lady Bertram is a sofa. Fanny Price is a cucumber. Readers of Mansfield Park will probably not be surprised with this first statement. Lady Bertram’s association with the sofa is clear from the opening of the novel; her solution to Fanny’s distress upon arrival at Mansfield is to invite Fanny to “sit on the sofa with herself and pug” (14). The impression of Lady Bertram-as-sofa is then reinforced when we learn that to “the education of her daughters, Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on the sofa, . . . thinking more of her pug than her children” (22). Adaptations of Mansfield Park also pick up on the sofa theme. For example, Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation depicts Lady Bertram almost exclusively on the sofa, with pug of course, and she actually sleeps through the younger Bertrams’ disastrous decision to stage Lovers’ Vows. Lady Bertram’s physical laxity reflects her moral laxity. Lady Bertram and the sofa are thus written off as morally deficient.
As numerous critics have noted, morality is a major theme of Mansfield Park.1 The question of what constitutes morality is played out by all the characters from Sir Thomas’s upright principles of “pride” and “general wish of doing right” (4) to Mary Crawford’s “‘blunted delicacy’” and “‘corrupted, vitiated mind’” (528). We know Lady Bertram’s association with the sofa represents a less than rigorous investment in the Bertram children’s moral education. In prevailing conduct literature of the period, like Hannah More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), a mother’s duties entail educating her children in the same moral model she portrays; she must be morally scrupulous herself. Since three of Lady Bertram’s four children commit serious moral offenses, Lady Bertram’s indolent moral example is clearly not the model Austen endorses. So much for the sofa.
Now we return to the idea of Fanny Price as a cucumber. This image may be harder to swallow; after all, Austen gives her reader no descriptions of Fanny eating, growing, or pickling cucumbers. When Tom suggests staging a theatrical, Fanny does not whip a cucumber from her pocket to evidence her disapproval, nor even does the perpetually demanding Mrs. Norris ever request a cucumber from Fanny, so what is with this assertion? What sofas and cucumbers share, and the reason I have juxtaposed them here, is that they are both subjects of William Cowper’s 1785 (mock) epic poem The Task, one of Mansfield Park’s “spectral texts.”2 What I aim to demonstrate over the course of this paper is the way in which Fanny’s morality echoes Cowper’s famous celebration of cucumbers as nature’s spiritual counter to the prevailing immorality of urban centers.
According to Henry Austen, Cowper was Jane Austen’s “favourite moral writer . . . in verse” (141). Fanny quotes directly from Cowper twice thereby identifying herself with a particular brand of morality based in natural law—the idea that nature, and man’s presence within nature, demonstrates God’s presence in the world.3 Mansfield Park as a whole also reflects Cowper’s concerns with the process of moral self-knowledge as demonstrated through contrasts such as city versus country and natural cultivation versus “improvements.” Cowper’s dialectics begin in Book One of The Task with “The Sofa”: “I sing the SOFA. I who lately sang / Truth, Hope, and Charity, . . . / Now seek repose upon a humbler theme” (1.1-5). Cowper’s moral relationship with his sofa is, initially, slightly more ambiguous than Lady Bertram’s relationship with hers. On one hand, the sofa represents a safe domestic space that enables contemplation and self-vision.4 On the other hand, the sofa indicates a life of luxury, excess, and debilitation. This latter fear of dissipation urges the poet to rise from his sofa to ramble through the countryside, where the natural world serves to effect moral awareness; his immersion in nature leads to both physical and moral health. So again, so much for the sofa. The rest of this essay is concerned with Cowper’s investment in the relationship between humanity and the natural world. As Conrad Brunstrom suggests, “Gardening becomes not simply a task, but rather the task, the great human religious endeavor—‘worship’ in the fullest possible sense of the term” (115). A garden reflects its gardener; the cultivation of a garden reflects the gardener’s spiritual development.5
Before turning to Cowper’s cucumbers in “Book Three, The Garden,” I will finish with the image of Cowper’s garden in “The Sofa.” Cowper ends his ramble from the sofa in a shaded avenue overlooking an Edenic garden:
Ye fallen avenues! once more I mourn
Your fate unmerited. . . .
