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Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Child in a “Highly Cultivated Garden”: Mansfield Park vs. Jane Eyre

The following comes from Monica Fairview, author of The Other Darcy, The Darcy Cousins, and the upcoming Steampunk Darcy, which I will be telling you more about soon. Monica wanted to drop by today to talk about something that's always struck me, and something I think is well worth exploring and discussing: the similarities between Mansfield Park and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.  When I was younger, I couldn't help but feel they had similarities in the early treatment of their main characters, of course, but as I got older, I found they made me uncomfortable in a very similar way...
Click through to see what Monica has to say, and to share your thoughts on the similarities - and differences - between these two books. And make sure to check out Monica's involvement in this year's Austen conversations!

Dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana...
The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group; saying, "She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation, that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner-- something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were--she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children."
So begins Mansfield Park. A child who doesn’t belong is scolded for not behaving in a more socially appropriate manner. She’s the outsider, excluded from the world of people who are more confident and happier than themselves. It’s a catch 22.  Unless she behaves as people expect, she is excluded, but how is she supposed to become one of the “contented, happy, little children” when she had “dispensed from joining the group.
That is how Fanny Price feels when she arrives in Mansfield Park. Of course, as you well know, the quote I gave is not from the opening of Jane Austen’s novel. It’s from Jane Eyre, but I’m struck by the similarities in how the two novelists begin their story. I think comparing the way Austen and Bronte present their two heroines is a very useful approach to understanding Mansfield Park.
As in the scene described above, Fanny’s unhappiness is presented as a marked contrast to the tableau of a happy family: “They were a remarkably fine family, the sons very well-looking, the daughters decidedly handsome, and all of them well grown and forward for their age.” They are secure, confident and accomplished, while Fanny is timid, small, and out of her league.
Like in Jane Eyre, we see an apparently benevolent aunt on a sofa, but in fact the sofa symbolizes indolence, selfishness and an inability to see another person’s point of view. When initially asked whether Fanny can come to live with them, Lady Bertram’s only concern is whether Fanny will disturb her pug. Later she is described as “a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed, on a sofa,” who has little time for her children and none at all for Fanny.
In Mansfield Park, Mrs. Norris actively encourages the girls not to think of Fanny as an equal, since, although “your papa and mamma are so good as to bring her up with you, it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are; on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference.” In Jane Eyre, “Master” Reed, Jane’s cousins, reminds her that she is “a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen's children like us, and eat the same meals we do.” In both cases, they have to suffer not only their relative’s contempt, but that of the servants, too. Jane is treated very badly by the servants, especially Miss Abbott, though Bessy sometimes takes her side. In Fanny’s case, even “the servants sneered at her clothes.”
Not only is the girls’ inferiority openly expressed, but they are both constantly being reminded that they should be thankful. From the beginning, Fanny is “quite overcome by Mrs. Norris’s admonitions,” who emphasizes “her wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behaviour which it ought to produce.” In Jane Eyre, Jane is also made to feel guilty when she steps out of line.
“"You ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed:  she keeps you:  if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poorhouse.” I had nothing to say to these words: they were not new to me…This reproach of my dependence had become a vague sing-song in my ear: very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible.”
As in Jane Eyre, the fact that Fanny is not a pretty or charming child makes a quite a difference to how she is treated: “She was a timid child, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty.”
“I was a discord in Gateshead Hall: I was like nobody there… I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child--though equally dependent and friendless--Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence more complacently; her children would have entertained for me more of the cordiality of fellow-feeling; the servants would have been less prone to make me the scapegoat of the nursery.”
The beginning of the two novels is similar, but they part ways because the two characters react completely differently to their circumstances. Partly this is accidental. Jane Eyre does not intend to rebel, but the injustice of her situation when her cousins strikes her and causes her to bleed makes her lose her temper.  
I resisted all the way: a new thing for me, and a circumstance which greatly strengthened the bad opinion Bessie and Miss Abbot were disposed to entertain of me.  The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself…  I was conscious that a moment's mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.”
Jane Eyre’s rebellion leads to her being removed from Gateshead Hall and into Mr. Brocklehurst’s nightmarish school. In contrast, Fanny’s placid behavior proves to be an advantage, enough that she “became occasionally an acceptable companion. Though unworthy…their pleasures and schemes were sometimes of a nature to make a third very useful, especially when that third was of an obliging, yielding temper.” The general conclusion is: “Fanny was good natured enough.”
Mansfield Park is the “highly cultivated garden” of which Charlotte Bronte speaks when she contemptuously dismisses Jane Austen as an author. Apart from the beginning, Mansfield Park is in so many ways the opposite of Jane Eyre in every way. Jane rebels against fate, refusing to accept her role in life, though it costs her dear – she almost loses her life twice. Fanny, on the other hand, takes kindness where she can find it (in Edmund) and tries to keep a low profile, taking refuge in her moral superiority as a shield against their contempt.  
Ultimately, it is Edmund’s kindness which is Fanny’s salvation. If John Reed had not been physically abusive, if he had been kind instead, like Edmund, would Jane Eyre’s fate have been different, I wonder? The pivotal moment when the two girls’ future is defined hinges on the behavior of their older male cousins.
The first two chapters of Mansfield Park are crucial to understanding what happens in the rest of the novel.  It certainly helped me understand Fanny’s hero-worship of Edmund far better. Comparing Fanny’s situation with Jane Eyre’s is a reminder that Fanny had to be submissive. The alternative would have been for her to be sent back into poverty. In fact, that is precisely what happens when Fanny actually defies her uncle and refuses to marry Henry Crawford. She is send back – and we are made aware of how awful her home conditions are when she is forced to live there again.
What do you think? Could Fanny have rebelled like Jane Eyre?
Monica Fairview

