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ISSN: 0974-892X

July, 2009



Rashmi Verma

Subjugation and Oppression of Women in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Parkhas been traditionally critiqued as “analogous to the perception of the domestic space itself [and] as…ignorant of the ‘real’ life and experience of men” (Stewart 1).  John Wiltshire in 2003 declared that “Austen knew about slavery in the West Indies, but it did not preoccupy her [;]…it simply represented a fact in the background of English life” (317).  Austen, he implies, was not concerned with the historical reality of slavery and the slave trade, nor did she anticipate political or international significance for her novel. In contrast to this view, Maaja Stewart claims that historical contingencies and specifically imperialism did indeed affect  the lives of women and that “the controversies surrounding [imperialism in India and the West Indies] became part of the discourses of the age that penetrated all aspects of the metropolitan culture, including Austen’s texts” (2).  These controversial discourses are prominent features of the novel, creating tensions within the text that disturb a traditional reading of “gentle Jane’s” novels.    

Mansfield Park is primarily engaged with the difficulty of maintaining ethical convictions when they are challenged by negotiations of marriage, wealth, and estate management.  The novel demonstrates the limits of social control that is based on domination, manipulation, and abuses of power.  Fanny Price is triumphant in Mansfield Park but she does not necessarily represent a moral ideal.  Those women who have disturbed the serenity of the Mansfield estate are marginalized to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, whereas Fanny’s rising status is affirmed because she embodies a slave master’s fantasy of the ‘grateful Negro,’ discouraging rebellion and maintaining submission to authority.  Fanny’s connection to the ‘grateful Negro,’ however, is also problematic because it appropriates the symbolic power of slave-related issues.  However, its narrative function is also central to the novel’s action and meaning, and exposes subjugation and oppression that often masquerade as benevolence.

Edward Said in his Culture and Imperialism (1993)devoted a small portion to “Jane Austen and Empire” (first published in 1989).  Said identifies Austen among others as using “positive ideas of home, of a nation and its language, of proper order, good behavior, [and] moral values” to situate themselves and their work in the larger world (81).  In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram spends more than a year on his slave plantation in Antigua, connecting imperial and domestic spaces.  But what, Said asks, are we to make of this connection?  He posits that, like the Bertrams, Austen regards Antigua as wealth “converted to property, order, and, at the end of the novel, comfort and added good” (91).  Essentially, says Said, the novel is “part of the structure of an expanding imperialist venture.”

As a microcosm of plantation life, Austen’s Mansfield Park demonstrates the practical details of imposed authority and the conditions that lead to rebellion.  Because Sir Thomas is absent from both his British estate and his West Indian plantation, the physical presence on which his authority relies is intermittently threatened; he requires ambassadors of his authority while he is away.  As such an ambassador, Fanny Price voices disapproval and, though the results are somewhat limited, she also acts as a repressive force against rebellion. Functioning as a kind of ‘grateful Negro,’ a sentimentalized and popularized literary figure of the late eighteenth century, Fanny wields no established authority and has limited influence.  However, she is an important agent for Sir Thomas because her submissive position represents the standard for his approval against which the other female characters are measured.  Sir Thomas rewards Fanny’s behaviour and hence ensures that the hierarchy of his authority remains intact.  Fanny Price does not, in Mansfield Park, represent a moral ideal or a progressive voice of reformation, nor does she represent an agent of emancipation.  In fact, the novel inspires the opposite conclusion:  Fanny Price’s enduring sense of gratitude towards Sir Thomas and his family is exposed as a control mechanism that stabilizes hierarchies of power by placing value on Fanny as an ideal of propriety, gratitude, and morality.  Consequently, the rebellions of those who exist on the margins of the text and society are punished severely.  Mansfield Park connects Fanny Price and this pessimistic conclusion to the ‘grateful Negro,’ indicting this planter’s fantasy of a loyal and grateful slave that would heal the divide between master and slave as nothing more than an agent of perpetuating  slavery and domination.         

