Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Review - Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Published by: Doubleday
Publication Date: 1814
Format: Hardcover, 496 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Fanny Price is a burden to her poor and ever expanding family. Her two maternal aunts decide to help their disadvantageously married sister by taking Fanny in at Mansfield Park, separating the young girl from the only family she has ever known and her beloved brother William. She is to be raised with her four cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. Given all the advantages they have but never once allowed by her aunt, Mrs. Norris, to ever think herself their equal. If it wasn't for the kindness of her cousin Edmund to that undersized ten year old Fanny would have despaired. Instead she has grown up knowing her place and hopelessly in love with Edmund. But it is the eldest, Tom, who is causing trouble. He has racked up debts that require his father to sell the living of the local parsonage that was to be Edmund's and the Grants move in. This wouldn't have been a catastrophic event except for what happened next. Fanny's uncle, Sir Thomas Bertam, was called away to Antigua, taking Tom with him. The power vacuum at Mansfield Park was filled by Mrs. Norris. She sees this time as coming into her own, she finds a dunderhead of a fiance for Maria, and encourages an intimacy with the parsonage, an intimacy which is far more interesting to the inhabitants of Mansfield Park when Mrs. Grant's two siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford arrive. Mrs. Norris hopes to marry Henry to Julia and Mary, well Mary initially thinks only of Tom, until she begins to see what Fanny sees in Edmund. But the trouble caused with Henry and his ever roving eye, going from Julia to Maria to Fanny will change Mansfield Park forever.

When I first read Mansfield Park I took a bizarre pride in being one of the few to actually love it more than Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I thought anyone who didn't view it as Austen's best work was deluded and therefore not worth my time. I have often felt myself against the Austen mainstream. Bucking treads and going my own way and listening to my heart and not to academic discourse. Because if there's one thing I can be certain of it's that Jane Austen herself would despise many of the people who populate the higher ranks of her so-called "societies." So for years I held firmly to my beliefs of the superiority of my tastes without giving thought to how much change is inflicted by time and circumstance. When I first re-read Mansfield Park I felt like I had been slapped. It was a rude awakening to not find the book I loved at eighteen. But since then I've realized that each re-reading of Austen leads to a fluctuation in my rankings and this time wasn't any different. I was again back to embracing Fanny and adoring Mansfield Park. What I realized is that why I connected to Mansfield Park as a teenager and why I reconnected to it now was because both times in my life I was facing similar issues. I was going through a time where I felt slighted, imposed upon, where I was nothing more than a tool to be of use to other people. I was part of their life but I didn't have one of my own. My identity was subsumed into theirs, nothing more than a dogsbody. Just like Mrs. Norris treats poor Fanny. Oh Fanny, how I feel your pain all over again. The rest of your readers labeling you as dull don't get what it's like to live your life. I do and I am united with you, the constant, put-upon servant. I hope I'm just as lucky in my happily ever after.

While I was reconnecting to Fanny and her small world that is perfectly contained and intimate, I, as well as Austen, was ruminating on how the wider world works in general but also the world's influence on small family groupings. In particular the idea of selling off your child and how that child fits into a new family dynamic. While yes, I will grudgingly admit that with Antigua there is an underscoring of slavery, the real slavery Austen was interested in here is adoption. And while she might have been telling the story about Fanny's adoption into her cousins' family, I think it was actually a thinly veiled reference to her own life. Jane's brother Edward was "presented" to his wealthy relatives Thomas and Catherine Knight, the same relatives who gave Jane's father the living at Steventon, when he was twelve and Jane was five. Edward became their legal heir and left Jane's family unit. How might this have effected young Jane? Could she have written Mansfield Park as a way to handle this trauma in her life? I personally think she did. Because while everything turned out alright for Fanny as it did for her brother Edward, one might say that the first half of Mansfield Park is her real feelings and the second half is her hopes and dreams. In the beginning Mansfield Park is really a scathing indictment of what it is to live under the roof of relatives who view you as lesser than. Again and again Fanny is pushed aside and put-upon. And that doesn't even cover the emotional underpinnings of being separated from her beloved brother William. There is alienation and longing just seeping off these pages. Part of me thinks it's a little cruel of Jane to write a book that her family couldn't help but see as reflecting their own lives, but then in the end she flips it. The life Fanny left wasn't worth living. This is where I think Jane goes a little fanciful. She wishes so much for this happily ever after to be the case that the turn around is more a fairy tale than realism. But I hope she realized that her brother, in the end, like Fanny had a good long life.

