Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reading as Education in Mansfield Park

I've been teaching a graduate course on education in eighteenth-century England this semester.  We are currently studying Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), a novel whose wide-ranging exploration of modes and effects of education I had not paid close enough attention to before now.  For example, this description of Edmund Bertram's mentorship of his cousin Fanny Price:
"Kept back as she was by every body else, his single support could not bring her forward, but his attentions were otherwise of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures.  He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading, which, properly directed, must be an education in itself.  Miss Lee taught her French, and heard her read the daily portion of History; but he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise."  (Chapter 2)
Fanny's accomplishments in the academic subjects of French and History are less important than her mentored reading for shaping her character (her "taste" and "judgment").  The nature of that mentoring is especially interesting.  "Fondness for reading" can be "an education in itself" if that reading is "directed" by a sensitive interlocutor whose conversation helps the reader learn interpretive skills.  Affection plays a crucial role in Fanny's learning-through-reading as well; she loves Edmund for paying her the attention no one else at Mansfield will, and thus is eager to learn from him and to earn his "judicious praise."

Want to know more?  June Sturrock's excellent edition of Mansfield Park published by Broadview Press elucidates the novel's contexts by reprinting excerpts of treatises on manners, conduct, and education, as well as the theatre, religion, estate improvement, and the West Indies.


Megan D. Neal said...

I'd dearly love to attend that class your teaching. Fascinating subject. I've never read Mansfield Park. I've seen various film versions, but of course the passage your talking about can't be shown very well. I'll have to get my hands on that edition you mention.

Fanny Harville said...

Megan, Of course I think you should read the book. It's so good! And so much richer than the film versions. I also like the Norton Critical Edition of MP, and the Penguin and Oxford World's classics are fine too, though with less supplementary material.

Anonymous said...

How *is* N.'s French coming along?

Fanny Harville said...


I plan to get more serious with it as soon as my classes end next week. He's been asking for French lessons, but I've been unprepared or too rushed in the mornings to squeeze it in before work, which is inevitably when he wants to do it! But he's learned a bit of vocab from his ballet class, at least!

Hopefully he'll have a bit of progress to demonstrate to you in August!