Monday, October 13, 2014
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Well, I did it: Excepting the unfinished Sanditon and her juvenilia, I have read all of Jane Austen's books. There are only six of them, of course, so it's not that tremendous a feat, but it's pleasing to me all the same--except in the realization that there are no fully developed Austen novels left to read. That's a little sad.
Why did I read Mansfield Park last? Like its heroine, Fanny Price, Mansfield Park seems to fade into the background when talking about Austen's stuff; it quietly exists, not really demanding to be noticed. It isn't as dramatic as Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, or Sense and Sensibility; nor is it as mature or complex, I think, as Emma or Persuasion. But like all those novels, it is a detailed and insightful depiction of human relations, an investigation of character all the more remarkable for the narrowness of the social mores that circumscribe those who inhabit it.
Fanny comes to live at her uncle's house when she's ten; coming from a squalid lower-class urban household, she finds Mansfield Park to be daunting and her uncle to be intimidating. Her older cousin, Edmund, is the only one who goes out of his way to welcome her--in a charming scene in which he helps her post a letter to her beloved brother, out at sea--cementing a lifelong crush that Fanny broods over throughout the novel. But Fanny is too demure to ever declare her love for Edmund, and too interminably shy. Though she becomes increasingly comfortable at Mansfield Park, she prefers not to be noticed, and is obliged in this until she becomes a beautiful young woman.
The stasis at Mansfield Park is interrupted by Henry and Mary Crawford, who move in to the Regency version of "across the street." Mary is vivacious but selfish, and becomes attached to Edmund. Worse, Henry, who nearly destroys the marriage of one of Edmund's sisters with his flirting, decides he wants to make a contest of Fanny, to, as he puts it, "put a hole in Fanny Price's heart." Henry is a classic male predator: he refuses to relent when Fanny says no, always hanging around, ingratiating himself not only with her but with her uncle as well. Ultimately he falls in love with her--like Freddie Prinze Jr. in She's All That, you know--but Fanny is smarter than Rachel Leigh Cook, and a better judge of character. She knows that Henry is bad news, and yet he's superficially such a good match for that her uncle becomes angry at her for rejecting him.
Fanny is easy to like: quiet, self-effacing, but also determined and principled enough to stand up against Henry's repeated attempts to woo her. Yet Austen actually suggests that she may capitulate, not because her regard for Henry changes, but because of her love and regard for her uncle and cousin. Until the very end, I wasn't actually sure which way Austen was going to go. Fanny is a true believer in custom and deference to one's family--that's what makes her such a good match for the conscientious Edmund, but also threatens to force her into a miserable marriage.
I suspect that quality is one of the reasons Mansfield Park lacks the cultural cache of Austen's other works. Fanny is a strong heroine, but fails to meet the independent woman trope we look for when we talk about "strong heroines" today. Appreciating her strength as a character requires an ability to think in a way our culture finds strange. Such an ability is also necessary to appreciate the novel's greatest episode: while Fanny's uncle is away overseas, Henry, Mary, and some of the other young people at Mansfield Park decide to stage a play to pass the time. Yet, as both Fanny and Edmund see it, the play is inappropriate: it requires Henry and Edmund's sister to play lovers, for example, and her uncle would not approve. This episode, as it gets all of the various characters in one room, scheming variously to get the best part, is the best in the novel because it exhibits Austen's understanding of how people interact. It's incredibly realized, and frequently funny. But it asks the reader to accept that Fanny's judgment is ultimately right, and this anti-theatrical prejudice is foreign to us and can seem silly. It is silly, but it shows how Fanny is always deferential to those she loves, while the Crawfords are unthinking and--as much as any Austen character can be--crass.