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The noise in Mansfield Park.

IT MAY SEEM AT FIRST GLANCE PERVERSE TO DISCUSS MANSFIELD PARK-- the Austen novel featuring her quietest, meekest, most unobtrusive heroine--in terms of noise. Fanny Price, we are variously told, is "exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice," "sad and insignificant," "gentle and retiring," with "a quiet way, very little attended to" (13, 187, 422, 56). Certainly "loud"--whether as volume of sound or as vulgarity--is not the first word that springs to most minds with reference to Austen's art, with its well-disguised labor condensed into the famous little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory." What does it mean to think about noise in Jane Austen--or to think about Jane Austen as noisy?

Notwithstanding its country setting and its "'creepmouse'" heroine, the world of Mansfield Park is anything but quiet and peaceful (171). It is Austen's noisiest book, filled with clamor and disharmony, from the incessant railing of Mrs. Norris and the riotous energies surrounding the production of Lovers' Vows to the din and chaos of the Price family's Portsmouth home. Fanny's quiet demeanor masks a mind bristling with sharp observations and keen emotions; the outward comportment may be demure but the mind shrieks with agony. Sir Thomas might wish to impose what he calls "'domestic tranquility'" upon "'a home which shuts out noisy pleasures'" (218), but the walls of Mansfield Park are not soundproof: audible to the ear are not only the throbbing strains of Regency London and the scandalous talk of the town that will precipitate Maria Rushworth's downfall but also the faint restive murmurs of servants, cottagers, day-laborers--what today might be called the 99%--and, dimly heard, the distant cries from Sir Thomas's slave plantation in Antigua. Mansfield Park proves to be filled with noises--unwanted sounds that register as confused, excessive, disruptive--that disclose the unrest in the world outside and the disquiet that already dwells within. If there are no truths universally acknowledged in the world of Mansfield Park, it is because there is too much noise and confusion to pick out any clear-cut message.

In a novel with a heroine who says little, both noise and silence demand a hearing. For noise, like silence, haunts the borders of articulate language, marking the threshold between what we hear and what can be put into words. We can describe what noise sounds like or render it onomatopoetically (boom!); we can name its causes (a screeching child) or describe its effects (ear-splitting), but we cannot make noise into expressive language. Formulated thoughts can be recorded; feelings can be converted into sentiments and voiced, but one cannot quote noise. If silence lies on one side of expressive language, noise lies on the other. The classification of certain sounds as noise sorts the audible from the intelligible; it determines what should be heard as well as what can be heard by the human ear: what gets drowned out by noise or drowned out as noise. For we may hear but we do not usually listen to noise; instead, we tend to try to block it out. Noise is, almost by definition, what we would rather not hear. One of the reasons many readers find Mansfield Park so difficult is that in it Austen asks us to listen to noise, both literal and metaphorical.

We tend to privilege the eye in discussions of literature: we talk about the character's perspective and the narrative point of view, a novel's imagery or its portrait of society, and many of our ways of speaking about knowledge are visual, from the casual expression "I see" to the philosophical language of enlightenment. Yet we encounter the world in Austen's novels as much through the ear as through the eye. We may not know much about what Austen's characters look like beyond the fact that, say, Fanny has light eyes that can ultimately be preferred to Miss Crawford's sparkling dark ones, but we know how Lady Bertram's soft fretful tones and Mrs. Norris's strident cadences sound, even when we aren't told exactly what they say. Characters in Austen's novels encounter each other through sound as well as vision; they hear even when they do not speak. Silent and unremarked, Fanny sees much--'"J was quiet,"' she informs Miss Crawford, '"but I was not blind but she also listens, "a quiet auditor of the whole" (419, 160). In raising the question of noise in Mansfield Park, then, I want to think about the ways Austen's novels address themselves to multiple senses, inviting us to hear as well as to see.

