Country Houses - Essay | Norland | Northanger Abbey | Rosings & Pemberley | Hartfield & Donwell Abbey | Sotherton & Mansfield Park | Kellynch Hall
Country Houses in Jane Austen's novels - Mansfield Park
Sotherton & Mansfield Park
When invited to contribute to this session of Profiles of Jane Austens Country Houses, three rather practical considerations influenced my selection of Mansfield Park.
First of all, with the latest controversial Hollywood version shortly to arrive in our cinemas, a close reading of Janes Austens screenplay (!) seemed a Good Idea.
Secondly, of the six completed novels in Jane Austens oeuvre, only two actually carry the name of a house as their titles: Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. Ah-hah, thought I, that should simplify the task of building up a profile of stately home and its owner ... sure to be lots of detailed description.
Thirdly, being a relative new-comer to the Jane Austen Society and not yet having settled into the routine of reading all six of the novels annually ... plus the unfinished ones and the juvenilia over Christmas ... oh, and of course, Janes letters every evening before going to sleep ... I confess to having read Mansfield Park only once, and that a long time ago. But I vaguely remembered that there was considerable focus on the 18th century passion for improvement of the estate. Great. This had to be fertile ground for literary sleuthing.
Well, as you know, there are five houses featured in the novel: Mr. Rushworths Sotherton, the Rev. Dr. Grants Parsonage at Mansfield, Edmund Bertrams future Vicarage at Thornton Lacey, the Price family home in Portsmouth, and Sir Thomas Bertrams Mansfield Park. The last is clearly the most important house, yet compared with the wealth of detail amassed in the description of Sotherton, (over some three chapters), very little direct, material description is forthcoming. This situation is at first puzzling, but there is indeed a sound reason for it. A detour is appropriate before proceeding to Sir Thomas stately home.
The account of the famous day at Sotherton is a kind of prologue, a highly symbolic prefiguration of the important issues to be explored in the subsequent account of life at Mansfield Park itself. And what a busy prologue it is, bursting with proud detail, or to use Jane Austens word, consequence. We are introduced first of all to the impressive scale of Sotherton, thanks to Miss Bertrams proprietorial running commentary to her carriage companions: the woods; the ancient manorial residence (Elizabethan); the great estate which encompasses a village, complete with alms-houses, stewards house, church and parsonage. Then we travel a mile through the park noting its fine timber and in the distance, a half-mile long avenue of long-established oak trees.
We arrive and are shown over the house. Its sheer size and opulence are emphasised: lofty rooms; shining floors; solid mahogany, rich damask; marble; gilding and carving; pictures in abundance - the larger part are family portraits. Next, a visit to the chapel, which also is described in graphic detail: spacious, handsome and richly furnished; a family gallery; lots more mahogany; crimson velvet.
Outside in the grounds there are descriptions of the turf and shrubs, plants, pheasants, a wilderness, lawns bounded by high walls, a bowling-green, a terrace walk, iron palisades, a wood and, of high symbolic import, a ha-ha and a locked iron gate preventing access to the park beyond. Most of this is compressed into one and a half chapters.
Yet in spite of all this specificity, Jane Austen is not really interested in the house and grounds for their own sake - they are merely assets. Her primary concern lies with the relationships between the people in them. The architecture - be it house or landscape - is specified purely to suggest character and point a moral (1):
the whole episode at Sotherton is very much concerned with the moral issue of crossing boundaries, the boundaries of 18th century social and sexual mores. It doesnt take much imagination to see what Jane Austen wants us to see; the symbolism is unambiguous.
From the very beginning of the novel, one perceives that most of the characters are self-centred, but at Sotherton it is made abundantly clear how little they care about the wider repercussions of personal behaviour on social stability. They kick against the physical boundaries - the wall, the ha-ha, the locked iron gate (with the missing key) feature prominently. Maria and Julia Bertram, Henry and Mary Crawford - even Edmund Bertram to a lesser degree - chafe at these restrictions. Fanny Price, on the other hand, spends much of the time just sitting silently on a garden seat, waiting and observing the goings-on with mounting agitation and disquiet.
The most important aspect of this highly symbolic section is the function it serves in four crucial areas of the novels overall structure:
I believe these abstracts are personified in the respective owners of Sotherton and Mansfield Park: silly, superficial, vacuous, indecisive, inept Mr. Rushworth - and well-meaning, worthy, albeit flawed, Sir Thomas Bertram.
In the Sotherton episode, all the characters, with the sole exception of Fanny, represent this restlessness, movement, change. She alone symbolises rest, stability, immovability. These much more abstract concepts constitute the complex issues which are embedded in the subsequent narrative, in the events and conflicts which are enacted within the internalised boundaries of Mansfield Park.
Mansfield Park is portrayed not so much as a place of bricks and mortar and impressive grounds, as a way of life to be defended against interlopers, against the improvers. That is why there is so little material description and what there is, is fairly generalised.
