PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.2 (Spring 2008)

Fanny’s “great book”: Macartney’s Embassy to China and Mansfield Park



Susan Allen Ford


Susan Allen Ford (email: is Professor of English and Writing Center Coordinator at Delta State University and Editor of Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line.  She is interested in what Austen’s characters are reading. 


when Edmund Bertram decides to forsake his principles and perform in Lovers’ Vows, he visits Fanny Price in the East room to extract her approval.  In this scene he effectively moves from her side to that of the Crawfords.  Fanny’s feelings on learning Edmund’s decision are a complicated mix:  disappointment; disapproval; duty both to her cousin and to Sir Thomas; jealousy of and gratitude toward Mary Crawford; the tension between the habit of agreeing with and being guided by Edmund, versus the independence of her own moral development.  Edmund is blind to both the local and the more global implications of his actions.  Although in deciding to participate in the play he allays his own emotional and erotic turmoil, he simultaneously increases Fanny’s, a circumstance he characteristically fails to notice.  Instead, full of the “‘pleasure’” his decision will give to Miss Crawford, he remarks that Fanny “‘want[s] to be reading. . . . You in the meanwhile will be taking a trip into China, I suppose.  How does Lord Macartney go on?’”  After Edmund reads the titles of the other books on her table, he leaves, but “there was no reading, no China, no composure for Fanny” (156).


            Editors of Mansfield Park identify the book Edmund opens as Lord Macartney’s Journal of the Embassy to China, published in 1807 as a large portion of the second volume of John Barrow’s Some Account of the Public Life and a Selection from the Unpublished Writings, of the Earl of Macartney.1  The journal details the unsuccessful British attempt to expand trade with China, providing insight into the political negotiations as well as the narrative of a trip through an exotic land.  By the time of Macartney’s 1792 embassy, the European enthusiasm for all things Chinese—prevalent in the late seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries—had begun to diminish.  As J. J. Clarke has argued, “Sinomania,” now associated with despotism, was in decline, and, in the European view, Chinese culture “took on the character of torpor and apathy by contrast with the supposed vigour and progressiveness of Europe” (53).  David Porter has described a similar character of blockage, obstructionism, and stasis associated by the British with China even as they defined their own commercial culture in terms of free circulation.  For the British of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, China was definitely—and somewhat suspiciously—other.


Accepting the identification of Edmund’s reference as Macartney’s journal, Maaja A. Stewart, Joseph Lew, and Peter Knox-Shaw have all considered the significance of Austen’s reference to Macartney’s embassy, though interpreting that journal differently.  Stewart sees the novel’s references to Macartney’s journal, in which he “interrupts the narratives of China with the rehearsal of the known and familiar landscapes and customs of England,” as part of the novel’s pattern of “the triumph of the familiar over the alien” (126-27).  Lew emphasizes the similarity between the absolute though benevolent patriarchy of the Chinese and the absolute and usually benevolent patriarchy exercised by Sir Thomas:  “Macartney teaches Fanny to recognize that a ‘usually’ kind and indulgent despot, is still a despot” (293).  Knox-Shaw emphasizes the contrast between Macartney’s refusal to kowtow (i.e., to perform the ceremonial prostration before China’s emperor) and Edmund’s weak-willed concession to the desires of Mary Crawford.  He also discusses the linkage between the politics of resistance and inducement for Macartney’s embassy—their dependence on the Chinese for accommodation, heat, and food—and Fanny’s parallel dependence on Sir Thomas’s benevolence:  in both cases, Knox-Shaw notes, comforts and necessities are withheld in order to shape behavior, but in both cases the free-born Englishman or woman resists.  In different ways, for all three of these scholars, Macartney’s embassy becomes a sign of Fanny’s necessary resistance to power.


Such readings are very valuable.  But I want to suggest first of all that the identification of the book Edmund opens—what he refers to as Fanny’s “‘great book’”—as Macartney’s diary is less than certain.  In fact, there were a number of first-hand accounts of Macartney’s embassy published by various members of the party in the years following their return.  Aeneas Anderson, Lord Macartney’s valet, published A Narrative of the British Embassy to China in 1795, an account abridged and republished in a cheaper edition that same year by another member of the expedition.  Sir George Staunton, the Secretary of the Embassy, published An Authentic Account in 1797, taken from the papers of Macartney, Sir Erasmus Gower (the expedition commander), and others.  A volume of Plates to Staunton’s Account was published in the previous year, 1796.  In 1798, Samuel Holmes, a sergeant-major in Macartney’s guard, published his Journal.  Barrow, the embassy’s comptroller, published his own account in 1804, as Travels in China.  And William Alexander, draftsman to the Embassy, published two illustrated volumes:  The Costume of China (1805) and Picturesque Representations of the Dress and Manners of the Chinese (1814), the latter too late for Austen to have had it in mind but indicative of the continuing interest in Macartney’s expedition.  And there were others.2


