Austen, Jane: Title Commentary

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Pride and Prejudice
Mansfield Park



SOURCE: Trilling, Lionel. "Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen." In Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning, pp. 28-49. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965.

In the following essay, Trilling argues that Emma is the greatest of Austen's novels.


It is possible to say of Jane Austen, as perhaps we can say of no other writer, that the opinions which are held of her work are almost as interesting, and almost as important to think about, as the work itself. This statement, even with the qualifying "almost," ought to be, on its face, an illegitimate one. We all know that the reader should come to the writer with no preconceptions, taking no account of any previous opinion. But this, of course, he cannot do. Every established writer exists in the aura of his legend—the accumulated opinion that we cannot help being aware of, the image of his personality that has been derived, correctly or incorrectly, from what he has written. In the case of Jane Austen, the legend is of an unusually compelling kind. Her very name is a charged one. The homely quaintness of the Christian name, the cool elegance of the surname, seem inevitably to force upon us the awareness of her sex, her celibacy, and her social class. "Charlotte Brontë" rumbles like thunder and drowns out any such special considerations. But "Jane Austen" can by now scarcely fail to imply femininity, and, at that, femininity of a particular kind and in a particular social setting. It dismays many new readers that certain of her admirers call her Jane, others Miss Austen. Either appellation suggests an unusual, and questionable, relation with this writer, a relation that does not consort with the literary emotions we respect. The new reader perceives from the first that he is not to be permitted to proceed in simple literary innocence. Jane Austen is to be for him not only a writer but an issue. There are those who love her; there are those—no doubt they are fewer but they are no less passionate—who detest her; and the new reader understands that he is being solicited to a fierce partisanship, that he is required to make no mere literary judgment but a decision about his own character and personality, and about his relation to society and all of life.

And indeed the nature of the partisanship is most intensely personal and social. The matter at issue is: What kind of people like Jane Austen? What kind of people dislike her? Sooner or later the characterization is made or implied by one side or the other, and with extreme invidiousness. It was inevitable that there should arise a third body of opinion, which holds that it is not Jane Austen herself who is to be held responsible for the faults that are attributed to her by her detractors, but rather the people who admire her for the wrong reasons and in the wrong language and thus create a false image of her. As far back as 1905 Henry James was repelled by what a more recent critic, Professor Marvin Mudrick, calls "gentle-Janeism" and he spoke of it with great acerbity. James admired Jane Austen; his artistic affinity with her is clear, and he may be thought to have shared her social preferences and preoccupations. Yet James could say of her reputation that it had risen higher than her intrinsic interest warranted: the responsibility for this, he said, lay with "the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of magazines, which have found their 'dear,' our dear, everybody's dear Jane so infinitely to their material purpose."1 In our own day, Dr. Leavis's admiration for Jane Austen is matched in intensity by his impatience with her admirers. Mr. D. W. Harding in a well-known essay2 has told us how the accepted form of admiration of Jane Austen kept him for a long time from reading her novels, and how he was able to be at ease with them only when he discovered that they were charged with scorn of the very people who set the common tone of admiration. And Professor Mudrick, in the preface to his book on Jane Austen,3 speaks of the bulk of the criticism of her work as being "a mere mass of cozy family adulation, self-glorif[ication] … and nostalgic latterday enshrinements of the gentle-hearted chronicler of Regency order." It is the intention of Professor Mudrick's book to rescue Jane Austen from coziness and nostalgia by representing her as a writer who may be admired for her literary achievement, but who is not to be loved, and of whom it is to be said that certain deficiencies of temperament account for certain deficiencies of her literary practice.

The impatience with the common admiring view of Jane Austen is not hard to understand and sympathize with, the less so because (as Mr. Harding and Professor Mudrick say) admiration seems to stimulate self-congratulation in those who give it, and to carry a reproof of the deficient sensitivity, reasonableness, and even courtesy, of those who withhold their praise. One may refuse to like almost any author and incur no other blame from his admirers than that of being wanting in taste in that one respect. But not to like Jane Austen is to put oneself under suspicion of a general personal inadequacy and even—let us face it—of a want of breeding.

This is absurd and distasteful. And yet we cannot deal with this unusual—this extravagantly personal—response to a writer simply in the way of condemnation. No doubt every myth of a literary person obscures something of the truth. But it may also express some part of the truth as well. If Jane Austen is carried outside the proper confines of literature, if she has been loved in a fashion that some temperaments must find objectionable and that a strict criticism must call illicit, the reason is perhaps to be found not only in the human weakness of her admirers, in their impulse to self-flattery, or in whatever other fault produces their deplorable tone. Perhaps a reason is also to be found in the work itself, in some unusual promise that it seems to make, in some hope that it holds out.


Of Jane Austen's six great novels Emma is surely the one that is most fully representative of its author. Pride and Prejudice is of course more popular. It is the one novel in the canon that "everybody" reads, the one that is most often reprinted. Pride and Prejudice deserves its popularity, but it is not a mere snobbery, an affected aversion from the general suffrage, that makes thoughtful readers of Jane Austen judge Emma to be the greater book—not the more delightful but the greater. It cannot boast the brilliant, unimpeded energy of Pride and Prejudice, but that is because the energy which it does indeed have is committed to dealing with a more resistant matter. In this it is characteristic of all three novels of Jane Austen's mature period, of which it is the second. Persuasion, the third and last, has a charm that is traditionally, and accurately, called "autumnal," and it is beyond question a beautiful book. But Persuasion, which was published posthumously and which may not have been revised to meet the author's full intention, does not have the richness and substantiality of Emma. As for Mansfield Park, the first work of the mature period, it quite matches Emma in point of substantiality, but it makes a special and disturbing case. Greatly admired in its own day—far more than EmmaMansfield Park is now disliked by many readers who like everything else that Jane Austen wrote. They are repelled by its heroine and by all that she seems to imply of the author's moral and religious preferences at this moment of her life, for Fanny Price consciously devotes herself to virtue and piety, which she achieves by a willing submissiveness that goes against the modern grain. What is more, the author seems to be speaking out against wit and spiritedness (while not abating her ability to represent these qualities), and virtually in praise of dullness and acquiescence, and thus to be condemning her own peculiar talents. Mansfield Park is an extraordinary novel, and only Jane Austen could have achieved its profound and curious interest, but its moral tone is antipathetic to contemporary taste, and no essay I have ever written has met with so much resistance as the one in which I tried to say that it was not really a perverse and wicked book. But Emma, as richly complex as Mansfield Park, arouses no such antagonism, and the opinion that holds it to be the greatest of all Jane Austen's novels is, I believe, correct.

Professor Mudrick says that everyone has misunderstood Emma, and he may well be right, for Emma is a very difficult novel. We in our time are used to difficult books and like them. But Emma is more difficult than any of the hard books we admire. The difficulty of Proust arises from the sheer amount and complexity of his thought, the difficulty of Joyce from the brilliantly contrived devices of representation, the difficulty of Kafka from a combination of doctrine and mode of communication. With all, the difficulty is largely literal; it lessens in the degree that we attend closely to what the books say; after each sympathetic reading we are the less puzzled. But the difficulty of Emma is never overcome. We never know where to have it. If we finish it at night and think we know what it is up to, we wake the next morning to believe it is up to something quite else; it has become a different book. Reginald Farrer speaks at length of the difficulty of Emma and then goes on to compare its effect with that of Pride and Prejudice. "While twelve readings of Pride and Prejudice give you twelve periods of pleasure repeated, as many readings of Emma give you that pleasure, not repeated only, but squared and squared again with each perusal, till at every fresh reading you feel anew that you never understood anything like the widening sum of its delights."4 This is so, and for the reason that none of the twelve readings permits us to flatter ourselves that we have fully understood what the novel is doing. The effect is extraordinary, perhaps unique. The book is like a person—not to be comprehended fully and finally by any other person. It is perhaps to the point that it is the only one of Jane Austen's novels that has for its title a person's name.

For most people who recognize the difficulty of the book, the trouble begins with Emma herself. Jane Austen was surely aware of what a complexity she was creating in Emma, and no doubt that is why she spoke of her as "a heroine whom no one will like except myself." Yet this puts it in a minimal way—the question of whether we will like or not like Emma does not encompass the actuality of the challenge her character offers. John Henry Newman stated the matter more accurately, and very charmingly, in a letter of 1837. He says that Emma is the most interesting of Jane Austen's heroines, and that he likes her. But what is striking in his remark is this sentence: "I feel kind to her whenever I think of her." This does indeed suggest the real question about Emma, whether or not we will find it in our hearts to be kind to her.

Inevitably we are attracted to her, we are drawn by her energy and style, and by the intelligence they generate. Here are some samples of her characteristic tone:

"Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public!"

Emma was sorry; to have to pay civilities to a person she did not like through three long months!—to be always doing more than she wished and less than she ought!

"I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly."

"Oh! I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other.…"

[On an occasion when Mr. Knightley comes to a dinner party in his carriage, as Emma thinks he should, and not on foot:] "… There is always a look of consciousness or bustle when people come in a way which they know to be beneath them. You think you carry it off very well, I dare say, but with you it is a sort of bravado, an air of affected unconcern; I always observe it whenever I meet you under these circumstances. Now you have nothing to try for. You are not afraid of being supposed ashamed. You are not striving to look taller than any body else. Now I shall really be happy to walk into the same room with you."

We cannot be slow to see what is the basis of this energy and style and intelligence. It is self-love. There is a great power of charm in self-love, although, to be sure, the charm is an ambiguous one. We resent it and resist it, yet we are drawn by it, if only it goes with a little grace or creative power. Nothing is easier to pardon than the mistakes and excesses of self-love: if we are quick to condemn them, we take pleasure in forgiving them. And with good reason, for they are the extravagance of the first of virtues, the most basic and biological of the virtues, that of self-preservation.

But we distinguish between our response to the self-love of men and the self-love of women. No woman could have won the forgiveness that has been so willingly given (after due condemnation) to the self-regard of, say, Yeats and Shaw. We understand self-love to be part of the moral life of all men; in men of genius we expect it to appear in unusual intensity and we take it to be an essential element of their power. The extraordinary thing about Emma is that she has a moral life as a man has a moral life. And she doesn't have it as a special instance, as an example of a new kind of woman, which is the way George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke has her moral life, but quite as a matter of course, as a given quality of her nature.

And perhaps that is what Jane Austen meant when she said that no one would like her heroine—and what Newman meant when he said that he felt kind to Emma whenever he thought of her. She needs kindness if she is to be accepted in all her exceptional actuality. Women in fiction only rarely have the peculiar reality of the moral life that self-love bestows. Most commonly they exist in a moonlike way, shining by the reflected moral light of men. They are "convincing" or "real" and sometimes "delightful," but they seldom exist as men exist—as genuine moral destinies. We do not take note of this; we are so used to the reflected quality that we do not observe it. It is only on the rare occasions when a female character like Emma confronts us that the difference makes us aware of the usual practice. Nor can we say that novels are deficient in realism when they present women as they do: it is the presumption of our society that women's moral life is not as men's. No change in the modern theory of the sexes, no advance in status that women have made, has yet contradicted this. The self-love that we do countenance in women is of a limited and passive kind, and we are troubled if it is as assertive as the self-love of men is permitted, and expected, to be. Not men alone, but women as well, insist on this limitation, imposing the requirement the more effectually because they are not conscious of it.

But there is Emma, given over to self-love, wholly aware of it and quite cherishing it. Mr. Knightley rebukes her for heedless conduct and says, "I leave you to your own reflections." And Emma wonderfully replies: "Can you trust me with such flatterers? Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?" She is 'Emma, never loth to be first," loving pre-eminence and praise, loving power and frank to say so.

Inevitably we are drawn to Emma. But inevitably we hold her to be deeply at fault. Her self-love leads her to be a self-deceiver. She can be unkind. She is a dreadful snob.

Her snobbery is of the first importance in her character, and it is of a special sort. The worst instance of it is very carefully chosen to put her thoroughly in the wrong. We are on her side when she mocks Mrs. Elton's vulgarity, even though we feel that so young a woman (Emma is twenty) ought not set so much store by manners and tone—Mrs. Elton, with her everlasting barouchelandau and her "caro sposo" and her talk of her spiritual "resources," is herself a snob in the old sense of the word, which meant a vulgar person aspiring to an inappropriate social standing. But when Emma presumes to look down on the young farmer, Robert Martin, and undertakes to keep little Harriet Smith from marrying him, she makes a truly serious mistake, a mistake of nothing less than national import.

Here it is to be observed that Emma is a novel that is touched—lightly but indubitably—by national feeling. Perhaps this is the result of the Prince Regent's having expressed his admiration for Mansfield Park and his willingness to have the author dedicate her next book to him: it is a circumstance which allows us to suppose that Jane Austen thought of herself, at this point in her career, as having, by reason of the success of her art, a relation to the national ethic. At any rate, there appears in Emma a tendency to conceive of a specifically English ideal of life. Knightley speaks of Frank Churchill as falling short of the demands of this ideal: "No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English. He may be very 'aimable,' have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people: nothing really amiable about him." Again, in a curiously impressive moment in the book, we are given a detailed description of the countryside as seen by the party at Donwell Abbey, and this comment follows: "It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture [agriculture, of course, is meant], English comfort, seen under a sun bright without being oppressive." This is a larger consideration than the occasion would appear to require; there seems no reason to expect this vision of "England's green and pleasant land." Or none until we note that the description of the view closes thus: "… and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it." Abbey-Mill Farm is the property of young Robert Martin, for whom Emma has expressed a principled social contempt, and the little burst of strong feeling has the effect, among others, of pointing up the extremity of Emma's mistake.