In Mansfield Park, Austen asks--compels--us to listen to noise and to think about what it might mean. Fanny may be stunned by the cacophony at Portsmouth, but the narrator anatomizes the slamming of doors, the shudder of thin walls, the stomping and hallooing, offering us as detailed a sense of the Prices' house as any modern sociological study of the impact of noise pollution upon the poor. Fanny's question about the slave trade irrupts into the after-dinner conversation to be greeted with '"dead silence,'" but it articulates the fact that the lifeblood of the Bertrams' finances is siphoned from the blood of the enslaved. The Crawfords may be banished from Mansfield Park as a noisy evil, but the novel makes us feel the allure of their siren song--the strains that cannot be rewritten into the joyless dominant line of Sir Thomas's imposed harmony (335). Fanny may tirelessly endeavor to suppress all insurgent thoughts, but the narrator makes the noise inside her head audible to the reader. When Austen asks us to hear noise, then, she is asking us to recognize that noise is not simply what needs to be blocked out to hear the "real" message, like the static that makes the radio hard to hear. It may be something--in this respect, noise is like Fanny--that we need to listen for.

But what counts as noise? Defining noise is not as simple as it sounds. The word "noise" in Austen's time could refer both to pleasant and unpleasant sounds; in Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary, it means "any kind of sound." And indeed, unless they are obtrusive, noises often pass unremarked. Austen's letters record snatches of conversation, but they only occasionally register the sonic backdrop or soundscape of her world: the noises of domestic life--the clatter of pots, the flap of drying laundry, the creaking of floorboards, the crackle of a fire--or the sounds of the countryside--the bleating of sheep, the hammering of laborers, the rumble of a farm cart (not carrying a harp). (1) And of course we all know the famous story of the un-oiled hinge that served as a primitive intruder alert system at Chawton. When Maria Bertram finds the distance of the church from Sotherton to be a blessing because '"the annoyance of the bells must be terrible'" (96), we recognize her lack of piety, but also glimpse how one might have experienced the sounds of village life. It is difficult to capture the ephemeral nature of sound; we can more easily describe what Austen ate than what exactly she heard.

And even the most meticulously reconstructed soundscape cannot tell us which sounds Austen herself considered to be noise. For noises are personal: one person's music, as any parent with a teenager knows, is another person's noise, which risks leaving us with something like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography in an aural register: "I know it when I hear it." As Austen herself observes in Persuasion, "Every body has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and sounds are quite innoxious, or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity" (146). Although overwhelmed by the pandemonium in the Musgroves home at Uppercross, with its chattering girls, riotous boys, and "roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others," Lady Russell nevertheless greets the hubbub of Bath--"the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men and milk-men, and the ceaseless clink of pattens"--with delight (145, 146). The designation of something as noise is a subjective call; in Mansfield Park, it is also revealed to be a power move. The ability to decide who is (or gets to be) noisy and who gets to silence others' sounds depends upon the distribution of power in a given setting. We call those sounds or voices noisy that we wish to silence. For who listens to noise?

We moderns consider having a voice as fundamental to social and political representation, while silence is often equated with oppression. Less often do we raise the question of who is listening. Listening is grossly underrated; it is a gift, both in the sense that it is a real skill and in the sense that it is an act of generosity toward the speaker. Equally important, it is the listening ear that converts spoken language from sound into sense, elevating what could be mere noise (like the voice of grown-ups in Peanuts cartoons) into meaning. "The right to speak freely," as the historian Sophia Rosenfeld has argued, has an established history. Should not the right to hear and be heard have a history, too?" (317)- Austen's novels offer an astute analysis of the delicate, difficult balance between speech and Rosenfeld's "right to hear and be heard : the right to choose what one listens to, on the one hand, and the right not to be drowned out, consigned to silence, or dismissed as noise, on the other.

Freedom of speech is of course a cherished right or privilege today--one to which, as Austen well knew, men and women have unequal access. Fanny Price does not, of course, possess the right to speak freely; no Austen heroine does. Even Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse must learn to govern their tongues. Indeed, one suspects that "freedom of speech" for Austen might be aligned with the kind of conversational liberties taken by a Lady Catherine de Bourgh or a Mrs. Elton. To be sure, Austen's omniscient narrator possesses a freedom of expression that characters are never allowed, but the novels themselves direct our attention to the proper limits of self-expression: Mansfield Park in particular attends less to the prerogative of speech than to what is owed to the listening ear.

