Part III: Mansfield Park
I haven’t read Mansfield Park, Austen’s most controversial novel, in almost 11 years. I read it for a class during my freshman year in college, and I absolutely hated it. I skimmed through it in the mid-90s, when the slew of Austen adaptations inspired me to read all of the Big 6. But I didn’t read it seriously again until the autumn of 1999, when I picked it up in anticipation of seeing MP99. I was, frankly, rather surprised at how much more I liked the book than I had 20+ years earlier. And now, 11 years after that last reading, I liked it even more. It’s just one more reason why my appreciation for Austen grows with each passing year.
It is not an exaggeration to say that MP is Austen’s most controversial novel. Anyone who goes into it expecting the same type of wit as is found in, say, P&P will be sorely disappointed. But, as Margaret Drabble points out in her introduction to the recent Signet Classics edition of the novel, we shouldn’t expect MP to be like P&P because “it [MP] aims at something other than social comedy. The novel is only incidentally a comedy of manners.” It is also the first of Austen’s “mature” novels; she wrote her more “sparkling” books, NA, S&S and P&P, all before she turned 25. But MP was written when she was in her mid-to-late 30s and, as is pointed out at The Republic of Pemberley’s JaneInfo page, it was “the first of Jane Austen’s novels not to be a revised version of one of her pre-1800 writings.”
When I first read MP at age 18, I didn’t appreciate Fanny Price. A lot of people don’t like her. She is easily Austen’s least popular heroine. In her afterward to the Signet edition, Julia Quinn says “…the problem with Fanny is that no one actually likes Fanny…She is not, in any sense, a romantic heroine…[her] dialogue is often thoughtful and intelligent, but she can only rarely be called clever.” I don’t love Fanny either. She’s not someone I would want to hang out with. But I will state categorically that the famed Elizabeth Bennet could learn a thing or two from Fanny Price. Fanny would never be taken in by a cad like Wickham nor, like Jane Bennet, would she go out of her way to see the best in him, regardless of the evidence. Fanny may be physically weak, but she has a spine of stainless steel and she is an impeccable judge of character. She is not naive. If she doesn’t like someone, there’s a good chance that person deserves it. Unlike a lot of people I know, I never liked Henry Crawford and never wanted Fanny to marry him. Again, Fanny is the best judge of character in the story and she doesn’t want to marry him and that’s good enough for me.
And, speaking of Henry, something really leapt out at me during this reading of the book that I’d never thought about before. In chapter 31, Fanny finds out that William has been promoted to lieutenant and that Henry Crawford is responsible for this promotion. She finds out because Henry tells her. When I read this chapter the other day, I was struck at how anxious Henry is for Fanny to know all that he’s done, supposedly because of his feelings for her. This scene got me to thinking about the contrast between Henry’s behavior here and Darcy’s in P&P. Darcy rescues Lydia for Elizabeth’s sake (and also because it’s the right thing to do). But we also learn that he does not want to be acknowledged publicly for having done it. Henry, on the other hand, can’t wait to show Fanny how wonderful he is because he got her brother a promotion. Darcy isn’t my favorite hero, but he’s essentially a good man (especially at the end of the story). Henry is not a good man at any point in the story. I know a lot of readers want Fanny to marry Henry because they believe he truly loves her. I don’t believe it for a minute. He starts his affair with Maria not too long after he leaves Portsmouth — does that sound like a man in love to you? It doesn’t to me. Mrs. Norris certainly blames Fanny for Maria’s situation, but I simply cannot.
This truly is Austen’s most controversial novel, but not because it deals (in part) with adultery. It is controversial today because, in my opinion, the characters are polarizing. Fanny and Edmund are deemed dull; Mary and Henry are praised for being witty and clever. The fact that Mary sneers at the idea of Edmund becoming a priest, the fact that Mary wishes Tom dead, the fact that she conspires with Henry to get Fanny to fall in love with him and the fact that she tries to blame Henry and Maria’s affair on Fanny are not in her favor. She may be witty, entertaining and clever, but she is just as morally bankrupt as her brother. Fanny and Edmund are dull, but they are good, decent people who try to live good, decent lives. Edmund does not become a priest because he has no other options; he really wants to be a priest. He fully understands that he can be a force for good in that role. Last but not least, Fanny is much better suited to be a priest’s wife than Mary. I can see Mary play-acting at being Lady Bountiful for a while, but I think she’d get bored rather quickly and would make Edmund’s life miserable. He may be dull, but does he really deserve that? So, in the final analysis, I see MP’s plot as being a lesson on appearance versus substance, with substance winning in the end.
A lot of people don’t see MP this way, but it’s the only way I can see it. Even way back when, in the days when I didn’t like the book very much (when I was upset to see that it wasn’t as much fun as P&P or Emma), I couldn’t see Mary as Edmund’s wife, nor could I see Fanny as Henry’s.
Feel free to disagree. I look forward to reading your thoughts.