This then leads into the complication of a nature versus nurture scenario. Fanny comes out the best of all the young females raised in the Bertram household. She is well behaved, loved, and gets the man of her dreams. Whereas Julie elopes and Maria, well Maria leaves he wealthy husband for Henry Crawford who then tires of her so she must leave him and live the rest of her life in seclusion. If we can assume they all had the same base nature we see that the cossetting of Maria by Mrs. Norris and her constant grinding of Fanny under her boot-heel had the exact opposite effect. Tom was likewise going to the bad but his severe illness reformed him. Therefore Mansfield Park is showing us again and again that it's the nurturing that matters. That hardship and strife make for a better person. Look even to Fanny's own siblings, those that are overly loved, like her youngest sister, are beyond hope, but Susan, the sister who is ignored and put-upon, she is worthy and therefore comes and joins the inhabitants of Mansfield Park. But while it is shown in all the cousins it is magnified and expanded upon with the Crawfords. Henry and Mary were raised by an uncle with very lax values. After his wife, their aunt died he brought his mistress under his roof, therefore exposing Henry and Mary to this want of propriety. Again and again they are shown to lack a moral compass. They say things that are painful for Fanny to hear. In fact, their complete want to sympathy even leads Mary to hope that Tom dies so that Edmund, whom she loves as best she can, will be a man worthy of her. What I find interesting is that Austen tries to make you forget for awhile that the Crawfords are undesirables due to their nurturing. They are "reformed" and viewed as eligible spouses. But in the end their character will out. As Edmund laments, if Mary had just been raised differently, her kind nature could have overcome all. Poor Edmund, but lucky Fanny.

That is lucky Fanny if you really like Edmund. In fact while most people refer to this romantic duo as sticks-in-the-mud I think that they are being unfairly lumped together, most likely because mud is sticky. The truth is the problem doesn't lie with Fanny, it lies with Edmund. He's just wallowing in the mud. Oh Edmund, I want to like you, but Fanny formed an early attachment to you from some small kindnesses and now we're stuck with you as our hero. The fact is Edmund is more than a little too preachy for my tastes. In the beginning he's always pointing things out to Fanny about how she should feel, how she should think about a situation. He forms her sense and her sensibility and then what does he do? He throws it all out the window when it comes to himself. He points out all the flaws that Mary's character contains and then promptly falls in love and she's an angel. Hence the drop back to reality at the end really amuses me. But the truth is if he had just practiced what he preached that scenario would never have happened. Fanny is stalwart. She sees the flaws, and, oh dear, the pain she feels as Edmund is always making excuses and backpedaling. Fanny can never fully like Mary, not just because she is her romantic rival, but because she is a flawed individual that isn't worthy of Edmund. What is interesting is that Austen never redeems the Crawfords. She toys with us that she might, but in the end, they are literally the white trash of the time with the loosest morals around. And while, as a writer, it would be fun to play a preacher against a loose woman, as a reader being one with the character who is on the outside looking in, it's just painful. And Edmund causing such pain to Fanny? Makes you dislike him all the more. He's such a hypocrite!

But as much as Edmund annoys me I can overlook many of his flaws when comparing him to Henry Crawford. Because Henry Crawford is a far more troublesome character. It's not that he's basically an idiot, it's that we're expected to believe that he has reformed. That he actually "fell" for Fanny. I don't for a second believe this. I think it was a game to him to start with, which he clearly admits, but I don't think if ever became real. I don't think he ever loved Fanny. I think he loved the idea of falling for Fanny and fooled himself into believing it was the truth. He loved the concept not the actuality. He loved the challenge of capturing the heart of the only woman he'd ever met who didn't fall for him. Austen seems to say that Fanny would have been at risk if her heart hadn't already been taken by another. I call BS! With Fanny's morals she could never have fallen for Henry's insincere flatteries. And the thing is I just don't know how to handle this turn-around. Did Austen actually want us to believe it? Like how she tried in vain to redeem Willoughby at the last minute in Sense and Sensibility? At least with Willoughby it makes a kind of sense, because the connection between him and Marianne was something that was real, was palpable to the reader. Here it's just hollow gestures. And then, when he runs of with Maria at the end? We're supposed to believe that he just couldn't help himself? I'm sorry, but if he actually did love Fanny then he would NEVER have done such a thing. And to have Mary blaming Fanny for Henry's wayward behaviour? Yes, I know it's meant to put the final nail in the coffin of Mary and Edmund, but still... of all that happens in books that I am able to believe as true, from magic to dragons, I can not nor will I ever believe Henry Crawford's turn-around.


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