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Narratives of absolutism in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park has been a problem novel, sparking heated debates and inspiring in critics opposing views that range from portraying Austen as a defender of conventional morality and a conservative reactionary to extolling her as a master of irony and a harsh critic of the social institutions of her day. If Mansfield Park has made Kingsley Amis wonder, "What became of that Jane Austen (if she ever existed) who set out bravely to correct conventional notions of the desirable and virtuous?" and conclude, "From being their critic (if she ever was) she became their slave" (144), it has also provided evidence for Claudia Johnson to argue that the novel "subvert[s] the moral polarities on which it seems to rest" (120). Exploring the novel's defiant potential by focusing on its affiliation with political thought that stretches beyond eighteenth-century Toryism--with which most critics identify Austen--shows that the novel is indeed an outlier in her oeuvre, a remake of Hobbes's seventeenth-century political model. Reading Mansfield Park against the backdrop of Hobbes offers us another way of politicizing Austen by throwing light on her deviation from the Lockean or Rousseauist theories of democratic pacts and benevolent sovereigns that dominated in the early nineteenth century and her return to a model of absolutism that was thought to be obsolete by the time she was writing.

Although the family plot of the novel is a reflection of the counter-revolutionary 1790s, at the same time it hints at the turbulent 1650s, when political theory argued for governments that would protect people from themselves and when covenants were approved out of fear rather than reasoning. The state of nature in the Bertram estate is not far from Hobbes's "condition of Warre" (Leviathan 1.14 [64]: 72), and its principal authority, Sir Thomas Bertram, bears closer resemblance to Hobbes's awesome Leviathan than to the caring sovereign of Locke's or Rousseau's political theory. Sir Thomas Bertram's absolutist authority condemns everyone to stasis, most of all his dependent niece, Fanny Price, who has been grafted into the Bertram family and who must gradually be trained into both paying off her infinite debt to her uncle and confusing his wishes for her desires. This imposing figure is Austen's means of conflating the domestic with the political, (1) the social with the sexual contract, and the imperial with the Oedipal father. The book, consequently, is engaged with schemas of despotism not only in its bold re-enactment of Leviathan, but also in its anticipation of modern Oedipal narratives, which, as Deleuze and Guattari have argued in their Anti-Oedipus, are a promotion of absolutism and imperialism.

Austen's remake of Hobbesian and Oedipal scenarios, however, is a polished remake. Fanny's gradual individualization and Oedipalization, her incestuous craving for her cousin Edmund, and their final endogamous marriage may legitimate autocracy as the only possible way of preserving order. Yet, both the improbability of the happy ending at a narrative level and Mary Crawford's Humean insight, welcomed and endorsed by the narrator, offer a challenge to sovereign authority and expose the hypocrisy embedded in the idea that social and sexual contracts are democratic pacts. Mansfield Park does not settle unreservedly in favor of absolutism, nor does it spurn the idea permanently, but remains undecided, proving, however, Austen perceptive enough to anticipate Carole Pateman's 1980s pronouncement that contract theory "justified subjection by presenting it as freedom" (39).


Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), the greatest declaration of his political philosophy, was composed during the turbulent times of the English Civil War, which ended in 1649 with the decapitation of Charles I, the monarch who applied absolutism to an extreme. As a conservative reaction to the political chaos the civil war brought about, Leviathan has as its theoretical basis egoism--each individual aims exclusively at his/her preservation or pleasure--and proposes submission to an absolute sovereign as the only way out of chaos--the condition of everyone involved in constant war against all. Hobbes's political model was ardently opposed by Enlightenment thinkers, like Locke and Rousseau, who promoted more democratic types of social contracts, endorsed by the citizens not out of fear but out of free will, and not in order to prevent the state of war but in order to secure their natural rights. For Rousseau, in the state of nature, man is not a selfish beast, as presented in Hobbes's Leviathan, but an innately virtuous being and, when corrupted, corrupted by civilization. His social contract is not one of submission to a monarchical ruler but one of association, "by which a number of people organize themselves into a group or society, but without necessarily sacrificing their autonomy or rights" (Betts xv).

To a large extent, Austen's work reflects Rousseau's principles of an inherently compassionate human nature and highlights the significance of caring estate owners for the well being of individuals and the community. Yet a considerable part of the plot of Mansfield Park implies that it is self-love that motivates the world and that subjection to authority to the degree that this annuls personal desire is indispensible to the prevailing of peace and stability. Of course, as Peter Knox-Shaw recently argued, Austen would always delight in exposing the real motives of her characters and their egoism well hidden behind "polite affectations" ("Philosophy" 353). What makes Mansfield Park more complex than a satire of covert self-love, however, is that it questions the very notion of individual desire as it gets tangled with the voice of authority, a voice oddly reminiscent of older contractual traditions. Although there is no record that Austen was directly familiar with or had read Hobbes, (2) Mansfield Park reverberates some of Hobbes's basic principles as far as the act of giving, the state of nature, the mushrooming of individuals, and people's consent to contracts are concerned.

