By Giovanni Guareschi
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Austen, Pride and Prejudice, p. 272). ” As master of Donwell, Mr. Knightley is magistrate of the local courts and head of the parish council, and landlord to his tenant farmers and manager of his family’s home farm as well. He dispenses justice and plans new drains, governs parish affairs and cuts new footpaths, and the very heterogeneity of these duties demonstrates his centrality to the community, while his patient attention to all of them confirms, for Emma as well as for Austen, his fitness for the role.
To be sure, social mores had changed somewhat in the years between Austen’s youth and the writing of Mansfield Park, as a growing evangelical movement began to condemn activities that had formerly been seen as innocent, and there is reason to believe that Austen had come to view evangelicals with some sympathy. But the evangelicals condemned novels along with the theater, and this fact alone is enough to remind us that Mansfield Park is no evangelical tract. All this is to say that the judgments Austen will pass on the theater are quite particular: They are not the unthinking expression of custom or belief, but rather the self-conscious exploration of political ideology.
And the more closely we look at this passage, the more clear it becomes that Mansfield remains what it had long been: a place of “propriety” from without and invidious distinctions from within, of apparent “harmony” and actual dissent, of “good sense and good breeding,” but bad morality. The failures of Mansfield seem to be beyond improvement, and it is in this context that we can best understand the novel’s shift in focus from country house to parsonage. Austen famously described Mansfield Park as “a complete change of subject—Ordination,” but the novel proves to be less of a change in subject than we might at first expect.