My Year with Jane Austen: “Mansfield Park” Part I

45032Book: “Mansfield Park”

Publication Year: 1814

Book Description: Adopted into the household of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny Price grows up a meek outsider among her cousins in the unaccustomed elegance of Mansfield Park. Soon after Sir Thomas absents himself on estate business in Antigua (the family’s investment in slavery and sugar is considered in the Introduction in a new, post-colonial light), Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive at Mansfield, bringing with them London glamour, and the seductive taste for flirtation and theatre that precipitates a crisis.

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

As her first book conceived and written as an adult, “Mansfield Park” reads tonally very different than her prior two works. Lacking the wit and sparkle of “Pride and Prejudice” and memorable characters of “Sense and Sensibility,” it was received with mixed reviews from its critics. That didn’t stop it from selling out its first run within six months.

The story takes a much more serious approach and spends time exploring themes that were important to Austen, now in her upper 30s. The Bertram families connection to plantations in Antigua and slavery are heavily touched on. The book also explores themes of infidelity, loyalty, and the exploration of the role that the clergy and faith play in the lives of the upper class.

This more serious approach appeals to some readers, both the modern ones and the book’s contemporaries. But others struggled with this tonal change and were perplexed by its heroine, Fanny Price, a young woman much out of line with the previous strong women to grace Austen’s pages. Though Fanny is of a more quiet sort, her strengths of perception, duty, and propriety never fail her, making her more alike to Eleanor Dashwood than any other character. However, the amount of page time dedicated to her actual speeches is much reduced than other heroines, leaving readers to pick up on the smaller, more subtle clues into Fanny’s true worth.  (source)

“I have something in hand—which I hope on the credit of P. & P. will sell well, tho’ not half so entertaining.”– Jane Austen

Part I – Chapters 1 – 25

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Of three sisters, one marries well, becoming Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park. One marries in a middling way, becoming Mrs. Norris. And one marries for passion, but poorly, and becomes Mrs. Price. As the years pass, Mrs. Price feels the weight of many children and increasing poverty. Always looking to be useful (but to avoid expense), Mrs. Norris convinces her sister and brother-in-law, Sir Thomas, to take on one of Mrs. Price’s children as a ward. And so Fanny Price comes to live with them in Mansfield Park.

There, she finds an intimidatingly proper and uptight uncle, a lazy and selfish aunt, and another aunt, Mrs. Norris, who makes it her life’s work to remind Fanny how lucky she is to be living among her betters and how she must never forget how unimportant she herself is. Her cousins, Maria and Julia, though taught well, think much of themselves and care little for Fanny. Her oldest cousin, Tom, is too old to even notice her. And her only ally becomes her staunch friend and defender, the second oldest, Edmund. Over the years, it is only he who remembers to look out for Fanny and put her interests forward. Being reserved and polite to the point of silence, Fanny never does so herself.

Over the years, Fanny grows up and very little changes in her life. Her only connection to her family of origin is in letter writing with her brother William whom her uncle, Sir Thomas, helps into starting a career in the Navy. When Fanny is in her upper teens, it becomes necessary for Sir Thomas to travel to Antigua where the family’s sugar plantations are suffering. Though loving of his family, his removal lightens the mood greatly at Mansfield. It is lightened even further when a new set of neighbors move in bringing two young people, a Miss Crawford and her brother, Mr. Crawford. Both are elegant and entertaining, bringing much liveliness to Mansfield Park. The two Bertram sisters are particularly intrigued by the charming Mr. Crawfod. This is fine for the younger, Julia. But the elder, Maria, has been recently engaged to a rich, but not smart, gentleman, Mr. Rushworth.

At first, Edmund joins Fanny in being hesitant about the extent of Miss Crawford’s liveliness, feeling that too often her quick wits lead her astray and into moments of disrespect people and institutions that she should value more highly. But over time, Edmund becomes more and more enamored of Miss Crawford and begins to see only good in her. Fanny cannot follow him in this opinion, thinking cautiously of Miss Crawford and quite poorly of Mr. Crawford who she sees as toying with her two cousins. Edmund even verges on becoming neglectful of Fanny, borrowing out her riding horse to Miss Crawford for lessons. He realizes his error, but it still hurts Fanny, who has begun to feel more and more for her beloved cousin.