What motivates the novel at its outset is the adoption of Fanny Price, the eldest daughter of the Price family, by her uncle and aunt, the aristocratic Bertrams, at the age of ten. This so-called "benevolent plan" of the Bertrams (MP 16) is meant to relieve their poor relatives of the burden of "waste material" (3) that could easily lead to a "want of almost everything else" (3). But giving, of course, involves more than compassionate designs and generous hearts, the reader is made to understand, as Fanny is repeatedly reminded that her position is to elevate her cousins by not being "a Miss Bertram" herself (9), to relieve them of all the unwanted spaces and objects in Mansfield Park, to be of service to her aunts Bertram and Norris, or even "an interesting object" (15) to her cousin Edmund at the age of ten and to her uncle at eighteen (275). The adoption of Fanny is clearly part of a more obscure and sophisticated design to benefit the Bertrams in the long run and, more significantly, an echo of Hobbes's atomistic philosophy. "For no man giveth, but with intention of Good to himselfe; because Gift is Voluntary; and of all Voluntary Acts, the Object is to every man his own Good," Thomas Hobbes states in his fourth Law of Nature (Leviathan 1.15 [75]: 83).

The Bertram family, moreover, like all great families, seems to resemble a little Hobbesian kingdom in which Fanny roots like a mushroom. "[A] Great Family is a Kingdom, & a Little Kingdome a Family," Hobbes writes; he continues: "Let us return again to the state of nature, and consider men as if but even now sprung out of the earth, and suddainly (like Mushromes) come to full maturity without all kind of engagement to each other" (De Cive 8.1). As a child unclaimed by her parents and barely missed all those years she lives with the Bertrams (it is only her eldest brother William who seems to remember her existence), Fanny embodies the Hobbesian individual who has emerged out of nothing and has been completely submerged in the mores of the Bertram universe. Becoming an individual, Fanny soon learns, is all about gaining territorial control of a certain space--in her case, a space superfluous and unclaimed, just like herself. It is only when she becomes mistress of "the little white attic," and more importantly the deserted and useless schoolroom (153-54), that she is able to build up a personality. The old schoolroom, or "East Room," as it is quite tellingly renamed by her cousin Maria, establishes Fanny as an individual: it both hosts her property and provides refuge from tyranny, ridicule, and neglect (155). (4) Every object that has been collected ("she had been a collector from the first hour of her commending a shilling" [154]) not only becomes her "friend" but inspires imaginary expeditions to far away lands. The East Room is Fanny's little empire and her gateway to the East, as Lord Macartney's journals and a sketch of H.M.S. Antwerp motivate her imaginary expeditions to China in imitation of Sir Thomas or William.

Fanny's developing into an individual, however, concerns more than just her transformation into a capitalist collector or owner. As a member of a well-established British family, she is exposed to another important lesson: her socialization and voluntary submission to authority. In the Bertram universe, issues like the state of nature, the purpose of government, or the acceptance of authority appear to be more compatible with Hobbes's conservative mid-seventeenth-century political concepts than the more liberal theories of Locke or Rousseau (who was even closer to the age of Austen). For the state of nature at Mansfield Park is closer to a state of war, "a condition of Warre of every one against every one" in which, consequently, "every man has the Right to every thing; even to one anothers body" (Leviathan 1.14 [64]: 72). The largest part of the plot revolves around conflict, rivalries, and jealousy, as characters act on their self-interest with little regard for others: Maria and Julia are against each other, competing for Henry Crawford, and against Fanny, not allowing her to forget her inferiority; Mr. Rushworth competes with Henry Crawford for Maria; Tom's irresponsible lifestyle is robbing Edmund of half his income (MP 22); Maria, Julia, and Tom are against paternal authority that limits their actions; Mrs. Norris competes with Fanny for Sir Thomas's charity; Henry Crawford competes with William for Fanny's attention; Lady Bertram expresses her sluggish claims for Fanny's services; Susan and Betsy both claim their dead sister's knife; even Fanny competes, in her own secret way, with Mary for Edmund's love.

The Rousseauist concept of the benevolence of human nature has little place in Mansfield Park, as even Edmund and Fanny, the two pillars of morality and virtue in the novel, are exposed to be motivated chiefly by self-love. For Edmund's interest in Fanny is overshadowed by his desire for Mary; he makes love to them both, tormenting Mary by deferring his proposal and Fanny by confessing to her his incurable love for Mary until the very last pages of the novel; he conveniently forgets Fanny at Portsmouth as long as that is the wish of his father and as long as she is not needed at Mansfield; and, finally, he realizes Fanny is the wife he always wanted only after Mary's selfishness is irreparably exposed.

