Fanny Goes to Dinner: A Right Given by Imperial Means
In discussing rights that are given and received in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, we cannot pass over Mrs. Grant’s dinner invitation extended to Fanny. It is through Edmund’s persistence and Sir Bertram’s authority that Fanny ultimately receives the right to this social event. But why and how is this right given, and what does that tell us about the domestic order at Mansfield Park? After all, Fanny is only a servant. The debate of whether she can go to dinner originates with Lady Bertram, who is puzzled as to why Mrs. Grant should invite Fanny, the one person she “cannot spare,” to dinner (Austen, 169). Although readers may be annoyed by Lady Bertram throughout the novel because of the way she possesses Fanny, she is not exercising power that is out of the norm in the eighteenth-century. In Domestic Affairs,author Kristina Straub informs readers that there was a “tendency to think of servants as children” (20). That is to say Fanny was not treated like Lady Bertram’s offspring as much as she was treated like an immature adolescent, and in this sense, would not attend dinner at a neighbor’s house. Thus, this again begs the question of how and why Sir Bertram gives Fanny the right to attend dinner. Put simply, the simultaneous father and plantation owner operates his household through an imperial order. When Lady Bertram asks for Sir Bertram’s help on the dinner invitation decision he is seen looking at “his plantation” and almost “close[s] the door.” Therefore, when he enters the room where the conversation is occurring, I argue that Sir Bertram cannot separate his imperial position from his domestic one (Austen, 170). Coupled with Fanny’s restriction of dialogue and Sir Bertram’s spatial orientation, granting Fanny permission to dinner has little to do with Fanny or her role as a servant and all to do with Sir Bertram’s imperial control of the household.
In the beginning of this scene, strictly abiding by Sir Bertram’s imperial order and therefore limiting Fanny’s voice, is Edmund. As we will soon see, Edmund appears to be advocating for Fanny’s right to attend dinner, but in actuality, he is being controlled by “family law.” This law stems “from the long-standing central role of the ownership and transference of propertyand wealth” (McCarthy and Edwards). Although Edmund is the second oldest, it matters that he is the only son present in this scene. He abides by familial law and Sir Bertram’s authority, thus, I argue that although he may mean no harm by it, Edmund treats Fanny like property. When Lady Bertram asks Fanny if she wants to go to dinner, and “preventing his cousin’s speaking” Edmund responds for Fanny. At first glance, readers might admire Edmund’s advocacy for Fanny, for he is “sure […] she would like to go” (Austen, 169). However, because Edmund immediately takes away Fanny’s voice, we know that he is not concerned with the pleasures Fanny might gain by an evening of socializing but rather insists on adhering to the imperial structure. In short, Edmund answers his mother because it is not up to Fanny, a servant, whether she may attend dinner. It’s up to Sir Bertram. What comes next is interesting, for we see Fanny, in her shy way, resist the empire. Like with Edmund, readers might view Fanny as cowardly in this scene, yet notice when she starts to tell Lady Bertram, “If you cannot do without me, ma’am,’” Edmund quickly interrupts her. Fanny tries to give Lady Bertram a respectful and submissive answer, for this fulfills the important role Fanny holds in the household, that of a servant. In fact, “the contract between employer and servant embodied the first of the ‘three great relations of private life’,” the other two being husband and wife, and parent and child (Steedman, 3).It is significant to note that this powerful contract between Fanny (servant) and Lady Bertram (employer) ranks inferior to the overarching domestic order at Mansfield Park. Edmund interrupts her response to Lady Bertram and soon after he recommends that his mother “take my father’s opinion” (170). In summation, the importance in this dialogue is not that Edmund thinks Fanny should go to dinner. Rather, it is that Edmund’s position as Sir Bertram’s son, thus a submitted follower to his imperial order, prevents Fanny from giving Lady Bertram an answer. In what follows, we see this strict domestic order truly come to fruition when Sir Bertram enters the scene.
