Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen book cover
Mansfield Park (1814) is perhaps the least popular of Jane Austen’s novels, at the very least it is the novel that has caused critics and readers the most problems. Central to these difficulties is Fanny Price, the rather frail and moralistic heroine of the novel. Brought to Mansfield Park at the age of ten to live amongst wealthy relatives, young Fanny is brought up in the home of Sir Thomas Bertram, alongside his children: Maria, Julia, and Edmund. She is kept apart from her cousins both psychically and physically, her place in the household underlined at every opportunity. It is only Edmund that spends time with her as she grows into a quietly moral young woman. In return, she harbours a secret and steadfast love for her cousin. As Fanny reaches maturity, Sir Thomas finds that his concerns in the West Indies are failing to yield the expected profits, and so travels to Antigua to set things straight, leaving Mansfield Park in the hands of Mrs. Norris – a satirically snobbish matriarch. During this period, siblings Henry and Mary Crawford, shallow but captivating friends of the Bertrams from town, arrive to stay. They contrive to put on a salacious play, Lovers’ Vows and only Fanny refuses to take part, fearing that her absent uncle, Sir Thomas, would not approve of the endeavour. Preparations for the play allow for all manner of flirtations, and romantic attachments are unsurprisingly provoked. Even Edmund, after voicing grave doubts, is persuaded to join in with the play. However, when Sir Thomas arrives home unexpectedly he does not at all approve of the scheme and clears his house of all traces of the play, including many of the young people who have petitioned for it. Nevertheless, attachments have been formed and Fanny can only look on as trysts are made and broken, her heart all the time longing for Edmund and hoping that his head will not be turned by more vivacious alternatives.

Unsurprisingly with Austen, the main narrative is driven by a marriage plot, the young women of the novel seeking a suitable mate who might care for them financially as much as emotionally. As Mary Crawford remarks, “everybody should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage,” but Mansfield Park is more than this. Written in the aftermath of the French Revolution when England was undergoing a period of restless change, Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s most mature pieces of fiction. As politics, technology, and ways of living evolved apace, Austen here is espousing the merit of stillness, of stoic contemplation. Indeed, Austen suggests that many of the prizes of advancement may prove, ultimately, to be self-destructive; the new found freedom and wealth squandered on superficiality rather than substance. The modern reader may ache for the excitement of revolutionary spirit but Austen values the less-glamourous qualities of endurance and reflectiveness more highly here.

Fanny is, of course, central to the theme of restraint and may be the Austen heroine who sees most deeply; her perceptions, moral and actual, are more keenly and universally focused than other Austen heroines. Yet she presents numerous problems for the modern reader. Not least that Austen appears to be suggesting that women could not have their cake and eat it, but were to make the best of the strictures of the patriarchal society under which they lived. With Mansfield Park, Austen is almost wilfully undoing the heroine-centred courtship romance and displacing the spirited Lizzy Bennet with the demure Fanny. Like Vanity Fair, Mansfield Park is populated by self-absorbed, self-indulgent characters, and in their midst Fanny becomes almost the model of nineteenth century morality, a girl with sincerity and without affectation, a Regency version of King Lear’s Cordelia.

Fanny has, over the years, come in for a fair amount of criticism for being a dull prig, a wooden, physically feeble, and too-moral bore. Like Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House, she is morally unimpeachable while more colourful characters around her provide the greater interest. She represents a firm passivity at the centre of the novel, her mind unswayed by those around her as she (and, through her, the reader) observes the novel’s action. Her steadfastness may be a more realistic route to success for women of Austen’s time than those in her other novels, but there is a risk here of realism overtaking the imperative of literature to be enlivening, engaging, and to speak to something more transcendent than mundane in the reader. It is hard to think of many readers imagining themselves in Fanny’s place when there are alternatives like the spirited Elizabeth Bennet or Emily Brontë’s wild, vital Catherine Earnshaw.

As Austen’s novels take on the tone of their heroines, Mansfield Park, in Fanny’s image, is a sombre read in comparison to other of Austen’s works and so the problem of Fanny is central. Fanny’s morality is based on her Christian sentiment while her cousins and the Crawfords, to different extents, subscribe to a worldly, secular doctrine of pleasure-seeking. It is unsurprising, then, that writers like Kingsley Amis, who enjoyed a modern, bohemian lifestyle, have taken against Fanny’s priggishness. However, although on the face of it chaste, the novel is laced with sex. As it rolls towards its adulterous conclusion, there are undercurrents of incestuous impropriety and frequent Freudian metaphors that pre-empt the messy conclusion, plus an unexpectedly filthy joke about sodomy.

Fanny herself is not to be underestimated either. Like all of Austen’s great heroines, she disdains to conform to expectation or to jump at the offer of marriage when she feels it is unsuitable. She is perhaps the clearest example of an Austen heroine maintaining her own individual set of morals and remaining constant to them in the face of the world’s expectations – it is hardly a fiery form of feminism but it is quietly effective. However, although her constancy is a moral strength, it is a dramatic failing. For, as characters around her evolve, Fanny’s static devotion to her cousin and her principles, while admirable, makes for a rather dull, or indeed non-existent, character arc.

