2012 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner Graduate Division
Repaying Her Debt: Mansfield Park’s Economies of Power
Written in early nineteenth-century England’s increasingly commercial society, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park portrays overlapping systems of social and economic exchange. The majority of the novel’s characters, notably Sir Thomas Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and Mary Crawford, circulate within economies or value systems based on wealth and sexual (or marriageable) exchange; however, their attempts to manipulate other characters within these economies endanger the Mansfield estate. Only Austen’s protagonist, Fanny Price, resists these limited economies of wealth and marriage, despite the social and fiscal “debt” she owes to her Bertram relations for her upbringing. Fanny does not completely deny the value systems in which she is situated, but responds to them with an economy of her own. She is not immune to other characters’ prevailing attitudes that “money and feelings are interchangeable currencies, that presents of cash or things represent love and ought to be reciprocated with gratitude” (Deresiewicz 68); however, she reciprocates with redefined feelings of gratitude based on an economy of emotional and moral exchange. Through Fanny’s physical embodiment of this economy of gratitude, Austen rewrites the dominant systems of power—based on wealth and sexual exchange—not only to redeem or condemn the novel’s characters, but to recover the damaged estate itself. Because Fanny’s agency and resistance are realized within, rather than in opposition to, the social and physical constraints of Mansfield Park, and specifically within the East room, her system of moral value becomes indivisible from the physical surroundings in which it is developed.
The “debt” that Fanny incurs from the Bertrams is from the beginning expressed by Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris in terms of social status, wealth, and remuneration: these preoccupations, however, go beyond personal, individual concerns to implicate the social and economic insecurity of the Mansfield estate. In their initial discussion about providing for Fanny, Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris blend monetary considerations with those of social distinction: “‘Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to anybody’” (Austen 7). It is within the financial and social parameters of her debt that Fanny “owes” for her maintenance that she is first instructed to feel gratitude: “Mrs. Norris had been talking to her the whole way from Northampton of her wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behaviour which it ought to produce” (12). Fanny must feel gratitude and happiness, and will in fact train herself to do so, but not under Mrs. Norris’s terms. Indeed, Mrs. Norris’s definition of “good fortune” as implying wealth and status only makes the young Fanny uneasy within the physical space of Mansfield: “The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease; whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry” (13). Whereas Mrs. Norris never ceases to hold Fanny’s “gratitude” to account in pecuniary terms, such as denying her a fire in the East room (106), it is in and through this chamber that Fanny will finally enact her gratitude.
Austen directly connects the monetary “debt” that Fanny owes the Bertrams with the income and maintenance of the estate: the Antiguan sugar plantations that necessitate Sir Thomas’s extended voyage not only further the plot and enable the famous theatricals, but also signal the precarious social and economic position of an estate that relies solely on external income rather than rents from its land. The family circle, including Fanny, materially depends on this “sphere of labour and of commodity exchange” (Habermas 46): as Sir Thomas’s “circumstances were rendered less fair than heretofore, by some recent losses on his West India Estate, in addition to his eldest son’s extravagance, it became not undesirable to himself to be relieved by the expense of [Fanny’s] support, and the obligation of her future provision” (Austen 19). When Sir Thomas directly departs to the plantation, and into this sphere of exchange, his absence allows his children to do as they please, proving that the family’s social structure, as well as its economic basis, depends on such “external” spheres. Sir Thomas’s voyage also implies a social truth: in Austen’s society to “own land was to be identified more physically with the nation than to engage in commerce and a wide yet intimate knowledge of the affairs of the countryside where the majority of the nation lived made landowners the ‘natural’ governing class” (Jones 269). If Sir Thomas’s journey reveals Mansfield’s economic and social separation from extensive, profitable land—the English estate’s traditional productive role—then it also signals to readers an uneasiness in the social status of the estate, an ambiguity suggesting “new and uncertain rank, if not new wealth, and an unease in Sir Thomas’s social position” (Sutherland xxvii), even aside from his role as a slave-owner. Though the Bertrams are among the wealthiest families at the centre of Austen’s novels, “we do not know whether [Sir Thomas] is the first baronet or one in a long line” (Sutherland xxvi) nor how long he has been in possession of the “modern-built” (Austen 49) Mansfield property. The “necessity” (33) of Sir Thomas’s “dangerous wartime journey” signifies that Mansfield may already be an “impersonation” of an estate, “inward-looking and defensive, still finding its public position” (Sutherland xxvii) within the bases of a monetary economy that, for Austen’s society, is dangerously detached from English land. Therefore perhaps Sir Thomas also looks to another value system to stabilize his family within the landed ranks: to circulate Fanny and his children within the economy of marriage and sexual exchange.
