Click here for the first in the series.
I am exploring the assumption--well, more than an assumption, it's become an article of faith--that the name "Mansfield" in Mansfield Park is a subtle allusion to Lord Mansfield. That is, our modern scholars take it for granted that a book published 21 years after Lord Mansfield's death would inevitably make readers of that era think of the eminent British jurist. The follow-on assumption is that the top-of-mind association for that reader, at that time, was Mansfield's ruling in the Somerset v. Stewart case which effectually ended the practise of slavery on British soil.
I think both of these assumptions can be tested, or at least prodded at a little bit.
As to why I am interested in this question: yes, it's true that I don't think Mansfield Park is about slavery, even though it's about a family with colonial property, therefore I doubt that an allusion to Lord Mansfield is intended. But I'm also perplexed about the way that scholars of literature can make these assertions without even attempting to test them--and they can be tested. We can look for evidence to support or detract from the assertion and we can weigh possibilities. I'm perplexed when scholars share assertions about Austen's meaning that have no more substance behind them than if they had communed with her shade using a Ouija board. They make little to no attempt to test the plausibility and historicity of their assertions, which of course leaves them open to the suspicion that they simply believe what they want to believe. As an example, some confidently believe that Austen viewed marriage in the same light as slavery, and subtly conveyed this message in her novels. They want to believe Austen was a radical girl boss, not a woman who held the conventional moral and political views of her time.
Questioning our assumptions starts with placing Austen's work in its time, not our time....
In this example, if Mansfield Park is indeed an intentional allusion to Lord Mansfield, how can we look for corroboration that the connection was obvious to a discerning reader of the era--rather than just assuming that it was?
Does the name "Mansfield Park" mean that a reader of the times who saw just the name, seeing just the spine of the book with the title printed on it, or seeing it advertised in the paper, would say to themselves: "This must be about slavery," or "This must be about Lord Mansfield." Or would the connection only become evident to them after opening the book and getting to the part about the property in Antigua?
Did anybody mention the connection before 1983? I'm not aware that any Austen critics and scholars did, let alone any of her legions of devoted readers. That doesn't disprove the connection, but it sure doesn't help. You'd have to believe that this was an allusion hundreds or even thousands of people noticed and nodded their heads over, but nobody mentioned it in a letter, a diary, or an article. "How clever of Miss Austen to invoke Lord Mansfield's name in her title" said nobody prior to 1983.
Can we find other writers who use Mansfield's name, just his name, to subtly signal their disapproval of slavery? Finding such a writer would certainly buttress the argument, although the lack of one doesn't negate the possibility that Austen is the lone genius who did use his name. I haven't found any other examples, but I'll keep looking.
Can we find authors who invoke Mansfield for reasons apart from the Somerset case? Yes, and I'll get back to those examples in future.
On the other hand, can we find authors who use the name "Mansfield" without any obvious reference to slavery in the story, thereby showing that it was possible to use the name "Mansfield" without being understood to be referring to the famous jurist? I have already given examples of stories with characters named Mansfield in previous posts. Here are two more.
In both these stories, the name “Mansfield” is given to a young male suitor. These stories have nothing to do with slavery. No-one in the story is a slave trader or owner and there are no references to colonial fortunes. Read these summaries and judge for yourself.
“The Shepherdess” is a short story published in The Lady’s Magazine in April, 1789, which was supposedly written by “Wm. Sh__w, a youth of eleven years and a half.” The main characters are Laura Wilmot, a lovely and virtuous shepherdess whose family are tenants on land owned by Mr. Mansfield, the “only son of a gentleman of family and fortune.” Mr. Mansfield’s father dies in the opening passages of the story, and young Mansfield comes back from the Grand Tour to set the family fortune and estates in order. He also enjoys roaming around with his hunting dogs, which leads to his meeting with Laura, as she watches over her flock while shedding a tear over an affecting passage in Thompson’s Seasons. (Although Laura is a shepherdess, she’s had some education and is able to borrow books from the local curate.)
Charmed by Laura's beauty and sensibility, Mansfield starts talking with her. “Her discourse was always pretty and sensible, never deep or pedantic. Wit she had no pretensions to, always thinking it too sharp to play with.” Mansfield returns for another visit with picnic food, his flute and several more books to read, including Dr. Gregory’s Legacy to His Daughters (a conduct book). “They read to each other, alternately, for several hours.” Soon, Mr. Mansfield falls in love with her and she is in love with him (although of course she hides her feelings, as a modest maiden should).
