Since the debut of Mansfield Park in 1814, readers and critics alike have had to come to terms with an Austen heroine most unlike her vivacious predecessor. Regardless whether readers like her or not, Austen chooses Fanny Price for our heroine, and though she professes that she does not act, Fanny’s internalized role as moral arbiter provides insight into the other characters inhabiting Mansfield Park and speaks to a larger social landscape of the nineteenth-century country house (Duckworth 35-80). This essay seeks to reconsider Fanny’s moral views in relation to her sense of interiority. To that end, it primarily engages William Cowper’s poem The Task (1785), a frequently overlooked source informing the text, as a focal point for a reading of Fanny’s characterization and Austen’s emphasis on the importance of interiority for the moral character.
According to Jane Austen’s brother Henry Austen, it was well known that Cowper was one of Austen’s favorite poets. Hints of Cowper’s poem The Task permeate Mansfield Park. Laurie Kaplan’s essay on the significance of intimate and social spaces in Austen’s world suggests the importance of these references to Cowper as a key to the delicate balance between the interior and exterior worlds of Austen’s most perplexing characters. Lady Bertram lounges indolently on her sofa, and Sir Thomas Bertram profits from his plantation in Antigua; both characters underscore Cowper’s observations on decadence, moral decline, and Britain’s growing imperialism. While Kaplan accurately observes that Cowper is a poet whom “students find virtually unreadable today,” he is in Fanny’s thoughts, and his words seem to inspire her most unguarded reflections. Ultimately, The Task emphasizes the individual who makes a difference in the world as one who “attends to his interior self.” Cowper contrasts the immorality in the city with the quiet, green rural life that nurtures the introspective moral life.
For Fanny Price, interiority equals spiritual and mental well-being and suggests a capacity to feel and respond intuitively to a given situation. Fanny’s way of internalizing her surroundings while at Mansfield Park provides an example of interiority which ultimately exposes the moral deficiencies of the other characters. Further, interiority implies a quality of being able to distance oneself in a social setting and form an appropriate opinion based on self-awareness. Once removed from the only life she has ever known, Fanny’s role in the Bertram home is neither equal nor servant; her duties lead to the unanswerable question, “‘is she out . . . ?’” (48). Fanny’s education at Mansfield Park occurs during her formative years, where her sense of inadequacy is heightened by comparison to the young and confident Bertram sisters and her physical and emotional separation from all but Edmund.1 With no one to turn to, Fanny connects herself to the estate of Mansfield Park and the surrounding landscape, finding comfort in rural and domestic tasks. In addition, her deeper reflections on nature and domesticity carry connotations that extend beyond a specific location or landscape and into a moral interior. Fanny’s maturation at Mansfield Park illustrates the importance of interiority to Austen’s contemporary audience; Fanny is emblematic of simple country virtues and religious piety. Echoing Cowper’s poem, Fanny’s interiority throughout the novel weaves together three prominent motifs: discussions centering on improvement, Fanny’s reflections on nature and domesticity, and her return to Portsmouth.
It is the wealthy Mr. Rushworth who ushers in the first discussion of improvement when he announces his plans to hire an improver for Sotherton Court. Having recently come from a tour of Compton, newly improved by Humphry Repton, Rushworth illustrates the popular and expensive trend of improving one’s grounds to give the appearance of wealth both outside and inside the country home. For Rushworth, deficient as he is in intelligence, common sense, or self-reflection, appearances and current trends are crucial. Regarding his own estate Rushworth comments, “‘I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life; and it is so forlorn, that I do not know what can be done with it’” (53). Rushworth’s sentiments are echoed by the fortuneless Mrs. Norris, who states the grounds must be improved at all costs; as might be expected, she shifts the conversation to the improvement of her former home and the planting of an apricot tree. Rushworth, in part because he is championed by Mrs. Norris, fails to convince Fanny (or the reader) that his overall views on improvement merit much attention. It is not without a hint of irony that Austen places Humphry Repton within this shallow circle of Rushworth, Crawford, and Norris, where improvement creates an artificial sense of beauty, where a magnificent tree produces inedible fruit, where those speaking of taste possess none.