“The Emperor of China’s Gardens, the Imperial Palace, Peking”
William Alexander (1767-1816)
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum


How might this multiplication of possibilities matter?  Macartney’s journal certainly raises subjects relevant for Fanny and the readers of Mansfield Park:  not only the kowtow and the problems of political authority it represents (as Stewart, Lew, and Knox-Shaw point out, directly applicable to Fanny’s circumstance) but also the appeal of the improved, picturesque landscape and the complex interrelationships of duty and gratitude.  These are issues central to Austen’s novel.  But other accounts of the embassy reverberate with an even wider range of concerns echoing those of Mansfield Park:  these include slavery, the condition of women, and a range of emotions often marginalized by a society concerned chiefly with status and advantage.  In his reading of Mansfield Park, the late Edward Said argues that “Austen reveals herself to be assuming (just as Fanny assumes, in both senses of the word) the importance of an empire to the situation at home” (89).  The range of perspectives that these accounts provide, however, and their complex reverberations within the world of Mansfield Park suggest that Austen creates in both Fanny and in her readers an awareness of the intricate ironies of the British imperial project.



The identification of Barrow’s edition of Macartney’s journal as Fanny’s “great book” seems to depend partly on timing (one scheme of dating the novel sets it in 1808-09, the other in 1812-13) so that in either case—and especially in the first case—Fanny would be reading a relatively recently-published account.  The identification also depends on size:  when Edmund points to Fanny’s “great book,” he might actually be defining its physical dimensions.  Barrow’s Account was published in two quarto volumes, with Macartney’s journal occupying a part of volume 2.  Anderson’s, Staunton’s, and Holmes’s books were published in the smaller octavo (though Staunton’s Authentic Account spans three octavo volumes—a “great book” in a slightly different sense).  But Staunton’s account was also published in quarto, as was Barrow’s Travels.  The illustrated volumes are greater than or at least as great in size as Barrow’s edition of Macartney’s journal—published in folio (the Plates) and quarto (Alexander’s two books).  In the case of the folio, however, the argument might be made that Fanny would feel free to consult that unwieldy and expensive volume only downstairs in the library of Mansfield Park rather than in “her” East room.


But what if Edmund’s reference to Fanny’s “great book” is less an indication of its physical heft than of its length, or its more than ordinary importance, or the loftiness of its subject?  After all, he situates it among a range of texts that might offer Fanny a variety of reading experiences:


“How does Lord Macartney go on?—(opening up a volume on the table and then taking up some others.)  And here are Crabbe’s Tales, and the Idler, at hand to relieve you, if you tire of your great book.  I admire your little establishment exceedingly; and as soon as I am gone, you will empty your head of all this nonsense of acting, and sit comfortably down to your table.  But do not stay here to be cold.”  (156)


While her “great book” provides insight into global politics and a geographical and cultural account of a still unknown place, the other two move her back to the more local, varying her reading with poetic tales of rural life and with Johnson’s familiar essays.


            I don’t want to put too much weight on the question of size or loftiness, or even chronology.  After all, not only is it impossible to determine which text Jane Austen is referring to here, but it may not make much difference.  Surely if she had wanted to indicate one account or another, she would have pointed us in that direction (as she clearly and subtly specifies Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows from among the four available translations of Kotzebue’s Das Kind der Liebe).  But I do want to suggest that Austen might want a less specific identification of Fanny’s “great book” precisely because she wants to access the contemporary interest in Macartney’s embassy and the range of literary texts it produced—a range that offers a more varied insight into Fanny’s solitary reading and her connection to the popular taste.  That reading is central to Jane Austen’s fictional design.  As her readers consult their own experiences of reading about Macartney’s embassy (more likely, no doubt, for her early nineteenth-century readers), they piece out Fanny’s experience.  Through such invoked memories of their own reading, Austen’s readers assist her in fiction-making. 