Fanny is an excellent listener. "[B]eing always a courteous listener, and often the only listener at hand," Fanny is frequently the ear to which others turn (192). Fanny "had heard it all"; she "could not but listen"; "glad would she have been not to be obliged to listen" (150, 395, 137). Fanny is repeatedly compelled to listen to what she would rather not hear; she is the sounding board for all complaints in the run-up to Lovers' Vows; the sole audience at the rehearsals; the reluctant confidante of Miss Crawford and Edmund; the unwilling recipient of Mr. Crawford's unwelcome proposals. The victim of other people's right to speak freely, Fanny lacks what Rosenfeld calls "the right to hear and to be heard."

Indeed, Fanny often experiences sound as an assault. Fanny as a child is so pounded by Mrs. Norris's relentless barrages that the very sound of "her aunt Norris's voice make[s] her start" (19), and Mrs. Norris often speaks over Fanny (and just about everyone else), drowning out others' speech with her own more numerous words and louder tone"--volume in both senses of the word (89). The "heavy step" of Sir Thomas's approach is, like his voice, an object of "terror" to Fanny: "she had trembled at it ... often, and began to tremble again (360). Like a shell-shocked veteran, Fanny covets "perfect security ... from any sound of unkindness," a respite "unspeakably welcome to a mind which had seldom known a pause in its alarms or embarrassments" (40). So incessant is Mrs. Norris's abuse that when she refrains, at Sir Thomas's command, from scolding Fanny for refusing Mr. Crawford, "Fanny could have blessed her for allowing her only to see her displeasure, and not to hear it" (383). In an era before noise-cancelling headphones, nothing seals off the individual ear from the world. One may shut one's eyes and one's mouth, but stopping one's ears presents greater difficulties. The ears, unlike the eyes, lack lids.

Sound is difficult to block out; it penetrates the body, traverses the perimeter between self and world. It is for this reason that Henry Crawford's brilliance as a reader is such a menace to Fanny's self-possession. His voice gets inside her head: "She could not abstract her mind ...; she was forced to listen (389). All ears, Fanny cannot prevent her consciousness from being invaded and occupied by the thoughts, feelings, and voices of others. We can look at things from a distance, but the vibrations that enable us to hear are literally inside of our heads. "Visualized objects stay out there,"' as the critic Bruce Smith puts it; "heard sounds penetrate the body of the listener. They are out there and in here at the same time" (7). Vulnerably open, the ear leads to the interior. That Fanny cannot control what she is obliged to hear is thus an ongoing threat to her already tenuous self-possession.

To be heard, by contrast, is a prerogative only infrequently claimed or even coveted by Fanny. We find her variously unable to "bring herself to speak," preferring to "have been silent, but ... obliged to speak," "speaking only when she could not help it," and "wearied at last into speaking" (335, 361, 353, 397). Fanny recognizes that speech may be a trap; her words may contain surplus meanings--"noise"--that open her up to interpretation or expose her secret love for Edmund. Fanny's "favourite indulgence of being suffered to sit silent and unattended to" (260) is not just the abject speechlessness of a downtrodden, poor relation, or the self-abnegating performance of a conduct-book ideal, or even the credo of a shy girl who has decided to embrace her inner wallflower. For silence in Austen may speak volumes. Although in modern parlance we tend to use silence as shorthand for exclusion, Austen does not necessarily privilege speech over silence. The narrator's remark that Fanny "was more silent than ever" (352) creates gradations of silence that render it as expressive as spoken words, and Austen is always alert to the hesitations and lulls that sculpt a conversation: the muteness that withholds approval, the silence that enables reflection, the wordlessness that conveys feelings too deep for easy expression, the unexpected turn that renders a character speechless. Silences punctuate the noise of Austen's social machinery--the hum and murmur of "chit-chat" and the "quick succession of busy nothings" (121, 122).

Austen's dialogue may be light and bright and sparkling, but often, as Elaine Bander has argued, "talking is discontinuous with thinking or reflecting" (47). Thus Henry Crawford's delighted reminiscence to Fanny about the rehearsals for Lovers' Vows--that yet "untasted pleasure" in "all the riot of his gratifications" (145, 144)--is received by Fanny with "silent indignation," and her brief but outraged response to his wish that Sir Thomas's return had been delayed by a week causes Mr. Crawford to pause for a moment of seemingly real reflection. "He was surprized; but after a few moments silent consideration of her, replied in a calmer, graver tone, and as if the candid result of conviction, 'I believe you are right. It was more pleasant than prudent. We were getting too noisy'" (263). The beats between clauses here give the necessary pause for silence, replicating for the reader the momentary wordlessness required for Mr. Crawford to reflect. Fanny's unexpectedly sharp interjection what for Fanny amounts to a noisy outburst--brings him to a seemingly authentic recognition of the recklessness of their pursuits, registered not only in his words but also in the "calmer, graver tone" of his voice.

