“There is a great deal more for you to learn:” Mansfield Park and Conduct Novels
It was once a truth universally acknowledged that parents had a moral duty to raise their children to be industrious, virtuous, charitable, and pious, to prepare their offspring for a happy and useful life on earth and salvation thereafter.
Parents were expected to examine and develop the personality traits of their children. For example, Jane Austen’s parents said of their daughters: ‘Cassandra had the merit of having her temper always under command, but that Jane had the happiness of a temper that never required to be commanded.’”
Or we may recall Mrs. Morland in Northanger Abbey, afraid that her daughter Catherine has “been spoilt for home by great acquaintance,” because of her time in Bath. She hurries upstairs to find an improving essay in The Mirror, “anxious to lose no time in attacking so dreadful a malady.” Parents like Mrs. Morland would often turn to written essays with which to exhort their children.
A conduct book–such as Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, with which Mr. Collins bores Lydia in Pride & Prejudice–was typically a collection of essays, sometimes written in letter form, giving advice on conducting a virtuous life. The topics included good manners, education, forming friendships, courtship and so on.
Other examples of popular conduct books for young ladies are: Essays on Various Subjects Principally Designed for Young Ladies, by Hannah More, and A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters, by Dr. John Gregory. These books were best-sellers. No doubt they were often bought by older relations and godparents for the young girls in their lives. Perhaps they were purchased and gifted more often than they were actually read, but at any rate, Hannah More died a wealthy woman!
Her best-selling conduct novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, is about a young man’s search for a virtuous wife. Coelebs and other conduct novels take the moral lessons of the conduct book and place them into the mouths of characters in a novel, who embody various virtues, vices and sins.
In another conduct novel, The Two Cousins, by Elizabeth Pinchard, a spoilt young city cousin comes to live with her intelligent, good-hearted and virtuous country cousin, and is reformed.
Academics such as Professor Mary Waldron have suggested that Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s answer to the conduct novel. Austen had the ability to create a novel which tackled moral issues without being preachy or stilted. Conduct novels are straightforwardly didactic. Unlike Coelebs or Two Cousins, however, Mansfield Park explores its moral lessons in a realistic setting with exquisite prose and compelling dialogue. And, unlike the conduct novels in which the characters are little more than animated points of view, a device with which to address the reader, Mansfield Park’s characters are unique and well-rounded. Maria Bertram marries a man she doesn’t love. Henry Crawford tries to reform to win Fanny’s love, but falls back in to his old seductive ways. Edmund Bertram is beguiled by the witty but superficial Mary Crawford. Lady Bertram neglects her children and Mrs. Norris is an avaricious, judgmental, busybody.
There are some passages in Austen which echo some of the popular conduct novels. In The Two Cousins, there is a scene where the wise, loving mother and her young daughter talk about a spoilt little girl they met at a dinner party.
“Oh indeed yes, Mama,” exclaims little Constantia. “I was quite astonished to hear Miss Selwyn use such an expression!”
After a dinner party at Mansfield Park, of course, Edmund and Fanny discuss Mary Crawford:
“But was there nothing in her conversation that struck you, Fanny, as not quite right?”
“Oh yes! she ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished.”
Elsewhere, the mother of The Two Cousins advises her niece: “Own your conviction, my dear Alicia, and you will have gained a great victory over your pride and prejudice, [emphasis added] for which you are not so blameable as your education and companions.”
An abiding preoccupation in conduct novels was the proper education of girls. In Coelebs, the topic is canvassed several times; the speakers lament the superficial education being given to young girls in England at that time, with its emphasis upon “accomplishments” instead of solid education or even practical home economics, to say nothing of a good moral education.
In this passage in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen shows us, with a subtle humour you won’t find in Coelebs, that the young Bertram girls are receiving much information, but very little self-awareness, in their education:
“…[M]y cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”
“My dear,” their considerate aunt would reply, “it is very bad, but you must not expect everybody to be as forward and quick at learning as yourself.”
“But, aunt, she is really so very ignorant… How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns!”…
“Very true indeed, my dears, but you are blessed with wonderful memories, and your poor cousin has probably none at all… And remember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”
“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen…”
In An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, Thomas Gisborne strongly discouraged young ladies from participating in amateur theatricals; it encouraged vanity, and “unrestrained familiarity with the other sex.” Jane Austen makes masterful use of the “dangerous intimacy” of the amateur theatricals at Mansfield Park.
Or here is Hannah More, moralizing about household management and small-minded women:
Economy, such as I would inculcate, and which every woman, in every station of life, is called upon to practise, is not merely the petty detail of small daily expenses, the shabby curtailments and stinted parsimony of a little mind, operating on little things; but it is the exercise of sound judgment… the narrow minded vulgar economist is… perpetually bespeaking your pity for her labours and your praise for her exertions; she is afraid you will not see how much she is harassed. Little wants and trivial operations engross her whole soul.
