Jane Austen's Venture into Tragedy

By Harris, H. R. | Contemporary Review, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Jane Austen's Venture into Tragedy


Harris, H. R., Contemporary Review


Jane Austen's novels are, on the whole, light, amusing and reassuring. They generate little in the way of anxiety or fear. Mansfield Park however is an exception. It differs from the rest in that its mood is more sombre and its content more serious. In the opening chapters we fear for the well-being of the heroine, Fanny Price, and this fear is maintained, perhaps somewhat artificially, in the second half of the book.

There is a straightforward explanation for this unusual degree of fear. At the time Jane Austen started planning Mansfield Park (1811) she had recently read, or re-read, Shakespeare's King Lear, and took a conscious decision to incorporate the themes of this highly tragic play into her new book. The evidence for this is threefold. First, the structure of Mansfield Park corresponds to that of Lear. Next, there are striking textual similarities between the two works. Next, there is very strong circumstantial evidence that in 1811 she was interested in Lear, had a particular view of Lear, and incorporated that view in Mansfield Park.

Let us begin with the structure. In Lear the king has three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. At the age of eighty he decides to hand over power to his daughters, and divides his kingdom among them. But the division is not fair. He allocates a better portion to his favourite, Cordelia, than to the others. Further, he insists on declarations of love from each daughter, in the belief that Cordelia, whom he loves most, will express stronger feelings of love, and therefore merit her preferential treatment.

This plan goes disastrously wrong. Goneril and Regan express false sentiments of love. Cordelia, who does indeed love her father truly, cannot bring herself to emulate their flattery. Accordingly she is disinherited by Lear, and her portion of the kingdom divided between her two sisters. Despite this disinheritance, the King of France offers to marry her. She accepts and becomes Queen of France.

This main plot is echoed in the sub-plot. The Duke of Gloucester has two sons, one legitimate and loyal - Edgar, and one illegitimate and disloyal Edmund. Edmund deceives Gloucester into thinking that Edgar is plotting against him. So the loyal Edgar is forced to flee his father's house, and Gloucester places his trust in the disloyal Edmund. To evade capture, Edgar assumes the guise of a madman - 'Poor Tom'.

The two plots cross at several points. Towards the end both Goneril and Regan make advances to Edmund. Of the two, Edmund appears to favour Goneril, despite the fact that she is married, whereas Regan, through the recent death of her husband, is free to marry.

Ultimately Lear is made to realize the falseness of Goneril and Regan, and the honesty of Cordelia. Gloucester realizes the loyalty of Edgar, and the disloyalty of Edmund. The action of the play leads to the death of all the leading characters, good and evil alike, with the exception of Edgar who survives to rebuild the shattered kingdom.

Mansfield Park follows this general structure. Sir Thomas Bertram, the owner of Mansfield Park, is the equivalent of Lear. He has two daughters of his own - Maria and Julia. They are spoilt, self-willed and calculating. He takes charge of his niece, Fanny Price, who becomes in effect his third and youngest daughter. In contrast to Maria and Julia, she is modest, self-effacing and truly loving. So in general terms Maria, Julia and Fanny represent Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.

The parallel between Cordelia and Fanny is underlined by Jane Austen's choice of name. 'Fanny' is a diminutive of Frances, and this point is made clear at the very start of the book. 'Fanny' therefore is not just another girl's name, but an explicit pointer that Fanny stands for Cordelia, Queen of France.

Sir Thomas also has two sons - Tom and Edmund. Again there is a parallel in the names - Tom standing for Edgar/Poor Tom, and Edmund for the Edmund in Lear. …

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