Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814)
I first read Mansfield Park, when I was a teenager and had been disappointed in it at the time. This past June, I listened to Mansfield Park as an audiobook on the long drive from Maine to Virginia, which meant that I became really invested and would gasp when Mrs. Norris said something particularly condescending to or about Fanny. It did drag toward the end, I thought, but overall I liked re-reading it. [The following review contains spoilers and since it’s a classic novel, I’m being lazy and not providing a summary of the plot.]
In the popular mind, Jane Austen’s novels are often thought of as great romances, sometimes to reductive effect. Mansfield Park is satire, and moral dilemmas, and not a romance at all. Sure, in the end: Fanny marries Edward, but that is just a matter of tidiness, not really the drive of Mansfield Park at all.
In that vein, Fanny’s rejection of Henry Crawford is refreshing. He fits most of the parameters of the “reformed rake” that populates many of today’s romance novels (not knocking the genre, just citing the trope). All of the other characters, including Edward, are encouraging Fanny to accept Henry but she doesn’t like him and doesn’t think he has good character, and she likes someone else. Fanny may be lacking the spark that other Austen heroines have, but this thread of stubbornness was welcome.
If there is an emotional center, it may be about Fanny finding a place to belong. Like Eliza Doolittle, her refinement at her uncle’s house has made her a bad fit for her original home. But because of her parentage, she’s considered a lower tier resident at Mansfield Park. Mostly though, the book’s merits are in its characterization. Nearly all of the characters display a good deal of thoughtlessness and vanity, but in such well-drawn, differing varieties. The Crawfords are the objects of fascination as characters who are fun but rather morally ruined. Mrs. Norris is the entertainment by being delectably awful. Mrs. Bertram is indolence, in extremis. And so on.
While it’s possible that some readers have taken Fanny into their heart, I’m afraid I cannot, though I did identify with her at points because Fanny is such a classic introvert. I definitely liked Mansfield Park much more this time than when I was a teenager, as I can more fully appreciate Austen’s incisive observations of human character. But there wasn’t a lot of warmth to attach to in this one, no fondness like I developed for Mr. Tilney and Catherine on my re-read of Northanger Abbey.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Care’s Online Book Club – “Jane Austen’s ability to be cool and snide is beyond compare.”
The Parchment Girl – “In short, Mansfield Park is a serious novel and not for the faint of heart, but it is worth it.”
Wuthering Expectations – “I do not think that Mansfield Park is more ethically complex nor that the portrayals of the characters are so different than in Austen’s other novels, but that the creation of a thicker fictional world, and the characters’ interaction with it, is itself a major artistic achievement.”