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Edmund Burke and "Improvement" in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

Updated on April 22, 2013

In “‘Mansfield Park:’ Reading for ‘Improvement,’” Gerry Brenner attempts to defend Austen’s novel from the lukewarm response—and even “hostility”—that many readers express toward it, and in particular its heroine, Fanny Price. In contrast to Austen’s novels with more spirited protagonists, this work has been dismissed by a variety of critics as possessing “low spirits” and a “chilly,” “solemn,” “priggish,” “severely moral” tone (qtd. in Brenner 24). Additionally, according to Brenner, those who attempt to come to the novel’s defense often exacerbate the irritation of its detractors through “their approval of its moral perspective and of righteous Fanny” (24). Taking a different approach, Brenner instead mounts his defense by redefining the central conflict of the novel, not as the opposition between “the moral stability and decorous repose of Fanny and Mansfield Park” and “the egoistic animation and charming bustle of the Crawfords” (24)—a perspective which seems to establish “righteous Fanny” and Mansfield Park as firmly in the right—but the tension between improvement and deterioration (25). Viewed from this perspective, Brenner writes, Austen’s novel is not merely an exaltation of unwavering moral rectitude over the evils of charismatic innovation, but a criticism of both modes of behavior, as one precludes improvement by remaining static, and the other leads to deterioration through its valuation of novelty over morality (30-1).

Although modern readers might well find Fanny a troublingly passive and ineffectual heroine, Brenner’s reading seems to ignore the sympathetic way in which the narrator consistently portrays her. We see things largely from her perspective, her character judgments seem—more so even than Edmund’s—to be almost unfailingly correct, and the narrator repeatedly and unironically praises such attributes as her “excellence” and “sweetness of temper” (467), even affectionately calling her “My Fanny” in the opening of the final chapter (457). While attempted improvement—of Sotherton, of the Crawford siblings, and of Fanny herself—is a theme that runs throughout the novel, it is hardly the unattainable goal that Brenner makes it out to be. Although endeavors such as the impending “improvements” to the Rushworths’ estate or the transformation of Mansfield Park from a tranquil, sober country home to the backdrop for a series of ill-conceived flirtations acted out in the guise of Kotzebue’s Lovers Vows are portrayed as little more than frivolous, wasteful affairs, the “moral stability” of characters like Fanny, Edmund, and Price siblings William and Susan results in the betterment of their own situations over the course of the novel. Most obviously, Fanny grows from her first description as a small, “awkward” girl “of no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice” (43), to a lovely young woman, “equal[ly] improve[d] in health and beauty” (195) and worthy of courtship by the charming Henry Crawford, and finally to a moral pillar of the household, loved and respected as Edmund’s wife and Sir Thomas’s daughter-in-law (465-8). While it is true that even this emergence as the valued moral center of Mansfield Park does not represent a radical change of character for the consistently virtuous Fanny, it does at least show us a heroine who has grown to become more secure in her position and a household that has come to recognize and appreciate her worth. Therefore, improvement does occur (however modest it may be), and it does so primarily for the steadfastly virtuous characters that Brenner sees as unyielding to the point of stagnation. In light of this, it seems that a more effective way of interpreting Austen’s treatment of improvement in Mansfield Park—and of understanding how we are meant to view a character who, to modern readers, seems at best a lukewarm heroine—might be by historicizing the novel within the context of contemporary debate surrounding the topic.

Originally published in 1814, Mansfield Park was written just two decades after the Revolution Controversy of the 1790s, an ideological debate sparked by the revolution in France, during which English pamphleteers engaged in what historian Alfred Cobban has called “perhaps the last real discussion of the fundamentals of politics in [Britain]” (qtd. in Butler 1). While such an event might seem far removed from Austen’s domestic drama, Edward Said has already established a tradition of viewing the novel within a larger, global context, “connect[ing] the actualities of British power overseas to the domestic imbroglio within the Bertram estate” (95). Just as the historical realities of empire inform the events of the novel, with Antigua and even Portsmouth serving as peripheral, less apparently civilized locations that provide the resources necessary to establishing civilized order at Mansfield Park (Said 92), the context of the Revolution Controversy provides the background necessary to understanding the philosophical concerns of the novel, whose characters grapple, on a smaller, domestic scale, with many of the same conflicts that raged in the public, political sphere at the time.

