Jane Austen ‘s Mansfield Park is a novel that still drives a lot of differing opinions. Some love the book. Others find it to be disappointing. I found it to be superb. In some ways, it resembles other Austen books. It other ways, it is very different from the author’s other novels.
This is the story of Fanny Price. Born to a relatively poor family, the novel’s heroine goes to live with the wealthy Bertram family while in her early teens. Fanny’s social and romantic interactions, as well as those of her adopted family, are the topic of the story. There are several subplots, and many of the novel’s characters are interesting and complex.
Fanny is atypical for an Austen heroine. She is exceedingly shy and unassuming. The word humble may be an understatement to describe her. Other characters sometimes bully, underappreciate and emotionally neglect her.
Early on, it becomes apparent that many of the Bertrams and their friends are narcissistic, unintellectual or seriously flawed in some major way. One exception is Fanny’s cousin, Edmund. It becomes clear that Fanny and he have an affinity for one another, though Edmund does not initially recognize the romantic aspects of it. Complicating matters is Edmund’s attraction for the sometimes kind but opportunistic, cynical and shallow Mary Crawford. Mary’s brother, Henry, though in many ways, narcissistic and manipulative himself, eventually becomes genuinely enamored with Fanny.
I have previously read Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion. I found this novel to be funnier than the Austen works that I have read. I also found many of the characters to be darker and less ethical. To be sure, all of the Austen books that I have read contain immoral characters who conduct themselves in questionable ways. However, this book contains a core of characters who consistently engage in extremely selfish, petty and narcissistic behavior. This includes Fanny’s cousins, Julia, Maria and Tom, as well as her Aunt Norris.
So much has been written about this book and about Fanny in particular. A Google search will show that for well over a century, professional critics as well as amateurs have produced a steady stream of essays, articles and books dedicated to this novel. One could spend years just reading books that analyze and dissect this work. Opinions vary on Fanny. Some see her as a paragon of virtue, and others see her a stiff and stifling person. Critic Nina Auerbach famously compared her to Marry Shelly’s monster of Frankenstein fame. Since so much has already been written, I will, as I often do, just share some thoughts on one particular aspect of this book.
I think that it is clear that Austen intended to make Fanny sympathetic but also complex and flawed. The book’s heroine is, at times, inwardly judgmental in an unpleasant way. However, she is mostly sympathetic, but in an unusual way. There is a lot to her character. As noted above, Fanny is abnormally shy and unassuming. So much so that she is often browbeaten by the other characters. In particular, Mrs. Norris continually subjects her to criticism that comes close to being verbally abusive. On the other hand, her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, though a stern man, usually shows Fanny particular kindness. This changes when Fanny refuses Crawford’s marriage proposal. Bertram is vehement in his desire that the match go forward. He launches a tirade on the subject aimed at Fanny,
“”But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse; that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you, without even asking their advice. You have shewn yourself very, very different from anything that I had imagined. The advantage or disadvantage of your family, of your parents, your brothers and sisters, never seems to have had a moment’s share in your thoughts on this occasion. How they might be benefited, how they must rejoice in such an establishment for you, is nothing to you. You think only of yourself, and because you do not feel for Mr. Crawford exactly what a young heated fancy imagines to be necessary for happiness, you resolve to refuse him at once, without wishing even for a little time consider of it, a little more time for cool consideration, and for really examining your own inclinations; and are, in a wild fit of folly, throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honourably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again. Here is a young man of sense, of character, of temper, of manners, and of fortune, exceedingly attached to you, and seeking your hand in the most handsome and disinterested way; and let me tell you, Fanny, that you may live eighteen years longer in the world without being addressed by a man of half Mr. Crawford’s estate, or a tenth part of his merits…You do not owe me the duty of a child. But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude””
The above is tyrannical, petty and unfair. The “wild fit of folly” as well as the references to selfishness are particularly unjust given Fanny’s calm temperament, seriousness and selflessness. Yet the best that Fanny can do here is to shrink back, cry and do nothing to defend herself. This is consistent with her behavior throughout the narrative.
However, there is another aspect to Fanny’s character. Despite this timidity, she is unwavering when applying her principles. Despite her shrinking in response to the above diatribe, she never once considers giving in and accepting Crawford’s proposal. She maintains this stance despite enormous pressure from her family, friends and Crawford himself. She does not love the man and has serious questions about his integrity. She not only refuses to give in, but she never even considers accepting his proposal. Fanny is not even tempted.
Fanny shows a similar combination of timidity and unyielding backbone when she refuses to act in a play being put on by her family and friends that she has moral objections to. What adds to the complexity of the book is that at times, as in the case of the play, these moral objections may seem questionable. There is a lot going on with Fanny. This seems to be the source of some readers’ dislike of this book and her character.
Austen has fashioned in Fanny a young woman who is often meek, but who is capable of putting up wall of granite when her morals are challenged. Hence, the paradox that I refer to above. This is only one of several angles that makes Fanny fascinating and multidimensional. In order to explore them all, I would need several blog posts.
The above is also only one of many aspects that also makes this book appealing. The novel has other complex and fascinating characters. The story is interesting. There is a lot going on thematically. As always, Austen’s prose is brilliant and witty. The book is also very funny in a cynical and biting way. Despite varying opinion among critics and general readers, I thought that this was another complex masterpiece by Austen.