Deborah Yaffe

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Christmas tranquility and tedium at Mansfield Park

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 25 2017 02:00PM

For those of us with school-age children, Christmas week provides a delightful break from the rhythms of the academic calendar: No rising before dawn to meet the school bus, no rushing to squeeze homework in before bedtime, no anxious balancing of multiple extracurricular commitments. Heaven!


But of course, not everyone welcomes peaceful leisure-time – as Jane Austen reminds us in one of the few Christmastime sequences in her novels.


At Mansfield Park, the feverish excitement and romantic maneuvering surrounding the December 22 ball dissipates the next day, as William and Edmund leave on business (seafaring for William, ordination for Edmund). After some Christmas Eve chitchat about the festivities with Mrs. Grant and Mary Crawford, Fanny Price settles contentedly into her usual routines. Mary? Not so much.


“The week which passed so quietly and peaceably at the great house in Mansfield had a very different character at the Parsonage,” Austen tells us in chapter 29. “To the young lady, at least, in each family, it brought very different feelings. What was tranquility and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary.”


Indeed, by New Year’s Day, Mary can no longer stand the company of her own thoughts, and the regrets, worries, and jealousies about Edmund that they bring. She’s off to Mansfield Park to grill Fanny about why her cousin has extended his visit with his friend Mr. Owen.


“Was his letter a long one? Does he give you much account of what he is doing? Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for? . . . How many Miss Owens are there? . . . Are they musical?” she babbles. “. . . . But it is very foolish to ask questions about any young ladies—about any three sisters just grown up; for one knows, without being told, exactly what they are: all very accomplished and pleasing, and one very pretty. There is a beauty in every family; it is a regular thing. Two play on the pianoforte, and one on the harp; and all sing, or would sing if they were taught, or sing all the better for not being taught; or something like it.”


Mary just can’t stop herself; she seems helpless to stem the characteristic flow of witty banter – made suddenly brittle by the sincere emotion that she’s half-ashamed of and can barely acknowledge even to herself. And how does Fanny respond to all this accidentally self-revealing blather?


“ 'I know nothing of the Miss Owens,' said Fanny calmly."


To quote my kids – “Burn!” And they call this woman a doormat! I don't think so. But here’s wishing you a Christmas week full of tranquility and comfort.


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