Puritans, Prigs and the Tyranny of Petty Coercion

Marilynne Robinson must be one of the greatest living English prose writers. Her novels (Housekeeping and Gilead) are widely admired, but it is her collection of essays in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought that have captivated me. I have not anywhere read such powerful, exquisitely-crafted essays. It is difficult (if not meaningless) to try and compare writing from different times and places so if I was living in Samuel Johnson’s time I would no doubt come to a different conclusion but Robinson, by virtue of addressing current issues in a contemporary style is in better a position to captivate me. (Hat tip to Bryan Appleyard for putting me onto Robinson).

That Robinson’s essays should shine a new light on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, one of the most controversial works in the language by one its greatest writers is intriguing but few seem to have made the connection. Two essays in The Death of AdamPuritans and Prigs and The Tyranny of Petty Coercion—Marilynne Robinson has some unorthodox yet shrewd things to say about priggishness, morality and the tyranny of the modern groupthink, and they appear to have some relevance to the 20th century reaction to the heroine of Mansfield Park (‘the most terrible incarnation we have of the female prig-pharisee’ according to Farrer in 1917). Before coming to the ‘priggish’ Fanny Price, a recap of Robinson’s essays.

Puritans and Prigs

Robinson starts by observing that people generally expect prigs to be privileged and quotes Webster’s Third New International Dictionary definition of priggish as ‘Marked by overvaluing oneself or one’s ideas, habits, notions by precise or inhibited adherence to them, and by small disparagement of others’ and observes that Christian ethics have always recognised the need for everyone to work with their wayward tendencies.

The Stalinist vision is much more optimistic. It can propose a solution. Society is simply other people, useful or not, capable of contributing to the general good, or not. Creatures of society, they are also the reasons for the continuing failure and suffering of society. At the same time, since society is the only possible agent of its own transformation, the victim stands revealed as the enemy, the obstacle to reform, the problem to be eliminated. Freed of those it has maimed, it might at last be perfect. This is a great solipsism, a tautology, based on a model of human being-in-the-world which, curiously, has long seemed scientific to people because it is so extremely narrow and simple and has no basis in history or experience.

This social vision has also an attraction that Puritanism never had, Puritanism with its grand assertion and concession, In Adam’s Fall / We sinned all. It creates clear distinctions among people, and not only justifies the disparagement of others but positively requires it. Its adherents are overwhelmingly those who feel secure in their own reasonableness, worth, and goodness, and are filled with a generous zeal to establish their virtues through the whole of society, and with an inspiring hope that this transformation can be accomplished. It would seem to me unfair in the extreme to liken our new zealots to Stalinists, if I did not do so with the understanding that the whole of the culture is very much influenced by these assumptions, and that in this as in other ways the zealots differ from the rest of us only as an epitome differs from a norm. (p. 158 )

Robinson notes the modern liberal antipathy to morality as ‘a repressive system to be blamed for all of our ills’ while acknowledging that some ‘glue’ is needed to hold society together but …

we have priggishness at hand, up-to-date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, as self-persuaded as a Method actor. It looks like morality and feels like it, both to those who wield it and those that taste its lash.

Robinson offers an inclusive definition of morality as being loyal in ‘life and behaviour’ to an understanding of what is ‘right and good’, and ‘will honour it even at considerable cost’ to oneself.

Though etymologically “morality means something like social custom, as we use it it means the desire to govern oneself, expressed as behaviour. People who attempt this fail, and learn in the course of failing that to act well, even to know what it is to act well, is a great struggle and mystery. rather than trying to reform others, moral people seem to me especially eager to offer pardon in the hope of receiving pardon, to forgo judgment in the hope of escaping judgment.

So perhaps what I have called priggishness is useful in the absence of true morality, which requires years of development, perhaps thousands of years, and cannot simply be summoned as needed. Its inwardness and quietism makes its presence difficult to sense, let alone quantify, and they make its expression often idiosyncratic and hard to control. But priggishness makes its presence felt. And is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig’s formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or hers ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one’s better nature, if only to embarrass dissent. A prig in good form can make one ashamed to hold a conviction so lightly, and, at the same time, ashamed to hold it at all. (p. 159-60)

People who are blind to the consequences of their own behaviour no doubt feel for that reason particularly suited to the work of reforming other people. To them morality seems almost as easy as breathing. (p. 162)

The Tyranny of Petty Coercion

In Petty Coercion Robinson notes that both what constitutes and what gets recognised as courage is conventional and that modernity places great emphasis on physical courage (the courage of firefighters, etc.).

Moral and intellectual courage are not in nearly so flourishing a state, even though the risks they entail—financial or professional disadvantage, ridicule, ostracism—are comparatively minor. I propose that these forms of courage suffer from the disadvantage of requiring new definitions continually, which must be generated out of individual perception and judgement. They threaten or violate loyalty, group identity, the sense of comme il faut. They are intrinsically outside the range of consensus. (p. 256)

Robinson notes that with enhanced interrogation, until very recently, being so unfashionable we have found alternative ways of maintaining reality-challenged consensus.

