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Jane Austen versus virtue signalling

What Mansfield Park can tell us about contemporary politics

Artillery Row

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is probably not her most popular work. It is less sparkling and witty than Pride and Prejudice, and less fun than Sense and Sensibility. But here I want to argue in defence of Fanny Price, its famously unsparkling heroine. I think she has an important lesson to teach us, relevant to the fundamental problems of our political culture today; in particular on the eternal difference between superficially charming presentation and real moral depth.

Fanny Price makes a confusing heroine. Austen deliberately paints her as unexciting and uncharismatic, a stark contrast to some of the flamboyant counterparts that also populate the book. In fact, she is downright meek and anxious, yet beneath that exterior lies a character of sincere principles and genuine moral courage. Fanny is from a poor family, dependent, both socially and financially, on her rich relations. But when she receives a proposal of marriage from the rich, charming and widely-loved Henry Crawford, Fanny refuses, knowing from his past behaviour that he is trite and untrustworthy beneath his charming exterior. She comes under huge, unpleasant pressure from her privileged family and few friends, accused of stubborn pride, ingratitude, and everything else, but she stands her ground; no small thing in Jane Austen’s time, for a young unmarried gentlewoman in her fragile position. 

Austen’s careful portrayal of Fanny highlights the consistency and inner strength required to stand firm against a tidal wave of social pressure, and how distinct this is from superficial charm or charisma. Fanny is considerate and dedicated to her family, she is willing to listen to advice and sacrifice for others. She is not stubborn, but having closely considered the issue based on the facts and values she has, she stands by her judgement of what is right, refusing to sacrifice her conscience to gain a temporarily easier life for herself by bowing to uninformed social pressure. Lots of people presume they would stand firm on moral principles when it is seriously unpopular, when it might threaten their comfort or even their livelihood, but when push comes to shove, few actually do. 

The other characters provide a series of contrasts to Fanny’s own. At one extreme you have Mrs Norris, an aunt who always claims to be acting from goodwill, while in practice being as thoroughly obnoxious and mean-spirited as possible. You also have the eldest son of the gentrified Bertram family, Thomas, your standard dissolute rake, incapable of refusing himself any expense in gambling, feasting or idiotic friends, despite the impact on his family or health. These are basically caricatures, albeit ones we probably all come across at some point in our lives, but Jane Austen’s other character studies are more subtle. 

Henry and Mary Crawford, embody the superficial wealth, charisma, and charm against which Fanny Price is contrasted. They are delightful, educated, urbane company and capable of genuine kindness and consideration, but only when it doesn’t cost them. They would never really sacrifice any personal pleasure or success for the benefit of others.  They have enough wisdom to be aware of Fanny’s virtues, but unlike her, their ultimate concerns are, in the end, themselves and their own amusement, which override their better instincts.

Our politics is familiar with charismatic figures who, like the Crawfords, capture attention through surface-level appeal. (To maintain political neutrality, I’ll let you fill in your own preferred example). In a mass-televised democracy, the kind of vibes a politician emanates often form the basis on which people judge them, as people struggle to process the complexities of policy, or to see beyond exchanges of claims and counterclaims. But good vibes don’t prevent the compromise of real principles. Many politicians genuinely think of themselves as good, decent people; but when push comes to shove, those without deeper moral fibre choose the easier life, or the instant benefit for themselves, over the greater public good.

Sir Thomas Bertram, the respected patriarch of Mansfield Park, contributes to the theme of superficiality in another way. He is capable of kindness, and is outwardly serious to the point of dourness, but his teaching has only resulted in his daughters, Julia and Maria, achieving the perfect appearance of proper manners without any genuine virtue beneath. His daughter Maria, marries a dull, rich idiot she cares nothing for, only to ruin herself by being caught committing adultery with the charming Mr Crawford; enough to ruin a lady in the Regency era, though sadly not a politician today. Sir Thomas Bertram’s focus on manners i.e. socially expected behaviour, and outward respectability, creates a veneer masking the lack of any real moral substance within his family, something he painfully realises, to his own great shock, only after his daughter’s disgrace.

Sir Thomas and his daughters serve as cautionary figures, urging us to question what real substance lies behind a facade

In today’s politics, people knowing the right language to use, the right concerns to parrot, without real understanding, is a recurring problem. Leaders shield themselves from criticism by maintaining a polished image conforming to high-status social expectations, even while their actions betray their lack of greater depth. They float on the surface, refusing to seriously tackle the structural problems we face, whether on tax, immigration, housing, public services, the environment, or international affairs; too cowardly to take risks that might mean sacrificing their career for their country. Sir Thomas and his daughters serve as cautionary figures, urging us to question what real substance lies behind a facade of proper manners and presentation.

This is an eternal problem appearing in different forms in every society. As far back as the Old Testament, the prophets are scathing in their criticism of people and societies who follow the form of religious ritual while ignoring the substance of ethical commitment. In the New Testament, Christ intensifies this message:

Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay the tithe of mint and dill and cumin, but you omit the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness: these you should have done, without forsaking the others.

In modern progressive ethics, the type is just as familiar: whether it’s the self-declared male feminist who turns out to be a sex pest; or the celebrities flying private jets around the world in order to preach about cutting carbon emissions; or activist types, who like Mrs Norris, hide their malice behind claims of good intentions, “be kind” slogans and an entire dictionary of spurious “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” terminology.

Whether in politics or culture, the media perpetuates this superficiality. Rapid news cycles prioritise optics over substance: personal squabbles and scandals dominate headlines, eclipsing the structural policy issues affecting millions of lives. (Once again, I will let you fill in what seems the most glaringly obvious examples). In the age of social media, online commentators also shape public discourse and their emphasis on appearance over substance is just as glaring. The 280-character limit on X (previously Twitter), the article thumbnail headline, and the 20-second video on Facebook, YouTube or Tik Tok, have all just accelerated the trend, with the appearance of wisdom taking precedence over its actual presence. Too often, people with endless online followers produce a level of critique that boils down to “phew, not a good look”, or sheer blind assertion.

Through the complexities of modern politics, Mansfield Park remains surprisingly relevant. The Crawfords caution us against the allure of superficial charm, while Sir Thomas Bertram and his daughters serve as a warning against the facade of proper manners without true virtue. Fanny Price, Austen’s unlikely heroine, sharpens the issue. It’s not that you have to be boring to be good. But rather, do we value someone who is both unfailingly kind and courageous enough to stand by moral principles under real pressure from her peers and circumstances, even if she is anxious, meek and unentertaining. Or in the end, do we prefer glib charm, superficial manners, and the swagger and confidence that often comes with a colossal ego.

Whether online, on TV or in newspapers: journalists, commentators, and analysts have a responsibility to elevate the discourse with some detail and nuance; and we, the public, have a duty to demand nothing less, rather than being distracted by baubles. By rejecting the superficial and demanding integrity from our leaders and ourselves, we can encourage a public debate that prioritises the important structural issues that shape millions of lives. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of wit and sparkle, but if we’re stupid enough to prioritise that over honesty and moral courage, we will get the leaders we deserve. We’d be better off with Fanny Price.

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