Mr. Crawford's acknowledgement that '"we were getting too noisy comes out of a sober, silent moment of reflection, but the classification of the young people's behavior as noisy serves another, larger purpose within the moral economy of the novel. For we silence others not just by depriving them of a voice or talking over them (that is often Fanny's fate) but also by designating them as noise (which is what happens to the insurgent energies represented by the Crawfords and what Fanny does to her own family at Portsmouth). To recast the Crawfords as noise is one way of breaking their charm(s). Thus when Fanny politely observes that Miss Crawford will be missed when she returns to London, Mary claims--in a bid for reassuring flattery, which she does not receive--that she will be '"missed as every noisy evil is missed when it is taken away; that is, there is a great difference felt'" (335). Miss Crawford playfully casts herself as a '"noisy evil'" whose removal will be felt as a relief, rather than as the lively addition to the world of Mansfield that she really feels herself to be, and Fanny seriously agrees with Miss Crawford's joking self-characterization. Yet one of the great questions of Mansfield Park--present for every reader, from Austen's nephew George onwards, who has preferred Mary Crawford to Fanny (2)--is whether the novel itself finds Miss Crawford to be a "'noisy evil.'" It is, after all, Miss Crawford, and not the narrator, who bestows the label in jest, and the most critical remarks made about Mary are filtered through the minds of Fanny and Edmund. Although the narrative makes Mary pay for her worldliness in rejecting Edmund, and her moments of impiety and indelicate levity are by no means endorsed, she represents a vitality that is quashed by the strict, ostensibly moral, but deeply flawed principles that govern Mansfield Park. We may not be supposed to prefer Miss Crawford's saucy wit to Fanny's thoughtful reticence, but her irreverence makes audible truths that the repressive strictures of Mansfield Park cannot admit to hearing.

And Mansfield Park without the lively Crawfords, stripped by Sir Thomas of "noisy pleasures," is a dreary place indeed. Austen, perhaps mercifully, spares us a first-hand representation of what really do sound like agonizingly dull evenings in the drawing room after Sir Thomas's return from his Antigua plantation. It is in the course of a discussion between Edmund and Fanny about the labored after-dinner conversations that we learn of Fanny's famous question about the slave trade--a question that brings the noise of the outside world into Mansfield by reminding us that the violent exploitation of slaves underwrites the Bertrams prosperous lives. Edmund has just encouraged Fanny to speak more, leading Fanny to observe that she does '"talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?"' When Edmund chides her for not following up on the question, Fanny explains that she "'longed to do it--but there was such a dead silence!'" (231).

Fanny's question about the slave trade has created a great deal of critical noise, particularly in the wake of Edward Said's influential 1993 study, Culture and Imperialism. Austen's compact references to Sir Thomas's West Indian plantation, Said argues, simultaneously mark the dependency of Mansfield upon slavery and seek to avoid a fuller acknowledgement of these historical realities: what is "out there' ... frames the genuinely important action here" in England, but it is left off-stage (93). Although references to the navy, to Antigua, and even to slavery surface throughout Mansfield Park, the hardship, violence, and suffering they entail are not described. The '"dead silence'" that follows Fanny's question, Said contends, indicates "that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both" (96). On these terms, the brutal world of the slave plantation can enter the drawing room only as noise, and it can only lead to silence.

