Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Novel’s Historical Context
Joseph Lew’s 1994 critical analysis essay of Mansfield Park, “’That Abominable Traffic’: Mansfield Park and the Dynamics of Slavery”, originally published in History, Gender, and Eighteenth Century Literature, discusses historical background leading to the writing of Mansfield Park, the way family households can mimic governmental regimes, and how Mansfield Park is a metaphor for the downfalls of absentee landlordism.
Lew establishes historical context by informing the reader that the summer of 1814 brought a strong desire for abolition in England due to the international slave trade becoming more prominent. In June more than 800 petitions, with more than 25 million signatures, were brought into Parliament demanding the abolition of slavery. That June, Holland abolished slavery. France took a bit more time; Louis XVIII alluded to an eventual slavery and Napoleon finally abolished in hopes to gain support from Britain (Lew 498).
All the petitions to Parliament coincided with the publishing of Mansfield Park. Lew suggests that the novel dramatizes “the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species”, an idea originally thought by Thomas Clarkson. The idea starts in the very beginning when the entire Huntingdon family is in awe over Maria’s acquiring a husband of a much higher status and continues when Maria sends money and assistance to her poorer younger sister. Lew argues that, although, the topic of Slavery only appears in reference to Antigua and Fanny asking a few questions about the slave trade it, along with the role of women, is an important aspect to the political aspect of the story (499).
Lew believes that the idea of the slave trade in Mansfield Park needs a broader interpretation of it which is given by Austen to her niece about her novel-in-progress. In the letter, Lew summarizes that, Austen suggests that Anna’s characters shouldn’t leave England to go to Ireland because Anna doesn’t understand the ways of the Irish. If she talked about Ireland she could give false representation and that would not go over well. Austen knew much of the West Indies due to George Austen’s Antigua estate, her brothers being stationed there in the navy, and through other family members. Lew reminds his readers that the idea of writing what you know is seen again in Persuasion when Mrs. Croft says: “We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.” Austen sticks to what she knows. By doing so she is able to expose contradictions in absentee landlordism and the realities of running a family (499).
The way Austen presents this contradiction should come as no surprise because of the traditional set up of a novel. Lew uses Gary Kelly’s discussions to show that it’s common in Anti-Jacobian fiction to scale a large political issue down to something more accessible and domestic. Family quarrels lead to revolution which is seen when King George IV tried divorcing his wife. Anti-abolistionists used this connection to support the position of a slaveholder and used the bible as justification (500).
Lew theorizes that, just like Pride and Prejudice has Lydia being Elizabeth’s criticism shield, Mansfield Park has Edmund being the brunt of the criticism that should go to his father. This is seen through Edmund accepting multiple livings which is often discussed but rarely is the fact that Sir Thomas owns multiple estates. This means that Sir Thomas has to occasionally visit his other estates and becomes an absentee landlord (500).
Sir Thomas’ idea of how he runs Mansfield Park is completely different from the way his children view it. He feels that he rules Mansfield Park the way a monarch would rule a country. This is the idea that he alone rules by law and instilling a love of honor. This works for Edmund but not for the ladies. Lew concludes that they see it as a despotic form of government. They have a fear of their father. This can only be assumed because not much is known about what happens before he leaves for Antigua (501).
Sir Thomas wasn’t trying to befriend his daughters. He was distant and authoritative. This lead to Maria and Julia not having a true “love” of their father. Lew suggests that his absence created a feeling of freedom which would turn out to be negative. Now their father’s word is nothing more than writing on a paper; he cannot hover and physically control what they do day-to-day. This feeling of euphoric freedom continues as they are able to control what their father knows about their home life because all he knows is what is written to him (501).
Lew cites that the distinction between despotic rule and monarch rule are great. In Lettres persanes the world of a despot being removed is dramatized. It is shown as a world of great moral debauchery and a place that would not be ideal for living (502).
