Re-evaluating Mansfield Park

Even a hard-core Janeite, pressed to rank Austen’s novels, will probably list Mansfield Park in fifth or sixth place, and many of Austen readers will rank it last. Regardless of its merits, there has to be a last place and Mansfield Park might as well occupy that spot. (I’ve even met Jane Austen fan fiction authors who admit they’ve never read it.)

But I recently listened to Austen’s third published novel while down in the basement modeling (I build scale models as a hobby) and it made a pleasant accompaniment while trying to scratch-build the ball turret of a B-17. If you’ve never listened to Austen before, I highly recommend it. Although I do love reading Austen, I have to admit it can be something of a chore. I can only manage a few pages at night before sleep claims me, but while working on a model I can easily listen to five or six chapters. In this instance, I was listening to the Librivox dramatic reading, where twenty different contributors provide their voices. The quality of the readings vary greatly, both in audio quality and acting ability, but different voice actors certainly makes it easier to follow the conversation. (After all, not everyone is a Jim Dale or Patrick Stewart.)

While listening, I think I gained a better understanding of what Austen was attempting in MP and the audacity of her experiment. What experiment, you ask? “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” And yes, I know Austen was actually speaking of Emma, but I think her comment applies far better to Fanny Price.

But perhaps you’re not familiar with the plot of Mansfield Park. If so, click here for a synopsis:

So to what experiment do I refer? Well, I think Austen intentionally decided to write a romance about two not very interesting people. She goes out of her way to make sure we know Fanny is pretty dull. She is described thusly: Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke her countenance was pretty.

As she grows up, Austen continues to paint an unflattering picture of her. Fanny is very passive-aggressive: she doesn’t object when Edmund offers Fanny’s horse to Mary Crawford but clearly resents Edmund’s offer. Professing exhaustion (she easily tires), she chooses to sit while Edmund and Mary continue on their tour of Sotherton, and then resents their leaving her: Fanny’s best consolation was in being assured that Edmund had wished for her very much, and that he should certainly have come back for her, had she not been tired already; but this was not quite sufficient to do away with the pain of having been left a whole hour, when he had talked of only a few minutes, nor to banish the sort of curiosity she felt to know what they had been conversing about all that time; and the result of the whole was to her disappointment and depression, as they prepared by general agreement to return to the house.

Of course Fanny’s diffidence is understandable when you consider her situation. She is the poor relation and it would be presumptuous to complain. She’s the office worker whose best strategy is to do her job well and not get noticed by upper management.

Her status also explains why she’s so eager to be of service to others: she needs to ingratiate herself with the Bertrams to prove her worth. She bears so much without outwardly complaining, but her resentment is still clear. That she eventually does stand up for herself when her uncle pressures her to marry Henry is really quite an accomplishment.

Even after she asserts herself, however, Fanny suffers in comparison to Austen’s other heroines. She does not have the wit of Elizabeth Bennet or the sparkle of Emma Woodhouse. She doesn’t have the good sense of Elinor Dashwood or the passion of Marianne Dashwood. She is in almost every respect, unremarkable.

And she remains thus for most of the book—overshadowed by Maria and Julia and pale in comparison to Mary Crawford. Edmund loves her in a brotherly, protective way and the reader is drawn to him for that kindness, but as we learn more of him, his weaknesses become apparent.

The narrator does not critically appraise Edmund, but it’s evident that he’s a good-looking, considerate young man, but something of a prig, or at least he presents himself as such. But his interest in Mary Crawford, a free spirited young woman who makes jokes about vices and rears, betrays him as a man who would like a little excitement in his life. More than a few readers have thought that Mary is better suited as a partner for Edmund than the equally priggish Fanny and Henry a better choice for Fanny.

Edmund is attracted to Mary Crawford, knowing full well her faults, but does his best to rationalize away those faults. He also tries to use Fanny as a mouthpiece to echo back those same rationalizations, and Fanny, too timid to demur, complies.

Austen, however, eventually unites Fanny and Edmund and they no doubt lead happy and boring lives. I don’t imagine them solving mysteries or fighting zombies in that way that Elizabeth and Darcy enjoy in fan fiction. But after all, the bulk of humanity is not very interesting, and that is Austen’s big gamble. She wrote a book about not very interesting people, but she also wrote a book about the complex motivations of very real people.

I think Mansfield Park is Austen’s most nuanced novel. Think about Pride and Prejudice; it’s very easy to understand the motivations of Elizabeth and Darcy. Boy meets girl, and then boy and girl do their best to deny what is obvious to everyone else—that they are made for each other. Or Sense and Sensibility: Marianne loves the wrong man while Elinor loves the right man at the wrong time. And Emma, of course, is the classic comedy of errors.

But MP is a swirl of conflicting claims, denials, withdrawals, advances and so much of it depends on self-delusion. Edmund has deluded himself into thinking that Mary would make a suitable wife. Henry has deluded himself that Fanny would make a suitable wife (unless you are of the camp that believes marrying Fanny would have been the making of him). Maria deludes herself into thinking she could suffer a marriage to Rushworth, and Sir Thomas shares that delusion. The only person who remains steadfast is Fanny—she loves Edmund and refuses to be swayed by Henry. This is her one remarkable quality.

