Rereading all of Jane Austen’s novels in publication order has helped further my appreciation for each work’s uniqueness. To her harsher critics who argue that all of her novels are the same, I turn to Mansfield Park as evidence to the contrary. Often considered to be Austen’s most overlooked novel, I found it to be one of her most complex and thought-provoking works. The essayist Adolphus Alfred Jack perhaps said it best when he wrote that “Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are the gay offsprings of youth, Mansfield Park is almost sombre.” I would agree with that statement wholeheartedly, as I think it shows the shift in Austen’s style to the maturity of later works, such as Emma and Persuasion. While exploring such mature themes as modernity, shifting family dynamics, and colonialism, Austen presents her readers with a heroine that is completely opposite to that of her most famous creation, Elizabeth Bennet.
Perhaps there has never been an Austen heroine that divides her fans more so than Fanny Price. Sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their estate of Mansfield Park, Fanny’s mother is no longer able to properly care for the entire family due to poverty. That’s right–Austen helped pioneer the “rags-to-riches” tale. Although Fanny is kind and possessing of an even temper, she is unfortunately treated quite poorly by her new family. Her female cousins treat her abominably, and the only true friend she has is her cousin Edmund, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram’s youngest son.
Fanny is often viewed as fragile both in body and mind by her relatives due to her shyness and timid nature. However, those views mask her strengths as someone who is clever and extremely observant. Fortunately, those positive qualities become noticed by her family as the story progresses. While many readers dislike the character due to her more introverted nature, it actually works well in the context of the novel by allowing us to see Fanny’s observations of the other characters. Although Mansfield Park is a more downbeat work to its predecessors, Austen still populates this work with some truly memorable and over-the-top characters. Mrs. Norris, Fanny’s other aunt and sister of Lady Bertram, is the type of relative we try to avoid at family gatherings. Her rudeness is only matched by her complete lack of insight. Mr. Rushworth, the suitor that marries Fanny’s cousin Maria, is often viewed as comic relief for his foolishness.
Henry Crawford and his sister Mary are the equivalent of the villains of Mansfield Park. Henry is a showboat who is merely looking out for himself and has no cares for the hurting of others. While most of the Bertram family fall prey to his charismatic ways, the sensible Fanny Price sees through his charm and recognizes him as a fake. Henry’s pursuit of Fanny never seemed genuine to me and was born more out of the excitement of the chase than of actual love. While Mary Crawford was both beautiful and witty, her disregard for others’ feelings would serve as her undoing. Her remorse at her brother’s scandal being discovered, not the act itself, would leave a distaste with Edmund effectively ending that courtship.
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”
Austen’s novels have always focused on contrasting ideals. While her two previous novels made those concepts quite explicit, I think it is handled with more of a subtle touch in this novel. Mansfield Park examines the concepts of the immaturity of youth and the maturity of adulthood. This is reflected throughout the novel, such as the characters’ failed attempts to put on a play, the immature actions of the Crawford siblings, and Fanny’s blossoming into a sensible and mature woman. As with Austen’s other novels, there are still fancy balls and comedic courtships. However, Mansfield Park is clearly the more political of all of Austen’s novels. While there was no in-depth examination of the horrors of colonialism in Sir Thomas Bertram’s business in Antigua, I thought it was quite daring that Austen at least touched on this topic. I am actually planning on watching one of the film adaptations to see if this is further explored. Social mobility through marriage is also examined, such as in the family’s disdain on Fanny’s refusal to Henry Crawford and Maria’s determination to escape from a loveless marriage. Through these events, we are reminded just how little freedom a woman had during this time period.
Overall, I found Mansfield Park to be one of the most revolutionary of Austen’s works. She takes more risks and manages to craft a really complex work. While the ending may have felt rushed, I was happy that Edmund made the more intelligent choice of the sensible Fanny over the glamour of Mary Crawford. While the novel is incredibly slow-paced and less accessible to Pride and Prejudice, I think this could easily be considered the most important Austen novel for its attempts to examine some larger themes beyond courtship.
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
I read this book for the following challenges:
Reading Classic Books (classic that takes place in another country)
Back to the Classics (classic with a place in the title)
Classics Club (17/100)