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Chapter 5 engages with a larger transhistorical discourse of female personhood, considering how the challenges that accompanied Austen’s public status are echoed in the reading and reception history of Mansfield Park. I move this discussion back to the 1772 Mansfield Decision, and forward to consider the controversy surrounding the far less momentous twenty-first century decision to place Austen on a British bank note. The open-ended, improvisatory, and uncontrollable nature of feelingly impactful speech links cultural and critical conversations to what J.L. Austin calls the perlocutionary realm of performative language. Perlocution, the dimension of language that most signals organizational breakdown, bogging down the progress of J.L. Austin’s official speech-act theory, is also the dimension or capacity of language through which paratextual literary encounters – allusions, conversations, revisions, and eventful readings – persist. This concern with doing things by our words as well as in them evokes a central feature of the enterprise of literary criticism altogether, I argue. For Cavell, the very mood and project of criticism is praise open to rebuke.
This essay argues that reading works from Jane Austen’s juvenilia alongside Mansfield Park reveals the author’s decades-long engagement in a series of formal experiments traditionally associated with Menippean satire, a strategy she uses to reveal the oppressive nature of British paternalism while still aligning with societal expectations for women authors. “Henry and Eliza” and “Evelyn” lampoon and critique traditional tropes of the popular novel and expose the landed gentry’s and the aristocracy’s proto-capitalist abuses of women, workers, and the poor. Longer (and later) works, “Catharine, or the Bower” and Mansfield Park, expand this emphasis to register anxieties about Britain’s imperial violence at home and abroad. The essay ultimately suggests that Austen’s notoriously tonally opaque novel targets the Evangelical novel as the form most suitable to expose broader British ambivalence toward abolition and emancipation.
Chapter 3 argues that Jane Austen revisited themes from her juvenilia in her published novels, especially Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Mansfield Park (1814), both of which were also lightly revised after initial publication in response to readers and reviewers. They display Austen’s concern with improving her texts and using accurate technical language. Austen’s cautionary stance on “sensibility,” especially female sensibility, within Sense and Sensibility was first developed within her juvenilia and functions as a critique of late eighteenth-century sentimental tropes. Austen’s ambiguous stance regarding the wild women of Mansfield Park, especially when interpreted through the lens of her earlier writings, can be read as an implicit criticism of the systems of female education and marriage that produce their immoral behavior. The chapter’s conclusion shows the culmination of Austen’s masterful revision practices in The Watsons (c.1803) and Persuasion (1817), which are linked to clear stylistic improvements and keen social commentary on the condition of women.
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