On the inside of my aged copy of Mansfield Park is an inscription. It reads, “To Sara: I hope you enjoy this as much as you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice. From Your Sister.”
For many Austen readers, this sentiment would be met with a quiet chuckle. My poor eleven-year-old sister could have had no way of knowing that what she was giving me (paid for by several weeks’ laborious saving of her pocket-money) was not so much a wonderful gift as an obligation to read. To please her, I ploughed through the thick tome, and then put it down, resolving never to read it again.
I’m sure that this pattern of events is not unusual for Jane Austen’s troublesome third novel. ‘Hardcore’ Austen fans finish the book with a quiet and shameful sense of relief that it is over. Even critics sometimes have a hard time finding much to like in Mansfield Park, particularly in comparison to Austen’s other novels. Reasons vary, but may have something to do with:
- The heroine, whom many believe to be wetter than a dishcloth in an underwater restaurant.
- The hero, who is so boring that he immediately puts readers to sleep even though he does actually have many redeeming zzzz….
- The unsympathetic description of the lower classes (Fanny’s family and why she hates them).
- Sir Thomas’ involvement in the slave trade (or not, depending on which critic you believe).
But since this year marks two hundred years since the novel was published, I resolved to give Mansfield Park another chance. In fact, if anything I felt a little sorry for the poor book; last year celebrations erupted worldwide over the anniversary of Pride and Prejudice. There were balls, readalongs, re-enactments, musicals, and stage plays. Mansfield Park didn’t even get a cake. And since I’ve always had a fondness for the underdogs, I decided to return to the only Austen novel I had never re-read. What follows is my attempt to explain exactly why readers don’t feel the same level of adoration for Mansfield Park and Fanny Price as they do for the rest of Austen’s oeuvre, and to perhaps offer some reasons why they should.
I. Writing Mansfield
The first time I read Mansfield Park I was a teenager who had just discovered Jane Austen. I was ploughing through her novels at the speed of a galloping horse, and I had yet to really develop a curiosity about the author herself. Austen’s life, at that time, was less interesting to me than the lives of her characters.
But it’s worth noting the context in which Mansfield Park was written. Though it was published only a year after Pride and Prejudice, the story itself was composed at a much later period in Austen’s life. Her first two novels had been written in Hampshire, while she was still quite a young woman, and edited sporadically over the following years. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, was written after Austen’s stay in Bath and her move to Chawton Cottage, where she was to spend the rest of her life. These were not the happiest of years; the large, thriving family circle Austen remembered from her childhood had dissipated. Her father had died in Bath, and her brothers had all left home for various occupations. She was left with her mother and her sister, with a small income, and moved around Bath and then Southampton several times in order to meet the demands of their depleted income.
Eventually, one of her brothers offered the family a place on his own estate; thanks to him the Austen women were once more able to live in the country. Austen was now reliant, in part, on the goodwill of her brother for her home and personal comfort. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the main character of Mansfield Park likewise relies on her family in providing her with a more comfortable home than her meagre income would have otherwise allowed. Though this is by no means a complete explanation for the difference between Mansfield Park and Austen’s earlier novels, it is clear that life events must have coloured the tone of this later novel to some extent. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there is no trace of the irony and humour of the earlier books; just read the first chapter of Mansfield Park and you will feel it there, perhaps a little more subtle, but no less humorous.
II. The Heroine – Or, Why Everyone Likes Miss Crawford Better
Of all the ‘problems’ that Mansfield Park presents readers with, the heroine is perhaps the most frustrating. While many of Austen’s contemporary reviewers praised Fanny’s gentleness, kindness, and uncomplaining endurance, even in Austen’s day some readers were particularly vocal about their dislike. Austen’s own mother called Fanny “insipid”, and it’s a sentiment that has echoed through the ages. So just why do readers dislike Fanny so much?
Fanny is randomly selected as the recipient of her wealthy relations’ kindness. She is introduced to readers through the thoughts and words of others (a pattern which frequently repeats in the first half of the novel; Fanny is spoken about much more than she speaks at this point), and begins her spell as heroine by crying and feeling pretty sorry for herself.
Of course, given that Fanny is introduced to us as a child, this might be forgiven, but for the fact that grown-up Fanny is scarcely less irritating. She is prim, exceedingly judgemental (though by contemporary standards this would have been called ‘virtuous’), and completely unable to stand up for herself. Of course, Austen’s novel could well be pointing out that these characteristics are the natural result of the Bertram family’s attempts to ensure Fanny remains aware of her inferiority of station; although she is brought up with her young cousins, Mrs Norris tells the young Miss Bertrams that “it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are; – on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference” (Chapter II). Education is a key theme in the book, and Austen voices concerns about the way that ‘kindness’ can be used to manipulate and mistreat. Fanny must never be allowed to forget her place, and submissiveness could be seen as having been bred into her.
