Mansfield Park, Entry 1

There are several things on which I wish to comment in this post, and will attempt to organize it in the most logical manner based on my observations. In this instance, I will list my observations chronologically rather than by topic.

First, I found it rather interesting that Sir Thomas Bertram was looking for ways to assist Frances Ward (Price) after her marrying “to disoblige her family.” Even though, as Austen states, Frances “could hardly have made a more untoward choice,” Sir Thomas, “from a general wish of doing right,” wanted to be able to help provide for his sister’s family. Based upon first impressions, then, Sir Thomas is not too terrible a person at all.

In comparison to the initial presentation of Thomas Bertram, then, Frances Ward’s husband, a man with “A large and still increasing family…disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor, and a very small income to supply their wants” hardly measures up (5-6).

Subsequently, when young Fanny finds herself at Mansfield Park, in the society of those with higher social standing and more refined behaviors, one can hardly fault Sir Thomas for the following caution he issues to Mrs. Norris:

“There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris,” observed Sir Thomas, “as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up; how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram (12).

Within the caution, though, surfaces compassion for a girl Sir Thomas has never before encountered. Again, as before, it appears that he is quite the gentleman when it comes to looking after the welfare of others and caring for relations as their needs arise.

On the very next page, we’re introduced to the idea that Sir Thomas has a “most untoward gravity of deportment,” which apparently cannot make up for his attempts to be “conciliating” toward Fanny, and so she immediately reckons on Lady Bertram as “the less aweful character of the two (13).” Such a discovery is, again, not a stain on Sir Thomas’ character. For a young girl raised in a household under the care of a disabled, drunken father, encountering a man entirely in possession of himself would seem intimidating. Again, on page 20, Austen informs us of the fact that, “though truly an anxious father, [Sir Thomas] was not outwardly affectionate, and the reserve of his manner repressed all the flow of [the children’s] spirits before him.” Is not such behavior what was expected of titled men in the Regency era? Aloofness and a bit of a sense of grandeur? Of course children would find ssuch deportment off-putting. That is, however, unless this is the beginning of the peek into Sir Thomas’ deficiencies.

This, at least, brings us to Chapter 3 – and I believe I’ll save that entry until tomorrow, so as not to appear long-winded.

All references in this post – and future posts, unless otherwise noted – are from the Penguin Classics version of Mansfield Park. Citation is as follows:

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. London: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.

Beginning Mansfield Park

As I finished Sense and Sensibility, I was wondering about which Austen book to read next. Then, I happened to get the stomach flu or some such thing, and spent a day on the couch watching movies. After I watched Shakespeare in Love, an absolute sick day imperative, I went on to watch Mansfield Park (the version with Frances O’Connor, Embeth Davidtz, Jonny Lee Miller, etc.) and decided that’s the book on which I would next focus. I read the book already, though it was some time ago, so it’s necessary for me to re-read the text in order to analyze the work. I’ve read quite a few chapters already, and have quite a few thoughts which I will shortly share, as I am on Spring Break and have the time.

Well, I finished one book.

Although I was disappointed in my quest for a disappointing father figure (with one only very minor exception in Mr. Palmer), I have to admit that I found Austen’s first official publication enjoyable. I can’t believe, having a Jane Austen action figure as I do, that I hadn’t read it before now.

That being said, here are my final thoughts about Sense and Sensibility. This may take a while.

Mr. Palmer

Remarkably like Mr. Bennet, Mr. Palmer was “a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman.” Well, in an age where marriages were arranged to increase fortune far more often than as a love match, it was quite astute of Austen to say he was “soured,” rather than saying that he should have known better (80-81). One can hardly find fault in him for adhering to the standard norms of society. Oh wait, Jane Austen can. Every heroine ends up with her man based on a good, strong, attachment – not an empty-headed match based on society’s expectations.

There is this snippet, however:

“Mr. Palmer maintained the common, but unfatherly opinion among his sex, of all infants being alike; and though [Mrs. Jennings] could plainly perceive at different times the most striking resemblance between this baby and every one of his relations on both sides, there was no convincing his father of it; no persuading him to believe that it was not exactly like every other baby of the same age; nor could he even be brought to acknowledge the simple proposition of its being the finest child in the world” (175).

That definitely is not a real black mark against his character, or cause for nominating him as a disappointing father figure, despite Austen’s use of “unfatherly” and the fact that he wasn’t entirely impressed with his wrinkled-raisin newborn. I for one know that in contemporary society, not all men are “into” how absolutely adorable newborn babies are, nor can they, like a woman can, pick out the child’s resemblance to random family members. So, for Mr. Palmer, no harm, no foul.

