Trilling is laughing at himself and those who, like him, finish reading one of those scenes where Emma is so offensive and grating that we can hardly wait to push out the cart and haul her over to guillotine, and suddenly we turn to some scene where her strong intelligence, humility, and frank boredom with all that are around her and endurance of it at the same time shame us.

I've no doubt that Emma Woodhouse is the heroine of Emma. Austen tells us this from first page to last. However, not all heroines are to be admired or identified with wholly. Nor are they necessarily our favorite characters. Trollope is fond of making a character he knows the reader will not want to identify with his hero or heroine.

After Mr Knightley, my favorite character in Emma is Jane Fairfax, but she is not the heroine of the book.

Maybe we should try to define what makes a character a heroine.

Ellen Moody

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