Mansfield Park is the story of one Fanny Price, removed from the unfortunate circumstances of her birth home to be raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle (the Lady and Sir Thomas Bertram) at their country estate, for which the novel is named. Constantly reminded of her humble origins by the villainous Mrs. Norris and outshone by her cousins, Maria and Julia, Fanny keeps her head down and does as she’s told, taking pleasure in the company of her only true friend and ally, her cousin, Edmund, who she also happens to be in love with. When Sir Thomas is away on business the dazzling Mary Crawford and her charismatic brother, Henry, arrive at Mansfield and stir up a pot of trouble. Edmund falls for Mary, Henry flirts relentlessly with both the Bertram sisters, and a very engaged Maria becomes besotted with him in return.
Fanny Price is perhaps best described as a shrinking violet. Other none-to-flattering terms that can be applied are moral elitist, sickly charity child, and doormat. In short, she is the opposite of what modern readers would consider a strong female heroine and it is probably for this reason that Mansfield Park is the least popular of Jane Austen’s novels.
I’m not going to lie; this was a difficult book for me to get through. I started reading it in the middle of 2013, set it down about halfway through, and didn’t pick it up again until early 2014. Usually Austen’s precise and antiquated language seems charming and a little subversive coming from the mouths of her plucky heroines, like an inner smile that lights up the eyes without crossing the mouth. Not so with Fanny. Reading a story from her perspective is, well, a bit dull really.
Nevertheless, there is a reason besides its attachment to Austen’s name that Mansfield Park is considered a classic. It’s not just a book about a girl who falls in love with her cousin (weird, I know). It’s also an examination of class structure and the dramatic cultural changes that swept through England as the Regency period drew to an end.
One of these changes was the population shift from rural areas to the city as a result of the Industrial Revolution. This kind of massive influx of people into urban areas has historically resulted in greater tension between city and country culture–the former representing efficiency and progress and the latter preserving the traditions and morals of the past.
In the book, Mary and Henry Crawford enter the quiet world of Mansfield like a whirlwind, polluting the Bertram’s traditional morality with fanciful notions of fast living. While Fanny remains the moral nucleus of the group, the rest of Mansfield’s inhabitants are all swept up in the excitement and corrupted to some extent–even the pious Edmund.
Aware that the trend was for more and more people to explore the excitements of personality, she [Austen] wanted to show how much there was to be said for the ‘heroism of principle’. It is a stoic book that speaks for stillness rather than movement, firmness rather than fluidity, arrest rather than change, endurance rather than adventure.
-From Tony Tanner’s introduction to the text
Yes, Fanny is boring to our modern sensibilities, which value beauty, wit, and social grace over moral responsibility, but she does grow throughout the story. By the end of the novel, one has to admire her steadfast refusal to settle for marriage to a man she does not fully respect. In short, Mansfield Park is a serious novel and not for the faint of heart, but it is worth it.
There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient–at others, so bewildered and so weak–and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control!–We are to be sure a miracle every way–but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.
-Volume II, Chapter IV
Have you read Mansfield Park? What did you think?