As this conversation demonstrates, Austen juxtaposes ideologies of fashionable landscape and tradition, a juxtaposition that, as the novel progresses, speaks to a deeper conflict between moral decay and moral interiority. Austen does condone a more prudent form of improvement in both Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but in Mansfield Park she treats improvement with a condescending and dark humor. Through these initial discussions, Austen crafts the Bertrams (with the exception of Edmund), the Crawfords, and the Rushworths as lacking moral integrity and interiority; each harbors social aspirations which reveal jealousy and artificiality.
In her usual role as observer, Fanny listens to the Sotherton conversation without speaking until Rushworth considers cutting down his avenue so visitors and passersby can gain a better view of his own estate and lawn. She breaks her silence—“‘Cut down an avenue! What a pity!’”—and then invokes the poet William Cowper: “‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited’” (56). Fanny’s comment and the lines from The Task that follow the quoted portion are significant in that collectively they reveal a relationship to the rural countryside reflective of Fanny’s contemplative nature: “once more rejoice / That yet a remnant of your race survives” (1.339-40).Fanny, in many respects a remnant of a passing way of life herself, harkens her company back to a time when the avenue was celebrated as part of the simple pleasures of rural life and the country house. Yet Fanny’s comments and the ensuing conversation are about more than the removal of trees; for Fanny, the avenue symbolizes a connection to a conservative traditional view of the country estate, an appreciation that celebrates a spiritual nature in spite of current trends.2 Similarly, Cowper writes, “How airy and how light the graceful arch, / Yet awful as the consecrated roof / Re-echoing pious anthems!” (1.341-43). Fanny would like to see Sotherton “‘in its old state,’” but Edmund counters, as Cowper’s lines anticipate,“‘I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.’” Edmund adds that if he had “‘a place to new fashion, I should not put myself into the hands of an improver. I would rather have an inferior degree of beauty, of my own choice, and acquired progressively’” (56).
In this brief but poignant moment, Austen concedes the paradigm shift in improvement taking place around her. Nevertheless, she centers her most controversial novel around dichotomies of old and new, past and future, moral and immoral, and in doing so invites comparison to Cowper’s description of the colonnade as a “monument of ancient taste, / Now scorned, but worthy of a better fate” (1.166-67). Austen articulates a similar sentiment through Emma Woodhouse’s observations of Donwell Abbey’s “abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted (Emma 358). Austen’s narrator in this example leaves room for debate concerning the state of Donwell Abbey’s grounds; the avenue of limes leads to nothing but a view “over a low stone wall” giving “the appearance of an approach to the house, which had never been there” (360).
Fanny’s reflections on nature and domesticity offer another key insight into her interiority and her development as the moral center of the novel. After the trip to Sotherton, which has received much critical attention, Fanny articulates a keen insight into her surroundings and a desire to separate herself from the others. At Sotherton, though her visit is brief, and at Mansfield Park, which is not yet her home, Fanny looks outside to nature for the consolation she desires but lacks.
Once back at Mansfield Park, Fanny reveals her contemplative, even philosophical, nature in direct contrast to the other women as they prepare for the glee. Here Cowper is not directly quoted by Austen, but Fanny’s observations resonate with similar reflections on the natural world, solitude, and domesticity to those found in The Task. Fanny begins to come into her own as a Cowper-inspired heroine during this scene at the window. At the window, before the evening sky, she exclaims to Edmund, “‘When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene’” (113). Fanny’s approach to nature is emotional and personal: the stars, the shrubbery, the horse Edmund procures for her, are her friends; there is something child-like in her enthusiasm. Cowper’s poetry has the same quality of affect. Cowper writes, “Come, Evening, once again, season of peace; / Return, sweet Evening, and continue long” (4.43-44). Both for Fanny and for Cowper’s persona, contemplation of the night sky becomes the impetus to “letting fall the curtain of repose” (4.48). Night brings composure to the reflective individual who in addition turns “to books, to music, or the poet’s toil” (4.262). Cowper clearly illustrates his attachment to nature and the importance of the relationship between interiority and nature. Fanny’s isolation of the self and her characteristic habit of watching rather than participating may also be interpreted as her embrace of domestic happiness through a participation in the sublimity of nature. Once again, she places quiet reflection above social noise and interaction. Fanny’s over-sentimentalizing, though perhaps out of character, is also one of the few instances in the novel where she is animated and able to articulate her inner reflections to the only person who recognizes her true worth. Sublimity and rapture are not passive responses to nature; rather they show a spiritual and mental depth in direct contrast to the superficial glee.
