Kullervo: the tragedy of a hero and his quest for identity

(Since Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo is out now, I thought I’d take a look back at the original story from Kalevala before I read Tolkien’s version.)

Kullervo’s grandfather Kalervo has had a series of disputes with his brother Untamo, and one day Untamo rides down on Kalervo’s village and lays waste to it. It is thought that everyone except Kullervo’s mother is killed. Kullervo is as yet unborn, and his mother welcomes the victors politely to her hall.

When Kullervo is born, his heritage and identity make him dangerous to Untamo’s tribe, and Untamo seeks to have him done away with. Failing this, Untamo tries to forestall his pursuit of revenge by offering him a home and employment with the victorious tribe. Kullervo, however, cannot lead an ordinary life. His impetuous temper and lonely recklessness disqualify him from most professions. So he gets sold to Ilmarinen, the blacksmith.

However, Ilmarinen’s wife bakes a stone into the bread she gives him, and when Kullervo tries to cut it his knife breaks. Kullervo is grief-stricken, for the knife is his only relic of his mother’s people, and he kills Ilmarinen’s wife in revenge. Then he wanders alone over the plains and woodlands, lamenting his ill-fated life, bereft of purpose or parental affection. He decides to journey to Untamo’s village to avenge the slaughter that left him an orphan.

And then he discovers that his father and mother are living, and makes his way to them, dreaming of finding a home and being welcomed by his family. But things aren’t quite as he expected. Though his family, especially his mother, welcome him kindly, he feels an outsider, who can’t do the things the others can do. His father points out to him frequently that he is no use to them, since he doesn’t know how to perform the tasks that are necessary to their welfare. Eventually, he sends him to pay a tribute for him in a distant land.

On his way home, Kullervo meets three beautiful maidens. The first two have no time for him, but he seduces the third. Then he discovers that she is actually his lost sister, who wandered away from home. When she finds this out, his sister flings herself into the falls nearby.

A devastated Kullervo makes his way home again, to tell the terrible tale. His mother is grief-stricken, but does not blame him; she asks him to forget it and live normally. Kullervo, however, is intent on flinging away the life that has become bitter to him—he will go to war on Untamo’s tribe, in revenge for the war of long ago. His mother tries to recall him to a sense of his duty to the family, but he cries wildly that it doesn’t matter what happens to them, and is determined to end his life in the fight.

There is more to this than a sense of guilt. Kullervo is in search of an identity and a purpose, something to belong to and die for. His life has been meaningless, a series of misfortunes and ill-judged actions—he wants his death to have the meaning his life lacked. He wants to belong to his family, but the life he’s lived has not fitted him to live with them and lead an ordinary life contributing to the family and carrying out his duty. It is simpler to make war on others on their behalf, easier to die for them than to live with them—if he dies, he has done something for them, and is therefore a part of the tribe. If he lives, he’s a stranger who has never belonged, who failed everything he attempted and brought shame and ruin on their daughter.

And so he seeks to die avenging a wrong of long ago, one that has ceased to matter to everyone else—to die for his tribe when they care little for him or his sacrifice. He would like to go out in a blaze of splendour, and wipe out the memory of his ill-fated life, unintended wrongs and failures and unfulfilled longings.

Before he leaves, he bids them farewell with respect and affection and asks each, just once, if they will mourn him when he’s dead. His father, brother and sister vow they will not, and he accepts this, resolving to think no more of them. His mother, however, says that she will.

Kullervo rides away to war. On his way, messengers catch up with him, and he learns that his father, brother, sister and finally his mother are dead. But he will not ride back, or turn aside from his design of war.

Against the odds, Kullervo is victorious, and lays waste to Untamo’s village. But when he comes home, there is no pleasure in the victory, for the family he fought to avenge is gone. And he is quite alone.

Then his mother’s voice speaks to him, telling him to seek out the company of the wood-nymphs, for she would not have him abandoned and lonely. Kullervo sets out to obey her, but then he passes the falls where his sister leaped to her death, and suddenly everything is too much for him. He unsheathes his sword, and asks it if it wishes to drink his life-blood. And his sword replies that it sees no reason why not. Kullervo leaps on his sword.

