Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen

Original Publication Date: 1814 
Genre: Austen romance 
Topics: marriage, integrity, morality, appearances, religion, friendship, family, loyalty 
Review by Bridget/Anachronist @ portable pieces of thoughts

Brace yourself, it is my first review here and it will be long, with a detailed synopsis, full of spoilers but hey, the book is a classic, right? Let me indulge myself a bit.
Once upon a time there were three sisters. One of them, being the prettiest, married very well, the second one, a bit wild, married very badly but for love and the third one married just because it was the right thing to do. The first sister, Lady Bertram, a rich wife of a baronet, was spending her days idly by the side of her husband, Sir Thomas, enjoying luxuries of Mansfield Park, their country estate. She had four children: two sons, Tom and Edmund, and two daughters, Maria and Julia. She also decided to help her other two sisters, less fortunate when it came to the choice of husbands.

That’s how Fanny Price, our heroine, aged just 10, arrived to Mansfield Park – she was Aunt Bertram’s charity case. As one of many children of the second sister, Frances, and Lieut. Price, a retired naval officer, Fanny was sent away to live with her fine relatives. Her mother was very grateful as it was considered a great opportunity and social advancement. Of course nobody asked the opinion of the shy, awkward child. Fanny was never exactly mistreated by the Bertrams but she never felt at home with them either. Still Edmund, the younger son, being the most good-natured of all, managed to show his young cousin real kindness from time to time. Fanny’s other maternal aunt, Mrs. Norris, the local parson’s wife, showered attention and affection on her Bertram nieces, particularly Maria, but was frequently unpleasant and mean-spirited toward Fanny, making the girl feeing inadequate.

The narration starts when Fanny is 16. Sir Thomas must leave for a year to deal with problems on his plantation in Antiqua. He takes his eldest son, Tom, along in hopes to isolate him from bad company he had been keeping. Meanwhile Mrs. Norris finds a husband for Maria Bertram – a completely stupid but very rich Mr. Rushworth. Maria accepts his proposal subject to Sir Thomas’s approval on his return, making a very serious mistake.

About this time, the fashionable, wealthy, and worldly Henry Crawford and his sister, Mary , arrive at the parsonage to stay with Mrs. Grant, their half-sister. The arrival of the lively, attractive Crawford siblings disrupts the staid world of Mansfield and sparks a series of romantic entanglements.In order to entertain them the Bertram sisters are staging a play - very inappropriate but funny.

When Sir Thomas unexpectedly arrives home in the middle of a rehearsal, the theatricals are abruptly terminated. Henry, whom Maria had expected to propose, leaves, and she feels crushed, realizing that he didn’t love her. Although she neither likes nor respects Mr. Rushworth, she goes ahead and marries him out of spite. Her marriage will trigger a family crisis of quite epic proportions but fear not - our Fanny will try to preserve her integrity.
 What I liked:

If you wonder why my synopsis is so long and detailed here are two main reasons. First – I admit that Mansfield Park is my favourite Jane Austen book and I can talk about it forever. Second – I wanted to show how dissimilar that novel is when compared to those awful movie adaptations. Really, truly, completely different.

First of all the main heroine, Fanny, is perhaps the most complex female character created by Austen, maybe because she is portrayed not as a young adult but we can follow most of her childhood as well. Plenty of readers don’t like Fanny for being a bit priggish. Jane Austen’s own mother thought Fanny “insipid”. I don’t agree with such an assessment. Although, as any young girl, she is sometimes given to wishful thinking and she is often too timid to speak up her mind, Fanny can be surprisingly perceptive and intelligent; it is quite stunning as she lacked any moral guidance or support among her real or adoptive family. Still she is the only one who can assess the Crawfords in the right way, she notices how badly Maria treats her fiancĂ© before almost anybody else and she can criticize the household of her own mother in a very clear-headed way. By rejecting Henry she shows a lot of courage; she also grows in self-esteem during the latter part of the story, weathering a major crisis caused by Maria’s divorce and Tom’s illness.

