Monday, 25 July 2011

'Mansfield Park' by Jane Austen (1814)

Synopsis: Although born into a poor family, Fanny Price was adopted by her rich uncle as a child and now lives at the luxurious estate Mansfield Park. She lives with her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, his wife, his four children (Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia), and her horrible aunt Mrs Norris. Fanny is shy, sweet and sensitive and is treated as an inferior by almost all of her relations. Her cousin Edmund is the only one who shows her any kindness. Fanny and Edmund are very close and a romance between them seems likely. However, a pair of siblings called Henry and Mary Crawford then move into the neighbourhood. The Crawfords have spent most of their lives in London and are fashionable, worldly and sophisticated. The Crawford's arrival completely disrupts the calm world of Mansfield Park. Edmund falls in love with the beautiful and witty Mary whilst Henry flirts with both Maria (who is already engaged to a man called Mr Rushworth) and Julia. Fanny becomes increasingly concerned for Edmund because she can see that he's moving further and further away from the firm principles that he once had. When Henry then shifts his attentions towards her, Fanny is then faced with a very difficult decision. 

Generally regarded as Austen's darkest and most controversial novel, Mansfield Park isn't one of my favourites by Jane Austen. In fact it is the one that I love least out of her novels. However, it still has plenty of rewards and it's very far from being a bad or boring book. It's clever, it's insightful, it's witty, it has an interesting story, and it's brilliantly-written like all of Austen's books. It also has a very sympathetic heroine in Fanny Price. Fanny isn't one of my favourite heroines in literature but I still really like her.

I know that not everyone likes Fanny though. Her character has always been divisive amongst Mansfield Park's readers. Some readers have found her priggish and unlikeable and even Jane Austen's own mother thought she was insipid. I'd like to defend her though. Yes Fanny might seem passive and too reserved but it's only natural that she should be like that! The poor girl is sent to live away from home at a very young age to live with her uncle and aunt in their big, imposing manor house. She's bullied, neglected and treated like a slave by virtually all of her relations to the point where she feels almost worthless. She is never encouraged to hold or voice her own opinions. She never sees her family and most of them don't give a crap about her anyway. Even Fanny's poor health can probably be put down to her upbringing. Her room was never given a fire in the winter, her clothes were probably cast-offs, and her aunt Mrs Norris always insisted that Fanny shouldn't be given as much as her cousins. That might have even applied to food. I doubt anyone could be lively or outgoing growing up under these circumstances! If Fanny had been as witty and self-confident as some of Austen's other heroines it wouldn't have made the least bit of sense or been at all realistic! Austen surely realised this. Fanny isn't priggish either. She's too self-deprecating for that. Mansfield Park might well be my least favourite Austen novel but the reasons for that are nothing to do with Fanny.

Despite the fact that Fanny was raised by her horrible relatives she has many likeable qualities and is the one truly virtuous character in the Bertram household. She shows an intelligence and conscience that is completely lacking in Mrs Norris and the stupid, self-obsessed and conceited Bertram sisters. Also, Fanny stays true to her morals throughout unlike her cousin Edmund. She sees right through the Crawfords and refuses to back down in her decision not to marry Henry. This means so much more coming from her than it does from the outspoken Elizabeth Bennet. It took far more courage for Fanny to stand up for herself by refusing to marry Henry than it did for Elizabeth to turn down Mr Collins and Mr Darcy! Just because a person is quiet and shy it doesn't make them weak, just as a person who is outgoing and lively isn't necessarily strong. The Crawfords may well be charming, witty and occasionally kind but deep down they're weak and are lacking in morals. In fact the comparisons that some readers have made between Mary Crawford and Elizabeth Bennet have surprised and annoyed me quite a bit. Yes they're both witty, intelligent and beautiful but that's about it! Elizabeth is unselfish, compassionate and a really good person throughout the whole of Pride and Prejudice. Mary is very selfish and is only after money and rank. Yes she falls in love with Edmund in spite of herself but she constantly tries to persuade not him to be a clergyman because she doesn't consider it a good enough profession for her. And she really shows her true colours towards the end of the book when she expresses her hope that Tom Bertram will die so Edmund can become the heir to Mansfield Park! Even Edmund's eyes are finally opened to Mary's true nature by her reaction to Henry's affair with Maria Bertram. Mary doesn't seem to consider the adultery itself wrong at all, she's only upset that they weren't discreet about it and got found out. Can you imagine Elizabeth Bennet saying any of these things?! And then there's Henry Crawford. Yes he's charming and his love for Fanny did seem to be genuine. I really wanted Fanny to end up with him the first time I read the book. But could Fanny really have been happy with him and could she have changed him? Er... I'm not so sure. Henry might have improved under Fanny's influence if he'd married her but now I'm more inclined to think that he'd have gone back to his old rakish ways within a year or two. Fanny saw him flirting with both Maria and Julia Bertam (despite Maria being engaged). And even the fact that he was pursuing Fanny didn't stop him from sleeping with Maria. And the only reason why Henry pursued Fanny in the first place was because he thought it would be amusing to put "a hole in her heart". Yeah that's really romantic...

