Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Addressing Readerly Unease: Discovering the Gothic in Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Addressing Readerly Unease: Discovering the Gothic in Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

READERS ARE OFTEN UNCOMFORTABLE WITH Mansfield Park because Fanny Price is meek, self-deprecating, pious, sickly, and self-righteous. For Thomas Hoberg, Fanny Price is "the passive Cinderella" who "is not like her canonical sisters and that's the whole problem" (137), while Amy J. Pawl speculates that Fanny's affinity to the eighteenth-century sentimental heroine makes her a "problem," because Austen "attempts to take some forms of sentimentalism seriously" (288). Many readers are uncomfortable with Mansfield Park since Jane Austen includes aspects of the sentimental novel and the fairy tale in a novel of manners, and because Fanny, who suffers and prospers, is an unusual heroine. This unease with Mansfield Park may come from the placement of gothic symbols and characters within the world of the English gentry. By understanding Mansfield Park's affinity with the gothic novels of the eighteenth century, we might also understand our discomfort with Fanny Price.

Since many of the ingredients that one would expect in gothic fiction, the "barbarous, medieval, supernatural" (Varma 12), or the "spectres, monsters, demons, corpses, skeletons, evil aristocrats, monks and nuns, fainting heroines, and bandits" (Botting 2) are nowhere to be found in Mansfield Park, placing the novel within the genre is uncommon. Even so, central to Mansfield Park are several gothic elements. First, we can recognize character types: a fainting but virtuous heroine, a terrorizing father figure, troublesome aunts, and a duplicitous suitor. In addition, illicit sexuality and vice are important thematic issues in the novel. Finally, "an aesthetics based on feeling and emotion and associated primarily with the sublime" (Botting 3) is treated with a seriousness in Mansfield Park although condemned or mocked in other Austen novels. The gothic elements of characterization, plot, and spatial tropes convey a level of terror--or at least unease--unfamiliar and uncomfortable to a reader expecting the comic sensibility and balanced moral structure of Austen's more popular novels.

Fanny Price's weaknesses are vital to a gothic reading of Mansfield Park. Our first encounter with the young Fanny shows her potential as a suffering heroine: "She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty" (12). When she arrives at Mansfield Park, she mirrors Ann Radcliffe's Emily St. Aubert and suffers in gothic form: "Afraid of every body, ashamed of herself, and longing for the home she had left, she knew not how to look up, and could scarcely speak to be heard, or without crying" (13). Even the mention of a horse gives her "'terrors'" (27).

Fanny's ability to think the "right" way about the landscape is a virtue shared with her gothic sisters. Devendra Varma writes, "The love of natural objects combined with a depth of religious feeling constitutes a part of the Gothic spirit" (20). Just as Udolpho's Emily has the "right" sensibility about the landscape she encounters, Fanny knows how to appreciate nature, even in the simple shrubbery of the parsonage, in a way that Mary Crawford cannot. Fanny comments, "'Every time I come into this shrubbery I am more struck with its growth and beauty.... How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!'" (208). With nothing to say in response to Fanny's romantic interlude, Mary Crawford is incapable of appreciating the scenery. With too much "intercourse with the world," an exposure Radcliffe's St. Aubert considers so dangerous (Udolpho 49), Mary Crawford will never appreciate nature as Fanny does.

Fanny Price also has the gothic heroine's combination of morality and natural romantic sensibility. While Germaine Paulo Walsh interprets Fanny's prudence as "right reason" or the "moral virtue in regard to feeling as one should" (18), she argues that Fanny is not a romantic heroine in that she "does not govern herself in the way of the romantic, following the 'sincere emotions' of her 'true self,' but rather according to general principles of moral action that sometimes are, and sometimes are not in accord with particular societal conventions" (19). …

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