Commentary: Mansfield Park

Posted 14 March, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 4 Comments

Mansfield Park
By: Jane Austen

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.

Mansfield Park is often listed as the least favourite amongst Austen readers. Although I haven’t read this book as often as the other novels, I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s not as sharp and witty as Pride and Prejudice (commentary) or as funny as Emma (commentary) but the characters and their circumstances are so multi-faceted, I love the dynamics that go on in this book. I saved it for last in my re-read of Jane Austen’s completed works if only because I know there’s a lot going on in this book ^_~ Contains spoilers ahead!

Re-reading Mansfield Park, I’ve come to the conclusion that Fanny Price is an introvert: she’s only comfortable in expressing her opinions with those she’s closest to and is most comfortable with (and even then she tends to hold back). She exerts her influence very passively, quietly–blink and you’ll miss it kind of passive–and she hates it whenever attention is drawn on her, good or bad (i.e. Edmund commenting at how pretty Fanny looked). A big part of her introversion stems from her upbringing: she’s always put down (especially by Mrs. Norris) and she’s always reminded about where she came from, how much “higher” in station the Bertrams were from her. It’s been ingrained in her so much, and being docile/as nice as she is from the beginning, she complies to this.

Yet there’s this calm about her; she likes simple things. Despite of her cousins’ initial impressions of her, she’s smart; she wants to know more of the world, she likes to read books with far-off settings like China. When Sir Thomas returned unexpectedly to Mansfield Park, she was the only one who was interested in learning more about the West Indies. In a way Fanny reminds me of Molly Gibson from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

I also found it interesting that out of all of the Austen heroines, Fanny is physically weaker. She’s not a strong walker like Elizabeth Bennett but I think this attribute was done on purpose to a) contrast her with Mary Crawford’s high-spiritedness and b) to remind the reader of her situation in life in comparison to the Crawfords, the Bertrams. And yet she’s not as weak as everyone perceives her to be: she rides quite well. Ultimately her strength is made up in her personal endurance and tenacity in the face of difficult situations.

Henry Crawford continues to raise questions in my mind and intrigue me even after my nth re-reading of this book. There’s no doubt that he’s notorious flirt, going after both Miss Bertrams when the reader is first introduced to him. Even when his attentions turn to Fanny, there’s this teasing/playing mentality behind his intentions that makes him untrustworthy. But over time it seemed as though he grew rather sincere of his affections towards Fanny. After all, if he was really after adding Fanny to his list of successful pursuits (and her reluctance just added to his interest, I reckon), why take such lengths to get her to fall for him–including a marriage proposal that, if she said yes, would been uber difficult to get out of (as far as my understanding of marriage contracts go during this period)? I thought it was interesting that the narration raised the questions in my mind as well:

Could (Henry Crawford) have been satisfied with the conquest of one amiable woman’s affections, could he have found sufficient exultation in overcoming the reluctance, in working himself into the esteem and tenderness of Fanny Price, there would have been every probability of success and felicity for him.
– p. 423 (in my edition)

The question of whether Fanny could’ve been Henry’s redemption (character-wise) continues to circle in my head.

Mrs. Norris ties with Lucy Steele as the most irritating and quite possibly the most horrible female antagonist in Jane Austen’s works for me. Not only is she always mean to Fanny, number one in putting her down whenever she has a chance, but she also actively moves about to make sure she doesn’t get included in all of the fun. Re-reading it this time around, I also wondered (and maybe I wondered about this before and forgot about it) whether Mrs. Norris had a thing for Sir Thomas; early in the novel she’s always praising him for his generosity and kindness and is always there to give him advice and prod him along. I think she had more scenes with him than Lady Bertram, Sir Thomas’ wife! I also wondered how it was that she ended up with Mr. Norris, Mrs. Norris sort of rubs me as a bit of a social climber. I genuinely LOL’ed after the whole fiasco with the play and how Mrs. Norris got stuck with a curtain no one would use. I also LOL’ed that the one thing that Mrs. Norris did not want–for Fanny to marry either Tom or Edmund–happened anyways =P