Lew suggests that Mansfield Park has a slightly similar chain of events. Sir Thomas hears of his other estate needing help so he and his son leave. This creates a divide in power in the Park becauseMrs. Norris is to watch and Edmund is to be the judge. Young Tom returns without Sir Thomas and it will be a while before he returns to Mansfield Park (502).
Once gone we see a power shift from Sir Thomas to the manipulative Maria and Mrs. Norris who alter the reality of Mansfield Park to illicit certain responses from Sir Thomas who can only correspond with letters as he is no God. When Sir Thomas arrives back at the estate he is shocked to see that the reality he believed isn’t what is happening because the past he agreed to wasn’t the present at the time so the current present is different from the expected pasts’ future which has turned Mansfield Park into its own Antigua (502).
Lew shows that with no moral, or governing, compass the play begins to blur the lines between reality and illusion which is evident in Mary asking who she will make love to instead of asking who her character will make love to as would be normal. The process of gaining a relationship has become out of whack as Fanny must now help Edmund so he can properly do the role but she really loves him but must give him back to Mary (503).
Everything that can go wrong is going wrong: the billiard room, a symbol of manliness, is feminized and Sir Thomas’ bookshelf is removed thus making his word no longer a looming presence; this is all shattered when he returns which shouldn’t come as a surprise due to his letters but it does. Thomas’ return shows the women that the kind of freedom they just experienced was an illusion and that men are truly in control (504).
There is a theory that draws a correlation to government types and the climate and says that warmer climates with more “tropical” diseases would produce a more despotic government than that of cooler climate. Scientific advances reinforce this idea. An empire circulates goods and people just like a body circulates blood. In 1802 Henry Brougham described how the West Indies influenced health and morality of the English. He started by saying that in the absence of the Englishwomen the men became promiscuous which is a moral problem and it could lead to sexually transmitted diseases. The most moral issue that arose was the desire for unlimited power over another human being. Their return to England brought these ideologies back with them creating a morally and physically diseased country (504).
Due to this, the view of Sir Thomas having a new “firmness” is accurate. Fanny’s negative attitude is detested by Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas. She refuses to marry a man whom she doesn’t love even though it would increase the family, and her own, status; it draws parallels to the princess of Wales who refused to marry in 1815. Sir Thomas expects the same unquestioning authority in Mansfield Park that he had in Antigua. Fanny, who says no, acts as a traitor to the “monarch”. Fanny’s exile, in poor health, was actually a common practice of convicted criminals in the real world. If a real criminal was to be exiled but already didn’t have property to be exiled from they would be sent to an area that would weaken their health. Maria is also banished for having a will of her own and owning her sexuality (505).
Fanny’s rebellion puts strain on the system that is based on the view of women as being equivalent to a man’s slave. Lew believes that by her defying her “master” she is attacking not only his authority, but his self-worth. Fanny is often discussed by Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris as being economically negative and is seen equally as such. She is also wanted to marry so she doesn’t embarrass the family by her mother and was supposed to do such and not with a cousin as was common at that time (505).
Lew persuades that Fanny begins to “increase” in economic value. She becomes Lady Bertam’s companion after Maria marries for free. She attracts Henry Crawford which makes her look like a much better economic investment in the eyes of her “owner”. A proposal boosts her value even more; all this without a dowry which saves Sir Thomas much money in the long run. This marriage would boost his status and redeem the chance lost by Maria. Her refusal of this is parallel to someone not selling sugar or slaves to the highest bidder: infuriating and irrational (506).
Lew informs that in Great Britain the king’s family was seen as an important aspect of the state and necessary for the nation. This is true in Chinese society as well. They all believed that individuals should bend their will to match that of the fathers (506).
Lew ends his essay by saying that in the end Austen creates a realistic atmosphere, unlike her previous novels. The events of the novel actually have lasting effects on what could happen after the story. Austen shows just how awful slave holding could be (507).
Throughout his critical essay, Lew illuminates deeper meanings in Mansfield Park. He gives his readers a view of absentee landlordism as it is shown in the novel and its downfalls. He also demonstrates the governmental way that families are run by using the Bertram family as an example.
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