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<---More Recent 59. Slaves and Mansfield Park 58. Characters/conduct/of her time? Earlier Answers––>

Name:Aurora Leduca
Question 60 I have an assigment for which I have to read two of your books, and I remember a summary of one of your books, but I cannot remember the name. It was about a girl who travels to London to meet her very fashionable cousins. Could you tell me the name? And also, could you recommend the second book, but not Pride and Prejudice, as I have already read that. Please answer as soon as possible, I am going on a holiday on the 20th and would like to take your books to read with me. P.S: I loved Pride and Prejudice
Reply Dear Aurora,

I appreciate your concern over timing and do apologise for the delay. I would not wish to make you uncomfortable my dear, with my answers, but for me your reference to the girl sent to London in the book which is not P&P remains slightly ambiguous. However, you might like the explication: there is little doubt that the closest parallel here this is to Fanny Price of Portsmouth, the humble and hence appropriately shy and retiring cousin of the great folks of Mansfield Park, somewhere in Northamptonshire (though I don’t describe places quite so definitely as my great follower [I’ve read him] Thomas Hardy, so the place of Mansfield could easily slip one’s mind, though elsewhere in the novel it’s clear that I disapprove of the metropolis as the seat of ambition and greed.

As your ‘sent’ implies compulsion and the ‘more sophisticated’ tag applies to Maria and Julia Bertram, the rather spoilt, yet in a way unfortunate daughters of the Great (not-so-Good) Place (their relation to their father is based in fear and alienation, and this will destroy Maria), I think you are referring to that one. The whole novel depends on, or from, Fanny’s initially painful entrée into this more sophisticated world. As far as London is concerned, Marianne Dashwood goes up there to be painfully rejected by the scoundrel Willoughby, and the world of London is certainly more sophisticated than she has known in Devonshire.

Jane Bennet goes to London in P&P to be with her Uncle and Aunt Gardiner and their children, perhaps with hopes of a rencontre with Bingley, and the Bingley sisters no doubt thought her relatively unsophisticated, but we could hardly describe her as ‘sent’. So I think you mean Mansfield--my great book, I think; not everyone agrees, finding the heroine a little prissy, and you might prefer Persuasion for holiday reading, perhaps--a tender love story but with much of my characteristic wit and close writing. Emma is wonderfully entertaining and well plotted, and the individuals speak marvellously, I think –sorry about the self-praise—but many of my readers rather dislike the snobby heroine. Northanger Abbey is huge fun, but lighter—my ‘callowest’ major work; and Sense and Sensibility is moving, but some people feel the end is fudged, with heroine Marianne married off unconvincingly to an ‘old’Colonel. My compromise candidate is—Persuasion, though I did say of that one that the heroine, Anne Elliot, was ‘almost too good for me’.

With best wishes,

Jane Austen.

July 10, 2004 00:10:11 (GMT Time)

Name:Barbara Berman                     Top
Question 59 In Mansfield Park Sir Thomas travels to the Indies on business. Is there reason to think he held slaves? Did Jane Austen know about the slave trade? I do not see well and had difficulty reading your question page.  If its not too much trouble, please send a copy of the answer directly to me.
Reply Dear Barbara,

I’m sorry to hear that your sight is not quite as good as it might be. With respect to Mansfield Park, I did actually make this quite manifestly about contemporary and controversial matters including the slave trade. Sir Thomas Bertram is a plantation owner on Antigua, and his cares and worries over the state of his estate will not automatically attract sympathy. But of course I didn’t make him a wholly sympathetic character anyway. Although he may be said to ‘mean well’ after his fashion, he lacks imagination and thus causes emotional mayhem, including some for Fanny Price, my young heroine and exile from humble Portsmouth to grand Mansfield, who stands in awe of him.

Critics have sometimes written as if they had discovered something here, but I made Antigua and the practice of slavery, as well as slavery as a sort of metaphor a necessary presence in a book which one brilliant critic called ‘visibly ideological’, with felicity and truth (and my father, the academic clergyman George Austen, had responsibilities with respect to properties on that particular isle). In fact it seems clear that my heroine Fanny, whom the narrator at least idealises and loves, though she has her neurotic side, is a friend to the abolition, to quote a character from my next novel, Emma, where the slave trade also gets a disapproving airing, if mainly as metaphor again. There is a famous moment in which Fanny asks Sir Thomas what he thinks of the trade, and she is met with a silence which may indicate boredom with the subject, or embarrassment all round, or perhaps Fanny’s shyness as a poor relation promoted to social glory makes her reluctant to seem to lead the discussion further into controversial waters, or insinuate a special relationship with Sir Thomas himself. But the sympathetic Edmund, Sir Thomas’s younger son, implies that Sir Thomas would not mind having the subject pursued, thanks to a lack of sympathy in the rest of his family which has made them, in general, insufficiently curious about all that he no doubt has to endure by way of danger and responsibility both on Antigua and in getting to and from it.

