Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Vows in Mansfield Park: The Promises of Courtship

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Vows in Mansfield Park: The Promises of Courtship

Article excerpt

MANSFIELD PARK, JANE AUSTEN'S PROBLEM NOVEL, shares one of its problems--the courtship plot--with the other five novels that Austen published. Darryl Jones, a recent apologist for Austen's choice of this plot, surveys the literary marketplace of the 1810s and concludes "it was ... virtually impossible for a woman writer of Austen's generation to publish any other kind of novel" (14). We will never know if Austen may have had difficulty publishing another kind of novel. She never tried. She structured each of her six novels published during or just after her lifetime using the courtship plot. But even if Austen's choice of this plot was inevitable, it does not mean that her choice consigned her to an inferior form. She develops her novels' themes through her chosen plot, not in spite of it. Austen exploits this genre, demonstrating shrewd insight into the elements of the courtship plot and the possibilities inherent in those elements.

Austen's command of the courtship plot reflects her wide reading in and early experimentation with the genre--her Juvenilia contain a number of burlesques of courtship narratives. I have defined the courtship plot, a subgenre of comedy, as "a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines" (19). To expand this definition, I lay out eight essential elements of the courtship plot: the definition of the disordered society that the union of heroine and hero will help reorder; the meeting of heroine and hero; their attraction to each other; their recognition of the rightness of their choice of each other; the barrier to their union; their declaration of love for each other; the point of ritual death (the point at which the hoped-for union seems more impossible than ever); and the betrothal itself (30-80). Courtship narratives, each containing these essential elements, were in Austen's time "the dominant form of fiction" (Jones 10). These elements were familiar to all readers of courtship novels. Austen took full advantage of these elements' flexibility. They can occur in any order; they can happen "off" and be reported or be fully dramatized; and any element can appear more than once. Particularly important in Mansfield Park is Austen's multiplication of both the betrothal and the point of ritual death.

The betrothal is a specific kind of vow--the promise to marry. Throughout Mansfield Park Austen multiplies the vows to marry that her characters make and she extends the act of vow-taking to different sorts of promises, vows of all kinds. The Mansfield young people make vows to God, to others, or to themselves. In the process they commit themselves to life's most serious undertakings. Vows appear in such number that the act of making a vow transcends its usual role in ending the courtship--and the courtship novel--to become a feature of Mansfield Park's action throughout, and a measure of characters' virtue.

Austen divides the Babel of vows taken in this novel by multiplying another of the eight elements--the point of ritual death. This element always echoes, however remotely, the myth of Hades, Persephone, and her mother, Demeter. A virgin's abduction, the mother's pursuit to recover her daughter, and the restoration of both fecundity to the Earth and the possibility of children to the virgin, together form the mythic basis for ritual death. Narrative markers of ritual death include the actual death of someone associated with the heroine or a simulacrum of death (fainting, illness, absence) visited upon the heroine or another character. The moment can be marked much less dramatically. A change of season or of the weather, the fall of night, a darkening of the tone--any of these can signal the point of ritual death. Typically the heroine or someone close to her is put at risk, however metaphorically, echoing Persephone's own peril. In the courtship plot, ritual death always marks the seeming impossibility of the union between one or more pairs of the heroines and heroes (Regis 35-36). …

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