Review

FORGOTTEN CLASSICS:
Virtue in Austen’s Mansfield Park

Photo: Image by Anne Macdonald from Pixabay.

In the film Metropolitan, the young socialist protagonist, Tom Townsend, has a conversation with the love interest, Audrey, in which the latter praises Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Tom, astonished, says that it is a “notoriously bad book.” At the close of the exchange, Tom asserts that “nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near ridiculous from today’s perspective.” Audrey then earnestly (and a bit exasperatedly) replies, “Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective would look even worse?”

Despite this striking interchange (and the comical scene in which it is revealed that Tom, notwithstanding his firm opinion, has never read the novel), honesty compels me to admit that, until recently, I had never taken the time to read Mansfield Park. I presumed that the novel was, as is often claimed, both boring and a bit antiquated. However, after marrying my wife, a great Austen devotee, I finally picked up the book. I must confess that I was mistaken. The novel is compelling (even spellbinding at points), and if it is called antiquated, that is only because we have forgotten that the oldest human battle is the worthiest one: the battle to achieve and maintain virtue in a fallen world.

Fanny Price, the Christian heroine

Mansfield Park centers on Fanny Price, who is sent away from her large and financially struggling family at the age of ten to live with her much wealthier cousins. For those who have only read Austen’s better-known novels like Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Fanny is not the heroine they will be expecting. Whereas Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse are outspoken, verbally witty, and tend to take center stage in their respective novels, Fanny is quiet, thoughtful, submissive, self-doubting, and often pushed to the side and ignored by other characters.

Image of the first illustrated, single-volume edition of Austen’s third novel, published by Richard Bentley in London, 1833.

Photo: Courtesy of Type Punch Matrix, via Biblio.com.

Naturally, such a persona is not easy for the contemporary reader to grapple with. The recent emphasis, particularly in Hollywood, on having ‘strong female characters,’ means that figures like Fanny tend to get short shrift. One of feminism’s ironic results in our culture is that we have difficulty finding language to praise women who do not excel in traditionally masculine roles. We talk incessantly about assertiveness and ‘making your voice heard,’ being far more interested in worldly success than in the content of one’s character.

However, it would be incorrect to characterize Fanny’s quiet virtue as exclusively ‘feminine’; at a more profound level it is not the virtue of a certain sex but of the Christian. While Jane Austen was herself a devout Anglican, explicit discussion of religion is rare in her books. Indeed, many readers see religion as playing the role of a mere social institution (rather than a spiritual one) in these comedies of manners. To the extent that this reading is correct, Mansfield Park is the clear exception to the rule. The Christian faith is a dominant motivating force for two central characters in the novel, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. Fanny’s cousin and love interest Edmund aims to become a minister, and characters’ varying reactions to his decision help shed light on their actions. When Edmund’s vocational choice is derided or mocked, Fanny is perhaps the only character who recognizes the nobility of sacrificing money and earthly renown to serve Christ in others.

This touches on why the Scottish Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre finds in Fanny a model worth considering. In his seminal After Virtue, MacIntyre argues that “Jane Austen is the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues.” While some may dispute whether Austen really is the last voice, we can hardly disagree with his characterization. Let’s take a moment to understand MacIntyre’s argument, and its application to Fanny, a bit more fully.

Constancy and charm

MacIntyre believes not only that Jane Austen’s work is concerned with the virtues, but that she is the expositor par excellence of a specific virtue: that of constancy. This virtue, which might also be called ‘integrity,’ is concerned with ensuring unity to one’s life such that each action shows forth one’s true (and upstanding) character. A man or woman who possesses constancy lives a coherent life, speaking honestly and avoiding giving false impressions. In a word, the constant man is concerned with being, and not with seeming.

Constancy, for MacIntyre, is contrasted with ‘charm.’ Charm is the skill of giving positive impressions to others. The ‘charming’ man wishes to seem impressive, but he has very little dedication to actually cultivating moral excellence—or, indeed, any other kind of excellence. Many characters in Mansfield Park are almost exclusively interested in cultivating charm, and they have virtually no concern for developing the virtue of constancy. They speak with great delicacy when it is to their advantage, but their interior motivations lack any desire for virtue. Perhaps the clearest example of this is Henry Crawford, the wealthy young man who takes an intense interest in Fanny. He is so charming that he has convinced dozens of women to fall in love with him, but he always drops them without a thought. He is interested in obtaining only the appearance of love, the attention of young women, but not in the daily sacrifices and restraint—in a word, the constancy—demanded of real love of another person.

While reading Mansfield Park, you can’t help but ask yourself, ‘Am I more like Fanny or Henry? Do I focus on growing in constancy, or have I simply found ways to use charm to get my way?’ Lest we think the temptation to charm over constancy primarily occurred to people in traditional, aristocratic societies, we should call to mind how many people post perfectly filtered and airbrushed photographs to their social media for the world to see, regardless of their own true professional, social, and spiritual states. The constant Fanny Price, were she alive today, would almost certainly avoid social media like the plague.

