Coda: Edward Said, Jane Austen, and Mansfield Park
As I indicated earlier, I have decided not to discuss Edward Said's great book, Orientalism, both because I think there is only limited demand for an extension of this "bourse" and because my command of those materials is, to put it generously, limited. But I would like to offer one additional example of ideological critique by devoting a relatively brief coda to Said's discussion of Jane Austen's novel, Mansfield Park. Ed Said, whom I had the good fortune to know slightly during the time that we were both at Columbia, is one of the really important public intellectuals of the past half century, and it is fitting that a lengthy discussion of ideological critique include at least some mention of his work. These remarks, incidentally, are derived from a talk I gave to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program in Washington, D. C., at the invitation of my sister, Dr. Barbara Searle, who has for many years taught courses there on evolutionary biology and related topics. This coda will, as I indicated in my opening remarks, be something of a multi-media affair, because it was prompted by, and will make reference to, the 1999 movie of Mansfield Park directed by the Canadian film director Patricia Rozema.
Said's discussion of the novel can be found in Chapter Two of his last book, Culture and Imperialism, published in the final year of his life. Those who know Said only as the impassioned champion of Palestinian liberation and the caustic critic of Sir Bernard Lewis and other influential Orientalists need to recall that he was, for his entire professional career, an eminent professor of literature at Columbia and an enormously sophisticated student of the nineteenth century European novel. I mention this last fact because it is a great mistake to imagine that Said's treatment of Austen, or indeed of the other great nineteenth century novelists, is in any way reductive or formulaic or overshadowed by his deep moral and political concerns. Like all great critics, Said loved the novels he subjected to analysis, and never lost the ability to be delighted by their charms.
Mansfield Park was the third of Austen's major novels, appearing in 1814, two years after Sense and Sensibility and only a year after Pride and Prejudice. [Austen, who lived to the age of forty-two, was thirty-nine when the novel appeared.] I would imagine that most of the readers of this blog have read one or several of Austen's novels, but Mansfield Park is hardly the best known or most loved of her works, and a brief summary of the story may be in order.
Three sisters in the lower reaches of the turn-of-the-century English country upper classes marry. One marries extremely well, and becomes the wife of Sir Thomas Bertram, the master of a handsome and extensive estate called Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas and his wife have four children: Tom, the oldest, and eventual heir to Mansfield Park, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. A second sister marries a clergyman who is installed in the Manfield Park parsonage. The third sister marries badly -- a Lieutenant of Marine named Price -- and in rapid succession has nine children. She and her husband live in the naval port city of Portsmouth, where they are hard pressed to provide for the large family. As the novel opens, the second oldest of the nine children, Fanny, who is now ten years old, is sent to live at Mansfield Park with her wealthy uncle, aunt, and cousins, as a way of relieving her parents of a small measure of the cost of raising their children. Fanny Price is the heroine of Mansfield Park.
The novel -- some four hundred pages in my edition -- is a simple domestic tale about the succession of events and crises that lead at long last, and to the very great relief of the reader, to Fanny marrying the second son, Edmund. [They are first cousins, of course, but that seems not to have troubled Austen or her readers.] Austen introduces two plot devices to stir things up and generate some narrative movement. The first is that early on, Sir Thomas departs from Mansfield Park for two years to look after his investments elsewhere, leaving the young people, now in their twenties and late teens, to get into all manner of assorted mischief. At one point in this two year period, eldest son Tom is called away to join his father. During Sir Bertram's absence, as Fanny is turning eighteen [nothing much has happened in the eight intervening years, save that Fanny has developed a crush on Edmund, who is mostly oblivious of this fact], a young, wealthy, attractive, socially well-placed but morally questionable brother and sister, Mary and Henry Crawford, show up and wreak havoc in the quiet, staid Bertram household. The depravity of the Crawfords is shown not only by Henry's seduction and ruin of one of the sisters, but by the fact that the Crawfords persuade the young people to take part in an amateur theatrical performance, at Mansfield Park, of a play then all the rage in London.
I confess that when I read the novel, I had trouble figuring out what, from Austen's point of view, was so bad about amateur theatricals. I think it may be the fact that when one participates in such an undertaking, one must speak lines, as a character, to another person whose character in the play is one's paramour. One is thus put in the unacceptable position of saying things one ought never to say to someone to whom one ought never to say them, unless the two of you are in real life to be married. At any rate, Sir Thomas gets back from overseas just in time to put an end to such shenanigans.
And that is pretty much it. Three hundred and fifty pages after the Crawfords arrive, Maria and Julia are ruined, Tom has nearly died of brain fever [nursed back to health by Fanny, who is called back from Portsmouth by Tom's illness], and Edmund finally realizes that he loves Fanny -- a consummation for which Fanny has been devoutly wishing for many pages and many years.
How on earth can Ed Said possibly extract an historical, ideological, literary-political lesson from this unpromising text?
The general theme of Culture and Imperialism is nicely captured by two brief passages relatively early in the book. Here they are:
"[T]he extraordinary formal and ideological dependence of the great French and English realistic novels on the facts of empire has ... never been studied from a general theoretical standpoint." [p. 35]
"I am not trying to say that the novel -- or the culture in the broad sense -- 'caused' imperialism, but that the novel, as a cultural artifact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other. Of all the major literary forms, the novel is the most recent, its emergence the most datable, its occurrence the most Western, its normative pattern of social authority the most structured; imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the other."
Fair enough, in general. That is certainly a plausible claim about the nineteenth century novel as a genre, but Austen? Surely, of all the great novelists, she is most distanced from considerations of empire. Where in the pages of Mansfield Park, or in the facts of Austen's sheltered life, can we find actual texts and facts to support such a reading? Tomorrow, we shall see the answer.