An appreciation of Mansfield Park upon the 200th anniversary of its publication

My local chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America will discuss Mansfield Park in April. It was first published in July 1814.

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

— from A Memoir of Jane Austen by J.E. Austen Leigh

mansfield-stampJane Austen supposedly said this before writing Emma, but I think most readers have a different candidate for a heroine no one much likes—Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. Let’s be brutally honest and face facts: Mansfield Park is the least favorite Jane Austen novel. There are other reasons why it’s not loved irrespective of Fanny, but Fanny probably tops the list.

After my first reading of the six novels, I would also have listed Mansfield Park at the bottom of the list, but each time I re-read it I find my appreciation of it improves. This is different from the other novels, where I may from time to time re-evaluate or newly appreciate some aspect, but my basic understanding of it remains intact. Every time I read Mansfield Park or watch an adaptation of it, however, my sympathies and understanding of it seem to fundamentally alter. It’s like a different story each time and I think that’s the genius of the place.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story (or if you’ve never quite finished it), you can read a synopsis here.

My first reading
My first time reading Mansfield Park, I accepted it as a love story. I overlooked Fanny’s many failings—always tired, tearful or fearful; I overlooked that Mary Crawford seemed a much better match for Edmund Bertram, Fanny’s cousin; I overlooked the fact that the love story is mostly one sided.

My lack of vision was partly because I was first introduced to Mansfield Park in the 2007 ITV movie starring Billie Piper as Fanny. Not surprisingly, the producers and director of the movie didn’t want a Fanny too faithful to Austen’s original and so we see Piper’s Fanny laughing, playing badminton, racing her horse with Edmund and willfully disobeying her Aunt Norris. (In fact my first impressions of all Austen’s characters were based on the adaptations shown on PBS, which by and large, I think were accurate representations—except for Fanny.)

So I probably had a livelier image of Fanny in mind than Austen intended the first time I read the book. I was in complete sympathy with Fanny’s situation. I easily understood Fanny’s wretchedness at being removed from her family in Portsmouth to live with her uncle and his family in Northamptonshire. Fanny’s feelings of being the poor relation, of not quite belonging, and of being second choice in love, were not unknown to me.

My second reading
It wasn’t until my second reading of it—actually listening to a Librivox audio recording—that I began to appreciate what a bitter pill Fanny was. Now I saw her as sanctimonious, priggish and insipid (an opinion shared by Austen’s mother). I began to question the Edmund-Fanny love story and like many others, thought Edmund should have ended up with Mary Crawford.

Of course Mansfield Park is not really a love story. The plot certainly is driven by Fanny’s unquestioning love of Edmund, but the romantic love is almost entirely one sided. Some of Austen’s family and friends called it a “sensible novel” or praised it for its morality, which hardly sounds like a love story.

The 1983 adaptation
Then I saw the 1983 BBC miniseries with Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny, which I think is very faithful to the book. Le Touzel accurately portrays Fanny, I think, with all her timidity and suffering (and Anna Massey portrays Aunt Norris particularly well).

Le Touzel’s portrayal of Fanny—tired, tearful or fearful again—oddly renewed my sympathy for Fanny, and made me really appreciate what a complex character is Fanny. Only by emphasizing her weakness can one appreciate her strength. Austen loves teasing us that Fanny might abandon her principles. When the others urge her to act in the family theatrical, she says no, but just before Sir Thomas returns home, she is asked again when Mrs. Grant is prevented from playing cottager’s wife. She never does read the part because Sir Thomas returns home from Antigua and I wonder if she ultimately would have complied.

She is tested again when Henry Crawford proposes to her and she refuses. She must withstand the entreaties of Sir Thomas, Mary Crawford and worst of all, Edmund, to accept the proposal. And Austen teases us a second time when Henry visits her in Portsmouth. She is homesick for Mansfield Park, and I wonder whether she might have succumbed to his charms. Sometimes I think no, her resolve and love for Edmund is too strong; sometimes I think like everyone else in the novel, that Fanny would be a good influence on Henry and that Henry might improve Fanny. I think she might have accepted.

Did Austen intentionally write an unlikeable character?
What’s so amazing about Fanny is that Austen should have created her. I imagine that if Austen had ever known a real-life Fanny, she’d laugh at her the way we laugh at Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Fanny only starts to become interesting once she’s allowed to be an Austen heroine, when she has to stand up to Sir Thomas.

I think this is an example of Austen’s real daring—to make a hero of someone no one, not even her creator, would very much like (actually, I think Austen was quite proud of Fanny). Then Austen takes another daring step by creating a moral code for Mansfield Park that I doubt she shared. I’ve read that one of the reasons Fanny is so disliked is because she’s always proved right in the end, but she’s only proved right within the context of the novel.

