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 Adam—Puritans 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.