Perhaps the most famous example of this sentimental description of life on a plantation is Maria Edgeworth’s “The Grateful Negro.”  The tale is clearly aimed at plantation owners to inspire more benevolent treatment of their slaves in order to repress rebellion and improve economic efficiency.  The moral hero, Mr. Edwards, is a kind and humane master: 
[Mr. Edwards] wished that there was no such thing as slavery in the world; but he was convinced, by the arguments of those who have the best means of obtaining information, that the sudden emancipation of the negroes would rather increase than diminish their miseries.  His benevolence, therefore, confined itself within the bounds of reason.  He adopted those plans for the amelioration of the state of the slaves which appeared to him the most likely to succeed without producing any violent agitation or revolution. (232)  

Edgeworth’s tale is didactic and its logical arguments are often poorly managed; it relies on commonly held beliefs and not on thorough explanations for the continued exploitation of labour.  Mr. Edwards appeals to an unreal yet powerfully intimidating force when he refers to the arguments of “those who have the best means of obtaining information” for his conclusions (232).  

The propaganda contained in this tale does not need to justify its conclusions because it conforms to commonly held beliefs that rely on unfounded but unchallenged notions of truth.  It also exploits tendencies towards conformity and social decorum by stressing the importance of reasonable behaviour.  Thus, Mr. Edwards is prudent, reasonable, and “engaged in no wild speculations” (234).  He is a gentleman.  Although the narrative contains seeds of distrust for the “necessary and immutable order of things,” the moral thrust is to quell the conscience of those masters whose allegiance to the system is wavering due to the growing strength of the abolitionist argument (252).  As the tale demonstrates, a ‘grateful Negro’ was a planter’s greatest asset, an ally who would repress rebellion and provide information and loyalty to the master.  The tale insists that the enslaved also benefited by this system.  However, it provides no clear explanation for this belief except that the risk of death in a rebellion is very high and a slave would do well to avoid participation in an uprising.   Cleverly delivered, the tale attempts to mask the true reasons behind new reformations that would ameliorate poor conditions on slave-run plantations, imbedded in the language of benevolence tempered by reason.  That is, Edgeworth’s tale encourages the kind treatment of slaves in order to protect the economic interests of the master and to discourage the slaves’ rebellion.  As George Boulukos has suggested in discussing earlier but similar tales of the ‘grateful Negro,’ “reformers improve slaves’ lives only in order to enslave them more securely” (161).  In short, they are controlled by gratitude. 

The ‘grateful Negro’ fantasy existed only in literature.  Maaja Stewart explains that, historically, slaves generally refused to respond to amelioration efforts (136). However, though this prototype failed on the plantation, the ideal British woman was successfully controlled through this discourse owing to her need to distinguish herself from the “ungrateful and undisciplined female slave” (136).  Mansfield Park’s indictment of this ideal is that it serves to perpetuate systems of oppression and not, as some abolitionists would claim, to support emancipation.  Indeed, had ameliorative efforts succeeded on plantations, their relative stability would have been, according to the conclusion of Mansfield Park, decidedly increased?  Although it has been argued by Clara Tuite, Moira Ferguson, and Peter Smith that Mansfield Park demonstrates the positive effects of amelioration and consequential moral development, it can be argued that the novel emphasizes the negative effects of amelioration and dismantles the myth that the ‘grateful Negro’ figure is an emancipatory agent.  That is, the ‘grateful Negro,’ both on the plantation and at home, was merely a strategy for owners to maintain their wealth and status and to oppose revolution.  Benevolence to a lucky few allowed owners to claim that they were sympathetic to abolitionist feeling, while also maintaining their superior status of power, wealth, and unchallenged authority, not unlike the way in which Fanny is adopted by the Bertram family as a token gesture of benevolence for the poor Price family, easing the conscience of Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas but not the Price family’s poverty.  