As for Fanny herself, her passivity and inertia have been under scrutiny for two centuries by critics who have, in some cases, interpreted her "goodness [...] as the only outlet for her repressed aggressive impulses" (Bernard Paris, qtd. in McDonnell 202) or her submissiveness as "really a form of hostility and self-protection" (Fleishman 45). Fanny Price was pronounced a "monster of complacency and pride" by Kingsley Amis in 1957, while in 2006 another critic borrows from Nietzsche to define her as a "moral tarantula" (Jenkins 202). That Fanny has no other wish but to protect her self and her already acquired possessions and settle down with Edmund is made explicit by the narrator, when in the last chapter Fanny's happiness is said to be built upon the pain of others: "She must have been a happy creature in spite of all she felt, or thought she felt, for the distress of those around her" (466, emphasis mine). Compassion and concern for others are proven to be nothing but well covered forms of self-centeredness. "For the laws of nature (as Justice, Equity, Modesty, Mercy, and (in summe) doing to others, as we would be done into,) of themselves," as Hobbes declares in Leviathan, "without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to all our naturall Passions, that carry us to Partiality, Pride, Revenge, and the like" (Leviathan 2.17 [85]: 93, emphasis original).

The state of nature/war is particularly clear when, during the absence of paternal authority at the time Sir Thomas is away on a visit to his Antigua estate, the young people invade his private study and transform it into a site of anarchic desire. In the post-1789 era this defiance of paternal authority invoked for English loyalists and conservatives, as Clara Tuite has argued, the figure of Charles I: "the pulling down of the theatre refers to the paternal-monarchical crises of the English Revolution (Civil War) and the Glorious Revolution" (114). The revolutionary family theatrics in Austen's text, though, are successfully suppressed, and regicide or parricide is avoided. The "infamously tyrannical" (MP 193), as his future son-in-law calls him, or, according to Mary Crawford (164) "dictatorial" Sir Thomas arrives just in time to save his family from chaos by imposing his "absolute power" (285). The "absolute horror" (176) his return inspires, and which is the key to peace and order, makes him a master rather than an agent to them all, a formidable Leviathan that unites them all in a single mass and convicts them to a stasis reminiscent of the inactiveness that results from Hobbes's imposition of absolute authority. In the frontispiece of Leviathan, "the outline of his body encompasses but does not erase individuals assembled in row after row across his body, rather like scales or links in a suit of armour" (Severance 473).

As a father who was never an object of love to his children and who "had never seemed the friend of their pleasures" (MP 31), Sir Thomas knows the success of his rule is founded on imposing fear upon his dependants. It is, after all, fear that, of all passions, "enclineth men least to break the Laws," as Hobbes maintains: "Nay, (excepting some generous natures,) it is the only thing, (when there is appearance of profit, or pleasure by breaking the Laws,) that makes them keep them" (Leviathan 2.27 [155]: 150).

Fear works for Fanny in a more conspicuous way even, both because the danger of her being dispossessed of her private room and little possessions is more real in her case--she has no legal filial rights in them--and also because of her physical frailty and proneness to illness. The smallness of Fanny's size, her lack of stamina, her persistent headaches, and her constant fatigue commit her conveniently to stillness and dissuade her from action and change. "Every sort of exercise fatigues her so soon," Edmund explains to Mary, "except riding" (MP 97). Fanny's riding, unlike Mary's, is a feminine imitation of a masculine act of power, performed within limited boundaries, encouraged and supervised by her uncle and Edmund, the very domestication, in other words, of an imperial sport. (5) Riding, far from activating Fanny, is less her antidote to infirmity and more an addictive daily prompt to her immobility.

The thought of being deprived of her daily rides, her exposure to the fresh countryside air, and, more decisively, a room of her own makes Fanny tremble with fear and long to cuddle up even closer to the massive Leviathan figure of her uncle during her visit to her family at Portsmouth. Never before had Fanny felt such an urgent need for the return to a place governed by absolute authority than when she experienced the chaos that the absence of such a figure can cause. The dirt, the noise, and the impropriety of her family's behavior are insufferable in such a confined space: "The smallness of the rooms above and below, indeed, and the narrowness of the passage and staircase, struck her beyond her imagination. She soon learned to think with respect of her little attic at Mansfield Park, in that house reckoned too small for anybody's comfort" (393). Fanny encounters at Portsmouth the fear of "no Arts; no Letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," as Hobbes defined it (Leviathan 1.13 [62]: 70). On the other hand, "the elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony," "peace and tranquillity" of Mansfield Park are ironically idealized. Describing Mansfield Park as a domain where everyone and everything was in its right place, and "all proceeded in a regular course of cheerful orderliness" (MP 398) makes little sense unless one thinks of it as a place frozen by Sir Thomas's patriarchal rule.