It is often said, sometimes by way of reproach, that Jane Austen took no account in her novels of the great political events of her lifetime, nor of the great social changes that were going on in England. "… In Jane Austen's novels," says Arnold Hauser in his Social History of Art, "social reality was the soil in which characters were rooted but in no sense a problem which the novelist made any attempt to solve or interpret." The statement, true in some degree, goes too far. There is in some sense an interpretation of social problems in Jane Austen's contrivance of the situation of Emma and Robert Martin. The yeoman class had always held a strong position in English class feeling, and, at this time especially, only stupid or ignorant people felt privileged to look down upon it. Mr. Knightley, whose social position is one of the certainties of the book, as is his freedom from any trace of snobbery, speaks of young Martin, who is his friend, as a "gentleman farmer," and it is clear that he is on his way to being a gentleman pure and simple. And nothing was of greater importance to the English system at the time of the French Revolution that the relatively easy recruitment to the class of gentlemen. It made England unique among European nations. Here is Tocqueville's view of the matter as set forth in the course of his explanation of why England was not susceptible to revolution as France was:

It was not merely parliamentary government, freedom of speech, and the jury system that made England so different from the rest of contemporary Europe. There was something still more distinctive and more far-reaching in its effects. England was the only country in which the caste system had been totally abolished, not merely modified. Nobility and commoners joined forces in business enterprises, entered the same professions, and—what is still more significant—intermarried. The daughter of the greatest lord in the land could marry a "new" man without the least compunction.…

Though this curious revolution (for such in fact it was) is hidden in the mists of time, we can detect traces of it in the English language. For several centuries the word "gentleman" has had in England a quite different application from what it had when it originated.… A study of the connection between the history of language and history proper would certainly be revealing. Thus if we follow the mutation in time and place of the English word "gentleman" (a derivative of our gentilhomme), we find its connotation being steadily widened in England as the classes draw nearer to each other and intermingle. In each successive century we find it being applied to men a little lower in the social scale. Next, with the English, it crosses to America. And now in America, it is applicable to all male citizens, indiscriminately. Thus its history is the history of democracy itself.5

Emma's snobbery, then, is nothing less than a contravention of the best—and safest—tendency of English social life. And to make matters worse, it is a principled snobbery. "A young farmer … is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel that I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it." This is carefully contrived by the author to seem as dreadful as possible; it quite staggers us, and some readers will even feel that the author goes too far in permitting Emma to make this speech.

Snobbery is the grossest fault that arises from Emma's self-love, but it is not the only fault. We must also take account of her capacity for unkindness. This can be impulsive and brutal, as in the witticism directed to Miss Bates at the picnic, which makes one of the most memorable scenes in the whole range of English fiction; or extended and systematic, as in her conspiracy with Frank Churchill to quiz Jane Fairfax. Then we know her to be a gossip, at least when she is tempted by Frank Churchill. She finds pleasure in dominating and has no compunctions about taking over the rule of Harriet Smith's life. She has been accused, on the ground of her own estimate of herself, of a want of tenderness, and she has even been said to be without sexual responsiveness.

Why, then, should anyone be kind to Emma? There are several reasons, of which one is that we come into an unusual intimacy with her. We see her in all the elaborateness of her mistakes, in all the details of her wrong conduct. The narrative technique of the novel brings us very close to her and makes us aware of each misstep she will make. The relation that develops between ourselves and her becomes a strange one—it is the relation that exists between our ideal self and our ordinary fallible self. We become Emma's helpless conscience, her unavailing guide. Her fault is the classic one of hubris, excessive pride, and it yields the classic result of blindness, of an inability to interpret experience to the end of perceiving reality, and we are aware of each false step, each wrong conclusion, that she will make. Our hand goes out to hold her back and set her straight, and we are distressed that it cannot reach her.

There is an intimacy anterior to this. We come close to Emma because, in a strange way, she permits us to—even invites us to—by being close to herself. When we have said that her fault is hubris or self-love, we must make an immediate modification, for her self-love, though it involves her in self-deception, does not lead her to the ultimate self-deception—she believes she is clever, she insists she is right, but she never says she is good. A consciousness is always at work in her, a sense of what she ought to be and do. It is not an infallible sense, anything but that, yet she does not need us, or the author, or Mr. Knightley, to tell her, for example, that she is jealous of Jane Fairfax and acts badly to her; indeed, "she never saw [Jane Fairfax] without feeling that she had injured her." She is never offended—she never takes the high self-defensive line—when once her bad conduct is made apparent to her. Her sense of her superiority leads her to the "insufferable vanity" of believing "herself in the secret of every-body's feelings" and to the "unpardonable arrogance" of "proposing to arrange everybody's destiny," yet it is an innocent vanity and an innocent arrogance which, when frustrated and exposed, do not make her bitter but only ashamed. That is why, bad as her behavior may be, we are willing to be implicated in it. It has been thought that in the portrait of Emma there is "an air of confession," that Jane Austen was taking account of "something offensive" that she and others had observed in her own earlier manner and conduct, and whether or not this is so, it suggests the quality of intimacy which the author contrives that we shall feel with the heroine.

Then, when we try to explain our feeling of kindness to Emma, we ought to remember that many of her wrong judgments and actions are directed to a very engaging end, a very right purpose. She believes in her own distinction and vividness and she wants all around her to be distinguished and vivid. It is indeed unpardonable arrogance, as she comes to see, that she should undertake to arrange Harriet Smith's destiny, that she plans to "form" Harriet, making her, as it were, the mere material or stuff of a creative act. Yet the destiny is not meanly conceived, the act is meant to be truly creative—she wants Harriet to be a distinguished and not a commonplace person, she wants nothing to be commonplace, she requires of life that it be well shaped and impressive, and alive. It is out of her insistence that the members of the picnic shall cease being dull and begin to be witty that there comes her famous insult to Miss Bates. Her requirement that life be vivid is too often expressed in terms of social deportment—she sometimes talks like a governess or a dowager—but it is, in its essence, a poet's demand.

She herself says that she lacks tenderness, although she makes the self-accusation in her odd belief that Harriet possesses this quality; Harriet is soft and "feminine," but she is not tender. Professor Mudrick associates the deficiency with Emma's being not susceptible to men. This is perhaps so; but if it is, there may be found in her apparent sexual coolness something that is impressive and right. She makes great play about the feelings and about the fineness of the feelings that one ought to have; she sets great store by literature (although she does not read the books she prescribes for herself) and makes it a condemnation of Robert Martin that he does not read novels. Yet although, like Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, her mind is shaped and deceived by fiction, she is remarkable for the actuality and truth of her sexual feelings. Inevitably she expects that Frank Churchill will fall in love with her and she with him, but others are more deceived in the outcome of this expectation than she is—it takes but little time for her to see that she does not really respond to Churchill, that her feeling for him is no more than the lively notice that an attractive and vivacious girl takes of an attractive and vivacious young man. Sentimental sexuality is not part of her nature, however much she feels it ought to be part of Harriet Smith's nature. When the right time comes, she chooses her husband wisely and seriously and eagerly.

There is, then, sufficient reason to be kind to Emma, and perhaps for nothing so much as the hope she expresses when she begins to understand her mistakes, that she will become "more acquainted with herself." And, indeed, all through the novel she has sought better acquaintance with herself, not wisely, not adequately, but assiduously. How modern a quest it is, and how thoroughy it confirms Dr. Leavis's judgment that Jane Austen is the first truly modern novelist of England. "In art," a critic has said, "the decision to be revolutionary usually counts for very little. The most radical changes have come from personalities who were conservative and even conventional …"6 Jane Austen, conservative and even conventional as she was, perceived the nature of the deep psychological change which accompanied the establishment of democratic society—she was aware of the increase of the psychological burden of the individual, she understood the new necessity of conscious self-definition and self-criticism, the need to make private judgments of reality.7 And there is no reality about which the modern person is more uncertain and more anxious than the reality of himself.


But the character of Emma is not the only reason for the difficulty of the novel. We must also take into account the particular genre to which the novel in some degree belongs—the pastoral idyll. It is an archaic genre which has the effect of emphasizing by contrast the brilliant modernity of Emma, and its nature may be understood through the characters of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates.

These two people proved a stumbling-block to one of Jane Austen's most distinguished and devoted admirers, Sir Walter Scott. In his review of Emma in The Quarterly Review, Scott said that "characters of folly and simplicity, such as old Woodhouse and Miss Bates" are "apt to become tiresome in fiction as in real society." But Scott is wrong. Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates are remarkably interesting, even though they have been created on a system of character portrayal that is no longer supposed to have validity—they exist by reason of a single trait which they display whenever they appear. Miss Bates is possessed of continuous speech and of a perfectly free association of ideas which is quite beyond her control; once launched into utterance, it is impossible for her to stop. Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's father, has no other purpose in life than to preserve his health and equanimity, and no other subject of conversation than the means of doing so. The commonest circumstances of life present themselves to him as dangerous—to walk or to drive is to incur unwarrantable risk, to eat an egg not coddled in the prescribed way is to invite misery; nothing must ever change in his familial situation; he is appalled by the propensity of young people to marry, and to marry strangers at that.

Of the two "characters of folly and simplicity," Mr. Woodhouse is the more remarkable because he so entirely, so extravagantly, embodies a principle—of perfect stasis, of entire inertia. Almost in the degree that Jane Austen was interested in the ideal of personal energy, she was amused and attracted by persons capable of extreme inertness. She does not judge them harshly, as we incline to do—we who scarcely recall how important a part in Christian feeling the dream of rest once had. Mr. Woodhouse is a more extreme representation of inertness than Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park. To say that he represents a denial of life would not be correct. Indeed, by his fear and his movelessness, he affirms life and announces his naked unadorned wish to avoid death and harm. To life, to mere life, he sacrifices almost everything.

But if Mr. Woodhouse has a more speculative interest than Miss Bates, there is not much to choose between their achieved actuality as fictional characters. They are, as I have said, created on a system of character portrayal that we regard as primitive, but the reality of existence which fictional characters may claim does not depend only upon what they do, but also upon what others do to or about them, upon the way they are regarded and responded to. And in the community of Highbury, Miss Bates and Mr. Wood-house are sacred. They are fools, to be sure, as everyone knows. But they are fools of a special and transcendent kind. They are innocents—of such is the kingdom of heaven. They are children, who have learned nothing of the guile of the world. And their mode of existence is the key to the nature of the world of Highbury, which is the world of the pastoral idyll. London is but sixteen miles away—Frank Churchill can ride there and back for a haircut—but the proximity of the life of London serves but to emphasize the spiritual geography of Highbury. The weather plays a great part in Emma ; in no other novel of Jane Austen's is the succession of the seasons, and cold and heat, of such consequence, as if to make the point which the pastoral idyll characteristically makes, that the only hardships that man ought to have to endure are meteorological. In the Forest of Arden we suffer only "the penalty of Adam, / The seasons' difference," and Amiens' song echoes the Duke's words:

Here shall he see
No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

Some explicit thought of the pastoral idyll is in Jane Austen's mind, and with all the ambivalence that marks the attitude of As You Like It toward the dream of man's life in nature and simplicity. Mrs. Elton wants to make the strawberry party at Donwell Abbey into a fête champêtre: "It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here,—probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see. And Jane will have such another. There is to be no form or parade—a sort of gipsy party.—We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees;—and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors—a table spread in the shade, you know. Every thing as natural and simple as possible. Is not that your idea?" To which Knightley replies: "Not quite. My idea of the simple and natural will be to have the table spread in the dining-room. The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants and furniture, I think is best observed by meals within doors. When you are tired of eating strawberries in the garden, there will be cold meat in the house."

That the pastoral idyll should be mocked as a sentimentality by its association with Mrs. Elton, whose vulgarity in large part consists in flaunting the cheapened version of high and delicate ideals, and that Knightley should answer her as he does—this is quite in accordance with our expectation of Jane Austen's judgment. Yet it is only a few pages later that the members of the party walk out to see the view and we get that curious passage about the sweetness of the view, "sweet to the eye and to the mind." And we cannot help feeling that "English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright without being oppressive" make an England seen—if but for the moment—as an idyll.

The idyll is not a genre which nowadays we are likely to understand. Or at least not in fiction, the art which we believe must always address itself to actuality. The imagination of felicity is difficult for us to exercise. We feel that it is a betrayal of our awareness of our world of pain, that it is politically inappropriate. And yet one considerable critic of literature thought otherwise. Schiller is not exactly of our time, yet he is remarkably close to us in many ways and he inhabited a world scarcely less painful than ours, and he thought that the genre of the idyll had an important bearing upon social and political ideas. As Schiller defines it, the idyll is the literary genre that "presents the idea and description of an innocent and happy humanity."8 This implies remoteness from the "artificial refinements of fashionable society"; and to achieve this remoteness poets have commonly set their idylls in actually pastoral surroundings and in the infancy of humanity. But the limitation is merely accidental—these circumstances "do not form the object of the idyll, but are only to be regarded as the most natural means to attain this end. The end is essentially to portray man in a state of innocence, which means a state of harmony and peace with himself and the external world." And Schiller goes on to assert the political importance of the genre: "A state such as this is not merely met with before the dawn of civilization; it is also the state to which civilization aspires, as to its last end, if only it obeys a determined tendency in its progress. The idea of a similar state, and the belief in the possible reality of this state, is the only thing that can reconcile man with all the evils to which he is exposed in the path of civilization.…"

It is the poet's function—Schiller makes it virtually the poet's political duty—to represent the idea of innocence in a "sensuous" way, that is, to make it seem real. This he does by gathering up the elements of actual life that do partake of innocence, and that the predominant pain of life leads us to forget, and forming them into a coherent representation of the ideal.9

But the idyll as traditionally conceived has an aesthetic deficiency of which Schiller is quite aware. Works in this genre, he says, appeal to the heart but not to the mind. "… We can only seek them and love them in moments in which we need calm, and not when our faculties aspire after movement and exercise. A morbid mind will find its cure in them, a sound soul will not find its food in them. They cannot vivify, they can only soften." For the idyll excludes the idea of activity, which alone can satisfy the mind—or at least the idyll as it has been traditionally conceived makes this exclusion, but Schiller goes on to imagine a transmutation of the genre in which the characteristic calm of the idyll shall be "the calm that follows accomplishment, not the calm of indolence—the calm that comes from the equilibrium reestablished between the faculties and not from the suspending of their exercise.…"

It is strange that Schiller, as he projects this new and as yet unrealized idea, does not recur to what he has previously said about comedy. To the soul of the writer of tragedy he assigns the adjective "sublime," which for him implies reaching greatness by intense effort and strength of will; to the soul of the writer of comedy he assigns the adjective "beautiful," which implies the achievement of freedom by an activity which is easy and natural. "The noble task of comedy," he says, "is to produce and keep up in us this freedom of mind." Comedy and the idyll, then, would seem to have a natural affinity with each other. Schiller does not observe this, but Shakespeare knew it—the curious power and charm of As You Like It consists of bringing the idyll and comedy together, of making the idyll the subject of comedy, even of satire, yet without negating it. The mind teases the heart, but does not mock it. The unconditioned freedom that the idyll hypothecates is shown to be impossible, yet in the demonstration a measure of freedom is gained.