Kullervo suffered for wrongs that were not his own and for wrongs that he had not intended. He cast away what was dear to him, even as his own cast him away, heedless alike of what he offered them and what he yearned for.

Väinämöinen speaks, at the end, of the need to nurture your children and teach them discretion and wisdom. Kullervo’s life owed much of its tragedy to his loneliness and his feeling of abandonment, but also a great deal to the fact that he was ill-equipped to deal with the obligations society imposed on him.

Kullervo had learned of the passionate and the lofty, of honour and revenge, but he never learned to live an ordinary life with other people. This is a common theme in Kalevala, the fact that heroism can go only so far in daily life. Heroic deeds of valour are one thing, but the demands life makes on you are different—we notice this in the instances of Väinämöinen and Aino, Lemminkäinen and Kyllikki. Being brave and skilled in combat, while worthy of great respect, isn’t always enough to make you or other people happy—this capricious world requires you to understand and learn to live with other people, a far harder task. The life of a hero can be both magnificent and tragic.

(You can read Kalevala in English here, and the original Finnish here. A big thank you to Project Gutenberg!)

Of Monsters, Inventions and Northern Lights

One may see in Jonas Lie’s wonderful story Jo i Sjøholmene, translated as Jack of Sjöholm and the Gan-Finn, an allegory of human nature and modern science. Lie examines the wonder that is the scientific method and its profound connection with nature, even as humans possessed of the scientific method seek futilely to fight natural law and isolate themselves from it.

In the days before men learned to built good, strong boats, fishermen were at the mercy of an irascible, capricious old man called the Gan-Finn, and had to buy good winds from him. Jack (Jo in the original) is a young fisherman who laughs at the fears of experienced men, and tries his strength recklessly against the winds and the open sea. After great trials, he is rewarded with a gift to his people. But things don’t end there.

Scientists are often reckless with their own interests and those of others, willing to gamble and risk all for an idea. Sometimes they cannot find what they’re looking for in the place and time they live in, and they need to sail beyond restricting contemporary thought to find or create for themselves another environment. Sometimes they must struggle against an establishment that resists upheaval and change. They may also have to brave incredulity and ridicule. To make his discoveries, Jack must make sacrifices, leave his home behind and explore the rushing waves of the open sea and the wild lights of the north. He must also fight the power that rules the fearful winds, that dreads being unseated by the modern method. When he manages this, he returns home with a gift to his kind. He lets people laugh at him and works steadfastly until his idea becomes a reality. People realise the value of his invention and he is able to fulfil his project of humanitarian aid.

A great deal of the power of the idea lies in Jack’s careful observation of and closeness to nature. Symbolically, after his long and difficult struggle, it was a natural current that led him ashore to his discovery. He seeks to use the secret of a wild natural power (the Draug) and build a boat that moves like a bird, that shakes the sea aside like the slippery fin of a fish.

But scientists who start out working for the public weal, caught by the fire of an idea, can lose sight of their original purpose or be blind to the ill consequences of their work. This happens when science is generally accepted and becomes part of the establishment, part of materialistic human society. Jack finds himself earning a great deal of money, and he starts to be proud and careless with the lives of the people who buy his boats. But scientific hubris is unsustainable, and his oversight pursues him. Helplessly, he cries out that things would have been much worse without his discoveries. Nature and destiny are inexorable.

In the end, Jack abandons the establishment and sets out on a voyage into the open sea. He has abandoned his attempt to subdue nature beneath the tyranny of the human establishment, and instead floats peacefully into wild nature, personified as Seimke, his wild bride. Seimke shrieks and laughs and shakes and throws herself upon his neck, takes her turn at the oars, and plays familiarly with the northern lights. Nature is not an adversary, but a fascinating and affectionate equal. The ultimate purpose of science is familiarity with nature, beautiful and untameable as it is.

