Mansfield Park and The Culture Wars

After a hiatus I have posted an article, Everything of Higher Consequence, on my Mansfield Park blog. Here I have brought together some of my thinking on the novel which also intersects with some recent thoughts on what makes progressives and conservatives tick. Given that the two stream of thought originated with the French revolution and Edmund Burke’s reaction to it, and the way that the baby-boomer culture wars have been fought out in Austen criticism (see Conservatives and Progressives) and Barack Obama’s objective to move beyond these culture wars (see about half of the posts on Andrew Sullivan’s blog), you can see strong convergence in these seemingly disparate areas covering philosophy and the enlightenment, Jane Austen’s writing and contemporary politics.

In response to some recent questions on Fanny Price’s refusal on the grounds of high principal to participate in the Mansfield theatrics.

“For her own gratification she could have wished that something might be acted, for she had never seen even half a play, but everything of higher consequence was against it.”

I argue that, as the great critic Lionel Trilling explained, that it all hung on parental authority, the absent Sir Thomas, as everyone knew, would strongly disapprove of the scheme. Mansfield Park is generally assumed to advance a conservative philosophy placing great emphasis on parental authority, but Fanny later defies that authority in refusing to take the hand of the very eligible, clever and charming Henry Crawford. She does so because she could not respect him, never mind love him. She rejects him because of his morals, preferring her dull, marginally competent and very upright cousin. It is seen to be a very conservative novel.

But with an Austen novel things are rarely quite as they seem. Sir Thomas, the authority figure on which this edifice is built, is the barely-concealed demon of the piece (see the Mansfield Park introductory page), but the imposing figure ends the novel with his authority entirely intact, the corrupt old order being redeemed by those conscious ‘of being born to struggle and endure’, that the fact of his rigid conservatism being responsible for the mayhem is lost. As Edmund says, ‘His sense of decorum is strict.’ He has turned his family into a hollow theatre every bit as fixated at the expense of deeper qualities as as the clever, urbane and progressive Crawfords. He has done so because of his fixation on duties has lead him no neglect the inner life of his children.

As well as the political argument arising between the progressive Jacobins and the reactionary conservatives it is possible to discern a similar discussion over ethics. Ethics had become an issue with the scientific revolution and the reformation challenging the authority of the church. Hume and Kant both tried to replicate the success of science in the field of ethics (as declared in the prefaces of Hume’s Treatise and Kant’s first Critique), with Hume following the moral sentimentalists and deciding that the reason should become the ‘slave of the passions’ and Kant founding his ethics on duties. Austen throughout her work showed that both of these enterprises are doomed, starting with Sense and Sensibility. Time and again if the protagonists who rely on sentiment to deliver accurate judgment fail, but the reader gets drawn into this drama for they find themselves in the same predicament, any judgments of their judgments that rely on sentiment will fail too. Those that allow their sentiments to be overrun by the progressive, sparkling Crawfords will find their judgment delivering some peculiar verdicts about Fanny Price that can hardly withstand analysis (‘the most terrible incarnation we have of the female prig-pharisee’ according to Farrer in 1917: see Puritans, Prigs and the Tyranny of Petty Coercion). But conservatives need to be careful too as we see with Alistair Duckworth’s response to Sir Thomas’s response on returning to find his children infatuated by theatricals.

Whatever failings Sir Thomas will reveal in other acts during the novel, his response on discovering the theatre is exemplary. He immediately sets about returning Mansfield to its “proper state” (20.2).

– Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate, p. 56

This is the point where Sir Thomas makes his fatal misstep on discovering his house in disarray he sets about restoring the appearance of order without attending to any of the inner causes.

Kant’s attempt to found ethics on duties was as doomed as the moral sentimentalists was to base it on sentiment, and Austen understood this. Any approach must aim to be more holistic than this, must engage the heart as well as the head, reconcile the needs of the individual with those of the community, must combine sensitivity with responsibility (see also the Two Cultures). Our classical pre-Enlightenment forbears with their Christian ethics understood this but conservatives and progressives alike seem to have forgotten it.

Update: I have written a feature article on peace and Wisdom, Mansfield Park and the Culture Wars, reflecting on this article and other articles written on both blogs.

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