So in Emma Jane Austen contrives an idyllic world, or the closest approximation of an idyllic world that the genre of the novel will permit, and brings into contrast with it the actualities of the social world, of the modern self. In the precincts of Highbury there are no bad people, and no adverse judgments to be made. Only a modern critic, Professor Mudrick, would think to call Mr. Woodhouse an idiot and an old woman: in the novel he is called "the kind-hearted, polite old gentleman." Only Emma, with her modern consciousness, comes out with it that Miss Bates is a bore, and only Emma can give herself to the thought that Mr. Weston is too simple and open-hearted, that he would be a "higher character" if he were not quite so friendly with everyone. It is from outside Highbury that the peculiarly modern traits of insincerity and vulgarity come, in the person of Frank Churchill and Mrs. Elton. With the exception of Emma herself, every person in Highbury lives in harmony and peace—even Mr. Elton would have been all right if Emma had let him alone!—and not merely because they are simple and undeveloped: Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston are no less innocent than Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates. If they please us and do not bore us by a perfection of manner and feeling which is at once lofty and homely, it is because we accept the assumptions of the idyllic world which they inhabit—we have been led to believe that man may actually live "in harmony and peace with himself and the external world."

The quiet of Highbury, the unperturbed spirits of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates, the instructive perfection of Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston, constitute much of the charm of Emma. Yet the idyllic stillness of the scene and the loving celebration of what, for better or worse, is fully formed and changeless, is of course not what is decisive in the success of the novel. On the contrary, indeed: it is the idea of activity and development that is decisive. No one has put better and more eloquently what part this idea plays in Jane Austen's work than an anonymous critic writing in The North British Review in 1870:10

Even as a unit, man is only known to [Jane Austen] in the process of his formation by social influences. She broods over his history, not over his individual soul and its secret workings, nor over the analysis of its faculties and organs. She sees him, not as a solitary being completed in himself, but only as completed in society. Again, she contemplates virtues, not as fixed quantities, or as definable qualities, but as continual struggles and conquests, as progressive states of mind, advancing by repulsing their contraries, or losing ground by being overcome. Hence again the individual mind can only be represented by her as a battle-field where contending hosts are marshalled, and where victory inclines now to one side and now to another. A character therefore unfolded itself to her, not in statuesque repose, not as a model without motion, but as a dramatic sketch, a living history, a composite force, which could only exhibit what it was by exhibiting what it did. Her favourite poet Cowper taught her,

"By ceaseless action all that is subsists."

The mind as a battlefield: it does not consort with some of the views of Jane Austen that are commonly held. Yet this is indeed how she understood the mind. And her representation of battle is the truer because she could imagine the possibility of victory—she did not shrink from the idea of victory—and because she could represent harmony and peace.

The anonymous critic of The North British Review goes on to say a strange and startling thing—he says that the mind of Jane Austen was "saturated" with a "Platonic idea." In speaking of her ideal of "intelligent love"—the phrase is perfect—he says that it is based on the "Platonic idea that the giving and receiving of knowledge, the active formation of another's character, or the more passive growth under another's guidance, is the truest and strongest foundation of love."11 It is an ideal that not all of us will think possible of realization and that some of us will not want to give even a theoretical assent to. Yet most of us will consent to think of it as one of the most attractive of the idyllic elements of the novel. It proposes to us the hope of victory in the battle that the mind must wage, and it speaks of the expectation of allies in the fight, of the possibility of community—not in actuality, not now, but perhaps again in the future, for do we not believe, or almost believe, that there was community in the past?

The impulse to believe that the world of Jane Austen really did exist leads to notable error. "Jane Austen's England" is the thoughtless phrase which is often made to stand for the England of the years in which our author lived, although any serious history will make it sufficiently clear that the England of her novels was not the real England, except as it gave her the license to imagine the England which we call hers. This England, especially as it is represented in Emma, is an idyll. The error of identifying it with the actual England ought always to be remarked. Yet the same sense of actuality that corrects the error should not fail to recognize the remarkable force of the ideal that leads many to make the error. To represent the possibility of controlling the personal life, of becoming acquainted with ourselves, of creating a community of "intelligent love"—this is indeed to make an extraordinary promise and hold out a rare hope. We ought not be shocked and repelled if some among us think there really was a time when such promises and hopes were realized. Nor ought we be entirely surprised if, when they speak of the person who makes such promises and holds out such hopes, they represent her as not merely a novelist, if they find it natural to deal with her as a figure of legend and myth.


  1. The Question of Our Speech; The Lesson of Balzac: Two Lectures, 1905.
  2. "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen," Scrutiny VIII, March 1940.
  3. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, 1952.
  4. "Jane Austen," Quarterly Review 228, July 1917.
  5. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Anchor edition, pp. 82-83. Tocqueville should not be understood as saying that there was no class system in England but only that there was no caste system, caste differing from class in its far greater rigidity. In his sense of the great advantage that England enjoyed, as compared with France, in having no caste system, Tocqueville inclines to represent the class feelings of the English as being considerably more lenient than in fact they were. Still, the difference between caste and class and the social and political importance of the "gentleman" are as great as Tocqueville says.
  6. Harold Rosenberg, "Revolution and the Idea of Beauty," Encounter, December 1953.
  7. See Abram Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society, 1945, page 410. In commenting on the relatively simple society which is described in James West's Plainville, U.S.A., Dr. Kardiner touches on a matter which is dear, and all too dear, to Emma's heart—speaking of social mobility in a democratic, but not classless, society, he says that the most important criterion of class is "manners," that "knowing how to behave" is the surest means of rising in the class hierarchy. Nothing is more indicative of Jane Austen's accurate awareness of the mobility of her society than her concern not so much with manners themselves as with her characters' concern with manners.
  8. "On Simple and Sentimental Poetry" in Essays Aesthetical and Philosophical, 1875.
  9. Schiller, in speaking of the effectiveness that the idyll should have, does not refer to the pastoral-idyllic element of Christianity which represents Christ as an actual shepherd.
  10. Volume LXXII, April, pp. 129-152. I am grateful to Professor Joseph Duffy for having told me of this admirable study.
  11. Emma's attempt to form the character of Harriet is thus a perversion of the relation of Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley to herself—it is a perversion, says the North British critic, adducing Dante's "amoroso uso de sapienza," because it is without love.

Pride and Prejudice


SOURCE: Fraiman, Susan. "The Humiliation of Elizabeth Bennett." In Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy, edited by Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, pp. 168-87. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

In the following essay, Fraiman views Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice as a father figure for Elizabeth Bennett and therefore reads the novel as transferring patriarchal power from one generation to the next as Elizabeth passes from her father's care to Darcy's.

I belong to a generation of American feminist critics taught to read by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) both focused our regard on women writers of the nineteenth century and formed in us invaluable habits of attention. It alerted us to eccentric characters, figures off to the side, to the lunatic fringe. We learned to see certain transients—required by the plot to move on before things can work out—as feminist doubles for the author as well as heroine. Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, unexemplary as they are expendable, register nonetheless the screams and tantrums of Charlotte Brontë's and Jane Austen's own rage. These marginal women voice anger and defiance that split open ostensibly decorous texts.

I want, in keeping with this tradition, to stress the accents of defiance in Pride and Prejudice, but I locate these less at the edges than at the very center of the book; my argument concerns the much-admired Elizabeth Bennet and the two major men in her life, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy. I read Pride and Prejudice as the ceding of Mr. Bennet's paternity to Mr. Darcy, with a consequent loss of clout for Elizabeth. Austen's novel documents the collapse of an initially enabling father into a father figure who, in keeping with his excessive social authority, tends to be rather disabling. As Elizabeth passes from Bennet to Darcy, her authorial powers wane: she goes from shaping judgments to being shaped by them. I want to look at Elizabeth's gradual devaluation, her humiliation, in terms of this double father.1 Austen, I believe, stands back from her decline, ironizing both the onset of marriage and the father-daughter relation. She shows us a form of violence against women that is not hidden away in the attic, displaced onto some secondary figure, but downstairs in the drawing room involving the heroine herself.

Elizabeth's first father is a reclusive man and seemingly ineffectual; beside the rigid figure of Northanger Abbey 's General Tilney, Mr. Bennet may well appear flimsy. But the general (his love of new gadgets notwithstanding) is an old-fashioned father whose authoritarian style was all but outmoded by the end of the eighteenth century.2 Mr. Bennet is not really a bad father—just a modern one, in the manner of Locke's influential text on education. Smoothbrowed advocate of instruction over discipline and reason over force, he typifies the Lockean father. As Jay Fliegelman points out, however, Locke's concern "is not with circumscribing paternal authority, but with rendering it more effective by making it noncoercive."3 Mr. Bennet, apparently benign to the point of irresponsibility, may seem to wield nothing sharper than his sarcasm. But what he actually wields is the covert power of the Lockean patriarch, all the more effective for its subtlety.

This aloof, unseen power of Mr. Bennet's suggests to me, for several reasons, the peculiar power of an author. His disposition is emphatically literary. Taking refuge from the world in his library, Mr. Bennet prefers the inner to the outer life, books to people. He asks two things only: the free use of his understanding and his room—precisely those things Virginia Woolf associates with the privilege of the male writer, the privation of the female. Most important, among women whose solace is news, he keeps the upper hand by withholding information. Mr. Bennet is a creator of suspense. In the opening scene, for example, he refuses to visit the new bachelor in town, deliberately frustrating Mrs. Bennet's expectation and desire. Actually, "he had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid, she had no knowledge of it."4 Mr. Bennet relishes the power to contain her pleasure and finally, with his dénouement, to relieve and enrapture her.

But the suspense is not over. Elizabeth's father is, even then, as stingy with physical description as some fathers are with pocket money. He controls his family by being not tight-fisted but tight-lipped, and in this he resembles Austen herself. George Lewes first noted the remarkable paucity of concrete details in Austen, her reluctance to tell us what people, their clothes, their houses or gardens look like.5 If female readers flocked to Richardson for Pamela's meticulous descriptions of what she packed in her trunk, they must surely have been frustrated by Austen's reticence here.6 So Mr. Bennet only follows Austen when, secretive about Bingley's person and estate, he keeps the ladies in the dark. Their curiosity is finally gratified by another, less plain-styled father, Sir William Lucas, whose report they receive "second-hand" from Lady Lucas. Much as women talk in this novel, the flow of important words (of "intelligence") is regulated largely by men. In this verbal economy, women get the trickle-down of news.



You are very very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

Austen, Jane. Letter to James Stanier Clarke of April 1, 1816. In Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, 2nd ed. Edited by R. W. Chapman, pp. 452-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932.

When Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, Mr. Bennet again contrives to keep his audience hanging. Pretending to support his wife, he hides until the last moment his real intention of contradicting her. After a stern prologue he continues: "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.—Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do" (112). Not only this particular manipulation but indeed the entire scene goes to show the efficacy of paternal words. Throughout his proposal, to Elizabeth's distress and our amusement, Mr. Collins completely ignores her many impassioned refusals. He discounts what she says as "merely words of course" (108); even his dim, self-mired mind perceives that a lady's word carries no definitive weight. Mr. Collins accuses Elizabeth of wishing to increase his love "by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females" (108). Yet creating suspense is exactly what Elizabeth, rhetorically unreliable, cannot do. She has no choice but "to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive" (109). Mr. Bennet's power resides, as I say, in his authorial prerogative: his right to have the last word.

Though Mr. Bennet uses this right to disparage and disappoint his wife, regarding his daughter he uses it rather to praise, protect, apparently to enable her. Like many heroines in women's fiction (think of Emma Woodhouse or Maggie Tulliver) Elizabeth has a special relationship to her father. She is immediately distinguished as a family member and as a character by his preference for her and hers for him. The entail notwithstanding, she is in many respects his heir. To her he bequeaths his ironic distance from the world, the habit of studying and appraising those around him, the role of social critic. In this role, father and daughter together scan Mr. Collins's letter, dismissing man and letter with a few, skeptical words. Mr. Bennet enables Elizabeth by sharing with her his authorial mandate, which is Austen's own: to frame a moral discourse and judge characters accordingly. Through her father, Elizabeth gains provisional access to certain authorial powers.

But Mr. Bennet also shares with her, illogically enough, his disdain for women; he respects Elizabeth only because she is unlike other girls. This puts his exceptional daughter in an awkward position—bonding with her father means breaking with her mother, even reneging on femaleness altogether. Elizabeth is less a daughter than a surrogate son. Like a son, by giving up the mother and giving in to the father, she reaps the spoils of maleness. We can understand her, alternatively, in terms of Freud's scheme for girls. Freud contends that girls first turn to the father because they want a penis like his. They envy, as Karen Horney explained, the social power this organ signifies under patriarchy.7 To complete their oedipal task, however, girls must shift from wanting a penis for themselves to wanting a man who has one; ceasing to identify with the powerful father, they must accept instead their own "castration."8 In these terms the cocky Elizabeth we first encounter is charmingly arrested in the early phase of male-identification. We can see her, then, in one of two ways: as an honorary boy who has completed his oedipal task, or as a backward, wayward girl who refuses to complete hers.

The point is, first, that whatever discursive acuity Elizabeth has derives from an alliance and identification with her father. As the Mr. Collins scene demonstrates, the force of her words is highly contingent. Elizabeth's authority is vicarious, second-hand; like a woman writing under a male pseudonym, her credibility depends on the father's signature. In addition, however enabling, Mr. Bennet is essentially ambivalent toward Elizabeth. "They have none of them much to recommend them," he says of his daughters in chapter i. "They are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters" (5). Insisting that all of his daughters are silly and ignorant, that none of them have much to recommend them, Mr. Bennet blithely classes Elizabeth with "other girls," even as he appears to distinguish her from them. So we find, already in the opening scene, a tension between Elizabeth's "masculine" alacrity and the slow-witted "femininity" threatening to claim her. Mr. Bennet's double vision of her suggests right away the basic ambiguity of Austen's father-daughter relationship, coded not only diachronically in the Mr. Bennet-Mr. Darcy sequence, but also synchronically in Mr. Bennet's duplicity regarding Elizabeth.