(You can read the story in English here, and download the original text here. A big thank you to Project Gutenberg, the University of Oslo’s Documentation Project and MobileReads!)

Mrs. Long, and the Invisible Spectre of Society

Sometimes the characters who impress themselves on the memory are the ones we never see. Achilles in Ajax, Lord Byron in Arcadia, and Mrs. Long in Pride and Prejudice linger in the memory far longer than many characters who actually appear and play a part in the story, perhaps because they stimulate the imagination—because they become not people, but figures. They are not characters with particular qualities, but epitomes of characteristics.

No-one who has read Pride and Prejudice can forget the name of Mrs. Long, and yet we never see her. She is mentioned six times in the text, on each occasion described very differently by Mrs. Bennet—

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

“I do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.”

“Mrs. Long told me last night that he sat close to her for half-an-hour without once opening his lips…. I do not believe a word of it, my dear. If he had been so very agreeable, he would have talked to Mrs. Long. But I can guess how it was; every body says that he is eat up with pride, and I dare say he had heard somehow that Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage, and had come to the ball in a hack chaise.”

“I will go to Meryton,” said she, “as soon as I am dressed, and tell the good, good news to my sister Philips. And as I come back, I can call on Lady Lucas and Mrs. Long….”

“…We must have Mrs. Long and the Gouldings soon. That will make thirteen with ourselves, so there will be just room at table for him….”

“…Mrs. Long said so too, for I asked her whether you did not. And what do you think she said besides? ‘Ah! Mrs. Bennet, we shall have her at Netherfield at last.’ She did indeed. I do think Mrs. Long is as good a creature as ever lived—and her nieces are very pretty behaved girls, and not at all handsome: I like them prodigiously.”

We see that Mrs. Long is an indispensable part of Mrs. Bennet’s social life—a source of invaluable information; a recipient of raptures, gossip and complaints; someone at a slight disadvantage, to be alternately sympathised with and dazzled with another’s splendour; a soothing source of congratulations when necessary; a social necessity and a social obligation.

We envision a typical figure of the English country society of the time: an ambivalent spectator, quick to sympathy and indignation; a voice in universal agreement, that expresses exactly what everyone else is thinking. But most of all, Mrs. Long epitomises the inexorable pressure of society, bringing the ridiculous affair from its sudden and riotous beginning to its inevitable denouement. She brings Mrs. Bennet the first news of Mr. Bingley’s arrival, and is the first to openly acknowledge the approach of the end.

She is also a mirror of Mrs. Bennet’s mood: when Mrs. Bennet is furious with her husband, she is a ‘selfish, hypocritical woman’; when Mrs. Bennet is delighted by Mr. Bingley’s open admiration of her daughter, she is ‘as good a creature as ever lived—and her nieces are … not at all handsome’ (with Mrs. Bennet, the force of commendation can no further go); when her pride is hurt, Mrs. Long, as someone in worse circumstances, corroborates her opinion and gives her someone to sympathise with; when she wants to invite Mr. Bingley to dinner, inviting Mrs. Long is a convenient necessity; when she has good news to relate, she must go and call on Mrs. Long. Mrs. Long fulfills Mrs. Bennet’s need for a confidante who cannot retaliate with her own triumphs—she has no carriage of her own, and her nieces are not at all handsome; but in return, Mrs. Bennet sympathises indignantly with her when she considers herself slighted. They are alternately in competition for the glories of a small town and solidarity against supercilious outsiders.

Who is Mrs. Long? Probably another Mrs. Bennet or Lady Lucas—another well-meaning, rather foolish woman, vocal, parochial and suspicious. She obviously has a penchant for gossip, but she also seems—despite Mrs. Bennet’s assertions to the contrary—a willing enough sympathiser in other people’s joys. But in the absence of a physical Mrs. Long, our imagination multiplies her into a hundred Mrs. Longs. We see a hundred women peering suspiciously through the windows of the Bennets’ house, jostling each other and whispering in excitement and sympathy. We see an invisible crowd of spectres sitting at table with the Bennets, listening critically to every word that is said. The name that creeps into every conversation, the eye under whose gaze every step is taken: the name and the eye of invisible, ubiquitous society. Mrs. Long may be an insignificant woman, but every action is taken under her gaze.

