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Book Review: Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

This comedy of manners is an ugly duckling story with not quite the sting or wit of Austen's other works.

Mansfield Park

Published in 1814, approximately 160,000 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.

Fanny Price, a poor relation of the rich Bertrams, is reluctantly adopted into the family, to be brought up at Mansfield Park, where she is condescendingly treated. Only her cousin, Edmund, a young clergyman, appreciates her fine qualities.

Fanny soon falls in love with him, but Edmund is, unfortunately, drawn to the shallow and worldly Mary Crawford. Fanny's quiet humility, steadfast loyalty, and natural goodness are matched against the wit and brilliance of her lovely rival. The tension is heightened when Henry Crawford, Mary's equally sophisticated and flirtatious brother, takes an interest in Fanny.

Jane Austen's subtle, satiric novel skillfully uses her characters' emotional relationships to explore the social and moral values by which they attempt to order their lives.

By Jane Austen's third novel, she was definitely developing some formulas. A rich prick fixes his sights on a pretty but impoverished girl, who is repulsed by his attentions and thereby only encourages him to keep pursuing her. The unmarried females are either kind-hearted and virtuous, silly and shallow, or grasping and materialistic; the male characters are noble and good or caddish playboys. Married women are generally either useless comedy relief or shrewish impediments to joy and happiness.

All this happens in the social arena of Regency-era English gentry with men of ambiguous characters and designs, and a rapid succession of attachments follows, some resulting in marriage, some resulting in broken hearts, and eventually the good-hearted heroine being suitably settled with the Right Man.

The heroine here is Fanny Price, who as the oldest daughter of profligate and overly-fecund parents, is sent at a young age to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle in Mansfield Park. The Bertrams fancy themselves as being very charitable in taking in this poor relation, and they never let Fanny forget it. Fanny's childhood is thus quite similar to that of Jane Eyre, though Fanny's relatives are not nearly as cruel as Jane's; mostly they're just stuck up and patronizing.

Fanny, however, grows up to be quite a pretty girl whose extreme modesty and timidity is the sort that catches the eye of certain assholes of a rakish bent. She is courted by Henry Crawford, a wealthy young man and friend of the family whom everyone thinks well of. Only Fanny, thanks to being mostly invisible to everyone else, is aware that Henry isn't the swell guy everyone thinks he is.

The central conflict for Fanny arises when she has the temerity to say that she doesn't want to marry Mr. Crawford. Henry Crawford literally doesn't believe her. No matter how many times she repeats herself, with increasing directness, much like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Crawford just won't hear her. And when she finally manages to make her uncle understand that she does not, in fact, want to marry Henry Crawford, Sir Thomas just uncorks on her.

Sir Thomas came towards the table where she sat in trembling wretchedness, and with a good deal of cold sternness, said, "It is of no use, I perceive, to talk to you. We had better put an end to this most mortifying conference. Mr. Crawford must not be kept longer waiting. I will, therefore, only add, as thinking it my duty to mark my opinion of your conduct, that you have disappointed every expectation I had formed, and proved yourself of a character the very reverse of what I had supposed. For I _had_, Fanny, as I think my behaviour must have shewn, formed a very favourable opinion of you from the period of my return to England. I had thought you peculiarly free from wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offence. But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse; that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you, without even asking their advice. You have shewn yourself very, very different from anything that I had imagined. The advantage or disadvantage of your family, of your parents, your brothers and sisters, never seems to have had a moment's share in your thoughts on this occasion. How _they_ might be benefited, how _they_ must rejoice in such an establishment for you, is nothing to _you_. You think only of yourself, and because you do not feel for Mr. Crawford exactly what a young heated fancy imagines to be necessary for happiness, you resolve to refuse him at once, without wishing even for a little time to consider of it, a little more time for cool consideration, and for really examining your own inclinations; and are, in a wild fit of folly, throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honourably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again.

He goes on like this for a page or so, condemning her as a selfish, ungrateful, thoughtless, immature little brat for daring to say 'no' to such an obviously good match.

Being an Austen novel, things naturally work out well for poor Fanny in the end, but Austen was saying something about what life has in store for most of the Fannys of the world, of which Austen herself was one. It sucked to be a woman on the Regency meatmarriage market.