Lady Middleton

How lovely is it that Lady Middleton can maintain absolutely no control over her children at all?

“‘John is in such spirits to-day!’ said she, on his taking Miss Steele’s pocket handkerchief, and throwing it out of the window. ‘He is full of monkey tricks.’

And soon afterwards, on the second boy’s violently inching one of the same lady’s fingers, she fondly observed, “How playful William is!'”

The above scenario plays in perfectly with Austen’s presentation of how Lady Middleton didn’t care for Elinor and Marianne: “Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured, and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.”

Wow. How loaded can an explanation of such an empty-headed woman’s feelings be? Well, pretty loaded.

“Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured…” My interpretation: Lady Middleton = self-involved, vapid wench who likes to always feel that either she or her children are at the center of everyone’s attention.

“…and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical:” Of course we all know that well-read, educated women were nothing more than a danger to themselves and others.

“perhaps without knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify.” Lady Middleton, as I said above, is vapid. She considers the Miss Dashwoods to be satirical without even having a complete understanding of what it actually means to be satirical. But, of course, because it was not necessary for a woman to be educated enough to understand the basis of her opinions, Lady Middleton’s opinion of the girls was entirely justified and the fact that she was unaware of the meaning of satirical was entirely insignificant. I. love. Austen.

Mrs. Dashwood

Well, I set out looking for a disappointing father figure, and found a bit of a disappointing matriarch instead. When Mrs. Jennings asks the Miss Dashwoods to accompany her to London, Mrs. Dashwood takes no issue with the prospect, and gives her consent for the girls to go. Elinor, however, experiences some disquiet, and she

made no further direct opposition to the plan, and merely referred it to her mother’s decision, from whom however she scarcely expected to receive any support in her endeavour to prevent a visit which she could not approve of for Marianne, and which on her own account she had particular reasons to avoid” (108).

Well, let’s first look at the phrase “scarcely expected to receive any support.” The phrase in and of itself contains a negative connotation, but then added to the fact that Elinor herself did not approve of the visit to town because of her concern for Marianne seeing Willoughby, a concern with entirely credible foundations considering the uncertainty of Marianne and Willoughby’s engagement.

Then, when all is settled, though, Mrs. Dashwood makes her apology to Marianne, as Marianne attempts to apologize for her own “folly.” “‘Rather say your mother’s imprudence, my child,’ said Mrs. Dashwood; she must be answerable'” (249, not my emphasis).

So, then, Mrs. Dashwood is not entirely irredeemable, and at any rate, I didn’t set out to examine mothers in the Austen novels. I just thought the arc of “detached mother” to “I’m-so-sorry-I-should-have-been-more-involved-mother” interesting.

Favorite quote:
“I have no notion of people’s making such a to-do about money and greatness” (182).

Thank you, Jane. Speaking in terms of a contemporary context, I find the above quote ironically pertinent. With all the furor over teachers, how much money we make, how hard we work, what we do, etc., it’s true – I absolutely don’t understand why people are making such a big deal about teachers’ money, and not such a big deal about the money made by “great” entities such as GE, who get what are in fact ridiculous tax breaks that amount to more money than I will likely ever make in my lifetime. I don’t want to overly editorialize a current situation based on a single line from a novel written 200 years ago, so I’m done.

Sense and Sensibility Reading and Thoughts – Entry 2

Well, I’ve been reading more and more, and I’ve come to several conclusions:

1. Being more than half-way through the novel, I can say with near certainty that I’m not likely to find a faulty father figure, apart from the previous reference to Mr. Dashwood the elder.

2. I really, truly dislike Fanny Dashwood. She is, along with Caroline Bingley, one of the Austen characters I detest the most; a credit, I suppose, to Austen for writing the characters so well.

Perhaps, after I’m done with my current exploration, I could focus on detestable female characters in her novels.

I’ll be done with Sense and Sensibility soon, so I’ll be able to write my last “Reading and Thoughts” entry; unfortunately, I’ll be focusing mainly on my reaction to the novel more than examining father figures.

Live and learn, though. Exploration is the only method of discovering that there is another option.