In the space of 400 pages, we learn only that it is a handsome house, (probably Palladian), a grand house, a spacious modern-built house, a house with large rooms, a drawing room, a breakfast room, a billiard room connected to a study by folding doors, a great staircase, Maria and Julia Bertrams apartments, a school-room (now Fannys own apartment), a little white attic, a servants hall. Mention is made of a sofa, a pianoforte, Sir Thomas bookcase, silver forks, napkins, finger glasses; and (in Fannys room) her plants, books, writing desk, a fireplace (never lit), a faded footstool (Julias cast-off), three transparencies, a collection of family workboxes, netting boxes. Descriptions of the grounds are confined to mention of a shrubbery and observations that the park is five miles round, containing game, stables, gardens, plantations.
On the surface, these sparse details read with all the impersonal dryness of Northanger Abbeys hidden laundry list. Nevertheless, it is in the gradual accumulation of small but significant details that Jane Austen builds up a very strong picture of societal values of her day and, most importantly, of her class - both their strengths and their weaknesses - and the kind of attacks to which they were being subjected.
Obviously, its outside the scope of this short talk to explore the detail. It is important, however, to remind ourselves that historically, Mansfield Park is set in a specific milieu of country life. Its about responsible opposed to irresponsible custodianship of land Sir Thomas Bertram contrasted to Mr. Rushworth. Its about selfishness opposed to a sense of responsibility towards a community. These are intangibles, which is why we are given so little material description of Mansfield Park Estate: its not treated as a collection of material assets to impress
other people - as we saw in the presentation of Sotherton.
I think an appropriate conclusion would be to quote from Alistair Duckworths illuminating book, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austens Novels:
* the term for one thing applied to another with which it has become closely associated in experience. Thus the crown or the sceptre can stand for a king.
|Harlestone House, Northamptonshire, which has some
of the elements of Sotherton. From Jane Austen Town and Country Style, 1990, by
Susan Watkins, Thames & Hudson.
Maria Bertram wants to escape from Mansfield Park. When Sir Thomas returns from Antigua, she finds his presence an unbearable restraint. She longs for a house in town, a country estate, a large fortune and the freedom to travel where and when she chooses. All this, she thinks, will be achieved by a marriage to the wealthy Mr Rushworth. Ironically, it is Mr Rushworth himself who warns his future bride that she will only be exchanging her life of restraint for a different form of imprisonment. He does it unknowingly, being a very stupid man, and Maria fails to heed his warning.
Mr Rushworth, recently returned from a visit to his friend Smiths estate at Compton, is feeling dissatisfied with his own ancestral home. I declare, when I got back to Sotherton yesterday, it looked like a prison - quite a dismal old prison. (MP p.53) This is the very first thing we learn about the house and everything that we hear about Sotherton from this time on bears out the fact that his home will indeed become a metaphorical prison for Maria Bertram.
Edmund Bertram describes the house for Mary Crawford:
Later, Mrs Rushworth conducts a tour through its rooms:
It sounds grand, if rather uncomfortable, but the imagery of the prison is never far away. Each room looks out to iron palisades and gates, the lawn is bounded on each side by a high wall (MP p.90), the terrace walk backed by iron palisades, and commanding a view over them into the tops of the trees (MP p.90) and everywhere locked gates, ha-has and doors keep people in and out. The house is oppressive and after touring the ground floor the young people, with one wish for air and liberty (MP p.90) go rushing out a side door. However, the freedom Maria seeks is not to be found outside either. The locked door into the wilderness gives her a feeling of restraint too. I cannot get out (MP p.99), she complains to Henry Crawford. Finally, she can endure the lack of freedom no longer. Taunted beyond endurance by Henry, she decides she can wait no longer for the legal master of the house to return with the key: I certainly can get out that way, and I will (MP p. 99), she insists. On this occasion her gown escapes harm from the metal spikes, but before too long Maria is a fallen woman and the spikes of public retribution will tear her reputation and character to shreds. Julia, arriving on the scene soon afterwards, follows her sisters illegal exit around the gate, thus foreshadowing her own elopement in the wake of her sisters adultery.
Maria Bertrams progress through Mansfield Park is graphically visualised by Jane Austen as a movement from one form of imprisonment to another, and her fate is vividly depicted through prison imagery. Mansfield Park is, in fact, a novel about freedom - moral, sexual and emotional - and most of its characters blunder from one form of confinement to the next in their search for greater liberty. The language of restraint and confinement is everywhere - the reference to slavery, Henrys role in the play which includes a spell in prison, Fannys term of imprisonment in the little house at Portsmouth etc. The subtle depiction of Sotherton Court as a prison reinforces all the important themes of the novel.
It is interesting to note that in November 1813 Jane Austen actually visited a prison. Accompanying her brother Edward, who had to inspect gaols as part of his magisterial duties, Jane Austen felt gratified at being allowed to look through Canterbury Gaol. As she walked its stone corridors and passed through its iron gates, did she, one wonders, think of the prison she had created in her recently completed novel, Mansfield Park?
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, Oxford University Press, 1946
Jane Austens Letters, ed by Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press
|Wollaton Hall, near Nottingham, built 1580-88, represents (with Hardwick Hall and Longleat) the very best of Elizabethan architecture.||
16 August 2000