Cowper’s description of domestic happiness as the “nurse of Virtue” finding the “calm of truth-tried love” (3.48, 56) suggests at least something of the source of Fanny’s virtues. In addition to a connection to the rural landscape, solitude plays an important role in domesticity in both The Task and Mansfield Park. Particularly noteworthy are Cowper’s observations that individuals “seek / For their own sake its silence and its shade” and that one possesses a heart “susceptible of pity, or a mind / Cultured and capable of sober thought” (3.320-21, 323-24). These lines anticipate both Fanny’s and Edmund’s attachment to the landscape and reflect the moral tone of the novel where conduct in one’s private life and public life is valued in terms of service and utility. Cowper’s persona believes that living in the countryside where nature and domestic virtues combine makes one sensitive to nature and, as a result, more in tune to human suffering. In Fanny’s world, and in Cowper’s as well, definitions of the sociable, active, productive life take on a different connotation than that described in either Pride and Prejudice or Emma.
Deliberations on nature and domesticity again surface as Fanny and Mary Crawford walk alone through the Grant’s shrubbery. Fanny invokes a language very similar to Cowper’s and exclaims, “‘Every time I come into this shrubbery I am more struck with its growth and beauty. Three years ago, this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never thought of as any thing, or capable of becoming any thing . . .’” (208). Fanny’s observations are significant on two levels: she both invokes an emotional, romanticized way of looking at the land, closely aligned with Cowper’s meditations on detail, and contrasts previous conversations between Crawford and Rushworth on simply improving the land for material or social reasons. Fanny demonstrates her potential as a heroine. She articulates emotion and is capable of passion not unlike Elizabeth Bennet’s reflections on Pemberley: “She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste” (P&P 245). Fanny rhapsodizes over the natural improvement of the hedgerow, converted as it has been by Dr. Grant. While it may appear contradictory on Fanny’s part given earlier conversations, her reaction to the land compliments Edmund’s view of how the country parish land should be managed, minimally improved upon, and left alone to grow.
In this scene, the conversation turns toward the interior self as Fanny philosophizes to the “untouched and inattentive” Mary Crawford (209). “‘If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory’” (208). Fanny becomes quite passionate in absorbing her surroundings; she appreciates her connection to the estate and the intrinsic value to be found in nature, while Mary can “‘see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it’” (209-10). Like the shrubbery, Fanny has been thought of by the Bertrams and Mrs. Norris as incapable of becoming anything; on a deeper level she is speaking of herself and her position at Mansfield, her recognition of her own abilities and emotions. Austen makes subtle connections between forgetting and memory and between nature and interiority that have ramifications much larger than the shrubbery itself. As others have observed, much of Mansfield Park looks back to a way of life that is passing3. Fanny and Edmund hold their community to a moral code that reflects traditional values.
Fanny’s reintroduction to her family at Portsmouth culminates in a significant maturation in her perceptions regarding interiority and her connection to the domestic landscape, reflecting, once again, her development as a heroine modeled after the ideology in The Task. Initially, Sir Thomas Bertram sends Fanny back to Portsmouth as a form of punishment, a denial of the comforts she has grown accustomed to and even of the companionship of the Crawfords, in hopes she will ultimately recognize in Henry Crawford, if not a love match, at least an escape from a fate similar to or worse than her own mother’s. Sir Thomas is, of course, worldly and manipulative in dealing with others. It is his “scheme” (368) to reunite Fanny with her family, that her “abstinence from the elegancies and luxuries of Mansfield Park” would produce in her a “value of that home of greater permanence, and equal comfort, of which she had the offer” (369). Fanny, on the one hand playing into his scheme and on the other simply expressing her own domestic interiority, is close to “raptures” at the thought of seeing the family “from whom she had been divided, almost half her life” (369). Outwardly, Fanny is overjoyed at the thought of spending time with William and of being reunited with a “warm and affectionate friend” in her mother (371). Inwardly, she knows this is where she can purge herself of her feelings toward Edmund and his impending engagement to Mary. Fanny views Portsmouth as an escape from the pressures to marry placed upon her by Sir Thomas, Crawford, even Edmund; consequently, Fanny ignores William’s warning that “‘[t]he house is always in confusion’” and the implication she will “‘set things going in a better way’” (372). Fanny comprehends only the idea of Portsmouth, an impression from her childhood memory. For the first time, Fanny’s interiority betrays her.
