By Brenda S. Cox
“But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.’”–Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park
So, my city went on total lockdown today. No going out, except for urgent groceries or medical needs. We had a curfew before, but I could still take morning walks around the neighborhood. No more. And I didn’t realize how trapped that would make me feel, losing that half-hour excursion each day. I felt like the starling: “I cannot get out.”
A Feeling of Restraint and Hardship
In Mansfield Park (which I just had the joy of re-reading), Maria Bertram feels trapped. She and her family and the Crawfords are visiting Sotherton, where she will soon be mistress. But the gate to the park is locked. Her fiancé, Mr. Rushworth, has gone to fetch the key.
Maria says to Henry Crawford,
“’Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.’ As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate: he followed her. ‘Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!’”
Henry replies, “’And for the world you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth’s authority and protection, or I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.’
“’Prohibited! nonsense! I certainly can get out that way, and I will. Mr. Rushworth will be here in a moment, you know; we shall not be out of sight.’ . . .
“Fanny, feeling all this to be wrong, could not help making an effort to prevent it. ‘You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram,’ she cried; ‘you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown; you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha. You had better not go.’
“Her cousin was safe on the other side while these words were spoken, and, smiling with all the good-humour of success, she said, ‘Thank you, my dear Fanny, but I and my gown are alive and well, and so good-bye’” (Mansfield Park, chapter 10, italics added).
Maria refers to a famous section of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. His narrator, Yorick, is stuck in France without a passport; if he’s caught, he’ll go to prison, to the Bastille. He tries to convince himself that prison would not be so bad. But then he hears a voice, like a child’s voice, crying “I can’t get out! I can’t get out!” It is a starling, trapped in a small cage. He tries to release it, but fails.
The starling’s plight overthrows all his careful reasoning, and he realizes that he is afraid of the “slavery” of prison. Liberty is the “sweet and gracious goddess” he truly worships.
Maria is also longing for liberty, and to get rid of the restraints and move toward a “prohibited” liberty.
A ha-ha is a deep ditch. It was used instead of a fence, to keep wandering animals in or out. Unlike a fence, it didn’t disrupt the view; you could easily see over it and not even notice it until it was next to you. But it acted as a barrier, nonetheless. Maria’s cousin Fanny warns her of the dangers of crossing the barrier, but Maria will not listen.
So Maria feels trapped. She is fenced in, though it is by a hidden ha-ha and a gilded cage. The trap is partially of her own making. She has agreed to marry Mr. Rushworth, although he is stupid and she does not even like him. But he is very wealthy, and she wants to be wealthy and to be free of the restraints of home. Mrs. Norris has helped to build the trap, by pushing Maria into a “brilliant” marriage.
Mr. Rushworth himself gives us another clue. He wants to improve his estate at Sotherton because, compared to his friend’s newly-refurbished estate, Sotherton “looked like a prison—quite a dismal old prison” (chapter 6). Edmund says the house is “heavy, but respectable-looking.” If Maria marries Mr. Rushworth, she can have wealth and respect, but it will be heavy for her, and without love it will feel like a prison.
A Way Out?
Henry Crawford is adding to the trap by pretending to show her a way out. Henry is a “horrible flirt,” according to his sister. He wants every woman to fall in love with him, but has no intention of marrying any of them. His sister says, “If your Miss Bertrams do not like to have their hearts broke, let them avoid Henry” (chapter 4).
Henry is dishonorable. A man was responsible, not just for his own feelings, but for the feelings he aroused in women. We see this theme repeatedly in Austen’s novels. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby is a villain for leading Marianne to think he would marry her, then throwing her over. In Persuasion, when Captain Wentworth realizes that Louisa Musgrove is probably expecting him to marry her, he feels bound to her in honor, though he does stay away hoping she will change her affections. Conveniently, she does change her mind and marries someone else, freeing him to pursue Anne. Even in Pride and Prejudice, when Darcy starts to feel himself drawn to Elizabeth, he honorably avoids her because he has no intentions of marriage. He does not want to raise her expectations. On her last day there, “He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should now escape him, nothing that could elevate her with the hope of influencing his felicity” (chapter 12). In Emma, Mr. Knightley thinks Frank Churchill a “villain.” Frank has treated Emma in such a way that Emma might have fallen in love with him, not knowing Frank was already engaged. However, he is relieved to learn that Emma does not love Frank.
Back to Maria Bertram, she does fall in love with Henry Crawford. He encourages her and pretends he loves her, especially during their rehearsals of the play “Lover’s Vows.” But when Maria’s father returns, Henry leaves her with hardly a word. She is heartbroken.
Hatred of Home, Restraint, and Tranquility
When her father gives her the opportunity to escape from her engagement to Mr. Rushworth, though, Maria refuses. She thinks marriage will make her independent and give her the liberty she seeks.
“Henry Crawford had destroyed her happiness, but he should not know that he had done it . . . Independence was more needful than ever; the want of it at Mansfield more sensibly felt. She was less and less able to endure the restraint which her father imposed. The liberty which his absence had given was now become absolutely necessary. She must escape from him and Mansfield as soon as possible, and find consolation in fortune and consequence, bustle and the world, for a wounded spirit. Her mind was quite determined . . .
In all the important preparations of the mind she was complete: being prepared for matrimony by an hatred of home, restraint, and tranquillity; by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry” (Mansfield Park chapter 21, or Volume 2 chapter 3, italics added).
So Maria marries to try to find independence and freedom. But she has entered a new trap, marriage to a husband she hates. So she goes to visit friends where she can behave “without restraint.” When Henry Crawford meets her, his vanity leads him to flirt with her again. But this time, Maria doesn’t just cross the ha-ha into the park without Mr. Rushworth. She leaves her husband and runs away with her lover. Maria brings disgrace to her family and ruins her own life. When Henry leaves her, she ends up trapped once more. Her family sends her to a remote house in the country with Mrs. Norris, “where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment” (chapter 48).
Maria Bertram wasted her life trying to escape, only to fall from one cage into another. Her father recognizes the real problem: it’s in Maria’s heart. She and her sister had “never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice.” They had never learned “the necessity of self-denial and humility” (chapter 48). The religious duties that Maria and her sister had learned but did not practice were the greatest commandments: to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. (These duties are expanded in the church catechism, which the girls would have memorized before being confirmed in the church. “George Austen’s Spiritual Advice” quotes them.)
Fanny Price is also “trapped,” in her subservient position in the home and in her apparently hopeless love for Edmund. But she has learned self-denial and humility. She waits patiently and submits to those in authority over her. When she thinks Edmund will marry Mary, her dejection is “relieved by the influence of fervent prayers for his happiness.” “It was her intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness, in her affection for Edmund. To call or to fancy it a loss, a disappointment, would be a presumption for which she had not words strong enough to satisfy her own humility.” Prayer, selflessness, and humility help Fanny find peace in a hard situation.
How we each approach this time of being “trapped” in our homes will also depend on what is in our hearts. Will we allow God to help us grow in self-control, self-denial, and humility? Or will we chafe against the restrictions and try to escape, possibly causing damage to ourselves and others? May God give us all peace in our current situations, and enable us to grow and learn through our trials.
Information on the starling is from The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen: Mansfield Park, edited by John Wiltshire, page 670.