She does have two moments of doubt, however. We wonder whether she would have agreed to act in the play had Sir Thomas not returned from Antigua, and we see her re-evaluating Henry in Portsmouth. She cannot help but be grateful when Henry engineers a lieutenancy for Fanny’s brother William, and she cannot help but be grateful when Henry is so gallant with her uncouth Portsmouth family. Had Henry not risen to challenge of re-conquering Maria, would Fanny have succumbed? I think not for the simple reason that Fanny is not that interesting a person.

Another brilliant aspect of the book is how subtly the reader is manipulated, and nowhere is this better illustrated than the play. While Sir Thomas is in Antigua, seeing to the state of his plantation from whence the Bertram wealth is derived, eldest son Thomas and his wastrel friend Mr. Yates contrive to stage a performance of Lovers’ Vows. This scandalous play raises the censure of Edmund, until he learns that Mary Crawford is to play the part of Amelia. Edmund then condescends to play the role of Anhalt, the lover of Amelia.

To our modern sensibilities, the thought of staging a family theatrical simply seems charming and quaint, but the subject matter of the play—sex outside of marriage—made it racy material indeed, especially for aspiring clergyman Edmund. We are puzzled by Edmund’s initial objections to the play, especially as he does not understand the dynamic between Henry and sisters Julia and Maria. Only Fanny recognizes the danger. We can only assume Edmund is a kill joy.

At the same time, we readers find ourselves in sympathy with Mr. Rushworth, Maria’s fiancé. Rushworth is not a sympathetic character, but Austen makes us appreciate his slowly burgeoning awareness of the impropriety of Henry’s attentions to Maria. Of course he maintains his self delusion long enough to marry her.

So because of his initial objection, Edmund comes off as a prude and I think Austen intended this. Her own family had few reservations about staging similar theatricals, despite her father’s occupation (rector of Steventon). Edmund’s complicity is further compounded because he had been arguing that it would not be proper to stage the play while their father was away. That’s another hard idea for a modern reader to fathom. Sir Thomas been away for some time and was returning from Antigua and so why shouldn’t the family have some fun? To put this in context, though, you must remember that a sea voyage carried considerable risk at the time; one often made out a will before embarking on such a journey. And yet Edmund abandons his scruples once he learns he can have a love scene with Mary.

Fanny remains the one constant in the story. I think many of us can identify with her at certain periods of our lives. I certainly identify with her reluctance to participate in the play. It’s something she secretly wants to do while being too scared to partake. In much the same way, I think I have a good voice, but I am too scared to sing in public and I somewhat resent those friends who bring a guitar to every social occasion. I know that makes me sound as sad as Fanny, but that’s the truth of it. We all have things that we desire but are afraid to pursue and we resent those who aren’t afraid. Pure and simple envy. A simple soul like Fanny is made miserable by that self-denial. A more self-aware soul like myself is made miserable by the realization that I am a mean-spirited bitch, but despite my self awareness, I am still miserable.

Austen has manipulated me into projecting my own shortcomings into Fanny and I think this happens because she is this simple vessel that others want to fill. Edmund and Mary use her as their confidante. Henry sees her as a wife. Sir Thomas suddenly recognizes her as the daughter he wishes Maria and Julia had been. Austen uses this uncomplicated character to draw us in.

I read Mansfield Park once before and have watched three filmed adaptations, but only came to this awareness of the complexity of the novel after listening to it. Does this move MP up in my rankings? Well, it’s probably now fifth, ahead of Northanger Abbey, and it has some stiff competition. Let’s face it, dull Fanny can’t hold a candle to Emma or Elizabeth, but watch out Anne Elliot.

PS I thought I’d remark on another unique aspect of Mansfield Park. Part of the reason I enjoy Austen is her employment of delayed gratification, although in truth I suppose this technique is also a result of the times in which she lived. What am I talking about? Well, we read her stories for the enjoyment of that one kiss at the end of the story. You know what I mean. Elizabeth and Darcy spar for 100K words, exchange smoldering looks and are often separated for long periods. And then like The Princess Bride, we are rewarded by that one perfect kiss at the end after mutual declarations of love.

To be honest, however, Austen never writes that one perfect kiss or torrid declaration of love, and I think listening to MP really brought that home. The penultimate chapter of MP ends with the scales falling from Edmund’s eyes, when he realizes that Mary Crawford is not the woman for him. And it’s not until the middle of the last chapter that we read: Edmund had greatly the advantage of her in this respect. He had not to wait and wish with vacant affections for an object worthy to succeed her in them. Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.

This is as close as we get to a declaration of love and that one kiss—a little paragraph of exposition. Now I’m fully aware that movies have confused my perception of what’s in an Austen novel, but I thought for sure there were at least words exchanged between Edmund and Fanny. That they aren’t is, I think, a reflection of the fact that Mansfield Park is something of an experiment. All the other novels have some scene where the principals exchange words of love, if not passion, usually with a lot of “but I thought you…” and “it was my understanding that…” and “I never thought you attracted to me…” I almost feel as if the love story of Fanny and Edmund isn’t the point of the book, which makes this book quite a novelty.

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