Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park is the only major novel of Jane Austen I hadn’t read yet. I have seen a couple of adaptations of it so I knew the story.
In a reply comment in the Austen in August post, Roof Beam Reader commented that many people seem to leave Mansfield Park last or that it ends up being their ‘last’ of the Austen books. I think there are couple of reasons for this.
First, Mansfield Park is known as the most serious of Austen’s works. It has the most social commentary, and it has a slightly darker tone about socio-economics in Austen’s times. While Austen has social commentary in all her books, MP has the one which involves a greater inequality between the characters both financially and morally. While this doesn’t necessarily dissuade readers, it is probably the most realistic of Austen’s novels. It is definitely the most somber.
Secondly, Fanny Price seems to have a reputation among the Austen heroines. In the Austen choose your own adventure book Lost in Austen by Emma Campbell, there is one alternative ending which the reader is trapped forever with Fanny in an attic (the horror!). That was amusing, but not surprising to me. I have touched my toe in the waters of Austen fandom online and Fanny doesn’t seem to be many people’s favourite Austen heroine (Austeroine?). While Lizzie has wit, Elinor has sense, Emma has schemes, Anne has maturity, and Catherine has curiosity, Fanny has…? She has relatively less to recommend her. In fact, some find her “insipid” including Austen’s own mother.
I wrote the above even before starting the book. I went in to the book with an open mind and tried not to find Fanny Price annoying. A lot of Fanny’s personality is due in part to her upbringing. She is neglected and made to feel low by all her relations except Edmund. She is shy to begin with but her snobby relations don’t treat her like a person, more like a charity case or property. Only Edmund seems to care about her so I understand how Fanny would be someone without much bravery or self-esteem. Actually without Edmund to protect her, Fanny is abused like a slave girl to her aunts. She takes it all because she is brought up to take it all. Another reason is that her personality type is probably not something in which modern readers can appreciate since her primary traits are frailty, passivity, and morality. Being a forthright female was not something conventional in Austen’s time.
I would not say that Fanny is stupid or ignorant. She has a good heart, but I do think watching her take so much abuse and neglect is rather demoralising for the reader. Sometimes, it was not like in other classic novels where the heroine is abused because of society (Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre), it also felt that Fanny could have stood up for herself just once or twice. My biggest gripe with her is that she doesn’t receive a lot of growth in this novel relative to other Austen protagonists or even relative to Edmund. In another contrast to other Austen novels, the lady feels unrequited love, usually it’s the man pining. I did feel sorry for her and she suffers the most relative to other Austen heroines, but I don’t necessarily like or dislike her as a character.
Fanny and Edmund are contrasted and foiled by Mary and Henry Crawford, and most of the rest of the cast actually. While I didn’t want Edmund and Fanny to do improper things and I agreed with them for the most part in the book, they spent so much of it being the moral centers of the book that it makes them a tad, well, lame and priggish. They just spend much of the novel being offended and talk so much about what isn’t good. For example, during the whole play conflict, Edmund spent a good deal of time complaining how improper it was. I wish they had spent more time doing other things. Fanny and Edmund could have been at least more introspective. They had rather high morals and at least once, I even thought “Who cares?” but then that is the modern reader in me.
There are too many annoying and superficial characters in this book. Edmund and Fanny are the only truly good ones and the other good characters, e.g. Fanny’s brother William, don’t warrant many pages. Mrs Norris is insufferable. By far the most annoying of Austen’s characters. All of the Bertrams are ridiculous. It doesn’t balance out and there isn’t enough humor to help the situation either.
I will admit there was a couple of instances when I couldn’t but help liking Henry Crawford just a little bit. When he falls in love with Fanny, he truly seems to love her in his own way. Of all of Austen’s scoundrels and rakes, I think I like him the most. He at least sees how abominably Fanny is treated and wants to make her life better. While Edmund is kind, he doesn’t objectively see how Fanny has been regarded as a demi-slave to his family. That isn’t to say I wanted Henry and Fanny together (in the movie I did, see below), but at least he was interesting during that period in the book.
The book concludes very quickly, almost abruptly. Most of Austen’s works have short denouements, but this one felt rushed. It made me question how happy any of the characters were in the end. I also questioned Edmund’s feelings about Fanny. We never see them together romantically, and while he is a decent gentleman who at first falls for the wrong girl, there isn’t much else to him. I do think he and Fanny are suited to each other; neither of them are particularly that well developed.
Austen wrote this novel during a relatively turbulent time in her life and you can tell from the somber tone. Perhaps Fanny can also reflect the steady and moral traits in which Austen wanted for herself amidst so much change.
On the whole, I didn’t dislike this book, but I didn’t particularly love it either. I would recommend it if you like Austen if only because you see another aspect of her.
Read August 3rd to 5th 2012.
I had watched the 1999 movie and the 2007 BBC TV miniseries before reading the book. The latter when it came out, and the former, some time before that.
This movie had a very good cast, visually pleasing, but took a number of liberties. It was surprising; I wondered a lot, “Is this really in the book?!” when I watched it years ago. They had more of a focus on slavery which is really only a few lines in the book. I like Johnny Lee Miller in general and he was a rather nice Mr Knightely in the 2009 Emma, but he and Frances O’Connor didn’t have a lot of chemistry. She had much more chemistry with Alessandro Nicola who played Henry, but having seem him in other things, he has chemistry with loads of people. They cast a golden boy for Henry, and this is a change from the book as he is not described as handsome in the book, but just immensely charismatic. They also changed it so that Fanny likes Henry more, but he still gets rejected and that is why his ending is so scandalous. They even made the latter event more shocking than in the book. It all made Henry much more sympathetic than he is, and in fact, I kinda wish he and Fanny did end up together in the movie. Fanny’s character is changed as well; the character is modelled more after Jane Austen. The movie tries too hard to shock viewers and it’s not faithful, but it’s not that bad of a movie, just a bad adaptation.
ITV did three adaptations of the Jane Austen novels in 2007 and 2008: “Sense and Sensibility” (adored David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon), “Persuasion” (Sally Hawkins can act and run) and this one. This was the least memorable of the three for me. I really like Billie Piper and always have. Again, they changed Fanny’s character again. Piper doesn’t do meek characters. None of her roles or her personality lends to that. This adaptation of Fanny was more gregarious, fun, and interesting. The problem that those adapting the novel have is Fanny’s character is not particularly good on screen or for modern watchers. She suffers most of her problems alone and her external attributes are being passive and quiet. I can see why it would be hard to be faithful to the book when the protagonist doesn’t lend well to adaptation.