Mansfield Park by Jane Austen [A Review]

If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s more popular novels, like Pride and Prejudice or Emma, you may find some commonalities in Mansfield Park. However, you may find a lot more that sets Mansfield Park apart and gives you plenty to think about.

Cover image of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Once there were three sisters whose adult fortunes diverged when they married three very different men. The eldest married a respectable clergyman, Mr Norris. The second, married a wealthy Baronet, Sir Thomas Bertram, and the youngest, partly in rebellion, married an officer in the marines, William Price, without fortune and without the consent of the family. Living in Portsmouth, Mrs Price is estranged and relatively poor compared to her sisters.

Years later, with eight children and a ninth on the way, Mrs Price reaches out to her wealthier sisters for assistance. With her husband unable to actively serve and the family struggling to stay out of poverty, she hopes a position might be found for her eldest son, William.

The sisters are supportive of helping Mrs Price. Mrs Norris suggests taking on the eldest Price daughter, Fanny. Despite some misgivings, Mrs Norris presses the case for Fanny, arguing that she will not be a bad influence since she is younger than the Bertram’s children and the Bertram’s sons would not take a romantic interest in her since, growing up together, they will see her as a sister. Mrs Norris though will not be sharing in the cost of raising Fanny, despite having no children of her own, on account of Mr Norris’ failing health.

The matter being settled, ten-year-old Fanny, leaves everything she knows to live with Sir Thomas and Lady Betram and their four children – Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia – at Mansfield Park. Timid and shy, Fanny is simply overwhelmed, scared and homesick. The expectation that she should be happy and grateful only compounds her misery. Eventually, only Edmund comes to console her and help her adjust to her new life.

Fanny, whether near or from her cousins, whether in the school-room, the drawing room or the shrubbery, was equally forlorn, finding something to fear in every person and place. She was disheartened by Lady Bertram’s silence, awed by Sir Thomas’s grave looks, and quite overcome by Mrs. Norris’s admonitions. Her elder cousins mortified her by reflections on her size, and abashed her by noticing her shyness; Miss Lee wondered at her ignorance, and the maid-servants sneered at her clothes; and when to these sorrows was added the idea of the brothers and sisters among whom she had always been important as play-fellow, instructress, and nurse, the despondence that sunk her little heart was severe.

As the years go by, Maria and Julia grow to be tall, accomplished young ladies. Tom lives extravagantly and carelessly while Edmund shows good sense and an upright mind and values honour and utility. The death of Mr Norris forces Mrs Norris to move to a house in the village and economise. The expectation is that Edmund will replace Mr Norris as the Mansfield parish clergyman, but his further education is imperilled by his father repeatedly having to pay for Tom’s debts.

Mrs Norris gives herself the task of finding a husband for Maria and settles on Mr Rushworth, a man of considerable fortune. Mr Rushworth quickly falls in love with Maria but, despite his wealth, he is neither an intelligent nor interesting person. Edmund is against a match between Rushworth and Maria, finding him dull, but without the input of Sir Thomas, who is away dealing with issues on his plantation in Antigua, and with little of substance they can find disagreeable about Rushworth, the engagement goes through.

The arrival of two newcomers, brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, shake things up in Mansfield. Londoners, Henry and Mary are a bit more free-spirited than the locals which inspires both new life and awkwardness. Henry is a notorious flirt and a heartbreaker. The attention he gives the Betram sisters provokes jealousy and resentment and threatens Maria’s relationship with Mr Rushworth. Mary, meanwhile, sees potential in Tom and especially Edmund, but can’t abide Edmund’s plan to become a clergyman. The life of a clergyman’s wife is not at all complementary to her wishes for her future.

Not yet ‘out’, Fanny watches from the sidelines. Understanding their characters better than they may do themselves, Fanny observes in silence, knowing that heartbreak, impropriety and scandal are all in play. But with no power over her own life, no respect except from Edmund, there is little for Fanny to do but to hope that events transpire to return everyone to their senses.

Mansfield Park is the fifth novel of Jane Austen’s I have read and somewhat surprised me with its relatively low supply of the humour and sanguinity I normally associate with her. Unoptimistic, bleak even, and with a main character who is very meek and submissive, Mansfield Park appears quite at odds with Austen’s more famous novels.

Austen’s most designed and designing novel, its ideological programme is both oppressive and puzzling, insistent yet difficult to pin down. Equivocally labelled as her most experimental and most modern novel, Mansfield Park’s problematic status has been rationalised in the best English literary tradition: it has long been agreed that this is Austen’s most complex and profound and her least likeable novel.

From the Introduction

But there is a lot going on. One aspect of the novel, similar with Austen’s others, is that it is a comedy or drama about manners and decorum. Conflict quickly emerges from such problems such as whether a lady out on a walk should wait by the locked gate until her escort returns with the key, or whether she should just climb over it and carry on without him. About how to politely remove yourself from company you find horrible and tiresome. And the intolerable anxiety of having to decide who to favour when you receive two gifts for the same purpose. Though they may seem trifling; the anxiety, resentment and jealousy they produce create very serious implications for the characters and is the sort of thing we expect from Austen.

Also expected are those characters specifically intended to antagonise the reader. In Mansfield Park that comes in the form of Mrs Norris. Though, Fanny does arguably have much to thank her for, Mrs Norris never lets her forget it either. Her, frankly cruel, complaints about Fanny, made to her face, her constant insistence that Fanny express gratitude for every little thing that comes her way – even for being allowed to accompany her cousins on the slightest of excursions – is surely no small reason for Fanny’s meekness and anxiety. Further, Mrs Norris’ prejudice and hypocrisy make her thoroughly unlikeable. I couldn’t stand her! But that is the intended effect and at least provides a source of engagement for the reader.