In order to support the argument that this scene is purely about Sir Bertram’s domestic imperial order, we must examine the way Sir Bertram enters the conversation. In this particular scene, Austen carefully positions Sir Bertram in a way that makes the reader visualize his simultaneous ownership of his Antigua plantation and Mansfield Park. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines empire as “relating to a territory or group of territories with a single ruler.” By these guidelines, Sir Thomas—owner of a plantation in Antigua and the property of Mansfield Park—qualifies as an imperial ruler. Lady Bertram sees her husband “looking in for a minute from his plantation to his dressing room,” which distinctly puts his two territories in close proximity. We know that Sir Bertram is in England, so he is not actually physically looking at his Antigua plantation, rather the Mansfield Park estate. However, Austen specifically uses the word “plantation” to show how Mansfield functions with dual meaning/symbolism. A plantation is “something that has been founded [and] established” (like his home at Mansfield) while it is also defined as “the settling of people, usually in a conquered or dominated country” (like his property in Antigua) (OED). These two related definitions of plantation are easily interchangeable, meaning that the plantation at Mansfield Park is not only an established estate, but a place conquered and dominated by Sir Thomas. Although patriarchal structures were not abnormal within an eighteenth-century household, the point remains that, as Sarah Marsh puts it, “the social tensions Austen dramatizes in the novel—between […] domestic and imperial interests […] suggest her attentiveness to the empire’s capacity to alter community relationships at home” (215). As it is emphasized with the word choice ‘plantation,’ Sir Bertram’s imperial rule in Antigua is heavily transmitted to, and then implemented, at Mansfield Park.
Following Sir Bertram’s entrance, we see how the dialogue between himself, Edmund, and Lady Bertram, casts Fanny as simply a background figure in the greater overarching presence of imperial power. Fanny’s position at Mansfield Park, similar to that of Olivia Fairchild in The Woman of Colour, is not always clear. Olivia has to grapple with being a mulatto woman in England who has light skin but is not white enough. Fanny does not have to grapple with race in betweenness, but rather her social position, for in terms of kin she is synchronously cousin, sister, and (arguably) an orphan. In addition, she is labeled as a servant to her Aunt Bertram, but is also granted rights, as seen when she riders her horse or in her visit to the Sotherton property. Sarah Marsh also contends that Fanny’s “social station” is constantly unclear and adds that “Austen dramatizes this confusion precisely in the terms of chattel property interests on Sir Thomas’s English and Antiguan estates” (215-6). Upon Sir Thomas’ entrance, Fanny “immediately slipped out of the room,” which can support the notion that Fanny is just a piece of Sir Bertram’s property. In the same way Sir Bertram does not need to physically be at Antigua in order to exercise imperial power, he also does not need to physically see, acknowledge, or talk to Fanny, for she is simply another piece of his property. Her presence is insignificant in comparison to the order of imperial control that Sir Thomas must instill. As Fanny exits the room, there’s a moment of free indirect discourse in which the narrator says, “She was anxious, she knew” (170). I argue that Fanny’s anxiety derives from her social position that’s in constant flux. As a servant, Fanny respectfully understands and will obey if Lady Bertram “cannot do without” her for one night (170). Yet, because she has been granted some rights that servants would not normally have access to (such as Sotheron) Fanny has reason to believe she may attend Mrs. Grant’s dinner. The narration of Fanny’s anxiousness is followed by the question, “for what was it after all whether she went or staid?” (170). What seems like a simple reflective question is really underscoring the trivial conversation between Sir Bertram, Lady Bertram, and Edmund. The answer to her question (what was it after all?) is this: Sir Thomas uses the right under debate—is Fanny allowed to attend dinner—to assert his imperial power.
In the last moments of this scene, we see the culmination of Edmund’s adherence to his father’s power and Fanny’s invisible presence further confirm Sir Bertram’s imperial order. Sir Bertram does not directly give Fanny her right, but rather tells his son, “Very well, then, Fanny may go, Edmund” (171). This is Sir Bertram’s last word on the matter. Although earlier he claims that Fanny “must wish to go, since all young people like to be together,” he never once communicates with Fanny on the decision at hand (171). Again this asserts that for Sir Bertram, Fanny, as Marsh discusses in her article, is a “moveable good” (220). Sir Thomas’ satisfaction does not derive from Fanny’s pleasure, but from the power he maintains in giving or withholding rights from Fanny, his property. Austen again shows Fanny’s ambiguous role in Sir Bertram’s imperial order when the narrator uses free indirect discourse as Fanny reflects about the news: “‘And yet, why should I be glad? for am I not certain of seeing or hearing something to pain me?’” (171). With this moment and the previous use of FID in the scene, the narrative questions reveal Fanny’s awareness that she is only a small player in the imperial schemes of Sir Bertram. Though Fanny has the instinctual emotion of happiness, she quickly realizes that this right does not give any clarity of her social positionality at Mansfield. She is servant, kin, or whatever Sir Bertram needs her to be in his imperial structure at Mansfield Park.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park.Oxford University Press, 2008.
“Family Law.” SAGE Key Concepts series: Key Concepts in Family Studies, Jane Ribbens
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Marsh, Sarah. “Changes of Air: The Somerset Case and Mansfield Park’s Imperial Plots.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 53, no. 2, 2020, pp. 211-233.
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Steedman, Carolyn. “The Servant’s Labour: The Business of Life, England, 1760-1820.” Social History, vol. 29, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1-29.
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