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  • Spatial Consciousness and Spiritual Practice in Austen’s Mansfield Park
  • Toby R. Benis (bio)

Space is everywhere in the scholarly conversation about jane Austen; she is the writer of the rural village, of the country estate, of the far-flung empire.1But rather than assuming the analytical primacy of any one kind of space, this article begins with a broader question: how do different scales of space operate together to shape the developmental arcs of the novelist’s heroines?2In a work like Persuasion (1817), the answer seems clear: women’s domestic experiences of loneliness and trial are compared in detail with those of naval professionals in theaters of combat. The narrative dramatizes mutually reinforcing scales of space and community in ways that Edmund Burke proclaims are a particularly British characteristic: “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”3 [End Page 333]

Postcolonial scholars have identified similarities, as well as a good deal of friction, between Austen’s representations of “little platoons” like those Burke idealizes and the diverse inhabitants of the sprawling Georgian empire.4Valuable as they are, these analyses have tended to pass over fundamental ways in which space itself is always a social product resulting from a complex array of spatial practices. Austen criticism has reinforced what Henri Lefebvre has called the illusion of transparency: “space appears as luminous, as intelligible, as giving action free rein.”5Lefebvre emphasizes the dialectical character of codes governing social spaces, generated by interactions between subjects and their surroundings in specific historical contexts.6In Austen’s work, female protagonists attain their romantic objectives only when they develop some competence in navigating such codes. Elsewhere, I have discussed Catherine Morland’s development in North-anger Abbey (composed in the 1790s, though published in 1817) in terms of her difficulties in negotiating changing eighteenth-century public spaces, from city streets to rural neighborhoods.7Written some 15 years later, Mansfield Park (1814) approaches the question of space from the point of view of the profession most represented in Austen’s corpus: the clergy. Fanny Price’s transformation from cowering waif to self-possessed young woman depends on her acquired ability to understand codes at work in Evangelical Anglicanism and to enact them in spaces over which she has some control.

Mansfield Park has been dubbed Austen’s “Evangelical novel,” since many of the views associated with Evangelicals are in evidence here. Seeking to infuse a new seriousness and piety into religious practice and social life, Evangelical Anglicans promoted mandatory residency for clergymen [End Page 334] in the parish of their living; the abolition of the slave trade; calls for private reflection; a condemnation of decadence in the Regency beau monde; and a distrust of amateur acting.8The novel’s extended arguments over where the clergy should live, and why, reflect the Evangelical conviction that the space of the parish was the foundational unit of the clergyman’s identity. Only by inhabiting small-scale spaces could neighbors and clergymen interact through social routines that possess spiritual and moral force, or what Austen calls “habits.” This dimension of the novel’s discussions about the clergy suggests a spatially informed way of approaching the Evangelicals’ critique of imperial slavery. The Evangelical requirement that clergymen devote themselves to their home parishes points to an ethos at odds with an increasingly globalized British economy in which the absenteeism of West Indian plantation owners like the Bertrams is of a piece with their disregard for the suffering that occurs there.

Accordingly, the man who takes clerical orders during the course of novel—Edmund Bertram—cannot resolve the contradictions between the Evangelical principles he appears to endorse, most notably parish residency for priests, and the colonial source of his family’s wealth. When the family conversation turns to how men like his father profit from distant human misery, Edmund does nothing to fill the “dead silence” that follows Fanny Price’s question about the slave trade.9Austen...


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pp. 333-355
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