Emma’s Holiday Bicentennial

“[I]t was a very great event that Mr. Woodhouse should dine out,
on the 24th of December” (ch. 13).

Emma - Hugh Thomson - “Toss them up to the ceiling”On December 23, 1815, Jane Austen’s fourth novel, Emma, was published. Today is its two-hundredth birthday! It is appropriate that it was published during December, as events surrounding the Christmas season are an integral part of the story.

Mr. Elton’s unwelcome proposal to Emma takes place on Christmas Eve, resulting in Emma realizing the dangers of matchmaking. Emma’s sister, Isabella (Mrs. John Knightley), visits with her family over the season, and Emma enjoys being confined to the house with them because of some Christmas snow. Isabella’s husband gives his delightful tirade against holiday engagements on the way to a party at Randalls. When they were all returned safely to Hartfield, Mr. Wodehouse and Isabella enjoyed a bowl of gruel together.

Emma - C. E. Brock - “You and I will have nice basin of gruel together”There could hardly be a happier creature in the world than Mrs. John Knightley, in this short visit to Hartfield, going about every morning among her old acquaintance with her five children, and talking over what she had done every evening with her father and sister. She had nothing to wish otherwise, but that the days did not pass so swiftly. It was a delightful visit;—perfect, in being much too short. (ch. 13)

So, here’s wishing everyone a delightful time visiting with family — sans traveling in bad weather or being subjected to bowls of gruel — and celebrating Emma’s bicentennial!

Austen’s Opposites

This is eighth (and last) in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.


As an admirer of Jane Austen, I am fascinated by her ability to expand her skills as a writer. In each novel, without varying her exquisite prose style, she set a new challenge for herself.

Austen's Opposites 1After writing the sparkling and satirical Pride and Prejudice, she determined to write something more serious. In Mansfield Park, she designed away all sparkle from her hero and heroine. Neither Edmund nor Fanny are witty, nor do either possess brilliant accomplishments or buoyant spirits. Instead of writing comedy, Austen turned to tragedy. What many readers complain of in Mansfield Park, I see as Austen’s genius.

Some readers also complain of Austen’s next novel, Emma. Although happy that Austen returned to comedy, they bemoan the story’s lack of action. “Nothing happens!”, they exclaim. The marriages in the book all cement the couples in their former stations. (Even Jane Fairfax’s marriage enables her to stay in the station in which she had been raised.) Every scene takes place in Highbury, whence the heroine has famously never traveled!

Austen's Opposites 2In contrast, Mansfield Park is overflowing with action. The characters are constantly coming and going. The young people explore Sotherton and act a play. Every few chapters something changes. And at the end, everything is shaken up from what it could likely have been from the beginning.

I think this busyness explains the monotony of Emma. Austen wanted to try something new. What if she wrote a story in which nothing really happened?


Illustrations by Hugh Thomson of Dr. Grant and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Mr. Weston, Miss Taylor, and Emma Woodhouse in Emma.

Happily Ever After

This is seventh in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.


Squashed into the epilogue of ‘Mansfield Park’ is the marriage of Edmund and Fanny. Although Fanny’s and Edmund’s romance is quite bland in comparison with the excitement in the rest of the novel, I think the couple had an excellent chance of achieving a “happily ever after”. They shared an attitude and philosophy of life as well as interests and pastimes. This, combined with mutual trust, could create a solid base for their life together.

Happily Ever AfterBeyond this, their marriage could strengthen both Edmund and Fanny individually. Because Fanny fully supported Edmund’s career, Edmund could gain confidence in his work. As Fanny was not accustomed to expensive gaieties and luxuries she would not weigh him down with discontent.

For Fanny, marriage to Edmund meant taking on a high position in a new community. As  the wife of a clergyman, her duties of hospitality and charity could help her develop confidence and authority, especially practiced among strangers.

I imagine Fanny and Edmund star-gazing, reading, visiting the poor, and raising children together. What reasons do you think would make them a happy couple?

Misguided Concealment

This is sixth in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.


In many novels, much of the drama revolves around a concealment. These passages are especially irksome because great harm often comes from the concealment, and it would be so simple for the informed character to say something and avert the catastrophe.

Often these concealments arise from some romantic fancy. In Far From the Madding Crowd, Gabriel Oak conceals Sergeant Troy’s former relationship from Bathsheba out of a mistaken sense of obligation to Fanny Robin. In Bleak House, Lady Dedlock conceals her past from her husband, even though speaking out would completely disarm her enemy, because she fears losing her husband’s esteem. Other characters feel that it would be wrong to speak ill of someone, even when not speaking injures another person—a person who really has a right to know.