The first paragraph of Mansfield Park introduces a society accustomed to the combined transactions of wealth and marriage, circles of power in which Fanny is expected to repay the debt of her upbringing; for most women in the novel, marriage is the only economy that matters, but for Mary Crawford and Maria Bertram especially, their confidence that they can successfully manipulate this system proves disastrous. Though the novel’s action occurs almost completely within the “the enclosed space of the patriarchal conjugal family” (Habermas 46)—Austen presents “Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park” (5) in the first sentence, and ends the novel within “the view and patronage of Mansfield Park” (321)—from the start the narrator instantly submerges any intimacy of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram’s marriage within economic discourse and the multiple voices of public opinion: “All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it” (5). Wealth and sexual economics immediately collide, and people’s worth is judged in terms of monetary value. For Austen’s gentlewomen, marriage is often indeed their only economy, and Mary Crawford circulates entirely within these expected transactions of power. She seeks to define Fanny in terms of the marriage economy: “‘I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price … Pray, is she out, or is she not?’” (36). Mary’s understanding of Fanny rests solely on this distinction, indicating that she cannot conceive of an individual outside of the sexual exchange. Power, for Mary, is integral to her participation in the marriage economy, which she articulates in financial terms: “‘Fanny, the glory of fixing one who has been shot at by so many; of having it in one’s power to pay off the debts of one’s sex!’” (246). For Maria Bertram, the power of the marriage exchange is entirely monetary:
Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could. (29)
However, by perceiving this system of sexual economy as the basis of what Austen ironically names her “rule of moral obligation,” Maria will embark on affair with Henry Crawford that will ostracize her from the final economic system of gratitude and moral value that will, via Fanny, come to dominate the novel and the estate.
Before the enactment of this new system of power, Sir Thomas attempts to manipulate Fanny via the economy of sexual exchange; by appealing to the importance of gratitude, Sir Thomas gestures toward but does not yet understand Fanny’s eventual means of “repaying” her debt. Sir Thomas conceives of Henry Crawford’s courtship of Fanny in economic terms, not only practically, but also syntactically: he voices Henry’s offer of marriage, and Fanny’s subsequent refusal, as “transactions” (217). Upon Fanny’s refusal, Sir Thomas’s accusation of ingratitude echoes Mrs. Norris’s earlier insistence on proper gratitude, and thus affects Fanny stronger that his other admonitions: “‘You do not owe me the duty of a child. But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude—’” (216). The hyperbolic expression of Fanny’s play of thought reveals that she is intensely aware how “gratitude” is “one of the most important civil exchange tokens” (Handler and Segal 72): “ungrateful! to have appeared so to him! She was miserable forever” (Austen 329). Sir Thomas also tries to appeal to Fanny’s gratitude toward Henry Crawford for his attentions. Gratitude indeed plays a strong role in courtship in the novel, but of a different kind. In the “courtship”—if it can be so called—of Edmund and Fanny, gratitude forms an initiating as well as reoccurring part: only after Fanny exhibits “gratitude and delight,” does Edmund “begin to find her an interesting object” (17). On Fanny’s part, “[s]he regarded her cousin … as entitled to such gratitude from her, as no feelings could be strong enough to pay” (28). Handler and Segal argue that “gratitude can only be a response; it is at once an acknowledgment of attentions received and a preliminary return that holds the promise of increasing returns in the future” (72); it is via the social responsibility and moral value systems as expressed through proper gratitude that Fanny will finally make those “returns.” In rejecting Henry Crawford, and therefore the other characters’ dominant systems of value and exchange, Fanny posits a different way of being in the world, a system based on moral worth. Her rejection of Crawford due to her objections to his “principles” belongs to a system of value that is at this point in the narrative incommunicable to Sir Thomas (Austen 215).