Anti-slavery rhetoric of the late eighteenth century is commonly yet erroneously equated with humanitarian goals and values (Boulukos 161).  Of course, this humanitarian impetus is partially true but it should not be historically connected to the ‘benevolence’ of slave owners.  Selwyn Carrington supplies evidence for this claim and concludes that amelioration policies were economically motivated:
While one may be tempted to relate these changes to the white humanitarian impulses toward the African slaves, it is an incontrovertible fact that amelioration…was more concerned with arresting the decline of the plantations and less with humaneness to the enslaved population. (164)

Owners were encouraged to supply proper care and supplies for their slaves with the promise that these improvements would increase efficiency and production (141-6).  Thus, the concept of the morally-treated slave—a paradoxical misnomer—created the opposite effect:  amelioration policies actually served to maintain and ensure a future slave population through improved economic strategies and the suppression of rebellions. Ultimately, reform “becomes an argument not for equality, but for paternalism: it claims to demonstrate that while African slaves are human, with basic affective capacities, they are nonetheless incapable of the ‘independence’ so highly valued in European workers” (Boulukos 173). Mansfield Park explores this phenomenon of unrest, rebellion, and the maintenance of authority by placing Sir Thomas outside the family circle for a time, describing the excitement and rebellion that ensues, and finally reinstating his paternal influence.

Those that live under Sir Thomas’ unchallenged authority at Mansfield Park exhibit characteristics of repressive agitation; the conditions that lead to rebellion are vividly present.  For example, the Crawfords and the Bertram children are described as being loosed onto the grounds at Sotherton:
[T]he young people, meeting with an outward door, temptingly open on a flight of steps which led immediately to turf and shrubs, and sweets of pleasure-grounds, as by one impulse, one wish for air and liberty, all walked out. (MP 71)

Sir Thomas’ children all endure a claustrophobic desire for experience liberty.  Tom participates intermittently in family events but he is frequently absent for extended periods of time, exercising his independence as the eldest male.  Maria describes herself as having “‘a feeling of restraint and hardship—I cannot get out, as the starling said’” (78).   Here, she refers to Sterne’s Sentimental Journey but also her own imprisonment. Flattered by the attention she receives from Henry but confused about his motives, Maria begins to show the effects of his manipulations and questions her engagement to Rushworth.  But, like all Sir Thomas’ children, Maria feels the “restraint which her father imposed” and eventually marries in order to escape him (158).  Julia’s elopement with Yates is similarly described: “her increased dread of her father and of home, on that event—imagining its certain consequence to herself would be greater severity and restraint—made her hastily resolve on avoiding such immediate horrors at all risks” (366). Julia enters a risky marriage to avoid her father’s strict authority.  

Just as Tom, Maria, and Julia seek distance from Sir Thomas’ authority, the excitement about performing the play when Sir Thomas is abroad testifies to the entire household’s general frustration.  His re-entry frightens and alarms everyone.  Uniting them all in a “moment of absolute horror,” Sir Thomas’ homecoming inspires fear: “What will become of us? What is to be done now?” (137). Edmund discusses the restoration of “sameness and gloom” later with Fanny and laments the loss of the liveliness that had typified their lives for a short time: “‘I believe our evenings are rather returned to what they were, than assuming a new character.  The novelty was in their being lively.—Yet, how strong the impression that only a few weeks will give! I have been feeling as if we had never lived so before’” (154).  Although there is a clear sense that the play’s rehearsals had agitated the already delicate relationships at Mansfield Park, Edmund’s recollection is striking for its nostalgia and sad resignation.  Because the guideline for permissible behaviour fluctuates according to the presence or absence of Sir Thomas, the residents of Mansfield begin to regard him with growing animosity.  They are tantalized by forbidden fruit and feel burdened with the weight of obedience when Sir Thomas returns.  Such moments of liberation and the sudden reinstatement of strict authority foster the conditions that produce rebellious unrest.  Maaja Stewart connects the limitations of Sir Thomas’ authority to his absenteeism: his authority is only effective when he is physically present (113).  Because Sir Thomas rules by subjugation, he inspires no loyalty when he is absent. Loyalty, as in Maria Edgeworth’s tale, is minimally inspired from within the ranks of the subjugated.  Fanny is fostered to become such a figure and it is perhaps these ‘grateful Negro’ characteristics that cause Sir Thomas to treat her with a newfound benevolence when he returns from Antigua: she is the only member of the household who did not participate actively in the private theatricals and remained loyal to Sir Thomas’ disapproval.  Furthermore, unlike the other metaphorical “negro” slaves in the Bertram household, Fanny is indebted to Sir Thomas.  She represents the undeserving poor, those that are required to respond with gratitude for the smallest of kindnesses bestowed upon them.  This perpetual state of gratitude is a useful trait for Sir Thomas:  he can count on her loyalty.  Fanny’s treatment as a commodity, victim status, lack of general safety, limited power as a sexual entity, and perpetual sense of gratitude associate her with the ‘grateful Negro’ of plantation tales.

