As part of my Mansfield Park re-read, I’ve read the Mansfield Park chapter of The Improvement of the Estate by Alistair M Duckworth. It is very accessible I recommend it to anyone interested in Austen’s novels.
To my mind his chapter on Mansfield Park is really a defense of it and to prove that is has the same themes as her more popular novels, i.e. Austen is trying to define a proper relationship between an individual and society.
Duckworth believes people dislike Mansfield Park for two reasons; first it follows directly after Pride and Prejudice both in publication date and people’s reading experience and secondly we hope for a double marriage at the end (like Pride and Prejudice) and this is ‘wrenched’ from us with the marriage of Fanny and Edmund. The issues at stake in Mansfield Park are not different from her other novels, however, the representatives of individuals (i.e. the Crawfords) are corrupt and those that represent society (the Bertrams) are deficient.
As we know, estates in Austen can be used as indexes to the owner’s character and social responsibilities thus Pemberley is well-situated, has fine timber and has not been unsympathetically improved. Whereas the renting of Kellynch Hall shows Sir Walter’s dereliction of his responsibilities.
Improving estates figures prominently in Mansfield Park. Mr Rushworth wants to improves Sotherton, Mrs Norris did a ‘vast deal’ to the parsonage, Henry Crawford has improved Everingham and Mary Crawford likes improvements once they are completed.
Austen is concerned with the negative social implications of a certain type of improvement. Drastic alterations to the landscape, for example, moving entire villages. Such changes create dangerous consequences to the continuity of a culture. To ‘improve’ was to treat the deficient or corrupt parts of an established order with the character of the whole in mind (good); to ‘innovate’ or ‘alter’ on the other hand was to destroy all that had been built up by the ‘collected wisdom of the ages’ (bad). Hence Mrs Norris’s ‘vast improvements’ and the fact that ‘it was quite a different place from what it was when we first had it’ is a bad thing and a mark against her character.
Sotherton has begun to atrophy and is in need of improvement. Rushworth is aware of the aesthetic short comings but nothing else. He improves the road to Sotherton but does nothing to fix the ‘disgraceful’ cottages. Maria’s pride in the handsome spire shows a love of display equal to her future husband’s plus she is happy with the distance the church is from the house. Which implies that the physical gap might become a spiritual gap.
Crawford’s plans for Thornton Lacy are radical; the farmyard must be removed, the principal rooms rotated, the church yard shut out, etc. He wants to change the nature of the place make it into something it’s not (bad). Edmund states that very little of this will happen and that it does need a bit of improving, but very little to make it a comfortable gentleman’s residence.
This idea of excessive change being dangerous to an estate highlights the problems with the theatre – the actors are trying to turn Mansfield Park into a theatre (i.e. a whole culture is at stake). All of the characters are revealed by their conduct in the play, Mr Yates plays a seducer an ultimately he will seduce Julia, Maria plays a fallen women which she comes by leaving her husband for Mr Crawford, etc. Henry Crawford the best actor of them all continues to play roles; even in his courtship of Fanny he enjoys the public display of it.
After having read this chapter on Mansfield Park I feel like I understand it more and I have a greater respect for Austen’s skills as an author. Not an incident is wasted they all highlight character and lead to the inevitable conclusion (even the game of Speculation – Mary plays had and wins the game but it’s not worth the cost, Fanny wants to cheat herself but can’t and Henry Crawford tries to manipulate them all).