Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

I sometimes feel, as an educated woman, that my degree(s) came with an imperative to love Jane Austen’s works.  And, in certain cases, I do – Pride and Prejudice is amazing, Emma is pretty good, and the first half of Sense and Sensibility (that I read before life got in the way and I got distracted) has it’s charms.  So can someone please tell me where Mansfield Park fits into the larger Austen of it all?

Mansfield Park hits all the same notes of the rest of Austen’s works – it shines a light on society’s hypocrisy, it’s basis is an uncomfortable love story, and its has (at moments) an innate sense of humour that is all Austen.  But unlike her other works, Mansfield Park feels like a puzzle that was put together all wrong.

A word on plot: Fanny Price is born to one of three sisters, but the sister who married beneath her station and proceeded to have too many children to comfortably support; in order to help, Fanny’s aunts encourage her mother to send Fanny to live with them at Mansfield Park, the typical English country estate.  Fanny goes, and finds a prickly existence waiting for her – being in the unenviable position of a dependent, Fanny doesn’t seem to fit in either above or below stairs, and yet her aunts treat her as both an unwelcome burden and a domestic.  The rest of the family reflects, to some degree, this dynamic.  The exception is Edmund (and later his father), who takes Fanny under his wing and helps her adjust to her new family life.  The plot of Mansfield Park takes place at the time when Fanny’s two female cousins are looking for husbands, and new (and town-ified) visitors come to the area.  What ensues is the usual Austen back and forth between all parties as they try to sort out their feelings for each other and find a path forward that they can live with.

All of this exposition had so much promise.  I fully expected Fanny to be another Elizabeth Bennett (or even Emma) who, in a take-no-prisoners kind of way, was going to run the table and settle her own affairs to her satisfaction and no one else’s.  Fanny, however, is closer to milquetoast than a Bennett.  She is withdrawing, expects no better than how she is treated, and refuses to acknowledge even her own feelings in order to find an actionable way forward.  If anything, the typical Austen heroine is embodied in Mary Crawford, the vicar’s sister-in-law who visits the area; and yet, Miss Crawford is viewed by the reasonable elements in the story (Fanny and Edmund) as being too forward, too quick to speak, and too insensitive.  I suppose this could be said about Bennett and Emma, but that was part of their charm when contrasted against the stuffy, Georgian society they lived in.

In the end, I felt to emotional connection to Fanny – I didn’t care if she got the man of her dreams in the end, or if she sunk into obscurity as her social position seemed to dictate.  Where we do get a glimpse of the Austen I love so much in her other books is in the resolution of the fate of the other characters; there is a healthy dose of comeuppance, some redemption, and a bit of obscurity thrown in.  I found the conclusions of the stories of everyone but Fanny to be more interesting than that of the main character.

More than just my issues with the character/plot development is the writing style in Mansfield Park.  It is so slow in comparison to other works in the Austen catalogue; it feels like the first half-dozen chapters or so are given over the describing exposition, and describing it in such a way that drags.  This is a common issue I have with a lot of the ‘classical’ works, but had never before encountered in an Austen work.

I realize that there are probably English/Women’s Studies/History grad-students out there who can give me chapter and verse on why Mansfield Park is either the best or the worst or the outlier in Austen’s catalogue.  And that’s all well and good.  But coming to this novel as the casual (and not as an academic) reader, it doesn’t matter all that much to me – these are my impressions, and they are what they are.  So, final verdict?  If you want to read an Austen work, there are so many other, more engaging works to choose from; don’t saddle yourself with Mansfield Park.

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