            Beyond the kowtow, then, Macartney’s journal provides the insights of a cultured observer into a world that can be made familiar, calling to mind the kinds of aesthetic interests operating for the characters of Mansfield Park.  Macartney in his own way is a picturesque traveler, describing the wonders of the emperor’s palaces and gardens, admiring the natural beauty as well as the artifice involved, and connecting (before disconnecting) the Chinese and the English traditions of landscape design (in the persons of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the unnamed—though referenced—Humphry Repton, and Charles Hamilton): 


Had China been accessible to Mr. Brown, or Mr. Hamilton, I should have sworn they had drawn their happiest ideas from the rich sources which I have tasted this day; for, in the course of a few hours, I have enjoyed such vicissitudes of rural delight, as I did not conceive could be felt out of England, being at different moments enchanted by scenes perfectly similar to those I had known there, to the magnificence of Stowe, the softer beauty of Wooburn, and the Fairy-land of Pain’s Hill.  (264)


The difference Macartney recognizes, or invents, is in their divergent attitudes toward nature, attitudes that he reads (as does Austen) in moral terms:  “our excellence seems to be rather in improving nature, theirs to conquer her, and yet produce the same effect” (494).  To a mind mulling over the question of improvements to Sotherton, to Everingham, to Mansfield Parsonage, and eventually to Thornton Lacey, this assertion of cultural difference is a provocative one.  Henry Crawford, however, would seem to exemplify the conquering more than the improving attitude—even if we remember that the derivation of “improve” involves the Old French word for profit. 


Macartney’s journal also details his theatrical experience in China (and, again, by implication in England).  In passages that resonate with the experiences of Fanny and Mansfield Park’s other characters, Macartney describes the experience of attending plays, events that he says can only be appreciated as spectacle and soon become tiresome (286-87, 385-86).  Indeed, he acknowledges that if Chinese ambassadors were entertained by “Messrs. Lewis and Kemble, Mrs. Siddons and Miss Farren during several days or rather nights together, . . . I am afraid that they would at first feel the powers of the great buttresses of Drury-lane and Covent-garden as little affecting to them, as the exertions of these capital actors from Nankin have been to us” (386).  The affecting power of the drama, rather than its spectacular effect, is singled out as its chief pleasure—a power that Fanny surely recognizes and that she, Edmund, and Mary Crawford, as well as Maria Bertram, Henry Crawford, and Mr. Rushworth, certainly feel.


Macartney’s journal might especially shed light on Fanny’s thinking about family and gratitude, both central themes in Austen’s novel.  As Macartney describes it, in China “paternal authority, though unlimited, is usually exercised with kindness and indulgence” (416).  The family is defined around common interest, the absolute authority of the father’s love: 


The fondness of the father is constantly felt and always increasing; the dependence of the son is perfectly understood by him; he never wishes it to be lessened.  It is not necessary to coax or to cheat the child into the cutting off an entail, or the charging his inheritance with a mortgage; it is not necessary to importune the father for an irrevocable settlement.  According to Chinese ideas, there is but one interest in a family; any other supposition would be unnatural and wicked.  An undutiful child is a monster that China does not produce.  (416-17)


The contrast to the unacknowledged and self-interested motives of the Bertrams—children and father—is clear.  As Lew points out, Macartney’s journal glosses Mansfield Park’s examination of parental authority.  But this passage also ties that authority to duty in a way that recalls Fanny’s fear of being convicted of ingratitude, an anxiety that echoes Macartney’s image of monstrosity.  Sir Thomas tells her, “‘You do not owe me the duty of a child.  But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude—’” (319), while she later soliloquizes, “‘I must be a brute indeed, if I can be really ungrateful!’” (322).3


            The high premium Macartney places on gratitude is expressed in the language of sentimental fiction—language that Austen also adopts in this novel.  His description of taking leave of Van-ta-gin and Chou-ta-gin, the dignitaries who had guided and negotiated on behalf of the embassy, is characterized by sensibility worthy of Fanny herself:  “They shed tears at parting, and showed such marks of sensibility and concern, as could proceed from none but sincere and uncorrupted hearts.  If I ever could forget the friendship and attachment of these two worthy men, or the services they rendered us, I should be guilty of the deepest ingratitude” (404).  Fanny’s conflicted parting from Sir Thomas (or later from Mary Crawford) is rendered in similar terms:  “‘Sir Thomas, who had done so much for her and her brothers, and who was gone perhaps never to return!  that she should see him go without a tear!—it was a shameful insensibility’” (33).


Despite this emphasis on sincerity, however, the engineering of gratitude through gift exchange is a significant part of Macartney’s journal—a strategic concern which finds a counterpart in the relational dynamics of Mansfield Park.  The success of Macartney’s embassy was measured (by both the British and the Chinese) in terms of efficacy of the gift-giving.  Macartney worried about the expectations the Chinese had formed concerning the gifts brought by the British, added to those gifts even after reaching China (175-76), and negotiated over when and where to display and present them.  As it turned out, the Chinese were unimpressed, perhaps one reason for the embassy’s failure.  (The other accounts emphasize the British pride in their gifts—including instruments designed for the study of astronomy, which “from the greatness of its objects, elevates the mind, and thus is worthy of the contemplation of sovereigns” [Staunton 2.128], a sentiment with which Fanny would concur.  They also document the dissatisfaction on both sides:  Anderson, for example, describes the failure of some of the instruments to work and of others “to excite that surprise and admiration in the breasts of the Chinese philosophers, which Dr. Dinwiddie and Mr. Barrow expected” [177]; on the other hand, some parcels of colored silk distributed by the Chinese “of a very indifferent quality, [which] would not, in England, be more than eighteen-pence a yard” constituted a “present of little or no value” [79].)