“…For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

(All quotations are from the edition of Pride and Prejudice on Project Gutenberg—ebook no. 1342. A big thank you to the volunteers who produced this ebook!)

The Hobbit and the Pale, Enchanted Gold

A middle-aged Hobbit is startled one day by a band of Dwarves who come to tea. They bring to his warm and comfortable home a breath of air from the Lonely Mountain, a whiff of adventure, and to his alarm, he finds that he is expected to join them on a quest that promises to be dangerous and uncomfortable.

He is suspicious of them, and they are rather sceptical of his ability. However, something makes him join them.

As they journey toward the mountain, they have several adventures, and the Hobbit discovers qualities he didn’t know he had. He is a brave little creature, loyal and clever, and possessed of a great deal of quiet ingenuity, with a matter-of-fact dauntlessness that keeps the spirits of the company up and gets them out of several messes. He eventually becomes the true leader of the quest, and his grumpy companions come to regard him with increasing respect and genuine fondness.

His companions are grumpy and rather calculating, but fundamentally kindly and honourable, with a great deal of stubborn courage. Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is a kingly figure, stately and imposing.

They reach the mountain, and accomplish their quest. But their greatest triumph proves their greatest undoing, as alliances break and friends fall apart, with everyone succumbing to the fatal lure of the gold. The Hobbit is the only person untouched by its spell, and he looks on in wonder and sorrow as his friends shed their nobility and honour. In the end, he gives up his reward to avert a war for the gold.

Finally, a greater threat reminds the armies that they must stand together. Bilbo’s companions prove as dauntless and resourceful in the final battle as they did in pursuit of the treasure, and fight heroically and honourably. Thorin Oakenshield is mortally wounded; before the end, he parts from Bilbo in friendship.

Bilbo refuses the promised fourteenth share of the treasure – he will take only two little chests of silver and gold, for treasure is merely a lot of bother to him. He will treasure the memory of the quest, but he doesn’t think the gold was worth the struggle for it.

The Hobbit has survived the battle of five armies. He has treated with the King of the Woodland Elves, and witnessed the heroic end of the King under the Mountain. He has been ‘over grass and over stone,/And under mountains in the moon.’ Now he journeys back, a Hobbit richer in gold and experience than he was, but very much the same Hobbit in his kindly domestic predilections. He values food and cheer and song above hoarded gold. He will miss the world of song and legend, but he looks forward to getting back to his own arm-chair.

And he gets back, and finds home most uncomfortable. He has been away so long that people think he’s dead, and his relations have plotted to appropriate his belongings. After the passion and heroism of the Battle of the Five Armies, he has to deal with the petty scheming and rivalries of a small town. And yet perhaps it isn’t so different. It’s still the lure of gold, though at a very different level.

Bilbo is only quite a little fellow in a wide world – but a fine fellow at that.

The symmetries of Arcadia

Arcadia is an intensely scientific play. On re-reading it, I’ve realised that one could look at it from the point of view of what physicists call ‘symmetries’.

Science suggests that at very high energies, all the fundamental forces are identical. Different particles are fundamentally identical too. A ‘symmetry’ exists between different particles and different forces. But in the observable universe, the symmetry is broken because other factors come into play. Different forces act differently, and a particle called the Higgs boson interacts with other particles, slowing some of them down more than others, giving them what we perceive as ‘mass’. (This is why some particles are heavier than others.) One of science’s puzzles is how to incorporate gravity, the fourth force, into the theory – it plays a very important role, but acts differently from the others.

We can’t test this, because the unification happens at energy scales much beyond our reach.

In Arcadia, at the higher intellectual levels, there exists a symmetry between science, literature and sex. They work the same way and are equally powerful (more on this here). Septimus explains carnal embrace and Fermat’s last theorem together, expressing equal interest in both. Hannah and Valentine, literary scholar and scientist, make a series of discoveries that lead them successively closer to the theory of the universe. In the end, they both arrive at the doom of the universe independently.

