Mansfield Park is reckoned to be Jane Austen’s most boring novel. Revisionists have tried to liven it up by looking at undercurrents regarding the slave trade, but overall it has continued in its reputation has being quite dull, and its heroine Fanny Price unable to hold a candle to Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and the rest—not to mention Edmund Bertram being really quite pitiful compared to Darcy—both of their problems being in their goodness. I think critics made a good case when they link Blake’s appraisal of Paradise Lost to the way Austen comes out looking—“of the Devil’s party”—in making the “villains” of the piece, Henry and Mary Crawford, so much more fun than Fanny and Edmund.
Still, I have to confess with some surprise I really enjoyed the book, though it pained me emotionally from beginning to end. Quite frankly, I found Fanny’s position and demeanour very easy to empathize with. Without even wading into the subtext, Mansfield Park is one of the novels most concerned, in a roundabout way, with poverty. Perhaps one reason the book is thought to be so boring is that much of the, arguably, most interesting action takes place in the background. Fanny’s mother’s story must have been quite romantic at the time even if has rather tragic results (which the narrator never tires of illustrating for us)—marrying so far below the social and economic class to which she is accustomed, apparently without any lasting love, she alienates herself from her two sisters , rewards herself with a life of hardship, and gets nine children in the bargain! However, it is not her we are principally concerned with, it’s her eldest daughter Fanny, who is taken to live with her aunt and uncle, Lady and Sir Thomas Bertram, and their children, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia, at the grand Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire, from a fairly young age.
Put yourself in Fanny’s shoes—which I immediately did. She’s scared, she’s leaving home for the unknown. She desperately wants to make a good impression. When you’re a shy person and you don’t know how to avoid stepping on people’s toes, in some ways you become your own worst enemy. Do you speak? How much do you say? Do you leave the room? Stay in the room? Fanny’s distress becomes even worse when mixed with her homesickness, and her relatives, while not wishing to actively be unkind, misinterpret her shyness for rudeness. Her elder cousins are a bit spoilt and think the less of her lack of accomplishments, not realizing that she hasn’t grown up in their circumstances. Overall, everyone indulges in passive, ignorant cruelty toward her, and she isn’t able to change their minds because she doesn’t want to seem ungrateful or rude. It’s an emotional tightrope I know myself.
There was no positive ill-nature in Maria or Julia; and though Fanny was often mortified by their treatment of her, she thought too lowly of her own claims to feel injured by it.
Worst of all is her aunt Norris, an embittered, selfish, skinflinted woman whose psychological background would beg for analysis —if she wasn’t just so darned nasty. She is as funny as Miss Bates in Emma, but with much more malice. Sir Thomas and his harmless but indolent wife share some of the blame, too, for their simple lack of empathy. Fanny’s only friend is Edmund, her most introspective cousin, and it’s only natural that she will grow up with feelings for him, as he has been the only one to stick up for her in the nine years that pass.
‘I can never be important to anyone.’
‘What is to prevent you?’
‘Everything—my situation—my foolishness and awkwardness.”
The Crawfords, who come into the neighborhood at this time, are a different kettle of fish entirely. I find both of their characters extremely elusive, and could easily imagine them to be played either as less manipulative and selfish than they seem, or as truly cold players—Henry’s determined flirtatiousness borders on the ruinous, even reading it today. Mary’s sarcasm is quite amusing, especially to a modern reader bored of Fanny and Edmund’s pious speeches. However, Mary proves to be such a fair-weather friend, it seems we really are to take with us a sense of her flakiness by the end of the novel. One of the interesting features of the novel is our occasional ability to follow the narrator to scenes with only the Crawfords in them, so we learn before Fanny does of Henry’s designs on both Maria and Julia, Mary’s on Edmund, and later Henry’s cruel attempt to win and break Fanny’s heart. With these four as the key young characters, it’s often hard to make up any identity at all for Maria and Julia.
Other concerns that Mansfield Park picks up on is the value and beauty of nature (expressed in various ways but primarily in the debate about improving one’s estate), and family theatricals. This is one place where my attitude differs from Fanny’s, for I would have been with the Crawfords and Maria and Julia in advocating a family theatrical—I think Fanny’s attitude here is too harsh and the narrator’s by extension. Nevertheless, we are given to believe much of the indiscreet behavior between Maria and Crawford occurs because of the impetus of the play. Sir Thomas’ disapproval is clear, and it makes a compelling story gap, to wonder what went on in Antigua that changed him from a rather severe tyrant to a fairer patriarch who, despite Mrs Norris’ declarations to the contrary, starts to see Fanny’s true worth.
Here the book picks up some steam. Maria marries Mr Rushworth for his estate and to revenge herself on Henry’s inconstancy; Julia, also rebuffed by Henry, goes with them to Bath. Fanny gets to see her beloved sailor brother William for the first time in years, and Sir Thomas throws a winter ball in their honor. It’s at this point that Henry’s attentions to Fanny change from being a tease to real affection, possibly even love. He persuades his uncle the Admiral to make William a midshipman, among other things. Everyone expects Fanny to accept his offer of marriage, but Fanny refuses, not once but repeatedly, partially because she doesn’t love him, but partially because she knows of his conduct with Maria and Julia, which no one else seems to be aware of.
In drama the most satisfactory conflicts happen when the protagonist acts—Fanny spends the book reacting. By her blunt refusal for many pages of the book, despite all advice to the contrary, she eventually causes Crawford to act—in a way that’s ruinous to everyone else but vindicates Fanny. It’s an interesting chain of logic and an interesting way for the narrator to illustrate her belief that feelings of personal justice should outweigh anything and everything else—monetary gain, parental advice, perseverance and even gratitude. Of course a cynic would say the narrator can hardly believe otherwise—Jane Austen accepted a marriage proposal and then retracted it the morning after, apparently convicted against it despite general approbation of its appropriateness.
As a way of clearing her head, Sir Thomas sends Fanny to her parents’ home in Portsmouth, and Fanny learns that despite her best intentions of gratitude and filial love, her real home has become Mansfield Park. I think this section is artfully done, even if it does take Fanny away from all the “real” action that a different novelist would have brought to the foreground. Shock and horror, Henry forgets his pursuit of her and runs off with the married Maria, while Julia elopes with Mr Yates and Tom gets dangerously ill after debauched behavior. It would be fascinating to have seen the novel from Henry’s perspective, or Maria’s, or Mary’s, as she tries to shrug it all off and disgusts Edmund forever. In her absence in Portsmouth, Fanny’s influence is never more keenly felt—she’s too virtuous to say “I told you so,” but the upswing is that her family realizes her true worth.
Critics have had much to say on the rather abrupt ending. Edmund’s infatuation with Mary doesn’t reflect very well on him in light of the ending, that’s for sure. While the narrator archly declares he didn’t mind taking advantage of what he knew was too good for him, I can’t help but thinking Fanny at this stage could have held out for better—Edmund’s heart-rending conduct earlier in the book was difficult enough for the reader to deal with, much less Fanny. But it is in our nature to forgive, so at least this coupling ends as it should. Maria’s fate is, in my opinion, far too cruel and undeserved. She gets a divorce from Mr Rushworth but apparently falls out with Henry and therefore remains unmarried and is packed off with sour-faced Aunt Norris somewhere to spend the rest of her life in bickering solitude. This is a severe judgement indeed. Julia and Mr Yates, however, appear to have a hope of a happy life. And what of Tom Bertram? And William Price? And Susan Price? Fan fics of Pride and Prejudice are all too common, but has anyone tried with Mansfield Park?