Epistolarity & Point of View into Steam of Consciousness: From Elinor to Emma to Fanny

I too am intrigued by Dorothy Gannon's comments on those things in Mansfield Park we have not yet touched upon, and especially on the importance of a varied point of view in Mansfield Park. We might put it this way: how can it be true that one of the problems for some readers of Mansfield Parkis that Fanny Price is the central perceiving consciousness either because they are uncomfortable with a heroine whose depiction departed in Austen's time and still departs from the kind of heroine many readers are willing to identify with or because they fail to distinguish (this is Elvira's view) the narrator from the perceiving consciousness, if when we look at this book we find that point of view moves around.

I would argue that in four of Austen's novels point of view by which I mean the perspective from which events are narrated remains mostly that of a single female perceiving consciousness as intercepted and commented upon by an impersonal narrator who seeks not to obtrude her presence too heavily or frequently or in such a way as to create a distance between herself and her character. The result is an illusion of being in a living mind, an increase of intensity, a text which we would call realistic because it seems to imitate diurnal reality. In Sense and Sensibility, we see events mostly from Elinor's point of view as modified by the narrator; so too in Persuasion with the signficant difference that the perceiving consciousness, Anne Elliot's perspective is more dominant or frequent than that of the narrator (the narrator appears very little) and is not counteracted by another point of view from another character (there is no Marianne, no other characters whose point of view is deeply sympathized with through the story of by the narrator at least at times).

The one of the four which has struck later critics--including Henry James and Wayne Booth--because the narrator seems to be so rarely in the book and because the central perceiving consciousness, Emma, is so very faulty and blind and thus an unreliable narrator who misleads us is _Emma. The reason for this has been pointed out many times in various articles. Only three times in the book do we leave Emma's mind to see events out of another or to be "fed" some essential facts we can't get any other way. Twice we leave to see the world as Knightley sees it, the first time together with Mrs Weston (Emma, Chapman I:5), the second time alone and so as to make us see the "double dealing" of Frank Churchill in his _apparent_ "pursuit of Emma" (Emma,Chapman III:5); these incidents are crucially placed so that we suddenly see a series of emotionally effective scenes with far more information than Emma has and can now judge her in a way we couldn't before. I also find it fascinating that they are symmetrically placed: both are the fifth chapter in a volume. The third place where we leave Emma's consciousness comes in the second chapter of Volume II. There the narrator tells us Jane Fairfax's history (EmmaII:2). There may be little sentences as we go along which shape and turn our attitudes towards Emma and and are "not Emma" exactly, but these are short, done so subtly and the movement back into Emma's mind is so swift, that it is not inaccurate to say that except in three instances are never except momentarily and subtly outside or beyond Emma's mind. Such control has got to be deliberate. The third of the four is . By about the middle of chapter two Fanny's perceptions of things became our main source of information in those scenes she is part of, and one can distinguish out whole swatches of passages, and many chapters where very like _Emma_ or Persuasion we see other stories inside or through Fanny's story. The episode in Portsmouth is the most notable. The presentation of events is almost epistolary and much is told through epistles to Fanny. What then differs? The first Dorothy Gannon has pointed us to. Dorothy suggests that in the transfers of point of view which occur, say from Mansfield Park. to the Parsonage where we watch and listen to Mrs Grant and the Crawford talk (Mansfield Park>Chapman I:4, 40-41; I: 5:45-7) the narrator is sympathetic to the Crawfords. I am not sure this is the whole of the difference between apparently omniscient narration in Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion and that in Mansfield Park What I am struck by is the relative absence of an omniscient narrator, and the relative lack of guidance; as with Emmawe are left to make what we can of many of the dramatic narratives throughout this opening volume where Fanny is not immediately present, say the dialogue between Mary and Edmund over whether Fanny is out (Mansfield Park II;5:49-51). We have as a group already been puzzled by how we are to take it. The narrator gives us no explicit clue.

I would argue the narrator does give us such clues in Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion and the result is the minor characters seem less real, more caricatured. The unsympathetic caricatured nature of the presentation of some of the more minor characters in Persuasion and the rough shaping out of the patterned ones we are to sympathize with which guides our response to the exquisitely realistic dialogues are both I think obvious and we talked about it when we went through Persuasion. The kind of narrative remark I'm talking about which intrusively through irony guides us is almost breakoffable in Sense and Sensibility: thus in the scene where Marianne breaks in upon the embarrassing tete-a-tete between Elinor, Edward, and Lucy in London and Marianne declares she longs to tell Edward how awful was the party in Harley Street the night before, the narrator will say:

"And with this admirable discretion did she defer the assurance of her finding their mutual relatives more disagreeable than ever, and of her being particularly disgusted with his mother, till they were more in private" (Sense and SensibilityPenguin II:13 or Ch 35, p 205).

Now had Austen presented Marianne talking to Edward, given Marianne's sensitivity and kindly nature her talk would just not have come across this way.

I think the real difference in the switches are an increase in Austen's ability to make each of the characters real and alive; the dialogue is never wooden, and never exemplary. When Mrs Jennings suddenly asks the Steeles how they travelled to London, we get a kind of stand-up comic joke presented as a scene (Sense and Sensibility II:10 or Ch 32, pp 183-4). We are pulled into the mindset of Henry and Mary not because Austen is sympathetic but one, because her ironic presence is so unobtrusive and she expects us not only to share her values so that we will see where Mary or Henry is in error and what they are missing, but also two, because the dialogues are so convincing that many issues are brought up and we can come away with a complex of information. On whether Fanny is out or not we can see it as the narrator pointing out how Fanny is left out of things, how Mary is always interested in surface manifestations and regards these are more important in life than anything else (and who is to say not since most people cannot see anything beyond the surface very much), or we can go into moralizing or psychologizing. It's not a stand-up joke.

