Fiction; Classic Literature
I think this is my favorite Jane Austen book so far, although I still have Persuasion and Northanger Abbey to read. Most Austen fans would not count Mansfield Park as a favorite, though, at least from what I’ve heard. It’s not that it’s a profoundly different book from the more popular Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility, but many people seem to dislike the main character, or at least are not as impressed by her, as by P&P’s Elizabeth Bennet or Emma’s Emma Woodhouse. It’s true that Fanny Price is a very different heroine than Lizzy or Emma, but her circumstances are profoundly different, too. She doesn’t have Lizzy’s spunk or Emma’s forthrightness, but Lizzy and Emma both have the advantage of being more secure in their surroundings, both financially and emotionally. Fanny has a lot working against her from the start.
A generation before Fanny’s birth, three sisters chose their paths of marriage: one to a respectable parson, one to a wealthy landowner, and the other to a basically worthless sloth. Fanny had the misfortune to be one of the numerous products of the latter. Her aunt, Mrs. Norris (married to the parson), convinces their other sister, the wealthy Mrs. Bertram, to take Fanny in as a ward. While this sounds like a kindness, it’s really only an ego booster for Mrs. Norris. She has no love for Fanny and from the day the poor girl comes to live with the Bertrams at Mansfield Park, she is never allowed to forget that she is the beneficiary of charity and should grovel, beg and prove her gratitude every waking second. Not only are there constant verbal reminders from her aunts, uncle and cousins, but Fanny’s status as a poor relation is made clear by her clothing, her rooms, the social functions she’s allowed to attend (or not), and even whether or not she has a horse to ride. It’s not that anyone is outwardly unkind to Fanny (except Mrs. Norris, at times) per se; she’s just a non-entity entirely dependent on the whims of her superior relations, and she’s always painfully aware of it.
The main event is the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford, a brother and sister who proceed to turn things topsy-turvy in the circle of families around Mansfield Park with their somewhat laissez-faire, urban view on the rituals of courtship. The bittersweet backdrop to all this entanglement and game-playing is Fanny’s genuine, unrequited love for her cousin Edmund, one of the few people who treats her as an equal. Other reviewers have expressed disdain and frustration with Fanny, labeling her a boring, moralistic, judgmental prig, but I didn’t feel that way about her at all. I felt she handled herself and her situation 0the best she could, and the fact that she’s a plain, ordinary girl with none of Elizabeth Bennet’s wit or Emma Woodhouse’s beauty only makes her more human to me. I enjoyed it and will definitely read it again.