Mansfield Park begins with a question that is still depressingly familiar. What can be done to help a disadvantaged child? Though 22 percent of American children live in poverty, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney has paid sustained attention to them.
For that we must turn to a contemporary journalist and Jane Austen.
In his bestselling book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the stress and trauma of poverty affect a child's brain development. Character traits like grit and resilience offer hope. Children who have them often succeed, and, with the right social support, these traits can be cultivated. Jane Austen knew these things long before researchers started studying them. Mansfield Park is about the stress of a disadvantaged childhood and the hope of recovery through resilience.
It begins when the heroine, Fanny Price, is nine years old. Her father is disabled, unemployed and an alcoholic, her mother is about to have her ninth child, and there is only "a very small income to supply [all] their wants." To prove his own benevolence, the rich Sir Thomas Bertram removes Fanny from her family and brings her to be raised at Mansfield Park.
But socioeconomic inequity runs deep and its damage can be devastating. Annie Murphy Pau; has called Tough's book "a guide to the ironies and perversities of income inequality in America." Mansfield Park is a guide to comparable perversities. Fanny's sufferings are not simply the product of her impoverished birth. They are exacerbated by her society, which, like our own, makes poor children feel inferior.
At its best, Mansfield Park is rather like the elite private schools described in a recent New York Times article. The poor minority students who receive scholarships to attend them get a "life-changing" education. But students feel "estranged ... They describe a racism that materializes ... in polite indifference, silence and segregation." As one student put it: "You can do a lot of psychological damage to people by ignoring them."
Similarly, after her arrival, Fanny's female cousins make her a gift of "some of their least valued toys, and leave her to herself." Years later, they "come out" as young women while Fanny (like a glorified Cinderella) stays home with their mother. Though Edmund is attentive, he too ignores her when Mary Crawford is around.
When not being ignored, Fanny is denigrated. Even before she gets to Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas tells Mrs. Norris that, though he doesn't want his daughters to "think too lowly of their cousin" and doesn't want to depress Fanny's spirits "too far," Fanny must always remember that "she is not a Miss Bertram." Mrs. Norris is happy to comply by publicly accusing Fanny of being a "very obstinate, ungrateful girl ... very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is."
That Sir Thomas owns a slave plantation in Antigua only sharpens the family's insidiousness. Though Fanny is no slave, the cruelty she endures is symptomatic of the Bertrams' greater cruelty abroad. Famously, Fanny is the only character who mentions the slave trade. The response is "dead silence!" from a family that never admits it is abusive.
How Children Succeed describes the "fear, anxiety, sadness, [and] self-doubt" that childhood stress like Fanny's breeds. She suffers from all of them. Fanny is "in constant terror of something or other"; she ends her first days at Mansfield Park "sobbing herself to sleep," and later is depressed by her unrequited love for Edmund; she tells him "I can never be important to any one," and feels "herself becoming too nearly nothing" to him and Mary Crawford. Fanny gets headaches, is easily fatigued, and can barely eat back at Portsmouth.
And yet, hardship has its own rewards. Years of maltreatment teach Fanny to sense danger. Thus when Sir Thomas tries to force her to marry Henry Crawford, she knows Henry is duplicitous and refuses. Similarly, the constancy of unrequited love has made her respect her own desire. When Fanny tells Edmund, "I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself," she makes the most proto-feminist statement in the novel. Sir Thomas evicts Fanny for refusing Henry, but she stands by her rights.
In Paul Tough's lexicon, this kind of strength comes from grit and resilience. Significantly, Tough argues, privileged kids tend to lack these traits. Deprived of deprivation, rich kids often have fewer opportunities for character development. If Maria and Tom Bertram are any indication, Tough is on to something. Maria cannot tolerate losing Henry and ends up a ruined woman. Tom's hedonism leads to his near death.
In the end, of course, Fanny gets to marry Edmund. What's more, Sir Thomas comes to respect Fanny and her siblings precisely because of their low birth. The Price children's grit and resilience teach him to "acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure."
If only helping poor children were this simple. Perhaps then Obama and Romney would dare to talk about them.
Susan Celia Greenfield is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.