The chequer’d earth seems restless as a flood.
. . .
Shadow and sunshine intermingl[e]quick,
. . . darkening and enlightening. . . .
We tread the wilderness, whose well-roll’d walks,
With curvature of slow and easy sweep—
Deception innocent—give ample space
To narrow bounds. (338-39, 344, 347-48, 351-54)
Cowper moralizes the landscape to allow for self-contemplation, a move which explicitly connects gardening with moral awareness. The poet’s respite in the interplay of sunlight and shadow in the avenues evokes images of innocence and images of deception. The still innocent pleasures of walking within “narrow bounds” foreshadows man’s Fall from the Garden of Eden.
It is this section of the poem from which Fanny quotes. Her lament for Sotherton’s fallen avenues considered with the subsequent scene where Bertrams and Crawfords alike wander within a garden sets a similarly lapsarian scene. The “narrow bounds” and ”folded gates” (The Task 1.330) of the garden at Sotherton nonetheless fail to prevent slips into the ha-ha. Gardens and morality for Austen, as for Cowper, are intertwined. In Sotherton’s allegorical Eden, Maria and Henry circumvent Rushworth’s locked gates, and Edmund is tempted into the “wilderness [away] from the park” (120) with Mary Crawford. Only Fanny remains firmly centered within the garden, an indication of her steadfast morality.
Beyond Sotherton’s religious implication is the implicit moral criticism in the “improvements” suggested for both Sotherton Court and Edmund’s parsonage, Thornton Lacey. Fanny’s desire to see Sotherton’s avenues remain untouched and her attitude towards improvements in general are the moral measures by which other characters are judged. Mr. Rushworth wants to “improve” Sotherton to display his own wealth and consequence. His desire to have “‘two or three fine old trees cut down’” and “‘certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down’” (65), coupled with the “improvements” to the religious practices of the household— Prayers read by the domestic chaplain are no longer “‘in constant use both morning and evening’” (101)—demonstrate his lack of moral compass. In contrast, Fanny’s disappointment with Sotherton—the loss of its avenue and the disuse of its chapel—sets the moral standard.
Mary’s and Henry Crawford’s desire for “improvements” ultimately demonstrates their superficial natures and lack of substance. Mary gives her approbation to the disuse of Sotherton’s chapel when she infamously comments, “‘[e]very generation has its improvements’” (101). Mary’s disregard for true spiritual morality is also evidenced in her approval of Henry’s desire to improve Thornton Lacey. Henry suggests such improvements as “‘may give [Thornton Lacey] a higher character. You may raise it into a place. From being the mere gentleman’s residence, it becomes, by judicious improvement, the residence of a man of education, taste, modern manners, good connections’” (283). Mary and Henry only see, or only want to see, in Edmund’s parsonage a “respectable, elegant, modernized, and occasional residence of a man of independent fortune” (289, emphasis mine). Mary in particular completely misses the deeper religious and moral functions of Edmund’s home, which reflect his true nature. She thus reveals her “‘corrupted mind’” (528). She is spoiled no doubt by her predilection for London, which, as Cowper sees it, is a “foul example on most minds” and “Begets its likeness” (1.685-86).