Jane Austen's novels really aren't romances, at least not in the sense of being about romance. Austen writes such pretty prose in a magical world of balls and mansions and romantic attachments signified with the least pressing of a hand on another, where the greatest measure of villainy is bad manners or an unfaithful heart, and things like slavery, poverty (Fanny's "poor" parents, whom she visits at one point after many years apart, have their own house and servants, just not as big a house or as many servants as the Bertrams), the Industrial Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars just don't enter into this world. So it's understandable why she's considered a "romance" writer and all the movies made from her books are pretty costume dramas. But while marriage is of course the object of the main characters and the inevitable climax of the plot, Austen was writing scathing social satire, in a very genteel, refined, literary manner. Yes, she always gives her heroines happy endings, but methinks her point has frequently been missed from her own time until now.

Now, I know I am reading a modern interpretation into the novel myself. Most analyses of Mansfield Park comment on Austen's disdain for "modernism" and her rather judgmental attitude in this book. The "evil" women are the ones who actually do pursue their own agendas and seek pleasure without regard for others, while Fanny, the good girl, is the one who never does much except stick to conventional principles, so she's the only one happily married in the end. I've said before I think Austen was a proto-feminist. By that I do not mean that Austen would embrace modern feminist principles in their entirety; she'd probably be horrified by much of the modern world. But she had an awareness of inequality and injustice, particularly as applied to sex (not so much as applied to other things, like race and class), and she frequently deployed a satirical wit in wryly commenting on society's double standards while seeming to accept them as a matter of course.

Unfortunately, that wit wasn't so much in evidence in this book. I am afraid that I did not love Mansfield Park nearly as much as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or even as much as Northanger Abbey. Structurally, Mansfield Park is a much better book than the latter, but Northanger Abbey was funny (and much shorter), while in Pride and Prejudice, a somewhat lighter novel than Mansfield Park, Austen's wit and satire were in full bloom, whereas she seemed to rein in it with this, her third novel. Mansfield Park is not devoid of Austen's trademark humor and style, but it's a more serious and for me, less entertaining book.

Mansfield Park on Netflix

There have been three film adaptations of Mansfield Park, all available on Netflix. As usual, I watched all of them to see what they might add (or take away from) the novel.

Mansfield Park: The BBC Serial (1983)

Mansfield Park (1983)

I believe this BBC serial was the first film adaptation of Mansfield Park. It's typical of BBC classic novel adaptations from the 1980s, lengthy and detailed enough to keep most of the minor scenes from the book that are cut in shorter film versions, but with a home video quality that sometimes makes you feel like you are watching a college drama club put on a play.

I liked the characters in this drama more than in the ones below, if not the acting. This was the only version that truly did credit to Mrs. Norris's repulsiveness. The actress playing Lady Bertram really overdid her spaciness (she reminded me of Sharon Osbourne). Or maybe Austen really was implying that Lady Bertram was permanently stoned on laudanum. The very plain-looking actress who played Fanny was not bad for the role, but the hysterical fit she threw when Sir Thomas scolds her was some of the worst over-acting I've ever seen.

I'd recommend this adaptation only for its fidelity, but that faithfulness makes it... well, a rather boring 19th century soap opera.

Mansfield Park (1999)

Mansfield Park (1999)

The only feature film, 1999's Mansfield Park is a pretty period film like most films of 19th century novels. It generally follows Austen's novel, but inserts a big anti-slavery subplot that was completely absent from anything Austen wrote. This movie also strips away all the subtlety and delicacy of Austen's dialog and has characters boldly blurting things out and doing smutty things that no one would actually say or do in an Austen novel. Frances O'Connor's Fanny is much more feisty and assertive than the blushing, passive girl in the book. It was possible to pick up some of the nuances in Austen's story from watching this movie, but not unless you'd read the book first. It's the most visually appealing adaptation, but trying to spice up Austen's novel did it no favors.

