On Jane Austen and the subject of “ought”

I only lasted for one post before I went off-subject! I wonder if that’s some sort of record.

Still, I’ve got Jane Austen on the brain at the moment. This is, it’s true, a thing that happens to me fairly frequently anyway, but on Wednesday I sat in on a lecture on the opening of Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve just started reading Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures by Claudia L. Johnson in my spare time, so I hope you’ll forgive me the detour. (Incidentally, Johnson’s book opens with a discussion of her adventures in editing Mansfield Park – specifically, which edition’s punctuation to follow in one instance – and it says something about me that I was immediately both charmed and hooked by this. I may or may not want to know what that something is.)

There are many things I could say about Mansfield Park – how much I love the novel’s main character, Fanny Price, for example, and how few others seem to join me in loving her; or how Austen uses Shakespeare in the novel to suggest value judgments (this is, after all, the novel in which one character says that “we all talk Shakespeare”), but instead I’ll go with something else near and dear to my heart: Austen’s use of modal verbs.

(My dissertation was partly on modal verbs in Shakespeare. Funny thing about writing a dissertation: you start noticing your topic everywhere. And since modal verbs – “can,” “may,” “must,” “will,” “shall,” and “ought” – actually are everywhere, I’ve been doing a lot of topic-spotting lately.)

The word “ought” is important in Austen, as you might expect given her reputation as a moralist, or as you’ll know if you’ve ever read Emma: Mr. Knightley’s estate, Donwell Abbey, is “just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was”; when Emma agrees to marry Mr. Knightley, she says “Just what she ought, of course. – A lady always does.”  And in Emma, the social “ought” and the moral “ought” come together, at least when it comes to Emma and Mr. Knightley. But Mansfield Park is a novel about the clash between tradition (upheld by Fanny and her clergyman cousin Edmund Bertram) and expensive dissipation (Edmund’s sisters Julia and Maria, as well as his older brother Tom; the alluring newcomers Henry and Mary Crawford), so it only makes sense that the social “ought” and the moral “ought” usually fail to meet up. When Henry Crawford takes it into his head to flirt with both Bertram sisters at once, the narrator calls our attention to what the behavior Henry, Julia, and Maria ought to have been, in contrast to what it was:

[Henry Crawford] went for a fortnight — a fortnight of such dullness to the Miss Bertrams as ought to have put them both on their guard, and made even Julia admit, in her jealousy of her sister, the absolute necessity of distrusting his attentions, and wishing him not to return; and a fortnight of sufficient leisure, in the intervals of shooting and sleeping, to have convinced the gentleman that he ought to keep longer away, had he been more in the habit of examining his own motives, and of reflecting to what the indulgence of his idle vanity was tending; but, thoughtless and selfish from prosperity and bad example, he would not look beyond the present moment. (Vol. I, ch. 13; my emphasis)

(I love, by the way, that Henry’s leisure here is only “in the intervals of shooting and sleeping”; he has so little to do that he even has leisure from his leisure activities.)

Meanwhile, there’s the “ought” of mere social consensus or appearance, unattached to any particular moral force (or even substituting the social as a claim higher than the moral), as when Mary Crawford declares that Julia “ought to do better” than marry a mere baron with no actual money (Vol. III, ch. 9), or when Maria shows off the bumbling Mr. Rushworth’s property at Sotherton in order to gain in standing and consequence by her engagement to him: ” ‘Now we shall have no more rough road, Miss Crawford; our difficulties are over. The rest of the way is such as it ought to be. Mr. Rushworth has made it since he succeeded to the estate’ ” (Vol. I, ch. 8).

Edmund, as we might expect from a sober clergyman, resists the pressure of the social “ought” and judges by what is actually required; when he procures an invitation to Sotherton for Fanny by agreeing to stay home himself, we get this exchange between him and his sister Julia:

“I am sure she ought to be very much obliged to you,” added Julia, hastily leaving the room as she spoke, from a consciousness that she ought to offer to stay at home herself.

“Fanny will feel quite as grateful as the occasion requires,” was Edmund’s only reply, and the subject dropt. (Vol. I, ch. 8)

(Edmund’s biggest problem, I believe, is his inability to see other people’s social “oughts” – that is, he takes merely flattering or insinuating behaviors for evidence of real moral and ethical judgments, as when he comments that Mary Crawford speaks of Fanny “just as she ought” in wanting Fanny to marry Henry [Vol. III, ch. 4]. This is probably because the merely social has so little claim upon him; it blinds him to its hold over other people.)

And both he and Fanny are the most persistent in using the moral “ought,” which others fail to do: ” ‘No one here can call the office [of clergyman] nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear. …it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation’ ” (Vol. I, ch. 9, emphasis in original). Fanny censures Henry by saying that he “can feel nothing as he ought” (Vol II, ch. 5), and examines her conscience minutely to determine whether she should be a part of the scandalous play the others are putting on, even though she knows that her uncle would never approve:

she had begun to feel undecided as to what she ought to do; and as she walked round the room her doubts were increasing. Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for – what might be so essential to a scheme on which some of those to whom she owed the greatest complaisance had set their hearts? Was it not ill–nature, selfishness, and a fear of exposing herself? And would Edmund’s judgment, would his persuasion of Sir Thomas’s disapprobation of the whole, be enough to justify her in a determined denial in spite of all the rest? It would be so horrible to her to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples… (Vol. I, ch. 16, emphasis in original)

(This is one of the reasons I love Fanny: she’s so quick to see the right course of action, but so quick to discount her own judgment because of her habitual shyness and poor treatment from most of the Bertram family.)

I don’t know if the two “oughts” ever really come together in Mansfield Park, in the end; the failures of many of the characters in Mansfield Park seem to stem from just that inability to bring together the social and the moral.

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