Indeed, Fanny is treated as a commodity from her first moment at Mansfield Park: Mrs. Norris is prepared to help, provided that the “trouble and expense of it to them, would be nothing compared to the benevolence of the action” (5).  She invests in Fanny, willing to bet that their benevolence would no doubt bring her an advantageous marriage.  “‘Give a girl an education,’” she says, “‘and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to any body’” (5).  Fanny understands this expectation, feeling an acute sense of gratitude and need to be useful.  However, Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram often take advantage of her willingness to serve.  They often discuss Fanny’s social opportunities as being permissible only if she is currently dispensable.  In a typical moment when Fanny’s health is sacrificed for the sake of picking roses, her resulting headache and fatigue are discussed at length as if she is not present and able to comment on her own condition (57-9).  Such discussions emphasize Fanny’s status as a kind of servant and charity case. Fanny’s social status in the Bertram household begins a steady upswing when Maria and Julia leave Mansfield: “Fanny’s consequence increased on the departure of her cousins…Not only at home did her value increase, but at the Parsonage too” (160). Reflecting economic fluctuations of supply and demand, Fanny’s importance rises only because others are unavailable.  She is subject to market worth.  As a result, Henry notices her charm when he is no longer distracted by Maria:  he begins to pursue her hand in marriage. Consequently, Sir Thomas is inspired to rationalize her previous treatment:

“I know what [Mrs. Norris’] sentiments have always been. The principle was good in itself, but it may have been, and I believe has been carried too far in your case.…You will take in the whole of the past, you will consider times, persons, and probabilities, and you will feel that they were not least your friends who were educating and preparing you for that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be your lot.—Though their caution may prove eventually unnecessary, it was kindly meant; and of this you may be assured, that every advantage of affluence will be doubled by the little  privations and restrictions that may have been imposed.” (244-5)  

Sir Thomas’ admission of Fanny’s abuse is undermined by his explanation:  the family’s past mistreatment was merely an attempt to prepare her for “‘that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be [her] lot’” (245).  This justification, however, is contradicted almost immediately when Sir Thomas argues that the restrictions imposed upon Fanny were inspired by a “kindly meant” contribution to her future affluence.  In the end, his defensive ‘apology’ deteriorates into a cruel attack on Fanny’s character.  As Fanny observes earlier: “‘Advise’ was his word, but it was the advice of absolute power” (220). Fanny’s fluctuating status in Sir Thomas’ household contributes to her status as victim:  she has no control over her fate.  The abuse that Fanny experiences under Sir Thomas’ rule is transmitted by his entire family.  Julia and Maria have an enduring sense of their superiority over Fanny, while Mrs. Bertram is passively ignorant about Fanny’s happiness.  Tom, although he is intermittently kind, is generally a caricature of the selfish, eldest son and treats Fanny as more of a prop than a sister or cousin.  During Fanny’s first ball, for example, Tom hypocritically whisks her away to dance only to avoid playing cards with Dr. Grant, saying, “‘It raises my spleen more than any thing, to have the pretence of being asked, of being given a choice, and at the same time addressed in such a way as to oblige one to do the very thing—whatever it be!’” (95). Although Tom’s complaint encapsulates Fanny’s constant experience at Mansfield, his privileged position blinds him to Fanny’s perspective.  Even Edmund becomes neglectful when he is distracted by Mary.  His manipulation and ignorance of Fanny’s true feelings, discussed at length in Chapter Two, result in frequent emotional dilemmas for Fanny.    