The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves, makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, for now that your are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech and interest you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins […] That will never do, believe me. Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and the last;

Another aspect familiar from Austen are the instances of characters misunderstanding and misinterpreting the personalities, intentions, feelings and words of each other. Blinded by attraction, bias or best wishes, the characters are set to collide with disappointment and heartbreak. Or, alternatively, they embark on a project to see if they can change the other person into someone closer to their wishes. Fanny can see people as they are, but the fact that she seems alone in this immunity contributes to the unoptimistic tone of the novel. For, while it seems abrupt course corrections will be the fate of most of the characters, there is also an absence of any happy alternatives they have overlooked.

It is for this reason that I saw Mansfield Park as a sort of alternative to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Unlike the Dashwood sister’s pursuit of the optimal combination of considerations in a good match, in Mansfield Park there is clearly a dearth of such possibilities and instead the characters have to ask themselves what concessions or compromises they are willing to make.

This would be the way to Fanny’s heart. She was not to be won by all that gallantry and wit, and good nature together, could do; or at least, she would not be won by them nearly so soon, without the assistance of sentiment and feeling, and seriousness on serious subjects.

Several themes are at play in the novel. There is the comparison of town to country, most noticeably in the contrasting attitudes and behaviour of Londoners Henry and Mary to the more socially conservative Mansfield Park locals. There is the distinction between appearance and substance. For example, on the issue of education for women, there is a point made in the novel of the difference of learning to receive accolades and recognition compared with achieving deeper moral or practical understanding. Some characters inhabit the extremes of choosing style over substance and vice versa. The point probably best exemplified by the comparison of Mary to Fanny and their interactions with Edmund.

The dilemma which the novel poses derives from the fact that where the Bertrams, for good or ill, are morally confined, the Crawfords are aesthetically determined; for them ‘all the world’s a stage’. It is through their aesthetic fashioning that the Crawfords come to represent an alternative image of England in the late stages of the Napoleonic Wars. Theirs is a world of metropolitan tastes, conspicuous consumption, self-gratifying acts of improvement, of wit and dandyism – the costume drama of the Regency.

From the Introduction

Similarly, the question is raised about whether distinctions of class and wealth and their relationship to character are illusory. Fanny, of relatively low birth, shows an ethical compass and a sense of propriety that some of her wealthier cousins and the Crawford’s lack and which contradicts the choice made by her mother. Mrs Norris has allowed herself significant airs of superiority, seemingly forgetting that she married into her current rank after being raised with her younger ‘fallen’ sister. The assumptions and prejudices of using wealth and status as analogies for character are tested in the novel.

These were just the aspects of the novel that were noticeable to me and within my capacity to understand and comment on. There is even more depth to Mansfield Park that I noticed but go beyond my powers. There was some commentary on the trees and shrubbery of the surroundings with apparent symbolic relevance. Similarly, a card game is played in the novel – speculation – which also has symbolic importance. A reference to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is made at one point. Most of all, there is the intertextual play – Lover’s Vows, by Elizabeth Inchbald – and its importance to the themes.

Whenever Austen introduces a card game the reader can be sure that the rules and social nuances of that specific game will be used to elucidate a particular social game being played at that point in the narrative. This is the case here.

From the Notes

The Penguin Classics edition I read had an introduction by Oxford Professor Kathryn Sutherland. In it she expands on some of the themes that I noticed too. For example, she says Mansfield Park challenges the social convention at the time that places the Betram children as better than the Price children. Also, there is the contrast of the superficial and the substantive I mentioned. The Bertram sisters have educational accomplishments, yet Fanny has knowledge of self; Edmund dedicates himself to moral service, William – Fanny’s brother who joins the navy – has dedicated himself to military service, while Henry merely plays these roles as an actor. Sutherland also comments on the tone of the novel; clearly distinct from ones Austen wrote when younger – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey – but not as well liked as her other mature novels – Emma and Persuasion. In contrast, Mansfield Park is bleak and unlikeable, with a main character at odds with ones from other Austen novels, but it is also complex and profound.

Sutherland also illuminates more in the novel that was beyond my grasp. For example, the hints of an arrival of consumer culture. She also examines the relevance of the historical context of the period – the war with France, the fall of Paris, Napoleon’s abdication, etc – and what this means for the novel’s themes of suffering, tradition and village life, some of which Mansfield Park has in common with other novels of the period. As for the role of the intertextual play, Sutherland says:

It’s clear structural and ideological function in the novel has been the subject of numerous critical discussions. [It] exposes concealed desires, gives shape to shapeless fancies, and determines substantial behaviour for the rest of the narrative.

From the Introduction

One issue has brought new attention to Mansfield Park in recent decades. There is the implication, giving the period, that Sir Thomas Betram’s plantation in Antigua utilises slave labour and the question, therefore, of whether the novel is a critique of slavery or an endorsement of it. I don’t think the question can be answered with any certainty, given that the novel gives very little to interpret on the point and that it is not clear exactly when the novel is set. Sutherland devotes a few pages of her Introduction to the complexity of the question but also shares that both Fanny and Austen count abolitionists among their favourite authors.

It is true that Mansfield Park is not as witty as what you might expect from Austen, but it still has some funny moments. The plot is somewhat bleak and inevitable but there are also moments of drama and tension. And the heroine is often less than inspiring, but by endeavouring to be a person of substance and principle, with knowledge of self, she can endure while the superficial crumble away. And, as a novel, what Mansfield Park may not provide in entertainment it substitutes with giving the reader a lot to think about.

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