"He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense.”
-- Edmund's opinion of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park
In the previous posts, I've been discussing the vocabulary that Austen and other writers of the period used to describe people's personalities and intelligence, as part of my discussion of the themes of Mansfield Park.
This post looks at other mental qualities regarded as mostly innate. For example, the ability to learn quickly, what we might describe as "cleverness," was referred to as "apprehension."
"My father," explains the main character in Samuel Johnson's The History of Rasselas, "originally intended that I should have no other education than such as might qualify me for commerce; and discovering in me great strength of memory, and quickness of apprehension, often declared his hope that I should be some time the richest man in Abyssinia."
A biography of the poet Richard Savage says "His judgment was accurate, his apprehension quick, and his memory so tenacious, that he was frequently observed to know what he had learned from others, in a short time, better than those by whom he was informed."
In Constantia Neville, or the West Indian , Miss Neville avoids showing up her superior knowledge when she talks to Mrs. Rochford, aware of that other lady's "dullness of apprehension."
"Penetration" was another way to refer to cleverness, or to being perceptive. In Mystery and Confidence (1814) "A slight trace of anxiety passed over [Ellen's] countenance, which St. Aubyn perceiving, for in quickness of apprehension and ready penetration no one ever exceeded him, he said: 'Fear nothing, my love....'"
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot muses that Mr. Elliot doesn't know Elizabeth very well: "Elizabeth was certainly very handsome, with well-bred, elegant manners, and her character might never have been penetrated by Mr. Elliot, knowing her but in public, and when very young himself. How her temper and understanding might bear the investigation of his present keener time of life was another concern ..."
Later, Anne is astonished and confused by her friend Mrs. Smith's penetration when she tells Anne: "Your countenance perfectly informs me that you were in company last night with the person whom you think the most agreeable in the world, the person who interests you at this present time more than all the rest of the world put together."
And, there is The Letter from Wentworth to Anne: "Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine."
In a comic passage in Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe pretends that Catherine Morland has known all along that she, Isabella, is in love with Catherine's brother.
“Yes, my dear Catherine, it is so indeed; your penetration has not deceived you. Oh! That arch eye of yours! It sees through everything.”
Catherine replied only by a look of wondering ignorance.
“Nay, my beloved, sweetest friend,” continued the other, “compose yourself. I am amazingly agitated, as you perceive. Let us sit down and talk in comfort. Well, and so you guessed it the moment you had my note? Sly creature!... Your brother is the most charming of men...”
Catherine’s understanding began to awake: an idea of the truth suddenly darted into her mind...”
Now let's look at the apprehension, penetration, discernment and judgement of the residents of Mansfield Park.
Tom Bertram's guest Mr. Yates doesn't pick up on the fact that Sir Thomas is not happy about coming home from Antigua to find an amateur theatre in his billiard room. "Mr. Yates, without discernment to catch Sir Thomas’s meaning... would keep him on the topic of the theatre, would torment him with questions and remarks relative to it...."
Read the room Mr. Yates! as we would say today. Mr. Yates talks on and on, "relating everything with so blind an interest as made him not only totally unconscious of the uneasy movements of many of his friends as they sat, the change of countenance, the fidget, the hem! of unquietness, but prevented him even from seeing the expression of the face on which his own eyes were fixed..."
Of course, Mr. Yates is not the only oblivious character in Mansfield Park, not by a long shot. In an editorial aside Austen informs her readers that "Mrs. Norris had not discernment enough to perceive, either now, or at any other time, to what degree [Sir Thomas] thought well of his niece, or how very far he was from wishing to have his own children’s merits set off by the depreciation of hers." At the end of the novel, she tells us bluntly that Mrs. Norris has "no judgment," though she has always thought of herself as being wise and discerning.
Sir Thomas is described by Fanny as "discerning," which certainly isn't true so far as his children are concerned. But he is discerning enough in general that Austen has to get him out of the way for a significant portion of the novel, so she sends him to the West Indies.
Austen also editorializes when she tells us that Henry Crawford was careless when it came to breaking hearts: "Mr. Crawford did not mean to be in any danger [of falling in love]! the Miss Bertrams were worth pleasing, and were ready to be pleased; and he began with no object but of making them like him. He did not want them to die of love; but with sense and temper which ought to have made him judge and feel better, he allowed himself great latitude on such points."