There is no equal, however, to the humiliation and emotional cruelty Fanny experiences on account of Mrs. Norris’ selfish personality.  For example, when Fanny is invited to the Grants for dinner, Mrs. Norris’ comments are indicative of her precarious sense of superiority:
“I hope you are aware that there is no real occasion for your going into company in this sort of way, or ever dining out at all; and it is what you must not depend upon ever being repeated.  Nor must you be fancying, that the invitation is meant as any particular compliment to you; the compliment is intended to your uncle and aunt, and me. Mrs. Grant thinks it a civility due to us to take a little notice of you, or else it would never have come into her head, and you may be very certain, that if your cousin Julia had been at home, you would not have been asked at all.” (172)

Allowing no pleasure and contributing to Fanny’s damaged self-esteem, Mrs. Norris’ cruelty demonstrates the lack of solidarity between those who experience limited autonomies.  That is, Mrs. Norris and Fanny would make mutually beneficial allies but their competition for Sir Thomas’ favour pits them against one another.  Similarly over-critical of the Grants, she declares that “‘people are never respected when they step out of their proper sphere, remember that, Fanny’” (172).  Because Mrs. Norris’ authority exists in a hierarchy of privilege that is subject to fluctuations in power relations, she becomes desperate to maintain her position as Sir Thomas’ right hand, exhibiting panicked and defensive strategies when others resist the established social order or enjoy perceived undeserved favour.    

These constant reminders of inferiority manifest themselves in Fanny’s emotional reactions and contribute to her psychological abuse.  Her experience at Mansfield is punctuated with frequent experiences of fear, terror, neglect, and “the tremors of a most palpitating heart” (135).  Fanny explains these emotional reactions with self-deprecating logic, a survival strategy to manage psychological abuse.  For example, the narrator explains that though Fanny “was often mortified by their treatment of her, she thought too lowly of her own claims to feel injured by it” (16).  Later, she is described as rating “her own claims to comfort as low even as Mrs. Norris could” (173).  Fanny is terrified to offend and paralyzed to act.

As a result of these experiences, deflecting harm and ensuring physical and emotional safety are frequent pre-occupations for Fanny.  For example, her warning to Maria at the ha-ha reflects the caution for physical and emotional safety she applies to many situations that confront her:  “‘You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram…You had better not go.’” (79).  When Fanny finally agrees to fill in for an absent actor in the play, she believes that she has been “properly punished” for attending the rehearsal: “why had not she rather gone to her own room, as she had felt to be safest, instead of attending the rehearsal at all?” (135).   These apprehensions are echoed when she prepares for her coming out ball:  

[Fanny] had too many agitations and fear to have half the enjoyment in anticipation which she ought to have had…[and] was worn down at last to think every thing an evil belonging to the ball, and when sent off with a parting worry to dress, moved as languidly towards her own room, and felt as incapable of happiness as if she had been allowed no share in it. (209) 

Because she is terrified to occupy the spotlight for fear of greater scrutiny, her reaction includes a hypersensitive modesty, timidity, and embarrassment.  These coping mechanisms are a result not only of her conservative ethical convictions but also her need to deflect harm, to preserve emotional and physical health.  As Barbara Seeber has argued, “her stillness is not one of reactionary conservatism: it is the stillness of somebody who is literally afraid to move” (113).  Here, Fanny’s sense of danger is highlighted by acute feelings of vulnerability, producing a longing for her own space, a “nest of comforts” where she finds “immediate consolation” from the cruelties that she experiences elsewhere (120, 119).

