Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Sotherton and the Geography of Empire: The Landscapes of Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Sotherton and the Geography of Empire: The Landscapes of Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

WITH ITS RESTORATION OF ORDER AND HARMONY ON THE ESTATE, THE conclusion to Mansfield Park has often been read as Jane Austen's paean to conservative ideology and the triumph of empire. (1) By the final chapter, the adulterous Maria Bertram has been ostracized along with her prolix Aunt Norris; the rakish Tom has reformed after an extended, chastening illness; and Edmund and Fanny have acceded to the living at Mansfield. On the event of Mr. Grant's death, as the novel concludes in its final, awkward sentence, Fanny and Edmund

   removed to Mansfield, and the parsonage there, which, under each of
   its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but
   with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as
   dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as
   everything else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park,
   had long been. (2)

This picture of sedate and ordered well-being does indeed seem to depict what Moira Ferguson has called "a kinder, gentler plantocracy," a privileged vision of ease, concord, and familiarity that contrasts starkly with the squalor of Portsmouth, the decadence of London, and the otherness of an Antigua that can only be imagined by most of Mansfield's inhabitants. (3) The "perfection" of Mansfield Park depicted at the end of this novel seems almost "doctrinaire," to quote Claudia L. Johnson, a concluding scene that "appears to let conservative ideologues have it their way." (4)

It is thus striking that Austen chooses to reintroduce the spatial perspective of landscape gardening into these final phrases--a profession that is critiqued elsewhere in the novel--positioning Fanny along with the parsonage and everything else she treasures "within the view and patronage of Mansfield." The views of and from landed estates are matters for heated debate in this novel, with Humphry Repton, Austen's contemporary and the most celebrated landscape designer of his day, invoked several times by name when the oafish Rushworth seeks to "improve" his estate. In a novel set among genteel country houses in early nineteenth-century England, it is not surprising that Repton's figure would appear or that Austen would use her last sentence to take the long view (as if from the house) of the property surrounding Mansfield. It is surprising, however, that Repton's landscapes--and the question of the novel's landscapes in general--have not figured more prominently in recent postcolonial analyses of Mansfield Park. Spurred initially by Edward Said's controversial interpretation of this novel, a small postcolonial industry has variably considered the imperialist implications of Austen's gender politics, her aesthetic practices, and her awareness of British abolitionist debates and the condition of slaves in Antigua, to mention just a few topics that have recently occupied critics of her work. (5) While such critics have opened up important issues in our consideration of Austen's fiction, however, they have tended on the whole to read between the lines and in the margins--focusing on the novel's "silences" about Sir Thomas's Antiguan holdings and slavery in the Leeward Islands, for example--rather than analyzing the territory that is directly portrayed. (6) Said himself, in his powerful but relatively limited analysis of Mansfield Park, actually says more about what he calls "social space" than he does about the novel's "casual references to Antigua." "Underlying social space," he insists, "are territories, lands, geographical domains, the actual geographical underpinnings of the imperial, and also the cultural contest." (7) Developing Raymond Williams's exploration of related issues in The Country and the City, this aspect of Said's work has received scant notice in literary studies compared to the emphasis on discourse analysis of "otherness" in its various forms and upon the oversights of Western literature, most notably its failures to represent "others" around the globe. …

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