This is part of a larger issue around the puncturing of the dramatic in the novel, intended or not. In Fanny’s case, Mansfield Park is a narrative of prevention in which she seeks to avoid the type of chaotic downfall that lends itself to drama. This constancy and caution speaks well of her character but is difficult to balance with the expectations of excitement from the reader. For the most part, the novel is relayed at a rather ponderous pace. As it nears its conclusion, it moves into the form of epistolary, emphasising the isolation of the different characters as circumstances develop, and allowing an opportunity to have the characters’ attitudes to marriage and morality, etc. more clearly spelt out in monologue form rather than the dialogue of earlier in the novel. This has the effect, also, of scuppering any opportunity for drama in the denouement. So assiduously does Austen hammer home the point about drama and artifice being wholly undesirable in real-life that theme may overtake literary imperative here.

The other characters around Fanny, while (or perhaps, because they are) morally inferior, are more engaging as literary constructs. Inverting the notion of the country naïve being corrupted by the city, Austen transports the shallow but exciting Crawfords from town to the country, where they set about corrupting everyone around them. The country is a space where nature is closest and characters – Fanny in particular – are more prone to feeling a cosmic sense of their smallness and place within a larger system, both ecological and transcendent. Yet even the Crawfords have both light and shade in them, and there are no truly bad characters in the novel. Edmund is closest to Fanny in morality and represents less a mentor-lover for her – a common trope in Austen – and more of a companion. Indeed, if anything it is she who is morally instructive to him.

Inevitably, class is a concern with Fanny having her lowly position in the Bertram household made quite clear to her: she is not to think herself comparable to Julia or Maria, who are of better breeding, and she is kept apart from them. Fanny’s quiet prudence leads her, however, to succeed in spite of this (or, perhaps, in part because she has been separated from the complacent, pleasure-oriented upbringing of her cousins). It is a pure form of meritocracy and Austen emphasises the importance of the upbringing of children: their parents’ responsibilities, the home environment, education, innate quality, and more. (As a side note, it is worth mentioning that Fanny’s poor background affords Austen a rare opportunity to delve, briefly, into the life of the lower-middle-class family when Fanny visits her family in Portsmouth.)

Themes beyond class, marriage, and sensibility are played out here. Built on the profits of the slave trade, Mansfield Park is a newly erected property that lacks the charm of a true country house. It is no coincidence that the house bears the name of the abolitionist Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield (who, incidentally, adopted a mixed-race girl, who was, like Fanny Price, raised as somewhat of an outsider in a county house). When Sir Thomas visits Antigua to set things in order, he leaves Mansfield Park in the hands of Mrs. Norris, a somewhat dislikeable character who oversees a descent into moral chaos at the house. The name Norris was equally as synonymous with the slave trade as that of Mansfield, only on the other side of the equation: Robert Norris was a famous slave-trader and pro-slavery advocate. Mansfield Park, then, is immersed in the culture of slavery, and filled with affected young people who care little about this fact. Various readings are possible, but the strongest perhaps leaves Austen in an ameliorationist position with Fanny as a slave to Sir Thomas, her largely benevolent master. Although an important aspect of the book, the discussion of slavery in relation to Mansfield Park is too complex an issue to fully explore here – it is worth bearing it in mind when reading the text, however.

The play which the young people propose to put on in Sir Thomas’s absence prompts the most fertile scenes in the novel, where much about the characters is exposed both in their actions and in the dialectic of their dialogue with one another. In this section, Austen uses dramatic techniques to share the consciousness of each of her characters, demonstrating how close drama and the novel are in style, and also to explore the way in which performance rests on the manipulation of language to one’s meaning. Austen does not, however, include any actual dramatic performance in the novel. By refusing to include such, she emphasises the focus on distinguishing real character from acted. Like Fanny, the author is keen to acknowledge the importance of seeing through artifice and to the essential nature of things. This is an important component of the novel. Embodying this, each character, comically, pays attention to their own part in the play they are to perform, ignoring the co-operative endeavour of drama and remaining single-mindedly focused on their own interests. Only Fanny, the passive bystander, sees the problem of this vain solipsism and understands the construction of the play as a whole and has any moral purchase upon it. This is a rather good metaphor for the greater dynamic of the novel (so too for the author, who must observe and get to the essential nature of things).

The dialogue repeatedly plays out the varying moral positions of the characters, betraying their education, attitudes, and the themes which they represent. The dialectic between the different viewpoints is one of the greatest sources of interest in the novel. In one of her most ideological novels it is fascinating to see Austen unfurl her more conservative opinions and wrestle with the form of an anti-Jacobin novel, taking in its strengths and weaknesses. While, in essence, taking as a basic template the instructive form of a female educative novel, Mansfield Park is softened and problematized by Austen’s blurring of the lines. A more technically accomplished novel than Sense and Sensibility, here the discordant themes of artificiality and substantiality of character are explored in a more sophisticated manner.