Such ceremonies lay bare the intersection of the economies of emotional, moral, and monetary value, particularly in a novel in which the heroine is continually “bewildered as to the amount of debt” she has accrued (153), a novel about the invisible strings attached to gifts both meaningless and valuable.  Fanny suffers under the weight of relationships characterized by different degrees of gratitude for gifts representing very different amounts of monetary and emotional investment.  William’s “very pretty amber cross,” purchased in Sicily out of means too slender to afford a gold chain to hang it from, produces pleasure in Fanny but also the anxiety of “mortifying him” (254).  Edmund’s gift of a plain, gold chain, an act of true thoughtfulness that he discounts—“‘[Y]ou feel these things a great deal too much’” (262)—is difficult to estimate:  it’s both generously imaginative, as he recognizes Fanny’s need, and blind to her love for him, as he loses sight of her feelings in his pleasure at Miss Crawford’s seemingly parallel gift.


While those gifts motivated by affection are complex and uncontrollable in their effects, other, more strategic gifts in the world of Mansfield Park involve more difficult acts of negotiation and acceptance.  The value of the “work-boxes and netting boxes, which had been given her at different times, principally by Tom” (153) is troublesome for Fanny to estimate:  “His kindness to his little cousin was consistent with his situation and rights; he made her some very pretty presents, and laughed at her” (17-18).  Miss Crawford urges a chain on Fanny—an apparent act of thoughtful kindness—that is almost immediately revealed as Henry’s gift.  This brother’s gift, Mary Crawford claims, is of no particular emotional consequence:  “‘I have such innumerable presents from him that it is quite impossible for me to value, or for him to remember half’” (259-60).  That chain, however, is intended as a means of entanglement, a trick to gain advantage, masked as an act of generosity.  Even Fanny herself is implicated in this system of targeted giving:  her gift to Betsey, during her own embassy to Portsmouth, of a silver knife—a gift initiating Fanny into the superior role of “confer[ring] favours, . . . removing evils, or bestowing kindnesses”—has the defined purpose of effecting “the tranquillity of the house” and perhaps the unacknowledged secondary one of causing her sister Susan to evaluate her own behavior (396-97).  The accounts of Macartney’s embassy—and the failure of such targeted giving—link the global and political to the individual and familial, suggesting the dynamics of power inherent in both theatres.



Looking more closely at Macartney’s journal helps us understand how Jane Austen could depend upon—and help construct—a global perspective in her audience, how she built a similar field of vision into the character of her heroine, and how she used that perspective to help define Mansfield Park’s thematic texture.  As we turn from Macartney’s journal, the accounts by Sir George Staunton, Aeneas Anderson, John Barrow, and Samuel Holmes provide an additional and intriguing range of perspectives on the embassy and on China itself, suggesting other ways Austen’s readers (including Fanny Price herself) might understand the relationship between China and Britain, the global and the local or individual.


Remarkably, other accounts of the embassy raise the issue of slavery, a topic Austen also alludes to and allows to comment both on Fanny’s vexed position at Mansfield Park and on the moral authority of Sir Thomas.  Sir George Staunton describes the profitable and “humane interposition” of the India Company in St. Helena (a stopover on the way back to England) in protecting both slaves and free blacks from the abuses of the slave owners (3.456-58).  But perhaps privilege, at least in these accounts, conditions perspective.  Aeneas Anderson’s confidence in British and European humanity is less certain.  He depicts the beating of a seventy-year-old Malay slave in Batavia as well as an instance of two slaves ordered to beat each other for breaking a breakfast plate (30).  His doubts about what is presented as a “necessary severity” (30), however, give way to a concession as to the difficulty of maintaining “that state of discipline and good order, which is so necessary to the well-being and comfort of civilized life” given the “savage and ferocious disposition of the natives of the country” (34).  Slavery is implicated in and necessary to empire.


But these accounts also offer a critique of the British willingness to rationalize slavery.  Though elsewhere justifying the institution, Anderson also reports on the absence of slavery in China:  “[t]he benevolent spirit of the government, and the mild manners of the natives, would revolt at the idea” (abridged ed., 140-41).  In a telling irony he mentions that “Sir George Staunton had purchased a black boy, named Benjamin, in Batavia,” and then Anderson allows the Chinese to voice what seems to be his own criticism of British hypocrisy. 


