Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

The Noise in Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

The Noise in Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

IT MAY SEEM AT FIRST GLANCE PERVERSE TO DISCUSS MANSFIELD PARK-- the Austen novel featuring her quietest, meekest, most unobtrusive heroine--in terms of noise. Fanny Price, we are variously told, is "exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice," "sad and insignificant," "gentle and retiring," with "a quiet way, very little attended to" (13, 187, 422, 56). Certainly "loud"--whether as volume of sound or as vulgarity--is not the first word that springs to most minds with reference to Austen's art, with its well-disguised labor condensed into the famous little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory." What does it mean to think about noise in Jane Austen--or to think about Jane Austen as noisy?

Notwithstanding its country setting and its "'creepmouse'" heroine, the world of Mansfield Park is anything but quiet and peaceful (171). It is Austen's noisiest book, filled with clamor and disharmony, from the incessant railing of Mrs. Norris and the riotous energies surrounding the production of Lovers' Vows to the din and chaos of the Price family's Portsmouth home. Fanny's quiet demeanor masks a mind bristling with sharp observations and keen emotions; the outward comportment may be demure but the mind shrieks with agony. Sir Thomas might wish to impose what he calls "'domestic tranquility'" upon "'a home which shuts out noisy pleasures'" (218), but the walls of Mansfield Park are not soundproof: audible to the ear are not only the throbbing strains of Regency London and the scandalous talk of the town that will precipitate Maria Rushworth's downfall but also the faint restive murmurs of servants, cottagers, day-laborers--what today might be called the 99%--and, dimly heard, the distant cries from Sir Thomas's slave plantation in Antigua. Mansfield Park proves to be filled with noises--unwanted sounds that register as confused, excessive, disruptive--that disclose the unrest in the world outside and the disquiet that already dwells within. If there are no truths universally acknowledged in the world of Mansfield Park, it is because there is too much noise and confusion to pick out any clear-cut message.

In a novel with a heroine who says little, both noise and silence demand a hearing. For noise, like silence, haunts the borders of articulate language, marking the threshold between what we hear and what can be put into words. We can describe what noise sounds like or render it onomatopoetically (boom!); we can name its causes (a screeching child) or describe its effects (ear-splitting), but we cannot make noise into expressive language. Formulated thoughts can be recorded; feelings can be converted into sentiments and voiced, but one cannot quote noise. If silence lies on one side of expressive language, noise lies on the other. The classification of certain sounds as noise sorts the audible from the intelligible; it determines what should be heard as well as what can be heard by the human ear: what gets drowned out by noise or drowned out as noise. For we may hear but we do not usually listen to noise; instead, we tend to try to block it out. Noise is, almost by definition, what we would rather not hear. One of the reasons many readers find Mansfield Park so difficult is that in it Austen asks us to listen to noise, both literal and metaphorical.

We tend to privilege the eye in discussions of literature: we talk about the character's perspective and the narrative point of view, a novel's imagery or its portrait of society, and many of our ways of speaking about knowledge are visual, from the casual expression "I see" to the philosophical language of enlightenment. Yet we encounter the world in Austen's novels as much through the ear as through the eye. We may not know much about what Austen's characters look like beyond the fact that, say, Fanny has light eyes that can ultimately be preferred to Miss Crawford's sparkling dark ones, but we know how Lady Bertram's soft fretful tones and Mrs. Norris's strident cadences sound, even when we aren't told exactly what they say. …

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