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Monday, June 13, 2011


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.


wallyverr said...

I look forward to tomorrow's post, but I would question Said's statement about the novel and 19th century European imperialism.

Literary historians often draw an analogy between the medieval Icelandic family sagas and novels. For example, Heather O'Donoghue writes << Given that family sagas are secular, naturalistic prose narratives dealing with individuals and society, the literary genre which they most closely resemble is the novel, especially the novel in its most traditional form... But the characters and events in sagas are shaped by a culture more different from our own than we may suspect, or can easily allow for... >>

So there is a strong similarity in form between the novels and the sagas, even though medieval Iceland was a society with no towns and no bourgeoisie, and was settled on essentially empty land rather than displacing an existing population. This makes me sceptical about a necessary linkage between literary genre and society.

Nick said...

Like Wallyverr I'm uncertain about the connection between the novel and European imperialism, but mainly because I think Ming and Qing dynasty China and Edo period Japan (though The Tale of Genji of course was written earlier) had novels. To me, the difference between A Dream of Red Chambers and Remembrance of Things Past is less than that between Tom Jones and To the Lighthouse. To risk stating the obvious, novels seem to arise when there is (relatively) wide-spread literacy, not necessarily when there is imperialism.

That said, I only recently read through this bourse, thoroughly enjoyed it, and now intend to read Mannheim. Any chance of a bourse on African-American studies (unless I have already missed it)?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not sure I know enough to do a bourse on African-American Studies, but it would be fun. In a sense, chapters two and three of my book, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-WHITE MAN is my take on the subject. Let me think about it.

English Jerk said...


Said isn't talking about "the novel" in a broad sense (e.g., in which it's defined in more-or-less formal terms as a sustained prose narrative). He is talking about "the great French and English realistic novels," in other words only about the realist tradition, a tradition of writing that obeys fairly rigid conventions (conventions that, for example, Dickens and Huysmans often do not obey). He's also restricting the extension of his claim to the "great" realist novels (and he thus avoids falsification by appeal to the various obscure products of the same era). When, in the subsequent quotation, he refers to "the novel," it seems most charitable to assume that he's still talking about the same narrowly restricted set of texts.

Also, there's an extensive scholarly literature on the ideological character of the realist novel (beginning with Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel), and within that scholarly literature Said's claim here would look less controversial than it might from the outside (e.g., from the point of view of a medievalist).

All of this is not to say that there are no grounds on which one might object to Said's claim. But, even given how polemical his formulation is (that the realist novel and empire are "unthinkable without each other"), one should not underestimate how large a body of evidence supports it. Some examples obviously support his thesis (e.g., Jane Eyre), so he presumably focuses on Mansfield Park precisely because it's a less obvious case.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think the exchange between WallyVerr and English Jerk is really quite interesting, and could form the basis for an independent series of posts [which I am utterly incompetent to write!]. I agree with both of you, in a sense. That is to say, Said is clearly focused on the European novel of the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, and it is also the case that there is a great deal to be written about other literary traditions that have interesting filiations with the European novel. I am not going to get into this at all, because, as will be clear tomorrow, my focus is quite narrowly on Austen and Mansfield Park. If someone who knows this stuff better than I wants to write a guest post on the European novel in its relation to other literary traditions, I would be delighted to put it on this blog.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

One brief addendum: This is exactly the kind of intelligent, courteous, thoughtful exchange that I like, and for which I want my blog to be a welcoming home.

Rosa said...

the suspense is killing me. can't wait for tomorrow!