Austen's version of the supreme patriarch, however, complicates Hobbes's seventeenth-century pattern. Her Leviathan probes into both public and private aspects of absolutism, as Sir Thomas Bertram has the double role of managing both his family and his Antigua estate, and seems to apply similar tactics in both cases. Indeed, what makes him an effective lord of Mansfield Park is his experience as a colonial master, as this is made evident in Sir Thomas's relationship with his niece and protegee. Fanny has not only been coached to become a stationary scale on her uncle's Leviathan-like body; her individualization involves also her being shaped into an object of desire and immersed into the incestuous politics of the modern nuclear family. Surprisingly expectant of twentieth-century Oedipal narratives, the Bertram family is the first cell of fascist society in which, according to Deleuze and Guattari in their Anti-Oedipus, children learn to love their oppressors. Mansfield Park exemplifies both the isolation of the nuclear family from society, which consequently "segregates desire from all objects except the very ones that are prohibited," as Eugene Holland puts it in his enlightening reading of Anti-Oedipus (84), as well as the urgency to promote an ascetic subjectivity, a subject, i.e., trained to perceive desire as lack and to postpone the fulfillment of desire.

Fanny's first and perhaps foremost lesson at Portsmouth is that desire is indeed incestuous. Her devotion to her brother William, her primary love object, is the only memory she carries from her father's home and that grows into her dream to settle down in a little comfortable cottage with him and "pass all their middle and later life together" (MP 380). Her delight, her exquisite happiness when she is with her brother verifies the narrator's words: "Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply" and which "are never entirely outlived," as well as the rather unorthodox statement that "the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal" (237). Fanny and William's "romance" is both forbidden and encouraged during his visit at Mansfield Park, and his wish to be her dancing partner among strangers is partly materialized when Sir Thomas gives a ball in honor of Fanny: "I should like to go to a ball with you and see you dance," William fantasizes; "I should like to see you dance, and I'd dance with you if you would, for nobody would know who I was here, and I should like to be your partner once more. We used to jump about together many a time, did not we?" (253).

Fanny's transference of her "amore fraternal" (286) from William to Edmund implies more than her wish to bond with a sexless brother figure. Her initial attachment to Edmund, when she first enters the family, may cover her need for protection and friendship, but her eventual craving for him as a partner in life reflects her capitalist training in perceiving desire as lack or the desire for someone else's desire. Edmund is a love object she is both allowed and not allowed to have, as her experience at Mansfield Park both prohibits and fosters their union. While the idea of "cousins in love, etc" (4) in chapter 1 is fear provoking and morally impossible, (6) their marriage in the last chapter becomes a necessity; it is the only possible restorative resolution: it heals the trauma of Maria's adultery and allows Sir Thomas both to protect his aristocratic rights, land, and title and secure "the daughter he wanted" (477). Throughout most of the book Fanny is both preoccupied with cautiously hushing her unspoken love for Edmund and patiently deferring its expression, and her wish can be voiced only at the end, when it finally merges with that of her uncle; "It was a match," we are told, "which Sir Thomas's wishes had even forestalled" (477).

This sibling/cousin match, although originally pronounced illicit, is actually promoted by Sir Thomas himself, who is responsible for initiating his niece not only into the social contract but the sexual contract as well. Fanny gets to Edmund via his father, whose bifurcated absolute power--as plantation owner, on the one hand, and head of the family, on the other--amalgamates upon his return from the West Indies. His homecoming, which sets order in the house, as we have seen, concurs with his novel interest in his niece, expressed in affectionate kisses and penetrating kindness, and marks the fusion of the Oedipal with the colonial project. He desires to see his "little Fanny," "with a kindness which astonished and penetrated her, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately, and observing with decided pleasure how much she was grown!" (179). Of course, a large part of the unspoken Antigua plot has been recovered by modern critics: the abolition of the slave trade, which coincides with Sir Thomas's financial losses in the West Indies, explains why the Antigua estate was not profitable. And, like many absentee plantation and slave owners of the time, Sir Thomas travels there to set things right and ameliorate the conditions of the slaves in expectation of higher profits. What is not explicit, though, are the means he employs to settle his business in such a "prosperously rapid" way (179), as he says, his change in character, and finally his new attentions to Fanny.

It has been suggested that Sir Thomas's change of heart is the result of colonialism's economic lesson. As "slaves failed to reproduce and survive in sufficient numbers to provide an adequate, stable labor force" due to the terrible conditions of life and work in the West Indies, and as slave trade was prohibited, "a plantation owner's task would have been to institute measures of humanitarian reform in order to secure the good health and decent treatment of his slaves" (Cleere 123). If Fanny's body, transported from her wretched Portsmouth home to the civilized environment of Mansfield Park and expected to serve and obey, is in a sense like the body of a slave, Sir Thomas's Antigua experience has taught him "to view his niece not as a drain on the economic and sexual strength of his family, but as a site of potential productivity that must be nourished, protected and improved" (Cleere 123).

