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.
I feel exactly the same way on this one. So glad you liked it. :)
Thanks for stopping by Jillian.
It is so interesting how this book drives such divergent opinions.
It's one of the two Austen I've yet to read - scheduled for some point next year I think.... (not planning too far ahead!).
Outstanding review as always. This sounds like a very interesting book. But currently it is not on my reading radar.
Have a great week ahead :)
Depending upon my mood, this is either my first or second favorite of her novels--the other being Persuasion.
It is the most controversial of her novels.
I really do need to read this novel again because Fanny does irritate me so much! The worst of it for me is that she does not really take care of herself. She makes herself into a physical weakling, which I cannot abide; and then acts the priss. She could be a moral centre by example; but, she does not do it. Yes, Mrs. Norris is vile, Mrs. Bertram is forever in a fog, the girls are spoilt horribly. However, there are some intimations to reformation if she provides the grace. She does not. Her world is one of Calvinistic black and white where no one can truly change. Austen's Mother did not like her. I find it to be a sad book, except for her brother. There is only one (maybe 2) bad people and the rest are blunderers. Still, I'll need to read it again ;-).
i believe i read this fifty years ago; time for a reread: great post, tx...
I share your opinion that this novel is "superb". While not my favorite among Austen's novels, this is a classic worth reading and rereading. Thanks for your wonderful review!
Hi Cyberkitten - If you read this, I would love to know what you thought.
There is now only one fill length Austen novel that I have not read. That is Northanger Abbey.
Hi Fred - I can see why this is one of your favorites. For the same reason that it is controversial I like it so much. That is, there is a lot of ambiguity to it.
Thanks The Reader's Tales.
Though I liked it so much, this is not the Austen book that I would recommend reading first because it is so atypical.
Hi Julia - As you point out, Fanny is indeed flawed.
You raise point, if Fanny had been stronger in different ways she may have helped other characters to improve herself. It was just part of personality to do so.
If we can only have perfect recollection of books forever!
I think that in particular, this novel would led itself to rereading.
To all Austen fans I can recommend:
A Jane Austen Education – How Six Novels taught me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter by William Deresiewicz
What Matters in Jane Austen? – Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan
Jane’s Fame – How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman
Of the three Austen novels I've read so far, Mansfield Park was the least entertaining for me (it took me a while to get through it) but the most interesting. I can understand why some critics say it's her best novel. Austen's very direct address of the slave trade and the recognition of the change happening in Great Britain at the time are quite fascinating. When I read it I kept thinking of the similarities with Parade's End, which I had read not long before. I was pleased when Tony Tanner drew the same comparison in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition. They deal with very similar themes of national change, just change at different times in history. Though I personally found Parade's End to be much more enjoyable and even quick, despite its size.
Hi Kate - You raise a very good point. I agree, this is less entertaining then other Austen novels which I found to be very entertaining. Interesting is so much more appropriate word.
The slave trade reference and observations on change are additional factors that make this book complex.
I have not read Parade's End. It sounds very good.
Thanks for the recommendations Cyberkitten. All those books look good.
I am always torn between reading books of this sort verses reading the original classics themselves. Time is so short!
Brian Joseph, I haven't read this novel, but it sounds like I should. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Fanny sounds like a character worthy of study. Excellent review!
Hi Suko - I would recommend this book to anyone who likes literature of this type.
I always say this is my least favorite Austen novel, but that's probably unfair since I only read it once... nearly 20 years ago. For the past several years I've contemplated rereading all of Austen. Wonder if I can work it in with my Palliser project. ;-)
Hi JoAnn - I wonder if you would think differently of the book now.
As you know I am also working my way through The Pallisers. I am almost finished with the Eustace Diamonds.
HI Brian. I have read this book a couple of times. It is superbly written as others have said, although it is not my favorite. I have a hard time reading about mean people and the mean people in this novel are so one-dimensionally mean.
I understand that Austin is making a parody in order to drive her point home, which is to show how helpless poor people, and especially poor ladies were. The time for equal opportunity was certainly ripe.
Still, your review makes me want to go back to the "read" book shelf and read it again. Have a good week.
