It’s no secret that my reading diet consists mainly of literary fiction in translation, but it’s become a bit of a tradition for me to return to a classic or two of English literature towards the end of the year. When I fancied a little festive comfort reading recently, I found a book I’ve had on my shelves for a good while now, a novel I first read more than twenty years ago and, if I’m honest, remembered very little about. Still, you can’t go wrong with Jane Austen, I thought (ignoring some of my previous posts…), so today we’re off for a holiday in a very big house in the country. Let’s see who’s at home 🙂
Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, a poor girl from a large family who is the beneficiary of charitable feelings on the part of her uncle and aunt. She is whisked from her humble home to be brought up in a handsome mansion in the English Midlands, but while aware of the advantages the move will bring, she initially struggles to adapt to her new life:
The grandeur of the house astonished but could not console her. The rooms were too large for her to move in with ease; whatever she touched she expected to injure, and she crept about in constant terror of something or other; often retreating towards her own chamber to cry; and the little girl who was spoken of in the drawing-room when she left it at night, as seeming so desirably sensible of her peculiar good fortune, ended every day’s sorrows by sobbing herself to sleep.
p.15 (Penguin Classics, 2003)
Gradually, she manages to overcome her discomfort, largely owing to the friendship and support of Edmund, the younger of her two male cousins, and if her two female cousins Maria and Julia secretly still see her as a poor relation, they are kind enough to her face.
The turning point of the novel comes years later, when Fanny’s uncle departs for the West Indies on an extended business trip, and a small group of newcomers is added to the family circle. Henry Crawford and his sister Mary are full of the glamour of big-city people, and the country dwellers are blinded by their cheer and good nature. However, Fanny suspects that their beauty is only surface deep. For her, good manners cannot replace real warmth, and Henry Crawford certainly doesn’t live up to her ideal of a gentleman – unlike someone else she could mention…
Mansfield Park marks another enjoyable visit to the early nineteenth century, with the action split between the grand country estate of the title and the coastal city of Portsmouth, where the main character returns for a visit to her family. Much of the attraction of the book lies, of course, in knowing that it’ll all end in a wedding, but it’s not just about the romances. Austen uses her work to take a close look at society and behaviour, and at how what should be done is often very far from what actually happens, with scandals often the end result.
For anyone who has read any of Austen’s other works (or watched one of the many screen adaptations), there’s a lot here that will be familiar. We have opulent country houses, dashing visitors, secret relationships and letters helping to move the action along, and (as usual) we rely on a woman’s view of events, meaning that we are more spectators than participants. There’s the customary cutting irony and painstaking characterisation/stereotyping, with much of the nastiness coming from the vain female cousins and Fanny’s two aunts: the indolent beauty and the bitter widow – who seems strangely unaffected by her husband’s death:
Mrs. Norris on quitting the parsonage, removed first to the park, and afterwards to a small house of Sir Thomas’s in the village, and consoled herself for the loss of her husband by considering that she should do very well without him, and for her reduction of income by the evident necessity of stricter economy. (p.23)
There are echoes of other silly old Austen women here, and Mrs. Norris is the epitome of a selfish old crone, a panto villain if ever there was one.
Yet there are also a fair number of differences to the writer’s other novels. Where Emma and Pride and Prejudice overflow with wit and playfulness, Mansfield Park is a far darker affair. Mrs. Norris is just one example of a spiteful character (Fanny’s female cousins, for example, are full of hypocrisy and arrogance), and there’s a sense of menace that is largely absent from other works. In addition, unlike the heroines of the books mentioned above, Fanny seems unable to shake this all off. She’s a timid young woman, homely and often written off as inferior by the rest of the family:
She alone was sad and insignificant; she had no share in any thing; she might go or stay, she might be in the midst of their noise, or retreat from it to the solitude of the east room, without being seen or missed. (p.147)
She suffers from what she sees as inappropriacies, such as the play most of the young people work on during Sir Thomas’s absence, and when there’s fun to be had, she is more likely to be retiring to her room than joining in.
It’s obvious, though, that Fanny is made of better stuff than her cousins and their friends. Quite apart from her becoming more attractive as she grows up, there’s a core to her that is worth far more than the superficial knowledge mastered by Maria and Julia, and several characters, mainly the men, eventually see that. Mansfield Park is in part a story of pressure, and standing up to it, with Fanny forced not only to put up with her cousins’ condescension and Aunt Norris’ barely concealed jealousy, but also the constant attacks on her sense of what is right. With the head of the household gone, morals start to slip, and our heroine is the only one who continues to behave according to her own principles, and not those of the people around her.
In many ways, then, this is a more subtle, and impressive, work than some of Austen’s more famous books, but it can be a struggle to warm to. Fanny herself is hard to like and comes across as a prig, an overly moralistic young woman with a fear of any kind of fun (and the fact that she’s eventually right doesn’t make her any less annoying). This is a very different age, and while her Christian moralising and reticence to speak up may have been appropriate for Austen’s contemporaries, twenty-first century readers might think rather differently. I actually hoped she’d be wrong with her choices, proven to be a little misguided like Emma Wodehouse or Elizabeth Bennet – sadly, she’s right, and the book is a little greyer for it.
I can certainly see the strengths of Mansfield Park, but it’s a book I found difficult to like. It’s more impressive than enjoyable, more well planned than fun to read. Although there’s plenty going on behind the scenes, such as allusions to the slave trade, religious matters and feminist issues, if you can’t sympathise with Fanny, finding her overly meek and negative, you may well share my opinion. Still, I’m well aware that there will be dissenting voices out there, and I expect to be besieged by indignant readers ready to rise to Austen’s defence – let the counter-attack from the followers of the church of Saint Jane commence 😉