For in Austen the male-bonding between father and daughter is set up to collapse. Eventually the economic reality asserts itself, the axiom of the famous first line held up to a mirror and read backward: a single woman not in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a husband. Sooner or later what Adrienne Rich calls "compulsory heterosexuality" (conspiracy of economic need and the ideology of romance) forces Elizabeth out of the library, into the ballroom, and finally up to the altar.9 The father's business in this ritual is to give the daughter away. If Mr. Bennet is enabling up to a point, the marriage ceremony requires him to objectify his daughter and hand her over. He not only withdraws his protection and empowerment, but also gives away (reveals) her true "castrated" gender, her incapacity for action in a phallocentric society. This ceremony—posing father as giver, daughter as gift—underlies and ultimately belies the father-daughter relationship in Pride and Prejudice.

So Elizabeth's gradual falling out with her father, which means forfeiting her authorial status, is built into the institution of marriage. Austen makes it quite clear that Mr. Bennet neglects Lydia, failing to protect her from ruinous male designs. Yet, is not the father's letting go of the daughter precisely what the wedding ritual requires?10 Mr. Bennet's profligacy with Lydia is simply a starker form of his cheerful readiness to give away any and all of his daughters. "I will send a few lines by you," he tells his wife, "to assure [Bingley] of my hearty consent to his marrying which ever he chuses of the girls" (4). Exposing a pattern intrinsic to the nuptial plot, Mr. Bennet's abandonment of Lydia provides a crude paradigm for Elizabeth's milder estrangement from her father and for the literal distance between father and heroine in Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. 11 Bennet, by retiring as Elizabeth's champion, is not ineffectual as a father, but correct.

In his discussion of marriage and the incest taboo, Lévi-Strauss proposes that the exchange of women among kin groups serves, like the exchange of money or words, to negotiate relationships among men. Women are, in effect, a kind of currency whose circulation binds and organizes male society.12 It seems to me that Pride and Prejudice offers a similar anthropology. Here, too, marriage betrays the tie between father and daughter in favor of ties among men. I have the idea that Elizabeth's economic imperative is not the only motive for her marriage, that the fathers have an agenda of their own, involving considerations of class.

Mr. Bennet's class interest in a Bennet-Darcy match is fairly obvious and similar to Elizabeth's own. He may laugh at Mrs. Bennet's schemes, but the fact remains that a liaison to aristocracy will benefit him significantly. And in spite of his philosophic detachment, Mr. Bennet is not without a streak of pragmatism—after all, he has always intended to visit Mr. Bingley. Nor is he unimpressed by wealth and rank. He is frankly delighted that Darcy has used his money and influence to straighten out the Lydia-Wickham affair. "So much the better," he exults. "It will save me a world of trouble and economy" (377). Sounding even, for a moment, strangely like Mr. Collins, he consents to Elizabeth's marriage with little of his habitual irony. "I have given him my consent," he tells her. "He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse any thing, which he condescended to ask" (376).

Though Mr. Darcy's class interests may seem to rule against a connection to the Bennets, they too are subtly at work here. In her remarks on eighteenth-century marriage, Mary Poovey notes that Cinderella matches frequently allayed not only middle-class status anxiety, but also the financial anxiety increasingly rife among the well-born.13 Cinderella's family may be obscure, but her share in merchant profits is attractive to a prince who is poor. Austen does not fully represent, until Persuasion 's Sir Walter Elliot, the material as well as moral impoverishment of the landed class in her day. Yet as early as Sense and Sensibility (1811) she gives us Willoughby who, unsure of his aristocratic heritage, leaves Marianne for a certain Miss Grey with fifty thousand pounds. Of course in Pride and Prejudice cash flows the other way: Darcy has it and Elizabeth needs it. But a decline in aristocratic welfare is nevertheless suggested by the sickly Miss De Bourgh. It may well be the enfeeblement of his own class that encourages Darcy to look below him for a wife with greater stamina. As a figure for the ambitious bourgeoisie, Elizabeth pumps richer, more robust blood into the collapsing veins of the nobility, even as she boosts the social standing of her relatives in trade. Most important, however—to the patriarchs of both classes—she eases tensions between them. By neutralizing class antagonism, she promotes the political stability on which industrial prosperity depends.14

I turn, now, to the handing of Elizabeth from Bennet to Darcy, which is prefigured by a scene on the Lucas dance floor. Here Sir William Lucas stands in for Mr. Bennet, jockeying for power with Mr. Darcy, who has the upper hand. Sir William begins to despair, when suddenly he is "struck with the notion of doing a very gallant thing" (26). Laying claim to Elizabeth, he offers her up to Darcy as "a very desirable partner." Sir William understands that gift-giving can be an "idiom of competition." As anthropologist Gayle Rubin explains, there is power in creating indebtedness.15 We imagine the three of them: Elizabeth between the two men, her hand held aloft by Lucas, Lucas eager to deposit it, Darcy "not unwilling to receive it" (26). The fathers' device here is synecdoche. Elizabeth is reduced to a hand, extended in friendship or hostility, the means of fraternal intercourse. Suddenly, however, Elizabeth pulls back. With startling resolution she withdraws herself from the debt nexus. Indeed, throughout much of the novel Elizabeth resists the conventional grammar of exchange. She would not only extract herself as object but, contesting the fathers' right to control the action, insert herself as subject. Saboteur, Elizabeth threatens to wreck the marriage syntax. Needless to say, this makes for one of the stormier courtships in nineteenth-century fiction.

It was, as I have noted, Lévi-Strauss who first saw marriage as a triangulated moment, a woman exchanged between two (groups of) men. Gayle Rubin went on to identify this kind of traffic, its organization of a sex-gender system, as the basis for female subordination. But the immediate model for my placing such an exchange at the heart of Pride and Prejudice is provided by Eve Sedgwick; her recent book, Between Men, examines the way men bond across the bodies of women in a range of English texts.16 Her mapping of "male homosocial desire" posits, however, an essentially passive female term. It imagines a triangle that is stable and uncontested; even women who begin active and ambitious, once drawn into the space between two men, fall automatically still. What I have tried to suggest above is that Elizabeth does not readily accept a merely pivotal role. The book stretches out because she puts up a fight before acceding (and never entirely) to the fathers' homosocial plot. The site of her resistance, as well as her compromise, is language.

This brings us to Mr. Darcy—a father by virtue of his age, class, and a paternalism extending to friends and dependents alike. A man given to long letters and polysyllables, a man with an excellent library and even hand, Darcy may also be seen as an aspiring authorial figure. If Bennet sets out to create suspense, Darcy hankers to resolve it. Their relation is one of literary rivals, with Elizabeth the prize. The complication is Elizabeth's own formidable way with words. As surrogate son, father's heir, Elizabeth is herself a contender for the authorial position. Instead of rewarding Darcy for his accession, she competes with him for it. In these terms, Elizabeth's and Darcy's matching of wits is more than flirtation—it is a struggle for control of the text. There are two heated and definitive moments in this struggle: Elizabeth's refusal of Darcy's first proposal and the day after, when he delivers his letter.

Chapter ii of the second volume finds Elizabeth alone at the Collins's house in Kent. Concerned sister and conscientious reader, she is studying Jane's letters. Suddenly Darcy bursts in and blurts out a proposal, more an admission of weakness than a confession of love. The chapter closes by resuming Elizabeth's internal dialogue, "the tumult of her mind" (193) after Darcy's departure. But have we, throughout this chapter, been anywhere but in Elizabeth's mind? By all rights this should be Darcy's scene, his say. In fact, we get relatively few of his actual words. His amatory discourse is quickly taken over by a narrator who represents the scene, renders Darcy's language, from Elizabeth's point of view: "His sense of her inferiority … [was] dwelt on with a warmth which … was very unlikely to recommend his suit" (189). The text of Darcy's proposal is completely glossed, and glossed over, by her interpretation of it. Of Elizabeth's refusal, by contrast, Austen gives us every unmediated word, a direct quotation four times as long as that permitted Darcy. This sets the pattern for what follows. Every time Darcy opens his mouth, he is superseded by a speech of greater length and vehemence. She answers his question—Why is he so rudely rejected?—with a tougher question of her own: "I might as well enquire … why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil?" (190). Conceding nothing, she accuses him at some length of everything: of breaking Jane's heart and unmaking Wickham's fortune, of earning and continually confirming her own dislike. She betters his scorn for her family by scorning him. "I have every reason in the world to think ill of you" (191), she asserts. Her language, her feelings, her judgments overwhelm his and put them to shame. They drive him to platitude, apology, and hasty retreat. This rhetorical round leaves Elizabeth clear victor.

The following day, however, she is obsessed by Darcy: "It was impossible to think of any thing else" (195). She receives his letter. As the man has crowded out all other thoughts, so now his letter crowds out all other words, monopolizing the narrative for the next seven pages. Longer than the entire preceding chapter, it completely dispels Elizabeth's inspired performance of the day before. If Darcy was not "master enough" of himself then, he regains his mastery now. He takes back his story and, in a play for literary hegemony (to be author and critic both), tells us how to read him. The letter is a defense of his judgment, its impartiality and authority. About Jane he insists: "My investigations and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears.—I did not believe her to be indifferent because I wished it;—I believed it on impartial conviction" (197). As for Wickham, the letter documents Darcy's early suspicions and the events that proved him right. It further demonstrates the power of Darcy's moral discourse over others. Bingley has "a stronger dependence on [Darcy's] judgment than on his own" (199). Georgiana, fearing her brother's disapproval, decides not to elope after all.17

Only after Darcy's unabridged epistle do we get Elizabeth's response to it. She reads "with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes" (204). Darcy's letter saps her power to comprehend, disables her attention. It addresses her as reader only to indispose her as reader. At first Elizabeth protests: "This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!" (204). She rushes through the letter and puts it away forever. But the text, unrelenting, demands to be taken out, read and reread. Against the broad chest of Darcy's logic, Elizabeth beats the ineffectual fists of her own. Putting down the paper, she "weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality … but with little success" (205). Her interruptions, procrastinations, do nothing to stop the inexorable drive of Darcy's narrative to its foregone conclusion. In what Roland Barthes might call its "processive haste," it sweeps away Elizabeth's objections and has its way with her.18

In its second sentence, the letter disclaims "any intention of paining" (196). It apologizes for wounding, yet proceeds all too knowingly to wound. There is indeed a disturbing insistence on its hurtfulness, a certain pleasurable recurrence to the violence of its effect. "Here again I shall give you pain" (200), the writer unhesitatingly announces. But now Darcy's determination to inflict seems matched by Elizabeth's to be afflicted. They coincide in their enthusiasm for her humiliation: "'How despicably have I acted!' she cried.—'I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!'" (208). Vindicating Darcy's judgment and debasing Elizabeth's, disqualifying her interpretation of things in favor of his, the letter leaves her "depressed beyond any thing she had ever known before" (209).

This is the point, the dead center, on which the whole book turns. Darcy's botched proposal marks the nadir of his career, after which, launched by his letter, he rises up from infamy in an arc that approaches apotheosis. In the ensuing chapters he turns deus ex machina, exerting an implausible power to set everything straight—a power Mr. Bennet conspicuously lacks. It is Darcy who arranges for three lucky couples to be, each, the happiest couple in the world. Like the authorial persona of Northanger Abbey, Darcy herds us all to "perfect felicity." The nature of his unseen influence is precisely authorial. Darcy's letter proves his textual prowess. At this point he succeeds Mr. Bennet as controlling literary figure and displaces Elizabeth as her father's scion. From now on the pen, as Persuasion's Anne Elliot might say, is in his hands.

Soon after receiving Darcy's letter, Elizabeth meets up with Kitty and Lydia. Officer-crazy as ever, Lydia gushes on about Brighton and her plans to join the regiment there for its summer encampment. This first reference to Brighton unfolds into an unexpectedly earnest seduction plot that might seem more at home in a novel by Richardson or Burney. It is latent, however, in Lydia's very character, throwback to those too sentimental heroines so mercilessly parodied by Austen's juvenilia. That such a plot should surface now, seize center page and, brash as its heroine, hold the spotlight for more than seven chapters, is by no means accidental. The Lydia-Wickham imbroglio creates, for one thing, a situation before which Mr. Bennet will prove inadequate, Mr. Darcy heroic. Elizabeth first doubts her father regarding his decision to let Lydia go to Brighton, and she blames her father bitterly for the subsequent scandal. For Mr. Darcy, by contrast, the calamity is a chance to prove his nobility both of heart and of purse, his desire to rectify and his power to do so. The Lydia plot therefore accomplishes Elizabeth's separation from her father and her reattachment to another. It works a changing of the paternal guard.

By showcasing Darcy, the upstart plot that seems to delay and even briefly to replace Elizabeth's and Darcy's courtship serves actually to advance it. Yet there is another reason that Lydia's story, a classic case of seduction, moves into the foreground at this moment. It fills the curious gap between Elizabeth's first, private softening and her final, public surrender. I would argue that, at this juncture, Elizabeth's narrative is displaced onto that of her sister. Lydia's seduction registers an emotional drama—of coercion, capitulation, and lamentation—missing from but underlying Elizabeth's story proper. Of course Elizabeth is a foil for Lydia, one sister's wisdom held up to the other's folly. Yet there remains a sense in which their positions are scandalously similar. At one point, in response to Lydia's rudeness, Elizabeth admits, "However incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had formerly harbored" (220). And perhaps this is more generally the case: that Elizabeth and Lydia differ more in style than in substance. In other words, far from being an alternative plot, Lydia's is, albeit in cruder terms, a parallel one. Like the interpolated tales in that protonovel Don Quixote, Lydia's tale works less to distract from the central narrative than to distill its meaning. It does not defer Elizabeth's progress toward marriage so much as code the seduction and surrender on which her marriage relies.

