Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen and the Reconsigned Child: The True Identity of Fanny Price. (Miscellany)

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen and the Reconsigned Child: The True Identity of Fanny Price. (Miscellany)

Article excerpt

JANE AUSTEN IS THE ARTIST of the settled village and meticulously delineated family relations, but in this paper, I consider some of the ways that her novels represent and work through the ancient literary theme of child-stealing, an area of concern that seems the antithesis of these things. The association of Jane Austen and the representation of the stolen child is no mere act of scholarly eccentricity on my part. Child-stealing is an extremely common phenomenon, but seldom named as the ugly thing it is; instead, it is often disguised as something unavoidable and benign, if not absolutely virtuous. As a phenomenon, it presents in many ways: as illegal, semi-legal or forced adoption, as patronage, as education, as "resettlement," as child protection, and so on (Torney 1993). For the young subject of these common practices, working through the mysteries of his or her familial origins is a central task of growing up. The representation of this task is central to much major literature since Oedipus Rex, and esp ecially to the nineteenth-century novel: Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, and The Mayor of Casterbridge, to make an almost random selection of canonical works, deal explicitly with the effects of moving children around and obscuring their family origins. Austen's development of the possibilities of the representation of consciousness (Copeland and McMaster) helped to make possible the focus on the young person's struggle to understand the meaning of family background, and there are a surprising number of examples of it in Austen's later work, where she considers problems of consolidating psychic identity when the place and the people one has to individuate from are not completely clear.

Child-stealing is a phenomenon which occurs throughout history, and thus answers a powerful psychological need in adults. The idea of the Reconsignable Child seems to be a sort of a sinister counterpart to the fantasy of the Family Romance (Freud), (1) a conviction that just as the child fantasized that one could take parents from anywhere, an adult may place a child anywhere. But adults often have the social-political means to enact dangerous fantasies, and children are moved about in the context of contemporaneous social-political realities (Henry and Hillel; Wallace; Lewin). The backdrop of slavery and early capitalism, issues which are particularly pressing in Mansfield Park (Said; Southam), frame much of Jane Austen's engagement with the phenomenon of child-stealing. To what extent is the child a chattel, to be bought and sold? Austen's young heroines undertake the project of "inventing" a tolerable social and psychological space for themselves in a world structured by these frightening social institutio ns.

There is also an economic component to establishing a firm identity. Austen's main characters are always shown in a rather frightening relation to their domineering elders and betters, emphasizing the question of how these young people will establish a claim to society's goodies. Typically, the young people are threatened with perpetual domination and poverty by means of the twin plot devices of the entailed estate and male succession, but there are others as well: social position, capricious relatives, large families, ill-health, for example. The problem may be worse for women. Austen's novels, especially Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, represent society as set up for the transferal of economic resources from male to male, and the prototypical women's dilemma in this society is how to find a psycho-social outcome which is neither dreadful nor depersonalizing. Austen's heroines tinker with their ideas about the accommodation of the self with society until they can live with the result. A central factor in this delicate balancing of hostile and anti-female social structures with the happy ending is that Austen does in fact explore the darker side of the construction of identity, and the threat of its possible failure, in part through the figure of the reconsigned child. …

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