On a trip to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Fanny’s fears for her cousin Maria come to a head as she sees her become more and more neglectful of her own fiance. At one point, while walking, Mr. Crawford and Maria send Mr. Rushworth off in search of a key to a locked gate, then shortly after he leaves, jump the fence and continue on their way without him. Fanny is distressed, even more so for being abandoned by Edmund and Miss Crawford who also make their way forward when Fanny is tired and seem to forget about her for an hour while she waits patiently. On this same trip, Miss Crawford is dismayed to learn that Edmund plans to become a clergyman in a few short months. Being neither a rich profession or a distinguished one, she is quite alarmed for she, too, has begun to imagine a future with Edmund. Fanny is dismayed to hear her speak so poorly of the profession and is astonished that Edmund tolerates even as much as he does; but he is clearly falling more and more in love with her. Mrs. Norris, who accompanies them, of course reminds Fanny just how privileged and lucky she is to experience joys like this.

That fall, Tom and his friend, Mr. Yates, join the group at Mansfield Park. Mr. Yates has the inspiring idea that they should put on a home theatrical. Everyone is all for it, except for Edmund and Fanny who protest that it is not only inappropriate but disrespectful  of Sir Thomas’s wishes, as everyone knows he would disapprove of this plan. Eventually, however, Edmund caves and takes on a role alongside Miss Crawford. Edmund justifies his change in heart as due to his wish to avoid adding stranger to their party to complete the cast, but Fanny hurts to see him become inconsistent and weak in this way.

Having managed to string both sisters along quite successfully for several months, things come to a head between Mr. Crawford, Maria, and Julia when it comes to assigning parts to the play. With only one major role for a woman left to fill, and a part that plays the love interest for Mr. Crawford’s character, Mr. Crawford shows his hand when he advocates for Maria to play the part. Crushed, Julia refuses to be in the play any longer. Maria is exultant in her triumph and pays less and less attention to her betrothed. Fanny tries to bring up her concerns to Edmund, but he doesn’t see it.

A few days before the play is to be put on, Sir Thomas arrives back home unexpectedly. With his arrival comes a swift conclusion to everything having to do with the play. He is disappointed in Edmund for allowing to happen, as well as Mrs. Norris, whom he depended upon to argue his point in situations like this while he was gone. Mr. Yates, whom Sir Thomas strongly disapproves of, makes a quick exit. So, too, follows Mr. Crawford who make very few excuses or goodbyes before leaving abruptly. Maria’s hopes are dashed, and instead she becomes even more dedicated to her marriage to Mr. Rushworth which will afford her wealth and independence. After the marriage, she and Julia depart to Brighton.

Now, as the only young lady in the house, Fanny’s position is brought further forward. Miss Crawford seeks her out as a companion, and Fanny, to Mrs. Norris’s horror, is asked to spend time with her and even attend a dinner party. Fanny sees this more as an obligation than as a joy as she is continually pained by brief moments of Miss Crawford’s inappropriateness as well as the growing attachment she sees forming between Miss Crawford and Edmund.

At her first dinner party, Mr. Crawford suddenly reappears. He means only to stay for a few weeks, but seeing an intriguing and new conquest in Fanny, he decides to stay on later. Her complete disinterest and coldness towards him only inspires him further. Miss Crawford laughs at his exploits and tells him not to toy with her too much. Luckily Fanny is warded by more than just a dislike for Mr. Crawford, but with a previous attachment to Edmund. She begins to appreciate some of Mr. Crawford’s charms, but can never forget his cruel treatment of her two cousins.

A true joy comes to Fanny in the arrival of her brother William who is currently on shore from his duties in the Navy. Sir Thomas is pleased to see him coming along well, and Fanny is in raptures having a beloved sibling by her side, someone whom she doesn’t fear, or feel inferior of, or feel obligated to. Mr. Crawford finds more opportunities to gain points in Fanny’s book by lending William his hunter for the majority of William’s stay.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Fanny is definitely a very different heroine to the types we’ve met before. She’s probably most like Eleanor, but with much less confidence in her own judgement. Like Eleanor, readers can fairly quickly identify Fanny’s views as the ones to hold as correct. But Fanny herself rarely voices them, and those around her, excepting Edmund, rarely know that what she is thinking. Even Edmund dismisses Fanny’s concerns about Miss Crawford in general, and the play specifically. He seems to agree with her overall, but in actions, chooses to ignore her warnings. Fanny sees what Mr. Crawford is about, warns Edmund as much as she is able, and he still does nothing. When even her most staunch supporter is not truly valuing the wisdom she has, and when the rest of her life is full of either being ignored or openly scolded, it’s no wonder that Fanny would be as reserved as she is. She is given not practical evidence that her opinions are being held of any value, and it’s to her best credit that she still stands firm behind them. And even if she doesn’t voice them often, she never wavers in her evaluation of those around her.