Hi Sharon - It is interesting, I was thinking as I read this how I also do not like to read about people who are mean to others. But then I thought about Wuthering Heights and Rochester. I thought that despite the way in which sons of Austen's characters were nasty, it could be worse :) Still, I know what you mean.
This is an Austen I've yet to read, so I really ought to make time for it at some point. The characterisation sounds excellent, always a good thing in my book.
Hi Jacqui - The characterizations are typical for Austen. Thus they are unique and very interesting. I think that you would really like this book.
I really enjoyed this review, Brian :) it makes me feel that I should read this sooner rather than later. Lovely!
If you read this I would be curious as to what you thought of it.
Brian, I just love your reviews, even if I haven't read the book, yet. You give so much good food for thought...
I found the excerpt you present interesting in that it shows a young woman going with her heart or what she feels, rather than bowing to convention and family pressure. Sounds like my kind of gal :)
Thanks so much Laurie.
In terms of her values, Fanny really does not bow to pressure.
I'm so glad you finally got to Mansfield Park - it improves with rereading too as I discovered a few years ago - http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/mansfield-park-by-jane-austen.html
Although I'm still not completely convinced that Edmund deserved Fanny after the way he treated her and carried on throughout the entire book. JA usually allowed her hero to learn his lesson more thoroughly than Edmund did. So I don't feel confident that it will hold.
Have you tried any of the movies or BBC productions of MP?
Hi Brona - Thanks for the link. Your review was super.
Rereading is generally a good thing. I can see how this book on particular would lend itself to it.
Edmund was certainly flawed. How well the pair did is a question I often have when it comes to these type of stories. In terms of Fanny, I think that as long as Edmund does not ask Fanny to compromise her ethics, then she will be an acomidating person. She is clearly happy in that role. That might point to a Happy relationship.
I have not viewed any productions of Mansfield Park. I plan to on the future.
thank you for giving this wonderful review on a novel and special on a character that appealed me to great extent ,never felt such attraction as i felt for fanny .
i never read Jane but heard about her .
i am sure i will read this one as soon as possible .
human nature is very deep ,complex and unpredictable sometime and some people cannot be judged only on the bases of their general behaviors and responses .
i find that deep unshaken strength in fanny that leads her to control ,compose and process her emotions amazingly
I think that one reason that Austen is so popular is that she is very good about capturing the nuances of human nature.
I would love to know what you thought if you read this book.
I'm one of those who LOVED this. I expected nothing because I read a few negative reviews and it was a huge surprise. I liked Fanny very much.
The scene at fanny's home, the description of poverty, is also something one doesn't really find in Austen's books normally.
Hi Caroline. You raise a good point about Austen and poverty. The description in this book seemed very realistic. I am currently reading Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. What a difference in the way it is portrayed!
What a fine critique! I must return to Austen someday soon. Perhaps I am now old enough to appreciate her novels better than I did in past decades. Austen has the singular ability to appeal to readers of different ages in different ways. Thanks for reminding me with your review that I will likely discover something different this time around.
Thanks Tim. I love Austen's books now. When I was younger I think that I would have disliked them.
It's the one Austen I have yet to see any versions of either. I suspect it would be hard to portray Fanny's curious mix of docility & strength sympathetically.
Thanks for another great review Brian. My plan I think is to rwad Emna before I read read Mansfield Park. I am intrigued by Austen's comment that in Emma she would create a heroine only she would like. But Fanny tnough meek sounds interesting too. As you say granite behind the shyness.
Hi Brona - I will really try to watch one soon. When I do I will come back on the thread to let you know what I think.
Hi Kathy - It makes sense to have Austen's more popular novels fresh in your mind before reading this one.
I have been reading her books for the first time over the past few years.
That was my experience. I didn't care for Austen until I was in my early 40s. After that, I couldn't read her often enough and regretted there were only six novels and some juvenalia.
Lady Susan is a great short work, and the film version, Love and Friendship, is one of the best dramatizations of her works that I've seen.
Hi Fred - I must give lady Susan a try.
This is a book I had to re-read in order to appreciate it. My first reaction about 17 years ago was that Fanny was insipid and Edmund was a bit dense. Second time around my opinion of Fanny improved markedly but I still think Edmund was wishy-washy.
Hi Carol - I think that both characters are flawed. I think that "wishy - washy" is a good descriptor for Edmund.
