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.

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Reviews of Mansfield Park on Amazon (UK)
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Film Adaptation of Mansfield Park on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of Mansfield Park on Amazon (UK)

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