In the interior of China [Benjamin] was an object of no small curiosity, perhaps of pity, in proportion as slavery is abhorred:  and even at Canton, I heard a merchant, who could express himself in broken English, inveigh against the inhumanity of the British nation, in suffering such a disgraceful traffic; and so contrary to the principles they profess to believe.  On observing to him, that Parliament intended to abolish it, he surprised me, by naming Mandarin Willforce, as he called that benevolent and worthy character Mr. Wilberforce; he enumerated his efforts in the cause of human nature, and of the suffering Africans; and concluded, Josh no like so fashion; meaning “God cannot approve of such a practice.”  The labours of benevolence do not always obtain such an extensive fame; but Mr. Wilberforce is sure of a richer reward, from that God, who with equal eye beholds his universal creation, and who delights in seeing man the friend of man.  (141)


With such a well-informed Fanny, who has access to and interest in such accounts of Britain’s global reputation, we can better understand the context of her question to Sir Thomas “‘about the slave trade’” (198) and the significance of that question for the complex worldview Jane Austen establishes in this novel.


The issue of female liberty is, of course, related to that of slavery, both in contemporary political discourse and in Austen’s own fiction, most overtly in Jane Fairfax’s comments about “‘the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect’” (Emma 300).  The members of Macartney’s embassy exhibit diverse perspectives not so much on the liberty of British women but on the extent to which the Chinese provide a clear example of the oppression of women—an example by which to measure British moral superiority.  Staunton defines the British superiority to the Chinese in terms of a British “independent spirit and freedom of action” (14)—qualities for which, ironically, Sir Thomas, who speaks of Fanny’s “‘independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days’” (318), and Mrs. Norris, who scolds her for “‘tak[ing] her own independent walk whenever she can’” (323), chastise Fanny.  Again, Fanny’s trip into China sheds light—at least for Austen’s contemporary readers—on her circumstances.  In his reflections on the condition of women, as he sets out a context for measuring China’s civilization, Barrow sounds something like Mary Wollstonecraft:


those nations, where the moral and intellectual powers of the mind in the female sex are held in most estimation, will be governed by such laws as are best calculated to promote the general happiness of the people; and, on the contrary, where the personal qualifications of the sex are the only objects of consideration, as is the case in all the despotic governments of the Asiatic nations, tyranny, oppression, and slavery are sure to prevail; and these personal accomplishments, so far from being of use to the owner, serve only to deprive her of liberty, and the society of her friends; to render her a degraded victim, subservient to the sensual gratification, the caprice, and the jealousy of tyrant man.  (138-39)


Such a sentiment is typical of such English Jacobins as Mary Robinson or Charlotte Smith.  And, indeed, Barrow follows it up with a more specific connection to the notion of slavery:  “Daughters may be said to be invariably sold. . . . The [bride] has no choice.  She is a lot in the market to be disposed of to the highest bidder” (145).  Certainly such a description would resonate for Austen’s readers as Fanny is confronted by the insistence of Sir Thomas Bertram, recently returned from his plantations in Antigua, that she consider “‘[t]he advantage or disadvantage of [her] family, . . . [h]ow they might be benefited’” (318) by her marriage to Henry Crawford.


But again, the easy presumption of British superiority is qualified—and the judgment of China hardly unitary.  Both Anderson and Holmes see a different picture than Barrow does; they explicitly remark on the disjunction between what they had expected and the reality.  Holmes perceives in China more liberty for women than he had anticipated: 


What surprised us much was, that the women appeared to be under as little restraint here as in England, as we had been told, it was very rare to gain a sight of any female in China, they not being allowed to leave the house, except in covered chairs or carriages, where no one could see them; but thus far, we saw them near every house or village, though not quite in number proportionable to the other sex.  (130)


Anderson underscores this judgment:  “The opinion, that the Chinese women are excluded from the view of the stranger, has very little, if any foundation” (107); at least in Pekin, “women are not divested of a reasonable portion of their liberty” (109).  But Barrow emphasizes the systematic restrictions on women:  “Not satisfied with the physical deprivation of the use of their limbs, [the Chinese] have contrived, in order to keep them more confined, to make it a moral crime for a woman to be seen abroad” (140-41).  An exception he notes is the habitual use of lower class wives and daughters in “hard and slavish labour” (141).


The confinement of Fanny’s movements at Mansfield Park, her use as a kind of servant by Mrs. Norris, and the ways her emotional and social discomforts register on her body find a parallel in the physical restrictions of Chinese women.  Barrow describes the singularity of the bound foot in terms simultaneously aesthetic and moral:  “This distorted and disproportionate member consists of a foot that has been cramped in its growth, to the length of four or five inches, and an ankle that is generally swollen in the same proportion as the foot is diminished.  The little shoe is as fine as tinsel and tawdry can make it.”  The pain necessary for this result leads him to reflect on “a custom, so unnatural and unhuman,” even “savage” (73).