At some points in the story, it almost seems as if Fanny is suffering from a sort of Stockholm syndrome. Particularly where her Aunt Norris is concerned. She seems to understand, on one hand, how horrid Aunt Norris is in general, but she also has moments where she believes her all to well and is even thankful for her pointing out how lucky she, Fanny, is.

I think it is this sort of excess humility and gratitude for common decency that leaves many readers turned off by Fanny. That combined with the fact that she rarely ever speaks. We’re privy to what’s in her mind, but the book is definitely lacking the strong speeches from its heroine that books that came before had. When Fanny does speak, it often feels like she’s only saying half of what she should or indulging in a poetical moment of whimsy over nature or the clergy or some such subject. Which, while interesting enough, doesn’t really hold up to the witty speeches of Elizabeth Bennett or the strong sense of Eleanor Dashwood. And for modern readers, these lengthy speeches devoted to topics such as these can be a bit dull, especially if that’s most of what you have from your main character.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Edmund is a strange sort of hero and an even stranger romantic hero. Indeed, most of his heroic deeds are mostly limited to acts of kindness given from a beloved brother. It is clear that this is how Edmund himself views the relationship, even if Fanny begins to see him differently.

He’s also an odd hero in that we see a lot of his flaws almost from the very beginning. He falls for Miss Crawford very quickly, despite correctly identifying several of her faults right from the start. But, like all fools in love, he quickly begins to dismiss these, even when they are directly targeted towards things he holds dear, like his future profession as a clergyman. We also see her influence lead him astray. His only moments of true neglect of Fanny all come in service of following Miss Crawford’s whims and desires. Miss Crawford wants to learn to ride, so Fanny is deprived of a horse for several days before he finally notices her declining health. Miss Crawford wants to explore further at Mr. Rushworth’s estate, so Fanny is left behind on a bench for much longer than is polite or considerate. And, worst of all, he rightly expresses disapproval of the acting scheme they all take up, but is soon drawn in under only the barest of excuses.

Further, he is an odd hero to modern audiences as many of his kindnesses towards Fanny are phrased around his improving her mind and directing her interests. To those not familiar with the language of the time or unable to firmly root themselves in the specific place and time, this type of language can sound demeaning at best, and at worst, a bit like grooming. Obviously, fans of Austen’s work don’t read it this way, but it does probably add to why Edmund is one of the more forgotten of Austen’s heroes, especially on contemporary lists.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

As I’ll get into a bit later, there aren’t a lot of comedy characters in this book. But to make up for that lack, there are a bunch of villains or quasi-villains. To some degree or another, other than Edmund, every member of the Bertram family treats Fanny  pretty poorly. The sisters and older brother ignore her. Mrs. Bertramm only really values Fanny for what she offers herself. Sir Thomas, though generally well-meaning, is intimidating and doesn’t attempt to form a truly caring relationship with his young niece. And, of course, Aunt Norris is the worst of them all.

I think Mrs. Norris truly has to be one of the most despicable characters in all of Austen’s repoirtoire, especially considering her role. Most other villains are typically caught up in the misdeeds of the romances at the heart of the story (we see two, to varying degrees, examples of that here). But Aunt Norris is just a mean, spiteful, small person all around. One has to imagine that it is her constant nagging and heartlessness towards Fanny that largely instills in Fanny the low value she places on her own wants, needs, and opinions. With a constant negative source such as an Aunt Norris influencing her from an early age, it would only be the most stout of characters who could withstand it without some sort of psychological damage. Really, Fanny comes out of it with more self-esteem than many in position would expect to have.

