This was quite an interesting book for me to begin Nabokov Cocktail with – I’ve read it once before and didn’t enjoy it at all. I had to learn to read Jane Austen, you see, and her subtleties were beyond me until I’d read about four books by her, and Mansfield Park was book number three. So this was quite an experiment! It still isn’t a favourite, but it’s fun to explore intellectually and I can appreciate it much more now.
In this article I’ll be exploring incest and wayward women in the novel. What? Such incendiary topics in delicate Jane Austen? Read on, dear reader; read on.
You think I’m crazy, don’t you? Nowhere in Mansfield Park does a brother get it on with a sister, or a parent abuse a child. While this is true in the strictest sense, if we expand our idea of incest whilst keeping an eye on Romanticism’s preoccupation with erotic love between siblings, you’ll see that incest is a consistent undercurrent in the text. First, to prove my point with excerpts:
‘But breed [Fanny] up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either [Tom or Edmund] than a sister.’ So says Mrs Norris, p.4. And she’s right – Edmund initially feels nothing for Fanny beyond what a brother could feel for a sister; it’s only Fanny (who is firmly kept at arm’s length by the family, and so is never unaware of her outsider status) who falls in love with Edmund from early in the book. Yet fall in love she does, and that love isn’t completely exclusive of her feelings as a semi-sibling. Take, for example, the amber cross and gold chain: William, Fanny’s dear brother, gives her a cross pendant with nothing to hang it from. Edmund, understanding the difficulty, gives Fanny a chain with which to wear the cross:
‘With delightful feelings, [Fanny] joined the chain and the cross, those memorials of the two most beloved of her heart, those dearest tokens so formed for each other by everything real and imaginary – and put them round her neck, and…felt how full of William and Edmund they were’ (p.207). So here we can see brother and lover are physically united by their tokens and emotionally elided within Fanny’s heart. She doesn’t love her brother as a lover, but – and this is key – she loves her lover like a brother. I know, it’s a bit knotted, but it’s there nevertheless.
It needs to be understood, however, that Romantic incest isn’t something lustful and degrading; it’s poignant and sympathetic (and usually destructive). The idea is that, having shared all the formative experiences of childhood (the most innocent and idyllic time of life), if passion is thrown into the mix then it will create a perfect, sympathetic fusion between the lovers that is impossible to attain between sweethearts who have lived as strangers. This can be seen in a wealth of texts, from Byron to the Shelleys, and it’s certainly the case in Mansfield Park. Having been devastated by the actions of his sisters, Edmund greets Fanny: ‘she found herself pressed to his heart with only these words, just articulate, ‘My Fanny – my only sister – my only comfort now.’‘ (p.342). And then later, realises ‘her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.’ (p.362). Thus the affection of siblings blossoms into the amore of lovers (without any unpleasant questions of biology – they’re only cousins after all! …Because that makes it better), and they, presumably, lived happily ever after.
Which is more than can be said for the other girls of the novel.
I want to take a moment to be sympathetic towards Mary Crawford. I know, she’s the villain of the piece by virtue of being Fanny’s rival for Edmund’s love. I know, she’s vulgar and senseless and flippant and cruel. I know, I know, I know. Yet – is it her fault? Her uncle/guardian moves his mistress into the family home once his wife, Mary’s beloved aunt, dies. Mary is effectively evicted, and her rake of a brother refuses to offer her any protection in the houses he owns, so she’s foisted to a far flung relative, who is only a half sister. That’s awful. No wonder she’s a jaded, cynical character, with ambitions to find a rich husband who can give her the security her family have failed to provide her. This familial instability arguably makes Mary a parallel for Fanny: both have similar experiences of destructive parental libido (Mrs Price marries for love and has a lot of children, and Mary’s uncle conducts extra-marital affairs), but Mary is of a higher class than Fanny and so exhibits more confidence and autonomy. This mirroring of the young women highlight’s Fanny’s moral superiority: where Mary is vulgar, Fanny is sensitive. Where Mary is cruel, Fanny is compassionate. Mary’s tactical coquetry is a contrast that elevates Fanny’s innocence and purity.
The same can be said for the Bertram sisters, but especially Maria. Maria marries Rushworth for financial security (admittedly a flippant sort of security, given that she was already rich) and then has the gall to take control of her own sexuality by having an affair with Henry Crawford. The nerve! It’s worth noting that Admiral Crawford, the philandering uncle, gets no worse social stigma than a case of the side-eye and and a jolly good tsk-ing. Mary says to Henry: ‘My dearest Henry, the advantage to you of getting away from the Admiral before your manners are hurt by the contagion of his…!’ (p.226) to which Henry replies: ‘Well, well, we do not think quite alike here. The admiral has his faults, but he is a good man, and has been like a father to me. Few fathers would have let me have my own way half as much.’ (p.227). Henry has the luxury to view his uncle as a good man, because, as men, their reputations aren’t hurt by his actions. Maria, who does no worse than the admiral, is excommunicated – dead to the family. Henry is left to punish himself with his own conscience – one can’t imagine that to be a particularly onerous penalty.
Critiquing the Critic
You might have noticed a startling omission from this article, given the title of the blog. What does Nabokov have to say about Mansfield Park? I’ll be honest with you – not much. His chapter on the book would be phenomenal to read to brush up on the novel in quick time, because it’s basically a synopsis with swathes of excerpts and exposition, and limited critical analysis. I’m a bit disappointed it wasn’t more useful. And, insult to injury, his treatment of Austen reveals a deep misogyny which lead to me reading through squinted eyes and gritted teeth. I glanced ahead and saw that when he writes of Dickens, he calls him ‘Dickens’, but when he talks about Austen, she’s ‘Miss Austen’ or, hideously, ‘Jane.’ There’s a consistent lack of deference and respect in his treatment of her: he describes her book as a ‘domestic rose’ (domestic: not important to real world concerns.; rose: more ornament than use) and, gallingly, describes her acrid irony in the middle of sentences as a ‘delicately ironic dimple in the author’s pale virgin cheek’ (p.59, Lectures on Literature). Brace yourself, I’m about to swear: what the sweet suffering fuck is that about?! So now we know that Austen’s appearance and sex life are more important to Nabokov than her writing style. Great. I know, different era, blah blah blah – it’s still frustrating. I expect academics to be better than such lazy sexism. He doesn’t seem to grasp that for the women of Jane Austen’s books and era, these sweet domestic dramas were actually bitter battles for survival.
So my hope is that since the rest of the texts are written by men (no surprise there), that Nabokov’s chapters will be a little more useful and a little less like an indulgent pat on the author’s head. I mean, for heaven’s sake, in one instance he calls Austen a child. A child (p.10).
Next Book: Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Get reading, it’s a bit of a tome at over 700 pages! But you know, I’m enjoying it much more than I expected.