Mansfield realizes he wants to marry her despite her humble rank, but he takes the ill-begotten notion to test her virtue first by asking her to be his mistress, not his wife. As they are walking back to the village together, he pops the question. Laura does not hesitate to reject his insulting offer.
“Sir,” says Laura, (assuming a stern tone of voice, and a look particularly pointed), “if I am poor, I heartily return thanks to God I am virtuous; I am innocent, and so I will remain. You undoubtedly possess many abilities; sorry am I to declare to you, you put them to the worst of uses, when you artfully endeavour to seduce and inveigle a poor girl from the paths of chastity and honour.” She leaves him with “a look of the most ineffable contempt.”
Realizing too late how crass he's been, Mansfield goes to the curate’s house and asks him to summon Laura and her parents, so that he can make an honourable proposal for her hand. Laura at first is too angry with him to accept, despite being strongly pressured by her parents to say ‘yes.’ The shock and the stress of it all make her ill. After some delay, and “thro’ the aid of the Curate, a reconciliation was happily effected, to the mutual satisfaction of all parties.”
There are no references to slavery, plantations, or colonialism in this short story, though of course it would not be fair to expect symbolism from an eleven-and-a-half year old author. I think we can surmise the author chose the name, and the editors approved and published the story, without anyone supposing that a reference to Lord Mansfield was intended.
In this two-volume novella, Charles Mansfield is the handsome and charming heir to a Welsh baronetcy. (The "parson" of the title is a different character, the suitor and then husband of the main heroine). Young Mansfield courts Constance, the heroine’s best friend, but begins to neglect her. She decides to break off the relationship, whereupon he repents and she takes him back, but we are given some foreshadowing that their marriage will run into trouble: The ”amiable bride” Constance was “much depressed” on her wedding day, but she “endeavoured to exert herself.” The bridegroom “Mansfield seemed to have all her vivacity added to his own.”
After their marriage, Mansfield returns to his habit of neglecting Constance in favor of socializing with his friends. He disappears for days at a time, and he's also living beyond their means. Constance doesn't complain to anyone and keeps her husband's faults a secret. The conflict is resolved after she gently admonishes him and he reforms his ways.
The problems faced by the heroine, Mary Godfrey, and the other characters are likewise resolved in this typically easy fashion. One of Mary's problems is that her suitor, although very eligible, tends to be rather proud and arrogant. Luckily this impediment disappears when he falls in love with her. After they become engaged, a jealous rival attempts to smear Mr. Hadleigh's good name but the effort goes nowhere. The happy couple celebrate their wedding day. “When Mr. Godfrey resigned his daughter at the altar, he sent forth an inward ejaculation, that her husband might prize her as he did. It was a trying moment, to yield his first earthly blessing, as another’s claim.”
The happy pair go to live in his country parish: “the new married pair were not totally secluded from diversions, though they had ever those resources in themselves, which give charms to retirement and make each hour fleeting.” They are joined in the countryside by Constance and her husband, because the countryside, after all, is the only place where people can be truly virtuous.
The topic of slavery does not feature in this novel. The word "slave" is used in the typical fashion to denote a man who is the captive of a woman's charms. Mary's father Mr. Godfrey receives an unexpected inheritance at the beginning of the novel, but the author does not mention if the source of the wealth is colonial. (BTW, did you spot the line that is similar to one in Emma?)
The Parson's Wife had the distinction of being reviewed by Mary Wollstonecraft when she was writing for the Analytical Review. “Such a number of insipid trifling incidents, such mere nothings, are here strung together, that in the language of the vulgar, we wonder what the author would be at; however, the whole had a harmless lulling effect on us…"
Acute though she was, Wollstonecraft did not remark on the use of the name "Mansfield," and I would argue that this is because there was nothing remarkable about the name. Charles Mansfield''s father is an unsophisticated Welsh baronet, a sort of Welsh Squire Allworthy type. Charles's aunt is a superstitious spinster. There is no resemblance to Lord Mansfield's life. Actually, if a resemblance had been intended, the character's name would have been rendered as Lord M----d.
See here for the beginning of this series and here for another book with a wise older woman named Mansfield.
Dr. Dominique Bouchard gives a fascinating background lecture on the Somerset v. Stewart case here.
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