Fanny’s beloved East room, her private space, physically manifests the development of this responsible social exchange that will eventually dominate the other systems of power in the novel. For Fanny, every object in the East room is “a friend, or [bears] her thoughts to a friend” (106). This interior receptiveness to others, nurtured by attachment to place, yields in Fanny the memory-based anxiety of how to repay “the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced” (107). Therefore when Sir Thomas admonishes Fanny in the east room when she refuses Crawford, his accusation of “ingratitude” (216) carries enormous weight in a setting that has already suggested to Fanny the “amount of the debt” (107) she owes him. The objects in the east room, almost all cast-offs or gifts, imply that Fanny has no personal material wealth: “the claims of her cousins to being obliged, were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them” (107)—but her “return cannot be made in the same currency” (Handler and Segal 72). By valuing these objects through their association with the givers, Fanny demonstrates the emotional worth with which she repays her material debt: “emotional economics provides its real payoff for her creditors” (Deresiewicz 68).
In constructing Fanny’s feelings of gratitude as “a kind of currency that she must use to repay her debt to the Bertrams” (68), embodied through the space of the East room, Austen furthermore presents this physical space as a location of powerful agency: just as Fanny develops within and not against the confines of the room, she subverts the economic systems in which she is placed by defining herself within them. Fanny acquires agency by claiming ownership of her structural boundaries. Such natural and reflective “fortification” allows Fanny to become “mistress” (Austen 105) of her active selfhood as well as of her domestic space. Initially, she can only utter a “gentle ‘come in’” (107) to Edmund when he enters her room, and then cannot offer her opinion: “‘My opinion!’ she cried, shrinking from such a compliment” (107). When Mary Crawford visits, Fanny “endeavour[s] to show herself mistress of the room,” but can only look “with concern” at her enforced privations, “the bright bars of her empty grate” (117). We may read these “bright bars” symbolically: unlike Maria, whose “mistake is to wish for extended bounds, to challenge enclosure” (Sutherland xxxvii), Fanny achieves agency by adapting herself to her domestic constraints. Eventually Fanny can “naturally” take “her guest” (Austen 242), Mary Crawford, to her room; she has no more anxieties about belonging to the space, and in this scene gives her opinion: “‘I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman’s feelings’” (246). By using the contained space of Mansfield both to develop her burgeoning agency and her own economy of reciprocity, based on moral worth and gratitude, Fanny gains the power to redeem an estate that by the end of the novel is damaged by excessive reliance on monetary and sexual systems of value, systems that enable Maria and Henry Crawford’s affair.
Fanny’s realized personal agency extends beyond the private self into relationships of responsible social exchange (Handler and Segal 59) rooted in principles of debt and gratitude that in turn make her a fitting moral centre for the precarious Mansfield estate. Though she remains within the original economic systems of Mansfield, Fanny resists the manipulations of other characters within those economies, namely Sir Thomas and Mary Crawford, and in doing so constructs her own agency and economy of social exchange within, and not in opposition to, the estate—which in turn allows her to imbue Mansfield with a new system of value that proves more stable for the household than an unmitigated circulation of wealth and sexual exchange. In allowing her protagonist to build this morality-based economy, Austen creates a fiction of resistance against the increasingly commercial society of early nineteenth-century England. At the end of the narrative, when Fanny returns from her visit to Portsmouth, the novel no longer enters her cherished East room. The other characters recognize her value, and her influence now surpasses the space in which she has nurtured and contained her reflective interiority. The text acknowledges that through this separate, proper function of gratitude, Fanny redeems her debt: Sir Thomas’s “liberality had a rich repayment” (Austen 486).
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. 1814. ed. Claudia L. Johnson. W. W. Norton: New York, 1998.
Deresiewicz, William. Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. Print.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. 1962. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. 1989. Cambridge: Polity P, 2008. Print.
Handler, Richard, and David Segal. Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture: An Essay on the Narration of Social Realities. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1990. Print.
Jones, Chris. “Landownership.” Jane Austen in Context. ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 269-77. Print.
Sutherland, Kathryn. Introduction. Mansfield Park. By Jane Austen. 1814. London: Penguin Books, 2003. xi-xl. Print.