What breaks the symmetry in the everyday universe? Individuality. Personal perception. Social and technological evolution. These construct the world around us; they’re also the tools we use to understand it. The same forces influence the world around us, but they work differently. At each point, some forces are more powerful than others. One force, though extremely powerful in the observable world, doesn’t quite fit into the theory. (Sex dominates in the nineteenth century; science dominates the modern world. No-one is sure how fundamental sex is to intellectual inquiry.)

There is also a symmetry in time. Valentine and Septimus both have tortoises. Valentine and Thomasina explore the same mathematical questions with their different tools. Both Hannah and Lady Croom don’t know when they’ve received a more unusual compliment (though the compliments they respond to are very different.)

As science, literature, history and sex advance closer to the ultimate revalation, they grow more symmetrical. But there is no ultimate revelation that’s practically accessible. Our best hope lies in extrapolating the graphs and studying the unification of forces.

Arcadia: ‘Sex and literature’, and the will to know

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, explores the conflict between people equally intellectual in their interests but very different in their approaches.

There is a great deal of heated debate between a scientist, an establishment academic and an academic outsider. Bernard, a Byron scholar, thinks Valentine’s approach pedantic and impersonal; he considers him incapable of appreciating the arts. Valentine, a mathematician, thinks Bernard is theatrical, imprecise in his methods, and his proofs insufficiently rigorous. At one point, Valentine wonders why Bernard’s researches into who wrote what matter, and Bernard furiously dismisses all of science in response because it isn’t personally relevant – it isn’t ‘self-knowledge’ – and wonders how scientists ‘con[ned] us out of all that money’.

Stoppard also deals with misconceptions about different fields. Bernard assumes that Valentine is claiming that material scientific progress is superior in importance to the arts. But Valentine demonstrates that a scientist’s devotion to logic doesn’t render him incapable of appreciating poetry. It doesn’t mean he’s against poetry, or that he has nothing to contribute to literary analysis. Valentine considers the work that Hannah and Bernard are doing ‘trivial’, because it doesn’t matter who wrote what. But their findings help him solve a mathematical problem he’s working on. Science can benefit from a literary historian’s meticulous research and focus on seemingly trivial details. Hannah, the literary scholar, looks at Valentine’s computer screen, at the graph of an iterating equation, and says “How beautiful!”

At one point, Hannah says to Valentine, ‘You can’t believe in an afterlife.’ Valentine replies, ‘Oh, you’re going to disappoint me at last’ – he’s used to people assuming scientists are aggressive rationalists (though this isn’t what Hannah means – she is referring to the need to search for our own answers, to persist with the search for its own sake). People in a field needn’t have the same predilections. And very often, academics from different disciplines can learn a lot from each other.

Stoppard’s characters look at the same question from both a literary and a scientific approach, and both give them the same answer. Both fields have the ability to answer fundamental questions. And literature and science have the same goal in the end – to understand the world around us, the predicament of humanity and its fate. ‘Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,’ says Hannah.

However, the conflict in the play is not all intellectual. Sexual liaison is almost ubiquitous. But in Arcadia, the conflict is not between sex and morality but between sex and intellectualism.

Thomasina: … Does carnal embrace addle the brain?
Septimus: Invariably.

Thomasina: I hate Cleopatra…. Everything is turned to love with her. New love, absent love, lost love – I never knew a heroine that makes such noodles of our sex…. [T]he Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue.

The morality of the Regency is demonstrated to be rather hypocritical. Captain Brice is shocked by Thomasina’s cheerful mention of carnal embrace in conversation, but no-one, including Captain Brice, seems averse to the activity. The most prominent, of course, is Mrs Chater, ‘with a pleasing voice and a dainty step’, whose predilections are apparently of some renown. Lady Croom, with her crisp, forceful, feminine personality, complies with Septimus’ proposal in her own style. Mr Chater, weak and protesting, makes sporadic attempts to defend his honour, generally abandoning them to advance his (not very successful) career as a poet. The conduct of Lord Byron, though he never appears on stage, seems very much in character. Septimus is a faintly misogynist cynic who goes about seducing everyone, but his fondness for the only exponent of intellectualism over sex is Platonic and genuine.

