2014 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner College/University Division
“Safer to Say Nothing”: The Defensive Silences of Mansfield Park
In Mansfield Park, silence abounds, from the defining quietness of the protagonist Fanny Price to the frequent “pauses” or “silences” pointed out by the narrator. Characteristically precise in her writing, Jane Austen rarely wastes a word in any novel—so why this extensive emphasis on quietness? Many times, someone’s speechlessness gives us a window into their character. Austen’s revelation that Fanny is “always more inclined to silence when feeling most strongly” (250) removes any suspicion of our heroine’s passivity; the characterization of Mary Crawford’s silence as “untouched and inattentive” (143) hints at her rudeness and insincerity. Close examination, however, reveals a common thread in the silences of Austen’s characters, both good and bad. The people of Mansfield Park often defend themselves through silence, endeavoring to protect themselves from either the moral or social standards of the time.
Austen’s less admirable characters, like Mary and Henry Crawford, attempt to conceal their questionable morals through silence. When Sir Thomas returns to Mansfield during a rehearsal of the offending play, “not a word was spoken for half a minute. . . . as every heart was sinking under some degree of self-condemnation” (121). Hoping to hide their improper behavior, the amateur actors feed this “terrible silence” until Julia, who has not participated in the play, breaks it, saying “Ineed not be afraid of appearing before him” (121). Only she, innocent of moral impropriety, is willing to face her father (and the standards of the period) without the defense of silence. The pervasive quiet returns as a “pause of alarm” (125) when Sir Thomas leaves for his room, where the makeshift theatre has appeared. Austen upholds the righteous Edmund as “the first to speak” (125), the one willing to throw off pretense and face consequences.
Furthermore, Edmund, who objects to the play all along, chooses to defend himself not through silence, but through honest and open discussion. Rather than keep his involvement quiet, he gives Sir Thomas “a fair statement of the whole acting scheme, defending his own share in it only as far as he could . . . and acknowledging with perfect ingenuousness that his concession had been attended with such partial good as to make his judgment in it very doubtful” (129). By explaining his good intentions and owning his faults, Edmund regains the trust of his father; Austen rewards his choice with Sir Thomas’ effort to “lose the disagreeable impression” (129) of the play. Our author does, however, extend her judgment to Mrs. Norris, also a guilty party in the theatre business. When admonished by her brother-in-law for her lack of discretion, the cantankerous aunt is “a little confounded, and as nearly being silenced as ever she had been in her life; for she was ashamed” (130). Faced with her own flaws, even the talkative Mrs. Norris briefly hides behind speechlessness, and when she returns to her typical chattering, she aims to “get out of the subject as fast as possible” (130), remaining conspicuously silent on her offenses. Through this contrast, Austen upholds Edmund as an admirable and honest individual, and further disparages the obnoxious Aunt Norris for her cowardice.
Austen continues her motif of defensive silence in Mary Crawford’s hurry to hide her brother’s reckless elopement with the married Maria Rushworth. Before Fanny even hears of the desertion, Miss Crawford writes to warn her of a rumor: “Say not a word of it—hear nothing, surmise nothing, whisper nothing” (297). Our observant heroine links Mary’s “eager defence of her brother” with “her hope of its being hushed up” (299); she hopes to hide the scandal behind silence, rather than admit her brother’s iniquity. However, this defense falls apart, as a servant in the Rushworth house has “exposure in her power” and is “not to be silenced” (306). Though true silence on the matter has become impossible, Miss Crawford’s unwillingness to acknowledge the scandal grows stronger in her interview with Edmund, who quickly realizes that “it was the detection, not the offence, that she reprobated” (309). Having little actual regard for the moral standards of the time, Mary merely wishes to evade consequences. This cowardly, secretive silence not only solidifies the negative opinion of Austen’s audience, but also Edmund’s “tenderness and esteem” (311); the walls she builds to keep societal judgment at bay shut out those dearest to her as well.
Unlike her more unsavory companions, Fanny Price remains silent to defend herself not from moral standards, but from the impropriety of overstepping class boundaries. Austen pointedly notes (and even criticizes) the talkative nature of many upperclass characters: Tom Bertram has “a great deal to say” (35), Lady Bertram is “quite talkative” (226), and Miss Crawford is “as ready to talk as to listen” (38). By contrast, Fanny constantly lapses into silence. Upon her first arrival at Mansfield Park, Austen reveals that our little heroine,“ashamed of herself,” can “scarcely speak to be heard” (12). Even as a child, Fanny senses the sharp class difference between herself and her relatives, and hides behind her quietness. Her relations, for the most part, encourage this defense; before the Grants’ dinner, the famously loquacious Mrs. Norris urges her “not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins . . . Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last” (151, emp. added). Being born into their class, Maria, Julia, and the other Mansfield residents may express their thoughts, but Fanny, lifted to her position by the mercies of others, cannot enjoy the same luxury.