Consideration of both the novel and the writings of the Revolution Controversy reveals some common themes, chief among them questions of improvement. Both the debate surrounding the overthrow and reshaping of governments and the continual discussion in the Bertram household of Fanny’s “improvement,” “improvements” to be made to the Sotherton estate, etc. beg the question: What constitutes “improvement,” and how is it best—and most responsibly— attained? In the political sphere, more conservative writers, like Edmund Burke, advocated for gradual change (39-41), suggesting that innovation was an evil and that tradition, duty, and the noble sentiments that went along with them were the underpinnings of a civilized society (44-49). Conversely, more radical thinkers welcomed swift change where human reason could find opportunity for the advancement of individual rights and liberties. For these writers, governmental authority was not an inherent right bestowed on the powerful by long, revered tradition and dutiful popular sentiment, but rather a privilege granted by the consent of the governed (Price 28). Concerns of tradition, duty, and innovation permeate Mansfield Park as well. Within the seemingly secluded domestic space of the Bertram estate, Fanny, the Crawfords, and the Bertrams all engage in debate over ideas central to the Revolution Controversy, with Fanny, Edmund, and Sir Thomas coming down on the conservative side of tradition, religion, dutiful sentiment, and the gradual improvement they bring about, and the more modern Crawfords preferring novelty, material pleasures, and self-indulgence—the result of which ultimately appears to be deterioration.

In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), Burke composed not merely a particularly articulate and massively influential objection to English sympathizers with the French Revolutionaries, but also a treatise on the necessity of tradition and sentiment rather than human reason alone. In opposition to dissenting preacher Richard Price’s assertion in his “A Discourse on the Love of our Country” that governments are established by the consent of their subjects for the purpose of defending their inherent rights (27-8), Burke wrote that not only the authority of the powerful, but also the rights of the governed were actually rooted in tradition—“derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specifically belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right” (39)—rather than inherent nature. According to Burke, the entirety of government, including “an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and an house of commons and a people inheriting privileges franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors” is based on tradition, or more specifically, inheritance. Elaborating on the value and naturalness of such tradition, he writes that:

This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection; or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views… the people of England know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conversation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement. (40)

Comparing the political system with the situation of humanity, “the whole [of which], at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpectual decay, fall, renovation, and progression,” Burke contends that “by preserving the method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete” (40). Therefore we see that Burke’s description of the ideal operation and gradual “improvement” of government and society is much like the gradual improvement attained by Fanny Price in Mansfield Park; always keenly aware of her obligations and of the privileges belonging to her Bertram relatives by virtue of inheritance, Fanny ultimately becomes an object of admiration and respect, and even a legitimate member of the family not through any kind of active attempt or presumption of right, but by continued demonstration of virtuous behavior.

Concerns of tradition and inheritance are foregrounded from the very beginning of Mansfield Park, as the Bertram relatives, having decided to take Fanny into their home, discuss her place in the household, with both Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas taking pains to emphasize the necessity of distinguishing Fanny’s place from the Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia. Attempting to strike a balance between kindness and upholding the natural order of the household, Sir Thomas frets that:

There will be some difficulty in our way… 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. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorize my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations, will always be different. (41-2)

Here, “rank, fortune, rights, and expectations” are laid out—as Burke would also have them—as naturally inherited qualities. At least as overtly expressed, Sir Thomas’s goal is not to grant privilege and precedence to his own children out of a nepotistic desire to see them excel beyond their cousin, but “to preserve in [their] minds… the consciousness of what they are”—in other words, to maintain the natural state of things. Although we see this supposedly natural order disrupted over the course of the novel, with even Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris’s fears that Fanny might eventually marry one of the Bertram sons coming to fruition (37-8), this disruption occurs in a truly Burkean manner, gradually and decorously—at least on Fanny’s part.

While tradition and perhaps even nature dictate the social superiority of the Bertram sisters to their cousin Fanny, it is made clear from the outset that this superiority is not accompanied by correspondingly superior merit. Although Sir Thomas worries that his family will have to contend with “gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner” on Fanny’s part (41), and Mrs. Norris takes every opportunity to insinuate—and often state outright—Maria and Julia’s superior beauty, education, etc., from the first, Fanny is shown to display superior temperament, endowed with all the gratitude, dutiful sentiment, and awareness of her proper station that a conservative writer like Burke might require of a good subject. Admonished by Mrs. Norris to be mindful of “her wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behavior which it ought to produce,” the already good-natured Fanny is so conscious of her duty to please the Bertrams—and even to feel appropriately grateful for her situation—that her anxiety is “increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy” (44). Upon speaking to her, Edmund quickly becomes aware of her “affectionate heart and… strong desire of doing right,” and concludes that she is “entitled to attention, by great sensibility of her situation, and great timidity” (47). Therefore, we see that this first small and subtle advancement in the esteem of her Bertram cousin—the likes of which will be repeated throughout the novel until she becomes his wife and earns the love and esteem of the rest of Mansfield Park—is occasioned not by any solicitation on Fanny’s part, but by sheer virtue. In fact, it is not merely a generic virtue that entitles her to Edmund’s attention, but “strong desire of doing right” and “great sensibility of her situation.” In short, it is by deeply feeling gratitude and obligation and desiring to behave appropriately that Fanny first gains Edmund’s attention, and it is ultimately more of the same that allows her to ascend to her ultimate position as the beloved and respected Mrs. Edmund Bertram, in spite of the initial wishes to the contrary expressed by the elder Bertrams in the first chapter.

