Ordination and Revolution in Mansfield Park

By Karounos, Michael | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview
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Ordination and Revolution in Mansfield Park


Karounos, Michael, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


  Now I will try to write of something else:--it shall be a complete
  change of subject--Ordination.
  --Jane Austen (1)

Nearly two hundred years after the writing of Mansfield Park (1814), scholars still debate the meaning and degree of emphasis in Austen's famous quotation that the novel was about "ordination." It is suggested here that a too-narrow application of the meaning of ordination solely to Edmund Bertram has stymied fruitful research. The following reading advances an interpretation that explains Austen's comment in new terms and supports Austen's claim that the novel is about ordination. The meaning of ordination was not restricted in 1814 to the meaning of assuming a religious office, nor, indeed, was that its primary definition. A glance at the OED demonstrates that trees, animals, and ideas may all be ordinated. Sub-ordination, as a disposition of ranks or in reference to a hierarchical order, is implicit in the understanding of the term, and only after considering the range of meanings--and especially the primary meaning that Austen would have understood in its fullness--may we arrive at a better understanding of her much-quoted, much-misunderstood, and always-controversial statement that Mansfield Park is about ordination. There are two meanings of the word that are essential to understanding the novel, and while both concern Edmund. the argument here suggests that Austen applies the concept and mechanism of ordination foremost to the estate of Mansfield Park and to the person of Fanny Price. Ordination, as I believe Austen meant it, is a process of both ordering and ordaining. What is ordinated in Mansfield Park is not only the estate but also its hierarchy, and the person to be ordained first--in fact as well as in degree of importance--is Fanny Price. Subsidiary to the discussion of ordination is the argument that the concepts of ordination, improvement, and restoration have their antithetical counterparts in subordination, innovation, and revolution.

Also, for there to be an ordering, there must first be a disordering and in the universe of Mansfield Park disorders of various kinds "infect" not only Ecclesford (culturally), but the domains of Norfolk and London (morally), Sotherton (spiritually). Portsmouth (familially), and Mansfield Park (socially). (2) While the causes are all local to Mansfield Park, the mode of disseminating infections is the feverish activity whose substance consists of innovative ideas foreign to Mansfield Park. The innovations have their roots in an English Jacobinism, which was inimical to the institutions of church and state and was blamed by many writers of the time for the decadence of the gentry, among other things. The social drama within the novel, much like the action in Lovers' Vows (1798), is representative of the greater ideological struggle represented by advocates of the French Revolution on the one hand and by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) on the other. It is from Burke's Reflections that the metaphors of "mode" and "substance" are borrowed in order to illuminate the disorder in Mansfield Park.

I. MODES OF REVOLT

  On this principle the succession of the crown has always been what it
  now is, an hereditary succession by law: in the old line it was a
  succession by the common law; in the new by the statute law, operating
  on the principles of the common law, not changing the substance, but
  regulating the mode and describing the persons.
  --Edmund Burke (3)

Mode here is used in its sense of both aspect and operative process. The various modes of revolt employed in Mansfield Park range from the trivial arrangement of furniture to modes of movement and social interaction. They are most evident when--in reference to the Burke excerpt above--Austen is "describing the persons" who inhabit its various principalities. Their mode of behavior defines the substance of their character and Austen stages her drama in the implicit context of the French Revolution, the Regency Crisis, and the principle of the "succession of the crown" in the management of the state/estate.

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