Certainly Fanny's question does not produce much shock or discomfiture in the Bertram family circle. Edmund chastises Fanny not for raising an unsettling topic but for failing to pursue a promising avenue for after-dinner conversation: '"It would have pleased your uncle to have been inquired of farther (231). Fanny drops the topic not because it is a political hot potato indeed, the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was a matter of national pride that had consolidated Britons' sense of moral superiority and provided a renewed impetus for empire (3)--but because she fears that it will expose the Bertram girls' unfilial lack of interest in their father's concerns. This conversation is about domestic politics in the most local sense. "'[W]hile my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, Fanny explains, "'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'" (231-32). In pointing out to Edmund that she did not set herself off at Maria and Julia's expense, Fanny of course sets herself off at their expense. Even her choice of a topic could be understood as marking her superiority to her cousins: abolition was an approved political topic for women, particularly among Evangelicals such as Hannah More, and thus the means of displaying the possession of a proper female sensibility. (4) Fanny's introduction of the subject is thus neither a naive blunder nor an uncharacteristic challenge to Sir Thomas's authority. Indeed, since taking a hard line on the slave trade often provided cover for an ameliorative position on slavery itself, as George Boulukos has argued, Fanny's question might cater to Sir Thomas's self-congratulatory understanding of himself as a benevolent master. It is perhaps less the "'dead silence'" that follows Fanny's question than the casual treatment of the slave trade as perfectly palatable after-dinner small talk that is troubling here. Like "the music which Sir Thomas called for from his daughters ... to conceal the want of real harmony," Fanny's question provides cover for the sounds (or sullen silence) of domestic discontent (224).

All of which is not to say that Mansfield Park trivializes slavery. The references to Antigua and to slavery may be slight, but they suggest that the products and profits of slavery are so ubiquitous as to become invisible. The title of the novel, probably an allusion to the famous 1772 Mansfield decision, widely (but erroneously) believed to have freed all slaves on British soil, hides the issue of slavery in plain sight; the name Mansfield rings on our ears throughout, but the significance of the name is intelligible only to an attuned ear, like a dog whistle. Perhaps Pug hears it, (5) but the Bertrams do not possess such an ear; they remain deaf to their guilty complicity in the slave trade, exercising that peculiar form of power that the critic Eve Sedgwick has described as the privilege conferred by ignorance--"the right," as Anne-Lise Francois puts it, "to go on not knowing or pretending not to see" (2).

If the Bertrams, secure in the precincts of Mansfield Park, can avoid hearing the clamor of the outside world, it is because the elite, unlike the poor, possess the power to insulate themselves from such noise. "The ability to escape external noises, as Emily Cockayne observes in Hubbub, her history of filth and noise in eighteenth-century England, "depended on ownership of space.... The richer the householder, the greater the space that could be afforded and the more solid the materials used" (119). By contrast, the Prices' home in Portsmouth, where Sir Thomas exiles Fanny in hope of compelling her to accept Mr. Crawford's proposal, is a din-filled bedlam, ringing with squabbles, loud voices, and oaths, noise rising upon noise, and bustle upon bustle" (444). Those who live in poverty cannot escape from unwanted sound: "Fanny was almost stunned. The smallness of the house, and thinness of the walls, brought every thing so close to her, that ... she hardly knew how to bear it" (441). The confusion of sound induces the claustrophobic impression of objects closing in on a mind unable to block anything out, as noise collapses the distance between places and people. There is no room of one's own in Portsmouth, no space for silence or reflection.

Fanny's visceral response to the noise and dirt of her family home is a measure of her innate delicacy and sensibility (nature) and of her assimilation to the gentrified world of Mansfield (nurture). In classifying her own family as noisy, Fanny (re)classifies herself. HE" very body was noisy, every voice was loud.... Whatever was wanted, was halloo'd for, and the servants halloo'd out their excuses from the kitchen. The doors were in constant banging, the stairs were never at rest, nothing was done without a clatter, nobody sat still, and nobody could command attention when they spoke" (454). The start-and-stop clauses of uneven length give a jerky cadence to the sentence that conveys the tumult, achieving the effect of noise in the prose itself. We encounter the Prices through the ears and eyes of the upper classes, vicariously sharing Fanny's sense of cacophony, but have scant access to the Prices' perception of themselves. What Fanny hears as din, her young brothers presumably hear as joyful carousing. We learn little about what the assorted Prices say beyond their hallooing, which leaves us with the impression that there is nothing in their noise worth listening to.