In Mansfield Park, individualism and self-love are seen as destabilising forces to harmonious and stable existence. Failure to submit to an authority, human or transcendent, in the pursuit of self-interest is shown to be both dangerous and inherently human. For the modern reader, particularly the Western reader, any message of self-restraint and deference is anathema to the narrative of personal over collective story which is deeply embedded in current Western philosophy. It is perhaps for this reason that so many readers find Fanny and Mansfield Park to be so problematic. Clearly Austen understood the difficulties, even the humour, of marrying essentially selfish creatures with social contracts, but it is impossible to escape the discordance Fanny’s morality has with that of many modern readers. To call her a prig may be to go too far, particularly in the context of the early nineteenth century, but she is not a spirited, defiant heroine that captures the imagination like Elizabeth Bennet. Nevertheless, rarely had the interior life of a young girl been as fully explored in fiction and Mansfield Park is as technically sound as any of Austen’s novels. Setting morality aside, it is perhaps for its (intended) effect on the dramatic that Austen’s conservatism proves most difficult for the reader. As ever, though, she challenges and makes problematic moral and literary traditions, making Mansfield Park a satisfying intellectual feat if not wholly a literary one.

This is a really well-constructed novel - Austen is constantly surprising and impressive. I did have some qualms about the theme overrunning the story, but her skill is undeniable.


Useful Links
Reviews of Mansfield Park on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Mansfield Park on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of Mansfield Park on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of Mansfield Park on Amazon (UK)

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14 comments:

Di said...

"They contrive to put on a salacious play, Lovers’ Vows and only Fanny refuses to take part, fearing that her absent uncle, Sir Thomas, would not approve of the endeavour."
I recommend that you read Nabokov's lecture to understand her disapproval.
"Yet she presents numerous problems for the modern reader."
I'm a modern reader, and I don't see the "numerous problems".
"Not least that Austen appears to be suggesting that women could not have their cake and eat it, but were to make the best of the strictures of the patriarchal society under which they lived."
Please elaborate.
"Fanny has, over the years, come in for a fair amount of criticism for being a dull prig, a wooden, physically feeble, and too-moral bore."
Physically feeble? That is to be contrasted with Mary's vivacity, and her own mental strength. You write later that "She represents a firm passivity at the centre of the novel" but that so-called passivity requires a lot more strength than you can imagine, considering her gratitude for the Bertrams and feeling of guilt, and her position as more or less an outsider in the Bertram family. Her refusal to accept Henry, in spite of everyone else, is a kind of rebellion.
A prig? She's not wrong, is she? Is she wrong when she distrusts Henry and doesn't accept any man who toys with women's feelings? Is she wrong when thinking that Mary shouldn't speak ill of her uncle? Is she wrong when saying that Mary shouldn't generalise, shouldn't think badly of the navy and of clergymen in general because of experience with a few people in those groups? Is she wrong when she finds Mary mercenary?
A bore? Fanny loves nature, reads poetry, admires Shakespeare and Romantic poets, observes people, spends time on self-reflection, has insight, sees through all pretensions and has no illusions, cares about slavery... I never understand it when people say she's boring. She may not have Elizabeth's vivacity, but what does that signify, there are many kinds of characters and there's no reason that you should expect a character to be something they're not and criticise the author for not achieving what you want that the author doesn't set out to achieve.
"It is hard to think of many readers imagining themselves in Fanny’s place when there are alternatives like the spirited Elizabeth Bennet or Emily Brontë’s wild, vital Catherine Earnshaw."
Identification with character is not and should not be a criterion of literary merit. By creating Mary Crawford and Fanny Price, Jane Austen's having a joke on all those who identify with Elizabeth Bennet. You also wrote "To call her a prig may be to go too far, particularly in the context of the early nineteenth century, but she is not a spirited, defiant heroine that captures the imagination like Elizabeth Bennet. " Indeed, she doesn't have the charm, wit and vivacity. But Elizabeth isn't Fanny either. She judges hastily and is blinded by her own prejudices, whereas Fanny doesn't have any illusions. It should also be noted that Fanny is defiant. She's simply defiant in a different way. Please read again the scenes of her telling Sir Thomas that she will not marry Henry.
Catherine Earnshaw, by the way, is an awful person, not much better than Heathcliff. Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece, I hope you don't read it as a beautiful, romantic love story.
[to be continued]

Di said...

