Individuating Female Marital Constraints

The eighteenth-century novel seemed often to be the place in which people would attempt reform society. The novel gave writers a medium through which they could provide both entertainment and a place in which they could attempt to reform people’s views. Although often times these writers were only slightly allowed to delve into something outside of the status quo of the time, they were often even more successful because of this penchant to stay within boundaries. In other words, because these authors weren’t too radical in their writings, the readers were therefore abler to swallow these ideas. Austen uses this technique in Mansfield Park to show the readers some of the wrongs of the marriage institution, as well as the way in which women were constrained in the society at the time. In order to do this, Austen uses a technique which Armstrong, in Desire and Domesticity, defines as individuating a collective body—making a societal wrong shown through an individual case in order to reform it. By using this technique of individuating women’s constraints in marriage, we are able to first sympathize with Fanny, and then with the female society as a whole by seeing the emotional impact on the individual.

Fanny, throughout the novel, is shown to be one with the least amount of influence and voice in the novel, once even defined as a “creep-mouse” by her cousin, and treated as a servant by others (Austen, 168). It is at the crucial part of her life, and possibly the most crucial portion of the book, in which she must raise her voice against her potential suitor, Henry Crawford, as well as her family, in which she truly achieves a greater amount of agency. This increased sense of agency is brought to a climax in Chapter 35, in which Edmund comes to Fanny to encourage her to accept Henry’s marriage proposal. While Edmund is encouraging the marriage, Fanny says of this, that “it ought not to be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself” (Austen, 391). Fanny’s assertion, here, that women need not be forced into a marriage conveys a small part of Austen’s critique of the business-like marriages of the day. Instead, Austen shows here that women should be the ones in charge of their own fate, rather than society dictating that they should be forced into a love-less marriage simply because society, as well as their own families, have pressured them into it. Austen is critiquing female constraints in marriage as a whole through this individual case. Fanny says that she “should have thought…that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex,” which implies this contradiction to the reality of society (Austen, 391). Not only does Fanny’s literal emphasis of the words give more power to her words—something that she normally lacks—but in the fact that she speaks out at all makes the words that much more powerful. Here, Austen is showing the power that women should possess. Being that Fanny almost never speaks out against societal norms, this point of departure from her normal self adds much more power to her words than if she was constantly speaking out. Her emphasis of the word “should” gives an importance to what she is saying, and is on the brink of urgency. Had she been any other character, the word to use here may have been “must,” yet the word “should” lends more credibility to who Fannie is. She cannot give a more forceful opinion, or else be recognized as straying from the societal norm—this being a woman being subservient to men and having little to no say in their matters.

In order to explain and validate what Austen is doing, Armstrong contends that eighteenth-century novelists attempted to reform what people thought of sexuality. Of this, she says that the “struggle to represent sexuality took the form of a struggle to individuate wherever there was a collective body” (Armstrong, 468). In other words, the rise of the novel sought to show an individual circumstance in order to fully convey the struggles of the whole. The individual’s circumstance then gives emotional support and sympathy towards the whole of the population. In order to show the whole, the rise of the novel gives way to individualizing the societal norms, such as the female constraints shown in this novel. Armstrong goes on to say that “Rather than refer to individuals who already…carried on relationships according to novelistic conventions, domestic fiction took great care to distinguish itself from the kind of fiction that predominated in the eighteenth [century]” (Armstrong, 469). Mansfield Park, as a form of domestic fiction, questions the roles that men and women played in relationships through cases such as Fanny’s. Fanny’s exclamation that women should be able to say no to a potential suitor brings to light some of the wrongs of the patriarchal existence that she lives in.

