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

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.

Part I – Chapters 25 – End

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

Henry Crawford continues his stay and attention to Fanny. Much to her dismay, he even proposes renting out the home destined for Edmund, with the idea that Edmund can stay on at Mansfield Park once he takes orders. Fanny is dismayed by this plan, both its implications towards Edmund as well as herself.

Eventually, the idea of hosting a ball during William’s stay takes hold and arrangements begin to be made. While Edmund debates the chances of a future with Miss Crawford (whose dislike of the clergy has been well, and rudely, established, Fanny’s mind is occupied by finding a necklace to wear with a small cross that William gifted her. On a visit to Miss Crawford, Miss Crawford presents Fanny with an array of her own chains to choose from. Fanny resists, but after much pressing, finally selects the chain that she feels Miss Crawford is most often putting forward and thus most likely to wish to part with. She then discovers that the chain had been a gift from Mr. Crawford and attempts to give back, to no avail. She suspects that Mr. Crawford himself had some hand in this affair. Later, Edmund presents Fanny with a simple chain that he had purchased for her for the same purpose. Fanny is gratified to find that Miss Crawford’s chain won’t fit the cross, but determines to wear both chains together in acknowledgement of each gift.

The day of the ball arrives, and Fanny is horrified to learn that she is meant to open the ball, and with Mr. Crawford nonetheless. For his part, Mr. Crawford continues to lavish attention on Fanny, Fanny continues to be put off by it, and Miss Crawford continues to push the attachment, confused by Fanny’s reluctance. Over the course of the evening, Sir Thomas, himself, becomes more and more convinced of Mr. Crawford’s sincere attentions to his niece.

William leaves the next day, Edmund goes away for a week as well, and Mr. Crawford, too, goes to London,leaving spirits much depressed. Miss Crawford realizes she misses Edmund and confides in Fanny about it. Mr. Crawford, for his part, confesses to Miss Crawford that he is going to propose to Fanny; she is shocked. Both siblings laugh at the shock this will bring to the two Bertram sisters. The next morning, Mr. Crawford arrives when Fanny receives the news that William has received a promotion and she learns that he had went to London to have his Uncle see to just this event. He then uses this opportunity to begin confessing his feelings to Fanny, much distressing her. She negates all of this and rushes away. She is made further uncomfortable by receiving a note from Miss Crawford insinuating much about Fanny’s soon-to-be relationship to herself. Fanny writes back a note saying she knows neither Miss Crawford or Mr. Crawford mean anything by it.

The next day, however, Sir Bertram finds Fanny in her room (he notices that she has no fire) and announces that Mr. Crawford had come to speak him that very morning, asking for Sir Thomas’s blessings on his plans to ask Fanny to marry him. Fanny is shocked and tells Sir Thomas there must be a mistake as she had clearly rebuffed Mr. Crawford just the other day on this very topic. Sir Bertram is shocked as well, asking several times for clarification that Fanny means to be refusing Mr. Crawford. Fanny is dismayed to find that in a man whom she had thought so just, that her simple answer of disliking Mr. Crawford is not enough of a reason for her to deny marrying him. Sir Thomas gives a harsh speech in which he calls Fanny obstinate, selfish, and ungrateful, making Fanny cry bitterly. Sir Thomas sends Mr. Crawford away and has Fanny take a walk to calm herself. When she returns to her room, there is a fire to warm the room.

When Fanny finally does have to speak to Mr. Crawford, she is dismayed to find that he is unrelenting, even in the face of her firm refusals. Fanny, at least, thinks they are firm, but her gentle nature tempers everything she says. What’s more, Mr. Crawford, really believing himself in love, cannot fathom the idea of not succeeding. For his part, when Sir Thomas speaks to Mr. Crawford later, he is encouraged by Mr Crawford’s steadiness of purpose and believes him in his idea that Fanny will come around. Sir Thomas decides to recuse himself from all further proceedings, and tells Fanny that they need no longer discuss it and he will no longer push the alliance on her. But her aunts must be told of what is going on.

Edmund returns home and is informed of all that has happened. He’s not as shocked as Sir Thomas, but takes his father’s view of it being generally a good thing that he is hopeful Fanny will realize for herself. But he knows enough of Fanny not to push the topic on her or embarrass her further about it. When witnessing the two together, however, Edmund doesn’t know if he could have gone on wooing a woman who so clearly wasn’t expressing any interest back. Crawford, however, persists.

