Instruction with amusement: Jane Austen's women of sense.
Then again, remember the young Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor), in Mansfield Park (directed by Patricia Rozema, 1999), entertaining Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller) with her funny and subversive writings? But again, Jane Austen's Fanny Price did not do, and would not have imagined doing, any such thing.
There is no doubt that many people know Jane Austen only from such film versions. A Sydney newspaper reported an exchange overheard in the queue for Sense and Sensibility: "Do you think this will be a nice film?" "If you like Jane Austen you'll like it." "Oh, I haven't seen her in anything else" (Gooneratne 2006). It goes without saying that those people are missing a more complex aesthetic experience than is offered by the films, which are designed to entertain and to make money. They are also missing a vital aspect of the nineteenth-century novel: its moral mission.
Not, of course, that Jane Austen and her contemporaries had no pecuniary aim in writing: one of Austen's engaging characteristics is the fact that she recorded the amounts of money her books brought her. Nor was the creative impulse considered unimportant. Austen emphasized the artistic achievement of the novel, declaring in Chapter V of Northanger Abbey that good novels had "only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them," and displayed "the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour."
But this was only part of the story. To us, for a work of great art to have a moral purpose seems unnecessary. Yet the background to Austen's comments was the widespread view that to instruct was not only an added benefit, but should be the prime purpose, of the novel. Johnson, so influential an authority (including on Austen herself), emphasized that for this reason, novelists needed to be particularly careful to present good role models (Johnson 1750 (1): 63).
The principle that a novel should inculcate right behaviour remained, well into the nineteenth century, a key justification of the form. It was particularly insisted upon because, as Austen's own remarks in Northanger Abbey indicate, many commentators criticized novels as, at best, trivial, or, more seriously, as having a bad influence. In 1810, the year before Sense and Sensibility appeared, a Baptist divine and journalist, John Foster, savagely reviewed Maria Edgeworth's latest novel, in an essay called "The Morality of Works of Fiction" (Foster 1810). He wrote from a strongly Christian viewpoint, without which, he believed, Edgeworth was not qualified to offer moral guidance.
Austen's moral messages, on the other hand, particularly because they were presented in an attractive package, met general applause. Richard Whately, then an Oxford scholar, later professor of political economy, and subsequently archbishop of Dublin, wrote in a review of Persuasion in 1821:
On the whole, Miss Austin's [sic] works may safely be recommended, not only as among the most unexceptionable of their class, but as combining, in an eminent degree, instruction with amusement, though without the direct effort at the former, of which we have complained, as sometimes defeating its object (Southam (2): 134-135).
In referring to self-defeating moral instruction, Whately may have been thinking of another novel which had appeared in 1811: Mary Brunton's Self-Control. Brunton, a self-taught clergyman's wife from the remote Orkney Islands, perhaps anticipating criticism such as Foster's, took care to make her heroine, Laura, exceedingly devout. In love with the blackguard Hargrave, she conceals her preference for years, in view of his unworthiness, and in the hope of his reformation.
At the same time, Austen was completing Sense and Sensibility. She tried unsuccessfully to obtain Self-Control during 1811 (Austen 1811). In an 1813 letter, which indicated that she was rereading the book, she dismissed its lack of realism (Austen 1813). By implication, she dismissed also the overtly Christian basis. Yet her novel had a similar moral issue at its center, and surely, like Maria Edgeworth, Austen felt qualified to use the novel as a vehicle for instruction.
Her choice of self-control as the key virtue of the novel, as well as following the Brunton trend, was probably inspired by a reaction against the prevailing cult of sensibility. By the 1790s, when Jane Austen was beginning to draft, English fiction was under a pervasive influence from the Continent. Rousseau's Saint-Preux (1761) and Goethe's Werther (1774) had set a trend of heroes and heroines who put themselves and their emotions first.
It is clear that Jane Austen wanted to have a different kind of heroine in Elinor Dashwood. Elinor exhibits the ancient virtue of sophrosune, including its meaning of "sense," as well as "self-control," and, as in the King James version of the New Testament, "soberness," "sobriety" (Acts 26:25, I Timothy 2:9 and 2:15).