Whereas I have come to expect misguided concealments in novels such as those by Dickens and Hardy, I was surprised to meet one in Mansfield Park.1 Happily, it has no effect on the outcome of the story, but it is still there!

Fanny Price keeps important information from Edmund. As Edmund’s only confidant, she knows that, although he is deeply in love with Mary Crawford, several things would keep him from proposing to her: Mary’s love of money, love of prestige, and contempt for Edmund’s profession. In fact, these did at one point decide Edmund against marrying her. After his ordination, he purposely stayed away from Mansfield to avoid seeing Mary, intending to return only after she left.

Fanny is uncertain as to how much Mary’s fondness for Edmund may have overcome her worldly notions, and she must, in any case, leave Edmund to his own judgment. What good would it do to convey doubts and suspicions to a mind accustomed to excusing them? And what right had she to do so—would it not be only indulging her own envy?

But while in Portsmouth, Fanny receives confirmation of her fears in writing from Mary.2 There, in Mary’s own handwriting, is evidence that she loves money and position in society to the point of wishing Edmund’s brother dead, and looks forward to Edmund’s profession being concealed as a past disgrace!

Despite any attending awkwardness, I think Fanny should have forwarded Mary’s letter to Edmund. He had a right to know.


1There is a misguided concealment in Emma, which is crucial to the plot, but Austen handles it much differently than the other authors mentioned. Also, in Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth choose not to publish Wickham’s true character because he is leaving soon.

2“Poor young man! If he is to die, there will be two poor young men less in the world; and with a fearless face and bold voice would I say to any one, that wealth and consequence could fall into no hands more deserving of them. It was a foolish precipitation last Christmas [Edmund’s ordination], but the evil of a few days may be blotted out in part. Varnish and gilding hide many stains. It will be but the loss of the Esquire after his name. With real affection, Fanny, like mine, more might be overlooked.”—Mansfield Park, Chapter XLV

If Only

This is fifth in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.


37th copyMansfield Park is a tragedy. Its readers often exclaim, “If only!”

The “if only” usually refers to the marriages of Fanny & Henry, Mary & Edmund. What happiness for them all! What fun for the readers to enjoy Henry’s and Mary’s felicity, and to see Fanny and Edmund learn to laugh at themselves, as Mr. Darcy did in Pride and Prejudice.

But this is impossible. As Austen wrote the story, tragedy was inevitable. Although she convinces us that Fanny and Henry could be truly happy together, she states that Fanny would only have married Henry after “a reasonable period from Edmund’s marrying Mary.”1 And, sadly, it seems that Edmund and Mary would not have been happy together.

In contrast to Henry, who, within a short time of falling in love with Fanny, began to change his actions2, Mary did not change for love of Edmund, although her affection continued for many months. In conversation, Henry moderated his tone and topics to Fanny, but Mary sharpened her tongue against Edmund. She ridiculed his principles rather than trying to understand them.

Also, Mary despised Edmund’s profession and would have been discontent with his income. Whereas marriage to Fanny would have been Henry’s moral salvation, marriage to Mary would have been Edmund’s moral condemnation. And Henry’s moral salvation—through Fanny, at least—could only happen by that sacrifice of Edmund.

And we all know what happens when neither of these couples marry. A tragedy.3


1Chapter 48, Mansfield Park.

2I chose “actions” as distinct from “principles”. Henry did think about serious subjects more seriously while courting Fanny, but ultimately did not change his principles.

3Although Edmund did suffer deeply, this was a tragedy primarily for the Henry and Mary, as, ultimately, Fanny and Edmund lived happily ever after.

True Love?

This is fourth in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.


Did Mary Crawford truly love Edmund Bertram? Put another way, this question could read, “Did Rosamund Vincy truly love Tertius Lydgate?” Or, does a woman truly love a man devoted to his profession, if she despises his profession? According to Tertius, the answer is “no”.

“Do you know, Tertius, I often wish you had not been a medical man.”

“Nay, Rosy, don’t say that,” said Lydgate, drawing her closer to him. “That is like saying you wish you had married another man.”

“Not at all; you are clever enough for anything: you might easily have been something else. . . . I do not think it is a nice profession, dear.” We know that she had much quiet perseverance in her opinion.

“It is the grandest profession in the world, Rosamond,” said Lydgate, gravely. “And to say that you love me without loving the medical man in me, is the same sort of thing as to say that you like eating a peach but don’t like its flavor. Don’t say that again, dear, it pains me.”1

Hugh Thomson illustration with captionIn a strikingly similar conversation, this question first occurs to Edmund and Mary:

“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse before him.”