The next day Edmund and Fanny walk about together. Fanny is gratified to know that Edmund does not blame her for refusing, but they do disagree about whether there is any future there. Fanny proclaims there is not, while Edmund says they have enough things in common to make it work. Fanny suspects Edmund may be trying to talk himself into more comfort about himself and Miss Crawford without realizing what he is doing. Fanny, in her attempts to make Edmund understand her true qualms about Mr. Crawford’s character, even brings up the disastrous play and Crawford’s toying with Maria and making Mr. Rushworth jealous. It becomes clear that Fanny, still, has a much better grasp on that entire affair than Edmund. The conversation ends with Edmund realizing Fanny wishes to speak no more of it, and Fanny realizing that Edmund is too caught up in Miss Crawford to perfectly understand what she, Fanny, is saying.

Miss Crawford visits one last time before she and her brother mean to leave the for a period of time. Fanny learns during this meeting that it had been entirely Mr. Crawford’s idea that Miss Crawford should offer Fanny a chain for her cross and had given her just the one Fanny took for that purpose. Fanny also tells Miss Crawford that she saw Mr. Crawford’s treatment of Fanny’s cousins, and, thus, could not take him seriously with regards to herself. Miss Crawford laughs the whole thing off and takes her leave.

William comes home again to Portsmouth to and Sir Thomas, after consulting Edmund, decides that this would be a good opportunity for Fanny to not only spend more time with her beloved brother, but to visit the rest of her family as well. He also suspects that a longer visit back home will encourage Fanny to miss Mansfield and the luxuries of the life she has become used to, the life that Mr. Crawford is offering her. Fanny is delighted by the scheme, eager to visit the rest of her family. Before leaving, Edmund hints that he will write Fanny when he “has anything meaningful to write about;” Fanny mentally braces herself for this future announcement.

Home is not how she remembers it. It is too loud, to uncivilized, and overall too much for Fanny’s weak nerves. She sees poor behavior everywhere about her and is saddened to see a mother much in over her head and seeming to have no idea of it herself, and a father who drinks and goes out on the town too much. She also finds herself to be largely an afterthought to many of her family members. For his part, William’s ship is soon called away, and Fanny finds her happy homecoming scheme to be largely a disappointment.

Eventually, Miss Crawford writes and notes that she has met with the Rushworths and Julia; she also notes how discomposed Mrs. Rushworth became at the mention of Fanny and Mr. Crawford. As Fanny’s stay continues, she finds worth in one of her siblings, a younger sister Susan who, while often lead astray, still seems to sense what is right and wrong in her family. Fanny makes an effort to spend more time with this sister and hopefully instill in her some of the same lessons that she, Fanny, learned from Edmund while growing up.

For his part, Edmund is now due in town and Fanny anxiously waits to hear from him and his meetings with the Crawfords. Alas, no word comes, week after week. Instead, Mr. Crawford himself makes a sudden appearance at her home. After catching up some, they go for a walk where Fanny is dismayed to find them quickly running into her father. Luckily, Mr. Price is on his best behavior and does not shame Fanny too badly. Mr. Crawford visits the next day as well. He notes her fatigued looks and asks when she is to return to Mansfield, noting that he has seen their treatment of Fanny and that she can be often forgotten. He offers to fetch her at a moments notice. Eventually, he takes his leave.

Eventually, Edmund writes. Much of his subject revolves around his pains at Miss Crawford’s changed spirits while in the company of her friends. He sees all of her formerly bad spirits coming up again; but at the same time, he confesses that he cannot give her up and is the only woman he can think of as a wife. He also notes that he has seen Mr. Crawford and Maria together and can admit that they did not meet as friends. Shortly after this letter’s arrival, Fanny gets one from her Aunt Bertram who notes an upsetting event: Tom has fallen severely ill while travelling with friends. Over the next few days, Fanny hears more and more. Tom is removed to Mansfield Park and everyone is distressed by how poorly he is doing.

Among these regular notices, Fanny once again hears from Miss Crawford. In this letter, Miss Crawford casually talks about Tom’s eventual death and all the benefits this will see to such a deserving younger brother as Edmund. She also mentions that Mr. Crawford is heading off to visit some friends where Maria Rushworth is also currently visiting. A week or so passes before Fanny hears again, this time in just a short note from Mary that mysteriously alludes to some scandalous rumor involving Henry that Fanny should disregard completely.