For instance, we know the Austen family delighted in family theatricals and I can imagine them performing Lovers’ Vows, even if a family member were abroad and despite the subject matter (an illegitimate birth). We also know that Austen, encouraged by her father, read many books that the prudish Fanny would have found distasteful. Austen even included a “natural child,” Harriet Smith, in Emma. Within the moral code of Mansfield Park, however, staging the play was wrong.

The play’s the thing
So what’s so awful about Tom Bertram’s scheme to stage a production of Lovers’ Vows while waiting for Sir Thomas to return from Antigua? Unfortunately the lens of history makes it pretty hard for a modern reader to understand all the implications of the scheme. Two that immediately come to mind are the subject matter of the play and the perils that confronted Sir Thomas. Let’s look at this second matter first.

It’s about 4,000 miles from Antigua to England. A flight today would take eight to nine hours. There are few dates in Mansfield Park, but it is stated that Sir Thomas expects to be gone a year and is absent longer than that. It’s important to remember that in this time, a bon voyage party was almost a wake, and further, England was at war with France. Aunt Norris morbidly speculates on what calamity might befall Sir Thomas, so Edmund is correct in being concerned for his father’s safety.

Tom Bertram, the eldest son, says the play might help to dispel their mother’s worry about Sir Thomas, but then Edmund and Tom observe her dozing on the sofa, the very picture of tranquility and unconcern, both proving each other’s point.

When I examined the first objection to the play—the subject matter—I found that the play is not objectionable at all. It’s one of those moralistic melodramas where justice prevails, evil (in the person of Count Cassel) is banished, fathers and sons are reunited and the clergyman gets the girl. Compare this to Fanny’s assessment:

“Her curiosity was all awake, and she ran through [the script] with an eagerness which was suspended only by intervals of astonishment, that it could be chosen in the present instance, that it could be proposed and accepted in a private theatre! Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in; and longed to have them roused as soon as possible by the remonstrance which Edmund would certainly make.”

Read the play if you like, it’s actually pretty funny and the fact that Austen didn’t need to explain the play to her readers indicates it was well known. However Fanny’s fears are proved correct—Sir Thomas does object to the play. Yet again, Fanny is correct.

The moral compasses of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park compared
Now compare the moral universe of Pride and Prejudice with that of Mansfield Park. When Lydia Bennet runs away with Wickham, without any intention of marrying, it is considered a major scandal. (Elizabeth is certain this means her chances with Darcy are ruined.) After Mr. Bennet learns that his brother-in-law, Mr. Gardiner, has paid off Wickham to marry Lydia, Mrs. Bennet believes the scandal to be averted and begins to plan for the Wickhams to settle nearby. But Mr. Bennet tells her:

“Mrs. Bennet, before you take any or all of these houses for your son and daughter, let us come to a right understanding. Into one house in this neighbourhood they shall never have admittance. I will not encourage the impudence of either, by receiving them at Longbourn.”

And yet after their marriage, that’s exactly what Mr. Bennet does. He accepts them, despite the very great embarrassment they’ve brought to his family.

Sir Thomas, however, cannot allow the disgraced Maria to remain under his roof. Granted her sin, a married woman flagrantly running off with a lover, may be greater than Lydia’s, but it’s a shade of distinction. Sir Thomas did forgive Julia her crime of eloping to Scotland with Mr. Yates, but as their intent was marriage, it’s not much of a crime.

My sympathies go back and forth here. Sir Thomas knows that many of the faults in his children can be traced back to his typical Austenian parental abdication. He allowed his children to be raised by his sister-in-law while he remained a distant figure.

Too late he became aware how unfavourable to the character of any young people must be the totally opposite treatment which Maria and Julia had been always experiencing at home, where the excessive indulgence and flattery of their aunt had been continually contrasted with his own severity. He saw how ill he had judged, in expecting to counteract what was wrong in Mrs. Norris by its reverse in himself; clearly saw that he had but increased the evil by teaching them to repress their spirits in his presence so as to make their real disposition unknown to him, and sending them for all their indulgences to a person who had been able to attach them only by the blindness of her affection, and the excess of her praise.

I’m left to wonder how Mr. Bennet would have treated Maria. I think Mr. Bennet knew he was an indifferent parent but at least he chose not to punish his children for his insufficiencies.

Mary Crawford is punished for being practical
I’m also troubled by Edmund’s rejection of Mary Crawford after she tried to dismiss Maria’s and Henry’s behavior as folly and also Mary’s lament that disaster might have been adverted had Fanny accepted Henry’s proposal—“She would have fixed him; she would have made him happy for ever.” I’m sure there are any number of people who think this as well.

Edmund also rejects her when she offers this advice:

“We must persuade Henry to marry [Maria],” said she; “and what with honour, and the certainty of having shut himself out for ever from Fanny, I do not despair of it. …  When once married, and properly supported by her own family, people of respectability as they are, she may recover her footing in society to a certain degree. … What I advise is, that your father be quiet. Do not let him injure his own cause by interference. Persuade him to let things take their course.”

