Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mansfield Park

I've heard complaints about Jane Austen's Mansfield Park several places, including on reading blogs I have come to respect.  I'd hoped that these criticisms - most often dismissals of Fanny Price, the protagonist, as an uncompelling heroine - would not bear fruit.  Although I really enjoyed reading the book, it is more of a testament to Austen's unparalleled authorship than it is to the characters and the plot of the novel.  It's my least favorite Austen novel read to date (I've only yet to read Northanger Abbey).

Fanny Price is the poor cousin of the Bertram family, Sir Thomas Bertram having married Fanny's aunt.  The Bertrams live on an impressive estate called Mansfield Park, located in Northamptonshire.  Through their (somewhat misguided) generosity, Fanny is brought to live with them when she is only nine, so as to relieve some of the burden on her working-class parents who have too many children to feed.

Fanny grows up at Mansfield but she never becomes a part of the family's fabric.  The Bertrams and Fanny's other aunt Mrs. Norris (who, incidentally, is the namesake of Filch's evil cat in the Harry Potter series... which I totally called halfway through the book!) don't understand her: she is quiet, reserved, unassuming, sickly, nervous... the complete opposite of her older cousins Tom, Maria and Julia.  Her cousin Edmund, six years her senior, is the only member of the family who reaches out to her, tries to help with her happiness and her education and becomes her friend.

When Sir Thomas is called away for an extended trip to his interests in Antigua, the charming and attractive Mary and Henry Crawford enter the scene.  Coming from London, they're wealthy and used to the finest entertainments.  Both Crawford siblings work their magic on the Bertram siblings, with only Fanny doubtful of their goodness and sincerity.

As with all Austen novels, Mansfield Park is a love story.  Fanny pines away for Edmund, who has fallen in love with Mary Crawford.  Henry and Maria entered into a flirtation that ended when he was called to London; Maria married her uninspiring fiance, and she and Julia moved with him to London.  Only at this time did the Bertrams, and Mary Crawford, begin to understand and appreciate Fanny.  When Henry appears back on the scene, he first toys with and then falls in love with Fanny.  Her refusal of his marriage proposal severely disappoints everyone, including her uncle Sir Thomas who thought it was the least she could do to show her gratitude.  Henry sets out to prove his devotion and make Fanny realize his sincerity and true love, but fails miserably by committing adultery with his former flirtation, the now-married Maria.  Fanny is proven right, Edmund realizes Mary's true nature and discovers his love for his cousin (which, by the way, ick!), and Fanny is installed as the mistress of Mansfield Park.

Throughout all of this, I truly hoped that Henry persevere, Fanny would be proven wrong about him and the book would conclude with an interesting twist.  I was disappointed.  Fanny, as opposed to Austen's great heroines Elizabeth Bennett or (my fave) Emma Woodhouse, is unerringly good.  She is never wrong, she never falters, she is never tempted from the righteous path.  She is boring.  As I said before, I still enjoyed reading the book - Austen deserves her place among the great writers of all time.  But Mansfield Park is simply not up to her usual standard.

Next up: As She Climbed Across the Table by one of my contemporary favorites, Jonathan Lethem

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