C.S. Lewis, in Chapter 6 of his modestly titled Studies in Words (1967), discussing English derivatives of the Latin sensus, illuminated our understanding of Austen's title. "Sense," being Elinor's defining characteristic, included the stronger idea of "right judgment," as well as our more familiar, simpler meaning of "common sense," "rationality." Lewis pointed out that "sense" also denoted tact in dealing with others, a quality in which Elinor is outstanding, and Marianne completely lacking. One of the novel's moral themes is an exploration of how far one should take into account the views of others, in deciding how to behave.
But I thought it was right, Elinor," said Marianne, "to be guided wholly by the opinion of other people. I thought our judgments were given us merely to be subservient to those of our neighbours. This has always been your doctrine, I am sure." "No, Marianne, never. My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or conform to their judgment in serious matters?" "You have not been able to bring your sister over to your plan of general civility," said Edward to Elinor. "Do you gain no ground?" "Quite the contrary," replied Elinor, looking expressively at Marianne (119).
Marianne is, of course, unfairly satirizing Elinor's position. Elinor, unlike her sister, treats their family friends Mrs. Jennings and Sir John Middleton with respect, although recognizing that they lack taste and discretion. She never forgets that, as a relative and friend, Mrs. Jennings merits polite and considerate behaviour.
When Elinor finds out that Lucy Steele is Edward's fiancee, and that she therefore can have no reasonable hope of marrying him, she keeps the knowledge to herself, because it would cause her mother and sister pain. Elinor's self-control, and "plan of general civility," minimize the amount of unhappiness in the family. This kind of calculus is hinted at more than once.
The necessity of concealing from her mother and Marianne, what had been entrusted in confidence to herself, though it obliged her to unceasing exertion, was no aggravation of Elinor's distress. On the contrary it was a relief to her, to be spared the communication of what would give such affliction to them ... their tenderness and sorrow must add to her distress, while her self-command would neither receive encouragement from their example nor from their praise. She was stronger alone ... (159).
Before we call Elinor a utilitarian heroine, though, we need to recall that she--and no doubt Austen--would have considered that her object should be to maximize the happiness of her family, not merely that of anyone to make up the numbers.
By contrast, Marianne's insistence on nurturing and displaying her unhappiness results not only in her own illness, but in a net increase of unhappiness to everyone around her. Austen probably considered Marianne's injuries to her private good, and to her family's, as of equal seriousness. In Rasselas, a novel definitely known to Austen, Johnson had made the prince point out that, "It is our business to consider what beings like us may perform; each labouring for his own happiness, by promoting within his circle, however narrow, the happiness of others" (563). The parallel argument, that in harming others we harm ourselves, was calculated to appeal to the selfish, always a sufficiently large public. While Austen does not want explicitly to depict Marianne as receiving just deserts for her inconsiderate behaviour, this is unavoidably implied.
Although the moral behaviour of Austen's female characters is our focus here, we find that the male characters' lack of restraint drives the plots of both Austen's and Brunton's novels. Willoughby and Hargrave exhibit unrestraint in financial matters as well as sexual. As Willoughby tells Elinor: "'Every year since my coming of age, or even before, I believe, had added to my debts....'" (315). Of his growing relationship with Marianne, he says he was "trying to engage her regard, without a thought of returning it" (315). Willoughby's conduct could not be more different from that of Edward Ferrars. Having contracted an engagement with the unlovable Lucy Steele, he considers himself bound to marry her, while exercising the utmost self-command in keeping the engagement secret. Elinor respects Edward all the more when he refuses to break his engagement to Lucy, despite being cut off by his family: "Elinor gloried in his integrity" (270).
Austen's other hero, Colonel Brandon, who loves Marianne without hope of his love being returned, exhibits many qualities of a truly virtuous man. Such a man had an obligation to be generous; self-control and economy enabled him to be so. Colonel Brandon donates the living of Delaford to Edward Fenars, thus enabling Edward to propose to Elinor. The generosity of a self-controlled man thus resolves the most intractable problem of the novel.
Like Austen, Brunton died too young; she succumbed to puerperal fever, at the age of forty. Self-Control enjoyed great success when first published, and continued to be read, with a French translation in 1829, and new English editions coming out in 1837 and 1852 (Axon 148). In 1834, the actor and theatre manager William Macready (1793-1873) explicitly compared, in his diary, the moral impacts of Austen and Brunton, to the advantage of the latter.