This is, of course, the exact course the Bennets take to rescue Lydia’s reputation.

(Of course it all comes down to acting and directing and camera angles in an adaptation. The 1999 movie, which I don’t much like, presents Mary Crawford’s practical advice quite chillingly.)

My third reading
So this is my third time reading Mansfield Park. It’s been a combination of listening to a different Librivox recording and reading the book. I’ve watched parts of three adaptations and read Lovers’ Vows. I now have to significantly alter my estimation of Mansfield Park. It’s still the least entertaining story. It still has the least likable hero and heroine. But it’s certainly the most complex and I think rewarding novel and the finest example of Austen’s skill as a writer. It’s her most daring novel, especially when you consider it’s her third novel, when she should have banked on the success of Pride and Prejudice with a straightforward love story.

Instead of creating a heroine with the wit of Elizabeth Bennet or the good sense of Elinor Dashwood or the passion or Marianne Dashwood, she created a dull, timid creature whose only heroic act was to behave as an Austen heroine should—to marry only for love.

Other observations
It’s interesting to note that Austen would have been writing Mansfield Park during the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, the play from which Henry Crawford reads for Lady Bertram, Edmund and Fanny.

One other interesting observation concerns the 1999 movie directed by Patricia Rozema. Although I think it not very good, the movie did cause me to wonder what happened in Antigua to change Sir Thomas. If there is a dark subtext to be found in Jane Austen, I would begin my search in Antigua. (The 1999 movie addresses Antigua.)

“Problems” (as others may see it) with Mansfield Park

It’s very long, about 160,000 words, just a few hundred less than Emma.

There’s no declaration of love between the main characters. Any Janeite knows that Austen novels never depict an actual marriage proposal; it’s generally dealt with in paraphrase and there’s never that one kiss that rewards movie and television viewers. There are, however, genuine words of love exchanged between the lovers in her other books but the final chapter of Mansfield Park contains not a single line of dialog. This chapter must do the happy work of exiling Aunt Norris and Maria to their mutual hell, kill off Dr. Grant, make Fanny’s sister Susan a permanent resident of Mansfield Park, explain why Henry Crawford behaved as he did, bring Tom Bertram back to health … really a whole laundry list of tyings up … and still find room for a few paragraphs to explain how Edmund got over his love for Mary Crawford and transfer that love to Fanny.

Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.

Cousins marrying. Film and television adaptations rarely include these words from Mrs. Norris in the very first chapter of Mansfield Park:

“You are thinking of your sons—but do not you know that, of all things upon earth, that is the least likely to happen, brought up as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters? It is morally impossible. I never knew an instance of it. It is, in fact, the only sure way of providing against the connexion. Suppose her a pretty girl, and seen by Tom or Edmund for the first time seven years hence, and I dare say there would be mischief. The very idea of her having been suffered to grow up at a distance from us all in poverty and neglect, would be enough to make either of the dear, sweet-tempered boys in love with her. But breed her up with them from this time, and suppose her even to have the beauty of an angel, and she will never be more to either than a sister.”

The first time I was troubled at the thought of cousins marrying, but I dismissed it, thinking that it was common among the British aristocracy. It wasn’t until my third reading that these words really caught my attention. Austen went out of her way to indicate this was a problem, but she still went ahead and did it.

There really is no villain to the piece. But … but what about Mrs. Norris? you exasperatedly ask. I argue that though she is an unpleasant character and must have made Fanny’s life hell, she never really stands as an impediment to Fanny’s desires. She never falsely accuses Fanny of anything (other than always being on the sofa); she never absolutely forbids Fanny from doing anything. Consider what Dickens could have done with Mrs. Norris and you’ll see what I mean.

Mary Crawford also isn’t much of a threat. She’s very open about her intentions toward Edmund; she never tries to hide her true character, and she objects to Edmund’s desire to be a clergyman. As Edmund says: “She never has danced with a clergyman, she says, and she never will.” I cannot dislike Mary at all.

Henry Crawford certainly exhibits some villainy, but as his villainous act frees Fanny of his proposal, I think we can discount him. Maria, certainly within the moral guidelines of the novel, got what she deserved.

If you think about it, Fanny’s only real impediment is that she does nothing to make Edmund see her as a lover—that and the fact that they are cousins.

Edmund’s unsuitability as a hero, which is very reminiscent of Edward Ferrar’s deficiencies in Sense and Sensibility. Edmund goes about like a love-struck teen (of course he is in his early twenties) and fails to understand Mary’s character, even though she never tries to deny it. After he realizes Mary’s true nature, he quickly changes his attachment to Fanny. He seems very inconstant to me and although I predict a long and happy marriage for Edmund and Fanny, I don’t it will be a very passionate one. Edmund’s hope for passion ended with Mary.

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