We leave Elizabeth at the end of volume 2, chapter 13, completely, under Darcy's influence. "She could think only of her letter" (209). As the next chapter explains, "Mr. Darcy's letter, she was in a fair way of soon knowing by heart" (212). The unusual syntax here is succinct indication of the new order—Mr. Darcy and his text come pointedly before Elizabeth, would-be subject. The narrator continues, "When she remembered the style of his address, she was still full of indignation; but when she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him, her anger was turned against herself" (212). Elizabeth's reversal here, the introversion of her anger, is again revealing. Her initial judgment of Darcy is now recanted as unjust, its accusation redirected against herself.

When we first meet Elizabeth, daughter of a social critic resembling Austen herself, she is proud of her ability to know things deeply and to judge them knowingly. Yet by the end of the novel she claims only to be high-spirited. Sorry to have refused Darcy, she longs to be schooled by his better judgment: "By her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance" (312). It should not surprise us to find, in an Austen novel, that judgment, information, and knowledge rate higher than ease and liveliness. While these are all Austen's professional virtues, the former are fundamental to her moral lexicon.19 (Thus her impatience with Jane's dumb neutrality.) What may surprise and sadden us, however, is that a heroine who began so competent to judge should end up so critically disabled, so reliant for judgment on somebody else. Not that Elizabeth lapses into sheer Lydiacy. Just that by the closing chapters her eye is less bold, her tongue less sharp, the angularity—distinguishing her from the rest of her more comfortably curvaceous sex—less acute.

According to one critical truism, Pride and Prejudice achieves a kind of bilateral disarmament: Elizabeth gives up her prejudice, while Darcy relinquishes his pride.20 I am arguing, however, that Darcy woos away not Elizabeth's "prejudice," but her judgment entire. While Darcy defends the impartiality of his opinion, Elizabeth confesses the partiality and thus worthlessness of hers. His representation of the world is taken to be objective, raised to the level of universality; hers is taken to be subjective—prejudiced—and dismissed. True, Elizabeth was wrong about Wick-ham. But was she really that wrong about Darcy? He may warm up a bit, and his integrity is rightly affirmed, yet the fact remains that he is hardly less arrogant than Elizabeth at first supposed. Her comment to Fitzwilliam can stand: "I do not know any body who seems more to enjoy the power of doing what he likes than Mr. Darcy" (183).

And is Darcy's own record of accuracy much better? His judgment of Jane is just as mistaken, and as partial, as Elizabeth's of Wickham. Yet his credibility remains intact. Finally admitting to having misinterpreted Jane, Darcy explains that he was corrected not by Elizabeth, but by his own subsequent observations (371). On the basis of his new appraisal he readvises the ever-pliant Bingley. His error, far from disqualifying him to judge, only qualifies him to judge again. Elizabeth's error, on the other hand, is irreparably discrediting. What happens in Pride and Prejudice is not that an essentially prejudiced character finally sees the error of her ways. Rather, a character initially presented as reliable, who gains our and Austen's respect precisely for her clear-sightedness, is ultimately represented as prejudiced. The real drama lies not in the heroine's "awakening" to her true identity, but in the text's reidentification of her.

If Elizabeth does not overcome her "prejudice," neither does Darcy abandon his pride. Early in the book Elizabeth declares, "I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine" (20). Yet by the last volume her feelings have changed considerably: "They owed the restoration of Lydia, her character, every thing to him. Oh! how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him. For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him" (326-27). Elizabeth and Darcy begin skeptical of each other, proud of themselves, and they reach a connubial consensus that is altogether different: at last both are skeptical of her, both proud of him.

But wait. Does not Darcy make a pretty speech to his bride confessing, "By you, I was properly humbled" (369)? Here it is useful to see how the text itself defines "pride," and how this definition relates to Mr. Darcy. The bookish Mary—another figure for Austen, if a self-mocking one—distinguishes "pride" from "vanity": "Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us" (20). As for Darcy, Charlotte Lucas suggests that his pride is excusable: "One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, every thing in his favor, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud" (20). A younger Lucas puts it more bluntly: "If I were as rich as Mr. Darcy … I should not care how proud I was. I would keep a pack of foxhounds, and drink a bottle of wine every day" (20). The practical Lucases have a point. Darcy's richness gives him if not a "right," then a careless readiness to be proud. A man in his social position need not consider any opinion but his own. Darcy is proud because he does not have to be vain—others' opinions do not affect him. His pride, we might say, comes with the territory. It is less a psychological attribute than a social one, and as such it is only heightened by Darcy's enhanced status—as husband, hero, and authorial figure—in Pride and Prejudice 's last act.

Of course we continue to admire Elizabeth. She may care for Darcy's regard, but she is not so utterly enslaved by it as Miss Bingley. She may hesitate to laugh at Darcy, but she does show Georgiana that a wife may take (some) liberties. We admire her because she is not Charlotte, because she is not Lydia. I am insisting, however, that Elizabeth is a better friend to Charlotte, a closer sister to Lydia—that her story runs more parallel to theirs—than previous readings have indicated. The three women live in the same town, share the same gossip, attend the same balls—why, as some critics have claimed, should Elizabeth alone be above the social decree?21 There are, in Elizabeth's marriage, elements both of crass practicality and of coercion. Elizabeth is appalled by Charlotte's pragmatism, and yet, choosing Darcy over Wickham, she is herself beguiled by the entrepreneurial marriage plot.22 If she is embarrassed by her personal connection to Lydia, she is also implicated by the formal intersection of their plots: in the course of the novel she loses not her virginity but her authority.

Elizabeth marries a decent man and a large estate, but at a certain cost. Though she may stretch the marriage contract, it binds her nonetheless to a paternalistic noble whose extensive power is explicitly ambiguous: "How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!—How much of good or evil must be done by him!" (250-51, emphasis added). If Mr. Bennet embodies the post-Enlightenment, modified patriarch, Mr. Darcy harks back to an earlier type—before fathers were curbed by Lockean principles, before aristocrats began to feel the crunch. Darcy disempowers Elizabeth if only because of the positions they each occupy in the social schema: because he is a Darcy and she is a Bennet, because he is a man and she is his wife. If Mr. Bennet permits Elizabeth to fill the role of "son," she marries another father figure only to revert, in terms of privilege, to "daughter."

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen shows us an intelligent girl largely in the grasp of a complex mechanism whose interests are not hers. She does this, I think, less in resignation than in protest; here, as in Northanger Abbey, Austen is concerned to ironize girls and novels that hasten to the altar for conclusive happiness.23 I should stress, however, that my purpose in outlining a trajectory of humiliation has been not to displace but to complexify the reading that takes for granted connubial bliss. We can experience the ending as euphoric (most readers do) and still recognize those aspects of the novel working strenuously against this. I want, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, to appreciate the doubleness that characterizes the work of nineteenth-century women writers, the tension between conventionality and subversion. This tension is, on the one hand, produced by an author who knows what she is doing, whose art is a deliberate shaping, whose ironic tendencies were manifest at fifteen. To ignore any such intentionality is to slight Austen's mastery. But the ideological slipperiness of Pride and Prejudice is, on the other hand, finally a matter of the text's own logic, its own legibility. Beyond any fully conscious intention on Austen's part, a pattern of duplicity is at work in the narrative itself, with a consistency amounting to design.

As I have argued, part of this novel's design is to reveal a system of homosocial relations underlying the institution of heterosexuality. Anticipating Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gayle Rubin, and Eve Sedgwick, it recognizes in marriage a displacement of the father-daughter bond by a bond between fathers. Elizabeth's humiliation has everything to do with transactions between various fathers that take place behind her back, over her head, and apart from, if not against, her will. I want to close by offering some further support for this view.

By the end of the book, Mr. Bennet's paternal role has been assumed by his brother-in-law, Mr. Gardiner. Mr. Gardiner, though "gentleman like," is not technically a gentleman. Living by trade "and within view of his own warehouses" (139), he represents, more than Mr. Bennet, the rising middle class. No wonder Elizabeth fears that Darcy will rebuff him, unkind as Darcy has been toward her bourgeois relations. She is quite unprepared for Darcy's civility to Gardiner, and for the apparent power of fishing to overcome class differences. Perhaps their shared fondness for Elizabeth, their lengthy haggle over Lydia, as well as their equal passion for trout, serve to reinforce the social/economic advantages of a Darcy-Gardiner alliance. They become, in any case, suggestively close. The very last paragraph of the novel informs us that: "With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them" (388).

At first this seems a peculiarly insignificant note on which to end. On second glance it appears to confirm the notion I have had: that just as the Gardiners have been the means of uniting Darcy and Elizabeth, so Elizabeth has been the means of uniting Mr. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner. Pride and Prejudice attains a satisfying unity not only between a man and a woman, but also between two men. Austen's novel accomplishes an intercourse not merely personal, but social—as much a marriage of two classes as a marriage of true minds.


  1. My title and my argument are a turn on Mark Schorer's "The Humiliation of Emma Woodhouse" (1959), in Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 98-111. Here he remarks: "The diminution of Emma in the social scene, her reduction to her proper place … is very beautiful" (102).
  2. See Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 239-58.
  3. Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 13. See Beth Kowaleski-Wallace's discussion of the Lockean father in "Milton's Daughters: The Education of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers," Feminist Studies 12, no. 2 (1986): 275-95.
  4. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813), ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932), 6. Future references are to this edition.
  5. Lewes's observation is cited by Judith O'Neill in her introduction to Critics on Jane Austen: Readings in Literary Criticism, ed. Judith O'Neill (London: George Allen, 1970), 8.
  6. See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), 153.
  7. Karen Horney, "The Flight from Womanhood: The Masculinity Complex in Women as Viewed by Men and by Women" (1926), in Psychoanalysis and Women, ed. Jean Baker Miller (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 19.
  8. For a useful recapitulation of Freud on fathers and daughters, see Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 94, 114-16.
  9. Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980), in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review, 1983), 177-205.
  10. See, for example, Lynda E. Boose, "The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare," PMLA 97, no. 3 (1982): 325-47. According to Boose, King Lear's faux pas is his unwillingness to release Cordelia—he "casts her away not to let her go but to prevent her from going" (333)—thereby obstructing the ritual process of her marriage to France.
  11. In these terms, Emma's conclusion may have certain advantages for its heroine. It is true that Emma defers to Knightley's worldview much as Elizabeth does to Darcy's. But remaining under her father's roof may preserve some of the authority she has had, in his household and the community, as Mr. Woodhouse's daughter.
  12. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 61.
  13. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 11.
  14. See Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 15.
  15. Gayle Rubin, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), 172.
  16. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
  17. Georgiana's position as "daughter" in relation to Darcy contributes to our sense of him as "paternal," as does his fatherly advice to Bingley.
  18. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 12.
  19. See Austen's famous defense of the novel as a "work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed … the most thorough knowledge of human nature … the liveliest effusions of wit and humour" (Northanger Abbey, 1818, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd edition [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933], 38).
  20. John Halperin's recent biography, The Life of Jane Austen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984) is notably complacent toward this formulation: "It is unnecessary to rehearse again the process by which Darcy's pride is humbled and Elizabeth's prejudice exposed—' your defect is a propensity to hate every body,' she tells him early in the novel; 'And i yours … is wilfully to misunderstand them,' he replies" (70).
  21. I have in mind D. W. Harding and Marvin Mudrick, old guard of Austen criticism's "subversive school" (as opposed to Alistair Duckworth, Marilyn Butler, et al., who see Austen as a social conservative): D. W. Harding, "Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen," Scrutiny 8 (1940): 346-62; Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952); Alistair M. Duck-worth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971); Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). While I am taking Harding's and Mudrick's side, I disagree with their view that Austen challenges her society by allowing Elizabeth somehow to transcend it, that Elizabeth represents the "free individual." Pride and Prejudice is not, in my opinion, about the heroine's independence of the social context; it is about her inextricability from it.
  22. See Karen Newman, "Can This Marriage Be Saved: Jane Austen Makes Sense of an Ending," ELH 50, no. 4 (1983): 693-710. Newman points out that critics as early as Sir Walter Scott have noticed Elizabeth's fascination with Pemberly: "Austen is at pains from early in the novel to show us Elizabeth's response to Darcy's wealth" (698). It is interesting that Hollywood, of venal habits and puritanical tastes, should recognize and be uneasy with Elizabeth's suspicious position as Austen wrote it. In the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine threatens to cut Darcy out of her will if he goes ahead and marries a Bennet. Elizabeth proves her romantic integrity by vowing to marry him anyway. Needless to say, Austen conspicuously chose not to test Elizabeth in such a manner.
  23. In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), Gilbert and Gubar refer us to Lloyd W. Brown (Bits of Ivory: Narrative Techniques in Jane Austen's Fiction [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1973]) for "the most sustained discussion of Austen's ironic undercutting of her own endings" (667). Karen Newman also sees the happy ending in Austen as parodic: despite its comic effect, there remain "unresolved contradictions between romantic and materialistic notions of marriage" (695). The idea of a fairy-tale union is falsified by Austen's clairvoyance about why women need to marry. My reading accords a good deal with Newman's, though I am less confident than she that Austen's heroines manage nevertheless to "live powerfully within the limits imposed by ideology" (705).

Mansfield Park


SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. "Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender." Oxford Literary Review 13, nos. 1-2 (1991): 118-39.

In the following essay, Ferguson explores the connection between the restrictions on Mansfield Park 's Fanny Price and the slave trade also discussed in the novel.

Mansfield Park (1814) is a eurocentric, post-abolition narrative that intertwines with a critique of gender relations and posits a world of humanitarian interactions between slave-owners and slaves. As such, following the successful passage of the Abolition Bill in 1807, Mansfield Park initiates a new chapter in colonialist fiction. Nonetheless, although the novel works against the idea of the traditionally closed and brutal world of plantocratic relations, it entertains the option of emancipation—as opposed to abolition—only through the sound of muffled rebel voices. In order to stage a future society peaceably perpetuating British rule, Jane Austen transforms Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park—who is also a plantation-owner in Antigua—from a characteristically imperious 'West Indian' planter—stock figure of ridicule in contemporary drama, poetry and novels—into a benevolent, reforming land-owner.1

Given the state of agitation in the Caribbean in the early 1800s, the unreality of this scenario forces textual contradictions and eruptions. No African-Caribbean people speak, no mention is ever made of slave plots or insurrections, and even slaves' white counterparts—Anglo-Saxon women in rebellion in one form or another—are assimilated or banished.2 Thus gender relations at home parallel and echo traditional relationships of power between the colonialists and colonized peoples: European women visibly signify the most egregiously and invisibly repressed of the text—African-Caribbeans themselves. They mark silent African-Caribbean rebels as well as their own disenfranchisement, class and gender victimization.