This judgment of what looks like Asian savagery, however, can be turned back on the British, re-christened as “duty” or “self-sacrifice”—those defining virtues of British womanhood.  Staunton draws an analogy between Chinese and British restrictions of women’s bodies (foot binding and corseting), fashions complicated by notions of female duty and self-sacrifice: 


But it is not violence, or the apprehension of corporal suffering, but the horror and disgrace in consequence of omitting, and the idea of glory arising from doing, what is considered to be an act of duty, at the expence of life, which leads to such a sacrifice. . . . [T]he pride of superiority, and the dread of degradation, have been frequently found sufficient to surmount the common feelings of nature; and to many women a voluntary constraint upon the body and mind is, in some degree, habitual.  They who recollect the fashion of slender waists in England, and what pains were taken, and sufferings endured, to excel in that particular, will be somewhat less surprised at extraordinary efforts made in other instances.  (2.48)


Fanny’s “voluntary constraint” does not manifest itself in terms of actual binding but in the constraint of action, the limitation of locale, and the suspension of will.  As Staunton suggests, in a phrase that threatens to define an unhappy trajectory for Fanny’s plot, it is “an act of duty, . . . which leads to such a sacrifice.”


All these writers then—the members of Macartney’s embassy as well as Jane Austen herself—describe worlds in which woman’s value is limited, her possibilities restricted.  That limitation and restriction seem rooted in the family.  Holmes is only one of those citing the most dramatic instance, that of the drowning of girls to relieve families of unwanted children:


I believe it is reckoned a disgrace to have many female children; a boy gives more pleasure at his birth to his parents, and is taken care of; but the girls are cruelly neglected by their parents; they are frequently suffered to perish through want, or wilfully thrown into a neighbouring river, . . . [but] I was told the practice itself, of exposing their infants to perish, is wearing away very fast.  (130-31)


Holmes describes a mode of valuation not so different from that employed by Mrs. Price, who is “surprised that a girl should be fixed on, when she had so many fine boys,” but “trust[ed] they would never have cause to throw her off” (11):  “Her daughters never had been much to her” (389).  Barrow’s description of woman’s domestic significance in China—“after marriage, [she] continues to be the same piece of inanimate furniture she always was in her father’s house” (146)—might apply as well to Lady Bertram. 


            This wider range of possibilities for Fanny’s “great book” suggests the more complex experiences Austen would expect her readers to bring to her text.  The benevolently authoritarian family of Macartney’s journal is qualified, for example, by Barrow’s much more darkly colored portrait, one in which the father’s power over both daughter and son is “unlimited and arbitrary” (144).  Where Macartney images paternal fondness and “one interest,” Barrow presents a family in which “[f]ilial duty is . . . less a moral sentiment, than a precept which by length of time has acquired the efficacy of a positive law; and it may truly be said to exist more in the maxims of the government, than in the minds of the people” (143-44).  Such a formulation might describe the moral and emotional state of the Bertram family:  Tom finds his father’s attempts to correct him “a most tiresome piece of work” but professes to “‘take care that his daughters do nothing to distress him’” (24, 127); for the Miss Bertrams, “[t]heir father was no object of love . . . , he had never seemed the friend of their pleasures, and his absence was unhappily most welcome.  They were relieved by it from all restraint” (32).


This fragmentation in the family—evident in Barrow’s account of China and Austen’s of England—is seen not merely in the distance between parent and child but in the disconnection between siblings.  According to Barrow,


[T]he male children, at the age of nine or ten, are entirely separated from their sisters.  Thus the feelings of affection, not the instinctive products of nature, but the offspring of frequent intercourse and of a mutual communication of their little wants and pleasures, are nipped in the very bud of dawning sentiment.  (142)


While the bud of dawning sentiment seems to have been nipped in the case of the Crawford and even of the Bertram siblings, such a description would certainly affect Fanny by its contrast to her own situation:  “‘I cannot rate so very highly the love or good nature of a brother, who will not give himself the trouble of writing any thing worth reading, to his sisters, when they are separated.  I am sure William would never have used me so, under any circumstances’” (64).  Barrow’s description of the Chinese family emphasizes “silence,” “restraint,” and “[a] cold and ceremonious conduct” (142); in contrast, Jane Austen depicts in the case of William and Fanny “felicity” in “unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse” (234):


Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connection can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived.  (235)


Austen’s hymn to fraternal love—uncharacteristic of, even inapplicable to her other novels—reverberates even more strongly given the tenor of Fanny’s reading.


