Religion in Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park is seldom mentioned as a favorite among Jane Austen’s works. Austen's wit, humor and relatable characters are almost entirely absent. When Mansfield Park receives the attention of critics, it is usually being cited as Austen's darker writing. Austen's view on slavery — only mentioned twice in the whole book, and then almost in passing — is hotly debated as if it were a main theme. And the two most recent film adaptations have so distorted the content of the novel that the original messages are almost entirely lost.
There are themes central to Mansfield Park which go almost unnoticed amidst all the modern-day focus on sex and slavery. One of these themes deals with the Regency (and universal) experience of religion. Here, Jane Austen once again proves her writing to be brave and insightful.
Austen's father and two of her brothers were ordained in the Anglican church. Her healthy relationship with her family suggests that she had no negative association with the church or religion. And yet, through the worldly characters of Henry and Mary Crawford, Austen presents an unexpectedly controversial debate on the subject.
Our first encounter with the topic of religion in Mansfield Park is in the chapel at Sotherton, home of Mr. Rushworth. Edmund Bertram mentions to Fanny Price that the chapel had been in constant use, both morning and evening, with prayers read in it by the domestic chaplain, but that the late Mr. Rushworth had ceased this practice. Mary Crawford smilingly chimes in with the coy remark that “every generation has its improvements.” It is the first such bold comment of many. The sudden introduction of a distaste for religious practice is quite startling. This is especially true for a book written in that time and by an author whose work was considered primarily romantic rather than controversial (and whose own family was clearly devout).
Mary Crawford expands her opinion, cynically imagining the heads of house forcing their servants to pray in the chapel while inventing excuses to stay away themselves. Edmund’s response is that, “If the master and mistress do not attend themselves, there must be more harm than good in the custom.”
Mary, unabated, complains on behalf of young ladies in general, lamenting the fact of being forced to attend worship at exact times, not finding the chaplain attractive, and being “starched up into seeming piety, but with heads full of something very different.” (Oh my!)
Edmund agrees it can be difficult to concentrate, especially if the service is very long, but that those who lack devotion in a chapel would also lack it in private.
While this conversation progresses, Henry Crawford flirts openly with Maria Bertram right next to her fiancé in the chapel.
Goodness, where to start!
Regardless of the reader’s personal feelings towards the church and religion, it is easy to recognize Miss Crawford’s views as skewed by her own morality (or lack thereof). Her distaste for chapel services do not lie in a reasonable condemnation of wrong practices, but rather in the personal inconvenience caused, the hypocrisy she assumes takes place, and the presumption that young ladies are so consumed by carnal thoughts as to benefit nothing from quiet prayer. Her brother seems to share her disregard for moral norms by his underhanded behavior with an engaged lady, especially considering the location.
Two elements in Austen’s handling of this theme made an impression on me. Firstly, that she tackles these issues at all. It matters not whether the Crawfords are religious, but that they lack a sense of propriety. By acknowledging the baser inclinations of the Crawford siblings, she does indeed touch on the darker side of human nature. Instead of painting her scene with a romantic fairytale brush, Austen declares openly that human behavior is often coarser and less idealistic than the purist would like to think. Even though the author does not agree with the Crawfords, just mentioning such decadent thinking as theirs would have been quite brazen in Austen’s time.
The second element that drew my admiration was how Austen had Edmund reply. Edmund is devout and sincere, planning to become ordained with the intention of truly serving his community. Yet, despite his own piety, he does not judge or condemn. His answers to Miss Crawford are calm and come from an honest understanding of people and the church. His thoughts are deeper and wiser, suggesting he has spent much time pondering such topics. They are not the knee-jerk outcries of one who has had his sensibilities offended and demands a retraction from his opponent. He is happy to teach, explain, share insights. It is to Miss Austen’s credit that she has not created a Christian caricature of Edmund, but instead uses him to provide balance.
When next the party of friends discuss the clergy, it is in the woodland beyond the house at Sotherton. This time Miss Crawford condemns Edmund’s chosen career. Again, her opinions are colored by personal motives. She wishes to marry Edmund and seeks the type of lifestyle which she would be unable to gain as a vicar’s wife. In speaking disparagingly of clergymen, she hopes to dissuade Edmund from following through with his plans.
Mary Crawford begins by calling a clergyman “nothing”, implying such a man lacks ambition. Later in the book she expands on this notion, saying it is “indolence and love of ease - a want of all laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble of being agreeable, which make men clergymen.”
Edmund is concerned that she grossly generalizes what she has only beheld in her own brother-in-law. He explains that, when he is ordained, he might not lead in “state or fashion” but would have the “guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.”
Mary quite reasonably counters by referring Edmund to what was then the typical practice of the absentee clergyman: one who was visible only in the pulpit, and then sometimes not regularly at that. Interestingly, Sir Thomas (Edmund’s father) addresses this very subject later in conversation with Henry Crawford, saying, “(Edmund) knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey, and that if he does not live among his parishioners and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.”
Edmund himself says, “A fine preacher is followed and admired; but it is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and his neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a [small enough] size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct…” He adds that “…as clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.”
What is interesting here, is that Austen, through Mary Crawford, actually touches on some very real issues within the clergy at the time. Though there were such dedicated clergy as Edmund hoped to be, too many men of the church barely fulfilled the most basic service of preaching. These man “had a living”, which meant they had a small but steady income regardless of how much they actually put into their jobs. Some vicars even had more than one “living”, so that their service was spread more thinly, their time being divided between the communities they were attached to. (Austen’s own father had two livings and still had to run a boarding school to sustain his large family.) Mary Crawford’s assumption that clergy such as these may lack any ambition, would be fair. But Edmund rightly points out that such men would lack even the most basic commitment to what really should be a calling. Edmund’s conviction reflects what we can reasonably assume Austen believed: that a clergyman should be both an example and a friend, visible and present and available to his parishioners.
Through the calm debate between Edmund and Mary, Austen is able to bring these issues to light while also satisfying the reader that she sees these issues as rectifiable. Austen shines a light upon the rot so that it may be healed.
It is clear that Austen has high standards. She holds Edmund up as that standard, implying that his commitment and calm reasonableness should be the norm. At the same time, she is showing us that reality often does not meet this expectation.
Austen’s final comment on religion occurs in the last chapter of the book. The lack of integrity in several of the characters has been revealed and Sir Thomas reflects on the sorry state of affairs within his own family. He now regrets how he raised his daughters, saying “They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice.”
The message Austen has been sharing throughout Mansfield Park is summarized in these words of Sir Thomas: that mere etiquette and ritual is not enough. Edmund and Fanny’s faith-put-into-practice — often making them appear dull in comparison to the more reckless characters — reveals them to be the most likable personalities in the end. Austen portrays authentic religious life as steady, honorable, and gracious. And such a message urges us to better practices, even two hundred years later.