Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mansfield Park: Is this Pygmalion?

My first attempt at Jane Austen Blogging begins with a confession: I hate Mansfield Park.

Perhaps that's not fair.

I really, really enjoy about the first, what, two thirds of the book? But once I get to Henry Crawford's proposal to Fanny, the second-hand embarrassment and anger just boil over in me. I have to put the book down. I don't think I've completely a successful re-read in years.

What is it about this book? Austen wrote six novels (and change), and all but one of them impress me with their progressive ideas. Her work is intensely feminist, feminist before there's really a word for it. I'll fight you on this one. They critique the complete ridiculousness of gendered expectations and women's positions as Austen knew them in fairly plain language. Austen's dry wit on the subject sustain me here in 2015.

Mansfield Park does not ignite my feminist passions. That or I am doing Austen a disservice--how genuinely I am torn! Is that ending a happy one? Have the principle characters been doled out their just rewards? Maria disgraced, Julia severed (sort of), Tom snatched from the jaws of death, Mary generally disapproved of. Henry is free to prowl again? And Fanny...marries...Edmund.

Edmund Bertram is the most dismal hero her body of work has to offer. I hate him. He’s awful. He’s so awful. He treats the women in his life absolutely dreadfully. He's arrogant, self-satisfied, haughty, and irresponsible. Worst of all, he has an extraordinarily long list of things a women ought to be, while he himself is a piece of junk who goes ahead and pursues women who plainly don't fit his ideal. This is my central difficulty. He strikes such a discordant note in Austen's kingdom!

Mary Crawford is an absolute goddess who had the misfortune to fall in love with him. I can't defend her as a nice person, of course, but she's a woman who thinks deeply and knows what she wants. These are traits that Austen's narratives tend to celebrate in women. Because she is wonderful, she out and out tells him that his moral imperiousness is tiresome and boring and that he’s going to make an awful priest. Edmund returns her affections (sort of) (keep in mind that he is terrible). She makes it pretty clear that she doesn’t want a life in the country nor the responsibilities of a priest’s wife. Why should she? That's not a life she's ever known. She's not particularly religious and isn't likely to see many of the people she knows and loves if she settles in an unknown county (a theme Austen certainly explores in all of her work). At no point does Edmund consider compromising for this woman he supposedly loves. He doesn’t consider her wishes like…at all. He's made his choice. There are other options, but he doesn't even consider them long enough to reject them. The test for his affections is happily embracing everything he’s been planning to do all along. Why does he hinge that relationship on her changing? Why must she bend to his whims?

The answer is this: Edmund is terrible. He doesn't want to be changed by a wife and a lover. He doesn't want an exchange. Women are accessories to his puffed-up idiom.

He doesn’t change for Fanny. Poor Fanny! I don’t know why she loves him. Fanny is as tedious as Edmund in her way, but Austen much more clearly demonstrates why she is the way she is, and at least she has some true goodness in her. She annoys me, but I can look beyond that to see her merit. She’s timid, but stands true to her convictions and is able to love people who don’t really deserve it. She has a strict moral web. It's not one I always agree with, but when you consider how much of her life has been defined by abuse and neglect, it's admirable that she has such a strong worldview.

But I don’t think Edmund marries her for these reasons. I think he marries her because she’s never (ever) been allowed to incubate her own wishes. I think he marries her because she’s not Mary Crawford, who has injured his pride by not wanting to change everything she’s ever valued for love of him. She’s a good girl in his estimation: Quiet, good in the boring Christian sense, and totally enamored with him. He consults her opinions, but does whatever the fuck he wants anyway. She validates his bullshit. He tries to please Fanny, but only when it gratifies him and absolutely does not inconvenience him. 

Think of the necklace chain! How pleased with himself he is for having bought her a chain for Fanny's brother's sweet gift--plain, boring, too-late. His speeches on the matter drip with false humility. Fanny is too much his project, too much under his thumb for me to ever find any romance or joy in this relationship.

To marry Mary Crawford—who loved him! Who would have married him! Who would have, I think, compromised a bit!—he would have had to give an inch. When Edmund marries Fanny, he doesn’t have to give anything. She’ll support all of his bullshit and never truly make him question whether or not he’s right.
I hate Edmund. Maybe Austen hated him, too. But that’s makes this a much drearier book than I ever realized.

It’s comforting to remember that Fanny eventually gets some of what she deserves. Namely respect. Yet she spends like ten years of her life absolutely debasing herself and her worth for this man—does so happily, because no one pays any attention to her but manipulative asshole Edmund Bertram. And that’s the central tragedy, isn’t it?

There are some things I try to keep in mind, but none of them have managed to make me like this book. From Austen's vantage point, interest in what was right and Christian morality were caste in quite a different light. Edmund would perhaps come off as less of a humdrum asshole if I could just adjust myself a bit. Still don't like the book. Fanny's character development is, for the time, a surprisingly nuanced examination of how your childhood and upbringing affects your adult self. Still don't like the book.

If I could just have it confirmed, somehow, that Fanny's situation is miserable, that she comes out on top in a lot of ways but is still married to as asshole--maybe I'd be less upset. I wrote a paper on Mansfield Park for 9th grade English. (I think I got a B-.) I've been bothered by this for a good six years. Am I to pity her? Is it fair of me to pity a women who's actually doing pretty well just because her husband is nasty, when so many women of the place and time simply faced that reality? I struggle to point to past women's unhappy marriages and call their whole lives miserable. It doesn't seem fair. But what, then? Has Fanny had to negotiate a painful exchange to get a real adult life? Is Edmund an unfortunate part of the package? Or, dreadful man that he is, does he represent a kind of prize or reward for Fanny?

I like this notion of objectifying men in marriage, but frankly I am not even convinced that Austen hated this character. It is a mistake to think you can only find meaning in art as the artist intended it, but how desperately I wish I knew what Austen meant.

Wikipedia calls Mansfield Park "a pygmalion morality epic." Namely this makes me laugh, but think hard on that imagery. Edmund marries a woman he sculpted. I don't think she knows which bits of her are flesh and which bits of her are plaster anymore.