Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, 1814
Mansfield Park follows the early life of Fanny Price, a young girl whose mother has made an imprudent marriage and consequently ended up with too many children and not enough money. Fanny’s rich aunt and uncle decide to help her mother by bringing Fanny to live with them. They instantly begin a campaign to prevent Fanny from thinking of herself as the social equal of their own daughters. Hence, she grows into an unassuming young lady with a distinct lack of self-confidence. Then, you know, all the young ladies and gentlemen must figure out whom to marry.
I have said it before, but it bears repeating, I have a hard time relating to the circumstances that Austen’s characters inhabit. “First World Problems” doesn’t begin to cover how trivial their problems are. The most dramatic moment of the first half of Mansfield Park occurs when Fanny gets a headache. Really. In complete disregard of her congenitally weak constitution, Fanny’s aunt sends her out to cut roses in the midday sun. Consequently, Fanny feels a somewhat unpleasant sensation in her head. Her cousin Edward gets enraged at the aunt’s lack of consideration. Words are exchanged. Not so much sharp words as slightly pointed words. That’s it. That’s pretty much the most heated exchange in the whole novel. I’m sorry, but a problem that can be solved by taking a quick nap doesn’t register as a problem to me.
Throughout her novels Austen often takes care to establish that her characters’ behavior is a product of their environment and the way they are treated by those around them. Fanny is an unassuming wallflower, because she was brought up by an aunt and uncle determined to keep her in her place by constantly reminding her of her inferior station relative to their own daughters. Her aunt, Mrs. Bertram is indolent, because as a wealthy aristocrat very little is required of her. Fanny’s rival, Miss Crawford, has a disdain for the clergy and a lack of respect for certain family members that are attributed to her upbringing by a crude uncle and bitter aunt. To give credit where credit is due, Jane Austen does a fantastic job of establishing the social factors that influence the development of human understanding. (By the way, “understanding” was used in this time to mean intelligence and method of relating to the world.) In itself that is a terrific accomplishment. However, I would love to see a character transcend those influences. Yes, it is somewhat rare for an individual to reach beyond the limitations of their upbringing, but it does happen and I would love to see more of that grit and defiance in Austen. Imagine that IN SPITE of her family’s constant reminders of her inferiority, Fanny developed a sense of self-worth independent of the opinions of others. IN SPITE of their continual derision, she becomes an assertive, young woman with a vibrant personality. Imagine that IN SPITE of the judgmental attitudes of her aunt and uncle Miss Crawford becomes a compassionate woman who judges others by their actions and not their membership in a given group. For me to love a Jane Austen novel or character I need to see a little more IN SPITE. That’s why Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is the best of Austen’s heroines. There’s a lot of in spite in Lizzy.
Mansfield Park is my least favorite of Austen’s oeuvre. It’s too long. Fanny is too dull. Too many boring conversations are included. Weirdly, the romance that is ostensibly the driving concern of the novel is confined to a few brief paragraphs at the end of the book. Why tell us so much about shrubbery and not give the lovers any dialogue, Austen? Why?
Here’s a creepy quote:
“Loving, guiding, protecting her, as he had been doing ever since her being ten years old,her mind in so great a degree formed by his care, and her comfort depending on his kindness, an object to him of such close and peculiar interest, dearer by all his importance to her than any one else at Mansfield, what was there now to add, but that he should learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones.”
There’s an element of “he loves her because he raised her himself and made her in his image” in this quote that I’ll discuss further in my review of Emma.
You might like Mansfield Park if:
- you are an Austen enthusiast.
- you like awkward, unlovable main characters.
You might not like Mansfield Park if:
- you like action, plot and intrigue.
Final Thoughts: Mansfield Park is the most skipable of Austen’s novels.