We are not much better, but perhaps a little more prudent for [Austen's] writings. She does not probe the vices, but lays bare the weakness of character; the blemish on the skin, and not the corruption at the heart, is what she examines. Mrs Brunton's books have a far higher aim; they try to make us better, and it is an addition to previous faults if they do not. The necessity, the comfort, and the elevating influence of piety is continually inculcated throughout her works--which never appear in Miss Austen's (Southam (1): 118).
An unsigned article, "Female Novelists," in 1852, could speak of "Mrs Brunton, the still popular authoress of Self-Control" (132). As late as 1908, Brunton was regarded as a national figure of sufficient stature to merit a column space entry in the Leslie Stephen-Sidney Lee Dictionary of National Biography. Yet in my edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature (the third, 1946), neither she nor her most famous work attracts an entry. The timing is significant: self-control lost its status between those dates, as we will see in relation to its prime exemplar, Fanny Price.
To a modern view, Brunton's most famous novel fails. It meanders repetitively, while Sense and Sensibility has the tightest of frameworks. Self-Control is melodramatic and the characters are hackneyed. Most importantly, these artistic defects seem to us--though they did not to the Victorians--to undermine the impact of Brunton's moral message, as Whately had hinted in 1821.
Yet Austen's brilliance in character-drawing also had effects she probably did not intend. Marianne, honest and loving, is a most attractive character, with whom many readers identify. It is significant that Austen's brother James considered that the author herself united the virtues of both sisters: "Fair Elinor's Self in that Mind is exprest, /And the Feelings of Marianne live in that Breast" (James Austen 39). Sixteen-year-old Princess Charlotte, reading Sense and Sensibility when it came out, wrote: "Maryanne [sic] & me are very alike in disposition, that certainly I am not so good, the same imprudence, &c however remain very like ..." (Tomalin 220).
The scene in which Marianne meets Willoughby at the London party is one of Austen's most powerful. George Moore, interviewed in 1919 by Edmund Gosse, compared it with Balzac and Turgenev: "It is here that we find the burning human heart in English prose narrative for the first, and, alas, for the last time" (Southam (1): 276). Not every fellow novelist felt the poignancy of Marianne's passion. Having read only Emma, Charlotte Bronte did not believe that Austen dealt in passion at all. "The passions are perfectly unknown to [Austen]; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood. Even to the feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition ..." (Lodge 50). G.H. Lewes, during her lifetime a loyal supporter of Charlotte Bronte, expressed himself quite differently by 1859. "Miss Bronte.... we fear, will soon cease to find readers ... Cutter Bell may be taken as a type of [Austen-dislikers]. She was utterly without a sense of humour, and was by nature fervid and impetuous ..." (Lewes 150, 160). As well as making us love Marianne, Austen makes us find Willoughby, despite his faults, attractive; and it is one of the triumphs of the novel that Elinor, despite everything, acknowledges his charm.
Where Elinor unhesitatingly meets her obligations to her circle, the very life of Mansfield Park's Fanny Price seems mortgaged, in advance, to meet her parents' debt to Sir Thomas Bertram in undertaking her upbringing. The extent and nature of Fanny's obligations are of central concern. Mrs. Norris, naturally, reminds her of this most often. "... I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her--very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is" (169-70). During the play preparations, having refused to act, Fanny debates what she owes her cousins, in view of their past presents to her. She tries to employ a debt calculus to guide her, but: "... she grew bewildered as to the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced" (174). She is frequently "obliged" to Miss Crawford for a small kindness or other, while Mr. Crawford openly seeks to influence her, in helping to promote her brother William's career. Most significantly, Sir Thomas sees Fanny's refusal to marry Mr. Crawford as an implicit reneging on her obligation to accept such an offer (318-319).
In fact, Fanny is a far better judge than her uncle, more "sensible" in its strong meaning. She stays true to her character. She is always shy: "her favourite indulgence [was] of being suffered to sit silent and unattended to" (234). Yet she has strong emotions. Mary Crawford, a shrewd judge, says that Fanny "is as good a little creature as ever lived, and has a great deal of feeling" (240). This makes her achievement in keeping her feelings to herself the more impressive.