In other respects, though, Henry Crawford is extremely discerning. He quickly realizes that the flirtatious manner he used with Maria and Julia Bertram was not the way to win Fanny Price's heart. He adapted his attentions "more and more to the gentleness and delicacy of her character."
Nothing much escapes Fanny, but the others don't see what is going on under their noses. Austen's plots often involve the theme of self-deception, and this is particularly the case with Mansfield Park. Austen has set up--and needs to explain and make plausible--a situation where intelligent people don't notice the things that they should notice.
During the rehearsals for Lover's Vows, Fanny and Mary Crawford are the only two who recognize the pain that Henry Crawford caused Julia. Austen backstops this plot point with explicit explanations: "The inattention of the two brothers and the aunt to Julia’s discomposure, and their blindness to its true cause, must be imputed to the fullness of their own minds. They were totally preoccupied. Tom was engrossed by the concerns of his theatre, and saw nothing that did not immediately relate to it. Edmund, between his theatrical and his real part, between Miss Crawford’s claims and his own conduct, between love and consistency, was equally unobservant; and Mrs. Norris was too busy in contriving and directing the general little matters of the company... to have leisure for watching the behaviour, or guarding the happiness of his daughters."
Later, Sir Thomas concludes that his sister-in-law allowed the young people to mount the risqué play because "her kindness" overpowered "her judgment."
Further than that, the exigencies of the plot call for Austen's hero Edmund Bertram to be an intelligent, principled, and sincere young man who is wrong about almost everything. Fanny (charitably?) describes Edmund as having an "unsuspicious temper." We learn from the beginning of the novel that he sees the world through rose-coloured glasses. He thinks it would be a dandy idea for Fanny to go live with the newly-widowed Aunt Norris. Edmund deceives himself that Henry is really interested in Julia, not Maria. Of course, Edmund has a motive for blinding himself; a Bertram-Crawford alliance will promote his own wished-for union with Mary. When Fanny hints that he is getting too close to Maria, Edmund dismisses her concerns:
"Crawford has too much sense to stay here if he found himself in any danger from Maria; and I am not at all afraid for her, after such a proof as she has given [ie, getting engaged to a man she doesn't love] that her feelings are not strong.”
Fanny supposed she must have been mistaken, and meant to think differently in future; but with all that submission to Edmund could do, and all the help of the coinciding looks and hints which she occasionally noticed in some of the others, and which seemed to say that Julia was Mr. Crawford’s choice, she knew not always what to think.
Fanny's discernment, her penetration of the true situation is better than Edmund's. As Irene Collins wittily remarks in Jane Austen and the Clergy: “[Fanny's] role as [as a clergyman's wife] suggested by Jane Austen was to be a gently moralizing one. She would strengthen Edmund's moral purpose and supply the shrewd assessment of the people around him which he clearly lacked.”
To reiterate, Austen has brought together a group of people, all with different personalities, levels of intelligence and acuity, and set her plot in motion. And that plot does not revolve around whether Sir Thomas owns plantations in the West Indies, but around his failure to properly superintend his daughter's education and moral development.
In the next post, we'll look at how "understanding" is improved by "information," and what kind of information was deemed suitable for females.
The Latin root of the word apprehension means seize, grasp, to lay hold of. The French word for "to learn" is "apprendre." Penetration and discernment also derive from Norman French; that is, from the Latin-based level of English. Clever, learning and understanding derive from our Saxon, ie Germanic forbearers. Click here to learn how Mary Margolies DeForest and Eric Johnson analyzed the dialogue of Austen's characters to show how Austen varied their vocabulary levels with the proportion of latinate words.
"Apprehend" is also used in the sense of "my information is:" (Henry Crawford: "I apprehend he will not have less than seven hundred a year.") Austen also uses the word in the sense that we use it, to be wary of something, ("Miss Crawford was not entirely free from similar apprehensions"). Apprehend, apprehensive, apprehensively, appear 17 times in Mansfield Park. Lady Bertram uses the term twice in one paragraph in a letter to Fanny about her son Tom's illness: "we cannot prevent ourselves from being greatly alarmed and apprehensive for the poor invalid... but I trust and hope [Edmund] will find the poor invalid in a less alarming state than might be apprehended." She doesn't really comprehend or feel the gravity of her son's illness until he arrives