I often wonder if I am rather a strange Jane Austen fan, at least in comparison with others I know. I read Persuasion first – an ardent fan of the BBC adaptation starring Amanda Root – without much desire to delve further. Anne Elliot is the eldest of Austen’s protagonists and the maturity she embodies is a welcome respite from her younger, feistier heroines. I decided I was judging the her other novels too rashly and moved to complete Pride and Prejudice for my Books Before 30 challenge (which I am woefully neglecting). Sense and Sensibility followed and while both these novels were interesting I wasn’t enthralled. (Can I take a moment to moan about how dull Elinor Dashwood is.)
Next came Northanger Abbey, based on the recommendation of a friend who praised it’s meta goodness. It was a surprising read, it’s rare that every characters annoys me. Seriously, all of them. As you can probably imagine, after only one win the thought of continuing with Emma or Mansfield Park was less than appealing.
Obviously I did, other wise I wouldn’t have written this review. This time it wasn’t another force of will that got me started, it was a Radio 4 adaptation. I tuned in one day and suddenly I found I had to read it, it was of the utmost importance.
“‘We have all been more or less to blame … every one of us, excepting Fanny’
Taken from the poverty of her parents’ home, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with only her cousin Edmund as an ally. When Fanny’s uncle is absent in Antigua, Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive in the neighbourhood, bringing with them London glamour and a reckless taste for flirtation. As her female cousins vie for Henry’s attention, and even Edmund falls for Mary’s dazzling charms, only Fanny remains doubtful about the Crawfords’ influence and finds herself more isolated than ever. A subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen’s most profound works.” Synopsis from Good Reads.
Mansfield Park is a slow burner, you’ll be fighting the urge to give up for the first hundred pages or so. I urge you to persevere, as suddenly Fanny becomes this wonderful character. Her unrequited love for her stoic cousin Edmund is so rich and unrelenting, my heart broke with hers as Edmund fell for Mary Crawford. She is treated as lower society by all but Edmund, scorned by her Aunt Norris and forgotten by her family. She is the epitome of the plain girl, neither popular or unpopular she is swallowed by her averageness. Compared to Elizabeth Bennett, Marianne Dashwood or Catherine Morland she is immensely demur. Shaken and distrustful of novelty and change. She only ever annoyed me when she was too grateful, to humbled by notice and appreciation. Austen manages to take Fanny’s feelings of unease, love and unworthiness and makes them the readers.
Fans of Austen’s more passionate protagonists may find Fanny frustrating in comparison. She does not crave adventure, only travelling between Portsmouth and Mansfield twice in her life. She is protective of revealing herself in a way that suggests she finds no value in her situation, aware of her position in society. Even in Pride and Prejudice I never felt the difference in societal positions, Elizabeth Bennett rejects the concept so wonderfully. Fanny’s acceptance of her perceived worthlessness was vexing. Only Edmund sees value in her where others do not, loving her more than his own sisters. The more ‘villainous’ characters – Mary and Henry Crawford – are not particularly villainous at all. While in Austen’s day their forward thinking would have been shocking, they are the most liberal. Henry Crawford’s drunk in love proclivity for Fanny was almost as heartbreaking as hers for Edmund. He fails in winning her because he craves instant gratification, he must instantaneously have what he wants. In failing to understand the difference between lust and love, he is the architect of Maria’s downfall. He desires to be loved, and when it seems Maria does not he cannot cope without her devotion. Not because he loves her, but because he cannot cope with not being loved.
Much like her brother, Mary Crawford fails only in her inability to think beyond herself. She loves Edmund, but she thinks herself deserving of something more and this clouds her judgement. She wants to be naughty, to be noticed for saying modern things. She cannot judge her brother for his actions because she has treated Edmund similarly. She does not discarding him for another man, she discards due to disdain. Of course, there is one despicable character, Aunt Norris. The vilest of all Austen’s characters – at least Lady Catherine’s pontificating was amusing. She is the architect of her own downfall and there is something of a Greek Tragedy about the way it pans out.
The novel is not faultless. Both Fanny and Edmund’s sense of propriety, while a reflection of the time, aggravated me. Mary Crawford is a forward thinking modern lady and if retold today I cannot think that Edmund would not have married her.
That and slavery is normalised and completely glossed over.
I suppose that Mansfield Park speaks to me because I feel akin to it’s protagonists. As with Persuasion, I relate to Fanny’s inability to vocalise how she feels. There is a scene where Fanny is asked to play a part in the play Tom and Mr Yates are putting on at Mansfield. It is done in the absences of Sir Thomas, who will certainly disapprove. Fanny wants nothing more than to fade into the background. Although morally she opposes the play, she also cannot bare to be looked at. Her declining does not bode well, Tom and Maria try and convince her to do it and her Aunt Norris tells her to stop being so ungrateful. She is given little support by the others in the room, something about that situation felt incredibly familiar.
I prefer fiction that denies me the gratification of a happy ending. However, Jane Austen is one of the few authors I will allow to indulge my feelings of inadequacy and desire to be desired. I understand Anne Elliot and Fanny Price, because I feel I have been them at one point or another. I probably haven’t, I’m being self-indulgent. I connect to being slightly outside of everything more than I connect to the force of will her other heroines embody. This is why I love Mansfield Park.
I still don’t want to read Emma (I can hear you judging me).