Novels appeal to us because they offer a sense of teleology and closure that often eludes us in daily life. While one might not think of the genteel comedies and romances of Jane Austen as being particularly metaphysical, they are in their own way as spiritually discerning as the morality plays of Dostoyevsky or Hawthorne. It is perhaps most noticeable in Mansfield Park (1814).
Austen complained that her previous novel, Pride and Prejudice, was “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling.” Certainly the later work is darker and more pensive. While decorous by today’s standards, the iniquitous influences are pronounced. The sexual impropriety of Henry Crawford is not so happily resolved as that of George Wickham. Even the protagonist suffers much more in the story, beginning with her own dysfunctional, impoverished family in Portsmouth, presided over by a drunken ex-naval officer for a father. It is miles away from the respectable lifestyle of the Bennett family. As the poor cousin taken in by the Bertrams at Mansfield Park, Fanny Price must endure the thoughtlessness and arrogance of her female relations.
To my mind, the most obnoxious personality is Mrs. Norris, sister of Lady Bertram. She originates the plan for boarding Fanny, though she has no intention of spending any of her own time and money on the project. She is the kind of person who is always coming up with schemes of improvement that benefit herself at others’ expense. It is doubly misfortunate that Lady Bertram, who is “too indolent even to accept a mother’s gratification in witnessing [her children’s] success and enjoyment,” allows her daughters to be raised by their aunt. Mrs. Norris spoils Maria and Julia Bertram because it makes no demands of her parsimonious nature. The results are disastrous. Fanny, by contrast, emerges from her relative neglect a more grateful and sensible person.
Finally there is the interesting exchange between Mary Crawford and Edward Bertram which is a harbinger of the moral rift that ultimately develops between the pair. Mary politely ridicules Edward’s clerical ambitions. He replies, gently but forcibly, that her views are based on prejudice and stereotype:
“A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion…. But I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally,—which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.”
Austen seems to detects further insincerity in those who protest against formal public worship. She makes Edward argue that the “mind which does not struggle against [disinclination to prayer] under one circumstance, would find objects to distract in the other.” In other words, those who say they prefer meditating in forests rather than chapels probably will come up with reasons to avoid prayer altogether.