Although (apart from a few forays into the mind of Fanny's sister Susan) the narrative remains aligned with Fanny's perspective throughout the Portsmouth episode, her response to her surroundings is not observed uncritically. Austen's narrator has great fun with the way Fanny's revulsion at Portsmouth leads her to recast Mansfield as the site of blissful quiet and idyllic harmony: "At Mansfield, no sounds of contention, no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence was ever heard; all proceeded in a regular course of cheerful orderliness; every body had their due importance; every body's feelings were consulted" (453). Describing Mansfield in negatives 'no sounds of contention, no raised voices"--the narrative voice enters fully into Fanny's wishful recollections, albeit without particularizing the listening ear; Fanny's terror at Sir Thomas's footsteps has been conveniently forgotten. The impersonal generality of "every body had their due importance; every body's feelings were consulted" implies a democratic distribution of courtesy and mutual respect belied by just about everything that has come before. Indeed, Fanny's representation of the status quo at Mansfield is so diametrically opposed to her prior experience that the narration pauses, as if suddenly checked by its own implausibility, and the next sentence offers a guarded concession to the real unpleasantness of Fanny's previous life: "If tenderness could be ever supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place" (453). The multiple conditionals--"z/tenderness could be ever supposed wanting"--shrink from a positive assertion about the loveless atmosphere at Mansfield, while the passive voice avoids the question of who could have such a heretical thought. (Surely not Fanny!) The depressing suggestion that "good sense and good breeding" can compensate for a lack of tenderness elevates the chilly values of moneyed gentility over the love that Fanny hoped to find in her family. (6)

And the Prices, to be sure, bear little resemblance to the warm, loving family eagerly anticipated by Fanny prior to her return. Austen refuses the sentimental idealization of the poor, so common in literature of the period. Notwithstanding Sir Thomas's later insistence on the value of "early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure" (547), there is nothing ennobling in the Prices' poverty. Fanny is mortified by her parents and, although unspoken, the judgments she passes upon Mr. and Mrs. Price are severe indeed. It is here that Austen's free indirect discourse takes on a distinctive task: it enables the narrator to articulate on Fanny's behalf all that remains unuttered and indeed not quite thought by her--the desires and feelings presented to Fanny's consciousness, experienced by her, but not marshaled into the language that would oblige her to acknowledge them as her own. In Mansfield Park, as Anne-Lise Francois has argued, Austen's third-person narration "relieves Fanny from first-person assertions," allowing the narrator to voice those "thoughts and wishes that cannot withstand the work of articulation" (224, 225). Through free indirect discourse, Fanny gets to eat her cake without having to acknowledge that she has an appetite.

In free indirect discourse, the narrator's third-person voice delivers the feeling-filled language of a character's mind without resorting to first-person form. The narrator thus can express thoughts--such as Fanny's horrified conclusions about her mother--from which Fanny would recoil, without obliging her to take responsibility for their expression. Fanny, the narrator notes,
   might scruple to make use of the words, but she must and did feel
   that her mother was a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a
   slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, whose
   house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort from beginning
   to end, and who had no talent, no conversation, no affection toward
   herself; no curiosity to know her better, no desire of her
   friendship, and no inclination for her company that could lessen
   her sense of such feelings. (451-52)

Fanny's scruples about describing her mother in such devastating terms do not prevent the narrator doing so on her behalf, and the catalogue of Mrs. Price's deficiencies is unrelenting, as savage as anything in Austen (and far worse than anything Mary Crawford says about the admiral). Although the passage begins in the voice of the narrator, as the charges against Mrs. Price mount up, they become Fanny's embittered tally of injuries and disappointments, expressing all the rage and sorrow that Fanny cannot permit herself to recognize. Put another way, Austen's narrator allows the noise inside Fanny's head to remain noise, rendering the inchoate ferment of her mind intelligible to the reader, without requiring Fanny to know it, let alone to say it. Perversely, this narrative strategy allows Fanny to be both the quietest and the noisiest character in Mansfield Park, even as she is the most timid and the most daring of Austen's heroines. For daring she is. Given the precariousness of her position, her refusal to marry Mr. Crawford is the most defiant act in all of Austen's novels--even bolder than Elizabeth Bennet's refusal of Mr. Collins, since Elizabeth at least has the support of her father. "[H]eroism of principle," indeed (307).

