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UBC Theses and Dissertations

“No reading, no China, no composure” : rhetorics of empire in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814) Sy de Jesus, Alyssa


British empire is often read as purely circumstantial to Jane Austen’s novels, lacking any active politicized engagements from the author. Influential work from scholars like Edward Said task contemporary readers with uncovering the nuances of how empire underscores her marriage plots. The novel for Said that warrants this sort of literary and historical excavation of Austen is Mansfield Park (1814). My project joins a discourse of feminist responses to this reading from Laura Brown, Miranda Burgess, Susan Fraiman, Yoon Sun Lee, Emily Rohrbach, Chi-ming Yang, and Eugenia Zuroski. I argue that Austen requires no excavation for something that was never buried but instead, actively interwoven and illuminating through the many threads of Mansfield Park. The novel to me features a rich and reflexive registration of gendered empire found in its rhetorical provocations in Johnsonian tripartites like: “no reading, no China, no composure for Fanny” (Austen 185). Specifically, my thesis identifies metonymy as a colonial literary device of the text that metaphorically displaces and then aims to connect what begins as disparate into referents towards a patriarchal whole. In the case of this tripartite, “China” refers to heroine Fanny Price’s possession of journals from the failed Macartney Embassy to China. “China” becomes a metonymy for Britain’s colonial pursuits assembled with a woman’s “reading” or education and self-composure. The preceding “no’s” before each word of the tripartite also disassembles what is meant to be convened and conflated into a single reference for empire. I use metonymy therefore to identify this motion and attempt to suspend colonial and patriarchal appropriations of foreignness. It is in these suspensions of empire that I find Austen most strategically and productively inconclusive as opposed to passive. The irresolution of metonymies of words and worded objects in Mansfield Park interrupts the efficacies of empire towards an ongoing reading of how its gendered legacies are constantly in composition and somehow oriented in how English women are to “read China”.

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