Speaking of which, I did find myself wondering about Fanny and Edmund’s relationship at some point during this re-read. Following Fanny over the course of the novel, the reader witnesses Fanny’s love for Edmund through Edmund’s preoccupation with Mary. I thought it was a little unfair in the description of how Edmund came to reciprocate those feelings in part because “her mind [was] in so great a degree formed in his care” (p. 427 in my edition); it seemed to suggest that she was suited for him because they were of similar mind, having grown up educated that way. But they’ve always looked out for each other (Edmund more so since he was older and he was the first to reach out for her when she first moved to Mansfield Park) and they are not selfish and she does hold her own opinions that are separate from his so I can sort of look past that one sentence (maybe it just rubbed me the wrong way this time around, don’t know why it stood out the way it did this time). I just wished Jane Austen had a few more scenes showing how Fanny and Edmund came to an understanding of each other’s feelings! (which is probably why I love the last 10 minutes of the 2007 adaptation)

Selfishness (or whatever it is you could call it here) and its various manifestations plays a major theme in this novel, in various forms. Henry and Mary Crawford are vain people who hate to lose their power/influence over others (Mary with Edmund becoming a clergymen, Henry with Mrs. Rushmore’s cold reception of him). Tom, Maria and Julia spent most of the novel wants without thinking of the consequences. Going hand-in-hand with the latter’s case is the issue of parenting: Lady Bertram is this lazy, passive figure in the children’s lives, Mrs. Norris is nosy and playing favourites with her nieces and nephews and Sir Thomas is distant and tactless. It was interesting how Sir Thomas realises at the end that there was something wanting in the education of most of his children, particularly his daughters. Tom was saved through his near-death experience and Julia eventually humbled herself but Maria was just too far gone.

As a side note about Sir Thomas and his parenting, I found myself dwelling a little on the families featured in this story. Jane Austen did not dwell much on the early years of the Ward sisters but it was interesting to read how the three sisters drifted apart as they became Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Price. It seemed to suggest that they were not a strong unit or close to begin with since class played such a major role in their breakdown. Despite regularly visiting Mansfield Park, you don’t see Mrs. Norris conversing with Lady Bertram often (at least conversing in a featured manner) and Mrs. Price, when Fanny was with her family at Portsmouth, didn’t seem to hold much care or interest for the lives of her sisters. Fanny herself seemed rather stuck in a hard place, feeling out of place both at Mansfield Park and at Portsmouth. And then there’s Sir Thomas with this notion of family homeliness when really his kids are doing goodness-knows-what whenever he’s not around without thinking about the familial consequences. It’s an intriguing dynamic to re-read about.

Overall Mansfield Park continues to be a wonderful and rich novel in my mind. There’s always something new to consider in terms of the characters’ behaviour and family dynamics and enough drama to keep the reader tuned in.

What are your thoughts of the book? Did you enjoy it? If not, would you be open to re-read it again at some point?

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4 Responses to “Commentary: Mansfield Park”

  1. I’m not a Jane Austen fan yet I loved Mansfield Park. I think it is far more sincere than her other works. For me, P&P is an impossible love story, actually I don’t see how two people can fall in love like that. Mansfield Park explores what I think is something closer to love, marriage, treason and feelings in general.

    • I hope you enjoy the other books when you get around to them! I love them all for their own particular reasons <3

      I never quite thought about it that way (MP exploring themes of feeling) but I agree, especially between what is proper and what isn't

  2. I love Mansfield Park because it challenges the reader in a way that Austen’s other novels don’t. All of the other heroines are more or less lively, and even the quieter girls like Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliott at least have a sense of humor. But Fanny is really hard to like, at least for me. It’s especially interesting when you compare MP to P&P. In P&P, the heroine is the playful girl who is somewhat saucy and impudent, thus attracting the hero. But in MP, those same qualities appear in the antagonist, Mary Crawford. I think it’s interesting the way that Austen explores these character traits, showing how they can be both appealing (in the case of Lizzy) and dangerous (in the case of Mary).

    • Exactly! Agreed on all the points you mentioned there about the characters 🙂 Also, for some reason it didn’t occur to me right away that Fanny was lacking a sense of humour (especially compared to Anne and Elinor), lol.

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