The issue of obligations unmet, of duty unperformed, returns to haunt the family at Mansfield. In parting from Mary Crawford, Edmund "earnestly hoped that she might soon learn to think more justly, and not owe the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire--the knowledge of ourselves and of our duty, to the lessons of affliction" (444). And Sir Thomas, at length, is forced to admit that "[his daughters] had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers, by that sense of duty which can alone suffice" (448). To add color and depth to Fanny's portrait, Austen refers to well known passages by Johnson. Most famously (385), Fanny likens Portsmouth to Nekayah's conclusion on celibacy in Rasselas (560): that it has no pleasures. It is significant that in the characters of Nekayah and Pekuah, Johnson created women who think deeply and discuss, with Rasselas and Imlac, fundamental issues of morality and life. In referring to the novel, Fanny indicates that she, too, has considered such matters.
Fanny is linked with Johnson at other points. The lengthy description of Fanny's white attic recalls Johnson's bittersweet reminiscences of garrets and attics of his acquaintance (1751: 88-93). On Fanny's attic table, Edmund notes that Fanny's copy of Johnson's Idler has a prominent spot (177).
Mary Crawford's famous remarks on money and London (90) betray deep familiarity with Johnson's praise of the comforts of civilized life. "... We who have long lived amidst the conveniences of a town immensely populous, have scarce an idea of a place where desire cannot be gratified by money" (1753: 159). Fanny's comments on the faculty of memory (wasted on Mary: 222), may well have been inspired by her reading of Idler 72, Johnson's melancholy meditation on the theme (1759: 189-191), which itself echoes Cicero in the Tusculan Disputations (I.xxiv-xxv).
Finally, Johnson's suggestion that the study of nature forms a useful occupation, "A man that has formed this habit of turning every new object to his entertainment, finds in the productions of nature an inexhaustible stock of materials upon which he can employ himself, without any temptations to envy or malevolence ..." (1750 (2): 68) must surely be in the back of Fanny's mind when she says to Edmund, "When I look out on such a night as this, I feel 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, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene" (139). Austen allows Fanny to express her creditable emotions, such as her love of nature, with passion. It is only those which have the potential to hurt others, and her self-esteem, which need to be concealed.
In moments where Fanny feels deeply, she expresses herself through quotes from the poet Cowper, who, like Johnson, was one of Austen's favorites. The first occasion is at a Mansfield dinner with the Grants, Crawfords and Mr. Rushworth, where Fanny comments sadly on Mr. Rushworth's enthusiasm for clearing (87).
The other signal case is at Portsmouth, where Fanny's homesickness for Mansfield brings to her mind Cowper's Tirocinium (1785), a poem portraying the misery of the boy at boarding school (420). Austen had probably felt the nausea of homesickness during her brief and disastrous boarding school experience. Cowper's title, too, has a poignant significance for Fanny in her first foray from home since childhood: in Latin contexts, it denotes a young soldier's first tour of duty (Smith 756).
Through her familiarity with Johnson and Cowper, Fanny is shown to be a young woman of both judgment and information; like Elinor, of "sense" in its primary meaning. Significantly, Edmund tells Fanny that his intimacy with her and Mary Crawford, "sensible women," has spoiled him for most female company (351). He is mistaken about Mary, for she lacks that depth which is a central aspect of sense and sophrosune, but not about Fanny. The contrast may again echo Rasselas, where the vacancy of the harem women is compared with the lively mind of Pekuah (587-588).
This makes it the more surprising that some modern critics have seen Fanny as ignorant. Jesse Wolfe likens her to Harriet Smith in Emma (Wolfe 1999). Yet Mr. Knightley describes Harriet as "not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information" (87), where I believe "sensible" has its strong meaning of "well-judging," "thoughtful." Harriet has had no competent instructors, has read only popular novels, and appears to have only an ordinary capacity for thought and feeling. Fanny, in contrast, has experienced true mental growth, through her wide reading and her habit of reflection.
Fanny is an intellectual and moral heir of the Western tradition, both classical and Christian. It is significant that Austen's prose and moralizing rise to their greatest power in a Ciceronian manner. Here she ironically describes Mafia Bertram, using one tricolon within a larger one; and, Johnson-like, emphasizes the solemnity of marriage by using the Latinate word. The jarring return to words of one syllable in the next sentence illustrates Maria's mental unfitness for her future. "In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete; being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry. The rest might wait" (216).
That Austen recorded her readers' opinions of Fanny suggests that she realized that these were going to be mixed; that Fanny was, so to speak, thrown down as a moral challenge to her readers.
