- Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park
In recent years, a growing number of philosophers have recognized that ethical reflection and theory can be enriched by the study of literary works, especially the novel. Similarly, some literary critics have realized that a complete understanding of a novelist's work may require an appreciation of the ethical outlook that underpins it. However, with increasing specialization, few academics are nowadays fully knowledgeable (as C. S. Lewis was) in both disciplines. Too often we find either philosophers dabbling rather amateurishly in literary criticism, or literary critics misunderstanding the ethical theories that they are bringing to bear on the novel. In consequence, while light is often shed by one side or the other, that illumination is sometimes fitful, and dark corners remain.
Joyce Tarpley has a great many interesting and suggestive things to say about both Austen's moral outlook and how we should understand Mansfield Park. In this readable and enjoyable book, insights abound, foolish criticisms are seen off, misunderstandings are corrected, and good sense and sensitivity are much in evidence. However, Tarpley's background is more in literature than in philosophy; as a result her attempt to construct a general ethical theory in which to place her interpretation of Austen's aims is sometimes awkward, and even inconsistent. Fortunately, the inconsistencies are superficial rather than substantive, and do not detract from the central thrust of her argument.
Mansfield Park is, from a moral perspective, a famously problematic text. It seems that Austen wishes us to admire Fanny and Edmund, at least when the latter is not under the sway of Mary Crawford, yet many find them a priggish, [End Page 410] self-righteous pair. Tarpley argues, successfully in my view, that, of all Austen's heroines, Fanny is the one most clearly animated by a distinctively Christian sensibility; a sensibility that Austen and Tarpley both endorse. In so doing, Tarpley supplies an understanding of Fanny's conduct and motives that goes some way to answering her detractors. In particular, she reminds us of three things. First, as in all Austen's novels, the theme is moral education; Fanny, like other Austen characters, has faults (including her timidity) that she must learn to overcome. Second, of all Austen's heroines, Fanny is probably the most given to questioning her motives. She is acutely aware that her judgment may be clouded by personal wishes. Prigs are characteristically immune to self-examination and self-doubt. Third, the Crawfords, though superficially attractive in so many ways, represent a direct attack on Christian values. For Austen, wit, agreeableness, flippancy, and worldliness are no substitute for sound virtues, even when exhibited in someone who lacks charm, grace, playfulness, and wit. To make Fanny attractive in the way the Crawfords are would obscure this point.
Some have doubted that, in Fanny and Edmund, Austen is portraying a specifically Christian outlook. Ryle famously thought of her as offering a "secular ethic" on two grounds: first, that her novels are Aristotelian rather than Calvinist in flavor; second, that her heroines "never pray . . . [or] give thanks on their knees"; they "face their moral difficulties . . . without recourse to religious faith" (quoted on pp. 5-6). Tarpley has little difficulty in demonstrating the weakness of this case. To one versed in the Thomistic tradition, the idea that there is a conflict between an Aristotelian and a Christian outlook will appear almost comic. But the core of Tarpley's case is that, even though there are few overt displays of religiosity in Mansfield Park, a Christian spirit pervades the whole. The people who surround Fanny provide the contrasting setting for her commitment to Christian values. Sir Thomas has correct general principles, but lacks good judgment and is too wedded to conventional views. The three sisters are, in various ways, self-absorbed and, in the case of Mrs. Norris, viciously so. Everyone, apart from the two protagonists, is concerned with status and appearances. The Crawfords place wit, elegance, fashion, ease, and comfort...