Mansfield Park: Compromises

  • Michael Williams


This is the Austen novel about which readers are least able to agree: it therefore appears to be the one that most readily invites an approach concerned with narrative methods and reading-strategies. That at least prevents us from immediately taking sides in the noisy debate. Chapman (1948, p. 194) has succinctly put the problem in terms of the difficulty of being ‘sure of the writer’s general intention’, and of the ‘almost blatantly didactic’ tone in the novel. That contradiction is central. Critic after critic remarks with relish or fortitude or outrage that this novel is unlike the other five in combining the explication of a theme with a harsh statement of an unpalatable and, for many, unconvincing message. From this it is but a short step to the conclusion that the novel is aesthetically a failure, or to the opposing view that its merits have to be specially and, as they have sometimes been, ingeniously argued.


Active Principle Great Artist Summary Judgement Religious Principle Insufficient Instruction 
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  1. 1.
    For example, Mansell (1973) finds the narrative ‘leaden and witless’ (p. 109), discovers ‘a dismaying amount of direct or diaphanous sermonising’ (p. 111) and so embarks upon a search for biographical and literary evidence that in Mansfield Park Austen was rejecting wit and liveliness.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See Lloyd Brown (1973) for possible links with Johnson and Shaftesbury (pp. 49–50), Swift (pp. 90–1), Burke, Cowper and Addison (pp. 94–6). Duckworth (1971, pp. 38–55) places Austen on the side of Burke and Cowper, and against Repton and Godwin. On the controversy between Repton and Price, and a potential connection with Mansfield Park, see Butler (1979, pp. 30–7).Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    For a full account of the Evangelicals see Ford K. Brown (1961, esp. pp. 4–6, 26–30).Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System (1797) pp. 7–8.Google Scholar
  5. 18.
    Consider, for example, the efforts of some of Rousseau’s English followers: Day, The History of Sandford and Merton (1783–9), or Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) in Tales and Novels (1832–3) XI, 317–31, and XII, 131–222, with its account of false distinctions between the sexes, of the ‘rights of woman’, of the corruptions which life in society encourages, of alternative and more wholesome ways of bringing up children.Google Scholar
  6. 19.
    Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Kramnick (1975) pp. 317, 147–50. See Gisborne, Enquiy, pp. 239–42, 90–1, for example, on the differences between the sexes, and on rank; by contrast, see Wollstonecraft, Vindication, pp. 174–5.Google Scholar
  7. 26.
    Shorter, The Brontës: Life and Letters (1908) II, 127; and I, 388. Other responses to Brontë’s claim have been made by Juliet McMaster (1974, pp. 5–24) and Barbara Hardy (1975, pp. 36–40).Google Scholar
  8. 31.
    Is Mary’s letter ‘remarkably indiscreet’, as Lascelles (1939, p. 175) claims? Only really so if we remember the somewhat dubious use to which Fanny puts it (Mansfield Park, p. 459). See Fleishman (1967, pp. 79–80) for a rather sensationalised rendering of Fanny’s dubiety.Google Scholar
  9. 32.
    Joel C. Weinsheimer (1974, pp. 193–4) rightly notes that this is the ‘language of Gothic sensibility’.Google Scholar

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© Michael Williams 1986

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  • Michael Williams

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