Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time

By Mary Waldron | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Men of sense and silly wives — the confusions
of Mr Knightley

The 'Opinions of Mansfield Park' which Jane Austen collected and preserved gave her evidence that, though some readers were aware of the dispersal of the focus of reader approval present in the novelthey were doubtful about which characters they ought to 'like', and were honest about saying so - others tended to remodel the content to suit their expectations, and missed the novel's subtleties and builtin uncertainties. Lady Robert Kerr, for instance, commented on 'the pure morality with which it abounds' making it 'a most desirable as well as useful work'; 'Mr. Egerton the Publisher praised it for it's Morality' (MW 433). Adverse criticism often centred on the shortcomings of a character the commentator clearly thought intended to be virtuous by the author; Fanny Knight objected to Edmund's attraction to Mary Crawford and his failure to face up to Henry Crawford's iniquities (MW 431); Mary Cooke, a cousin, thought 'Fanny ought to have been more determined on overcoming her own feelings, when she saw Edmund's attachment to Miss Crawford' (MW 432–3), showing herself securely attached to the Fanny Burney/Maria Edgeworth stereotype. Austen could be excused for feeling especially frustrated by the last comment, for a reading unbiassed by expectations of moral 'usefulness' clearly reveals that the plot dynamics absolutely require Fanny to fail in this way. Austen was aware that her theory of what a novel should do ran counter for the most part to public expectation, which still believed it should have an unequivocal moral message or fail in its aim. It may have been misunderstandings about Fanny Price and Edmund that drove Austen in her next novel to invent a heroine whom nobody could mistake for an attempt at a conduct-book model — 'whom nobody but myself will much like'. 1 She had plenty of precedent for the deluded heroine (of whom Emma is a version) by early 1814. Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote was still popular with the family;

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