[continued]
"Her steadfastness may be a more realistic route to success for women of Austen’s time than those in her other novels, but there is a risk here of realism overtaking the imperative of literature to be enlivening, engaging, and to speak to something more transcendent than mundane in the reader."
I don't know what you mean. Fanny refuses Henry not because of some conventions or some abstract principles or moral codes. She refuses him not only because of her love for Edmund either. She does because she cannot accept any man who toys with women's feelings.
"However, although her constancy is a moral strength, it is a dramatic failing. For, as characters around her evolve, Fanny’s static devotion to her cousin and her principles, while admirable, makes for a rather dull, or indeed non-existent, character arc."
Dramatic failing? Dull? The problem is not in Fanny, but in your reading, because you want her to be Elizabeth, instead of taking her as who she is. You admit it yourself: "This constancy and caution speaks well of her character but is difficult to balance with the expectations of excitement from the reader." I didn't have those expectations.
"Failure to submit to an authority, human or transcendent, in the pursuit of self-interest is shown to be both dangerous and inherently human. For the modern reader, particularly the Western reader, any message of self-restraint and deference is anathema to the narrative of personal over collective story which is deeply embedded in current Western philosophy."
That's not the point Jane Austen tries to make. The whole book is about Fanny not deferring to authority. Her question about slavery is another example. I suppose you're thinking of her disapproval of the acting, but she doesn't disapprove of acting in general, nor of the play itself. What she finds problematic is the fact that these unprofessional actors, in a private home, get into the roles, flirt and embrace.
The problem with Henry and Mary is not that they fail to submit to an authority in the pursuit of self-interest. The problem is that they're mercenary, selfish, shallow, superficial, thoughtless, inconsiderate...
"Setting morality aside, it is perhaps for its (intended) effect on the dramatic that Austen’s conservatism proves most difficult for the reader."
I never understand it when somebody speaks of the so-called conservatism of Mansfield Park.
"As ever, though, she challenges and makes problematic moral and literary traditions, making Mansfield Park a satisfying intellectual feat if not wholly a literary one."
I'm afraid that this sentence of yours makes very little sense.
More about Mansfield Park:
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/12/reading-misreading-mansfield-park.html
Dear Matthew, you might feel offended at me for being harsh to you. But great books are worth defending, especially when misread and misunderstood. I don't mean that you're not intelligent, but you read the novel in the wrong mindset.

Matthew Selwyn said...

++ SPOILER ALERT: for anyone other than Di reading this, I think it’s likely there will be spoilers ++

Ah, Di – I have been looking forward to reading your insights into my review and hoping you would take the time to jot them down. Do not worry, I don’t feel offended in the slightest. I by no means flatter myself that I am anywhere well-read enough able to establish for myself an authoritative reading of any great novel (for I do think Mansfield Park is that), nor that I can do so without a good deal of meditation on a novel and the instructive influence of better-read, more informed people than myself.

I think, or at least hope, that our readings are, in fact, not so different as you suppose. However, this opinion suggests that either I have misunderstood some of your points or that I have not fully explicated my points in the original article (which seems the more likely, being that I often do this with blog posts). In either case, the fault is mine and I am glad to have a chance to discuss with you a book that obviously means a great deal to you (or at least a book you particularly disdain to see misrepresented).

Ok, so let me start by making a couple of statements. I think Mansfield Park is the best of Austen’s novels that I have read so far (although it is not my favourite) and I enjoyed it a good deal. I think Nabokov is right to call Austen a genius and although I am very far from an expert on her, I hope that I can appreciate a good deal of her remarkable talent. I am pleased also to say that I didn’t fall to any of the five major misreadings of Mansfield Park that you list in the article you link to.

I’m not quite sure how to respond to each point without this comment being both enormous and unreadable, so I am going to put in bold your comment and respond beneath where possible:

"They contrive to put on a salacious play, Lovers’ Vows and only Fanny refuses to take part, fearing that her absent uncle, Sir Thomas, would not approve of the endeavour."

I recommend that you read Nabokov's lecture to understand her disapproval.


I’ve read a few snippets of Nabokov’s thoughts across the web, but have ordered his lectures on literature from my library so I can read it in full (I dare say it is all available across the web, but I prefer to have it consolidated in book form). I’ll let you know what I think when I have – it is more complex than the quote above, but for the blurb I am going purely for a sketch. It is an interesting issue though, so I will let you know when I’ve read Nabokov.

"Yet she presents numerous problems for the modern reader."

I'm a modern reader, and I don't see the "numerous problems".


You are indeed, although I think the number of misreadings and unfavourable reviews / critical appraisals is enough to suggest that she creates problems for a lot of modern readers, if not the majority. This was probably the thing that interested me most.

Matthew Selwyn said...

"Not least that Austen appears to be suggesting that women could not have their cake and eat it, but were to make the best of the strictures of the patriarchal society under which they lived."

Please elaborate.


I think this will lead into some of the other points below, but effectively my meaning here is that while Lizzy Bennet and the ‘romantic’, ‘feisty’ heroine may be a lot of fun to read and imagine oneself adopting characteristics of, the reality was that the constancy but firmness of Fanny (although revolutionary in its way) was a far better route to achieving a happy life, but one over which a young woman might still have some control. That is to say, Fanny is very far from bending to the will of her Uncle (crucially, powerfully, over the marriage proposal in particular) making her actions quite radical in their way, but neither does she agitate about her lowly state growing up, etc. She is the absolute model of good sense without bowing to the patriarchal demands to be subservient (something she is rightly rewarded for by Austen) but she gains the ability to make this disobedience workable on the occasion when she really needs by largely accepting smaller slights earlier in life (being treated as somehow inferior to her cousins simply because of lower birth). Had she challenged every injustice dealt her, she would not have managed to achieve her happy ending, I would say.

