Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (1814)

Mansfield Park

I’m nearing the end of my Austen journey. Now that I have read Mansfield Park, I’ve only got Persuasion and her short fiction left. I was surprised to like Mansfield Park so much as I know it’s not a favourite of many. The reason for this is to some extent its heroine Fanny Price. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I liked Mansfield Park better than Pride and Prejudice, but it may come in second, before Emma.

The story can be summarized briefly. Three women make three very different marriages. Mrs Price gets married to a poor man who likes his drink too much. She bears him some 12 children, one of them is Fanny. Lady Bertram marries a very rich man, owner of an impressive country estate, Mansfield Park. The third, Mrs Norris, lives near Mansfield Park with her husband in a small parsonage. The two ladies often speak about their unfortunate third sister who lives in Portsmouth in squalor and one day Mrs Norris urges the Bertrams to send for Fanny, who is about ten years old, and suggests they raise her at Mansfield Park, together with her four older cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia.

Fanny is extremely timid but over the years she is doing well. She grows up to be an educated and very pretty young woman. She’s secretly in love with her cousin Edmund who was the only one who was nice to her. Edmund has decided to join the clergy as being the younger brother he will not have a lot of money to live on. A lot of the Bertram’s money comes from the colonies and when the plantations don’t do so well, Sir Bertram travels to Antigua with his older son.

Mrs Norris who is a widow by now had to vacate the cottage for the new pastor, Mr Grant, and while Sir Bertram travels to Antigua, Mary and Henry Crawford, the younger brother and sister of Mrs Grant, arrive and set in motion a series of dramatic events.

If you know Austen well, you know that all of her heroines are tested. Some more, some less, but in the end they are always rewarded and the reward is a happy marriage.

Fanny Price is a unusual heroine because she comes from a very poor family and the way she is treated by the Bertram’s is often quite shocking. Especially the unlikable Mrs Norris lets her feel daily that she is an inferior. Fanny reminded me much more of a Dickens character and when she is sent back to Portsmouth, as a form of punishment, towards the end of the book, it’s even more Dickensian. I don’t think we find such a close up of a poor family in any other of Austen’s novels. But Fanny Price is unusual for other reasons. She is so timid and fearful and very frail as well. I was surprised to find the portrait of a highly sensitive person who even shows some signs of what used to be called neurasthenia. She has to be careful at all times; she catches colds more easily than others, she’s more easily exhausted. Her symptoms are never as pertinent as when she stays in Portsmouth. She suffers from the noise, the dirt and the smells far more than anyone else would. I have seen her called passive by people but I would say she is quiet and withdrawn, she’s not so much a dreamer as a thinker. Sure, to some extent she is passive, but if you are told daily that you are nothing, that you have to be grateful, that you have to stay in the shadow, then it’s hard to be any other way. Even if she is passive, I don’t think she has a weak mind at all. When they want to force her to marry Henry, she opposes this strongly.

I think a lot of the dislike of Fanny Price stems from her opponent Mary Crawford. I saw people mention that they like her far better than Fanny. When the book was written, she was clearly one of the negative people but we, with our 21st Century mentalities, can’t help but like her and find a lot of what she says quite reasonable. I don’t think I spoil the novel if I mention that it is also about adultery. From our point of view Mary’s reaction to this event is understandable, but when the book was written it was quite shocking. I think small elements like this show very well why many people prefer a historical novel set in 1814 than the real thing because a writer of historical novels would take our mindset into consideration.

Mansfield Park has one of my favourite villains Mrs Norris. She’s a self-centered, selfish and cruel person and tries to exclude Fanny from every little bit of joy, denies her a fire in her room and reminds her constantly that she is an outsider. I loved to hate her and the end is so rewarding.

Mansfield Park has a minor flaw. It is Austen’s longest novel but it’s not long enough. I felt the end was rushed. Many of the most important scenes happen offstage and the final emotional developments happen too quickly. I wasn’t surprised when I watched the ITV production right after finishing the book to see, that those elements were shown in the film while the first parts were compressed. I can’t remember if Austen rushes all of her endings like this. I found it a bit disappointing, which doesn’t mean I preferred the movie version. Not at all. It’s OK but not great and it contains a lot of major changes.

I think that when people write unkindly about Fanny Price, they seem to forget that being adopted into a rich family, means that you are leaving your family behind. Being cut off from what you know, not seeing your beloved brother for years, must be a terrible shock, no matter how stately a home you get in exchange. The story of the little girl Fanny Price who became a delicate but strong heroine has moved me. It’s a rags to riches story that I wouldn’t have expected from Austen. Most of her heroines marry well and improve economically through their marriage, but they don’t start out being as destitute as Fanny.