Fanny, of course, receives her due in the closing chapter of the novel, when the narrator efficiently sorts characters into noisy and nice, exiling the wicked and meting out the tepid reward of "tolerable comfort (533) to the rest. The Crawfords are banished from Mansfield, and Mrs. Norris and Maria are condemned to the hell of each other's company in another part of the country, while Fanny in her meekness inherits, if not the earth, at least Edmund. With closure must come the silencing of the "noisy ones," almost, it seems, without exception (335). Of the young and the restless, only Tom, made steady and quiet," and Mr. Yates, rendered "tolerably domestic and quiet," are allowed to remain (534). The "happy" ending of Mansfield Park imposes--enforces--peace and tranquility. Whereas Pride and Prejudice closes with at least one wholly impenitent figure who refuses assimilation to the established order--"Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless" (348)--the final chapter of Mansfield Park seemingly attempts to eliminate all dissonance.

Or does it? The noise at the end of Mansfield Park is, I think, made not by a character but by the narrator. For the narrator's voice with its cheerful appropriation of "my Fanny"; its ironic description of the lessons the various characters believe themselves to have learned; its speculations on messy alternative outcomes; and its playful invitations to the reader to decide exactly at what date "the transfer of unchanging attachments" might occur--possesses a jaunty, bouncy tone that releases the narrator from the very strictures being described (544). Everything that lies "within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park" may be "dear" to Fanny's heart and "thoroughly perfect in her eyes," but we readers know better than to mistake this world for perfection; we know the price exacted from Fanny for assimilation into this world (548). One may circumscribe one's vision to align it with "the view ... of Mansfield Park," but the narrator makes sure that the calls and cries of the world beyond are still audible.

And this is the noisy Jane Austen for whom I want to cheer. For to think about noise in Jane Austen or to think about Jane Austen as noisy is to recognize the degree to which her novels challenge the established order--of property, of propriety, of patriarchy, of empire--by compelling us to listen to the sounds that are drowned out by noise or drowned out as noise, that are not heard as meaningful or intelligible. By inviting us listen to--and for--noise, Austen reminds us that the right to hear and to be heard is not impartially distributed. But she also reminds us that it is not just what we do not hear, but also what we do hear and dismiss as noise, that may be important. The lesson to be extracted from Mansfield Park and its quiet heroine is this: listen.


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Sussman, Charlotte. Consuming Anxieties: Consumer Protest, Gender, & British Slavery, 1713-1833. Stanford: SUP, 2000.

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage, 1999.


(1.) The Austens' cottage in Chawton village, where Austen wrote Mansfield Park, was at the fork where the routes to Alton, London, Winchester, and Gosport divided, "so close to the road that the beds in the front rooms upstairs were sometimes shaken by the six-horse coaches that thundered past (Tomalin 211). On the noises of the early-modern European city, see Garrioch.

(2.) Jane Austen recorded the reactions of her friends and family to Mansfield Park and seems to have taken particular delight in juxtaposing completely opposite takes: "Edward admired Fanny--George disliked her" ("Opinions of Mansfield Park" Later Manuscripts 230).

(3.) That the two positions might rub along together is even suggested in Austen's letters. On 24 January 1813, while still composing Mansfield Park, Austen informs Cassandra that she is reading one Captain Pasley's Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire. Pasley is the "first soldier I ever sighed for," she tells Cassandra, for "he does write with extraordinary force & spirit." "I am," she notes, "as much in love with the Author as I ever was with Clarkson or Buchanan that is, with the famous Thomas Clarkson, who spearheaded the anti-slavery campaigns of the 1780s and 1790s and had authored, in 1808, the influential History of the Rise Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament. '

(4.) See Midgley (9-40) and Sussman (110-58).

(5.) Indeed, the connections that Stephanie Howard-Smith uncovers between pugs and late eighteenth-century slavery suggest that Pug might.

(6.) When Fanny turns to what she now describes as "the little irritations, sometimes introduced by aunt Norris, the rhetorical deflation of years of persecution into minor inconvenience can only be accomplished in the borrowed language of cliche: "they were short, they were trifling, they were as a drop of water to the ocean, compared with the ceaseless tumult of her present abode. Here, every body was noisy; every voice was loud" (453-54, 454).

Lynn Festa, JASNA's 2014 North American Scholar, is associate professor of English at Rutgers University. She is the author of Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France as well as articles on the slave trade, the history of human rights, the eighteenth-century novel, and Jane Austen.
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Title Annotation:AGM 2014: Montreal
Author:Festa, Lynn
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2014
Previous Article:Mansfield Park and the Moral Empire.
Next Article:Jane Austen's short lexicon of fine names.

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