Many modern readers find Fanny’s timidity and disapproval of the theatricals difficult to sympathize with but I found it in perfect accordance with her introvert character – she did enjoy listening to Henry Crawford’s skillful reading, she just didn’t want to offend her absent uncle doing something overly frivolous; I suppose she also didn’t want to mix with a crowd who treated her indifferently at best and disapproved of her at worst. Their attitude might be well summed up by this quote:

“My dear Miss Price,” said Miss Crawford, as soon as she was at all within hearing, “I am come to make my own apologies for keeping you waiting; but I have nothing in the world to say for myself-I knew it was very late, and that I was behaving extremely ill; and therefore, if you please, you must forgive me. Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park, Chapter 7
Apart from Fanny there are plenty of other great characters, presented here, but two of them, namely Henry and Mary Crawford deserve a paragraph or two of their own.

They are a pair of antagonists, predators, but they are presented as quite likeable creatures, so nice to be with and so interesting nobody notices their wickedness. Let’s start with the lady. I would describe Mary Crawford as Elizabeth Bennett without moral principles – she is clever, she has a great sense of humour, she is additionally rich (twenty thousand pounds of dowry, no small matter) and pretty spoiled. You might argue that her faults stem from the fact that she wasn’t given proper education and example in her childhood but so wasn’t Fanny and there is vast difference between the way of thinking of these two young women. Mary is so dazzled by the glitter of the beau monde that she rarely notices any real values in people. She likes luxury, she appreciates theatre and fun, she thinks she is entitled to everything the best, including men. Although from time to time she can be also understanding, generous and kind, she thinks mostly about her own convenience and social status. She tolerates Fanny to please Edmund and Sir Thomas but, given a choice, she remorselessly forgets her timid friend to enjoy a more interesting company.

Her brother is even worse – it is a predator similar to Monsieur Vicomte de Valmont from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, another classic. As he has definitely too much money for his own good and is too lazy and lax to find himself a proper occupation he preys on women for fun (mind you we speak about the Napoleonic Wars period, such easy time to find an occupation for an aggressive, clever man of means!). The way he plays both sisters Bertram is really callous and ruthless even though you can argue both sisters deserved that much; after the marriage of Maria he doesn’t hesitate to contact her in public and when she pretends reserve he decides to conquer her again – not because he loves her but because he must prove his seductive skills before himself and all the world around. Of course the fact that he might be ruining more than one life and a reputation of the whole family in the process never even crosses his mind. He would do anything and everything for a moment of thrill.

What I didn’t like:

One small carping: I really hated the fact that Jane Austen didn’t punish Henry Crawford for his villainy. While Maria Bertram was sent into exile in the really acidic company of her aunt Norris he was left with all the privileges of a rich squire; his reputation didn’t suffer either. NOT FAIR. His only punishment? He didn’t get Fanny and he was aware what he'd lost. I wish Austen at least made him poor (gambling?) and then forced him to marry for money some horrible harpy, twice his age.

Final verdict

I may risk a statement that Mansfield Park is not an easy novel to understand. It enjoys that dubious distinction of being disliked by more of Jane Austen’s fans than any of her other novels. Perhaps it is because its themes are very different from those of her other books, which can generally be summed up by one sentence or, indeed a phrase: Sense and Sensibility is about balancing emotions and reason, Pride and Prejudice is about consequences of judging others too quickly, Emma is about growing into adulthood while being terribly nosy, and Persuasion is about giving others and yourself second chances. The theme of Mansfield Park, on the other hand, defies such a simple description. Is it an allegory of Regency England? Is it about the negative impact of slavery? Is it about the good and bad education of children? Is it about the difference between appearances and reality? Is it about the consequences of breaking with society’s rigid rules? In my opinion any, or all of those themes can, and have been applied to Mansfield Park – let it be the proof that this novel is something truly exceptional and worth reading.

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