Ironically, from the moment the “trollopy-looking maid-servant” (377) opens the Price’s door, Fanny’s homecoming evolves into the long, disappointing, stifling, punishing realization of exactly what Sir Thomas anticipates. Within the Price’s home the cacophonous din, sustained by the repetition of the news that William’s ship has left the harbor, contrasts dramatically to Fanny’s values of silence, quiet reflection, and solitude. Austen’s cheeky narrator relies on understatement—“But though she [Fanny] had seen all the members of the family, she had not yet heard all the noise they could make” (381)—and emphasizes the power of noise to disrupt the domestic sphere (381). Domestic noise is given much the same attention by Cowper; the depiction of sound provides a recurring motif that contrasts rural and urban settings and unites the various books. Noise is symptomatic of deeper concerns; it creates chaos and disrupts the domestic scene. Cowper elevates natural sound: “Nature inanimate employs sweet sounds, / But animated nature sweeter still, / To soothe and satisfy the human ear” (1.197-99). In contrast, “unpleasing sounds” associated with the city haunt the poet: “the stir of Commerce, driving slow, / And thundering loud, with his ten thousand wheels” is symptomatic of “madness in the head, / And folly in the heart” (3.739-42). Likewise, in Portsmouth, the trampling up stairs, the slamming of the parlor door, the hallooing for rum and water, for the children, for the servant, for each other, “noise rising upon noise, and bustle upon bustle” (384) leaves Fanny “stunned” (382). Within the twenty-five pages or so, describing the interior of the Price home there are more than fifty references to noise or turmoil. Rhetorically, Austen uses this repetition in a subversive manner, to the extent that the initial humor of Fanny’s situation progressively darkens into desperation as Fanny longs for the solitude of Mansfield Park, with or without Edmund to secure her happiness.
Austen portrays Portsmouth as emblematic of the noise, confusion, and squalid state of the city; she contrasts Portsmouth, even in the spring, with Mansfield as the epitome of “closeness and noise, . . . confinement, bad air, bad smells, substituted for liberty, freshness, fragrance, and verdure” (432). Just as Cowper finds the city a “common and most noisome sewer, / The dregs and feculence of every land” (1.683-84), Austen locates perhaps her most detailed portrait of city life in this scene. Both point to the city as inferior to the rural retreat of the country home with its moments of genuine solicitude; they reminisce, “were England now / What England was, plain, hospitable, kind, / And undebauched” (3.742-44).
Upon her return to Mansfield Park, Fanny is no longer the shy child afraid to speak, or the submissive young adult subject to the degradation of Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris. Instead, the situation is reversed, and Fanny feels some apprehension at the thought of reuniting with the family “under so dreadful a humiliation” (446). She is needed, sent for, and returns with some sense of power to revive the Bertrams’ spirits. Not surprisingly, her thoughts return to the landscape she missed while in Portsmouth. Looking out the window of the carriage, Fanny becomes “awake to the difference of the country since February” with its “lawns and plantations of the freshest green” (446). In contrast to her reunion with own mother, Lady Bertram greets her, “falling on her neck,” with “‘Dear Fanny! now I shall be comfortable’” (447). Fanny achieves a new sense of social and moral status by restoring integrity and domestic happiness to the household. In her final meeting with Edmund, Mary Crawford regrets Henry’s failure at “‘making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’” (229); she maintains to Edmund at their farewell that Fanny “‘would have fixed him, she would have made him happy for ever’” (455). By the conclusion of the novel, Fanny has assumed the role of an improver of individuals. She tends to and listens to Lady Bertram, who is a bit less indolent; she nurses Tom back to health; she takes the place of the daughters lost to Sir Thomas; and for Edmund, “Fanny’s friendship was all that he had to cling to” (460).
