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Less-popular Jane Austen novel focuses on gift obligation, researcher finds

Thursday, June 25, 2015

LAWRENCE — Jane Austen's third novel, "Mansfield Park," is often the forgotten one, or at least it's not nearly as popular as the English romantic writer's "Pride and Prejudice" or "Sense and Sensibility."

For Dorice Williams Elliott, a University of Kansas associate professor of English, this attitude likely stems from the fact that the novel's heroine, Fanny Price, is not witty, outspoken or independent like Austen's other female protagonists.

"She's very timid and submissive," said Elliott, who teaches a course on Austen. "She's a poor relation living in her uncle's and aunt's estate and getting a free education."

However, in Elliott's recent essay that appears in "Approaches to Teaching Austen's Mansfield Park," published by the Modern Language Association, she argues that using gift theory and analyzing how the characters interact within a gift economy make key themes more accessible in the novel.

In a gift economy, which is pre-capitalist, valuables are not sold but instead given without an explicit agreement on future or immediate rewards. This approach tends to intrigue students and spark discussion, Elliott said, because they can focus on gifts given to them and how gifts influence their own relationships with family or friends.

"We talk about how when you give a gift, you are obligated to give one back," Elliott said. "If not, you are obligated to give obedience and gratitude or deference. Fanny is enmeshed in this because she receives such an enormous gift of education and a better status in society that she just feels overwhelmed."

While on the surface Fanny's new life appears to be much better than living with her poor parents and eight siblings, her Aunt Norris, who arranged for Fanny to live with her wealthy relatives, Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Bertram, frequently holds the move over her head.

"Continually from the moment she is in the carriage on the way there through the whole time that she lives there, her aunt is telling her how much she owes them and reminding her that she can't exert her own will," Elliott said.

This plays out throughout the novel in Fanny's relationships with her cousins and relatives as she grapples with how to properly respond to their gifts, even if it's just emotional affection that someone expects in return .

This theme often reveals itself in relationships children have with their parents and what is expected of the children in return for the enormous number of “gifts” they receive. As in Fanny's experience, gifts always come with strings attached.

The most notable example in "Mansfield Park" is when the wealthy but rakish Henry Crawford proposes to her. Fanny's refusal, because she knows of his suspect character, is shocking to everyone in the novel because she both defies her benefactor, Sir Thomas Bertram, and fails to reciprocate Henry’s gift of obtaining a promotion in the navy for her beloved brother. Her continued refusal to marry a man she disapproves of under these circumstances is very brave and demonstrates that she does have a mind of her own like other Austen heroines.

"Parents often say things like 'after all I've done for you,' in which they unconsciously expect something in return, like respect and love," Elliott said. "This really helps us understand Fanny’s  character and feel more sympathetic to her. I think it's a really interesting way to read the novel in general."

Elliott said exploring the theme of how to respond to gifts is one example of how Austen's novels still resonate even though they were written in a very different time and culture.

"Austen is fascinating because here is this woman writer who was quite obscure at the time she wrote and only became gradually more recognized in the 19th century," Elliott said, "but is now phenomenally popular 200 years later."

Image: A tinted line drawing, frontpiece of "Mansfield Park."