At the beginning of that paragraph, we have the busy-body Mrs. Norris. At the end, we have her hapless, disorganized sister, Mrs. Price. Jane Austen illustrates these faults through her characters, showing rather than telling.
Hester Chapone, in her conduct book, warned against forming friendships with those who are not devout:
“The woman who thinks lightly of sacred things, or is ever heard to speak of them with levity or indifference, cannot reasonably be expected to pay a more serious regard to the laws of friendship…”
Austen brings this woman to life in Mary Crawford, described as “careless as a woman and as a friend,” laughing and joking in the chapel at Sotherton.
One significant difference between Mansfield Park and Coelebs and Two Cousins, is that in the conduct novels, someone (a neglectful husband and a spoilt girl, respectively) is saved from their dissolute ways by the steadfast Christian example of a virtuous person. But as Waldron pointed out, “Mansfield Park deliberately rejects this stereotype; good example fails to avert a shipwreck.” Henry Crawford explicitly asks Fanny for advice and guidance when he visits her in Portsmouth, and she refuses him:
“I advise! You know very well what is right,” [says Fanny.]
“Yes. When you give me your opinion, I always know what is right. Your judgment is my rule of right.”
“Oh, no! do not say so. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
That short exchange, Waldron says, is “the pivot upon which the novel finally hums toward its calamitous conclusion.”
Henry goes to London and starts flirting again with Maria, rather than going to his estate and sorting out his corrupt manager; leading to, in Mary Waldron’s words, the “almost unmitigated disaster of the ending,” with severe justice meted out to Maria Bertram Rushworth, and Edmund and Fanny married, and a great many readers of Mansfield Park left unsatisfied and unconvinced.
Perhaps Jane Austen rejected the idea of Fanny ‘saving’ Henry Crawford as unrealistic. Perhaps she thought Henry Crawford was responsible for saving himself.
In the concluding chapters of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram realizes he has failed in his duty as a parent:
He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that [his daughters Maria and Julia] had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind…
These personal moral struggles and failings are at the heart of the story. (Mansfield Park is not, I would argue, an anti-slavery tract, but that is another subject).
In conclusion, some familiarity with conduct books and conduct novels helps us understand the context in which Mansfield Park was written. I think the evidence is strong that Austen intended to write a new type of conduct novel; one with real, believable characters, plot and outcomes, which still told its moral story.
In Mansfield Park, Austen knew she had written something important, something different, something rich and complex, and she was disappointed with the lack of response to it. Certainly Mansfield Park didn’t challenge the sales of the conduct novels. No newspapers or journals reviewed it, unlike her previous novels.
But today, even as the least-popular of her novels, Mansfield Park has acquired a fame and immortality greater than all of the conduct novels of her day, put together.
Waldron, Mary. “The Frailties of Fanny: Mansfield Park and the Evangelical Movement,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction 6 (1994): 259–81 Essay available here [pdf]
Meet Lona Manning:
Lona Manning loves reading, choral singing, gardening and travel. Over the years, she has been a home care aide, legal secretary, political speech writer, office manager, vocational instructor and non-profit manager until deciding (in her late 50’s) to get an ESL teaching certificate and teach in China. Manning and her husband divide their time between China and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. In addition to her novels, she has written true crime articles for www.CrimeMagazine.com.
Lona Manning is the author of A Contrary Wind: a variation on Mansfield Park. A sequel, A Marriage of Attachment, is available for pre-order. To celebrate the release of A Marriage of Attachment, A Contrary Wind ebook is on sale this week for $0.99.
A Contrary Wind: Fanny Price, an intelligent but timid girl from a poor family, lives at Mansfield Park with her wealthy cousins. But the cruelty of her Aunt Norris, together with a broken heart, compel Fanny to run away and take a job as a governess. Far away from everything she ever knew and the man she secretly loves, will Fanny grow in strength and confidence? Will a new suitor help her to forget her past? Or will a reckless decision ruin her life and the lives of those she holds most dear?
This variation of Jane Austen’s novel includes all the familiar characters from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and some new acquaintances as well. There are some mature scenes and situations not suitable for all readers.
A Marriage of Attachment: A Marriage of Attachment continues the story of Fanny Price as she struggles to build her own life after leaving her rich uncle’s home. Fanny teaches sewing to poor working-class girls in London, while trying to forget her first love, Edmund Bertram, who is trapped in a disastrous marriage with Mary Crawford. Together with her brother John and her friend, the writer William Gibson, she discovers a plot that threatens someone at the highest levels of government. Meanwhile, Fanny’s brother William fights slavery on the high seas while longing for the girl he loves.
Filled with romance, suspense and even danger, A Marriage of Attachment takes the familiar characters from Mansfield Park on a new journey.