Not impregnable to interruption, her little attic room is not always a protective haven; she lacks a space in the house where she is truly safe.  When Edmund and Mary visit her to rehearse their lines for the play, her little attic becomes a venue of emotional torture as she is forced to provide an audience for this feigned love scene (132-4).  Sir Thomas’ visit to Fanny’s room after Henry’s proposal deteriorates into a cruel tirade on Fanny’s character.  In what might be called the climax of the novel’s negotiation of power relations, Sir Thomas invades this safe space and wields the full force of his authority, even getting up to stand over Fanny during his lecture (244-5).  Later in the day, he organizes another attack, a private meeting for Henry and Fanny in his study, to which she is called formally by the butler (254-8).  Sir Thomas establishes his authority, though he is physically absent, through spatial intimidation: that is, the meeting takes place on his turf.  And when that fails as well, he decrees a physical exile that displaces Fanny outside her own home.  Sir Thomas invokes strategies of verbal, spatial, and physical coercion that invade her sense of security.  

            To all of these abuses, Fanny responds with exaggerated gratitude.  The novel is riddled with descriptions of her gratitude or ingratitude, connecting her strongly to the‘grateful Negro’.  A highly effective manipulative force, Fanny’s grateful responses are instinctual but also dictated to her. Although she is mortified to learn that she may have to live with her Aunt Norris, she resolves, “‘I hope I am not ungrateful’” (20).  Like her cousins, she feels the relief of Sir Thomas’ departure but “a more tender nature suggested that her feelings were ungrateful, and she really grieved because she could not grieve” (26).  When she refuses to join the play, Mrs. Norris dictates Fanny’s expected response: “‘I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her—very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is’” (116). Regardless of Fanny’s feelings, Mrs. Norris expects compliance because she is lower class, a position that does not even grant her personhood: “‘considering who and what she is’” (116)

          Fanny’s attributes of gratitude, propriety, and general submission prove to be a recipe for success, though she does nothing to disturb the quiet serenity of Mansfield Park’s existence. Mansfield Park carefully explores her impossible position by emphasizing the verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse she endures in addition to a degree of physical and sexual abuse.  As a victim, she is desperate for her individual safety; a bid for patriarchal favour is perhaps all she can manage. Consequently, Fanny opposes dissent, encourages submission, and quietly resolves to accept punishment.  If Fanny Price is representative of the ‘grateful Negro,’ she is also a representative of a safe and submissive response to her oppression.   Thus, if many readers find Fanny an unsatisfactory heroine, they do so for a very good reason.  Fanny’s response to her abuse, though understandable, inspires no great reformation.  And, by extension, Mansfield Park demonstrates that the ‘grateful Negro’ ideal on West Indian plantations would also serve to stabilize economic relationships.



Works Cited

Boulukos, George. “The Grateful Slave: A History of Slave Plantation Reform in the British Novel, 1750-1780” The Eighteenth-Century Novel. Vol. 1. New York: AMS, 2001: 161-79.

Edgeworth, Maria. “The Grateful Negro.” Popular Tales. Vol. 2. London: Baldwin and  Cradock, 1832.

Said,  Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Seeber, Barbara K. General Consent in Jane Austen: a Study of Dialogism.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2000.

Stewart, Maaja A.  Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions: Jane Austen’s Novels in Eighteenth Century Contexts.  Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Tuite, Clara. “Domestic retrenchment and imperial expansion: the property plots of Mansfield Park.” The Postcolonial Jane Austen. Eds. You-me Park and Rajeswari  Sunder Rajan. London: Routledge, 2000.