A few days later,  Fanny learns what this rumor is from a notice in the paper: Maria had run off with Mr. Crawford. And a few days later, still, Fanny finally hears from Mansfield in a letter from Edmund confirming the notice in the paper and adds even more bad news in the form of notifying her of Julia’s elopement with Mr. Yates. But the good news includes the fact that Edmund will be coming the very next day to fetch her and that Sir Thomas has even extended an invitation for Fanny to bring along Susan back with her.

Edmund comes and they all journey back to Mansfield, where Fanny is greeted with much enthusiasm from her Aunt Bertram who had truly been missing her. The entire family persists in misery, though Fanny does think to herself that now, at least, she must be fully justified in her refusal of Mr. Crawford. Eventually, Edmund tells Fanny of his last interactions with Miss Crawford. He had been invited to see her after the scandal with her brother had gotten out, and he went with all the strong feelings that he attributed to her and knowing that she must know this will be their last visit as friends. But instead, Miss Crawford spoke with only a modicum of seriousness and persisted on referring to the entire affair as only “folly” and bemoaning only that the whole thing had not been better hidden. She even goes so far to say that if Fanny had only accepted Mr. Crawford he would have too busy to have gotten into this mess. Edmund admits that the Miss Crawford he’d been pining over for the last several months had been a woman of his own imagination.

While the others get through their struggles, Fanny at least is happy for once. For most, her value has been finally recognized, she is free from Mr. Crawford, and Edmund is freed of the influence of his sister. Sir Thomas struggles the longest, having to recognize the failings in education given to his daughters who behaved so wrongly. Tom recovers, both physically and gaining some level of sense and duty. Maria fails to convince Crawford to marry her and ends with nothing more than a fall from society, divorce from her rich husband, and Mrs. Norris’s company in her solitude (Sir Thomas comes to recognize all the evils of Mrs. Norris, so the situation is seen as a winning one.) Eventually, Edmund comes to realizes how superior a woman he has right in front of him and professes his love for Fanny.

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

Fanny definitely comes into her own more in this second half. First, she stands up for herself and for her choice to refuse Mr. Crawford even in the face of all the displeasure of the Mansfield party. Sir Thomas, though he improves later, is initially quite harsh with Fanny, and while she’s hurt to think that he views her this way, she never falters in her convictions. Even to Edmund, the one person she’s always looked to for guidance, she trusts her own judgement rather than his (though, of course, she’s had ample evidence of his failures to really discern people’s characters as he’s gone on and on about Mary Crawford for the last several months).

Second, when she faces all of the disappointment and hardship at her home in Portsmouth, she still finds a way to be useful and to put to practice what she’s learned from Mansfield and Edmund. She recognizes the good qualities in her younger sister Susan and takes her under her wing, hoping to help her cope with her situation and grow into a better woman than much of the rest of the family. This pays off to such an extent that Susan, too, is brought to live at Mansfield, and, we can presume, to thrive.

Here, too, when Mr. Crawford comes to visit, she’s not swayed even by his improvements. She notes that he seems gentler and more caring of those around her, and she inwardly praises him for it. But as far as her own scruples go, she sees these improvements only in the light that, if he is this much better at caring for others, he will quickly realize how hurt she is by his continued pursuit of her and give her up for good. She never wavers about accepting him.

And, when she gets Edmund’s letter bemoaning Miss Crawford’s modern flaws but still insisting that she’s the only woman for him, Fanny becomes quite sharp (if even only in her own mind.) She practically calls Edmund foolish for delaying asking Miss Crawford if he’s so set on marrying her, and thinks he’s set on dooming himself, regardless of his own better insights and the knowledge that she, Fanny, has shared with him.

She’s also aware enough to be critical of Sir Thomas for delaying fetching her once Tom becomes ill, as Lady Bertram clearly suffers for Fanny not being there during this tough time. Many of these moments are small and never actually spoken aloud by Fanny, but it’s still a big change from the Fanny of the first half who just seemed to go along believing everything that was told to her.

