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Jane Austen: Bits to Bytes

Material Realities and Contexts

Oct 17 Class 9

    Austen: Mansfield Park
    Critical Reading: Briana Bullard Annotation

DUE Post #7


    Conclude discussion of Mansfield Park
    Discuss article

Mansfield Park

Joycelyn Harris in her chapter on Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park emphasizes the centrality of the theatre and performance to MP. She offers historical context that suggests Jane Austen's familiarity with theatre practices, and we know from her letters that Austen was a regular attendee of the theatre when it was available to her. Austen clearly enjoys the theatre, and yet it becomes a source of controversy in MP, and more importantly an opportunity for immoral behavior. Harris claims that Austen's narrative becomes a "rehearsal play" itself, detailing with burlesque humor the foilibles of the many actors engaged in the process. What does Austen's depiction of the characters in performance indicate about the individual characters? What about Lover's Vows is problematic for the women of the play? In what sense does the action of the rehearsal prefigure the action of the novel?

Paula Byrne, whose biography of Austen we will examine in more detail next week, takes her inspiration for writing A Life in Small Things from two scenes in Mansfield Park: the depiction of Fanny in her private space in the East Room (vol 1, ch 16) and her fetishization of Edmund's note with his gift of the gold chain (vol 2, ch 9). The narrative of MP is studded with objects of importance, from "moor park" apricots to little grey ponies, from ha ha's to gold chains, to "three deckers." What is the effect of this level of detail and precision? What does it do for the story? What symbolic work do the details do in the narrative? What does this suggest about Austen's artistry in the novel?

Examine scenes of detail more fully: choose a room in Sotherton or in Fanny's Portsmouth home and compare. Note a conversation where material objects -- such as a gold chain -- are significant. Analyze the object with some historical research.

Discuss brothers and sisters in the novel. Compare the Bertram sisters when Tom is gravely ill to Fanny's feelings for William or Mary's attachment to Henry. What do familial relationships tell us about characters?

Examine the concluding chapter carefully. Note the narrator's opening lines: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest" 17. By this register, which characters are greatly in fault themselves and which are not? Why is Fanny "My Fanny" here? Evaluate the narrator's voice in the ending of MP and compare it with the rest of the novel. What might you say about the narrative art in the novel following Pride and Prejudice?

Reception: Although MP was not reviewed by the monthlies, Jane Austen keenly recorded the reception of her novel in her notebooks. Critics repeatedly note the controversial reception the novel has recieved from her immediate family to popular readers today. What are the major concerns expressed in the controversy? What do these concerns reveal about our expectations for reading? for novels? How might the concerns in the reception controversy indicate something about Austen's professional development and artistry?

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