Saturday, April 03, 2010

Edward Said, Jane Austen and Empire

Edward Said, Jane Austen and Empire, from The Edward Said Reader, Vintage Books, New York, 2000.

The force of this paragraph is unmistakable. Not only is this a Crusoe settings things in order: it is also an early Protestant eliminating all traces of frivolous behavior. There is nothing in Mansfield Park that would contradict us, however, were we to assume that Sir Thomas does exactly the same things—on a larger scale—in his Antigua “plantations.” Whatever was wrong there—and the internal evidence gathered by Warren Roberts suggests that economic depression, slavery, and competition with France were at issue—Sir Thomas as able to fix, thereby maintaining his control over his colonial domain. More clearly than anywhere else in her fiction, Austen here synchronizes domestic with international authority, making it plain that the values associated with such higher things as ordination, law, and propriety must be grounded firmly in actual rule over and possession of territory. She sees clearly that to hold and rule Mansfield Park is to hold and rule an imperial estate in close, not to say inevitable association with it. What assures the domestic tranquility and attractive harmony of one is the productivity and regulated discipline of the other.

Before both can be fully secured, however, Fanny must becomes more actively involved in the unfolding action. From frightened and often victimized poor relation she is gradually transformed into a directly participating member of the Bertram household at Mansfield Park. For this, I believe, Austen designed the second part of the book, which contains not only the failure of the Edmund-Mary Crawford romance, but Fanny Price’s rediscovery and rejection of her Portsmouth home, the injury and incapacitation of Tom Bertram (the eldest son), and the launching of William Price’s naval career. This entire ensemble of relationships and events is finally capped with Edmund’s marriage to Fanny, whose place in Lady Bertram’s household is taken by Susan Price, her sister. It is no exaggeration to interpret the concluding sections of Mansfield Park as the coronation of an arguably unnatural (or at very least, illogical) principle at the heart of a desired English order. The audacity of Austen’s [356] vision is disguised a little by her voice, which despite its occasional archness is understated and notably modest. But we should not misconstrue the limited references to the outside world, her lightly stressed allusions to work, process, and class, her apparent ability to abstract (in Raymond Williams’s phrase) “an everyday uncompromising morality which is in the end separable from its social basis.” In fact Austen is far less diffident, far more severe.

The clues are to be found in Fanny, or rather in how rigorously we are able to consider her. True, her visit to her original Portsmouth home, where her immediate family still resides, upsets the aesthetic and emotional balance she has become accustomed to at Mansfield Park, and true she has begun to take its wonderful luxuries for granted, even as being essential. These are fairly routine and natural consequences of getting used to a new place. But Austen is talking about two other matters we must not mistake. One is Fanny’s newly enlarged sense of what it means to be at home; when she takes stock of things after she gets to Portsmouth, this is not merely as a matter of expanded space.

‘Fanny was almost stunned. The smallness of the house, and thinness of the walls, brought every thing so close to her, that, added to the fatigue of her journey, and all her recent agitation, she hardly knew how to bear it. Within the room all was tranquil enough, for Susan having disappeared with the others, there were soon only her father and herself remaining; and he taking out a newspaper—the accustomary loan of a neighbour, applied himself to studying it, without seeming to recollect her existence. The solitary candle was held between himself and the paper, without any reference to her possible convenience; but she had nothing to do, and was glad to have the light screened from her aching head, as she sat in bewildered, broken, sorrowful contemplation. / She was at home. But alas! it was not such a home, she had not such a welcome, as—she checked herself; she was unreasonable… A day or two might shew the difference. She only was to blame. Yet she thought it would not have been so at Mansfield. No, in her uncle’s house there would have been a consideration of times and seasons, a regulation of subject, a propriety, an attention toward every body which there was not here.’

In too small a space, you cannot see clearly, you cannot think clearly, you cannot have regulation or attention of the proper sort. The fineness of Austen’s detail (“the solitary candle was held between himself and the paper, without any reference to her possible convenience”) renders very precisely the dangers of unsociability, of lonely insularity, of diminished awareness that are rectified in larger and better administrated spaces.

That such spaces are not available to Fanny by direct inheritance, legal title, by propinquity, contiguity, or adjacence (Mansfield Park and Portsmouth are separated by many hours’ journey) is precisely Austen’s point. To earn the right to Mansfield Park you must first leave home as a kind of indentured servant or, to put the case in extreme terms, as a kind of transported commodity—this, clearly, is the fate of Fanny and her brother William—but then you have the promise of future wealth. I think Austen sees what Fanny does as a domestic or small-scale movement in space that corresponds to the larger, more openly colonial movements of Sir Thomas, her mentor, the man whose estate she inherits. The two movements depend on each other. (356-358)

According to Austen we are to conclude that no matter how isolated and insulated the English place (e.g. , Mansfield Park), it requires overseas sustenance. Sir Thomas’s property in the Caribbean would have had to be a sugar plantation maintained by slave labor (not abolished until the 1830s): these are not dead historical facts but, as Austen certainly knew, evident historical realities. Before the Anglo-French competition the major distinguishing characteristic of Western empires (Roman, Spanish, and Portuguese) was that the earlier empires were bent on loot, at Conrad puts it, on the transport of treasure from the colonies to Europe, with very little attention to development, organization, or system within the colonies themselves; Britain and, to a lesser degree, France both wanted to make their empires long-term, profitable, ongoing concerns, and they competed in this enterprise, nowhere more so than in the colonies of the Caribbean… (359)

What was wanting within was in fact supplied by the wealth derived from a West Indian plantation and a poor provincial relative, both brought in to Mansfield Park and set to work. Yet on their own, neither the one nor the other could have sufficed; they require each other and then, more important, they need executive disposition, which in turn helps to reform the rest of the Bertram circle. All this Austen leaves to her reader to supply in the way of literal explication. (362)


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