Let me contextualize these remarks by noting that Mansfield Park was begun by Jane Austen in early 1811 and published in 1814, with its novelistic chronology extending from 1808 through 1809. As a result of the energetic abolition movement and parliamentary compromise with the West India lobby in 1792, slaveowners' efforts to resist legal abolition, let alone emancipation, were notorious.3

A transatlantic land-owner, Sir Thomas Bertram is fictionally characterized as one of those members of parliament who defended plantocratic interests.4 He belonged to the 'outer ring' of absentee planters and merchants who never, or rarely, visited the colonies, although their connections remained solid.5 In Raymond Williams' words:

Important parts of the country-house system, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, were built on the profits of … trade [with the colonies]. Spices, sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, gold and silver: these fed, as mercantile profits, into an English social order, over and above the profits on English stock and crops.…The country-houses which were the apex of a local system of exploitation then had many connections to these distant lands.…[Moreover], the new rural economy of the tropical plantations—sugar, coffee, cotton—was built by [the] trade in flesh, and once again the profits fed back into the country-house system: not only the profits on the commodities but … the profits on slaves.6

After a brief, quiescent period following the passage of the Bill, however, fierce contestations over slavery began anew at home and abroad. As the British press reported news of increasing atrocities in 1809, 1810, and 1811, it became obvious that the abolitionists' utopian vision of a Caribbean plantocracy committed to ameliorating the conditions of their only remaining slaves was palpably false.7 This rise in atrocities, in addition to vigorous illicit trading, spurred parliamentary proposals that all Caribbean slaves be registered.8 Old colonial legislatures that included Antigua opposed slave registries on constitutional grounds because such a procedure violated their right of internal taxation; not until 1820 did colonialists assent.

In fact, the time during which Mansfield Park was written marked a turning point in the fortunes of the gentry, to which social class Sir Thomas, as a baronet, arguably belonged.9 In England the Luddite riots fomented unrest, the prime minister was assassinated, war was declared against the United States, and the gentry endured a general economic crisis. Mrs Norris, Sir Thomas' sister-in-law, informs us that Sir Thomas' financial stability depends on maintaining his Caribbean property:10 his 'means will be rather straitened if the Anti-guan estate is to make such poor returns.11 Sir Thomas needs his Caribbean profits to stay financially afloat in England; colonialism underwrites his social and cultural position.

Thus, ongoing news of Caribbean economic crises exacerbates Sir Thomas' already straitened circumstances. Sugar prices had plummeted as a result of a major depression after 1807. The ensuing urgency to diversify the imperiled sugar monoculture made the physical presence of customarily absentee landlords expedient, and so Sir Thomas was obliged 'to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs.12 The task at hand was to maintain his estates at a profit and in the process, since trading was now illegal, to ensure the survival of his slaves as steady, well-nourished workers. Sadistic overseers, with whom Sir Thomas may have been content in the past, provided returns were satisfactory, would no longer do. His appearance when he returns to England suggests not only an exhausting engagement with his overseers and a severe reaction to noisome conditions, but through metonym it also emphasizes his affiliation with the Creole class. He 'had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate' (178).

The society to which Sir Thomas traveled was dominated by aggressive oppositional relations between colonialists and colonized people, although absentee landlordism was unusual on Antigua compared to its frequency on neighboring islands. As a near-noble landowner, Sir Thomas would socialize with the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, the Right Honorable Ralph, Lord Lavington, who, in 'real life', chose to set a constant pointed public example of desirable relations between colonizers and colonized:

His Christmas balls and routs were upon the highest scale of magnificence; but he was a great stickler for etiquette, and a firm upholder of difference of rank and colour [Flanders' underlining].…He would not upon any occasion, receive a letter or parcel from the fingers of a black or coloured man, and in order to guard against such horrible defilement, he had a golden instrument wrought something like a pair of sugar tongs, with which he was accustomed to hold the presented article.13

Back home, abolitionists contested the condoned maltreatment of slaves encapsulated in Lord Lavington's insidious public behaviour; they decried the atrocities that his cultural practice validated: violations of the Abolition Act, as well as individual cases of heinous maltreatment and murders of slaves by planters in 1810 and 1811.14 Since the powerful proslavery lobby indefatigably suppressed these events as far as their power allowed, only those with access to ongoing revelations in the press and through rumor could stay abreast of daily developments. The centuries-long ideological battle over the humanity of Africans constantly and variously manifested itself.

Plantocratic Paradigms in Mansfield Park

Power relations within the community of Mansfield Park reenact and refashion plantocratic paradigms; those who work for Sir Thomas and his entourage both at home and abroad are locked into hierarchical and abusive patterns of behaviour, though under widely different circumstances. The cruel officiousness of protagonist Fanny Price's aunt, Mrs Norris, who is effectively Sir Thomas' overseer and lives in the suggestively named white house 'across the park' from the Great House underlines his plantocratic style of administration.

Mrs Norris' surname recalls John Norris, one of the most vile proslaveryites of the day. Austen was well aware of Norris' notoriety, having read Thomas Clarkson's celebrated History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in which Norris is categorically condemned. Clarkson's text was published in 1808 and read by Jane Austen while she was working out the plot of Mansfield Park. 15 Not only had Clarkson's history astounded her but she admitted to her sister Cassandra that she had once been 'in love' with the famous abolitionist whose devotion, industry, and total lack of regard for his own life in the cause was legend.16 Clark-son chronicles how Norris represented himself to Clarkson in Liverpool as an opponent of the slave trade, then arrived in London as a pro-slavery delegate representing Liverpool.17 After contacting Norris for an explanation, Clarkson notes Norris' unctuously self-serving response:

After having paid high compliments to the general force of my arguments, and the general justice and humanity of my sentiments on this great question, which had made a deep impression upon his mind, he had found occasion to differ from me, since we had last parted, on particular points, and that he had therefore less reluctantly yielded to the call of becoming a delegate,—though notwithstanding he would gladly have declined the office if he could have done it with propriety.18

Underscoring the intertextual designation of Mrs Norris as sadistic overseer, Sir Thomas himself is centerstaged as 'master', especially in his treatment of niece Fanny Price. With very little ceremony and offering Fanny Price's family no say in the matter, Sir Thomas and Mrs Norris engineer the transference of this ten-year-old poor relation from her home in Portsmouth to Mansfield Park. A marginalized, near-despised family, the Prices lose one of their own to accommodate Mrs Norris' need to appear charitable; Sir Thomas eventually concurs in her decision although he reserves his judgment to return Fanny Price if she threatens domestic stability. Portsmouth, by this account, is the uncivilized other; its members overflow with energies that menace the security of Mansfield Park. Epitomizing the clash of epistemologies in the text, Portsmouth signifies a way of living that negates the tightly controlled social order and challenges the sovereign law embodied in Sir Thomas by ignoring it altogether. On the other hand, in a different way, since Portsmouth as a naval town serves to uphold Sir Thomas' position by enforcing British control of the West Indies, what might be more important is that in the domestic arena of England, the link between the two must be separated. The expropriated Fanny Price hails from the milieu of transgressors who always signify the target of their activities: kidnapped and captive slaves.

Young Fanny Price's removal from her family is described in terms often reserved for epiphanic moments in the narrative of slavery:

The remembrance … of what she had suffered in being torn from them, came over her with renewed strength, and it seemed as if to be at home again, would heal every pain that had since grown out of the separation.


This mercantilist attitude toward human relationships, represented as disinterested benevolence toward Fanny Price, invokes traditionally conservative rationales for the 'trade-in-flesh'. Family feeling or unity never becomes an issue, since proslaveryites do not recognize African and slave families as social formations. On the contrary, the West Indian lobby argued that bringing slaves to the Caribbean was a good deed, a way of civilizing those whose environment provided them with nothing but barbarism—precisely the same basis for the justification of bringing Fanny Price to Mansfield Park.

So, when Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park, she is closely watched for evidence of her uncouth otherness. She must accept Sir Thomas' authority unconditionally or she will be removed. Sir Thomas scrutinizes her 'disposition', anticipating 'gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner' (10-11). Eventually he decides she has a 'tractable disposition, and seemed likely to give them little trouble' (18). She will acclimatize well. Nonetheless, his children 'cannot be equals [with Fanny Price]. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different' (11).

Fanny herself begins to adapt to the value system at Mansfield, learning 'to know their ways, and to catch the best manner of conforming to them'. Fanny thinks 'too lowly of her own claims' and 'too lowly of her own situation' to challenge values that keep her low.19 Underscoring class difference and alluding to the colonial-sexual nexus, profligate elder son Tom, the heir apparent to Sir Thomas' colonial enterprise, assures Fanny Price that she can be a 'creepmouse' all she wants as long as she obeys his commands.

Just as markedly, when Fanny Price years later is deciding what to wear at the ball, the point of contention is whose chain (or necklace) she will wear. The lurking question is to whom will she subject herself or belong. To what extent has Mansfield Park and its values begun to construct her subjectivity? Gladly, she decides on the chain of her future husband, Sir Thomas' younger son, Edmund. Moreover, when Sir Thomas leaves for Antigua, she steps into his moral shoes; she opposes Mrs Norris' opportunism and informally assumes the role of the 'good' overseer, her aunt's alter ego. Mimicking Sir Thomas, willingly cooperating in her own assimilation, she speaks for and through him. Fanny Price helps to foreshadow and map a new colonialist landscape that upholds the moral status quo but draws the line at arbitrary judgment and excessive indulgence. In the chapel scene at Sotherton, for instance, Fanny Price identifies herself as an opponent of change.20 Edmund, on the other hand, underscores Fanny's complicity in her own assimilation when he confides—to her delight—as she leaves for Portsmouth that she will 'belong to [them] almost as much as ever' (26-7).

Yet Fanny Price is still the daughter of Ports-mouth—Mansfield Park's relegated other, reared to succeed pluckily against the odds. Her master-slave relationship with Sir Thomas operates on the register of two opposing discourses: complicity and rebellion. Her stalwart refusal to marry Henry Crawford and the punishment of summary banishment she incurs identifies Mansfield Park ideologically as an institution that rallies to disempower anyone who jeopardizes Sir Thomas' feudal reign. This is especially true in the case of the déclassé Fanny Price, to whom Mansfield Park has opened its portals. In return she opposes its patriarchal demands on females as property by claiming one form of autonomy, thereby rendering herself an unregenerate ingrate in ruling class eyes. Sir Thomas even describes her in language reserved for slave insurrectionaries:

I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence. But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse.


To Sir Thomas, Fanny Price's feelings are as irrelevant as slaves' feelings; she is his object. In Tzvetan Todorov's words, 'those who are not subjects have no desires.21

Fanny Price responds to her natal family almost exclusively as an other, after Sir Thomas banishes her to Portsmouth. Such is the enormity of his ideological power. His risk in sending her to resist Portsmouth and embrace Mansfield Park values pays off. Her home is nothing but 'noise, disorder, impropriety', her overworked impecunious mother pronounced 'a dawdler and a slattern' (388, 390). Portsmouth reconstitutes Fanny Price as Sir Thomas' transformed daughter, no longer the exiled object; while at Portsmouth she barricades herself ideologically, as it were, inside Mansfield Park, functioning as its representative. Her mother's features that she has not seen in over a decade endear themselves to her—not because she has missed seeing them—but because they remind Fanny Price of Lady Bertram's, her mother's sister and Sir Thomas' wife: 'they brought her Aunt Bertram's before her' (377). Fanny Price has come to resemble the eurocentrically conceived 'grateful negro' in pre-abolition tales who collaborated with kind owners and discouraged disobedience among rebel slaves.22 Her embrace of Mansfield Park's values dissolves any binding association with her family and her old life.

After leaving Portsmouth for the second time, Fanny 'was beloved' by her adopted family in Mansfield Park, the passive tense affirming her surrender of agency. When Edmund decides she will make him an appropriate wife, her parents' response is not mentioned. We assume they are neither told nor invited to the wedding. The only Portsmouth members who textually reappear are the conformists: sister Susan, coded as a second Fanny, ready to satisfy Lady Bertram's need for a round-the-clock assistant, and impeccable sailor-brother William, who exercised 'continued good conduct' (462).

Sir Thomas' commercial approach to Fanny Price reformulates the treatment he previously accorded her mother, Frances Price, who 'disoblig[ed]' her family when she married a lieutenant of marines 'without education, fortune, or connections'; as a result, the Mansfield Park inner circle acts almost as if Frances Price senior did not exist; certainly she has no rights as a parent, so her children can be more or less removed at will. The text hints, too, that having ten babies in nine years is tantamount to a reprehensible lack of restraint. Neither Mrs Price's continuing independence in not seeking help nor her maintenance of a large family on a pittance elicit textual approbation. Rather, she is lucky, in the text's terms, to be the recipient of Sir Thomas' charity. With almost all immediate family ties severed, her status, mutatis mutandi, parallels that of her sister Lady Bertram, whose dowry has doomed her to the borders in a different sense. Within a phallocratic economy, their lives elicit contempt and condescension.

Lady Bertram, Mrs Norris, and Frances Price make up the trio of sisters who collectively display the degradation of colonial-gender relations. In the opening sentence of Mansfield Park, which highlights Sir Thomas' hegemonic order, the trope of capture and control that infuses the text first appears:

About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.

The text thus describes her alleged initial conquest of Sir Thomas in arrestingly ironic tones and in doing so, as in the famous opening assertion in Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park 's first sentence also celebrates its opposite: Sir Thomas' acquisition of a desirable social object. Maria Ward instantly drops out of sight, both in nomenclature and in self-led behaviour. Occupying the role of a slatternly plantation mistress—'she never thought of being useful' (179), Lady Bertram's prominent class status through marriage collides with the posture of an undermined female. The lap dog upon which she lavishes attention—'no one is to tease my poor pug'—emblematizes her pathetically protected status.23 When Sir Thomas has to break news to her, he approaches her as he would a child. During his absence, she rather tellingly works on 'yards of fringe'—appropriate for a marginalized wife—and when he returns, in recognition of her imposed vacuity, she waits to have 'her whole comprehension' filled by his narrative (196). She epitomizes emptiness, a vacant object-status, a slave or constructed subject who commits spiritual suicide. Only once does a hint of spunky self-respect surface. On Sir Thomas' departure for Antigua when she comments that she does not fear for his safety, a momentary ambiguity nags the text. Is she overly confident he will be safe because she is oblivious to maritime danger due to the Napoleonic wars? Or does she not care? Does her comment speak unconsciously about her recognition of powerlessness? Does it quietly express repressed anger?