Fanny’s appeal to Cowper to protest the destruction of Sotherton’s avenue reflects Cowper’s concern with improvements. In “The Garden” Cowper takes wealthy landowners and their improvements to task: “Estates are landscapes, gazed upon awhile, / Then advertised, and auctioneer’d away. / The country starves” (3.755-57). Both Austen and Cowper explicitly disparage preeminent improvers of their respective times. Mr. Rushworth names Humphry Repton while Cowper names Capability Brown, Repton’s predecessor. Fittingly, Fanny, like Cowper, therefore mourns the passing of the “venerable pile, the abode / Of our forefathers—” (3.767-68). Cowper suggests Brown’s improvements are made out of excessive pride. Brown landscapes in order to satisfy his desire for “omnipoten[ce]” (3.766), while landowners working with Repton satisfy their sense that ““everything is to be got with money’” (MP 69) rather than in the name of “all the virtues of those better days, / And all their honest pleasures” (The Task 3.745-46). The landowner who seeks improvements, like Mary, disregards the workings of the divine. In keeping with natural law, the true gardener listens to the voice of God through natural processes, such as the organic growth of a garden. Cowper suggests that a humble awareness of the real beauties of landscape demonstrates a respect for God.
Keeping in mind that God can be found in natural processes such as gardening, we come to the crux of my argument: Fanny is a cucumber. Fanny performs the same moral and spiritual work at Mansfield Park as Cowper’s cucumbers perform in The Task. In “The Garden,” Cowper grows cucumbers in order to recreate Eden in the fallen world. This cultivation is mostly achieved through “contemplation” and by nursing “the growing seeds of wisdom” (3.302). For Cowper growing cucumbers means progressing along the path of virtue: “To raise the prickly and green-coated gourd, / So grateful to the palate, and when rare / So coveted, else base and disesteem’d” (3.446-47). The Cucumber is “lowly creeping, modest and yet fair, / Like virtue, thriving most where little seen” (3.663-64). Aside from “prickly and green-coated,” these lines may be applied to Fanny with very little stretch of the imagination. Cowper’s creeping gourds call to mind Tom’s moniker “‘creepmouse’” (171) for Fanny. Similarly, while Maria, Julia, and Mary appear “in person, manner, and accomplishments, every thing” that they ought to be, “Fanny [is] often mortified by their treatment of her” (22-23). She is overlooked by everyone, even Edmund for a time, until Mansfield Park is in crisis. Fanny’s rare virtue is then coveted, like an out-of-season cucumber, and her return from Portsmouth is “anxiously” anticipated (512).
It is hard in some ways not to read Cowper’s panegyric to cucumbers as a joke akin to the mock-seriousness with which he treats the sofa. On one level, as Martin Priestman points out, the cucumber is a joke, a joke “contained in silence within the diminutive pot of a joke that is even smaller in scale than the joke of the sofa within which it has been placed” (103). Nevertheless, the silliness of a poem in which cucumbers are produced from “smoking manure” (3.517) does not undercut the seriousness of Cowper’s underlying morality. Just as Cowper disparages “improvers” who ignore God’s workings in nature in order to impose their own vision onto the landscape, he also condemns the vanity of those who eat cucumbers simply because they are rare. For Cowper, growing cumbers is about the cultivation of the soul in the “seeds of wisdom,” “the fair result/ Of thought, the creature of a polish’d mind” (3.302, 639-40).
Austen must have been attracted to Cowper for his ability to juxtapose the absurd with the serious since much of her own work relies on a recognition of moral truths which underlie seemingly insignificant details.6 Mansfield Park—which admittedly has less of the absurd than Austen’s early “Love and Freindship,” in which heroines Laura and Sophia “faint alternately on a sofa” (211), or less “sparkle” (4 February 1813) than Pride and Prejudice—couples humorous ironies with serious moralities. For example, in the scene where Fanny and Edmund are star gazing, Fanny examines the heavens while Edmund observes the much earthier Mary Crawford participating in a glee. Fanny, once again seemingly channeling Cowper, exclaims, “‘Here’s harmony! . . . Here’s repose! . . . Here’s what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture!’” (132). Fanny’s ecstasies on nature of course prove her impeccable morality. Fanny experiences Mansfield Park’s natural wonders emotionally and spiritually, and it is Fanny’s image to which Mansfield finally conforms. Fanny’s belief in the divinity of the natural world ultimately sets Mansfield Park’s moral tone.7
While Fanny contemplates God in nature, Edmund reasons that Mary’s moral character must be assured in her “‘good humour’” and “‘temper which would never give pain!’” (131). Austen, however, laughs at Edmund’s moralizing; Edmund judges Mary’s good temper and moral fortitude on her musical ability and “‘[h]ow well she walks’” (131). Fanny is the true moralist here; it is only she who sees God’s image in stars, gardens, and shrubberies. Edmund idealizes Mary, who, in actual fact, sees only herself reflected in nature.8 Mary has no respect for the landscape or the gardeners who cultivate it; she is oblivious to the needs of the land, requesting that horses be taken away from their work at harvest in order to transport her harp to Mansfield. Mary clearly believes all horses are meant for her own personal pleasure.9 Austen gives readers several direct comparisons between Fanny’s and Mary’s responses to nature, but Edmund, enchanted by Mary’s walk, fails to take seriously Mary’s statement that “‘selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure’” (80).
