Saturday, 18 August 2012

Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny Price is brought up by her wealthy relations, the Bertrams, at Mansfield Park.  She accepts her status as a dependant and becomes an observer of the drama that ensues when the Crawford siblings arrive in the neighbourhood.

Published: 1814
Pages: 372 (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
Times Read: 2
First Read: March 2005
Read This Time: 6/8/12 - 11/8/12
Part of: Austen in August

First line: "About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income."

Review: As I said in my sign up post for Austen in August, I've only read Mansfield Park once and that was a long time ago (seven years, oh dear).  I'd labelled it boring and less fun than Jane Austen's other works, and if I had dipped in it was to reread the last three chapters of the book when everything goes all eighteenth-century melodrama.  This, as I discovered in this reread, was silly of me as Mansfield Park is brilliant.  I don't think it's going to replace Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion in my affections, but I'm definitely going to stop thinking of it as Jane Austen's 'failure' (because, frankly, such a thing doesn't exist).

Not that I didn't find fault with elements of the book - for me, the biggest problem was Fanny as the heroine.  It's not because she's an intensely moral character or a quiet one, because I'd say both Elinor Dashwood and Anne Eliot are these things as well, but because for a large part of the novel she's a passive observer.  I know that this is the point - and that she's been brought up to believe she has less part in family life than her cousins - but it's hard to enjoy that as a reader.  Even though I could understand what Austen was doing, especially with the 'staging' of the play sections and Fanny's role as 'audience' to the romantic drama, I still found myself urging Fanny to do something.  Fortunately, when she does it is awesome and steel-cored.

What struck me most while rereading, though, was how the Crawfords were failed versions of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy*.  Mary Crawford has all of Elizabeth's playfulness, charm and wit, but none of her sense of duty or proprierty.  And Henry Crawford nearly manages a Darcy-style transformation into a proper landowning gentleman, only to fail because he doesn't have the right foundation of character to sustain this.  It's almost as if Austen is playing around with her own work to make her point about the need for "principle, active principle" (364) and an understanding of the correct way to behave.  The world of Mansfield Park is a lot harsher and colder than that of Pride and Prejudice, which may be why I struggled with it first time.  It's certainly Jane Austen at her most disconcerting.

Nothing in Mansfield Park feels safe or secure for very long.  The house may stand as a symbol of home for Fanny, and be the picture of well-bred society in the early nineteenth-century, but everything about it feels off somehow, as the presence of Mrs Norris demonstrates from the start.  The arrival of the Crawfords merely exaggerates everything that was already bad, and when Fanny returns to Portsmouth her recollections of the house are coloured by the poverty in which her parents live.  Everyone's perceptions and ideals are shown to be incorrect in some way throughout the novel, even Edmund's.  Only Fanny has a clear sighted view of people's characters, and the sense to recognise where her own feelings may colour her perception.  This may be yet another of my problems with the novel: Fanny has nothing to learn, there is no major change in her character or views as there is with Elizabeth or Emma - again, this is true of Elinor and Anne, but they're older and more believable as such paragons.

I think it's going to take a while for me to sift through all my thoughts on Mansfield Park.  I certainly enjoyed rereading it, and there were moments when Austen's snark and irony really shone through - especially when dealing with Mrs Norris, particularly in the interaction with the butler - but there's something not quite right about Mansfield Park that throws me off.  It could be that this was Austen's intention, to demonstrate how even the wealthiest and therefore 'ideal' families can fail, but this makes the novel uncomfortable to read.  I'm certainly glad I reread it, and will do so again in the future, but I think it's a jarring shift from Pride and Prejudice and is making me appreciate the relative sunniness of Emma that much more.

* In their characters rather than their relationship to each other, obviously.  Thank you, film adaptation, for throwing that 'surmise' out there at the end.

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