Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Shaftesbury's Art of "Soliloquy" in Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Shaftesbury's Art of "Soliloquy" in Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

IN HIS TANTALIZING LITTLE ESSAY "Jane Austen and the Moralists," philosopher Gilbert Ryle suggested Jane Austen's novels have much in common with the eighteenth-century moral and aesthetic philosophy of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (276-91). Ryle himself did not follow up on this insight; and to my knowledge, no one else has either.

Ryle's observation, however, seems particularly--even uniquely--appropriate to Mansfield Park of all Jane Austen's novels. Her novels are indeed very different from one another: if we read attentively we find--despite Austen's unmistakeable character and style throughout them all--that each has also a distinct subject matter and finely tuned vocabulary to match. The language and subject matter of Mansfield Park bear remarkable affinities to Shaftesbury's, which may have significant implications for our understanding of Austen's views on the relation between morality and religion. Further, the affinities suggest that she took to heart Shaftesbury's recommendations for the reform of English manners--his advice specifically directed to "authors" for the moral "improvement" of the English national character. If this is the case, it means that in Mansfield Park Jane Austen may have risen to a fully mature recognition and acceptance of her role as potentially one of England's great authors who, like Shakespeare, would become part of every Englishman's "constitution."

Shaftesbury's Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (a collection of earlier essays first published together in 1711) was enormously popular in the eighteenth century, reprinted more often than any other English work except John Locke's Second Treatise (Den Uyl vii). Popular though it was, it was also highly controversial, for Shaftesbury's apparent Deism--his celebration of Nature and Reason--looked scandalously close to atheism. Shaftesbury's attack on Thomas Hobbes's argument that human nature is naturally selfish and violent, and his claim that we are in fact naturally virtuous, while more congenial with religious views, nonetheless emphasized a natural piety of human kindness and affection that threatened to displace God with nature and human beings. Arguing that our moral sense or affection for virtue is the foundation of morality, human society, and indeed of religion itself, he likened this moral sense to a sense of harmony in music and proportion in architecture, conflating moral and aesthetic taste in a way that has won him a permanent place in the history of aesthetics.

This is barely a thumbnail sketch of his ideas and their importance, but deliberately so; I do not want the tail wagging the dog here by having Shaftesbury dominate this essay. Since Mansfield Park is our real focus of interest, I will accordingly discuss the novel on its own terms as much as possible, with Shaftesbury coming in by the way.

Our best point of departure is the wonderful scene that finds Fanny, Edmund, Mary Crawford, and others gathered at an open window of the house, "looking out on a twilight scene" (l08). Gradually, the others depart, leaving Fanny and Edmund to stand alone together gazing out at the night. Finally, Edmund turns from Fanny and the window, back to the lights, the music, the people, and above all to Mary Crawford, leaving Fanny alone (112-13).

The description and conversation between Fanny and Edmund here is pure, unadulterated Shaftesbury--full of the language and sentiments for instance of his delightful dialogue "The Moralists," subtitled "A Philosophical Rhapsody" (Characteristicks, II, l05-247). But on its own terms, what is happening in this scene? What activity is Fanny engaged in? First of all, she is standing with Edmund, her cousin and dearest "friend" next to her own brother William--the person she loves nearly most in the world, her kindred spirit, her other self. And Fanny takes the deepest pleasure in this togetherness: as the others leave, she "had the pleasure of seeing him continue at the window with her, in spite of the expected glee" (112-13). …

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