Bantam Classic edition
Hardback Edition (1983)
ISBN 0 553 21121 8
“Where an opinion is general, it is usually correct,” avows the indelible Mary Crawford towards the beginning of Mansfield Park. In this case, my dear Miss Crawford, I must disagree with you, for it is the general opinion that Mansfield is dull and disappointing and that Fanny Price (the novel’s heroine) is insipid and uncompelling. Well, MP is not a thriller, but Austen would not be Austen as we know her if it was. And perhaps Fanny is not a courageous Becky Sharp or even a steadfast Elinor Dashwood, but considering her upbringing and what I believe Austen was trying to do with her, this makes sense. Mansfield Park has its moments, between its irony and its dynamic characters, its plot twists and its Regency-style charm. And I, for one, like Fanny’s quiet, timid nature, especially since it complements her intelligence and constancy. She is neither boring nor a pushover.
This novel opens when Fanny is ten. She is the daughter of a poor lieutenant and an overwhelmed mother, who have eight other children to care for. More important by far in the story are her wealthy aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, who agree to adopt and care for Fanny to lessen the burden on the Price clan. Her other aunt, Mrs. Norris, concocted this plan without actually paying for anything, and proceeds to belittle Fanny as soon as she arrives while congratulating herself on her benevolence. The Bertram’s offspring are little better: the eldest, Tom, ignores her, while the daughters, Maria and Julia, take her for granted or make fun of her ignorance. Only sixteen-year-old Edmund befriends her, and they become fast friends. Seven years later, Fanny is a genteel young lady, but she is still the gawky girl and dependent cousin to the Bertram family.
All of this changes when Henry and Mary Crawford move to Northampton to stay with their half-sister Mrs. Grant, and her husband the village parson. The Bertrams and the Crawfords become intimate friends, and love affairs spring up like daisies between Maria and Henry, Julia and Henry, and eventually Fanny and Henry (the cad). Inevitably, Mary Crawford and Edmund also grow closer, to Fanny’s deep dismay. This is all aided by the fact that Sir Thomas is away on business, and cannot keep his children under his strict scrutiny. Relating anymore would spoil the plot, but believe me when I say that flirtations and seductions and marriages and elopements and indiscretions and plot twists abound. Fun, fun, fun ‘til Sir Thomas takes their freedom away.
Having said that, MP has its faults. Being a Fanny-fan (ha), I really dislike that Edmund is attracted to Mary Crawford for a large portion of the novel, especially since Mary has the exasperating habit of saying imprudent or downright cruel things (she disparages Edmund’s chosen profession even after she knows what it is, she hints that it would be advantageous for Edmund if his older brother dies, and she tends to support Henry at all costs, even in the face of reason). Of course, this is not a fault, just something that I find annoying. Otherwise, the characters can be somewhat one-sided, or have a trait take over their part (Mrs. Norris’s absurdity, Fanny’s constancy, Maria’s lack thereof, Edmund’s sobriety, Henry’s frivolity, Lady Bertram’s blandness, and so on). Or, if a character does display some variance, it does not make much sense, such as Henry’s sudden and genuine caring for Fanny, or Sir Thomas’ capricious fondness of his niece (he ignores her before his trip, makes a pet out of her after it, and then is gruff with her when they have a difference of opinion. Which, by the way, shows that Fanny does have something akin to a backbone).
Nevertheless, MP’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. As I said before, a common criticism of Fanny is that she is dull and a softy. I admit that, even more so than Anne Eliot in Persuasion, Fanny is at best a pawn and at worst an irritation to her relatives; and their perpetual mistreatment of Fanny, and her patiently taking it, can get frustrating. However, considering her position in the household, as a lowly dependent cousin who is treated accordingly, it is little wonder that Fanny grows up the way that she does. What Austen was trying to show was, firstly, how people bestow questionable favors, and them congratulate themselves on their kindness while treating the recipient of the favor as beneath them. Secondly, how much lack of wealth can affect an individual – after all, it places the Price family in a completely different circle from that of the Bertram’s and the Norris’s, even though Mrs. Price, Lady Bertram, and Mrs. Norris are sisters; and even as a long-term member of the Mansfield household, Fanny is passed over in favor of her cousins. In delineating all of this, Austen criticizes society both for its false benevolence and its placing such importance on rank and riches. While conveying all of this, Fanny’s timidity also inspires sympathy and liking for her as a character, and provides insight that remains relevant today.
Furthermore, the very fact that Edmund is not attracted to Fanny, and that Fanny is pursued by someone infinitely inferior to him, only makes the reader more frantic to find out if she ends up married to him. As always, Austen lays on the irony thick, so that some scenes come out as poignant as well as ironical: Henry’s addressing the bewildered Fanny after toying with her cousins; or the heroine being so happy to visit her parents only to realize that she no longer has a home there; or when Mary enthusiastically talks to Fanny about her liking for Edmund, unintentionally shoving her success into the face of another who admires Edmund. Oh, angst, angst.
This review/essay has dragged on long enough, and I’m sleepy, so I will just sum it up by recommending this book as one of Jane Austen’s more serious, but highly worthwhile, novels, whatever you may have heard.
Post Script - Is it just me, or is this passage from Mansfield subtly suggestive?
"The trees, though not fully clothed, were in that delightful state, when further beauty is known to be at hand, and when, while much is actually given to the sight, more yet remains for the imagination."