Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen
First published in 1814
About 500 pages, depending on the edition

Taken from the poverty of her parents' home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle's absence in Antigua, the Crawford's arrive in the neighbourhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation. Mansfield Park is considered Jane Austen's first mature work and, with its quiet heroine and subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, one of her most profound.

My Thoughts: 
I picked this for my book club's classic book for 2024. To say that it was not a hit would be a massive understatement. This is a well-read group of ladies and I have thrown a lot of different things at them over the years, but the lesson here is that 500 pages of early 19th century sensibility, with a lot of dialogue but not a lot of action, doesn't work for these ladies. But this book doesn't work for a lot of people for exactly the same reasons my book club didn't enjoy it. 

Fanny Price is not the same kind of heroine that Austen's readers are more familiar with - she is quiet, physically weak, and lets people run all over her. In her defense, she was thrown into a situation at ten-years-old where it was made clear to her that she was inferior to her cousins, entirely dependent on her uncle's largesse, likely suffered from indoor allergies, and was treated as little more than a servant by so many in her family. Her one and only true ally was cousin Edmund, a young man who grew up knowing that he would become a member of the clergy; the two of them, probably rightly so, tended to the higher ground. We do at least see Edmund nearly fall prey to Mary Crawford and Fanny finally stand up for herself when she refuses Henry Crawford, despite the risk to herself. 

Austen isn't without social commentary in Mansfield Park. Because of the Bertram's holdings in Antigua, Austen does touch on slavery. We look at the huge imbalance of wealth and the cost to all involved. Fanny's family is so poor that they must send Fanny away to live elsewhere and her brother goes into the Navy at a very young age to earn his way while the Bertram girls grow up knowing that they will be required to marry well, regardless of warmth of affection or intelligence. Fanny's aunt Bertram is indolent while her Aunt Norris is forced to prove herself worthy of Sir Bertram's continuing support. 

For me, Mansfield Park was a reread, but I will admit that it's a slow read. The satire is not as striking and there is not as much outright humor as there is in others of Austen's books. And the ending is, in my opinion, not quite up to snuff. We have spent hundreds of pages being shown what was happening in Fanny's world only to be told what happens and how we should feel about it. We are meant to dislike Henry Crawford very much in the end (although his character may have grown the most throughout the book, thanks to Fanny) and meant to believe that Fanny and Edmund were always meant to be together. But Austen could easily have let Henry become the man Fanny seemed to believe her was becoming (a man who sees a better way, much like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice). But Austen, who was writing in the time of broad Gothic romance, seemed to have preferred to steer away from that. It would have made a more interesting ending. Although, let's be honest, we would not have gotten to see Maria Bertram Rushworth get the ending she deserved. 

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