And while her upbringing may explain why Fanny behaves the way she does, Austen doesn’t see it as a particular problem. In fact, Fanny’s shyness and seriousness affords her a great deal more clarity than Austen’s other heroines. C.S. Lewis labelled Mansfield Park and Persuasion “the novels of the solitary heroines” (‘A Note on Jane Austen’). Indeed, Fanny is often alone in her mistrust of people like the Crawfords, who are witty, clever, and very fashionable; much more endearing than the dull and unremarkable Fanny. Yet unlike some of Austen’s other heroines (I’m looking at you, Lizzie Bennet), Fanny is an excellent judge of character; her quiet nature allows her ample time to observe the people who surround her, and she thus shows a great deal of insight when it comes to character. She alone mistrusts Henry and Mary Crawford, seeing them for what they really are long before the rest of the Bertram family catch on.
III. Fanny vs. Elizabeth and Emma (Round 1)
In Austen’s other novels, the story is concerned with the heroine’s growing self-awareness; in Pride and Prejudice, this is the “Till this moment, I never knew myself” (P&P, Chapter XXXVI) realisation upon which the plot pivots. Perhaps the reason why books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma appeal so much is because they are relatable; the heroines are flawed, and our appreciation of the storyline is in part a result of the heroine’s ability to gradually recognise and accept her own shortcomings.
Hardly surprising, then, that we dislike Fanny; not only is she seemingly faultless, she is unchanging. In fact, she is the only Austen heroine to remain more or less the same throughout the story.
It’s undeniable that Fanny has her frustrating moments. But she is by no means some patriarchal ideal of femininity, no matter what contemporary reviewers thought at the time. In fact, Fanny is characterised throughout the novel by her stubbornness. She has a remarkable ability to see the truth of others’ characters, and judges them accordingly. Most importantly, unlike the other characters in the novels, Fanny knows her own mind. The majority of the characters in Mansfield Park engage in self-deception on some level. Mrs Norris believes herself to be indispensable to the running of Mansfield Park; Henry Crawford thinks he is irresistible; his sister refuses to consider the possibility that she could be happy as the wife of a lowly, by loving, clergyman; Edmund believes he can change Miss Crawford; Mr Rushworth believes Maria Bertram is in love with him; Maria Bertram believes she is in love with Henry Crawford.
In the midst of all this confusion, only Fanny seems to be able to recognise peoples’ true characters, and to know her own feelings. She refuses to be blinded by beauty, wealth, or charm. Edmund is perhaps among the worst of these self-deceivers, because he, like Fanny, reads the Crawfords like a book; yet despite his better judgement, he continues to believe that he can ‘change’ Miss Crawford, and turn her into an acceptable clergyman’s wife. This is a gross miscalculation on his part, and it is all the more reprehensible because he is intelligent enough to know better. Fanny may not show much in the way of emotional growth throughout the novel, but she has qualities which make her relatable to a modern audience. She is stubborn, and trusts her own judgement no matter what. And a decisive heroine is, after all, better than a spineless one.
IV. Fanny vs. Elizabeth and Emma (Round 2)
So what, then, does Fanny share with Austen’s other heroines? The fact that Fanny knows her own mind leads her to act in a spirit of independence. Comparing her character with that of Lady Bertram is particularly pertinent here. Austen creates, in the character of Lady Bertram, a weak, indecisive character who contrasts strongly with the more assertive Fanny. Lady Bertram is so weak-willed that she requires people to tell her what to do at any given moment of the day. Take this scene, for instance, where Lady Bertram is called upon to choose a card game for the company to play:
“What shall I do, Sir Thomas? – Whist and Speculation, which will amuse me most?”
Sir Thomas, after a moment’s thought, recommended Speculation […].
“Very well,” was her ladyship’s contented answer – “then Speculation if you please, Mrs Grant. I know nothing about it, but Fanny must teach me.”
Lady Bertram is so reliant on other people’s opinions that she does not even know which card game will ‘amuse her most’. When her husband recommends Speculation, she agrees, even though she does not even know how to play it; she is so dependant on his opinion that she will choose a game she does not even understand, as long as it has been recommended by somebody else.
Compare this reliance to Fanny’s behaviour, particularly her refusal to marry Henry Crawford. No matter what her wealthy relations try to do to her, Fanny refuses to back down. In a moment of supreme irony, Sir Bertram tells her, “I am half inclined to think, Fanny, that you do not quite know your own feelings” (Chapter XXXII). By the end of the novel, of course, it is Sir Bertram who is forced to conclude that he has been deceiving himself, and that Fanny has in fact been the only person at Mansfield who sees others, and most importantly herself, clearly. Fanny is by no means as engaging and amusing as Austen’s other heroines; but she has traits which modern readers can relate to and even admire.
V. Mansfield at Last
Having finished the novel, I think I’ve developed a much better understanding and appreciation of Austen’s achievement in Mansfield Park. I’ve just looked at the heroine herself in this review, but the novel also offers readers plenty of material to consider questions of slavery, education, class, and gender. Though originally written as a novel about the clergy, it is clear that the story contains much more than just an examination of the life of a clergyman (and, indeed, few people are as interested in this issue nowadays as in some of the other juicy questions in the novel). It may not be as easy to get into, but Mansfield Park can be just as rewarding as the rest of Austen’s novels. I don’t think I would claim it as my favourite Austen novel, but I think it is one to which readers can return to over and over again, with a wide array of new questions, contentions, and understandings.
As it turns out, what my sister gave me all those years ago was not so much an obligation as an opportunity.
Rating: 4.5 Stars