Conversely, the Bertram sisters find their position endangered through the failings of their own temperaments. In contrast to the humble Fanny, the sisters are initially described as “too used to company and praise, to have anything like natural shyness, and their confidence increasing from their cousin’s total want of it, they were soon able to take a full survey of her face and her frock in easy indifference” (43). Although Burke’s philosophy regarding inherited rights and privileges might allow for Maria and Julia to be aware of the superiority of their own social position, their shallowness, smugness, and insensitivity crosses a line from awareness into the “the smallest degree of arrogance” toward Fanny that Sir Thomas disapproves at the outset of the novel. Their mean sentiments aligned more with “the maid-servants [who] sneered at [Fanny’s] clothes” and their calculating, ambitious Aunt Norris than those of a truly elevated, noble character, the girls dismiss their cousin as “cheap on finding that she had but two sashes, and had never learned French” (45). Their fixation on material concerns and trivial matters such as the many facts omitted from Fanny’s early education leave them “with promising talents and early information” but “entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility,” the unfortunate result being that “In everything but disposition, they were admirably taught” (50). This shallowness and selfishness carries on throughout the novel, just as Fanny’s own humility does, and rather than raising the sisters to their ambitions as wives of charming men of consequence, these traits ruin Maria and quite nearly Julia as well. Maria in particular is shown to be something like Fanny’s opposite in this regard. Where Fanny is humble and keenly aware of her duty to the family, earning Sir Thomas’ respect and affection through her deference toward his wishes in his absence, consistently opposing the Bertram siblings’ planned production of Lovers Vows and “never ceas[ing] to think of what was due to [Sir Thomas]” (204), Maria actively rebels against her father’s authority. Not only does she act against his wishes in his absence; on his return, her anxiousness to marry Mr. Rushworth is predicated in large part on her desire to be free from the rule of her father—along with her usual shallow vanity and the fallout of her ill-conceived flirtation with Henry Crawford:

She was less and less able to endure the restraint that her father had imposed. The liberty which his absence had given was now become absolutely necessary. She must escape from him and Mansfield as soon as possible, and find consolation in fortune and consequence, bustle and the world, for a wounded spirit. (217-8)

Dismissing Sir Thomas’s offer to break the engagement with Mr. Rushworth (215-6), she proceeds with the plan not out of the “highest esteem for [his] character and disposition” that she claims (216), but out of prideful desire for material advancement, personal “liberty,” and vengeance on a would-be lover. In doing so, she engineers her own fall from wealth, family esteem, the affection and attentions of both Rushworth and Henry Crawford, and society at large after her near-inevitable elopement from a husband she held in contempt. Although Julia also elopes out of “dread of her father and of home,” we are told that this dread stems from “[no] worse feelings than those of selfish alarm” (462). Having been “less the darling” of Mrs. Norris, the younger Bertram sister has more “controllable” passions and a lesser sense of “self-consequence,” meaning that she ultimately “submitted the best to the disappointment in Henry Crawford” as well (461). Viewing the sisters alongside their cousin, it would seem that in the world of Mansfield Park, vanity and ambition is inversely proportional to its own fulfillment, while a humble awareness of duty is rewarded with advancement.

This rewarding of deep-seated dutiful sentiment can also be read as distinctly Burkean. In his opposition to the French Revolution, Burke elaborated on his defense of tradition by writing that European culture has been built upon two traditional values, “the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion,” whose dissemination he traces from France (46-7). According to Burke, the revolution is partly a tragedy because it is “a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions” (47). After a passage exalting the beauty and gentleness of the French queen, he laments that:

the age of chivalry is gone.—That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprize is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness. (44)

This emotionally charged passage, both in content and style, makes clear the high value that Burke places on deeply felt noble sentiment, which if “dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason” stands to leave Europe in a state of utter savagery (45). In particular, Burke seems to draw a connection between humility and nobility, valorizing an attitude of “proud submission,” “dignified obedience,” and “subordination of the heart.” For Burke, social inferiority and servitude are not to be the low and contemptible things that Mrs. Norris and the Bertram sisters conceive them as; rather, “even in servitude itself,” there exists “an exalted freedom.” Therefore, in spite of her initially low position in the household, Fanny Price’s deeply felt, ennobling emotions “without confounding ranks… produced a noble equality” (Burke 45), establishing her in the high esteem of social superiors who share her appreciation for inner virtue over outward material status.

