Monday, September 2, 2013

Reviewing Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park"

I started this series talking about the most famous and well-loved Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. Now I will talk about one of the least-read and often despised of her works, which also happens to be my personal favorite: Mansfield Park. 

Our story begins with three sisters. One marries a rich knight and lives in affluence at Mansfield Park.  One marries a clergyman who then is employed by the rich knight.  And the third sister marries “for love,” to a common sailor whose drunkenness and coarse manners drag them down in society into a life of poverty. 

The main character, however, is the third sister’s daughter, Fanny Price. Because her parents are too poor to support all of their numerous children, Fanny and her older brother William are shipped out: William to the Navy,* Fanny to her rich aunt, Lady Bertram, at Mansfield Park. The story forgets William and follows Fanny as the shy ten-year-old is immediately harassed by her evil aunt Mrs. Norris and her selfish and mean cousins Tom, Maria and Julia. Fanny’s rich uncle Sir Thomas is stern and scary, her aunt Lady Bertram is vapid and careless, and Fanny is pretty much relegated to being a servant and a doormat to everyone.

Everyone, that is, except her cousin Edmund, who somehow miraculously is not a jerk like everyone else at Mansfield. Of course Fanny falls in love with him (which was okay at that time and in that culture, the whole “cousins” thing not being considered as gross as we tend to think of it now).

Fast forward eight years. Fanny is still a servant. Her cousins are all jerks (except Edmund, who wants to become a clergyman). Her uncle and aunts are the same. The only thing that changes is the introduction of the Cad and the Cad-ette: Henry and Mary Crawford.  Henry is probably the worst of all of Austen’s cads. There’s Wickham and Willoughby and Thorpe and William Eliot and Mr. Elton (and Frank Churchill)…but of them all, only one has set out to make someone in love with him for the sheer entertainment of it, and that is Henry Crawford. He makes emotional conquests of Maria and Julia, and once he’s done with them he becomes so bored he sets his sights on Fanny.

Fanny is a bit of a controversy even among Austenites. On the one hand, she is a pushover.  She lacks Elizabeth Bennett’s playful wit, Emma’s charisma, Anne’s maturity, Catherine’s imagination, Marianne’s passion and Elinor’s sense. On the other hand, Fanny is also stubborn. Maybe that’s what I like about her: she goes from being pushed and pulled in every direction and at the beck and call of everyone, to standing up for herself even when those she loves (*ahem* Edmund) tell her to conform.

Let’s be completely honest: this novel is not a romance. The love story between Fanny and Edmund is almost nonexistent. Neither is it very humorous. To me, this novel is a foreshadowing of the psychological novels of George Eliot, where human interactions are described in detail and human feelings are treated as important plot points. No character in Mansfield Park is a caricature. There are no Mr. Collins or Miss Bates here. Even the humorous characters are treated as real, feeling, and with their own underlying motives and opinions. 

Recommended Reading Age: 15+

Parental Notes: Villainy and amorality are more apparent than in any of the other Austen novels. There is an extramarital affair, which is treated as abhorrent and its participants are punished. 

Availability: Again with the Penguin Classics. Even I’m starting to tire of them, so it’s a good thing this is my last Austenian review for a while, isn’t it? Actually I really like this cover because it has necklace chains all over the cover, which is symbolic to anyone who has read the book. 

Adaptations: Skip ‘em.

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