"Fanny is a delightful Character!" (Austen's brother Francis) "Liked the character of Fanny." (Austen's brother Edward) "Edward admired Fanny. George disliked her." (Austen's Knight nephews, aged 20 and 19 respectively) "Liked it, in many parts, very much indeed, delighted with Fanny." (Austen's niece Fanny Knight, aged 21) (Austen: Opinions)
The balance of opinion in 1814 was in Fanny's favor, although she had some detractors (including Austen's mother, who thought her "insipid"). Yet, incredibly to us, some readers in Austen's own time thought that Fanny should have been more self-controlled. "Admired Fanny in general; but thought she ought to have been more determined on overcoming her own feelings, when she saw Edmund's attachment to Miss Crawford" (Mary Cooke: Austen: Opinions). Another contemporary was particularly pleased with "the character of Fanny, as being so very natural" (Mrs. Bramstone: Austen: Opinions). These are not comments likely to occur to the modern reader. Through the Victorian period, Fanny continued to meet the essential criteria for a satisfactory heroine. In 1852, an anonymous reviewer exclaimed: "Then again, in Mansfield Park, what a bewitching 'little body' is Fanny Price ... and what fine truth in the moral of the tale!" (Female Novelists 138). An anonymous writer for the Dublin Review in 1870 could describe her as "submissive and simpleminded," intending this to be a compliment, while celebrating her as a forerunner of Thackeray's Amelia in Vanity Fair. He also expressed concern about whether Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, could really be a gentleman, in view of his proposal, and whether Fanny was really ladylike, but this was fortunately resolved in her favor (Lodge 57-59). Fanny, however, is foreign to today's reader because she is "so unintelligibly moral," a phrase Austen actually applies to Sir Thomas Bertram as seen by Mr. Yates (207).
The tide turned with the end of the old century, just as Austen herself enjoyed a new rush of popularity. In 1913, Virginia Woolf wrote a review of two continuations of Austen novels in which she wrote: "There are characters such as the characters of Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price which bore us frankly ..." (242). She explained:
[Austen] has too little of the rebel in her composition, too little discontent, and of the vision which is the cause and the reward of discontent ... she is debarred from the most profound insight into human nature by the respect which she pays to some unnatural convention ... she is content to take for granted that such characters [as Elinor and Fanny] and conduct are good without trying to see them in a fresh light for herself (241-242).
Woolf no doubt singled out Elinor and Fanny because their self-control was so little to Bloomsbury taste. The idea of a suitable woman had also changed. Two of the best known attacks on Fanny are by men. One of the most brutal remains the 1917 article by Reginald Farrer, otherwise best known for his contributions to horticulture.
She is the most terrible incarnation we have of the female prigpharisee. Those who still survive of the Victorian school, which prized a woman in proportion as she was 'little' and soft and silly, keep a special tenderness in their hearts for Fanny Price. Alas, poor souls, let them only have married her! Gentle and timid and shrinking and ineffectual as she seems, fiction holds no heroine more repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice ... (264).
By the mid-century, Trilling, in his Olympian way, was apologetic about Fanny (212), and towards the end of the swinging Fifties, Kingsley Amis called Mansfield Park an immoral book.
... the character of Fanny lacks self-knowledge, generosity and humility, the three 'less common acquirements' which [lacking in the Bertram girls] are to be demonstrated as existing in her. Instead she is a monster of complacency and pride who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel. What became of that Jane Austen (if she ever existed) who set out bravely to correct conventional notions of the desirable and virtuous? From being their critic (if she ever was) she became their slave. That is another way of saying that her judgment and her moral sense were corrupted. Mansfield Park is the witness of that corruption (16-17).
The change in attitudes to Fanny Price, and to a lesser extent Elinor Dashwood, had been paralleled by important cultural developments. Classical literature, including ethical works, had become a specialist study, rather than a common heritage. Christianity declined in importance in the West, particularly among the educated. Classical and Christian virtues--indeed, the very term and concept of "virtue"--became, both individually and as a group, historical curiosities. There was still a place for the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice and courage, although definitions of these would differ from those which the ancients understood. But the fourth member of the group, self-control, was particularly hard hit.