Sir Thomas' behaviour on both sides of the Atlantic signals a plantocratic mode of behaviour. Through the trope of his journey to Antigua, his long absence, and his sparing commentary about his experiences when he returns, Austen stresses his planter-like detachment from humanity, or his playing down of the facts, or both. One of the few things he did in Antigua—we learn—is attend a ball in the company of creoles—as white planters were mockingly termed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; culturally and economically, Sir Thomas is inextricably linked to his Antiguan counterparts. And given certain much-touted facts about planters, contemporaries could have amplified Sir Thomas' character in a way that would expressively inflect Lady Bertram's remark about not being concerned about his safety. Planters were infamous for taking slave mistresses and fathering children.

Edward Long, who wrote the immensely popular History of Jamaica (1774), describes Creole activities as follows:

Creole men … are in general sensible, of quick apprehension, brave, good-natured, affable, generous, temperate, and sober; unsuspicious, lovers of freedom, fond of social enjoyments, tender fathers, humane and indulgent masters; firm and sincere friends, where they once repose a confidence; their tables are covered with plenty of good cheer …; their hospitality is unlimited …; they affect gaiety and diversions, which in general are cards, billiards, backgammon, chess, horse-racing, hog-hunting, shooting, fishing, dancing, and music.…With a strong natural propensity to the other sex, they are not always the most chaste and faithful of husbands.24

Lowell Joseph Ragatz points out, furthermore, that from the mid-eighteenth century:

private acts enabling white fathers to make generous provision for their illegitimate half-breed children, despite existing laws prohibiting the transmission of extensive properties to blacks, were passed in all the island legislatures with painfully increasing regularity. The number of free persons of color in Barbados, largely recruited through illicit relations with white men and negresses, rose from 448 to 2,229 between 1768 and 1802, while the number in Dominica soared from 600 in 1773 to more than 2,800 in 1804. This rapid growth of a mixed blood element in the British West Indies after 1750 arose chiefly from the Anglo-Saxon's now merely transitory residence there and the small number of white women remaining in the islands. Concubinage became well-nigh universal in the second half of the eighteenth century and the system pervaded all ranks of society. During the administration of Governor Ricketts in Barbados in the 1790s, a comely negress even reigned at government house, enjoying all a wife's privileges save presiding publicly at his table.25

According to August Kotzebue's well-known play that the characters in Mansfield Park choose to rehearse for their recreation, Lovers' Vows, no love/lust exists in England, only 'in all barbarous countries'.26 Austen uses this play to intertextualize the characters' motives and interactions. A remark from the play's philandering Count Cassel that comments on sexual exploitation in the Caribbean matches contemporary accounts and illumines the character of Sir Thomas.27

Jane Austen was well aware of these infamous activities. She knew about the estate of the Nibbs family in Antigua because the Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen's father, was a trustee; she also knew of the Nibbs' 'mulatto' relative.28 As one critic concretely contends: 'Jane Austen would certainly have been aware of the likelihood of a family such as her fictional Bertrams having numerous mulatto relatives in Antigua'. Sir Thomas' condemnation of Mrs Price marrying low and his anger at Fanny Price's refusal to accommodate him by marrying Henry Crawford mocks planters' infamous, quotidian practices.

A question then crops up: Does Sir Thomas banish his daughter, Maria, and censure Henry Crawford because their sexual indulgences mirror his Antiguan conduct? Is one dimension of his behaviour a form of self-projection, an unconscious denial of his dual and contradictory realities in the Caribbean and Britain?

Another victim of Sir Thomas' mercantilist attitudes, elder daughter Maria refuses to be Lady Bertram's clone. Instead she stands with her exiled Aunt Frances and cousin Fanny in claiming sexual independence. Her actions are even more morally outré since she has already been manipulated into marriage with Rushworth, a man whom her father financially desires. For example in the gate scene at Sotherton, Maria symbolically and literally refuses to be imprisoned. Maria, that is, falls for the ideological trap that is set for her and is punished for trying to release herself.29 Mary Crawford, who also disregards Sir Thomas' authority and is coded as a predator of sorts, similarly contests for personal autonomy and is configured as more evil because she disregards Sir Thomas' values. Linked by their given names, they are different versions of a gendered bid for identity.30

In the text's terms, none of these spirited acts by women in multiple postures of subjection can be vindicated except that of the conflicted Fanny Price. The Crawfords are reduced to the social margins, Henry for visible rakishness, Mary for 'evil' and bold collaboration in her brother's escapades. The possibility smoulders that Sir Thomas cannot contain an English reflection of his Antiguan self. He represents men who control the general slave population and the female slave population in particular through varieties of abuse. When women like Frances and Fanny Price, Maria Bertram, and Mary Crawford articulate a counterdiscourse against their objectification, Sir Thomas stands firm. Insurgent women become deleted subjects, objects of his wrath who must be appropriately punished, usually for keeps. At the conscious and unconscious level, the text continually inscribes challenges to the assumed inferiority of women and the right of a hegemonic patriarch to use women as he pleases.

Most systematically of all, however, Lovers' Vows intertextualizes property-owning attitudes that characterize planter-slave relations, including Sir Thomas' flagrant neglect of female welfare.31 At the same time, the dramatic resolution of these corrupt interrelationships appears to exonerate Sir Thomas and validate patriarchal rule. Clearly coded as Sir Thomas, the Baron is multiply conflicted. In former days, he had abandoned naive and pregnant Agnes, who bore Frederick. Like the 'deserted and neglected negroes' of Antigua who will become a later focus of national concern, Agnes is now starving to death and homeless. Eventually, however, the Baron's callous desertion is mitigated by information that he has hired helpers to search constantly till they find her. In the end the Baron decides to marry Agnes though he fails to consult her about his plan. Like Maria Ward, she is assumed to desire such a splendid match.

In like manner, the Baron's efforts to marry off his daughter Amelia to silly Count Cassel are soon revealed as nonbinding. When he learns that Amelia loves Pastor Anhalt, the Baron readily consents, a scenario that comments on the marital imbroglio of Fanny Price, Henry Crawford, and Edmund Bertram. The case of Frederick, who strikes the Baron in the course of trying to save his mother's life, allusively invokes the nature of Sir Thomas' power: the Baron orders Frederick killed even though 'a child might have overpowered him', for 'to save him would set a bad example'.32 Only when the Baron discovers that Frederick is his son, does parental feeling induce him to relent. In doing so, the Baron earns permission to be readmitted to the human community. Feudal laws and relations in Lovers' Vows sign those of the plantocracy.


Mansfield Park initiated a new chapter in colonialist fiction as old and new abolitionists came to terms with the fact that the Abolition Bill did not fulfil its minimum requirement—amelioration of inhuman conditions. Jane Austen's repugnance toward the slave trade, moreover, is well documented—her brother Francis was a vigorous abolitionist—and by the time she writes Emma in 1816 her condemnation is forthright.33 Hence Sir Thomas' chastening is one way of prescribing this letting-up process among a seemingly unregenerate plantocracy. He reconstitutes himself as a moral rather than a profit-oriented planter, a condition inveterately resisted among the colonial ruling class. Recent experience in the House of Commons as well as the Caribbean have persuaded Sir Thomas, Jane Austen subtly argues, that the old order may be doomed and disappearing. As a Parliamentary member, Sir Thomas would have been witnessing at first hand the efforts of Wilberforce and his supporters to initiate corrective legislation. In admitting his errors and curbing his selfishness, Sir Thomas comes to represent the liberal-conservative ideal of humanitarian plantation ownership at a time when outright manumission is effectively a non-issue.

It hardly seems to be a coincidence that Mansfield Park echoes the name of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who wrote the legal decision for the James Somerset case in 1772, stipulating that no slaves could be forcibly returned from Britain to the Caribbean, which was widely interpreted to mean that slavery in Britain had been legally abolished.34 Austen's invocation of Lord Mansfield's name suggests the novel's intrinsic engagement with slavery and a view of Sir Thomas' plantations as a place where feudal relations are beginning to dissolve.35 To underscore that point, the word 'plantation' is frequently used to denote Sir Thomas' property on both sides of the Atlantic.

At another level, the intertextualizing of Lord Mansfield's ruling warns and censures all those who try to further impose their will on the already subjugated, in Sir Thomas' case, Fanny Price and by extension his Antiguan slaves. The choice of Mans field for the title underscores the idea of property in the hands of a patriarch—one man's plantations—and in its compression of several frames of meaning and reference, it connects the Caribbean plantation system and its master-slave relationships to tyrannical gender relations at home and abroad.

Jane Austen's recommendations for a kinder, gentler plantocracy, however, do anything but confront that institution head on. Not to put too fine a point on it, the opposite is virtually true. En route to the new dispensation, Sir Thomas' change of heart is accompanied and contradicted by his challenge to the heterogenous utterances of those who flout his power. Hence paradoxically, his moral reformation reconfirms his control. With unruly elements purged or contained and his unitary discourse intact though refashioned, the same power relations persist in slightly different guise between the ruling class elite and dominated people, between male and female. Thus to read Mansfield Park as a text with closures that favour more benevolent socio-political relationships only serves to mask textual undercurrents that threaten to explode its tightly controlled bourgeois framework.

Let me briefly recite some of these closures that purport to foretell future felicity and a more uniform culture groping toward harmony. First, Lovers' Vows is intended to demonstrate how well the Baron (Sir Thomas) suppresses anarchic expression and restores peace after learning his lesson. Second, protagonist Fanny Price, despite announcing her right to autonomy, attains the status of an insider because she mirrors Sir Thomas' values and rather coldly rejects her origins. She embraces an imposed identity as a bona fide member of the Mansfield Park community. Sir Thomas, in turn, offers himself as a father: 'Fanny was indeed the daughter that he wanted. His charitable kindness had been rearing a prime comfort for himself' (472). Third, the Price family in Portsmouth is exposed as decisively inferior except for those who agreeably adapt. Disobedience and heady self-determination are penalized by lifetime expulsion from the old order: Maria Bertram and Mary Crawford are excluded from the ruling class coterie while younger daughter Julia's repentance and her more accommodating disposition gain her a second chance.

Also to the point is Lady Bertram's languid life, which is criticized yet accepted as a familiar though inconsequential existence while the mettlesome spirit of the Price survivors goes unapplauded. That is, although Lady Bertram may draw sympathetic attention as a witless figure, the necessity for a social appendage in female form to round out plantocratic control is never gainsaid. But perhaps the most morally ambiguous textual judgment concerns Mrs Norris herself whose downfall is treated as her just deserts. Former overseer and exposed renegade, she is banished for good, like her sister Frances, from the family circle. That she encourages Maria Bertram to claim a certain kind of freedom is sweepingly condemned. The text obliterates the fact that she represents Sir Thomas' interests, but in excess of how the text wants him portrayed.36 She is his avatar, Sir Thomas at his most acquisitive and self-indulgent. He cannot countenance the reflection of himself in Mrs Norris, who represents his displaced tacit approval of heinous cruelties and ensuing reduced profits. When he rejects her, he rejects part of his former self and life; he becomes part of the new order that seeks more wholesome relations at home and abroad. Since his regeneration cannot mean that he continues to treat people unfeelingly, Mrs Norris has to be reconstructed as a villain, tidily demolished, and eliminated as a speaking subject.

These methodical but artificial closures, however, in their blanket effort to smother opposition, only highlight ideological antagonisms that decentre Sir Thomas' power and question its validity. They elicit an insistent counterdiscourse. His posture also underwrites a certain anxiety about outsiders, regardless of former familial or friendly relationships. Human connections count for naught compared to the obsession with control.

Most ironically, textual imbeddings surface in the person of Sir Thomas' major vindicator, the Baron, who turns out in one sense to be his most damning accuser. As Sir Thomas' autocratic counterpart, the medieval Baron has no compunction about killing an innocent man who defies his authority. Similarly, Sir Thomas himself can order severe punishment, if not death, against slaves he arbitrarily deems insubordinate. Such was the authority of planters. And not uncoincidentally, the Baron is execrating Frederick in Lovers' Vows while that other Baron, Sir Thomas, administers the Antiguan plantations, by implication in the same way. The Baron denies Frederick's humanity as planters deny the humanity of slaves, relenting only when he discovers Frederick is his son. In a remarkably unconscious self-projection, the Baron commands Frederick in words that would make more sense in reverse: 'Desist—barbarian, savage, stop!!' (526). Moreover, by summarily terminating the theatricals, Sir Thomas reestablishes his authority over a symbolically uncontrollable situation.37

Most materially, the sparse counterdiscourse concerning slaves pinpoints a fundamental textual repression. Having affirmed her pleasure in Sir Thomas' stories of his Caribbean visit, Fanny inquires about the slave trade. After absorbing her uncle's answer—significantly unreported—she expresses amazement to Edmund about the ensuing 'dead silence' (198), a phrase that requires careful unpacking. Let me back up for a moment.

In this transitional post-abolitionist period that features a shaky British-Caribbean economy and multiple slave insurrections, no safe space, from a eurocentric perspective, is available for colonized others as speaking subjects, let alone as self-determining agents. Put baldly, slave subjectivity has to be effaced. As the oppressed daughter of an exigent family, Fanny Price becomes the appropriate mediator or representative of slaves' silenced existence and constant insurrectionary potential. In her role as a marginalized other (though in a vastly different cultural context), Fanny Price can project and displace personal-political anxieties and mimic her servile subject position.