“Do you think the church itself never chosen, then?”

“Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation, which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”

“The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.” . . .

“I am just as much surprised now as I was at first that you should intend to take orders. You really are fit for something better. Come, do change your mind. It is not too late. Go into the law.”2

Although Mary is more intelligent and kind than Rosamund, the two share values in marriage: money and position. Mary is aware of the discrepancies between Edmund and her ideals, but Rosamund thinks she has found them in Tertius. When she learns that she is mistaken, she attempts to conform Tertius to her ideals, ultimately ruining him and their marriage. Tertius is at first filled with ambition to do good through his work, but Rosamund’s behavior causes him to lose his respect for himself, and with it a greater part of his ability to do good.

Could a similar future have awaited Edmund and Mary? Tertius and Edmund were similar men—both gentle, serious, and dedicated to their vocations. Attraction to Mary had already lead Edmund to act against his conscience during the play, and Fanny fears that Edmund would do more of the same if he married Mary: “God grant that her influence do [sic] not make him cease to be respectable!”3

The nature of true love is not to ruin and destroy. It is to adhere, to respect, to support.


1Middlemarch, by George Eliot, Book V, ch. XLV

2Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, ch. IX

3Ibid., ch. XLIV

Fanny Was Right

This is third in a series of guest posts written by “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentennial.


“[Sir Thomas’s] displeasure against herself she trusted . . . would now be done away. She should be justified. Mr. Crawford would have fully acquitted her conduct in refusing him”1

To Sir Thomas, Henry’s and Maria’s elopement vindicated Fanny’s refusal. In this, Sir Thomas’s judgment was shallow. Fanny did not reject Henry because she foresaw scandal and disgrace. Henry did not need to be wicked enough to run off with someone else’s wife in order to be a bad choice for Fanny. Her refusal was formed on standards which Sir Thomas did not share and events of which he was not aware. These standards needed no later proof to validate them.

26th copyAt the time of Henry’s proposal, Fanny’s knowledge of him was overwhelmingly bad. At almost every meeting, Henry flirted and trifled with an engaged woman—a circumstance which Sir Thomas never learned of. Henry also spoke flippantly about matters which should have commanded his respect. When Fanny said, “I cannot approve his character. . . . I am persuaded that he does not think, as he ought, on serious subjects”2 she had every reason to think so. It would have been foolish to entrust herself, and any children she might have, to such a man, no matter how rich or charming he was.

There was also the fact that Fanny did not love Henry. Among the characters, Sir Thomas alone would disagree that it is wrong to marry someone you do not love. When Edmund tells Fanny, “You did not love him; nothing could have justified your accepting him”3, he is only saying what most people would believe. Even worldly-minded Mary and Henry censure any woman who, “would ever give her hand without her heart.”4 Marrying without love is a wrong not only against yourself, but also against the one you marry.5 To marry Henry when she was in love with another would have been doing him a double wrong.6

Not only did Fanny not love Henry, she did not even like him. His society was irksome to her—both as a suitor and as a friend.“His attentions were always—what I did not like”7 & “his spirits often oppress me”.8 This is the only reason for rejecting Henry that Fanny felt comfortable telling her uncle. But Sir Thomas did not understand the nature of liking: “There is something in this which my comprehension does not reach.”9,10

Fanny’s rejection of Henry is not evidence that she was a prig or a prophet. Rather, it shows that she had common sense and common justice. No matter how imperfect her knowledge of him was, or how he may have changed afterward, Fanny was right to refuse Henry.


1Mansfield Park, ch. 47

2Ibid., ch. 35

3Ibid., ch. 35

4Ibid., ch. 5

5Austen censures Rushworth for marrying a woman who he knows doesn’t love him:

“[Maria] had despised him, and loved another; and he had been very much aware that it was so. The indignities of stupidity, and the disappointments of selfish passion, can excite little pity. His punishment followed his conduct,” ch. 48

6Austen’s characters do not marry out of a silly sense of duty, especially when their hearts are otherwise engaged (not like Laura Fairly in The Woman in White).

7Mansfield Park, ch. 32

8Ibid., ch. 35

9His speech continues, “Here is a young man wishing to pay his addresses to you, with everything to recommend him: not merely situation in life, fortune, and character, but with more than common agreeableness, with address and conversation pleasing to everybody. And he is not an acquaintance of to-day; you have now known him some time.”, ch. 32

10I am reminded of Aunt Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right: “I never heard of such a thing in my life. Not love him! And why shouldn’t you love him? He’s a gentleman. Everybody respects him. He’ll have plenty to make you comfortable all your life!”