Few words have garnered more criticism in Austen scholarship than the “dead silence” in Mansfield Park. When Fanny Price asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade upon his return from Antigua, her inquiry is met by “dead silence,” and these words have puzzled decades of readers and scholars (Austen 214). A two pronged reading has emerged, and they occupy opposite ends of a binary. One reading interprets the silence as an authorial copout, for Austen chooses not to breach the pertinent, present, and consequential conversation of abolition that her contemporary readers would be aware of. This reading would hold that Mansfield Park uses silence to wrongfully avoid engagement. On the other hand, though, the silence can be interpreted as highlighting the way in which the institution of slavery demands silence from the beneficiaries, criticizing the willed ignorance and intentional disengagement of the upper class English population. This reading views silence as a mechanism for social critique.
This conversation between Fanny and Sir Thomas alone cannot indicate whether Mansfield Park’s “dead silence” is a copout or a criticism, but I will argue that other areas of the text can. By paying attention to the employment of and narrative attitude toward noise throughout Mansfield Park, an image emerges of a protagonist learning to choose its opposite, silence. “Noise” throughout Mansfield Park is continually associated with lower class, sexual impropriety, and social chaos, whereas “silence” is asssocated with upper class, restraint, and intact social hierarchies, and the text is explicitly interested in this binary. At the beginning of Mansfield Park, the silence of her new home troubles the young Fanny, and she longs for the company, entertainment, and noise she was accustomed to in Portsmouth. As Fanny becomes indoctrinated into the lifestyle at Mansfield, though, she learns to embrace times of solitude and reject people and places associated with noise. At the conclusion of the narrative, both the narrator and Fanny are consistently and actively rejecting noise, therefore ultimately choosing silence. Mansfield Park, then, argues that hierarchies of class and race are intimately intertwined, for as Fanny learns behaviors of upper class life, she learns silence in equal proportion. The employment of a heroine who gradually comes to reject noise as she rises in societal rank must shed light on the “dead silence” debate. The employment of motifs of noise and silence in Mansfield Park reveal that the upper echelons of English society expect, depend upon, and operate within that dead silence, ultimately criticizing the position of passive neutrality in the face of abolition.
At the beginning of Mansfield Park, Fanny is removed from her home in chaotic Portsmouth to the posh Mansfield, and once there, Fanny longs for the companionship, entertainment, and noise that the Price residence in Portsmouth is characterized by. In her childhood, Fanny’s life was never in want of noise, for Portsmouth is described as having “large and still increasing family,” a father inclined to “company and good liquor,” and nine children (Austen 36). The absence of such bustle at Mansfield upsets the young Fanny, and she is described as “forlorn, finding something to fear in every person and place” and “disheartened by Lady Bertram’s silence,” writes Austen (Austen 45). To be unaccustomed to silence was a feeling natural to the Fanny Mansfield Park begins with, as lower class life is continually associated with noisiness. As she longs for the bustle, Fanny’s characterization at the beginning of Mansfield Park simultaneously associates her with a lower class status, as the residents of Mansfield “wonder at her ignorance … sneer at her clothes” (Austen 44). While she still identifies with the lower class of her biological family, she misses the noise that family involves. Class and noise are connected issues in this text, and as Fanny learns to navigate upper class life, she will learn to reject the noise she once longed for.
Throughout Volume I of Mansfield Park, Fanny begins to appreciate solitude and silence, but she still derives enjoyment from observing noise, indicating a shifting attitude in Fanny. Where she onced desired to participate in bustle by longing for Portsmouth, life at Mansfield Park has led Fanny to desire occasional solitude and observance of, rather than participation in, noise instead.
While Sir Thomas is in Antigua, the children of Mansfield Park curate a scheme to act in a play, “Lover’s Vows,” and the endeavor is continually associated with noise. The production is surrounded by a “buzz of discussion”, and the text describing the endeavor is uncharacteristically saturated with direct dialogue, both working to reinforce the play’s association with a chaotic auditory landscape (Austen 163). Fanny, though, refuses to act. The protagonist of Mansfield Park rejects pleas calling for her engagement in the production, and she retreats to the east attic instead—she chooses solitude over noise. The east attic, an abandoned school-room, becomes a sanctuary for Fanny in unpleasant times, and “the comfort of it in her hours of leisure was extreme,” describes Austen, indicating that our heroine has grown to enjoy the hours of solitude that so troubled her just a few years prior (Austen 171).
While in her “nest of comforts” though, Fanny wonders whether the refusal to participate was the correct moral choice, illustrating that although Fanny had an inclination to choose silence, part of her questions whether she should have chosen the noise (Austen 172). She ultimately chooses not to act, but she remains “in the midst of their noise,” enjoying the entertainment value of the production process as an observer (Austen 178). Rather than reject the scheme altogether, Fanny does derive pleasure from her voyeurism, and she is described as deriving “as much innocent enjoyment from the play as any of them,” indicating that her desire for noise had not altogether withered (Austen 184). Throughout Volume I, Fanny simultaneously derives pleasure in seeking the silence of the east attic and in observing the noise of the play, indicating a decrease in the longing for noise that characterized the beginning of Mansfield Park.
When Sir Thomas returns to interrupt the production, there is a “terrible pause” in speech, and the moment of silence indicates the reinstatement of a rigid hierarchy among the residents of Mansfield (Austen 193). The noise recedes, few words are spoken, laughter is scarcely heard, and the play is put to an abrupt end. It is at this turning point, when silence has been recently restored in Mansfield, that Fanny asks Sir Thomas of the slave trade. Fanny explicitly notes the “dead silence” her question is met with, but the very arrival of Sir Thomas initiated the process of a larger silence engulfing Mansfield Park. The absence of the father allowed for noise, chaos, and folly, but the return of Sir Thomas brings the return of the passive silence and obedience that intact social hierarchies require.