Outstanding commentary as usual, Brian!! :) :)
You know, what first struck me about this post was the fact that one of the characters in this novel, who is verbally abusive to Fanny, is named Mrs. Norris. That's also the name of a cat owned by a certain Argus Filch, in the Harry Potter series! Mr. Filch happens to be a caretaker at Hogwarts, the school Harry attends, and he's a bully to the students. So I think that J.K. Rowling, the author of the series, was including a very clever, as well as appropriate, reference to this character in "Mansfield Park".
Now, about Fanny herself. She certainly sounds like a very interesting character. As you have mentioned, her temperament and behavior are indeed paradoxical. That she was so shy and humble, and yet, stuck to her moral standards so firmly, is definitely paradoxical. It's amazing that that she never gives in to all the pressure to marry Mr. Crawford!
That tirade by Sir Bertram, her supposed benefactor, made me CRINGE. How could he have addressed her in such an unfair manner? But then, I'm sure Austen was criticizing the expectations forced upon women in her time. Women were supposed to just docilely go along with the decisions made for them by their families. Only men were afforded the "luxury" of independent action. If a woman wanted to put forth her own opinion, her own feelings, she was immediately accused of being "selfish"! Ah, but of course, when MEN put forth THEIR own opinions, that was perfectly all right. Yes, I do think that Austen was criticizing this state of affairs. With this diatribe by Bertram, she was synthesizing the prevailing views of the society of her time. Sadly, in some parts of the world, this type of thing STILL goes on....
It's so APPALLING that some societies have in the past -- as well as in the present -- considered material wealth and social standing as more important than love, where marriage is concerned. No wonder there was so much adultery going on in past centuries, especially in the higher classes! People, mostly women, gave in to societal and family pressures, and married those they didn't love. Then they had lovers on the side, whom they DID love. Well, needless to say, society has always been very hypocritical, and, unfortunately, still is..... Maybe the marriage without love issue is not such a big one in our society today, but other hypocritical things certainly are!
You've really piqued my curiosity about this novel, Brian! Now I want to see how the whole plot plays out! Thank you for this thought-provoking post!! <3 :)
It's an interesting book, isn't it? Especially when comparing Fanny to Austen's other heroines who all have spunk and verve. Nabokov calls this a Cinderella story, though I'm not sure one could call Edmund a dashing and handsome prince :)
Hi Stephanie - The contrast between Austen heroines is so interesting. I did not know Nabokov said that. It makes sense, except for, as you say, Edmund.
Yes I think I remember Mrs. Norris from the films! There must be a connection.
Indeed the role of women is explored by Austen and in this book. The predicament Fanny is in because of her gender is so unfair for all the reasons that you say.
The theme of money and connections verses love as they relate to marriage is such a popular theme of English literature of the time. It seems to have been on people’s minds a lot. This is understandable. It seems unimaginable to us to marry for such mercenary reasons.
It sounds like you liked this one almost the best of all of Austen's novels. Fanny does seem interesting; I'm glad if she's not too too meek. Sounds like she stands up for herself. But I will have to read it to found out more.
Hi Susan - All of the Jane Austen novels that I have read were so good. It is hard to pick a favorite. I liked the fact that this one was a little different from the others.
MP is a difficult book, but like you, I find it very funny. I tend to compartmentalize it as darker and more somber than Austen's other novels, and yet, whenever I read it, I find myself laughing.
Hi Jane. It is nice to read an Austen novel that is a little different. She can be so funny and so bitting.
I'm an Austen fan and I really need to get back to reading her work. From what you describe here, Fanny reminds me a little of Anne from Persuasion.
Fanny, Anne, and Elinor (S&S) are Austen's three quiet, reserved heroines. The outgoing ones are Emma, Marianne, Elizabeth, and Catherine, or at least that's the way I see them.
Hi Naida - Fanny is somewhat like Anne. But she is even more quite and unassuming.
Hi Fred - That is a really good breakdown. Though as I mentioned to Naida, I think Fanny is in a class by herself.
I think all of Austen's heroines are different, even though they may share some qualities. Elinor, Anne, and Fanny are unique, even though they are the quieter, more reserved of Austen's heroines.
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