Apart from the important fact, though, that Fanny's price as a marriageable object of exchange has gone up (as this form of flesh trade was still practiced extensively at the time), what the text also suggests here is Fanny's therapeutic abilities as a white female slave. Sir Thomas's humanitarian campaign may have entailed his active involvement in enhancing the reproduction of his slaves (a common practice, in fact, among plantation owners). Consequently, his ambiguous "penetrating" kindness and affectionate kisses indicate that Fanny, apart from being a valuable possession for him, is also the object of his desire. (7) She embodies not the unregulated sexualized woman of what Felicity Nussbaum calls "the torrid zones of the empire" (13), however, but the domestic form of English womanhood and refined desire that reconstructs animal passion to enlightened communication. Fanny has been well educated to succumb to her imperial master, to pay her infinite debt to him through infinite labor, which is the rule of capitalist subjectivity in Deleuzian thought (Holland 83), and finally to confuse her pleasure with pleasing him. In Deleuze and Guattari's words, "Desire no longer dares to desire, having become a desire of desire, a desire of the despot's desire" (Anti-Oedipus 225). "Desire in despotism has become thoroughly reactive [...] under the regime of infinite debt, as Deleuze and Guattari put it," Holland contends; "the system of state terror, with its elevation of death to a permanent threat and its subordination of desire to the despot's desire, thus sponsors a massive pacification and a becoming-reactive of subjectivity" (78). Seen in that light, Fanny's desire is what Deleuze and Guattari have defined as a reactive desire captured by incest (Holland 78).

With the exception of her refusal of Henry Crawford, Fanny avoids at all costs displeasing her uncle (MP 158). This sole instance of Fanny's unruliness becomes the exception that verifies the rule and seems to be more an act of paying a servitude to her master rather than an act of defiance, as the turning down of Henry Crawford's proposal retrospectively proves advantageous to Sir Thomas: a scheming and dishonest outsider is eventually expelled from the family circle, and Fanny remains faithful to her uncle and is later passed on to his son: "It was a match, which Sir Thomas's wishes had even forestalled"--a match, in other words, both delayed and, quite tellingly, expected. In an ironic twist, Fanny's rebelliousness proves to be an odd form of compliance: she seems to know too well from the outset what Sir Thomas really wants (but doesn't know) and acts as a prompter to her imperial master.

Fanny is indeed conditioned to think and act according to his will; "I am sorry to see you drawn in to [...] what you are known to think will be disagreeable to my uncle" (158), she admonishes Edmund when he is about to consent to act in Lovers' Vows. She resists the temptation to the very last at the cost of her isolation and the reprimands by her cousins and Aunt Norris--"she could never have been easy in joining a scheme which, considering only her uncle, she must condemn altogether" (162)--and justifies her dislike for the Crawfords to Edmund by declaring, "my uncle would not like any addition. I think he values the very quietness you speak of and that the repose of his own family circle is all he wants" (198, emphasis original). The views of uncle and niece, moreover, are completely identified when, as Fanny says to Edmund, Sir Thomas ceases to be the formidable father figure she was obliged to look up to and is apparently transformed into a lively and interesting conversational partner:

"I suppose I am graver than other people," said Fanny. "The evenings do not appear long to me. I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies. I could listen to him for an hour together. It entertains me more than many other things have done; but then I am unlike other people, I dare say." (198)

The satisfaction they both extract from talking about the West Indies and slave trade hints at a Foucauldian form of pleasure fully absorbed in words. If the seventeenth century initiated the subjugation of sex at the level of language, as Foucault has shown, Sir Thomas and Fanny's conversation endorses this transference of intercourse into discourse--in which case, the silence of the rest of the family upon which their tete-a-tete hits may perhaps be more than the silence of resistance, embarrassment, or indifference that such a heated topic as slave trade would arouse. (8)

"Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle."

"But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask about the slave-trade last night?"

"I did--and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be enquired of further."

"And I longed to do it--but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like--I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel." (199-200)

Their silence may be hinting at a far too intimate relationship between uncle and niece, which would be too perilous either for the Bertrams to deal with openly or for the narrator to incorporate into the plot of the story. It is also interesting to observe that although Edmund realizes follow-up questions would please his father, he abstains from asking the questions himself and is reduced to the role of the voyeur, acknowledging this scene as a private interchange of pleasure through language that involves just his father and Fanny.

