Friday, August 26, 2011

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is a re-read for me but I honestly couldn’t remember one thing about this novel.  Not even the protagonist’s name (Fanny Price).  There are few surprises, this being a Jane Austen novel after all.  Fanny is adopted by her wealthier relatives and lives with her four cousins, one of whom treats her with more respect and appreciation than the others.  She is quiet to the point of timidity, shy and unassuming.  The word “humble” immediately comes to mind when one thinks of Fanny and, according to the blurb for the edition I read, she was Jane Austen’s favorite of her heroines.

Fanny Price is adopted by her more wealthy relatives, the Bertrams.  Her maternal aunt is indigent, at best, and her other maternal aunt is a busy-body who lacks any compassion for her niece.  The cousins are not sympathetic towards her, except for her cousin Edmund.  When another pair of young people move into the community, trouble stirs as flirtations abound and Fanny alone remains this still point in all the supposed drama.

I have no clue why Austen so admired Fanny. Mind you, I actually came to like Fanny by the middle of the novel, so much so that I had to force myself not to read it in spite of the fact that I knew how it must end and had no doubt of who Fanny would finally marry by the novel’s conclusion.  Nevertheless, I cared about her and wanted to see her live happily ever after.  I felt a sort of maternal urge to protect Fanny from harm.

Aside from Fanny and her one cousin, there aren’t many characters to like in this novel.  And it lacks the humor of  Pride and Prejudice.  I also found one part a bit discomfiting which I’ll explore in more depth in a post-dated spoiler. Nonetheless, there is an interesting perspective on morality and class that one does not expect to find in a simple comedy of manners.  Typically, a novel of this era would equate the upper class with higher morals and the lower classes with amorality.  Fanny, herself, coming from a lower class branch of the family, is arguably the most moral person in the novel.  Her female cousins, however, are not as moral as she herself is.  Her own brother is more moral than the eldest male cousin and at least equally as moral as Edmund, the younger male cousin.  On the other hand, when Fanny goes home for a visit, she is confronted with the difference society can make not only in her own mother, who is compared with her aunt Bertram, but also within the varying degrees of duty and sensibility in her younger brother and sisters.  If Fanny recognizes that “there but for the grace of God”—or her wealthy relatives anyway—she would go, she doesn’t seem to connect this with any need to feel an empathy for her family.  Instead, Fanny favors those who are most dignified and refined while distancing herself in every possible way from the ones who are least disciplined in speech and deed.

Ultimately, it is the lack of humor that I loved so much in Austen’s previous novel that I missed most in this one.  I can see a leaning towards greater sophistication that I ought to appreciate but I see why I forgot most of the novel altogether and suspect that my reading it again will not be a priority.

There is not one in a hundred of either sex, 
who is not taken in when they marry. . . . 
I consider that it is, of all interactions, the one in which people
expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.  (47)

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