Though it is always fun to visit the Regency era, this one was a challenging read. At 440 pages, Mansfield Park counts among Jane Austen’s longer novels. It is also a strong contender for her most dated, controversial work.
Fanny Price is less than ten years old when she is uprooted from her loving but impoverished home and sent to live with her mother’s wealthy relatives in Northamptonshire. Lesser in looks and education than her accomplished cousins, Fanny grows to womanhood in the awkward post of ‘poor relation’, consoled only by her beloved Edmund, who alone among the Bertram clan regards her with kindness and consideration.
With its swooning admiration of clergymen and unashamed advocacy of kissing cousins romance, it is fair to say that Mansfield Park is a classic that shows its age. The overall fustiness is not helped by the fact that Fanny is the wettest of the author’s heroines, embodying a romanticised ideal of meek frailty. Even the most committed Austen fans may find themselves fighting the urge to dismiss Miss Price as a pathetic lettuce.
Yet, is there more to Mansfield Park, and to Fanny’s wearying weepiness, than meets the eye? It seemed I had good reason to hope. Similarly to Persuasion (which I adore), Mansfield Park is the story of a downtrodden woman realising her self-worth. True, Fanny’s transformation never promises to be as dramatic or far-reaching as Anne’s, but she is just 18, and starts from a place of lesser advantage. I was prepared to give her every chance.
Those who have not more must be satisfied with what they have.
With its slow start and an extended, uneventful middle passage, Mansfield Park is a test of patience. Though I was more engaged and invested towards the end, the final act seemed an insufficient reward for the struggle to get there. For me, this was an extremely long read, picked up and put down many times over the months it took me to finish it.
I do not like to criticise any book on the basis of its characters’ personalities – even the soggiest biscuit may still be convincing and well-written – but my main issue here was that I could never bring myself to root for Fanny, despite the narrative’s sympathy and tacit agreement with her moral principles. It is true her circumstances are less than perfect, but given that Fanny enjoys a luxurious lifestyle beyond the wildest dreams of her destitute siblings, her failure to recognise and capitalise on her relative good fortune makes her incredibly annoying. She is also an unrepentant snob, demonstrated during a visit to her family in Portsmouth. Rather than showing any sympathy for their poverty or gratitude for having been lifted out of similar circumstances, Fanny spends the entire trip wrinkling her nose at their lack of refinement – get in the bin!
Fanny is not the book’s only hard sell. Obviously, romantic love between cousins is distasteful to modern audiences (particularly when said cousins have been raised as siblings), but I have to say it wasn’t just the incestuous quality of the relationship that sank Fanny x Edmund for me. Another fundamental issue is that Edmund is an arrogant dullard. Where the rest of the family regard Fanny with tired indifference, he does deign to treat her like a human being, but that is the sum total of his charm. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think a credible love interest ought to bring a bit more to the table than basic human decency.
There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.
Another issue is the fact that Fanny struggles to emerge from the shadow cast by her rival in love, Mary Crawford. Capricious, strong-minded and sure of herself, Mary brings more personality to each scene she features in than Fanny manifests during the entire book. Sure, Mary is bad news and just as unlikeable, but she is hands down a more interesting character than Fanny, who seemingly exists to give shy introverts a bad name.
Austen has few rivals when it comes to incisive social commentary, and this does make some appearance in Mansfield Park. The best parts of this book demonstrate her deep understanding of human psychology, as well as her characteristic wit – there are a few moments of snort-inducing humour. I did not find this novel anywhere near as sharp as the author’s other works, however. Though I have yet to read Emma, I feel I can say with some confidence that Mansfield Park is the drabbest Austen. Despite some thought-provoking themes, it lacks the resonance of more popular classics. I also think the ending is a major copout, serving to justify Fanny’s moral high ground at the expense of character development (and realism).
Austen at her worst is a cut above many authors at their best, so I am glad I gave this book a go, but I must bow to general opinion about its ranking at the bottom of her bibliography. Mansfield Park is not a classic I will be making time to reread.