Matthew Selwyn said...

"Fanny has, over the years, come in for a fair amount of criticism for being a dull prig, a wooden, physically feeble, and too-moral bore."

Physically feeble? That is to be contrasted with Mary's vivacity, and her own mental strength. You write later that "She represents a firm passivity at the centre of the novel" but that so-called passivity requires a lot more strength than you can imagine, considering her gratitude for the Bertrams and feeling of guilt, and her position as more or less an outsider in the Bertram family. Her refusal to accept Henry, in spite of everyone else, is a kind of rebellion.

A prig? She's not wrong, is she? Is she wrong when she distrusts Henry and doesn't accept any man who toys with women's feelings? Is she wrong when thinking that Mary shouldn't speak ill of her uncle? Is she wrong when saying that Mary shouldn't generalise, shouldn't think badly of the navy and of clergymen in general because of experience with a few people in those groups? Is she wrong when she finds Mary mercenary?

A bore? Fanny loves nature, reads poetry, admires Shakespeare and Romantic poets, observes people, spends time on self-reflection, has insight, sees through all pretensions and has no illusions, cares about slavery... I never understand it when people say she's boring. She may not have Elizabeth's vivacity, but what does that signify, there are many kinds of characters and there's no reason that you should expect a character to be something they're not and criticise the author for not achieving what you want that the author doesn't set out to achieve.


I think we’re getting to the crux of it here. Firstly, I think the quote is something we’d both agree to be the case – that Fanny has been accused of all those things, whether we agree with the criticisms or not.

She is physically feeble for my reading – headaches and the like, although that has little bearing on anything particularly. I suspect there is something deeper here, although I haven’t really thought too deeply about it. Whether one is physically feeble or not is no real condemnation anyway – I’ve often felt Edgar Linton in WH is rather undervalued by modern audiences on the grounds of him being physically the inferior of Heathcliff, and certainly his morals are far better than the other two members of his ‘love’ triangle (don’t worry, that ‘love’ was ironic ;) ). He suffers a similar fate to Fanny in the eyes of many modern readers, but that is probably for another time. Suffice it to say, I see no significant link between moral strength and physical strength in either case, and so hardly see it as a criticism of Fanny to say she is physically feeble, even if it has been levelled at her as one.

She is not wrong, and this is very much Austen’s point, I hope. By my reading, Fanny might be considered a prig by modern readers judging her by modern standards but we might as well disregard those complaints, the more interesting issue is whether she ought to be labelled one in the context of her own time. My reading is that she is indeed a ‘prig’ or what was commonly thought of as a prig. I think Austen’s point is not that Fanny is not a prig, but that the notion that being a prig in the sense that Fanny is one is something to be scorned, is actually misguided. Fanny does see more deeply than any other Austen heroines (that I have read) and she is morally above all of them both in thought and action. If that is being a prig (which I would still argue it was for many young people who wanted freedom and liberality of morals that were not necessarily advisable) then it is hardly a bad thing to be a prig.

Matthew Selwyn said...

She does – I have read Nabokov on this, I think, where he writes that the material which fills Fanny’s head is infinitely preferable to the women’s magazines read by the masses in his time (and ours). I would not say she is boring as a person – she is bright, and has, I’m sure, plenty to say that is worth listening to. She is boring as a literary character in the sense that she makes really no false steps – it is in their failings that memorable characters are often made. However, plenty of narratives are written with characters who have few such failings at their centre and work perfectly well. Mansfield Park is one, to a greater extent. I’m going to talk about this in a minute so I’ll hold on to further points on this.

Matthew Selwyn said...

"It is hard to think of many readers imagining themselves in Fanny’s place when there are alternatives like the spirited Elizabeth Bennet or Emily Brontë’s wild, vital Catherine Earnshaw."

Identification with character is not and should not be a criterion of literary merit. By creating Mary Crawford and Fanny Price, Jane Austen's having a joke on all those who identify with Elizabeth Bennet. You also wrote "To call her a prig may be to go too far, particularly in the context of the early nineteenth century, but she is not a spirited, defiant heroine that captures the imagination like Elizabeth Bennet. " Indeed, she doesn't have the charm, wit and vivacity. But Elizabeth isn't Fanny either. She judges hastily and is blinded by her own prejudices, whereas Fanny doesn't have any illusions. It should also be noted that Fanny is defiant. She's simply defiant in a different way. Please read again the scenes of her telling Sir Thomas that she will not marry Henry.
Catherine Earnshaw, by the way, is an awful person, not much better than Heathcliff. Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece, I hope you don't read it as a beautiful, romantic love story.


Ok, so this is where the problem of Fanny lies for many people, I think, even if it is not articulated as such. I will say, for my part, I felt this a difficulty, but not a failing on Austen’s part. It is perhaps because the author has so masterfully controlled her theme that the issue arises for readers at all.