Rhetorically, the narrative voice even professes a stronger intimacy in references to “[m]y Fanny” (461). For Austen, the stakes for self-pride are always high, and she has each floundering character pay with his or her personal happiness. She even has Edmund, in his blind love for Mary Crawford and refusal to see beyond outward appearances, nearly suffer the same fate as his sister Maria. The narrator emphasizes the poetic justice dealt to all the characters except Fanny. The fate of the Crawfords is sealed; that of the Bertram daughters, particularly Maria, is solidly linked to their actions, and Maria fares the worse for it. Maria’s consequences are irreversible. Cowper also addresses the subject of adultery in a lament in The Task: “The adulteress! What a theme for angry verse! / What provocation to the indignant heart / That feels for injur’d love. . . . / ’Twas hard perhaps on here and there a waif, / Desirous to return, and not received” (3.64-66, 80-81). Both Austen and Cowper express some regret, if not moral outrage, at the status quo which offers so little choice or recompense for women.
Through the voice of her narrator and particularly through the crafting of Fanny’s growing sense of interiority, Austen makes some of her boldest statements contributing to the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century discourse of improvement, domesticity, and morality. Edmund marries Fanny, not because he settles or feels sorry for Fanny—indeed the narrator declares at the conclusion of the novel that “she was of course only too good for him” (471)—but because, through the poetic justice inherent in all of Austen’s novels, they deserve each other’s esteem.
Ultimately, as the moral center of the novel, Fanny’s task is a very important one. Like Cowper’s persona, her social life centers on a “taste for . . . biography and poetry” and the ordering of “domestic felicity” (471); there is no doubt at the end of the novel that Fanny will actively participate in her role as a clergyman’s wife. Fanny’s development as one who seeks a quiet, reflective solitude and is physically affected by her surroundings is not symptomatic of a weak character. Those who find in Fanny an insipid and sickly constitution may take notice that when Fanny’s health fails, it is generally in reaction to some disruption of the domestic sphere and the forced recognition of her inferior place in both the Bertram and Price homes. Fanny finds fulfillment in quiet domestic pleasures. Cowper best describes this moment of recognition as that condition when an individual “has a heart and keeps it, has a mind / That hungers and supplies it, and who seeks / No unimportant, though a silent task” (1.374-78).
1. Joan Klingel Ray discusses Fanny’s childhood and the psychological process involved in Fanny’s maturation at Mansfield Park. Also see Claudia Johnson’s essay for an in-depth discussion of the characterization of Fanny Price in contrast to other Austen heroines.
2. For a thorough discussion of traditional views of landscape in Austen’s time see Nigel Everett.
3. Beth Tobin discusses the impact of such issues as Henry Crawford’s absentee landlord status in her chapter on “Mansfield Park, Hannah More, and the Evangelical Redefinition of Virtue.” She argues that while Fanny Price may appear to be an Evangelical heroine, even bearing resemblance to More’s heroines, she is in fact not, and that Austen ultimately rejects the Evangelical reformation. I would like to thank Dr. Tobin for her insightful comments during the development of this paper.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
Cowper, William. The Poems of William Cowper. Ed. John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp. Oxford: OUP, 1980.
Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.
Everett, Nigel. The Tory View of the Landscape. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.
Johnson, Claudia L. “What Became of Jane Austen? Mansfield Park.” Persuasions 17 (1995): 50-79.
Kaplan, Laurie. “Sir Walter Elliot’s Looking-Glass, Mary Musgrove’s Sofa, and Anne Elliot’s Chair: Exteriority/Interiority, Intimacy/Society.” Persuasions On-Line 25.1 (Win. 2004).
Ray, Joan Klingel. “Jane Austen’s Case Study of Child Abuse: Fanny Price.” Persuasions 13 (1991): 16-26.
Tobin, Beth Fowkes. Superintending the Poor: Charitable Ladies and Paternal Landlords in British Fiction, 1770-1860. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.