Toward the end of Mansfield Park, Fanny both identifies completely with the social class of Mansfield Park and consistently rejects people and places associated with noise, and by doing so, the heroine chooses to exist within the silence that allows for class and racial divisions.
Henry and Mary Crawford, the London folk of the text, are characterized by liveliness, and their arrival at Mansfield catalyzes disorder, impropriety, and chaos. While much of the text calls the reader to wonder whether the liveliness in the Crawford’s is rewarded or critiqued, the protagonist at the conclusion of Mansfield Park explicitly rejects these characters as morally compromised. Mary Crawford plays the harp, and when Fanny resolved to wait for bad weather to pass before returning home, Mary jumped at the opportunity to produce music. She eagerly “played till Fanny’s eyes, straying to the window on the weather’s being evidently fair, spoke what she felt must be done,” describes the narrator, therefore associating Mary with both a willingness and a desire to occupy auditory space (Austen 221). At the conclusion of the text, Mary is punished for her lack of “modest loathings,” for her failure to denounce her brother’s adultery loses her the love of Edmund and respect of Fanny (Austen 452). Mansfield Park associates Mary with noise, and both Fanny and the conclusion of the text punish her, and liveliness as a virtue is thus rejected by Mansfield Park. Henry, too, is associated with liveliness, and his arrival at Mansfield brings about the Lover’s Vows production, improper flirtations, and danger for Fanny. By refusing to marry Henry, Fanny again rejects noise, and by punishing the character of Henry with an ending based in adultery and scandal, Mansfield Park similarly chastises liveliness as a virtue. Fanny’s complete rejection of the lively Crawford’s at the conclusion of the text indicates a heroine now firmly committed to rejecting the human noise and social chaos she once longed for and previously enjoyed observing.
Finally, Fanny’s unsatisfying experience in Portsmouth and eager return to Mansfield in Volume III reveal a heroine entirely transformed, with a fully changed class identity and a strong commitment to reject places associated with noise. Sir Thomas sends Fanny to Portsmouth in hopes that the visit will allow Fanny to appreciate the pleasures of life at Mansfield, and that is exactly what happens. Upon returning to Portsmouth, Fanny becomes horrified with the conditions of life therein, and she expresses repeated frustration with the level of noise. Austen writes that “discussion was prevented by various bustles”, Mr. Price has a “loud voice”, and the narrator notes that though Fanny “had seen all the members of the family, she had not yet heard all the noise they could make” (Austen 382-383). Upon hearing all of the family members talking at once, the overwhelming auditory stimulation leads Fanny to long for the peace of Mansfield, where “no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence” was ever heard (Austen 383). Where she once detested the silence of Mansfield, Fanny now privileges silence over noise, showing the completion of her shift in preferences. “The living in incessant noise was to a frame and temper delicate and nervous like Fanny’s, an evil which no super-added elegance or harmony could have entirely atoned for. It was the greatest misery of all,” describes the narrator, calling attention to the detrimental effects of noise on our changed heroine (Austen 393).
Class consciousness arises from this visit as well, and Fanny looks down upon the manners of her family just as the Bertram’s once did upon hers, showing that learning silence and learning to identify with a higher class occurred simultaneously. “The men appeared to her all coarse, the women all pert, everybody under-bred,” writes Austen, calling attention to Fanny’s condescending disgust with the social class she once identified with (Austen 397). Fanny, by becoming indoctrinated into the lifestyle of Mansfield Park, is educated to privilege silence and restraint over disorder and chaos, and her rejection of Portsmouth and its inhabitants evidence the completion of this transition. She gladly returns to the silence of Mansfield Park, and this choice highlights that silence is a defining characteristic of upper class society in Mansfield Park.
Furthermore, the structure of the text itself similarly chooses silence in the final chapter. In the final chapter of Mansfield Park, the characters all assume great distance from the narrator, and no direct dialogue is communicated. Though the narrator communicates information, the narrative within is silent, for no people speak. Furthermore, the narrator “abstains from dates” regarding the marriage of Edmund and Fanny, showing an active choice to suppress information on the part of the narrator (Austen 465).
This analysis of noise and its absence can be extrapolated to analyze the “dead silence” as a necessary phenomenon among the upper class when faced with the issue of slavery, for the extravagances of life at Mansfield cannot be justified if language were to be given to its source of wealth. Answering with silence proves a much better tactic for Sir Thomas, for under this method, he can continue to enjoy the fruits of exploitive labor without verbally acknowledging the exploitation occurring.
While recollecting the flirtatious impropriety of Henry Crawford, Fanny declares “I was quiet, but I was not blind,” indicating that although she was aware of a moral and social wrongdoing, she remained in a state of passive silence, for to give language to the wrong would disrupt the social order and harmony of Mansfield Park (Austen 366). I argue that Sir Thomas’s dead silence must be interpreted in the same light—as a willed ignorance employed to preserve the status quo. Fanny Price learns to operate within a higher social class while simultaneously learning to reject noise and embrace silence, therefore positioning these two as intimately connected. Mansfield Park seeks to call attention to the way choosing silence works for those in power, and the “dead silence” will always arise if conversations are not forced. The “dead silence” conversation does not stand alone, for it is engaged in a larger conversation about the wealthy dependence on and future dangers of willed ignorance, therefore critiquing the position of passive neutrality in the face of abolition. We must believe that Jane Austen knew what she was doing when writing those two fruitful words, for to view the “dead silence” as an authorial copout is to grossly understate the conversations of politics, morals, and philosophy that Mansfield Park is intimately, though perhaps not overtly, engaged in.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park, edited by June Sturrock, Broadview Literary Texts, 2001.