Fanny is morally superior to Lizzy or Cathy. However, she is less fun to read because she has not the failings or the fire of the other too (accepting the point about her strength in disobeying Sir Thomas, which was immensely courageous but not dramatically exhilarating in the same way). As I mentioned previously, Fanny is the model of good sense and absolutely an answer to Austen’s own Lizzy Bennet. Indeed, Mansfield Park is a response to the kind of affected reader who idolises Lizzy without realising that while fun to read, she is not all that one should aspire to be. However, this overarching idea of affectation being something to be scorned and good sense something to be promoted while brilliantly – almost flawlessly – done does not make for as engaging a read because of this. It is wholly intentional, unavoidable, but still an issue, I think, just not one as big as a lot of readers seem to feel it.

It is not an issue of identifying with the character either. I dare say more readers would identify with Fanny, but will nevertheless remember more vividly Lizzy or Cathy, wishing to be swept away in their stories, and be drawn back to reading them before they return to Fanny.

On Wuthering Heights, I certainly do not think it a romantic love story – in fact, I’m not sure it can even be called a love story; romance is certainly very far from the case. Cathy is an awful person morally, and a fantastic literary creation. I think one could make a good argument, in fact, that she is worse than Heathcliff, but that is probably for another time too ;)

Matthew Selwyn said...

"Her steadfastness may be a more realistic route to success for women of Austen’s time than those in her other novels, but there is a risk here of realism overtaking the imperative of literature to be enlivening, engaging, and to speak to something more transcendent than mundane in the reader."

I don't know what you mean. Fanny refuses Henry not because of some conventions or some abstract principles or moral codes. She refuses him not only because of her love for Edmund either. She does because she cannot accept any man who toys with women's feelings.


I think this is covered in my other points, but I cannot disagree with you here.

"However, although her constancy is a moral strength, it is a dramatic failing. For, as characters around her evolve, Fanny’s static devotion to her cousin and her principles, while admirable, makes for a rather dull, or indeed non-existent, character arc.”

Dramatic failing? Dull? The problem is not in Fanny, but in your reading, because you want her to be Elizabeth, instead of taking her as who she is. You admit it yourself: "This constancy and caution speaks well of her character but is difficult to balance with the expectations of excitement from the reader." I didn't have those expectations?


I certainly don’t want Fanny to be Lizzy, and I am quite happy with her as she is. I wouldn’t change or replace her, but, in emphasising her constancy – which is crucial to what Austen is doing – one is presented with the problem that this throws up: that of the central character being entirely unmoving in her position. Admirable morally, perfect for theme, but dramatically a problem. Not a problem that can be solved without impoverishing Austen’s message, but a problem nonetheless. And, probably, the thing that causes so many readers to undervalue the novel.

"Failure to submit to an authority, human or transcendent, in the pursuit of self-interest is shown to be both dangerous and inherently human. For the modern reader, particularly the Western reader, any message of self-restraint and deference is anathema to the narrative of personal over collective story which is deeply embedded in current Western philosophy."

That's not the point Jane Austen tries to make. The whole book is about Fanny not deferring to authority. Her question about slavery is another example. I suppose you're thinking of her disapproval of the acting, but she doesn't disapprove of acting in general, nor of the play itself. What she finds problematic is the fact that these unprofessional actors, in a private home, get into the roles, flirt and embrace.

The problem with Henry and Mary is not that they fail to submit to an authority in the pursuit of self-interest. The problem is that they're mercenary, selfish, shallow, superficial, thoughtless, inconsiderate...


Yes, I think you’re largely right here: my choice of words is not what it should be and my point is not quite right. As I mentioned earlier, I think there is something to Fanny’s deference to Sir Thomas throughout much of her life affording her the opportunity to rebel when it really mattered, but in essence my point from the quote above is wrong.

Matthew Selwyn said...

"Setting morality aside, it is perhaps for its (intended) effect on the dramatic that Austen’s conservatism proves most difficult for the reader."

I never understand it when somebody speaks of the so-called conservatism of Mansfield Park.


I think it appears morally conservative on the surface and this seems to be what a lot of readers point to as being a barrier to their enjoyment. While I think a lot of readings go too far in this direction, I do think Austen is more conservative, perhaps one should say realistic, than other writers – she finds solutions that gently ameliorate problems rather than obliterating them. That is to say, Fanny controls who she marries but she does not disdain the marriage laws to the point of eschewing marriage (which would be foolish and against character, I know), she does not address the class issue that impoverishes (if one considers it so) her upbringing, she does not disdain to live in a house built on the profits of slavery, etc. It might be too much to expect it, it might not be sensible for Fanny to be openly radical on any of these issues, but that Austen allows them, means, for me, her radical impulse is limited in the book. I am, however, happy to accept that I don’t know enough of Austen’s work or all the larger issues to have a fully formed idea of this yet.

"As ever, though, she challenges and makes problematic moral and literary traditions, making Mansfield Park a satisfying intellectual feat if not wholly a literary one."

I'm afraid that this sentence of yours makes very little sense.