Perhaps as much as her humility and “strong desire of doing right,” Fanny’s reverent, even rapturous appreciation of nature solidifies her position as a paragon of Burkean sentimentality. Observing the beauty of “an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods,” she responds with uncharacteristic fervor: “‘Here’s harmony!’ said she. ‘Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquilize every care, and life the heart to rapture!” (135). This is likely the only time that we see Miss Price utter four consecutive exclamations, a device that might be right at home in Burke’s own defenses of nature and ennobling, natural sentiment. Fanny continues with a meditation on the wonders of nature and its power to transport the mind from thoughts of evil or sadness. According to Fanny, “there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene” (135). Again we see virtue depicted as a removal from the self and the capacity to lose oneself in contemplation of something greater.

In addition to providing for her advancement in the esteem of Sir Thomas and Edmund, it is ultimately this deeper emotional capacity that distinguishes Fanny as the novel’s heroine instead of Mary Crawford. Initially, this may seem an uncharacteristic choice for Austen. Amanda Claybaugh perhaps speaks for many readers by writing in her introduction to the novel that “Mary Crawford is, or so it seems, the very model of a Jane Austen heroine. Spirited, warm-hearted, and, above all else, witty, she displays all the familiar Austen virtues” (13). What Mary does not display, however, is Fanny’s appreciation for nature, duty, and tradition. Where Fanny holds her uncle in such reverence as to be afraid of him before—and even somewhat after—his tenderness upon returning from Antigua makes his affection clear to her (195-6), Mary speaks of her own uncle and benefactor in irreverent, perhaps even “ungrateful” terms (90). Similarly, while Fanny is saddened to see morning and evening prayers discontinued at the chapel at Sotherton, Mary considers the change an “improvement” and laughs at the folly of a master and mistress ordering servants to church and—she assumes—abstaining themselves (111). While Fanny and Edmund imagine church attendance as a collective activity that unites the entire household, regardless of rank, in devotion, Mary prefers the idea of private devotion, insisting that:

it is safer to leave people to their own devices on such subjects. Every body likes to go their own way… if the good people who used to kneel and gape in that gallery could have forseen that the time would ever come when men and women might lie another ten minute in bed, when they woke with a headach, without danger of reprobation, because chapel was missed, they would have jumped with joy and envy.” (111-2)

This passage betrays a worldview focused on individual liberty and modern convenience, entirely disregarding tradition and obligation in the process. As Edmund counters that those who are too distractible to benefit from organized chapel services would hardly do better on their own (112), one is perhaps even reminded of Burke’s assertion that “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations” (36). This conversation is one of many excellent illustrations of the narrator’s earlier statement that “in every thing but a value for Edmund, Miss Crawford was very unlike [Fanny]. She had none of Fanny’s delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling; she saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively” (106).

The differences between Fanny and Mary, along with Fanny and the Bertram sisters, are hardly a neutral matter in which neither extreme comes closer than the other to representing a more moderate ideal. Rather, in the matter of improvement, the seemingly inactive Fanny progresses gradually, almost paradoxically transcending the initially established order through a deeply felt respect for it—and for tradition and nature more generally. The Bertram sisters and Mary Crawford, on the other hand, in their fixation on individual liberty and blindness to the beauty of nature, including the tradition and delicate sentiments that Burke held to be “natural,” each engineer falls of varying degree for themselves, whether Maria’s spectacular fall from society, Julia’s less catastrophic—although still foolish—elopement, or Mary’s final descent from Edmund’s favor. While Mrs. Bertram and Mrs. Norris may form two unappealing poles of extreme indolence and extreme, meddling activity, with neither ultimately leading to improvement, Fanny is not such a cautionary example of failed improvement as her relatives and friends, but rather the expression of a Burkean ideal.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane, and June Sturrock. Mansfield Park. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2001. Print.

Brenner, Gerry. “‘Mansfield Park:’ Reading for ‘Improvement.’” Studies in the Novel 7.1 (1975) 24-32. JSTOR. Web. 18 March, 2013.

Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. 33-49. Print.

Butler, Marilyn. Introductory Essay. Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. 33-49. Print.

Claybaugh, Amanda. Introduction. Mansfield Park. By Jane Austen. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Web. 14 April, 2013.

Price, Richard. “A Discourse on the Love of our Country.” Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. 23-32. Print.

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