But Mary’s joke is not a joke. Her responses to nature in comparison with Fanny’s reveal Mary’s lack of moral awareness and her incompatibility with Edmund:
[Fanny’s] own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions; and in observing the appearance of the country, the bearings of the roads, the difference of the soil, the state of the harvest, the cottages, the cattle, the children, she found entertainment. . . . Miss Crawford was very unlike her. She had none of Fanny’s delicacy of taste, of mind, of feeling; she saw nature, inanimate nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively. (94)
Fanny’s mind and heart are stimulated by the landscape. Nature grants her self-reflection, which in turn stimulates her self-knowledge, her relationship with the world and with what is good and right. In contrast, Mary does not see God in nature, only how starlight, shrubberies, or horses might be used to accomplish her own selfish aims.
Fanny, like Cowper’s cucumbers, hates “the rank society of weeds” (The Task 3. 670). In this context Mansfield’s weeds are obviously Mary and Henry Crawford: “Noisome, and ever greedy to exhaust, / . . . Disturb good order, and degrade true worth” (3.671-74). But, Fanny-as-Cucumber, “in whose form / And lineaments divine I trace a hand” (3.722-23), is able to exert a moral influence on the inhabitants of Mansfield Park and “lend grace” to the weed-ridden, “impoverished earth” (3.669, 672). It is only once she is removed from the Park that true moral disaster occurs. Once she returns, all the “rank weeds”—Mary, Henry, Mrs. Norris and Maria—are removed. Fanny’s resumed presence at Mansfield “Cannot indeed to guilty man restore / Lost innocence, or cancel follies past; / But [she] has peace, and much secures the mind / From all assaults of evil” (3.677-80). Once Fanny returns, domestic harmony ensues. Julia and Mr. Yates return from their elopement, while Sir Thomas comes to appreciate Fanny as the “daughter that he wanted” (546). Sir Thomas has learned to value natural goodness over “ambitious and mercenary connections” (545), and of course, finally, Edmund can banish Mary from his thoughts and learn to love “a different kind of woman [who] might . . . do just as well—or a great deal better. . . . [He] became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire” (543-44).
The Task consistently informs Mansfield Park. The congruence between Cowper’s praise of the country and domestic life and Austen’s approbation of nature over the dissipations of the city is significant. Throughout The Task Cowper values relationships based on moral feeling found in the contemplation of nature’s wonders; consequently, much of The Task defends the virtues of domestic rural life: “What wonder then, that health and virtue, gifts / That can alone make sweet the bitter draught / That life holds out to all, should most abound / And least be threatened in the fields and groves?” (1.750–53). Similarly, Fanny’s association with the natural world becomes the moral center towards which the geography of Mansfield Park grows. Cowper promotes the belief that rural living is ethically superior to urban living: “God made the country, and man made the town” (1.749). Fanny often rhapsodizes about the natural world: “‘The evergreen!—How beautiful, how welcome, how wonderful the evergreen!’” (244). Meanwhile, Mary wonders whether “Mansfield [might] satisfy the habits of a young woman who had been mostly used to London” (47) and how she might “improve” on nature.