Why then if Fanny is not the consistent core in the way Emma is, do we continually return to her and think our interpretation of her is the book. It's not just a matter of dislike, for those who like Fanny do the same thing. I would say that it's due to an increase in Austen's abilty to present a consciousness and make us feel it so vividly and therefore ourselves spread its emotional effect across the narratives when Fanny is not there. To keep it concise I ask those who are still reading to compare the following two passages, one from Sense and Sensibility, Austen's first published book where we are inside Elinor's mind in great distress, and the other Fanny's at Portsmouth reading Edmund's letter about his ordeal in London over Mary's distancing herself from him.

As Elinor, Austen is still writing sentences which form an argument, and move stilly as in an essay; it is not the way a mind works as thoughts pass through (Sense and Sensibility Penguin II:1 or Ch 23, p 117). I quote only the end of the long paragraph:

"Her resentment of such behaviour, her indignation at having been its dupe, for a short time made her feel only for herself; but other ideas, other considerations, soon arose. Had Edward been intentionally deceiving her? Had he feigned a regard for her which he did not feel? Was his engagement to Lucy an engagement of the heart? No; whatever it might once have been, she could not believe it such at present. His affection was all her own. She could not be deceived in that. Her mother, sisters, Fanny, all had been conscious of his regard for her at Norland; it was not an illusion of her own vanity. He certainly loved her. What a softener of the heart was this persuasion!"

The whole paragraph is rhetorical speech patterned on grammatical units and Elinor might be writing an essay slowly weighing and balancing as in an account book a series of points.

Now compare a paragraph of about similar length where we find Fanny responding to Edmund's letter in which he can't make up his mind whether to propose to Mary by letter or in person (Mansfield ParkChapman III:13, p 424). Instead we have a mind jumping emotionally from thought to thought, repeating this, making no sense of that, coming back to emotional wellings up out of her own memories which are presented in fragments of soliloquy, all of which convince us because they are so penetratingly presented. Austen is inside Fanny's mind; she is outside Elinor's describing it. It is all excitement, and whether or how far we are to agree (and I submit we are to agree in the main with Fanny's analysis of the probable misery of a marriage between Mary and Edmund, but as events at least show not right when it comes to the permanence of Edmund's attachment to Mary) is to a reader lost in the upsweep of psychological reality. I will only quote the parallel close:

"'The only woman in the world, whom he could ever think of as a wife.' I firmly believe it. It is an attachment to govern his whole life. Accepted or refused, his heart is wedded to her for ever.--'The loss of Mary, I must consider as comprehending the loss of Crawford and Fanny.' Edmund, you do not know _me_. The families could never be connected, if you did not connect them. Oh! write, write. Finish it at once. Let there be an end of this suspense. Fix, commit, condemn yourself.'"

The dream-like quality which some of us have attributed to the sequence at Sotherton and then of the play-acting is the result of the omniscient dramatic narratives being embedded in similarly intensely felt if not as remarkably modern (it's a steam of consciousness) long paragraphs from Fanny's point of view. We will ever regard Mansfield Park as palatial because this child did. We will ever regard Sotherton as the ancient mansion rich with tradition, the grounds as deep and green and shady and labyrthine, the play as slightly nightmarish or garish because Fanny did.

In its way this book is superior in its use of point of view to Emma because in Emma the point of view is turned to moral lesson (though irony is dicey and many people will read from a different set of values than those Austen presumes) or to make a structure. Here is it is let loose upon a narrative rich in complex dialogues (which make these effective presences) and a more impersonally directed sweep across a landscape which is continually breaking apart to show us the people below this middle class group who take in the hay or do the carpentry. One of my favorite comments from the acting sequence is Sir Thomas's: "It appears a neat-job, however, as far as I could judge by candle-light, and does my friend Christopher Jackson credit'" (Mansfield Park Chapman II:1:1, 184). There is yet another real voice (besides those in the dramatic narratives Fanny is not present at) plunging in to what I would call by the intense aliveness of the author's mood when she is Fanny, and its transcription into just the right words.

Ellen Moody

To which Dorothy Gannon responded as follows:

Ellen has done a thorough job of describing point of view with examples from different Austen novels. I won't say much more, except that in the chapters I have read so far [Volume I] the description, the "point of view ... roving the grounds of MP like a satellite" seems accurate. I would modify Kathy's thought in that, as I see it, at certain times the point of view identifies so much with one character that I no longer feel the presence of the omniscent narrator.

My feeling about point of view is that it is in the eye of the beholder. Depending on the intent and the skill of the writer, you should 'feel' you are there ... or not there. There is great variation possible-- an author may choose to keep a distant ironical perspective, or to have the reader feel every twist and scratch. The decision of where to 'come from' should suit the need of the tale, and further the intent of the author.

Perhaps we have certain expectations about an Austen novel; MP seems to be about Fanny, though in many ways Mary Crawford, and her inner debate over this or that potential husband, is more like a typical Austen heroine-- an Elizabeth Bennet, or an Emma Woodhouse-- lighthearted, not altogether serious, but with an underlying seriousness and dedication of purpose. She holds potential for being a heroine i.e., to be changed for the better. We see her faults right up front, and we see Mary changes materially for the better in the very next chapter: she is drawn to the superior qualities of Edmund Bertram.

When I read those chapters where the reader is constrained to see the action from Mary's point of view I wondered, did JA intend this? Or was it merely slipping into her own habit of identifying, even for a moment, with the witty, independent heroine? Why did she do it? In the following chapters we see Mary from Fanny's eyes, and she never quite regains that heroine sparkle. What changed?

Dorothy Gannon

Page Last Update 10 January 2003