That the topic of this blissful exchange is slave trade enhances the blending of Sir Thomas's dual role as both an Oedipal and an imperial father. If verbalizing his West Indies experience is his means of seducing Fanny, it is also his chance of reinforcing his self image and establishing himself as an ameliorated slave owner. Given the fact that the abolition of slave trade in 1807 was not profitable to plantation owners, his pleasure in talking about it cannot be justified unless we think of him as a reformed colonial master who wishes to show off his humanity. (9) Moreover, Fanny's pleasure in hearing about slave trade, highly ironic when we think that in the following chapters she will be exiled to Portsmouth for refusing to be traded to Henry Crawford, (10) can best be explained as her mistaking her desire for her uncle's desire. Her questions, if not aimed at boosting his self esteem, are at least indicative of the fact that she has been successfully shaped into the daughter he always wanted, one who cannot tell the difference between what pleases him and what pleases her. From that point of view, the refusal of the insubordinate Bertrams (Tom, Maria, and Julia, who unlike Fanny are prone to defying paternal authority) to participate in this entertaining smooth-talk exposes the duplicity embedded in the new image of the caring and benevolent Sir Thomas. For although no one can lay charges on him for being an absentee slave owner after his two-year visit to Antigua, he is still the absolute monarch of his plantation and of Mansfield Park and a capitalist power profiting from slave labor.


The much disputed "silence of the Bertrams" in that sense reveals Austen's perspicacity to discern residues of outdated political views in the liberal theories that marked her era as well as her critical stance towards a model she both adopts and feels the need to refashion. Her ameliorated Sir Thomas actually covers up his Hobbesian absolutism, which overtly tolerates slavery and slave trade, with a cloak of Lockean hypocrisy that both preaches for natural liberties and actually participates in slave trade. Hobbes's views on slavery are explicit: he supported slavery by consent and as a justifiable consequence of war. As Mary Nyquist has shown (24), slaves are not only commodified but also reduced to animals, as Hobbes says in his Leviathan, they are to be "bought and sold as Beasts." John Locke's position, however, is not unequivocal, as is clear in his Second Treatise on Government; slavery is, on the one hand, condemned categorically as a disgraceful practice in which no gentleman should participate; on the other hand, it is sanctioned with regard to black slaves in the colony in Virginia. They were the captives of a just war, Locke proclaimed, and could therefore trade their freedom in return for their lives (26-27; 95-104). Sir Thomas's "reformation," as mentioned before, seems to be less an actual change and more a duplicitous endeavor to enhance his power--a reflection, in other words, of the post-Hobbesian Lockean efforts to amend Hobbes's theory of the mighty Leviathan. In his Natural Right and History, political philosopher Leo Strauss reads Locke as a continuation and correction of Hobbes's principles, rather than a break from them. Locke's theories of human nature's apparent altruism are identifiable with Hobbes's egoism, as both promote the doctrine that people are to treat others as others treat them. According to Strauss in his chapter titled "Modern Natural Right: A. Hobbes B. Locke," Locke's political system, then, is a polished remake of Hobbes in an effort for more public appeal. In light of this, Sir Thomas Bertram can be read as a refined version of the formidable Leviathan he stands for before his trip to Antigua.

To a large extent, Austen's retouching of the Oedipal and imperial ruler materializes by way of a Humean critical insight filtered through the character of Mary and the voice of the narrator in the novel. David Hume, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and eighteenth-century philosophy, was a "mitigated Hobbist," as critics have characterized him (Flage 369). In his essay Of the Original Contract, written in 1748, Hume reintroduced a number of Hobbesian doctrines, such as the disbelief in the benevolence of human nature, the emphasis on self-love, and the conviction that obedience to a sovereign authority is the result of fear. Borrowing from Hume, Mary's and the narrator's unorthodox perspectives detect and disclose traces of the absolutist plans in supposedly liberal political stands and pose serious doubts over the triumph of tyranny in the novel.

The mandatory heterosexual union in Mansfield Park, prescribed by the genre of the domestic novel and based upon the Hobbesian covenant and the Oedipal plot, is severely challenged by the witty and cynical narrator. If the most legitimate form of desire is incest and the only possible restorative resolution in the novel is Fanny and Edmund's endogamous marriage, a number of plot elements render this happy ending implausible: Edmund's inability to see in Fanny anything but the ideal sister, (11) Fanny's experiencing of their attachment as a re-enactment of her relationship with her beloved brother William, (12) and the narrator's explicit statement that "the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal" (MP 237). Moreover, the narrative "I," introduced in the last chapter, undermines the final resolution recommended in the end. "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery," the narrator declares; "I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerate comfort, and to have done with all the rest" (466). Although Fanny and Edmund, "equally formed for domestic life," live in a "home of affection and comfort" (479), their union seems to have taken place in a vacuum of time: "I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own," the narrator continues, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire. (475-76, emphasis mine)

Fanny and Edmund's well-being also rests with the reader's inclination to trust in the scheme proposed by the narrator: "the happiness of the married couple must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be," we are told (479, emphasis mine). At the level of plot, sibling love is the most suitable alternative to restraining destructive passions; the narrative of Mansfield Park, however, delineates desire as culturally constructed and forced towards endogamy and protection of aristocratic rights, while at the same time it exposes the fictionality of this sanitization of desire and society.