I know, it’s a bit shit isn’t it? I knew it was when I posted it but I was too lazy to fix it.

More about Mansfield Park:
http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/12/reading-misreading-mansfield-park.html
Dear Matthew, you might feel offended at me for being harsh to you. But great books are worth defending, especially when misread and misunderstood. I don't mean that you're not intelligent, but you read the novel in the wrong mindset.


Dear Di – thank you for your comments – I hope I have answered them admirably. It’s been great fun and an exercise in examining my own thoughts, for which I am grateful. I dare say you will not agree with all I have written, but isn’t that the beauty of open discussion spaces like this? You are very welcome to point out the flaws in my thinking or my explanation wherever you find them, and I certainly value your opinion as someone who clearly knows Austen and Mansfield Park a good deal better than I do. I’ve just read this comment back and even now I realise I haven’t gone as deeply into issues as I probably should to make clear my point, but I hope it goes some way to opening up the discussions worth having.

Di said...

"She is the absolute model of good sense without bowing to the patriarchal demands to be subservient (something she is rightly rewarded for by Austen) but she gains the ability to make this disobedience workable on the occasion when she really needs by largely accepting smaller slights earlier in life (being treated as somehow inferior to her cousins simply because of lower birth). Had she challenged every injustice dealt her, she would not have managed to achieve her happy ending, I would say."
I think I know what you mean. However, this makes me think of a slightly unrelated topic: I have problems with the abundance of strong female characters in modern books and films. Women are diverse and complex, why keep creating strong, independent women who always reject authority and conventions and go her own way? Strength also manifests in different ways. By creating such a female character, who is generally passive, timid and weak, Jane Austen makes her "no" even more radical, more rebellious.
"Fanny does see more deeply than any other Austen heroines (that I have read) and she is morally above all of them both in thought and action. If that is being a prig (which I would still argue it was for many young people who wanted freedom and liberality of morals that were not necessarily advisable) then it is hardly a bad thing to be a prig."
The word "prig" is defined by OED as "a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others". It is not as bad as "sanctimonious", but I don't think it's a positive word.
On my part, I don't think Fanny is perfect. The most perfect heroine by Jane Austen is Anne Elliot. If you have problems with Fanny, I think you may also have problems with Anne Elliot in Persuasion- there's nothing for which you could reproach her, but she's gentle, soft, neglected by others, and before the story begins, she makes the mistake of yielding to persuasion and giving up on the man she loves.

Di said...

"I think one could make a good argument, in fact, that she is worse than Heathcliff, but that is probably for another time too ;)"
You should write a whole post about it.
"However, she is less fun to read because she has not the failings or the fire of the other too (accepting the point about her strength in disobeying Sir Thomas, which was immensely courageous but not dramatically exhilarating in the same way). As I mentioned previously, Fanny is the model of good sense and absolutely an answer to Austen’s own Lizzy Bennet. Indeed, Mansfield Park is a response to the kind of affected reader who idolises Lizzy without realising that while fun to read, she is not all that one should aspire to be. However, this overarching idea of affectation being something to be scorned and good sense something to be promoted while brilliantly – almost flawlessly – done does not make for as engaging a read because of this. It is wholly intentional, unavoidable, but still an issue, I think, just not one as big as a lot of readers seem to feel it."
"I wouldn’t change or replace her, but, in emphasising her constancy – which is crucial to what Austen is doing – one is presented with the problem that this throws up: that of the central character being entirely unmoving in her position. Admirable morally, perfect for theme, but dramatically a problem. Not a problem that can be solved without impoverishing Austen’s message, but a problem nonetheless. And, probably, the thing that causes so many readers to undervalue the novel."
I see this as a personal response of some readers, rather than a problem of the book. Because I don't see it as a problem, and several people I know don't. I think the way to read a novel is to accept the book and see what the author is doing and trying to do, why she writes what she writes, and whether she achieves what she sets out to achieve. It does not help to have some ideas and expectations in your head and look for them, and then criticise the author for not achieving what she doesn't aim for.
Last time I read all 6 novels in a row, and by doing so, see them as connected to each other. I'm afraid that lots of fans, lots of self-proclaimed Janeites, like her books for how entertaining they are, without realising how serious she really is as an artist. The idea of balance runs through all 6 novels, they're all linked to each other. Jane Austen's also an innovator, who plays with the form of the novel, parodies certain kinds of novels of her time, and in later works makes fun of what she herself has done in earlier works.
Fanny's the way she is for a reason. Whether or not one likes her is, I suppose, personal. But to use the word "problem" is not fair.

Di said...

"That is to say, Fanny controls who she marries but she does not disdain the marriage laws to the point of eschewing marriage (which would be foolish and against character, I know), she does not address the class issue that impoverishes (if one considers it so) her upbringing, she does not disdain to live in a house built on the profits of slavery, etc. It might be too much to expect it, it might not be sensible for Fanny to be openly radical on any of these issues, but that Austen allows them, means, for me, her radical impulse is limited in the book. I am, however, happy to accept that I don’t know enough of Austen’s work or all the larger issues to have a fully formed idea of this yet."
Then that would be about Jane Austen's works in general, not about Mansfield Park alone, I think. There are lots of debates on whether she's a feminist, and lots of criticisms because she doesn't deal with politics, philosophy, etc.
You have a point here. They just don't matter to me much. But I suppose you knew it, reading about my aesthetics.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Emma.

