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The representation of Austen’s moral world is especially complete in Mansfield Park; the reader must take the concerns, the assumptions, the moral judgments, even the descriptions of the countryside, at face value, for they are precise representations of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. The perspective is that of the respectable, morally centered upper class. When we recognize the accuracy of Austen’s portrayal of her society, the book no longer seems a problem novel, or even an inexplicable departure from the real Jane Austen, as so many critics over the years have labeled it, but it takes focus as an extraordinary depiction of social history. The morality at its center is the root of social and domestic concern for Austen’s class. The exploration of moral motivation, especially as it shapes social conduct, is typical of Austen’s peers, as expressed in their letters, in the periodicals (think Samuel Johnson), in both conservative and radical novels, in the ubiquitous conduct books, and even in the political writing so popular in Austen’s youth. It is central to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Age of Reason.
KeywordsMoral Motivation Religious Observance Large Income Modern Reader Moral Stance
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- 1.Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 3.Google Scholar
- 2.Derek Jarrett, England in the Age of Hogarth (London: Hart-Davis, Mac-Gibbon, 1974), 76. The following discussion about Elizabeth Ham and boarding schools draws on Jarrett.Google Scholar
- 3.Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 5. Quotations will be cited by page number only when the page number itself is different from the number cited for the preceding quotation. All page references are to this edition.Google Scholar
- 4.Many critics of the novel talk about the failings of Sir Thomas, among them Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971);Google Scholar
- and John Wiltshire, “Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 62. These commentators see “an ethical anxiety in the reader that is not entirely resolved” because we sympathize with Sir Thomas. I think that this “anxiety” is resolved if we accept Sir Thomas, as I think Austen expected us to accept him, as part of the moral measure in the novel. He is not perfect; were he so, he would not be an interesting character. But he is almost always quite close to the moral mark, and when he has erred, as in his early lack of enthusiasm for the idea of Fanny as a daughter-in-law, he recognizes and regrets his mistakes, and acts quite strongly on the other side of his own argument.Google Scholar
- 8.Compare Edmund’s comments with Austen’s account to her sister Cassandra of their first cousin Edward Cooper’s acceptance of a living. Note especially Austen’s approval of Cooper’s decision to reside in the neighborhood of his work, just as Edmund insists he should do. And note also Austen’s clear interest in the economics of the position: £140 is a quite respectable amount. “Yesterday came a letter to my mother from Edward Cooper to announce, not the birth of a child, but of a living; for Mrs. Leigh has begged his acceptance of the Rectory of Hamstall-Ridware in Staffordshire, vacant by Mr. Johnson’s death. We collect from his letter that he means to reside there, in which he shows his wisdom…. The living is valued at 140£. a year, but perhaps it may be improvable.” Jane Austen (Jane Austen’s Letters, coll. and ed. Deirdre Le Faye [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997], 37).Google Scholar