In other words, Mansfield Park follows Cowper’s tenets that morals are tender plants requiring sensitive cultivation and that an appreciation for nature nurtures morality. Mansfield’s moral landscape is realized in Fanny’s idealizations, and then reflected in real life. It is in the Park’s landscape that Fanny finally comes to know herself and find her own center. When Sir Thomas sends Fanny back to Portsmouth in order that “a little abstinence from the elegancies and luxuries of Mansfield Park, would bring her mind into a sober state and incline her to a juster estimate” of Henry’s proposal (425), his experiment is more successful than he could have wished. “‘The confinement of Portsmouth [is] unfavourable’”; Fanny, who reflects on God in nature, “‘ought never to be long banished from the free air, and liberty of the country’” (476). Fanny wilts in Portsmouth while weeds grow rampant at Mansfield. After three months in Portsmouth, Fanny feels that her days have been “passing in a state of penance” (499), and she finally realizes, quoting Cowper, where she truly belongs: “‘with what intense desire she wants her home.’. . . [T]he word had been very dear to her; and so it still was, but it must be applied to Mansfield. That was now the home. Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home” (499). Consequently, when Fanny returns to Mansfield, she experiences it as “the freshest green” (517). With her renewed presence, Mansfield Park is transformed as she takes up her role at its moral center.
Fanny appeals to a moral sense of harmony, order, and purpose developed through her appreciation of divinity in nature:
She had not known before, how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her.—What animation both of body and mind, she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and seeing its increasing beauties, from the earliest flowers, in the warmest divisions of her aunt’s garden, to the opening of leaves of her uncle’s plantations, and the glory of his woods. (500)
Fanny’s intense experience of nature brings about a type of knowledge unconnected to the natural world itself that is tied to her moral role at Mansfield: “could she have been at home, she might have been of service to every creature in the house . . . to make [them] feel the blessing of what was” (500-01, emphasis mine). Like Cowper’s cucumber plant, which bears richer fruits the more it is allowed to stretch its roots (3.535), Fanny’s deeply felt sense of the way things ought to be expands a moral vision comprehensive enough to reorder the domestic world of Mansfield.
Fanny’s most sincere feelings are conflated with Cowper’s ideals. In both The Task and Mansfield Park moral ideals move from sofa-induced indolence to “[f]riendly thought, to virtue, and to peace, / Domestic life in rural leisure pass’d!” (3.291-92). The Task ends with a sense of circular fulfilment, where cucumbers are “Pick’d from the thorns and briars of reproof” in order to spiritually fulfill “palates that can taste immortal truth” (6. 1013, 1015). Likewise Fanny’s suffering allows her to grow and bloom. Like an allegorical cucumber she takes her moral strength from threatening weeds, and her virtue is all the more prized for its rarity.10 She and Edmund, “[e]qually formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures,” create a “home of affection and comfort” (547), and, although Austen does not mention it, I am sure, upon their return to the living at Mansfield Park, Fanny and Edmund conscientiously cultivate a garden full of cucumbers.
1. The morality Austen endorses in Mansfield Park is a topic of many critical studies of the novel. Two of the best and more extended discussions can be found in Peter Knox-Shaw’s Jane Austen and the Enlightenment, particularly chapter 6, and Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism.
2. Katie Halsey uses this term. She defines these texts as “literary works that hover in the margins of the novel, not always directly acknowledged, but always reflecting or refracting some of Mansfield Park’s central concerns about ethics and morality” (48).
3. Fanny quotes from The Task “Ye Fallen Avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited” (1.338-39) in response to Mr. Rushworth’s proposed improvements at Sotherton. Her second direct quotation comes from Cowper’s “Tirocinium,” a poem which addresses education in terms of the conditioning of the “receptive spirit,” mostly through the cultivation of retirement and spiritual repose. Fanny’s adaptation—“with what intense desire she wants her home”—comes during her stay at Portsmouth.