As a brief for plantocratic gradual reform, the text disintegrates at 'dead silence', a phrase that ironically speaks important debarred and smothered voices. As Mansfield Park's unofficial spokesman for Antiguan society, the beleaguered Sir Thomas has cut slaves off from representation. Lovers' Vows, besides, has already voiced and even accentuated the major topoi of a muzzled colonialist discourse: brutality, fractured families, and the violated bodies and psyches of innocent people. Thus the conceptualizations of 'dead' and 'silence' that parallel the play's metonyms of bondage further indict the gaps in Sir Thomas' discourse. Beyond that, these loaded inscriptions of death and muteness accost the taboo enforced on dissent in the colonies. 'Dead silence' affirms Sir Thomas' seeming pretence that power relations are stable in Antigua. For what other than dissimulation of some sort—most likely an obfuscation or omission—could explain Fanny Price's ready acceptance of his lengthy speech on the slave trade. 'Dead' and 'silence', in other words, forswear the reality of ubiquitous slave insurrections. For example, plots were organized and carried out in Jamaica, Tobago, and especially in Dominica, where the second maroon war was led by Quashie, Apollo, Jacko, and others.38 Uncontainable conflicts are further unmasked by textual allusions to several issues of the Quarterly Review, which carried many troublesome facts about slavery in 1811:39 for one, the periodical reported that the progressive diminution in slave population levels persisted, despite abolition of the trade, a fact that threw doubt on promises made by planters and colonial legislatures to ameliorate conditions. Old planters in Jamaica and Antigua were in the news, too, as zealous competitors of the 'new' planters. The Quarterly Review also confirmed that the bottom had dropped out of the sugar market by 1808, that estates were in disrepair, and growers could not be indemnified.40 What's more, the seemingly univocal colonial discourse of Mansfield Park that upholds a singular view of slavery as 'working', belies domestic agitation inside and outside Parliament for improved conditions.41

Antigua, then, tropes an anxiety-creating unknown venue, falsely coded as a run-down locale in need of an individual planter's semi-altruistic, definitively ethnocentric intervention. Profits are down, but workers and administrators suffer too. Antigua also correlates with Portsmouth, both being symbolic sites of indeterminacy near water and places where the allegedly uncivilized cluster. As a port and an island intimately involved with slavery, Portsmouth and Antigua witness slave ships arriving and departing; scenes involving the sale of people and naval engagements are in constant view. Sir Thomas may subsume Antigua within his monocular vision and Fanny Price may fail to see (or evade) Portsmouth's obvious immersion in the slave trade as she gazes at the sights of the town, but their buried knowledge and realities intertextually circulate nonetheless. Like the Orient in Edward Said's formulation, Antigua and Portsmouth are Mansfield Park's wild, colonized others, signs of potential disruption and sexual conflict.42 They signal that the women of Mansfield Park are ideologically absorbed or unceremoniously expelled—or even obliterated (as the slavewomen of Antigua are) as autonomous beings.

In this space as Mansfield Park's other, Antigua satirizes Sir Thomas' authority. He may conduct his relationships in a recognizably plantocratic mode that solidifies his power, but both vocal and mute suppressions are evident. Sir Thomas' return assumes that he leaves behind a certain order, even harmony, on his plantations. He controls superficially obedient slaves, but that illusion will soon be fractured. By implication, other apparent fixtures might also turn out to be less enduring.

This is not to argue that the possibility of slave emancipation in Mansfield Park parallels a potential liberation for Anglo-Saxon women. But it is to posit that challenges to ossified thought and the received cultural representation of women are at least conceivable. Lady Bertram is comatose, but can that state last? The condition of indolent plantocratic wives is certainly coming to an end. Besides, the self-determining duo of Maria-Mary will not tolerate permanent disappearance. Their independent natures will soon reassert themselves, the text having forced them into a closure, demonstrably false. Fanny Price, however, the obedient daughter who replaces the ungovernable overseer, is pinioned in a conflict of searing and unresolvable tensions. So little room is available for repudiation of her place in Mansfield Park's social situation that it threatens to bind and fix her.43 Ultimately the rebellious acts of Fanny Price and her ideological companions, Maria, Frances Price, and Frederick are paradigmatic of slave resistance: Fanny Price signifies a bartered slave and the sign of the absent female slave. The deported Maria, in turn, is a variant of the marginalized Portsmouth family.

By contrast, Sir Thomas' authority is scarcely denied by the men of the text who fare somewhat differently. Each of them projects a part of that complex Sir Thomas, even the sybaritic Bishop Grant, symbolically linked to his malignant niece and nephew as Sir Thomas is linked to Mrs Norris. Despite debauchery, elder son Tom will take up his inheritance, as does the foolish Rushworth, whose wealth and aristocratic status enable him to transcend a temporary setback. Henry Crawford continues to seduce women and Edmund settles down into married life.

Mansfield Park, then, I am arguing, is a post-bolition narrative that intertwines with a critique, conscious or unconscious, of gender relations. Although the text superficially presents itself at the end as an agreeable synthesis that has incorporated its contradictions—the hermeneutics of an attempted restoration of power—the text's relationship to emancipationist ideology creates irrepressible contradictions and signals incompletion. As a colonialist script, it features epistemological ethnocentrisms, blanks, ellipses, substitutions, and the homogenizing of silent slaves, occupying a space between old and new modes of discourse and agitation. It projects the end of an uncompromising proslavery lobby by fusing commentary on slaves and Anglo-Saxon women who are concurrently exhibiting forms of autonomy and powerlessness. Thus the reformed planter's voice in itself becomes a nullified force. His contradictory positions cancel themselves out. The indirectness of the commentary, moreover, indicates Jane Austen's temporary reluctance to sound the controversy over slavery into recognizable audibility. Not until Emma does she do so unmistakably.

As a quasi-allegory of colonial-gender relations, Mansfield Park offers itself as a blueprint for a new society of manners. Relationships in the colonies will match those at home, for domestic manners have been transformed for the better. But as we have seen, Sir Thomas' brand of eurocentric benevolence is dubious at best and the socio-political recommendations are decidedly and perhaps necessarily constrained. Nonetheless, the attempt to show the positive consequences of a kinder, gentler world in action, together with many potent silences and irruptions of nuanced subaltern voices, signifies the desirable, though possibly not attainable, transition to a new colonialist dispensation of gradualist politics at home and abroad. Despite this slow but positive evolution, however, emancipation still cannot be named.


  1. Wylie Sypher, 'The West-Indian as a 'Character' in the Eighteenth Century', in Studies in Philology vol. 36 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939), 504-5, 509.
  2. Michael Craton, Testing the Chains. Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).
  3. Elsa V. Goveia, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965). See also D. J. Murray, The West Indies and the Development of Colonial Government 1801-1834 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965); Dale Herbert Porter, The Defense of the British Slave Trade, 1784-1807, Dissertation University of Oregon, June 1967, 25-166.
  4. Mary Millard points out that Northampton squires were rarely sugar-planters and speculates that 'an earlier Bertram married a lady who brought an estate in Antigua, as her dowry'. Mary Millard, '1807 and All That', Persuasions, 50-1. I thank Professor Kenneth Moler for invaluable discussions on the question of Sir Thomas's slave-owning status.
  5. Sir Thomas probably belonged to the 'outer ring' of absentee planters and merchants who had never visited the colonies. Between 1807 and 1833 forty-nine planters and twenty merchants belonged to this group. B. W. Higman, 'The West India 'Interest' in Parliament 1807-1833', Historical Studies 13 (1967-69) 4, 1-19. See also Lowell Joseph Ragatz, Absentee Landlordism in the British Caribbean, 1750-1833 (London: Bryan Edwards Press, n.d.), 1-19).
  6. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 279-80.
  7. Sir George Stephen, Anti-Slavery Recollections: in a Series of Letters Addressed to Mrs. Beecher Stowe, written by Sir George Stephen, at Her Request (London: Frank Cass, 1971), 36-7. Note also that as a result of information about ongoing inhumane treatment, British abolitionists were shortly to publicize the condition of slaves in Antigua even more decisively in forming a committee for the 'Neglected and Deserted Negroes' of that island. See John Rylands Memorial Library 'The Case of the Neglected and Deserted Negroes in the Island of Antigua', pamphlet 21.5, pt. 8.
  8. Frank J. Klingberg, The Anti-Slavery Movement in England. A Study in English Humanitarianism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926), 131, 171-2. B. W. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984). See also James Walvin, 'The rise of British popular sentiment for abolition 1787-1832', Anti-Slavery, Religion, and Reform: Essays in Memory of Roger Anstey, eds Christine Bolt and Seymour Drescher (Folkestone: Dawson, 1980), 154 and passim; Sir George Stephen, Anti-Slavery Recollections, 25-27 and passim.
  9. Avrom Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park. An Essay in Critical Synthesis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967), 40-2.
  10. Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park, 35-6.
  11. R. W. Chapman, The Novels of Jane Austen. The Text based on Collation of the Early Editions, vol. 3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1923), 30. Further references to Mansfield Park will be given in the text. The enormous chain of expenses that emanated from the Great House included a host of people from servants and overseers to waiters, 'brownskin gals' of no official function, and the estate's managing attorney who received 60% of the gross. Michael Craton, Sinews of Empire. A Short History of British Slavery (New York: Anchor Books, 1974), 132-9).
  12. Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park, 37. William B. Willcox touches briefly on the turmoil that would have precipitated Sir Thomas's decision, in The Age of Aristocracy 1688-1830 (Lexington, MS: D. C. Heath and Company, 1971), 174-179. Willcox also points out that: 'Though Miss Austen's two brothers were in the navy throughout the war, her world is untouched by anything outside itself; it is tranquil and timeless' 168. See also Mansfield Park, 65.
  13. With respect to Sir Thomas's 'near-noble' status, Fleishman argues that 'only some four hundred families could qualify for the higher class, and despite an economic fluidity which enabled some baronets and even commoners to enter it, this was an aristocracy composed mainly of noblemen' (40). Mrs. Flanders, Antigua and the Antiguans: A Full Account of the Colony and its Inhabitants From the Time of the Caribs to the Present Day, Interspersed with Anecdotes and Legends. Also, an Impartial View of Slavery and the Free Labour Systems; the Statistics of the Island, and Biographical Notices of the Principal Families, vol. 2 (London, 1844), 136.
  14. Sir George Stephen, Anti-Slavery Recollections, 8-19; Frank J. Klingberg, The Anti-Slavery Movement in England, 176-81.
  15. Chapman, The Novels of Jane Austen, 553-6.
  16. Frank Gibbon, 'The Antiguan Connection: Some New Light on Mansfield Park ', in The Cambridge Quarterly, 11 (1982), 303.
  17. Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, vol. 1 (London: 1808; rpt. Frank Cass, 1968), 378ff; 477ff. In reading Clarkson, Jane Austen would have been abreast of fierce abolitionist and pro-slavery infighting both inside and outside Parliament and of the literature on the subject of the slave trade.
  18. Clarkson, History, vol. 1, 479.
  19. Johanna M. Smith, '"My only sister now": Incest in Mansfield Park ', Studies in the Novel 19:1 (1987), 1-15.
  20. Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 'The Boundaries of Mansfield Park', in Representations, 6 (1984), 133-152.
  21. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America. The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 130.
  22. In Popular Tales (1804) Maria Edgeworth, for example, has a story entitled 'The Grateful Negro', that exemplifies exactly this familiar binary opposition. It is possible, given Jane Austen's admiration for Maria Edge-worth (Chapman, vol. 5, 299), that she had read some of Edgeworth's tales as well as her novels. Given the popularity of The Farmer of Inglewood Forest (1796) by Elizabeth Helme that also features a 'grateful negro', Austen may well have read that novel or others featuring that motif.
  23. Mansfield Park, 217. The connection of indolent house-mistresses despised by their authors frequently appears. Two examples are Lady Ellison in Sarah Robinson Scott's novel, The History of George Ellison (1766) and Mary Wollstonecraft's polemical attack on such practices in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
  24. Sypher, 'The West Indian', 503, 506.
  25. Ragatz, Absentee Landlordism, 1-21. Note also how Sir Thomas's 'burnt, fagged, worn look' (178) matches signs of the contemporary West Indian in fiction. 'A yellowish complexion, lassitude of body and mind, fitful spells of passion or energy, generosity bordering on improvidence, sentimentality combined with a streak of naughtiness and cruelty to subdeviates'; see also Sypher, The West Indian, 504.
  26. Lovers' Vows. A Play, in five acts. Performed at the Theatre Royal Covent-Garden. From the German of Kotzebue. by Mrs. Inchbald (London, 1798) in Chapman, The Novels of Jane Austen, 475-538.
  27. Lovers' Vows, 534.
  28. Gibbon, 'The Antiguan Connection', 298-305.
  29. Gerald L. Gould, 'The Gate Scene at Sotherton in Mansfield Park ', in Literature and Psychology, 20:1 (1970), 75-8.
  30. For the discussions of subjectivity and interpellation in ideology here and elsewhere in the essay, I am indebted to Michel Pêcheux, Language, Semantics, and Ideology (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975).
  31. I am assuming here and elsewhere in the text the reader's conversancy with Lovers' Vows, an assumption I think Jane Austen makes.
  32. In Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), Michel Foucault argues that feudal torture of the criminal's body and subsequent death 'made everyone aware … of the unrestrained presence [and power] of the sovereign' 'The ceremony of the public torture and execution displayed for all to see the power relation that gave his force to the law …'. 'We must regard the public execution, as it was still ritualized in the eighteenth century, as a political operation' 49-53.
  33. Jane Austen, Emma (first published 1816) (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1933), 233.
  34. See F. O. Shyllon, Black Slaves in Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), especially 77-124 and 237-43. See also James Walvin, The Black Presence. A documentary history of the Negro in England, 1555-1860 (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 95-114.
  35. Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1986), 116-119.
  36. I am indebted for the argument about the text's excess and unconsciousness to Pierre Macherey's A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), 75-97 and passim.
  37. Yeazell, 'The Boundaries of Mansfield Park ', 133.
  38. Craton, Testing the Chains, 337-8.
  39. Mansfield Park, 104. I would add data from the Quarterly Review to Chapman's list of sources for Mansfield Park and refashion his chronology of the novel from 1800-1809 accordingly.
  40. See Quarterly Review, 164.
  41. Pêcheux, Language, Semantics and Ideology, 13.
  42. I am thinking here of Edward Said's conceptualization of orientalizing in Chapter One, 'The Scope of Orientalism', in Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), and passim.
  43. Pêcheux, Language, Semantics and Ideology, 156-7.

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