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Austen 2014: Mansfield Park, Volume 1

Yes, I've been delayed, but I must admit, some of the delay was of my own making. As I've mentioned before, I adore Mansfield Park, and I want to do it justice, so instead of powering through, I've been dawdling over it, as one might expect, and allowing my thoughts to wander all over the text. Perhaps some day I will do a year of Mansfield Park--the text is rich and varied enough to support it--but I must move on, as I have the week of Thanksgiving slated for Emma, and both the chill in the air and the gray skies indicate that we are not far from the feast. So, while I may want to linger longer, it is time to start discussing Mansfield Park.

Maria Bertram is a very good actress--too good, in fact. This observation is made by Fanny during the rehearsals of the Mansfield production of Lovers' Vows. What does it mean that Fanny observes Maria to be too good of an actress? I think we're meant to realize that Maria Bertram is always acting a role. Agatha is no more a challenge for her than the roles of dutiful daughter or future Mrs. Rushworth, roles she has grown accustomed to playing, voluntarily or otherwise. The real Maria, I think, is only visible in glimpses, and, most notably, in the passage at Sotherton when she and Henry Crawford find themselves unable to leave the woods because of a locked gate. It's worth quoting in full, as it does provide us with valuable insight into her character:

...Miss Bertram began again. "You seemed to enjoy your drive here very much this morning. I was glad to see you so well entertained. You and Julia were laughing the whole way."
"Were we? Yes, I believe we were; but I have not the least recollection at what. Oh! I believe I was relating to her some ridiculous stories of an old Irish groom of my uncle's. Your sister loves to laugh."
"You think her more light-hearted than I am?"
"More easily amused," he replied; "consequently, you know," smiling, "better company. I could not have hoped to entertain you with Irish anecdotes during a ten miles' drive."
"Naturally, I believe, I am as lively as Julia, but I have more to think of now."
"You have, undoubtedly; and there are situations in which very high spirits would denote insensibility. Your prospects, however, are too fair to justify want of spirits. You have a very smiling scene before you."
"Do you mean literally or figuratively? Literally, I conclude. Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. 'I cannot get out,' as the starling said." As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate: he followed her. "Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!"
"And for the world you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth's authority and protection, or I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited."
"Prohibited! nonsense! I certainly can get out that way, and I will. Mr. Rushworth will be here in a moment, you know; we shall not be out of sight."
"Or if we are, Miss Price will be so good as to tell him that he will find us near that knoll: the grove of oak on the knoll."
Fanny, feeling all this to be wrong, could not help making an effort to prevent it. "You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram," she cried; "you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown; you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha. You had better not go."
Her cousin was safe on the other side while these words were spoken, and, smiling with all the good-humour of success, she said, "Thank you, my dear Fanny, but I and my gown are alive and well, and so good-bye."

The question of whether Austen is a feminist is a complicated one, but we definitely see here that, while Maria Bertram has, in some ways, chosen her own unhappy fate, society had so confined her options that true happiness was perhaps impossible. Mr. Crawford's calculated use of the the words "authority," "protection," and "prohibited," coming as they do after Maria's passionate outburst about feeling trapped, both by the gate, and by the prospect of marrying Mr. Rushworth, trigger the desired result: Maria edges around the gate, and abandons propriety and goes off with Mr. Crawford. What they do with the rest of their afternoon is left to the reader's imagination, as neither we nor any of the other characters see them again until the party reforms several hours later.

We are not meant, I don't think, to forgive Maria--after all she has, as of yet, shown no contrition for her actions--but I do believe we are meant to sympathize with her. Sir Thomas Bertram is not a warm, encouraging figure; Lady Bertram is practically a non-entity; and even her beloved Tom and Maria find their Aunt Norris to be a horrid woman. To put it mildly, positive role modeling was decidedly lacking. Maria was raised to be beautiful and to marry well; whatever her own wishes might be in the matter seem irrelevant. The specter of her Aunt Price--who married poorly and sank into poverty--was almost certainly with her always as she matured, but at the same time, she saw the example her brother Tom was setting. Tom Bertram, as an unprincipled eldest son of a wealthy aristocrat, lives for pleasure and has no sense of duty or responsibility. Maria seems to think that securing herself a wealthy position in society, by marrying Mr. Rushworth, will give her the freedom of enjoying her life the way Tom enjoys his. Even without Mr. Crawford's interference, her gamble seems unlikely to go her way--however, what other choice does she have?

However, Mr. Crawford's entrance complicates the situation tremendously. Mr. Crawford is the best actor in the theatricals, acknowledged to be so by everyone save Mr. Rushworth. Indeed, like Maria, Henry Crawford is always acting. In combining Tom's desire for nothing but amusement with Maria's talent for deception, Henry Crawford represents a real danger to the status quo at Mansfield. In flirting with both sisters, he raised their hopes, and only his sister Mary seemed to know that, to Henry, this was merely sport. While it might be considered spoiling to say it, the only woman Henry Crawford ever considers marrying is Fanny. Julia has realized he does not love her, but both she and Maria still think that he must love one or the other of them. The idea of a man behaving so familiarly for so long without having the goal of marrying either is not something they're prepared to consider. Both Mrs. Grant and Fanny seem at pains to make the danger of his relationship with Maria clear to third parties who they hope will intervene, Mary and Edmund, respectively. Again, however, almost all involved assume that it is all (relatively) innocent misunderstanding. The notion that Henry Crawford is making Maria Bertram fall in love with him as a game is so horrible they don't even allow it to be a possibility. The very protection that Sir Thomas thought he was providing his daughters by raising them in a certain manner has proven to make them vulnerable to dangers few of them could imagine.

And I will just leave on this note, since the reader's opinion of Mary Crawford's character colors the rest of the novel: Mary knows exactly what his brother is, she knows fully that he in no way intends to marry Maria, and yet she does or says nothing to stop him. Instead, she watches the game play out, occasionally making wry observations and intimations, until the theatricals, and the first volume, are brought to a halt by the sudden arrival home of Sir Thomas, in what certainly the only cliffhanger in Jane Austen.

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