Fanny, like myself, was a great reader of the poet William Cowper, a liberal abolitionist, especially ‘The Task’ (1785), which treats of the subject (among many others, admittedly), and laments that man ‘finds his brother guilty of a skin/Not coloured like his own.’ I was also myself a fan of the abolitionist writer Thomas Clarkson. Although the emotional emphasis in Mansfield Park (1814) is supposed to be on an attack on the louche mores of Regency England, slavery is a visible theme. Though I couldn’t of course be politically correct in modern terms, I was not quite the hidebound conservative of some critics imaginings. Critics have argued recently that Antigua was a particularly ailing colony and that Sir Thomas’s wealth comes mainly from exploiting his English estate!

With good wishes.

Jane Austen.

July 6, 2004 00:08:19 (GMT Time)

Name:jabeen shuaib                     Top
Question 58 i would be very grateful if you could help me with three questions
1-A note on jane austen's characterization.
2-Jane austen as a conduct novelist.
3-Jane austen as a true product of her age.
Reply Dear jabeen,

You trample on one or two conventions here. Firstly, you address me, not as the brilliant Jane Austen herself, but as if I were some mere miserable critic or something of the sort. Tut tut. You also ask several questions at once. Also your questions are potentially huge in scope but also a bit ambiguous. Yet still I like you, my dear! How likeable you must be!

‘Jane Austen’s characterisation’ could mean a few things. ‘What about Jane Austen’s characterisation?’ one might ask. It sounds as if this might be happiest as a comparative question (how are my characters different from those of other novelists, Victorian novelists or whatever?) One interesting aspect of them is that they tend to appear as ‘binaries’ or double acts or contrasts which almost precede the idea of (sc., ‘rounded’) individuals. Elinor and Marianne are the ‘Sense and Sensibility’ of the title of my first published novel, and the original title was that of the sisters. In a way, although ‘First Impressions’ was my first impression for a title of Pride and Prejudice, the contrast in the way in which the sister-pair Jane and Elizabeth respond to people and the world is the basis of the fiction. Their husbands-to-be also make such a ‘key’ contrast: Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the naïve and the judgemental man. In Persuasion, my last novel, it’s still true that the contrast is more important than the individual, as in the case of the heroine Anne Elliot and her sister, moaning Mary Musgrove née Elliot, or indeed Anne and her snobbish elder sister Elizabeth, famous for ‘heartless elegance’ and not much else. Then again the contrast of Anne and Captain Benwick in their mourning and responses to loss also makes them a twosome of sorts in that novel. My characters are often made out of simple components, so the way they interact with and relate to the others is an important feature of my creative arithmetic here. The sisters Lady Bertram and Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park would be good examples, especially as the former is more or less covered by the ideas ‘stupid’ and ‘more or less asleep (or dead?) much of the time’, whereas Mrs Norris is active, but ‘not in a good way’, especially to my timid heroine, Fanny Price, whom she persecutes. My characters are somewhat posh on the whole, and I have been taxed with snobbery, though I did satirise it—for example, the snobbish and acquisitive General Tilney in Northanger Abbey is revealed as villainous, and people in Sense and Sensibility who pursue ‘money and greatness’ like Mrs Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood née Ferrars are condemned. In my last novel Persuasion I tried to make amends for snobbism, especially by Emma in her novel, by making Captain Harville, the poor invalided-out sailor, a perfect gentlemen, while the perfect gentleman by traditional standards, Sir Walter Elliot, is vain and empty-headed. Fun, though.

Now, conduct books. Mm. Eighteenth-century books which advised people how to conduct themselves. Already a bit ambiguous, with thoughts of goodness or rectitude always shading off into pomposity or conceit, priggery or prissiness. Self-consciously ‘good’ people are a little suspicious in my world—Mr Collins in P&P is one, and he proves to be narrow-minded, sycophantic, and even cruel. ‘Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked’, I insisted to a niece, in a letter. I would never have given my novels titles like Mary Brunton’s Self-Control although in a complex way I too was having a go at describing, ‘How to Live. What to Do’, as the poet’s title has it: do be like Elizabeth, not Lydia; like Anne Elliot not Mary Elliot; like Fanny Price not Mary Crawford (though not everyone likes Fanny–you see how much room morality gets to move in my novels). I fled from novels which were like conduct books, but, in a loose (and sophisticated) way, wrote them myself.

The third question is also something one could write a book about. I am of my age in that I reflect historical events and features, for example the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy, the Slave Trade, and the way I reflect or enter into intellectual debates about matters like feminism, and assumptions about class, rank or status, about love and marriage, where condemning the idea of ‘one great fortune looking out for another’, for example, which was a large part of the marriage-market in my time (the phrase is Catherine Morland’s, the naïve but right-thinking heroine of Northanger Abbey. In my investigation into love, marriage and capitalism I reflected social arrangements and events from novel to novel. To investigate this, you might like to read a novel or two of mine yourself. They won’t bite, you know. Go on. Try them. You might like them.

With best wishes

Jane Austen.

July 2, 2004 21:25:41 (GMT Time)