Beyond the insights into Chinese culture—however mediated by British preconceptions about the other they encounter—this new set of possibilities for Fanny’s “great book” opens up a wider range of emotional connections.  Anderson’s and Staunton’s accounts of the pleasures and excitement of world travel, for instance, anticipate parallel moments of narrative interest in Mansfield Park.  These accounts would provide Fanny an opportunity to follow a voyage at sea, an opportunity that her brother William’s naval life makes peculiarly interesting.  Anderson, “for the information of those who know nothing of maritime life,” describes in great detail the ceremony of manning the yards as Lord Macartney lands at Madeira (2-3).  Staunton includes foldout maps of the voyage that begins in Portsmouth, proceeds to Madeira and the Canary Islands, heads across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro for water, and then moves back across and south to round Africa and head toward China.  (The voyage occupies the whole of the first volume.)  Each furnishes a kind of travelogue (and Staunton’s has an optional volume of plates to accompany his text), emphasizing local information as well as the activities of the British party on shore.  According to Cranmer-Byng, Staunton’s lengthy account of the journey to China was criticized by its reviewers (38), but Fanny surely would not have been among those impatient readers:  one thinks of William’s faithful letters, his tales of “horsemanship in various countries, of the scrambling parties in which he had been engaged, the rough horses and mules he had ridden” (237), or his comment on the hairstyles of “‘Mrs. Brown, and the other women, at the Commissioner’s, at Gibraltar’” (235).  Staunton, like Persuasion’s Mrs. Croft, stresses the comfort of shipboard life (61-64) and celebrates the hardiness of midshipmen (like William Price), whose “extraordinary activity and exertions in the performance of their new duty, . . . ascend[ing] the tops of masts, or . . . clamber[ing] on the beams, called yards, suspended across them, holding only by a rope,” preserves them from seasickness (1.65).


The emotional impact of the journey to China is foregrounded in Holmes’s account.  Indeed, he recounts the arrival at Portsmouth “after a long, troublesome, tedious, and unhealthy voyage . . . of innumerable hardships” as characterized by “joyful hearts” as men prepared “to step upon our native soil once more” (254-55).  Fanny’s joy in returning to Portsmouth—though later ironized by her joy in returning to Mansfield—is as intense:  “The remembrance of all her earliest pleasures, and of what she had suffered in being torn from them, came over her with renewed strength, and it seemed as if to be at home again, would heal every pain that had since grown out of the separation” (370).


Finally, beyond geography and culture, the narratives of the embassy can also move the marginal into view.  The journal of Samuel Holmes, a serjeant-major in the Light Dragoons, for example, provides a very different perspective on China and the journey than those of the more privileged members of Lord Macartney’s embassy.  Indeed, Holmes’s account, published by subscription “for patronage of humble merit” (v), gives voice to people like Mansfield Park’s Price family, those beneath the notice of the authors of the other accounts.  He presents the commonplace quality of the soldiers’ lives (e.g., their distaste for the “medley confusion” [136] of Chinese cooking, the chafing at the restrictions on their movements), their interest in new scenes, but also their mortification and disappointment at not getting to see either the emperor or his palace (144).  Holmes’s narrative is an account of loss.  Throughout the journey, he notes and describes the deaths of servants, soldiers, and seamen, those overlooked in the narratives of the leaders of the embassy.  By the time they anchor at Spithead,


most of the rest [of the guard] were weak, and fitter for the hospital than a march, or the fatigues of a campaign; but we were in hopes our native country, and nourishing diet, would soon restore us to perfect health again. . . . [W]e said to each other, we should think but trifling of the hardships of soldiering hereafter, having so severely felt that of sailoring.  (255).


Those readers of Mansfield Park who have read Holmes’s account find there an image of Fanny’s marginality and her family’s humble status, lives of “hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure” (473).



Though Edmund blindly sends Fanny off to China with Macartney, Austen emphasizes that there is “no reading, no China, no composure for Fanny.”  The door to the wider world that seems to have opened—to Britain’s imperial and commercial interests in the Far East, to Fanny’s continued education—is suddenly shut.  Through that series of negatives, Austen negates reading, China, and composure (self possession) in a way that as readers—perhaps even as readers of one or more of these texts—we recognize as loss.  Because of the lack of specificity of Edmund’s and Austen’s references, because of Fanny’s “misery” (157), the great book on the table sits with a kind of blank solidity or at least opacity, a sign of what we don’t know, of the places to which neither Edmund nor the reader can with certainty follow Fanny, through which Fanny’s own progress is impeded.  How far does Fanny go on that journey with Macartney, and in what capacity?  How far, and with what kind of consciousness, does Jane Austen expect us to follow?  Austen’s very suggestiveness here opens to us a world of possibilities, of associations that condition the remainder of our journey through the world—or worlds—of Mansfield Park.