Leading up to this event, Fanny’s subservience and general lack of power is shown earlier in the chapter, evoking in the reader the same sort of sympathy for Fanny’s lack of power that is seen throughout the novel. “Oh! never, never, never; he never will succeed with me,” says Fanny to Edmund during the first part of their conversation, which the readers hope that Fanny is gaining more agency and more of a voice (Austen, 385). This is contradicted immediately by Fanny’s willing subservience to Edmund—she quickly changes this firm decision to saying that she thinks that she shall never marry Henry and that she thinks she shall never return his love (Austen, 385). Her firm decision is quickly turned irresolute by Edmund’s assertion that her decision to never marry Crawford is “so very determined and positive,” which was apparently “not like [herself], [her] rational self” (Austen, 385). In this, Edmund is asserting that her wanting to turn Henry Crawford down is irrational, as if a woman’s own opinions were only rational if they agreed with a man’s, or simply society in general. Austen seems to be critiquing the way in which men made women feel as though their views and feelings were invalid unless they were similar to their own. Once Edmund makes this statement, the narrator conveys that Fanny was obliged to “sorrowfully correct herself’ (Austen, 385). This description from the narrator gives the reader a small sight into Fanny’s mind, showing the reader the great pains, mentally, that Fanny is forced to take in order to fit into the patriarchal-run society. She is constrained to what Edmund—and the rest of the family around her—want to hear, much like other women of the time were forced to deal with. Fanny’s penchant to only subtly go against the patriarchal norm of society can be explained in Armstrong’s theory. Armstrong postulates that “domestic fiction could represent an alternative form of political power without appearing to contest the distribution of power that it represented as historically given” (Armstrong, 471). Fanny only goes so far as to speaking out against Edmund because of the way in which Austen was forced, as an author, to keep the status quo of the time. She must do this in order to survive as an author, and in doing so, the reader is more likely to accept these views because they are not too radical. By subtly integrating some radical views at the time, Austen is thereby able to gain some supporters because her work only slightly contests the views of the day.

This oppression of the proposed marriage between Fanny and Henry is attended to during her explanation, to Edmund, of why the match would be unfavorable to her. After telling Edmund repeatedly of why she did not want to marry Henry Crawford, he claims that their tempers are similar. To this, Fanny contests that the difference between their personalities are “infinitely too great” and that “his spirits often oppress [her]” (Austen, 387). Although Fanny says this fairly nonchalantly, it seems as though Austen is attempting to imply the oppression of the marriage itself. Oppression meaning here something akin to “to (mentally) overwhelm or weigh down a person,” meaning that his spirits (or personality) distressed her, Austen uses this meaning in order to conceal a deeper meaning to this word (OED). Rather, she here is trying to convey that Henry has a penchant to “govern harshly; to tyrannize; to engage in oppression” (OED). Fanny conveys the oppressive nature of men in the patriarchal society of eighteenth-century Britain through speaking about his oppressive personality and temper. This oppressive nature is seen again, when Edmund states that Henry Crawford has “chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity” (Austen, 388). The word “chosen” is used here to put pressure on the fact that men felt above women, that they indeed were the ones to choose their partners, who would thereby submit to them. It is this choosing of a wife that Fanny so opposes when she claims that women must not reciprocate romantic feelings towards every man who flirts with her. Rather, it is the choice of both parties which should make the decisions—should being the operative word here, which is put pressure on by Fanny, as mentioned before. “Chosen” puts an insistence on Fanny’s approval, giving the power of the relationship (or lack thereof) to Henry.

Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction details some of the reasons why the characters of the novel were vying for Fanny to accept Henry, and therefore to submit to society—and Edmund’s—wills. Armstrong claims that “the rise of the novel hinged upon a struggle to say what made a woman desirable”—thus, Edmund was attempting to show submissiveness as a desirable trait in women (Armstrong, 468). Austen criticizes this aspect of novels at the time by actually contradicting this through Fanny’s rejection of Edmund’s persuasions. Being that we already sympathize with Fanny, the reader is thereby trained to sympathize with Fanny’s wishes as well. This allows the reader to see that a woman being independent is much more desirable than what the patriarchal norm of society deemed as desirable. As Armstrong asserts, “narratives which seemed to be concerned solely with matters of courtship and marriage in fact seized the authority to say what was female” (Armstrong, 468). Austen seems to use this allowance in that she forces the reader to reevaluate what they think of as desirable in a woman. It is complicated, though, by the way in which we have already sympathized with Edmund at certain points in this novel. Perhaps Austen does this in order to mask her intentions, and only reveal slightly what is truly desirable in a woman, else be ostracized and criticized for completely going against the norm.

The constraints that were put upon females and marriage is shown through Fanny’s case. In showing the wrongs of the society by showing its impact on an individual, we can see more clearly how it truly affects women in general. By taking this issue from a collective body and showing it in individualistic terms, we are thereby able to put emotion to the issue and humanize concern. What gives the readers the notion that this is important in a global sense, though? It is the way in which we can relate these happenings to the society of the time. In Austen critiquing the constraints that were put on Fanny, a timid creature already, she is more so using Fanny in order to show but one part of a larger whole of women at the time. Fanny is dealing with the pressures of her family, and (more importantly), the pressures that Edmund is putting on her—to deal with this, she is only able to submit to Edmund’s wishes. These roles seem to fit perfectly into the societal norms that were prevalent at the time—women were often conveyed as timid and subservient to men, while men and the entirety of the patriarchal society put pressure on women, which they were often forced to submit to.

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