It is true that in most times and places physical courage and moral and intellectual courage have tended to merge, since dungeons, galleys, and stakes have been extensively employed in discouraging divergent viewpoints. For this reason our own society, which employs only mild disincentives against them and in theory positively admires them, offers a valuable opportunity for the study of what I will call the conservation of consensus, that is, the effective enforcement of consensus in those many instances where neither reason nor data endorse it, where there are no legal constraints supporting it, and where there are no penalties for challenging it that persons of even moderate brio would consider deterrents. (p. 256)

For Robinson the cult of modernity succeeds both in being radical (i.e., un-conservative) in rejecting mainline religion, and illiberal in its intolerance of diversity and any challenge to its dogmatic rejection of individual responsibility. (It may be paradoxical to accuse conservatives of rejecting individual responsibility, but a closer look reveals that they are generally playing lip service to it—just as modern ‘liberals’ are often profoundly illiberal—using the dogma of individual responsibility to blame others and evade their social responsibility.)

Cultures commonly employ the methods of cults, making their members subject and dependent. And nations at intervals march in lock-step to enormity and disaster. A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage. In a democracy, abdications of conscience are never trivial. They demoralize politics, debilitate candour, and disrupt thought. (p. 262)

Fanny Price

Fanny captures our imagination in the same romantic way, by welcoming the reader into her solitary animosity against the intricacies of the normal: “Fanny was again left to her solitude, and with no increase of pleasant feelings, for she was sorry for almost all she had seen and heard, astonished as Miss Bertram, and angry with Mr. Crawford.” (10.22) The compelling, blighting power of Fanny’s spectatorship at Sotherton is characteristic: morality dissolves into angry and unpleasant feelings whose intensity is an alternative to community. For while Fanny’s Romanticism suggests itself in her isolating sensibility, her stylized effusions to nature, she is most Romantic in that, like Wordsworth’s leech gatherer or Coleridge’s Mariner, there is something horrible about her, something that deprives the imagination of its appetite for ordinary life and compels it towards the deformed, the dispossessed. (p. 447)

— Nina Auerbach, Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought about Fanny Price

Auerbach catches well the antipathy that Fanny Price can generate in modern readers but check out the argument. Fanny manifestly didn’t ‘blight’ any Sotherton activity (except perhaps vicariously for some readers); given that Crawford was trifling with the Bertram sisters from start to finish, that his trifling ultimately destroys Maria, and Fanny is the only person to recognise it for what it is, maybe Fanny’s ‘angry and unpleasant feelings’ might merit some respect (and as Henry himself admits later ‘Do not think of me as I appeared then.’ (25.31)); while all those around her are engaging in hypocrisy, ultimately making fools of themselves and trying to shovel Fanny into a loveless, mercenary marriage that Fanny steadily resists, the ‘deformed’ and ‘dispossessed’ associations are perhaps a little ironic.

The most important and revealing charge against Fanny is her reluctance to play along with the theatricals. As everyone knows Sir Thomas’s ‘sense of decorum is strict,’ excluding as it does ‘his grown-up daughters […] acting plays.’ (13.26) To some extent there is some irony here as Sir Thomas’s family has in any case turned into a theatrical performance with his daughters (and eldest son) acting the part of dutiful daughters for their forbidding father, but with little of substance behind the façade.

Poor Julia, the only one out of the nine not tolerably satisfied with their lot, was now in a state of complete penance, and as different from the Julia of the barouche-box as could well be imagined. The politeness which she had been brought up to practise as a duty made it impossible for her to escape; while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right, which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it. (9.36)

Fanny and Edmund are horrified at the prospect of the theatricals proceeding, knowing (as they all do) what their father would think of them and there is something pathetic about the spinelessness of Tom on his father’s return—if he had truly believed in correctness of the theatricals he ought to have (as Yeats thought) defended them on his father’s return. Given that Tom had already blighted Edmund’s prospects with his own extravagance, perhaps we might agree with Tom that when Sir Thomas ‘inquired with mild gravity after the fate of the billiard-table, he was not proceeding beyond a very allowable curiosity’.

And again, wasn’t Edmund’s judgement correct that theatricals weren’t a safe activity for Sir Thomas’s daughters to engage in, with ‘all the disadvantages of education and decorum to struggle through’; didn’t it prove to be the undoing of Maria, unprepared as she was for Henry’s superior acting.

But as Mary says Edmund’s ‘sturdy spirit’ does ‘bend’ (36.9), and for all his high-minded professions is finally seduced. While Fanny’s distress is undoubtedly caught up in her jealousy of Mary her horror at the compromising of Edmund’s integrity is real enough. That Mary should take delight in corrupting that integrity while Fanny is horrified by it says everything about the their relative suitability as partners for Edmund, at least for those that don’t subscribe to the nihilistic, cynical and worldly philosophy of marriage that Mary brings from London to Mansfield and resumes on her return to London.

But the powerless, unglamorous Fanny gets hammered first by the Mansfield prigs, and then by their critical antecedents, for failing to submit to their petty coercion and play her part in this dishonest farce. Austen is careful to get our unanimous agreement at the obnoxiousness and repulsiveness of Mrs Norris only to show us how much of Mrs Norris there is in all of us.

“I am not going to urge her,” replied Mrs. Norris sharply; “but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her— very ungrateful, indeed, considering who and what she is.” (15.56)

(See also my new blog on Mansfield Park.)

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