Having recently re-read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), I was struck towards the end by the parallels between that novel, and Elizabeth Inchbald’s 1791 novel A Simple Story. Outwardly, it may seem that the novels have very little in common. Austen’s novel tells the story of Fanny Price, a gentle, timid soul, sent to live with her well-to-do relations, yet never treated as quite equal to them. She falls in love with her cousin Edmund, and the novel’s central conflict arises when Edmund falls in love with Miss Mary Crawford, whose brother, Henry Crawford, after flirting egregiously with Edmund’s two sisters, Maria and Julia, finally decides to court Fanny.
By contrast, A Simple Story tells the somewhat tragic tale of Miss Milner, a headstrong young woman who ends up marrying her guardian, cheating on him while he is out of the country, and being banished to a dank cottage with their little daughter Matilda. The final volume of the novel reunites Matilda with her father, but not before we as readers see the full extent of Lord Elmwood’s tyranny and selfishness and the terrible, terrifying sense of dependence all his friends and family feel around him. The final words of A Simple Story are a somewhat cryptic message about female education:
“And Mr. Milner, Matilda’s grandfather, had better have given his fortune to a distant branch of his family—as Matilda’s father once meant to do—so he had bestowed upon his daughter A PROPER EDUCATION.”
Little is explicitly mentioned in Inchbald’s novel about female education, except that Miss Milner was sent to “a Protestant boarding-school” and had received “merely such sentiments of religion, as young ladies of fashion mostly imbibe. Her little heart employed in all the endless pursuits of personal accomplishments, had left her mind without one ornament.” Instead, it is her daughter who avoided the “pernicious effects of an improper education” through her education in “the school of prudence—though of adversity—in which [she] was bred.”
|Many eighteenth-century novels consider the question|
of what kind of education is best for young ladies.
Austen’s narrator in Mansfield Park echoes many of the same views at the end of that novel. Sir Thomas, for example, reflects on the lack of a proper education for his daughters Maria and Julia, the first of whom runs away with Henry Crawford after marrying a rich buffoon Mr. Rushworth, and the second of whom elopes to Gretna Green with a man the family barely knows. In considering his daughters, Sir Thomas experiences “the anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters [that] was never to be entirely done away.”
Still, despite the “grievous mismanagement” of Maria and Julia’s educations, “he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effects…they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice…of the necessity of self-denial and humility he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.”
|More and more women learned to read|
and write over the course of the 17th and 18th
centuries, allowing them to weigh in
on philosophical questions regarding
the self and society.
The language of the two texts is remarkably similar: both Inchbald and Austen are reflecting, through their narrators and characters, on the notion that education must not only include the general project of gaining knowledge of the outside world, but that it must also encompass self-knowledge and self-management. One might have a dissipated character or certain harmful tendencies, but both novels (and many other eighteenth-century novels, including but not limited to the novels of Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, & Frances Sheridan) seem to suggest that bad habits must be corrected at an early age, that denial is a better teacher for children than indulgence, and that once the damage is done, it is extremely hard to undo.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny seems to be the only character who sees the Crawfords for who they really are. She is not blinded by desire like her cousins. Instead, she judges Mary and Henry by her first impressions, and Mary is immediately tainted by her pronouncements against the clergy (Edmund’s chosen vocation) and Henry by his dangerous flirtations with Julia and Maria (the latter of whom is already engaged to another man). At the end of the novel, the narrator suggests that if Henry and Mary had managed to ally themselves with Fanny and Edmund, respectively, they might have shed some of their bad habits. But by indulging their follies and vices and allowing themselves to be more influenced by their London friends and their whims and vanity, they cannot escape their own bad characters.
What strikes me the most when I read Austen’s novels, and indeed many works by her contemporaries, are the ideas about human character that are quite different from how we think of character today. I’m generalizing somewhat here, but it seems to me that for many people today, we consider that one’s character is not “fixed” throughout life. Instead, we see character and personality as something that develops over time, and most of us would shudder to think that we are the same person, at our core, with the same attitude towards life, the same goals, the same needs, as five, ten, or fifteen years ago. Yet, in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novels, I get the sense that people very strongly believed that character was fixed quite early on and very difficult to change.
While it may be true that certain qualities of our personalities may indeed be fixed from a young age (for example, whether one is more introverted or more extroverted), today’s ideology of “self-improvement” suggest that we can keep improving our selves interminably. Maybe this is a very American kind of attitude as well. And though I would never encourage anyone to stop trying to better themselves, we might learn just as much about ourselves—and our closest friends and family—if we stop to consider those parts of us that are “fixed”—for better or for worse.