Matthew Selwyn said...

I agree, it’s important that literature represents a range of visions of femininity (as it should masculinity too), and Fanny is an excellent example of the sort of heroine not often enough utilised. I suppose it is the rebellious, strong heroine that sells at the moment so authors are bound to follow the money. Not something that particularly fills my heart with joy but there we are.

The ‘no’ might be more out of character than if it came from one of a more rebellious nature but I don’t think it is any the more rebellious for that. The act itself carries the same consequences regardless of personality – I think we might say it took more strength on Fanny’s part to overturn her nature and rebel though.

I don’t have a problem with Fanny for the way she is, and I didn’t come into the novel with any expectations. I think Austen pulls off what she aims to achieve excellently well and that you are right, readers react against Fanny on a personal level. However, I am not talking about her as a ‘person’ here – she is quite fine and has a lot of admirable qualities. But, she does present problems as a literary construct, as evidenced by the number of people who have taken against the book on her account (wrong though I think they are to do so). Whenever you read a novel, you need a route into it, a way of becoming absorbed in the world the author is trying to create. For an awful lot of readers that lies in the dramatic, story level of the novel (the element Nabokov would call the work of the storyteller, I suppose). This may be the lowest responsibility of the author in Nabokov’s aesthetic, but having a route into a novel is important. By puncturing the dramatic and making Fanny in this mould – while perfect for the story that Austen is creating and therefore not something I would wish to change – it does mean the main route into the novel is blocked for many readers. One might suggest that is their failing as a reader, but clearly it is a problem. It’s not Austen’s problem, but it still is one.

You’re right too, Austen is very good a parodying different literary genres and tropes. And that she is undervalued by a lot of her readers (although if they want purely entertainment I’ve no real issue with that).

Austen’s politics and readings of her work are very interesting (to me, at least) although I suspect I could get quite lost in all the stuff that’s been written on her!

I’ll probably write something up about Emma for this month or next. I enjoyed it a lot and probably rank it as a better novel than Mansfield Park, although I might have to think about that a bit more. I was also trying to put the novels in order of those I think the best, and those I have enjoyed the most following your ranking (I have mine pretty much the same currently). I think I may need to re-read Pride and Prejudice to work out a final order.

p.s. Ah, to have time to write some posts on Wuthering Heights. There’s so much to say about that novel and so many discussions to be had.

Di said...

Well, if you think more about it, you'll realise that it's not the same. "The act itself carries the same consequences regardless of personality" but you forget that it's because Fanny's generally timid, passive and apparently not rebellious that the Bertrams expect her to conform, to yield, to say "yes", which makes her action more shocking and therefore harder to accept. I wouldn't say that it's out of character or it takes her lots of strength to say "no", I wouldn't even say that by saying "no" she's overturning her nature, because in her mind, Fanny is independent- she has a rich inner world, with her own thoughts and her own opinions. As I said, she has her own opinion about slavery and has a different view on it and refers to it. She also has her own opinion on the play-acting. Later she is forced by circumstances and her own timidity to take a small part in the play, but in her mind she never yields and thinks that it's the right thing, whereas it appears to me that Edmund does yield because of Mary. Fanny also, on other occasions, disapproves of things that she finds wrong, such as the cutting of the trees or Mary's words about her uncle, the clergymen and the navy, though she may not always speak out. In short, Fanny has never been a conformist.
Up to that point, Fanny doesn't openly react or rebel because she's not Elizabeth Bennet and she's in an inferior position, but, note, also because these things don't strongly affect her. She's slighted, indeed, she suffers from certain injustices, but those things are tolerated because they are tolerable. The way people "force" Fanny to accept Henry's proposal is not tolerated because it is not tolerable, and it isn't tolerable because it affects her whole future, because she refuses to submit to them only to marry a man she not only doesn't love but doesn't think highly of. That's why she cannot let others win. That's why she has to cling steadfastly to her principles and belief and her own decision, it's the happiness of her life that we're talking about.
It works perfectly.
Regarding what you wrote about "literary construct", "a route into the novel", the dramatic level, etc. I will not write more, having written enough on the subject. Let's just say that my brain works differently, because whilst lots of people liked Jane Austen instantly, I didn't. After reading 2 of her novels and giving up on 2 others after a dozen pages, I declared that I absolutely hated her and didn't care if the whole world adored her, who I thought was dull, trivial, mundane and overrated. It was Mansfield Park that converted me, which today remains my favourite Jane Austen novel.
We never know how our taste is changed over time. I understand some books better after a while, have a better appreciation of some authors and lose interest in some others. You certainly experience the same.
Speaking of Emma, have you seen Clueless?