1.  R. W. Chapman’s standard edition of Mansfield Park mentions the 1796 publication of Plates to his Embassy, but then identifies Barrow’s edition (544-45, n156 l.20).  Claudia Johnson in the Norton Critical edition of the novel suggests that Fanny is “probably” reading Macartney’s journal in Barrow’s Account (109 n4).  Jane Stabler in her notes to the 2003 Oxford World’s Classics edition points to Barrow (406 n123), and John Wiltshire’s authoritative new Cambridge edition also cites Barrow’s two quarto volumes as the referent of Edmund’s description of Fanny’s “great book” (687 n9).


2. See the on-line exhibition “The Lion and the Dragon: Britain’s First Embassy to China,” with digitized pages from many of the books mentioned here (British Library).


3.  It’s intriguing that both Macartney and Austen seem to invoke King Lear, who rages against “monster ingratitude” (1.5.37).  For more on the connection between Mansfield Park and King Lear, see Ford.


Accounts of Macartney’s Embassy


Alexander, William.  The Costume of China, Illustrated in Forty-eight Coloured Engravings.  London: William Miller, 1805.

_____.  Picturesque Representations of the Dress and Manners of the Chinese.  Illustrated in Fifty Coloured Engravings with Descriptions.  London: John Murray, 1814.  [quarto]

Anderson, Aeneas.  A Narrative of the British Embassy to China, in the Years 1792, 1793, and 1794; Containing the Various Circumstances of the Embassy, with Accounts of Customs and Manners of the Chinese; and a Description of the Country, Towns, Cities, &c. &c.  London: J. Debrett, 1795.  [quarto]

[Anderson, Aeneas.]  An Accurate Account of Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China; Carefully Abridged from The Original Work: with Alterations and Corrections by the Editor, who was also an Attendant on the Embassy. Embellished with a Striking Likeness of the Present Emperor, From an Original Drawing in the Possession of the Editor.  London: Vernor and Hood, 1795.  [duodecimo]

Barrow, John.  Some Account of the Public Life, and a Selection from the Unpublished Writings, of the Earl of Macartney.  London: Cadell and Davies, 1807.  2 vol.  Containing A Journal of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China, in the years 1792, 1793, and 1794, by the Earl of Macartney.  163-410.  [quarto]

_____.  Travels in China.  London: Cadell and Davies, 1804.

A Complete View of the Chinese Empire.  London: G. Cawthorn, 1798.

Holmes, Samuel.  The Journal of Mr. Samuel Holmes, Serjeant-Major of the XIth Light Dragoons, during his Attendance, as one of the Guard on Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China and Tartary, 1792-93.  London: W. Bulmer, 1798.  [octavo]

Plates to Staunton’s Account of the Embassy to China.  London: G. Nicol, 1796.  [folio]

Staunton, Sir George (Bart.).  An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China.  London: G. Nicol, 1797.  3 vols.  [octavo]


Other Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

British Library.  “The Lion and the Dragon: Britain’s First Embassy to China.”  Bibliotheca Universalis Project 1999.  22 Mar. 2008 

Chapman, R. W., ed.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Clarke, J. J.  Oriental Enlightenment.  New York: Routledge, 1997.

Cranmer-Byng, J. L., ed.  An Embassy to China.  By George Macartney.  1962.  St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly P, 1972.

Ford, Susan Allen.  “‘Intimate by Instinct’: Mansfield Park and the Comedy of King Lear.”  Persuasions 24 (2002): 177-97.

Johnson, Claudia L., ed.  Mansfield Park.  Norton Critical Edition.  New York: Norton, 1998.

Knox-Shaw, Peter.  “Fanny Price Refuses to Kowtow.”  Review of English Studies 47.186 (1996): 212-17.

Lew, Joseph.  “‘That Abominable Traffic’: Mansfield Park and the Dynamics of Slavery.”  History, Gender and Eighteenth-Century Literature.  Ed. Beth Fowkes Tobin.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994.  271-300.

Porter, David.  “A Peculiar but Uninteresting Nation: China and the Discourse of Commerce in Eighteenth-Century England.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (2000): 181-99.

Said, Edward W.  Culture and Imperialism.  1993.  New York: Vintage, 1994.

Shakespeare, William.  King Lear.  Ed. R. A. Foakes.  3rd ed.  The Arden Shakespeare.  London: Thomson, 1997.

Stabler, Jane.  Introduction and Notes.  Mansfield Park.  World’s Classics.  Oxford: OUP, 2003.

Stewart, Maaja A.  Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions: Jane Austen’s Novels in Eighteenth-Century Contexts.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.

Wiltshire, John, ed.  Mansfield Park.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

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