And, of course, we have the Crawfords. We see the flaws in both of these characters almost immediately. Being privy to private conversations, we see that Miss Crawford not only sees her brother playing with the feelings of Maria and Julia, but seems to think the entire thing is a funny joke, showing little to no empathy for her fellow women being toyed with purely for Mr. Crawford’s amusement. And Mr. Crawford, obviously, is about nothing good with his toying with both Maria and Julia. Like Fanny, we see that he attempts to string them both along as long as possible, doing just enough to keep Julia’s attention and hopes focused his way while also devoting most of his attention to the already-engaged Maria.

And both of these two are even worse when they turn their attention to Fanny. To some extent, we can be lead to believe that Mr. Crawford does end up with some true feelings for Fanny. But it is blatantly clear that he does not start out that way. She’s a challenge and nothing else. And like before, Miss Crawford just teases him and tells him not to hurt poor little Fanny too much. This is all the worse for Miss Crawford being astute enough to recognize Fanny’s inherent good qualities, qualities that both older Bertram girls didn’t have. Plus, she knows of Edmund’s love for Fanny, something that one would think would factor into her concern for Fanny’s welfare. But no.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

There is pretty much zero romance in this first half of the book for our main character. It is well-established that Fanny has feelings for Edmund, but most of her time is spent slowly reconciling herself to the fact that Edmund is falling for Mary Crawford. Given her extreme humility, she doesn’t see a future for herself with Edmund, seeing herself as not deserving of him. But she rightly also knows that Mary really doesn’t deserve him, and that Edmund is willfully blinding himself to her faults.

We’ll get to how the romance resolves at the end of the book in the second part of my review, but overall, “Mansfield Park” spends a lot more time looking at the unpleasant aspects of marriage and love and how very wrong so many people get it. How even the most reasonable people, those who seem to be the most clear-sighted, can fool themselves when infatuated with charm and beauty.

Beyond Edmund and Mary, we have the original story of Fanny’s mother marrying for love, only to be quickly disappointed by a life of poverty, excessive children, and a drunkard husband. We also have the second-hand story of Mary and Mr. Crawford’s aunt and uncle who have an unhappy marriage and, through growing up under their influence, shape these two young people’s attitudes about marriage and love. We also see Maria Bertram make a choice, not once but twice, of marriage for money. The second time, after being spurned in her love for Mr. Crawford, she’s even more willful in the choice she’s making to enter an unhappy marriage. Indeed, there are very few positives takes on love and matrimony in this entire book. It’s almost as if Austen wanted to temper her other works with their rosy pictures of love and matrimony and almost seems to go overboard here.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

There are so many villains in this book that it’s hard to find characters who play much of a comedy role. Indeed, like the romance, the comedy of the story is quite restrained in comparison to the books that came before it. In that way, it’s refreshing to think of “Emma” coming after this one, what with its plethora of hilarious characters, most of whom don’t have a villainous bone in their body.

The best examples are probably Lady Bertram and Mr. Rushworth. Lady Bertram fades into the background through much of the story and plays her own part in taking advantage of her kind niece. But it’s also clear that she really does care for Fanny, even if she doesn’t know how to express it well or prioritize her feelings or care. I think one of the funniest lines in the book is when Lady Bertram falls asleep during the discussion of the play, is woken up, claims to never have been asleep, and this is mocked by her oldest son that no one would have suspected it, what with her lolling head and deep breathing.

Mr. Rushworth, of course, is good for several laughs. But he’s also so pitiable that it’s hard to not often be distracted by that. But his repeated discussion of his many speeches and wardrobe changes for the play are definitely chuckle-worthy.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

Good early quote to set the appropriate tone for Mrs. Norris throughout:

Nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.

Even early on, we see that Fanny has the right of it over Edmund, but is too unsure of herself to really put forward her opinion. Here she has a much clearer image of Mrs. Norris’s character than Edmund does, even though Edmund has grown up with her and is older than Fanny:

“I cannot see things as you do; but I ought to believe you to be right rather than myself, and I am very much obliged to you for trying to reconcile me to what must be.”

And a classic favorite, but a good one none the less:

Nothing ever fatigues me but doing what I do not like.

In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Mansfield Park” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.

3 thoughts on “My Year with Jane Austen: “Mansfield Park” Part I”

    1. Yes, it’s definitely the most challenging read so far. It will be interesting to review the two movie adaptations of it that I’m going to cover as I think it’s also pretty hard to adapt and both version took very different approaches to it. – S

      Liked by 2 people

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