So why is Mansfield Park my least favourite novel by Jane Austen then? Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, because I hated most of the characters in this book and I wanted to scream at everyone's mistreatment of Fanny. Secondly, because I was irritated by the fact that for all Edmund's noble talk and supposedly high morals that he remained so blind to Mary Crawford's true character. He's so gullible and so easily deceived by Mary! He falls for all of Mary's flattery and flirtations! Also, Edmund might be the only Bertram to show Fanny any sort of consideration or kindness but he's still very insensitive and condescending towards her at times. He's like "Oh, you really want to ride a horse Mary? I can arrange that for you! Fanny won't mind if we take hers. Oh you want me to act in the play with you Mary? I can do that! Oh sure, staging a play in the house would go against my principles and I know how my father would feel about it but if it would make you happy. Oh you don't want to marry Henry, Fanny? Oh, go on! Sure he flirted with an engaged woman and her sister at the same time but it would make Mary happy!" Edmund doesn't even write any letters to Fanny when she's in Portsmouth either.

As you can probably tell I really dislike Edmund for most of the book! He is without doubt my least favourite Austen hero! I think he's a hypocrite and that poor Fanny really deserves far better. Yet despite my issues with Mansfield Park I still have a lot of respect for it. I can't bring myself to love it like I do with Austen's other novels but overall I still think that it's a very interesting read and that it's a four star worthy novel. J.K. Rowling must be a fan of this book as well since she named Filch's cat after Mrs Norris : ) This book is far better than its most famous adaptation as well. The 1999 film, directed by Patricia Rozema, tries to make Fanny more palatable to a modern-day audience by making her self-confident and outgoing - but it doesn't work AT ALL and is a travesty of Austen's character and novel!

Rating: 4/5 


Geneva said...

I totally agree with you on your feelings toward Fanny and the things that bother you about the book. Like you said, Fanny isn't a prig! She is moral and stands by her morals (which as you said takes strength). And no way is Mary Crawford like Elizabeth!

This is also my least favorite book. I get so frustrated with how everyone treats Fanny. I wish she stood up for herself more. Edmund is a sad excuse for a hero (I'm only okay with him because he is who Fanny wants). And I've always felt a little like Edmund just settles for Fanny.

I've always wondered if Austen was a little depressed when she wrote it because it's so frustrating and is far less satisfying than her other novels.

Hannah said...

I wish Fanny could have stood up for herself more too but at the same time I know it makes sense for her to not to stand up for herself so what can I expect? And that frustrates me even more because I'm frustrated but don't feel I have the right to be! Does that even make sense?! Lol.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if Austen was feeling depressed when she wrote MP. It is kind of weird that she wrote it in-between Pride and Prejudice and Emma because those books are so much more cheerful and upbeat than this one.

Marianne said...

I quite agree about Edmund!! But I do love this novel. :)

Hannah said...

Good for you! I wish I could! I respect this novel but I just can't like it very much no matter how hard I try.

jessica prescott said...

I would definitely say Mansfield Park isn't my favorite Austen novel, but Fanny is actually my favorite of all the Austen heroines. You see, she reminds me very, very strongly of myself--I can totally relate to her shyness, her sensitivity, her soft-heartedness, and her fear of asserting herself, except she's even more timid than I am. Which, like you said, is absolutely the result of her upbringing. Like, the only reason I'm not THAT timid is because I was brought up by super-kind and encouraging parents who tried hard to give me self-confidence! If I'd had to live with Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas since I was 10, I'd probably be even more "mousy" than Fanny.

And I was SO glad you pointed that out--it always makes me angry when people don't seem to appreciate how much Fanny has had to go through, and how profoundly all her sufferings have shaped her character. It's so true what you said about her actually showing more courage than Elizabeth Bennet. Yes, Lizzy was brave to stand up to Lady Catherine, but that doesn't even come CLOSE to what Fanny did in standing up to her own family when they wanted her to marry Henry.

Oh, yeah--and I don't like Edmund either. Basically, everything you said in this post, I agreed with :)

Hannah said...

Hi Jessica! I happened to re-read MP fairly recently and, although I think it might still be my least favourite of Jane Austen's books, I definitely appreciated it more than I've ever done before. Have you been watching the YouTube adaptation 'From Mansfield with Love' by any chance? I LOVE IT! They've done such a brilliant job with the story and with Fanny's character!

I think Fanny and I share some similar traits as well - for example the sensitivity and the fact that I tend to be shy around people that I don't know very well - and I've always felt sorry for her and admired her for her strength in character (and she really DOES deserves so much better than Edmund!) I can definitely understand why Fanny would be your favourite JA heroine. Personally Fanny isn't MY favourite JA heroine but she's definitely not my least favourite.

Thanks so much for leaving your comment!

jessica prescott said...

No, I've never seen From Mansfield With Love--maybe I should try that! I'm really glad to hear they're doing a good job with her character!

This is slightly random, but I actually think Fanny may be an INFJ. That's what I am, and she seems to have a lot of the INFJ traits . . . intuition, empathy, shyness, dislike of conflict, etc. What do you think? (I know you're an INFJ, too, so I was curious!)

Hannah said...

Fanny's almost always typed as an INFP and I think that suits her much better. INFPs tend to be far more private and reserved about what they're feeling than INFJs. INFJs have a great need to confide in people but Fanny doesn't seem to have that at ALL! She keeps almost everything that she's feeling to herself and doesn't even feel the need to confide in the people who are closest to her (Edmund, William and later Susan). And I can see quite a bit of Introverted Sensing (Si) in her as well - in that she really doesn't seem to like change at all and doesn't ever really think about the future.

jessica prescott said...

I see . . . I guess I was thinking INFJ because I thought INFPs tended to be more unconventional and "non-judgmental"--like, "everybody needs to follow their own path"--whereas Fanny has very strong ideas about what's right and wrong, not just for her, but for everyone else too. She's an idealist, but not an "individualistic" idealist, more of a "universal" idealist--like an INFJ. Of course, that's just how it strikes me. I could be totally off about that :)