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

Man, it’s almost hard to list Edmund as a “hero.” At best, he’s completely delusional about those around him, and at worst he willfully ignores his own better judgement and that of a woman he professes to respect, Fanny. Again and again, we see Fanny attempt to point out to him the inconsitencies in his views of Miss Crawford and the reality of what she says and does, and he just refuses to see it! And then writes letters to Fanny, even, bemoaning Mary’s latest issues (blaming her friends for leading her astray, though Fanny is quick to realize that it’s likely the other way around) while at the same time proclaiming that she’s the only woman he can see himself marrying. I mean, I get it, he’s infatuated with her. But this is coming about 85% of the way through the book, and it’s a bit hard to really respect him when he’s so willfully blind. We’ve been told he has good judgement, but in reality, the book doesn’t offer a whole lot of evidence of it. He’s also a terrible listener to Fanny.

While he doesn’t push the connection with Mr. Crawford on her, he also seems completely clueless  about why Fanny is not attached to him. Edmund blames Mr. Crawford’s approach as being poor, rather than truly understanding anything about Fanny herself, even when she’s blatantly (well, for her, she’s being blatant) telling him why she’s not interested. To his credit, he knows when to back off, but again, it’s because he seems to think she’ll come around on her own better without people prying than understanding that what she really needs is someone to BELIEVE WHAT SHE IS SAYING.

He so much doesn’t listen to her that when Crawford finally does show his true colors and run off, Edmund attributes Fanny’s poor health to her deep feelings for Henry. And then he piles on by immediately pivoting to how much worse he has it for being longer attached to Mary Crawford than Fanny was to Mr. Crawford. It’s pretty bad, when you really look at it. And then, in the end, sure, he comes around. But…like I’ll talk about in the romance section, it’s a bit too little too late to redeem much “heroism” for poor Edmund. He’s not a bad guy by any means, but he sure doesn’t seem to deserve Fanny, and it’s pretty hard to argue that he’s not the weakest of Austen’s romantic leads.

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

The villains in this book all get their comeuppance in quite the dramatic fashion. No half measures here! The groundwork had all been laid for both Crawford siblings, so it’s really no surprise when they both show their true colors. But man, they both do it in quite the extreme way! Of the two, it’s almost more shocking that Mr. Crawford would stoop so low. It’s one thing to be an obnoxious flirt, but it’s entirely another to go all the way and run off with a married woman. That’s the kind of thing that, while unequal between the man and the woman in this time period, would still have a lasting affect on his reputation. Before, his other flirtations were of the sort only really noticed by the very discerning and only truly felt by his targets. He could move through society easily enough doing all of that with very few negative affects taken on himself. But his future now seems pretty grim.

Miss Crawford, on the other hand, her big villain moments seem completely in line with what we’ve seen from her before. Fanny always pointed out how thoughtless Mary Crawford was and how very wrongly she thought about things on a truly moral level. So here, when we read the letter she sends pretty much congratulating herself on Edmund’s “good fortune” on the death of his older brother and incoming inheritance, it’s bad, but not shocking. And then that she would talk about the entire Henry/Maria matter in such a cavalier manner to Edmund…more of the same of what we’ve heard from her. As readers, we’ve also been privy to private conversations between Mary and her brother and have heard her express pretty cold, laughing comments about his flirtations with women. So, to the reader, it’s no shock that she would continue to talk about his actions in this way. But to poor, poor, delusional Edmund…oof.

And, of course, Maria and Mrs. Norris get the mutual reward of a lifetime together in their shared displeasure and poor temperaments.

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

Oh, the romance in this book. Or, more to the point, the lack of romance. I obviously haven’t re-read the last two books in this review series yet, but I’m pretty confident in making the proclamation that this is the least romantic of Austen’s fully-realized and published novels. Not only does the hero spend 99% of the book infatuated with another woman, when he does come around to falling in love with our heroine, we literally see zero of it. Austen simply informs us that when the time was right, his feelings changed towards Fanny, and Fanny was happy about it. No dialogue, no romance scenes, no build-up. Just stated as a fact, almost an afterthought, even. It’s pretty anticlimatic, even for Austen, who, as we’ve established so far, often skipped out on really writing the final romance scenes (or at least much dialogue for them).