However, this is no pitiless Ibsenesque reveal. Stoppard’s characters treat morality as a matter of form, like a dance, perhaps something of a joke. Lady Croom and Mrs Chater play their traditional gender roles in society and incorporate sex into them quite effortlessly. Apart from a few epigrams exalting ignorance, nobody (except, occasionally, Mr Chater) makes any attempt to claim chastity or assert moral superiority. There is no moral intolerance – it seems to be almost accepted that most of them cheerfully participate in sexual intrigues as a matter of course. Yet these intrigues have a profound impact on the course of their lives.

Lady Croom: … Indeed, I never knew a woman worth the duel, or the other way about.

In the modern age, on the other hand, the dominant characters are Valentine and Hannah, the intellectuals. Sex is no longer a powerful force – one automatically dismisses the sex-related conversation as irrelevant; the focus is on the intellectual debate. Hannah and Valentine, civilised, wry and independent, are entirely intellectual in their predilections, and they are sceptics of rhetoric, intellectual pretension and sex. Valentine calls Hannah his fiancee and proposes to her largely as a joke. But he is moved to do so by the fact that he can genuinely relate to her intellectually. (Interestingly, this is probably the only proposal in the play that is entirely devoid of sexual reference.) When Bernard invites Hannah to London, she isn’t very interested – “Your conversation, left to itself, doesn’t have many places to go. Like two marbles rolling around a pudding basin. One of them is always sex.”

Bernard moves through the acts executing his rhetorical ‘performance art’ – sex is apparently a form of performance art too. Chloe moves in and out, protesting and picking up on sexual threads in the conversation. However, Bernard and Chloe have interesting things to say. Chloe is the only character who listens politely to Bernard’s academic lecture (though she does seem most fascinated by mentions of sex). Her perspective leads her to an interesting version of the second law of thermodynamics and the world’s descent into chaos. Sex has its part to play in the search too. It’s clearly part of the dance.

Despite the freedom of language and the open discussion of sex in conversation, the idea of sexual contact as disrespect is taken more seriously in the modern age than in the Regency – but not much more seriously.

Chater: You insulted my wife in the gazebo yesterday evening!
Septimus: You are mistaken. I made love to your wife in the gazebo…. and if someone is putting it about that I did not turn up, by God, it is slander.

Valentine: Well, you shit. I’d drive you but I’m a bit sloshed.

Chater protests out of habit, but is apparently used to this sort of thing. Septimus sees sex as a compliment, not an act of disrespect (though he clearly has more respect for the intellectual Thomasina than the obliging Mrs Chater). The modern age is resigned and weary rather than indignant.

At the end, Hannah and Gus dance, keeping a decorous distance, while Septimus and Thomasina dance fluently. The dance represents the deep personal connection between Septimus and Thomasina – they stimulate each other intellectually, they discuss sex openly, and though their relations are largely Platonic they are extremely fond of each other (more so than any other pair in the play). Intellectual thought and conversation are more the norm in the 90s than they were during the regency, but Hannah, Gus and the rest are unable to establish the same profound connection. With Septimus and Thomasina, there was no barrier between the disciplines, or between man and woman. In the modern age, we are more evolved but more hesitant, more alienated from the world around us. There is more distrust between people of different disciplines, people with different points of view. People wonder whether their struggles are worth it. One intelligent and ingenuous man gives up the struggle and ceases to speak. But we can still try.

There are many things we don’t understand, but it’s ‘better to struggle on knowing that failure is final’. We must continue to dance, though the world is doomed, about to burst into flame around us.

Lovers’ Vows: The Play that shocked Jane Austen (Or Did It?)