In the same way, much of our academic and professional lives are structured to reward charm rather than constancy. In my own field of academic philosophy, the most attractive applicant for a job is generally the one who has published the most articles at the most prestigious journals, whether or not the contents of these articles are valuable. The constancy of a teacher who dedicates himself to his students often goes unrewarded, and young academics are given the choice between virtue and its simulacrum, charm.

Jane Austen in an undated portrait.

Photo: Public Domain.

The economics of Austen

This virtue of constancy, far from being antiquated, is particularly necessary in modernity, for the last few centuries have made it possible for a person to live an almost entirely fractured life. Yet many readers still can’t shake the feeling that Austen’s novel is antiquated in another way: it is stuck within a socioeconomic world we no longer inhabit. While I am the first to reject the myopic contemporary obsession with identity politics in art, Austen’s novels actually benefit from an awareness of the economic and sexual politics at play within them. There is something striking about approaching Mansfield Park with an awareness of economic inequality, social realities around sex, and the power dynamics between Fanny and the other characters. Indeed, this kind of reading, rather than falling into the trap of interpreting human life as being constrained by social forces beyond our control, instead highlights the insufficiency of so much contemporary discussion around these topics. Let us look at a single example in the text.

The underprivileged Fanny, in rebuffing the charming and well-to-do Henry’s advances, is not merely making a romantic decision. As MacIntyre points out, the socioeconomic realities of Fanny’s world meant that there were only two lives open for women: they either had the money to be leisured or they lacked it and were left with a life of drudgery. Thus, in rejecting Henry’s advances, Fanny chooses the very real possibility of an extremely difficult life. Though every other character in the book believes she is making a grave mistake in rejecting the offer of an economically advantageous marriage, Fanny recognizes that she should not marry a man who is merely charming. Constancy demands that she courageously reject his proposal, no matter the consequences for her future.

While this kind of dilemma may seem to be the result of ‘antiquated’ inheritance laws and marriage rituals, MacIntyre interestingly argues that the place of women in Austen’s time is a distinctively modern phenomenon. In more traditional Western societies, men and women worked together for the common good of their homes and families. There was a certain division of labor, of course, but the family was an economic unit. With modernity and industrialization came the increasing separation of economic productivity and the home. Thus, upper-class women (and, to some extent, men) ceased to have meaningful necessary work.

But what does this economic point have to do with Austen’s novel? In MacIntyre’s view, quite a lot. As he puts it, “Austen tried to find enclaves for the life of the virtues within [society].” Her novels explore, in various ways, the possibilities of virtue and vice in modern English 18th-century life. Members of the upper class could choose, as some characters in Mansfield Park do, to spend their time on frivolous, empty actions, or they could work to live out the Christian calling of service to others.

I stated earlier that analyzing Mansfield Park in terms of power dynamics and economic realities is illuminating in a way that this exercise often isn’t for other novels. This is because this kind of analysis, instead of reducing the human person to nothing more than a member of various oppressing or oppressive groups, in fact reveals the great virtue that can show itself despite great misfortunes. Fanny, despite her apparent lack of agency and power, shows virtue throughout the whole novel. As MacIntyre put it, “Fanny is charmless; she has only the virtues, the genuine virtues, to protect her.” Austen, or, for that matter, Dickens or any number of a host of 18th- and 19th-century authors, displayed myriad ways in which poverty and marital prospects make life profoundly difficult for many in society. This is no new insight from our post-modern contemporaries. But what the Christian Western Tradition of virtue ethics, and the author of Mansfield Park, teach us is that we are not defined by our limitations. We are defined by the ways that God shows forth His love through our smallness.

We are never alone: grace and art

Fanny’s constancy serves as an inspiration to readers, regardless of our own circumstances. Hers is a universal story. The battle to grow in virtue and maintain it in the face of opposition is not an easy one. Many of us today feel as though we, like Fanny, have few to turn to for support in this battle. Yet we are never alone.

First and foremost, those of us who are Christians know that our lives do not find their meaning in being ‘charming.’ Our lives are meaningful because the God who is love has made us in His image in order for us to show forth His love. God is present at every moment, and His grace is sufficient, just as it was for Fanny. Earthly virtue is but a training for the love of God and neighbor that continues into all eternity. God can carry us through our battles. This is true not just of our private lives but of our entire civilization.

The other support, and one that is far too often forgotten, is that of art. Some may wonder why we at The European Conservative choose to run so many articles on the arts. ‘Surely,’ it might be objected, ‘these things are frivolous. What really matters are the political battles.’ But this kind of approach is shortsighted. Western art is one of the cornerstones of our tradition. The West has bequeathed an astonishing heritage of beauty not just to Europe, but to the whole world. Jane Austen, in writing Mansfield Park, gave the world a novel that, once read, can accompany us through each and every trial, reminding us that we need not bow to the charm of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, but can cultivate constancy and love. If this is what Tom Townsend means by “notoriously bad,” then sign me up.

Felix James Miller serves as Senior Editor at The European Conservative and is a graduate student in philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He lives with his wife in Indiana.

This essay is the first in the monthly series “Forgotten Classics.”

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