Within a few years early in the century, it had come to be considered as a form of repression of important impulses. Where a person's responsibility is reduced to physical or unconscious factors, he has less reason to try to control anti-social emotions or behaviour. Tony Tanner, in his 1969 introduction to the Penguin Sense and Sensibility (apparently considered a classic, as it has been reinstated in the latest Penguin edition), cited Freud's Civilization and its Discontents (1930), concluding that Marianne's illness was "neurosis brought on by repression" (30). Tanner had shown how upto-the-minute he was by quoting from "that remarkable book by Michel Foucault called Madness and Civilization (Tavistock, 1967)" (13-15).
Similar influences can be seen in Jane Nardin's 1973 judgment upon Elinor. "Elizabeth Bennet's standards of decorous behaviour do not grate upon the reader's sensibilities as, for example, Elinor Dashwood's excessively rigid and stoical conception of propriety sometimes does" (6). Before the mid-century, it is unlikely that "stoical" had been used as a term of disapproval. C.S. Lewis, in the Sixties, noted the tendency. "Give a good quality a name and that name will soon be the name of a defect. Pious and respectable are among the comparatively modern casualties, and sanctimonious was once a term of praise" (173). Nina Auerbach in 1983 could liken Fanny to both Grendel and Frankenstein's monster.
[Fanny makes a] cannibalistic invasion of the lighted, spacious estate of Mansfield ... Like the primitive Grendel, she replaces common and convivial feasting with a solitary and subtler hunger that possesses its object (23). In the subtle streak of perversity that still disturbs readers today, she shows us the monsters within Jane Austen's. realism, ineffable presences who allow the novels to participate in the darker moods of their age (24).
To the generations of Freud and of Foucault, Elinor and Fanny represented something not only foreign but perverse and infuriating. The film treatments of the 1990s, therefore, stand at the culmination of a century of dislike.
While continuing to cash in on the Austen brand, both films attempt to appeal to an audience which, the screenwriters and directors seem to believe, would find Austen's actual characters off-putting. Margaret Dashwood (in the novel a very minor part) is played up because, unlike either Elinor or Marianne, she can be portrayed as a tomboy, a "normal," "modem," girl. Emma Thompson, who both played Elinor and wrote the screenplay (and therefore shares "writing credits" with Jane Austen), planned to include Monty-Python style slapstick scenes, of which only a few traces can be seen in the final film (Stone 1996). In Rozema's version of Mansfield Park, Fanny is depicted as a bright, laughing girl. It is fair to say that Frances O'Connor's Fanny, whatever her merits, is absolutely nothing like Jane Austen's.
Both films ignore as far as possible the internal moral deliberations of the books' heroines, which are admittedly very difficult to express through the medium of film. Some attempt is made to translate meditation into conversation, but this is limited. As a result of these distortions and omissions, the characters are a one-dimensional caricature of Austen's.
Yet, at least, reflexive anti-Fanny attitudes have, in recent years, come under question. The novelist A.S. Byatt, in a highly perceptive discussion of Mansfield Park with the psychoanalyst Ignes Sodre, said in 1995: "[Fanny] is afraid, and at some gut level I believe we experience her fear, which is why I don't hate her as most critics do, I am too involved with her fear to be able to detach myself enough to think she's a mouse" (14).
The Bildungsroman nature of Mansfield Park, and the alienation of its adolescent heroine, should make it a natural choice for high school English study. Yet in my home state of New South Wales, Australia, high school students, of advanced English no less, study only, of Austen's works, Emma, and then only in conjunction with the Amy Heckerling film Clueless (1995). That our educationists imagine that students can only read an old novel if bribed with a film, indicates their low expectations. In a stylistic comparison between Emma and Clueless, it is unlikely that either aesthetic or moral issues are going to receive careful consideration.
Yet, encouragingly, an American professor of education has recommended the more widespread study of Jane Austen's novels, not merely as part of English courses, but as a guide to life for adolescents (Fritzer 1998). Perhaps surprisingly, the medium of chick-lit shows, in some instances, clear moral influence from Austen. Lauren Henderson's Jane Austen's Guide to Dating (2005) makes a point of promoting, among other qualities, the kind of self-control exemplified by Elinor and Fanny.
It is fitting that with such a handbook we have come full circle. Austen depicted the values of her heroines not merely for aesthetic effect, but to encourage practical emulation. Many girls have identified with Fanny's isolation, with Elinor's loving without hope, and with Marianne's abandonment. Few, of any period, can hope to be as brilliant as Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, but Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price, in their struggles to do right--depicted in works "in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed"--surely continue to provide moral inspiration.
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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