You probably need to be a pretty obsessed Jane Austen fan to download Lovers’ Vows, but I’m glad I did. Apart from learning more about Jane Austen and the social context of her work, it’s a fun read.

Lovers’ Vows may have shocked Fanny Price, but to a modern audience there’d be nothing scandalous about it. It reads like a cute and slightly cheesy movie – it has nothing original to say, but it makes reasonable enough points in a pretty nice way. The famous scene between Amelia and Anhalt that shocks and upsets Fanny now seems cute and quite amusing. Lovers’ Vows is popcorn, but wholesome, delectable popcorn.

Most surprisingly, given what Fanny thinks of the play, one can’t help but notice similarities between its story and that of Mansfield Park. Of course, the objection in the novel is not so much to the play itself as to the family performing it and using it as a channel to express all their more inappropriate passions. Jane Austen clearly found the play interesting. She differed from it ideologically in places, but she also seems to have found inspiration or at least concurrence here and there.


Fanny somewhat resembles Agatha, the gentle, affectionate woman who is adopted by a rich family and later upbraided for seeming ingratitude. Each falls in love with a man but watches him woo (and in Agatha’s case, marry) another. Each has a quiet pride and strength of character, but is forced to depend on the charity of others. And in the end, the patience of each is rewarded by the love they longed for (but would never pursue). They both endure rather than fight.

The chief difference: the moral Fanny Price would never dream of having an illegitimate child, of course. One is tempted to see this as evidence of Jane Austen’s essential prudishness – which in large measure it probably is, Jane Austen certainly doesn’t depict Maria Bertram and Lydia Bennet sympathetically – but we must remember that Jane Austen, the feminist and rationalist, didn’t believe in sensationalist writing or emotional extremes. (Just look at her lampooning the Gothic heroine in Northanger Abbey, or the passionate and susceptible female in Sense and Sensibility.) Fanny isn’t just the good little girl of the family. She’s also its most level-headed and critical observer. She just wouldn’t be stupid enough to have an illegitimate child. Austen doesn’t endorse the ‘feminine victim’ cliche.

Another crucial difference is that Agatha is a fallen, impoverished woman, and when Baron Wildenhaim takes her back, he is essentially rescuing her. Edmund is clearly not intended as a rescuer – that role is for Henry Crawford, his passionate and chivalrous, ardent but faintly chauvinistic rival. Fanny may suffer, but she suffers in silence – she continues to live collectedly, rationally, and with dignity. (Again, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey tell us just how much Jane Austen valued those qualities.) Edmund is kindly and solicitous in an elder-brotherly way, but he also takes Fanny very seriously as an individual and frequently asks her advice (he appears to be the only person who does this). Thus far, of course, I’m of the opinion that Jane Austen’s version is an improvement.

Another departure from Lovers’ Vows’ occasional sensationalism is the fact that Edmund hurts Fanny unknowingly. He doesn’t use her as he wills and abandon her to suffer – he is completely unaware of her love for him. In Austen’s version, no-one is really to blame (well, perhaps Edmund is for pursuing a woman unworthy of him – more on this presently, but he’s misguided rather than iniquitous). This does represent greater sophistication and maturity on Austen’s part.


Another point of resemblance between Mansfield Park and Lovers’ Vows is the fact that both feature good-hearted but stern and slightly pompous fathers who end up doing completely wrong things. It’s an odd coincidence that Sir Thomas comes across Yates playing the part of Baron Wildenhaim in the library and is shocked and astounded – one appears to represent the stately majesty of the establishment, and the other the personification of iniquity and vice – when the character of the Baron in the play actually has a lot in common with Sir Thomas. Austen is ostensibly on Sir Thomas’ side here, but one can’t but think Austen the satirist wanted us to notice the paradox here as well.

Both fathers try to persuade their daughters (Sir Thomas is acting in the position of a father to Fanny) to marry very unsuitable men, but both actually want nothing more than to see their daughters happy. Both are lacking in ‘romantic delicacy’ – Sir Thomas marries his oldest daughter to the foolish Mr Rushworth and sends Fanny away to be unhappy in the hope that she will submit to marrying Henry Crawford, while the Baron employs his daughter’s tutor to talk her into marrying Count Cassel. But both are essentially kindly, though pompous and, as Jane Austen would say, ‘aweful’ in their manners. Chauvinists, of course, but well-meaning chauvinists.