The happy ending presupposes the isolation of the Bertram family and its purification with the exclusion of all dissenters or outsiders, like Maria or the Crawford siblings. Yet the mere existence of Mary, even if she is bound to live at a safe distance from Mansfield Park in the end, as well as the fact that her sharp, caustic mind in many cases converges with that of the narrator question the validity of absolutism. Mary defies contracts, both sexual and social, and is a source of contamination that needs to be quarantined. Like Fanny's small body, Mary's "small" body (67) is expelled from "home"; unlike Fanny, though, she finds it impossible to root anywhere and is, as a result, both nomadic and anti-Oedipal. If motion exhausts Fanny, resting fatigues Mary (MP 98), who finds it impossible to settle anywhere. As orphaned Mary belongs to no particular family, however, and is destined to rotate through relatives' and friends' residences (from Admiral Crawford to the Grants and from Mrs Fraser to Lady Stornaway), she is exempted from the process of Oedipalization. Adopted by an uncle who can guarantee no stable home and who is more involved with his mistress, or his circle of "Rears and Vices," as Mary calls it (61), she escapes any form of schooling that involves respect, gratitude, and compliance to the head of the family. Unlike Sir Thomas, Admiral Crawford is a paternal figure subject to ridicule and harsh criticism by his niece, and, as he has nothing to offer to her, he can have no demands on her.

It is exactly this absence of an imposing father figure and her continuous deterritorialization that render Mary unfit for the heterosexual marriage plot. Unlike Fanny, she does not depend on the closure and fixity of marriage and will not sacrifice her open mind and free thinking for the stabilization of her life with Edmund: "he pleased her for the present," the narrator comments; "she liked to have him near her; it was enough" (66). Mary's final punishment, furthermore, to be "long in finding [...] anyone who could [...] authorize a hope of the domestic happiness she had there [in Mansfield Park] learned to estimate" (475)--a punishment dictated by the fact that she is a character who has deviated from the moral norms of the time--may be interpreted more like a blessing to her given her hatred for stasis and inactivity.

More significantly, though, Mary calls into question the established order of Mansfield Park by authoring a number of radical narratives exposing the violence of social contracts. Mary's acerbic remark to Edmund--"It is fortunate that your inclination and your father's convenience should accord so well" (111)--carries traces of Hume's disbelief in a benevolent human nature and people's voluntary consent to authority, as expressed in his Of the Original Contract:

The face of the earth is continually changing, by the increase of small kingdoms into great empires, by the dissolution of great empires into smaller kingdoms, by the planting of colonies, by the migration of tribes. Is there any thing discoverable in all these events but force and violence? Where is the mutual agreement or voluntary association so much talked of?

Hume describes obedience as stemming from "fear and necessity" rather than from "any idea of allegiance or of moral obligation." "Can we seriously say," he argues, that a poor peasant or artisan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives, from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires? We may as well assert that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean and perish, the moment he leaves her.

As Hume's questions (voiced through Mary) permeate Mansfield Park, they make a farce of Sir Thomas's amelioration as a plantation owner and head of the family, unveil Edmund's and Fanny's true motives for submitting to his will, and undermine the happy ending of the story. Sovereign power in the novel, Mary helps us realize, is always indivisible, as Hobbes maintains, and incorporates the will and individuality of everyone who aspires to belong to Mansfield Park, so that no member of the family can have wills, rights, or liberties apart from the sovereign's will.

Furthermore, while Mansfield Park's hero and heroine preach self-denial and are apparently rewarded for it, Mary announces that she means to be too rich, because "a large income is the best recipe for happiness" (215), and declares in a Humean manner that "Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure" (69). "For as it is evident," Hume writes, that every man loves himself better than any other person, he is naturally impelled to extend his acquisitions as much as possible; and nothing can restrain him in this propensity but reflection and experience, by which he learns the pernicious effects of that license, and the total dissolution of society which must ensue from it. His original inclination, therefore, or instinct, is here checked and restrained by a subsequent judgment or observation.

