Monday, July 21, 2014

Happy two-hundredth birthday, Mansfield Park

Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price in Patricia Rozema's adaptation
of Mansfield Park (1999)
Happy birthday, Mansfield Park.

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen's first work of maturity.

To celebrate this, the Jane Austen Society of Australia held a day-long conference in Sydney, to which I was invited. (My Voltaire's Vine/Philosophy in the Garden devotes the first chapter to Austen.)

My essay, 'Fanny Price in the Garden', will be published later this year. For now, a short extract on my love of Mansfield Park's quiet heroine:
Jane Austen’s genius was character: painting subtle portraits of selves. Not just the saved and damned souls of Protestantism, but a variegated gallery of virtues and vices.  
And it is testament to this talent that Austen can make Fanny Price loveable. Fanny Price the wallflower. Fanny Price the wowser. Miss Price is not a charming Lizzy Bennet: “as delightful a creature,” as Austen put it, “as ever appeared in print.” Fanny is not even a Catherine Morland, with her verve and simple boldness. Fanny’s families do not hate her – they just barely notice her. And when they do, she is simply the moth to make their butterflies brighter. One Victorian critic, George Saintsbury, had the right word for Fanny: “insipid”. 
No quips. No harp performances. No flirty repartee. Miss Price has, Austen writes, “faults of ignorance and timidity.” This ignorance is remedied with Fanny’s own good sense, alongside her cousin Edmund’s careful education, and the household’s lessons of elegance and taste. The timidity is tempered by age and company. Still, on the surface, Miss Price lacks charisma.  
And yet: I love her. Now, this is neither capital ‘R’ Romantic love nor Georgian lust – the carnal love of Boswell’s alleyway trysts. I do not have a ‘thing’ for Fanny Price as I do for Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. (She was never “only Anne” to me.) This is love in Hume’s eighteenth-century sense: pleasure. I get pleasure from Miss Price. 
This reads cynically to modern eyes, but pleasure need not be mercenary. In his Treatise of Human Nature, published a generation before Austen was born, Hume argued that love is an “indirect” emotion. We hear someone’s words, see their gestures, smell their scents, and these impressions give pleasure. They might suggest trustworthiness, gentleness or generosity, for example. These impressions, in turn, are associated in our minds with the idea of character. So we never really see, smell or touch the psyche – we imagine it. And this fantasy borrows the pleasure offered by the senses. 
So my confession of love for the heroine of Mansfield Park is a revelation of delight: in her “constant little heart” as Edmund puts it (with some condescension), and her sincerity and warmth. These suggest the idea of a beautiful soul, which I happily imagine. I see past the surface, in other words – there are depths to Miss Price, to continue the metaphor, of moral loveliness. 

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