Friday, February 25, 2011

"Place" and Place: Social Standing and Setting in Mansfield Park


In Jane Austen's era, social status was often linked to place of living. The conflict between city and country lifestyle is prevalent through the rigid class structure in Mansfield Park. This intersection of societal position and location create complexities within the lifestyle of Fanny Price. Fanny's removal from her hometown of Portsmouth into the Tory gentry class estate of her relatives, the Bertrams, is a culture shock, not only to Fanny, but to her relatives as well. Sent to the country to avoid the impoverishment to which her immediate family is subjugated, Fanny learns the accepted manners of the gentry, though she does not always conform to them. London at the start of the 19th century was beginning to undergo a vast economic and geographic transformation, in which it saw an influx of people looking for employment. While the city was a place of vast class diversity, the country was made up of the gentry, who were looking to expand their wealth and develop their own private spheres away from the bustling and crowded city.
The novel highlights Fanny's adoration and appreciation of nature, while also drawing attention to the Crawford sisters' love of urbanity, particularly as told through their visits to London. Fanny’s love for the Mansfield Park and the countryside is evidenced through narration, glances into her mind, and when she verbalizes that she feels “as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to” (80). On the other hand, the city could be viewed as a taboo, as it is only made known to the reader through conversations Julia and Maria Crawford have about going there. The reader is not given a look into a characters’ personal thoughts, but rather, only what is mentioned in public conversation. While the estate is located in the country, it reveals traits of the city, which is portrayed as a vile place to those characters concerned with morality.
Portsmouth, Fanny’s town of origin, serves as a sort of balancing point between Mansfield Park and London. A thoroughly working class, (and, as in the case of the Price family) impoverished city, Portsmouth is Fanny’s constant, to which she compares other settings. While the country, by nature, seems to be a place of honesty and virtue, without vice, it has been corrupted by the city, and becomes a place where improvement of character is necessary and virtue is questionable. In a conversation between Edmund and Miss Crawford early on in the novel, the latter asserts that “The metropolis, [she] imagines, is a pretty fair sample of the rest” (66), exemplifying her ignorance of the greater society. Edmund’s response, “Not, [he] should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for our best morality. It is not there, that respectable people of any denomination can do most good” (66) implies that the country is the more proper setting. The rigid class differences are manifested through the characters and their respective experiences, travels, and times spent in various locations. While Fanny was not brought up in a setting that emphasized her role, the gentry class structure which she is placed enforces elements of social consciousness, such as the concept of “coming out” to society and that “girls should be quiet and modest” (36). She only learns these concepts at Mansfield Park; when she returns to her family, she recognizes the need for her younger sister to change. Furthermore, this return to Portsmouth in the third volume of the novel is seen as a direct punishment. If returning home is a punishment, then is being at Mansfield Park assumed to be a privilege? This seems to imply that returning there, because it is a place of poverty, is a negative experience.
Overall, the novel’s concern with place-whether a specific location at Mansfield Park, elsewhere in England, or the family’s Antigua plantation- correlates with ideas of social status and morality. How does Fanny’s experience spending the first ten years of her life in a poverty-stricken setting affect her views on the social structure forced upon her at her arrival at Mansfield Park? Is the countryside really a sort of “Eden”? If so, given the characters’ thoughts on the country versus city, would it be considered Eden before or after the fall? Finally, given the eventual marriage between Fanny and Edmund, what is the significance of Fanny’s elevated social status, and do you think it plays a pivotal role in her life (after the end of the novel)?

2 comments:

  1. I would like to address part of Mallory’s final question about Fanny’s change in social status and how this status is signified by her relation to setting. For much of the novel, Fanny is an outsider regardless of her setting. In Mansfield Park, she is an outsider to much of the group because, in the words of Sir Thomas before Fanny’s arrival, she needs to “remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations, will always be different,” (10). To this end, Fanny is never considered a true part of the family/social class of those who live in Mansfield Park, and is always on the periphery. When Fanny is offered the chance to visit her immediate family in Portsmouth, she holds high expectations for finally fitting in somewhere, “to feel herself the equal of those who surrounded her,” (251). However, upon her change in scenery to Portsmouth, Fanny is disappointed in these hopes, finding that her opinions of social status have been formed at Mansfield Park so as to make her look down upon her parents, brothers, and sisters. Therefore, Fanny exists between settings and social classes, too high for the class of her parents but too low for the social class of her Mansfield Park family.

    It is only upon the failure of some of the upper class (including her cousins Maria and Julia as well as the Crawfords) that Fanny is welcomed back to Mansfield Park as an equal. The end of the novel, characterized by the future of Edmund and Fanny’s life together, allows Fanny to fit with her setting. Perhaps the implied future setting of Fanny’s life, as that of a clergyman’s wife in the Mansfield Park parsonage, allows her to reach a balance in terms of class; she remains with a person raised in the same class structure as herself, but without the extravagant wealth that her cousins were used to in growing up.

    ReplyDelete
  2. While reading this novel, I was intrigued by some of the judgements that the inhabitants of Mansfield Park make on the subject of rank and status, in other words on place in society. Somehow, the importance of a character's place in society is even more significant in Mansfield Park than in the other Austen novels, since it is placed in the center of the plotline and is presented as vastly different for many interrelated characters.
    From the very introduction of the idea of taking in one of Mrs. Price's children, Sir Thomas is much concerned with "the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up" (10). Sir Thomas reluctantly accepts Fanny to Mansfield Park, however much preferring Mrs. Norris to take the charge upon herself. Even at the beginning, it is clear that Fanny would much better fit in with Mrs. Norris at the parsonage than with the Bertrams at Mansfield Park. Unfortunately for the Bertrams, Mrs. Norris will not take Fanny.
    And from her first day, Fanny is not allowed to forget that Mansfield Park is not her home. Fanny is consistently made aware of her lower rank and of her position of one who does not belong at Mansfield Park. She is always the one who is left behind to wait on Lady Bertram while everyone else goes to have dinner at the Grants' or goes out riding. She was also meant to stay behind while everyone else was decidedly going on an excursion to Sotherton. While the Bertram girls are allowed to be idle, Fanny is always expected to be busy with something; if at any point she is noticed to be idle, Mrs. Norris scolds her and commands her to get back to work (52). In addition, Fanny is the one who is sent on all the errands, whenever the servants are busy.
    When the opportunity arose upon the death of Mr. Norris, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram tried to push Fanny off to Mrs. Norris again. In the words of Edmund, "[Mrs. Norris] is choosing a friend and companion exactly where she ought [...] You will be what you ought to be to her" (20). So again, thinking of everyone's place in society, Fanny seems to belong to a parish much better than to Mansfield Park. And in the end, Fanny marries Edmund, who is the parson at Thornton Lacey, resulting in her final placement at a parsonage.

    ReplyDelete