4. The idea that the home shapes the self is a major part of late-eighteenth-century discourse that continues in the nineteenth-century’s ethos, including in the works of Jane Austen. An example is Elizabeth’s famous reaction to Pemberley, where Darcy’s character is inscribed on the landscape: Elizabeth “had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by awkward taste” (PP 271). Mansfield Park also reflects this episteme, which I discuss later in the paper.
5. Critics like Kerrie Savage note that Austen is very aware of the relationship between gardeners and their gardens. For example, Savage discusses the apricot tree planted by Mrs. Norris, which produces beautiful apricots that are inedible. Mrs. Norris is all superficiality and no substance.
6. For example, Peter W. Graham notes the importance of Fanny’s jewelry choices when Henry Crawford provides a necklace in order that she might wear the treasured cross her brother William has given to her. Luckily the cross will not fit Henry’s chain since, like his taste in landscape, the chain is ostentatious and too large for Fanny’s cross, again demonstrating the Crawfords’s lack of propriety. Fanny is able to wear her cross on a chain Edmund gives her for the purpose. Similarly, Mona Scheuermann in Reading Jane Austen gives a thorough account of the moral implications the choice of Lovers’ Vows reveals about the Bertrams and the Crawfords.
7. White states in her discussion of Austen’s religious morality, “For the eighteenth-century believer, the varieties of landscape gave unambiguous evidence of God’s creative power and his merciful hand” (34).
8. White and Halsey both point out Mary’s response to Fanny’s raptures on evergreens, “‘I see no wonder in this shrubbery equal to seeing myself in it’” (244).
9. This is of course the second time Mary has commandeered horses. The first is when she knowingly appropriates Fanny’s horse, thereby depriving Fanny of her much needed exercise.
10. According to Thomas Hill’s gardening book, “the [cucumber] plants after the coming up, need not be weeded in any manner, for as much as the plants better prosper and grow the fairer, by coming up among other hearbs [sic], of which these take a nourishment” (179). Hill’s tenets on growing cucumbers amongst the weeds fit well the connection between Cowper’s cucumbers and Austen’s morality. Cowper’s cucumbers must initially struggle to produce the “golden flowers” (3.535) of their fruits, and, as Knox-Shaw notes, “Born to struggle and endure Fanny undoubtedly is. . . . [Her] suffering [is] an instrument of redemption, . . . [and her] anxieties and perturbations are the medium of her growth” (176-77).
Austen, Henry. “Biographical Notice of the Author.” Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1986. 3-9.
Austen Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Gen ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: CUP, 2005-08.
_____. Jane Austen’s Letters. 3rd ed. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: OUP, 1995.
Brunstrom, Conrad. William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2004.
Cowper, William. The Poems of William Cowper. Vol. 2, 1782-1785. Ed. John D. Baird and Charles Ryscamp. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.
Halsey, Katie. “Spectral Texts in Mansfield Park.” British Women’s Writing in the Long Eighteenth Century: Authorship, Politics and History. Ed. Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005. 48-61.
Hill, Thomas. The Gardener’s Labyrinth. 1528. Ed. Richard Maybe. Oxford: OUP, 1987.
Graham, Peter W. “Jane Austen and the Labor of Leisure.” Persuasions 32 (2010): 173-83.
Knox-Shaw, Peter. Jane Austen and the Enlightenment. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
Mansfield Park. Dir. Patricia Rozema. Perf. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller. Miramax Films, 1999.
More. Hannah. Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education. 1799. Cambridge: CUP, 2010.
Priestman, Martin. The Structure of the Task. Cambridge: CUP, 1983.
Savage, Kerrie. “Attending the Interior Self: Fanny’s “Task” in Mansfield Park.” Persuasions-On-Line 27.1 (Win. 2006).
Scheuermann, Mona. Reading Jane Austen. New York: Palgrave, 2009.
White, Laura Mooneyham. Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. Burlington: Ashgate, 2011.