This innocent, oppressed humility in Fanny’s silence allows us as readers to love her, but it shares a common consequence with the cowardly silences of Miss Crawford and Mrs. Norris: isolation. Edmund gently encourages her, “Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more.—You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle” (136). Fanny’s answer betrays her motive for quietness: “While my cousins were sitting by not speaking a word . . . I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity . . . which he must wish his own daughters to feel” (136). Afraid to overstep the bounds of her social standing, Fanny remains safely behind her silence, even at the expense of her uncle’s love. Only at the novel’s end, when her marriage to Edmund elevates her in society, can Fanny speak with confidence to Sir Thomas; upon this event, they begin “really knowing each other, [and] their mutual attachment [becomes] very strong” (320). Relieved of the burden of societal pressure, she no longer needs the defense of silence, and may engage in conversation and connection.
Only between Fanny and Edmund does Austen’s dynamic of silence shift from one of hiding to one of comfortable, vulnerable honesty. During the Mansfield ball, Edmund, “worn out with civility” (191), finds relief at last in dancing with his young cousin. Compelled by societal standards to make polite conversation with every lady he engages, he has “been talking incessantly all night, and with nothing to say,” until he reaches Fanny, with whom “there may be peace” (191). The customarily quiet Fanny “would hardly even speak her agreement,” reveling in her status as “the friend with whom [he] could find repose” (191). Between these two dearest friends, silence need not be a pretense of propriety; their close relationship makes the exhausting social protocol unnecessary. Freed from the burden of defense, this quietness may be deemed a “luxury” (191), comforting both parties.
Austen also allows her two principal characters to forego the barrier of silence altogether, further distinguishing their relationship as above the typical societal expectations. When Fanny withholds Crawford’s proposal from Edmund out of fear of judgment, the elder cousin worries that “she must need the comfort of communication. Fanny estranged from him, silent and reserved, was an unnatural state of things” (234). This atypical intimacy stands out not only amongst the silences of Mansfield Park, but also against the backdrop of the period, where unmarried men and women rarely exchanged their most personal thoughts. However, the near-familial closeness of this relationship allows Fanny and Edmund to converse frequently, without the defense of silence. This trust even deepens as Edmund, pouring out his pain at the moral nonchalance of Miss Crawford, self-consciously asks his cousin, “You do not wish me to be silent?—if you do, give me but a look, a word, and I have done” (309). From the loving Fanny, “no look or word was given” (309); as in the ballroom, her silence acts not as a barrier, but as a comfort. Furthermore, her silence gives her beloved permission to speak without restraint, smashing the social defenses between them.
Through the silences of her characters, Austen reaches past the confines of Regency England to touch a key facet of human relationships: vulnerability. This trait entails a willingness both to admit fault when it exists, and to allow others access to one’s inner life; without it, true intimacy and love cannot exist. By endeavoring to “hush up” her brother’s transgression, Mary Crawford fails to achieve the first condition of vulnerability, and consequently cannot maintain her relationship with Edmund. Similarly, Mrs. Norris’ refusal to acknowledge the theatrical indiscretion loses her brother-in-law’s trust. Even Fanny’s innocent, frightened silence in her younger years keeps Sir Thomas from loving her as he ought. Whatever their reasons for defense, the characters of Mansfield Park sacrifice true, understanding love—one of Austen’s central concerns throughout her work—by choosing the safety of silence over the risks of vulnerability.
By contrast, when characters drop their defenses and embrace vulnerability, connection and love may grow. By owning and apologizing for his part in the theatre incident, Edmund regains not only the admiration of Austen’s audience, but also his father’s trust. Similarly, the alleviation of Fanny’s class concerns free her from her silence, creating a closer relationship with Sir Thomas. Most significantly, the openness between Fanny and Edmund engenders enough comfort that neither silence nor conversation dominates the relationship—each appears as needed, without need for pretense or defense. Upon this base of total vulnerability, they may build a strong Austenian marriage together: one between intellectual and emotional equals.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. 1814. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson. Norton Critical Editions. New York: Norton, 1998.