Sense and Sensibility Reading and Thoughts – Entry 1

I’ve been, as I mentioned, reading Sense and Sensibility in my investigation of Jane Austen father figures. Since the novel deals with the family surviving Mr. Dashwood, mentions of father figures have so far been a bit scarce. One exception is the beginning of the novel, where Austen discusses the fact that the late Mr. Henry Dashwood’s will had given his remaining family “as much disappointment as pleasure (3)” hardly an indictment of his character or actions. However, one could question his decision to bequeath his estate to his son and grandson without provision for his current wife and daughters, with the exception of the girls being set to receive a thousand pounds a piece.

More interesting upon further reading was the behavior of Mr. John Dashwood, who let his wife talk him out of honoring the dying wishes of his father to look after “the interest of his mother-in-law and sisters (4).” After all, since she successfully bargained John Dashwood down until ultimately convincing him that “[his] father had no idea of your giving them any money at all (9),” one must refrain from recommending his strength of will as a Victorian man. However,  lack of sensibility to his wife’s agenda aside, as he is not a father-figure to any of the main characters in the novel, criticism of him can be lumped in with criticism of another nonsensical male character, Mr. Collins, a discussion fit for an entirely different paper.

And so I come to my final observation for the day, as I have unfortunately not read much farther than the exchange on which I would like to focus. The passage in question involves a conversation between Elinor and Colonel Brandon as they are discussing Marianne:

“No,” replied Elinor; “her opinions are all romantic.”

“Or, rather, as I believe, she considers them impossible to exist.”

“I believe she does. But how she contrives it without reflecting on the character of her own father, who had himself two wives, I know not (40).”

And away we go! Here the reader finds a classic Austen editorial on society. Hiding her criticism inside a sisterly admonition against romantic insensibility, Elinor declares Marianne’s romantic views antithetical to the idea of their father having two wives. She also references his character, upon which she believes Marianne must “reflect” in order to provide her with continued guidance away from her romantic ideas. Why would one have to reflect on their father having taken a second wife? Apart from saying that “by a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son” (3), Austen has not yet elaborated on the situation.

Obviously, I have much more to find beyond page 44.

Note: All references in this brief analysis are to The Modern Library’s version of Sense and Sensibility.

Austen, Jane. Sense and sensibility. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

A curiosity about curiosity…

My 12th grade students are working on a research project. To help them, I decided to provide them with a model of how I decided on my own research topic. So, to give them a helping hand toward the right researching direction, I gave them the following fill-in-the-blank template:

I am researching __________________ to find out (who, what, where, when, why, how)_____________ in order to understand _____________________.

My model ended up looking like this:

I am researching Jane Austen novels to find out what the deal is with the father-type figures in her works, and how the issues repeat themselves in order to understand if there was an event or something else in her life that influenced the way she wrote about father figures.

Well, my students “got” what I was trying to help them “get,” and they narrowed down their topic appropriately. However, in the process, they asked, “Why do you care about that?”

I had to think about my response…but in the end, it ended up being, “Because I’m curious about the topic.” Therein, I believe, is the disconnect in some of today’s students. They don’t understand that sometimes, there is a curiosity inherent in some people about things like connections between literary works, the people that wrote them, and the history of both. Not only that, but some of them do not possess such a curiosity.

Contemporary students are so accustomed, thanks to the “drill and kill” mentality and single-answer possibilities of standardized testing, to looking for the “one answer,” that they either don’t take the time to think about other possibilities, or, an even more depressing possibility, they don’t know how.

I believe that one of the reasons students don’t possess curiosity or don’t develop it is because they’ve been “conditioned” for standardized testing rather than for developing their intellectual curiosity and critical thinking capacities. I also believe that a deprivation of humanities is connected to the conditioning for standardized testing. As educators, we’re forced to focus on development of testing skills rather than development of thinking skills.

New Sensation…

So, as I was watching the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma the other night, and I spent a few moments explaining the relationships of the people in the book/film to my significant other, I thought of an idea for a new literary research paper. Mind you, I’m not currently taking any courses; my application for my Master’s in Humanities is still pending. My idea centers on the father figures in Austen’s works. I’m sure someone else has already focused on this, but, just like the time I took an entry-level Shakespeare course at a different University after already acing senior-level courses on Shakespeare, I believe a different perspective is always good. So, having just finished Pride and Prejudice, I’ve set my sights on Sense and Sensibility, one of the two Austen novels I’ve not yet read in their entirety (the other being Northanger Abbey).

At any rate, that’s where I am. Since, however, I generally read for pleasure only at night due to my other obligations (curses to the grading!) this could take quite some time. I’ll post updates to my thinking as I read, as well as  include research that I find during my search. Soon, I’ll try and frame out my ideas on Mr. Bennet. Baby steps toward the big idea, right?