Instead, again, like the first part of the book, we hear a lot more about all the failures of relationships. We see Henry Crawford cave to his own inner demons even though we’re lead to believe that he did truly love Fanny (the omniscient narrator tells us so, so I guess we have to believe it, much as it grates on modern readers who may recognize his type). Mary, too, spoils her chances at happiness with Edmund and almost seems to ruin herself for future men, having a hard time in the comparisons to him. Maria ends up divorced and living along with Mrs. Norris. Julia does better than the others, but, again, based on what we actually saw of Mr. Yates, he doesn’t seem like that much of a catch and more one that was made hastily by Julia in an attempt to retain freedom than due to any real attachment. It’s all pretty glum.

Instead of the romance, most of the joy of the ending of the book is seeing Fanny finally elevated to the position she deserves. Lady Bertram and Sir Thomas both recognize her as the best “daughter” they had in the lot. She’s useful to her sister Susan, bringing her to the Mansfield party where her life is sure to be improved. And, of course, she’s rewarded with Edmund. Some have interpreted this ending as Edmund being rewarded with Fanny, but, really, I think it goes the other way. She’s the one to get what she wanted through the entire book, the one to actively wish for something that is gained in the end. And Edmund seems so passive in the entire affair that it makes much more sense to me that he is the reward.

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

There is also even less comedy in this half than the first. We don’t see any more of Mr. Rushworth, and as Fanny spends so much of her time away from Mansfield, Lady Bertram’s opportunities to provide humor are also greatly reduced. There may be a sort of dark humor to be found in Fanny’s family in Portsmouth, but as we hear so much about the negatives of it all, it’s hard not to see most of it in a sad, tragic sort of light.

Mrs. Norris, for her part, also recedes into the background. Again, we don’t see much of her, and by the time we do, she’s suffering the loss of her beloved Maria and quickly losing popularity among the rest of her family. There’s a line in the end of the book about how she was never able to gain the love of those she loved. Which is just sad! Even for such a mean-spirited character.

So, um, yeah. Not much comedy. It’s pretty easy to see why Austen might have needed a pivot to the much more comedic “Emma” after writing this book.

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

Poor, silly Edmund:

His objections, the scruples of his integrity, seemed all done away, nobody could tell how.

And, the classic Edmund reproach:

Fix, commit, condemn yourself.

And finally:

She was of course only too good for him; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them he was steadily earnest in the pursuit of the blessing.

Final thoughts – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

“Mansfield Park” is a strange Jane Austen novel. It stands out for having much less comedy and much less romance than her other standard books. Fanny, too, is unlike any of the other heroines we typically find. And Edmund…well, he barely counts as a hero. It is gratifying to get to the end and have Fanny so rewarded for dealing with just so many terrible people, but that still leaves 99% of the book reading about her being abused by them. Even Edmund regularly forgets Fanny and/or fails to really listen to what she is telling him.

In many ways, as I’ve noted before, this book seems to spend a lot more time emphasizing just how wrong people can get it in the romance department. Even the good ones like Edmund who is so thoroughly taken in by Miss Crawford. All of the marriages we see are at best indifferent ones, and at worst, openly hostile, like the aunt and uncle who raised the Crawfords. In this second half, we get to see first hand how badly Fanny’s parents’ marriage is going as well, their temperaments seeming mutually unsuitable.

And by the end of the book, it almost seems like only through the sheer luck of Mr. Crawford’s poor self control that we escape two other bad marriages, that of Edmund and Mary Crawford, and, according to the narrator, the eventual marriage of Fanny and Crawford (there’s a decent sized section devoted to how, had Crawford persisted and Edmund and Mary married after all, Fanny likely would have given in after moving on from Edmund. The idea sits uncomfortably, but lucky us, we don’t have to see it.)

This book is more of a struggle for many Austen fans for all of these reasons, I think. It’s also one of Austen’s longest titles, and given the lack of comedy and romance, much of that page time is devoted to either unlikable characters or long discussions/speeches on topics that aren’t necessarily that compelling to modern audiences (like the role of a clergyman in society). For these reasons, it’s definitely the last one I suggest when people ask me where to start with Jane Austen. You have to be a pretty established fan to be able to read this book and get the good things out of it. It is funny, but mostly in the dry, sometimes hard to recognize way that Austen can be at times. And Fanny is the type of heroine that you have to believe is a heroine due to past experience with Austen’s work.

It’s also a very hard story to adapt as a film. We’ll be looking at two examples over the next few weeks, both with very different approaches to how they manage it.

In two weeks, I’ll review the 1999 movie version of “Mansfield Park.”

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