Monica Fairview is the author of The Other Mr. Darcy and The Darcy Cousins. Currently based in Jane Austen country, Monica lived in the USA for many years. She loves to visit historic houses, to write and to chuckle. Monica’s new novel, STEAMPUNK DARCY: A PRIDE AND PREJUDICE INSPIRED COMEDY ADVENTURE will be released by White Soup Press on October 15th.  

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  1. +JMJ+

    Jane Eyre is my favourite novel, so I really appreciated this post! It certainly puts Charlotte Bronte's critique of Jane Austen in a lot more perspective. Thanks! =)

    1. A oleasure, Enbrethiliel. I love Jane Eyre as well, so I was quite excited when I was re-reading Mansfield Park to see the similarities.

  2. Ooh, interesting piece! I hadn't really considered the similarities, but there are quite a few, aren't there! The obvious difference is a friend in the new household. To be fair the Bertram children aren't unkind to Fanny in the same way the Reeds are, she's not really on their radars. I can't see Fanny doing as well as Jane in the circumstances though. When presented with an opportunity, Jane tends to take it and make the most of it whereas Fanny has a lot less get up and go. Also, the way the Fanny gets worse physically when she goes home to Portsmouth leads me to suspect that she would probably have been struck down with typhus at Lowood school and it would have been a very short book :)

    1. Why do I get the feeling, Ceri, that you aren't one of Fanny's biggest fans? Do you really want to send her off to Lowood? ;(

      But seriously, I do have to agree, that Fanny is much more like poor Helen than like Jane.

      Thanks for your insightful comment.

  3. Good points! I never thought about the similarities and I love both stories. While I think their early circumstances are similar, I don't think the two girls are similar at all and like Ceri, I don't think the cousins' behavior toward their poor relation similar so I don't think Fanny would have done well in Jane's shoes or vice versa.

    Thanks for putting this intriguing post together, Monica!

    1. I think you bring up an interesting question, Sophia, which is whether Jane's character would have been different if she'd grown up in the Bertram household. It would be really fun to reimagine Jane in Mansfield Park.

  4. I wonder what might have happened had Fanny's Uncle Bertram stayed at Mansfield Park, instead of traveling to the plantation. Would he have defended Jane and noticed more about his family's dynamics?

    And when shall we expect your story about Jane Eyre visiting Mansfield Park? XD

  5. Hello junewilliams7 There's a thought. It would be a fun type of mashup!! ;)

    Mansfield Park would have been very different if Uncle Bertram hadn't left, and perhaps he would have protected Jane from her cousin. Speculating about "what ifs" could take us in so many directions... which is why I love writing JA vairations/inspired/sequels.

    Thanks for stopping by, junewilliams7.

    1. It's sort of off-topic, but might I ask your opinion on what Uncle Bertram and his eldest son talked for all those months they were together? They were on the boat for weeks at a time, and then months (a year?) in Antigua. Did they never talk about family relationships?

  6. That's interesting....I never compared the two, but the circumstance ARE similar. That makes me wonder if it was merely a common theme in reality, for poor orphaned cousins to be treated thusly. I LOVE Jane Eyre....Mansfield Park, not so much. Despite Jane's rebellion (which we'd see, in contemporary times, as a more positive trait than Fanny's passive acceptance), I think they share common traits of trying to be the best version of themselves that they can be- not only what they're expected to be as women, but in the soul/mind as well. And yet....I suppose it's Jane's quiet criticism of those around her (in seeing the machinations and miscommunications for what they are) that endears me more to her than to Fanny. Both suffer in silence, and have the patience of angels, but I can't help but feel as if Fanny is passive, whereas Jane is active. Hrmm.....

    1. Hello Beth, I just spotted your comment. I like your comparison -- the idea that both women have a moral vision to which they aspire. Jane, however, is post-Romantic in the sense that Jane Eyre struggles against her stormy nature and she doesn't always win, and the message at the end is that being true to yourself is more important than external morality, whereas with Fanny it's the same message, but her vision of things is more rational and so strong emotions are not the moral compass they are in Jane Eyre. I find it fascinating to compare the two.

    2. Hello Beth, I just spotted your comment. I like your comparison -- the idea that both women have a moral vision to which they aspire. Jane, however, is post-Romantic in the sense that Jane Eyre struggles against her stormy nature and she doesn't always win, and the message at the end is that being true to yourself is more important than external morality, whereas with Fanny it's the same message, but her vision of things is more rational and so strong emotions are not the moral compass they are in Jane Eyre. I find it fascinating to compare the two.


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