MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen
originally published in 1814
Full disclosure that I wouldn’t exactly call myself the biggest Austen fan — I can recognize where Pride and Prejudice is romantic and Sense and Sensibility is charming, but personally I remain curiously unmoved by most of her works. But I still went ahead and read through all of them this year, and a few months after having finished this project, the one that stands out to me head and shoulders above the rest is Mansfield Park. This is the only Austen novel I actively enjoyed reading; the only one I thought about when I put it down; the only one that I actually think will be worth revisiting. I’m sure some of you will think I’m being a contrarian just for the sake of it, given that this is widely regarded as her worst novel, but hopefully I can convince you of some of its merits by the end of this (highly anticipated????) review.
One thing that I tend to look for in books, strictly as a personal preference, is high stakes, which are something that’s conspicuously lacking from most Austen novels. This isn’t a criticism; I can’t fault her for something she isn’t trying to do. But it’s the reason I can’t really get into romance narratives; I need there to be something bigger going on than ‘will x and y end up together’. (This isn’t confined solely to the romance genre; it’s the reason Much Ado About Nothing is one of my least favorite Shakespeare plays. Sorry.)
Mansfield Park just had that elevated je ne sais quoi that I was looking for. Unlike most of Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price is poor, with little to no prospects in her life, until she’s plucked from obscurity at age 11 to live with her wealthy cousins at the titular Mansfield Park, who give her quite the Cinderella treatment, with the exception of her cousin Edmund, who actually dares to pay her the time of day. Consequently, Fanny is nothing like the brash Emma Woodhouse or the self-assured Lizzy Bennet or any of the other bold, brazen Austen heroines that are so universally adored — and it’s because she quite literally cannot afford to be. That Fanny’s social status is so precarious added a layer of intrigue for me — the stakes may not be sky high, but suddenly there’s something darker and more sinister at play.
Fanny herself is, you guessed it!, my favorite heroine for similar reasons. It’s easy to dismiss Fanny for being dull, quiet, and submissive, but the context of her upbringing can’t be ignored. In her rousing defense of Fanny Price from a 2014 Paris Review essay, Tara Isabella Burton writes:
“The qualities of your typical Austen heroine—charming, forward, quick at learning—are rooted in privilege […] And so Fanny is never given the chance to exhibit the qualities of a “good” Austen heroine; she’s told from childhood that she is dull, stupid, and inadequate until she herself internalizes “my situation—my foolishness and awkwardness.” […] In wanting Fanny to be cleverer, bolder, sexier than she is—in wanting her to be more like Mary—we become complicit in the world of Mansfield Park, and in the politics of exclusion through which Mansfield thrives.”
This is what I find so dismaying about the way a lot of people talk about Mansfield Park. To be bored by the novel is one thing, fair enough; but to hate Fanny for her timidity when she is a poor, neglected, emotionally abused child living under the thumb of her cruel and capricious family who expect her to perform nothing but gratitude while failing to allow her a seat at their table is something I can’t quite understand. I also can’t imagine reading a passage like this and not being moved, or maybe this just hit too hard when I think back on the experience of being a Shy Kid who used to live in the background of other people’s stories:
“She could not equal them in their warmth. Her spirits sank under the glow of theirs, and she felt herself becoming too nearly nothing to both, to have any comfort in having been sought by either.”
When Fanny stands up for herself by denying a wealthy suitor that everyone in her life wants her to accept, that moment hits all the harder for the fact that you know exactly what this moment of defiance is costing her. For me, that moment is the boldest display of strength that any Austen character shows.
Choosing to frame this story around Fanny in the first place is also a choice worth examining; her foil, Mary Crawford, an interesting character in her own right, has more in common with Austen’s other heroines than Fanny does. This book isn’t interested in selling the reader a romantic fantasy of living in Regency England, a narrative which could have been achieved quite easily by telling this story through Mary’s eyes — more than in any other work, the social commentary takes center stage, and it was this too that compelled me.
I’ve heard some people say that this book is more intriguing than it is enjoyable, but I have to disagree there too. The sequence of chapters leading up to the play is the most tension I have personally experienced in any Austen novel; I flew through those pages. Say what you will about Edmund and how much or little you personally would want to date him, but I felt Fanny’s love for Edmund in a way that I couldn’t personally feel in a single other Austen novel. I’m not saying that her other heroines weren’t actually in love; just that their love wasn’t communicated to me in a deeper way than simply reading the words on a page. Fanny felt like a real person to me in a way her characters often do not.
This is easily Austen’s most didactic and most conservative work, and my enjoyment of it isn’t meant to be taken as a tacit endorsement of every idea she espouses here about Christian virtue and class and social status. In fact, I agree with almost none of it. But I don’t enjoy books for being a series of observations on life and society that I happen to agree with; I enjoy them for compelling me, moving me, challenging me, and making me think. Mansfield Park achieved all of that and none of Austen’s other novels did, and for that it is my favorite, and one that I wish more people would spend some time with.