Masterpiece Classic: Mansfield Park (2007)

Mansfield Park (2007)

Billie Piper is not who comes to mind when I think of Fanny Price, but she's an underrated actress, distracting eyebrow and all. I rather liked her performance, and this was a very bosomy production, which was another reason to appreciate her. ;) However, this Masterpiece Theater adaptation tried to pack most of Austen's plot into an hour and a half, leaving insufficient time to develop any of the characters, so we get the general idea that Fanny is modest and sweet, Henry Crawford is a jerk, Mary Crawford is shallow and greedy, Edmund is good, and so on, but everything felt very abbreviated. Aunt Norris got hardly any lines, and since Aunt Norris is the Mrs. Bennet of Mansfield Park, cutting her part removes most of the humor. I found this version faithful but somewhat uninspired.

Verdict: Not my favorite Austen. Mansfield Park is somewhat of a departure from her other books, being as much prudish denouncement of "modern" ways as it is social satire and comedy of manners. The heroine was sweet but a bit on the insipid side, and none of the other characters were particularly memorable. This book is enjoyable enough for Austen fans, but I don't think it's a book that would turn anyone into an Austen fan.

Also by Jane Austen: My reviews of Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 20th, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
My friend who's a HUGE Jane Austen fan wasn't crazy about this one either.
Nov. 20th, 2011 07:23 pm (UTC)
When are you going to read Persuasion? I think that's my favorite of all of Austen's book. Granted, I've only read Pride & Prejudice, and Persuasion. >.>
Nov. 20th, 2011 07:33 pm (UTC)
So it's your favorite of two? :D

I plan to finish my Austen project in the next year or so, so I'll get to Persuasion eventually.
Nov. 20th, 2011 07:57 pm (UTC)
This book is enjoyable enough for Austen fans, but I don't think it's a book that would turn anyone into an Austen fan.

Well, I'm not sure whether I count as an Austen fan exactly, but this is the first Austen I read, the reason I read the others and still my favourite. I think Fanny is a surprisingly good portrayal of the results of Mrs Norris' emotional abuse considering the time.
Nov. 20th, 2011 09:25 pm (UTC)
Jane Austen's novels really aren't romances, at least not in the sense of being about romance. Austen writes such pretty prose in a magical world of balls and mansions and romantic attachments signified with the least pressing of a hand on another, where the greatest measure of villainy is bad manners or an unfaithful heart, and things like slavery, poverty (Fanny's "poor" parents, whom she visits at one point after many years apart, have their own house and servants, just not as big a house or as many servants as the Bertrams), the Industrial Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars just don't enter into this world.

They don't enter directly into Jane Austen's world. But they exert a powerful indirect effect. Jane Austen's main characters are gently-reared women who could -- if they act unwisely -- fall into disgrace or at best genteel poverty. They are quite aware of this, and of the fact that their only hopes of avoiding this fate are to find good husbands.

Jane Austen's own life was terribly circumscribed. She could not find a good husband -- she apparently rejected one wealthy suitor whom she did not love, and one relatively poor gentleman whom she did -- and she spent most of her life as a sort of assistant to other members of her family in return for room and board. Just when she started to actually realize a meaningful income and fame from her writing, she contracted a painful and fatal illness (probably one easily curable with modern medicine and surgery) and died in middle age.

And she was lucky in some ways. Her siblings loved her, so that when her parents died she was sheltered by affectionate people rather than exploited by uncaring ones. Many in her position would have been forced to become gentlewoman's companions, or worse, and not granted the leisure to write.

And she knew all these things. Acutely and well. Which is why her writing has such passion and power, even though it seems to be about a fairytale upper-crust world. Jane Austen knew how fragile was social status, and if she rarely talks about what happens to those "disgraced," it's in part because the prospect is too terrifying to face directly.
טלי אבישי
Jun. 30th, 2018 08:38 pm (UTC)
Mention of disgrace
Actually, it is surprising how often "fallen women" are mentioned in the Austen books - though always off stage (at least until they are "made an honest woman"). The two Elizas in Sense and Sensibility, the mother certainly suffering the terrible consequences of falling away from the middle-class protections, Lydia in "Pride and Prejudice", Maria in "Mansfield Park", Harriette's unnamed mother in "Emma" - all had unsanctified sex, and payed for it in various degrees. By comparison, in The Bronte sisters more famous books, "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights", the closest a woman comes to unmarried sex is in being in danger (and saved from) an unwitting bigamous marriage.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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