We are clearly meant to perceive a resemblance between Mary Crawford and Amelia – this is underlined by the famous scene where Mary and Edmund rehearse, while Fanny looks on, weary and miserable, seeing an irresistible parallel between the increasing proximity of the characters in the play and the growing affection between Edmund and Mary. Mary, like Amelia, is roguish and forward, a quality Austen finds slightly unforgivable. When she wants something, she asks for it.

In the play, clergyman Anhalt is meant to persuade Amelia to marry Cassel – she interrupts him with a “you love me, don’t you? well, then!” and cheerfully overrides all his and her father’s objections, finally persuading them both to agree to the marriage.

Mary’s methods, however, are less direct. Though Fanny expresses an objection to “the language of [Amelia]”, Mary (and it is really Mary she dislikes) never says anything one could perceive as actually promiscuous. (Well, nor does Amelia, really. But Mary’s conversation conformed perfectly even to the rules of Jane Austen’s society, a somewhat more stringent standard.) Austen was an advocate of sincerity over polish (and no, she didn’t believe the two could exist simultaneously. Didn’t Anne reject Mr Elliot because his manners were too good?) and from the point of view of both propriety and feminism, she considered it rather degrading for a woman to ‘employ arts’ to attract a man. “Undoubtedly … there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.” Mary Crawford may have been a less brazen flirt than Caroline Bingley, but she certainly knew what she wanted and let people see it. Austen’s objection isn’t so much to the fact that she wanted to marry Edmund as to the fact that she had a strategy in place to attract him. It’s hard to see whether Austen’s censure of Mary represents moral intolerance or feminist pride – with Jane Austen, the discreditable and creditable are often so mixed it’s impossible to tell them apart.

Jane Austen’s dislike of pretension also comes across in the way Edmund and Mary treat the scene. They claim to be apprehensive, but they have clearly looked forward to it (they went so far as to seek out Fanny to tell her how apprehensive they were) and are evidently delighted to have a chance to rehearse it in advance. Fanny can be forgiven for feeling that everyone but she is succumbing to the fatal attraction of playing at being promiscuous. Mary and Edmund seem to delight in being perfectly correct but almost scandalous. They speak of unease but are thrilled to act what they consider a slightly indelicate proposal. The unease is, in Edmund’s case and probably in Mary’s case as well, quite genuine – neither of them is so lost to propriety as to feel no apprehension – but so is the thrill of acting the scene. Fanny, on the other hand, doesn’t find flirting at all exciting. Well, of course she couldn’t be expected to here, but she also finds Henry Crawford’s romantic ardour both insidious and uninteresting. How many of us can say the same? Fanny doesn’t pretend to be proper, she genuinely doesn’t want to be anything else.  Maybe there’s more Jane Austen in her than one realises at first.


But Jane Austen could certainly learn a thing or two from Lovers’ Vows about the art of the non-judgmental narrative. Lovers’ Vows presents two contrasting women, Agatha and Amelia, without treating either as superior. Agatha bravely and patiently endures suffering, while Amelia openly asks for what she wants. In the end, they both attain their hearts’ desires – no remark as to

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.”

In Mansfield Park, on the other hand, it’s quite clear which is nobler. Fanny, the moral woman, does not let Edmund see she loves him – Mary, the coquette, does. In the end, Mary is denounced and Fanny is rewarded. Austen is pretty clear about what she thinks.

To sum up… Jane Austen is a cranky, sarky, sententious old lady, with firm principles, a staunch idealism that is alternately touching and exasperating, and an odd streak of feminism that shows up in the strangest places and the strangest ways. Like a true genius, she does everything an author could to annoy you (including presenting ideas you believe in as you hope never to see them presented again) and in the end wins you over completely.