The problem with Mary is, as Claudia Johnson has argued, not that she holds a different ideological position from the Bertrams, but that she voices it (113); her self-love, compatible as it is with Hobbes's authoritarianism, reflects the reactionary form of self-love of the Bertrams. It is also radical, though, as at the same time it is distanced from absolutism to the degree it exposes the true motives of more liberal political thinking. Mary becomes really menacing when one thinks that her blunt statements summarize the gist of the political thinking of three centuries, according to which self-love is acknowledged by conflicting theories as the motivating power for success. Both Hobbes's despotic Leviathan in 1651 and Locke's liberal social contract theories as recorded in The Two Treatises of Government in 1689 justify and celebrate self-love as a stimulant to imperial progress and success and are echoed in Mary's apophthegm. (13)

In a mode rather audacious and forward for the Austen standards, Mansfield Park delves into authoritarian schemas, past, present, and future. Hobbes's seventeenth-century Leviathan is revisited and proposed as an exemplary model for ruling, while its application on a private scale anticipates the return of this pattern in twentieth-century Oedipal narratives. Moreover, the novel's adoption of the eighteenth-century Humean perspective as well complicates Austen's return to older political discourses and adds fresh insight to her reading of more liberal pact theories. Mansfield Park scoffs at Rousseau's eighteenth-century perception of a democratic model society willingly signing the social contract, which replaced the older monarchist theories of the state. The state of nature in Austen's novel remains primarily a "state of warre," the world is a harshly competitive universe, and the social pact is a pact of submission to an absolute power out of fear. Although this return to older political discourses is acknowledged as the only operative mechanism, however, it is simultaneously seriously mistrusted, as made evident in the subversive voices of Mary Crawford and the narrator.

(1) The domestic novel, according to Nancy Armstrong, invented a new code of translating social experience into family relationships and transforming "political differences into those rooted in gender" (30).

(2) The economic and political systems of Smith and Hume, however, with which Austen was well-accustomed, "took shape under the long shadows cast by Hobbes, and were fully alive to the need for social stability as a condition for effective reform," as Peter Knox-Shaw has shown in his study on Jane Austen and the sceptical tradition of the second half of the eighteenth century (Jane Austen 62).

(3) For an insightful discussion of Fanny as waste or excess reinvested by her uncle, see Eileen Cleere's "Reinvesting Nieces." Fanny, Cleere points out, is "more economical than a daughter because she is the compromise of exogamy and incest" (129).

(4) Fanny's command of the East Room coincides with her command of her self, as P. Keiko Kagawa argues; her becoming an architect of the East Room is inextricably related with her becoming an architect of her selfhood (139).

(5) Riding, as Donna Landry has shown, had "its colonial dimension, in that a sporting, fox-hunting, horse-mad image of Englishness was exported to the empire" (56).

(6) "Of all things upon earth that is the least likely to happen," Mrs. Norris prejudges, "brought up as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters" (MP 5).

(7) Claudia Johnson has also commented on the erotic implications of Sir Thomas's paternal affection, while Anna Mae Duane associates it with incestuous cravings that abound in gothic plots ("Confusions of Guilt and Complications of Evil: Hysteria and the High Price of Love at Mansfield Park." Studies in the Novel 33.4 [2001]: 402-415).

(8) The repressed Antigua plot and the silence of the Bertrams manifest, according to Said, that the text is "resisting or avoiding that other setting, which [its] formal inclusiveness, historical honesty, and prophetic suggestiveness cannot completely hide" (96). A number of critics have argued against Said; In "The Silence of the Bertrams" (TLS 17 Feb. 1995), Brian Southam, for example, interprets Sir Thomas's silence as his inability to answer Fanny's question satisfactorily, and Fanny's interest as evidence of her abolitionist sympathies. Sutherland, on the other hand, contends that silence "need not imply family guilt [...] so much as the bored uninterest of the other young people" (xxx), and Boulukos agrees that the "dead silence" "is not the silence of shock or hostility, but the silence of indifference, or a failure of moral engagement, on the part of the younger generation of Bertrams" (5).

(9) For a thorough discussion of Sir Thomas as an ameliorated plantation owner, see Gabrielle D. V. White's Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition: "A Fling at the Slave Trade" (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and Boulukos.

(10) Although her uncle is not legally entitled to force her into marriage, he has the power to punish her with banishment.

(11) "My Fanny, my only sister; my only comfort now!" (MP 449), Edmund exclaims a few pages "before it began to strike him whether [...] Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had been" (MP 475).

(12) "[S]he loved him [Edmund] better than anybody in the world except William; her heart was divided between the two" (MP 21).

(13) Mandeville's overt statement that the absence of self-love is the death of progress, also, and even Smith's complication of Mandeville's crude economic amoralism, seem to converge at this point with Hobbes and Locke. In the Wealth of Nations, Smith pronounces desire and self-interest as the core stimulation of socio-economic process:
  man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and
  it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He
  will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love
  in his favour, and shew them it is for their own advantage to do
  for him what he requires for them. Whoever offers to another a
  bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I
  want, and you shall have that which you want, is the meaning of
  every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one
  another the far greater of those good offices which we stand in
  need of. [...] We address ourselves, not to their [our creditors']
  humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own
  necessities but of their advantages. (22)


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KATERINA KITSI-MITAKOU is Associate Professor of English Literature and Culture in the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She has been teaching and publishing on realism, modernism, and the English novel, as well as on feminist and body theory.
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Date:Mar 22, 2013
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