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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 31-63
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Mansfield Park and the End of Natural Theology
The question of Jane Austen's relation to religion has been on the back burner since John Henry Newman declared in 1837 that she had "not a dream of the high Catholic ethos." 1 Like Newman, critical tradition has assumed that there is little to say about the subject beyond rehearsing Austen's religious traditionalism. Even Mansfield Park, the novel most explicitly concerned with spiritual matters, has been dominated by critical interest in improvement, acting, and, most recently, slavery.
Yet these themes are given meaning by the broader discourse of natural theology, the shared theological paradigm of the formally educated of Austen's day. 2 Natural theology provided the most stable and [End Page 31] effective way for organized religion to accommodate the social and intellectual events that occupied the period from Isaac Newton to Charles Darwin. By referring the intricacy and efficiency of creation to a divine designer--a move frequently termed the "argument from design"--it offered a synthetic means of gathering into a coherent whole the increasingly diverse material of the natural world. 3 Design's ubiquitous presence during the period means that it frequently operated less than explicitly, an assumed background to any theological discussion rather than a proposition that needed continued demonstration: one need simply refer to the beautiful complexity of the natural world, and one's listeners could link it to its divine source. The harmony-amid-variety of a beautiful scene--or, more and more often, the beautiful representation of a scene--transparently inspired in the beholder a "natural" feeling for the divinity behind it. Design was thus both a systematic theology and a way to give form to vaguer apprehensions and surmises.
The chief events of Mansfield Park originate in design's failure to control feeling. Where nature once was deployed to bend strong feeling upward toward the divine, we now see feeling escaping into a social realm ungoverned by design. Austen investigates the historical conditions [End Page 32] of this change when the principal characters visit the chapel at Sotherton; their responses to it become an interrogation of the natural theological tradition Austen inherited. In these scenes Austen emerges as a critical reader of her own religious history. Yet if Mansfield Park thematizes its doubts about natural theology's historical operations, it confronts them more ambivalently on a formal level. Design is located at the intersection of history and form, where individual lives and feelings are met and shaped by tradition, and Austen engages it in a commensurately complex manner. 4 On the one hand, design offers the novelist a language that efficiently reformulates mechanism as nature; on the other, the novel's own equivocal condemnations of acting, improvement, and slavery variously focus a tendency toward naturalization shaped by design's more comprehensive discourse. So Austen must hold design at arm's length.
Fanny becomes a figure for this ambivalent engagement with natural theology when her vigilant rejection of acting and improvement fails to find critical purchase on the Bertram family's silence surrounding the slave trade. Fanny's inability to understand the full dimensions of the slave trade prepares the way for a discussion of her love of nature that the novel exposes as shaped by precisely the artificial channels she seeks to reject. As the narrative proceeds, the natural language of design consistently fails to organize the desires of the principal characters, a difficulty abruptly solved at novel's end through an explicit appeal to the artifice of the love plot. In labeling this knowingly contrived ending "natural," the novel reveals the inadequacy of design's naturalizing procedures to the challenges posed by its own discursive practices. Natural theology's business was to harmonize history and form as they met at the site of an individual life; at the novel's close it abandons this task, departing for the realm of pure form and the more blatant kinds of authority that reside in the great house and in the narrative...