by Jane Austen
Having finished my review of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe with the words of Jane Austen, I can do no better here than allow Sir Walter to introduce this one:
‘[Jane Austen] had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with.’
Mansfield Park is the second of three Jane Austen novels on my Classics Club list. I hadn’t read it before and any knowledge I had of the plot came from a TV film starring Billie Piper, which I guess (having now read the book) deviated quite a bit from Miss Austen’s intentions. Miss Piper, talented actress though she has become since her days as companion to Doctor Who, is much too daring for Fanny Price.
This is a novel which contains some of the best of Austen’s satire. It is a story of class, snobbery and would-be upward mobility. Though many of the characters have traits and habits that are unattractive, Mansfield Park has no real villains. Even those participants whom, through Fanny’s eyes, we are meant to dislike, turn out to be not so bad after all – at least when measured against 21st century standards. The morality of Jane Austen’s day, especially the morality of sex and marriage, can be very puzzling to the modern readership.
The three Ward sisters have made very different lives for themselves. Maria is married to a baronet, ‘with all the comforts and consequences of a handsome house and large income’. The second sister – referred to throughout the book only as Mrs Norris – marries a clergyman who has the misfortune to die before the story has properly begun. Frances, the youngest, marries Lt. Price, a lowly naval officer, ‘to disoblige her family’. She does that ‘very thoroughly’ and produces a large brood of children.
Fanny, eldest daughter of this last-mentioned family, goes to live with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, her rich relations, at Mansfield Park, where she is made to feel all the disadvantages of her parentage, especially by Mrs Norris, the most frightful snob you can imagine, who has the most elevated opinion of herself and her importance.
‘As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, [Mrs Norris] was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing …’
Three of the Bertram children, Tom, Maria and Julia, are too wrapped up in their own privileged lives to pay Fanny much attention, and her only real friend is the Bertram’s second son Edmund, who plans to be a clergyman. Maria engages herself to Mr Rushworth, a rather bland and boring ‘gentleman’, while Julia sets her sights on Henry Crawford, a more appealing catch. But Crawford is a flirt and seems to prefer her sister.
It seems likely from the outset that Fanny and Edmund are destined to be together; that is the way Jane Austen works. However, what begins as a genuine friendship has a long way to go before it can become anything more. Edmund’s romantic attention falls on Mary Crawford, the attractive but annoying sister of Henry, and half-sister of the Norris’s replacement in the Mansfield parsonage, Mrs Grant. The niece of an Admiral, Mary is something of a snob too. Although she does have feelings for Edmund, it is clear she would much rather have him were he the elder rather than the younger son!
‘Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not suspect me of a pun, I entreat.’
Meantime, Fanny becomes the object of the attentions of Henry Crawford, easily distracted by a pretty face. What begins as a seduction challenge turns into what seems to be genuine affection. However, Henry’s flirtatious nature does not endear him to his intended bride.
While Sir Thomas is abroad attending to his property in the West Indies, the young people turn one of his favourite rooms into a theatre with the intention of putting on a play. Amateur acting was a fondness of the upper classes in Austen’s day and, in the detail of this episode, she was probably writing of her own experiences. Unlike her creator, however, Fanny Price dislikes theatricals. She is quite certain Sir Thomas will disapprove, and indeed he does, returning home in the middle of the final preparations to put a stop to it all.
‘The removal of the bookcase from before the billiard-room struck him especially, but he had scarcely more time to feel astonished at all this, before there were sounds from the billiard room to astonish him still farther. Someone was talking there in a very loud accent – he did not know the voice….’
Crawford uses his influence with the Admiral to secure a promotion for Fanny’s brother, William and, following a ball which Sir Thomas gives for her ‘coming out’, he proposes to her. Though grateful for William’s sake, Fanny refuses him. Upset by her stubborn nature, Sir Thomas proposes she spend some time with her parents and siblings in the hope that the experience will bring her to her senses. Crawford pursues his suit vigorously. However, Fanny is unmoved and he is eventually diverted by easier prey, much to the mortification of the Bertram family.
There is no fast action in Mansfield Park and indeed a few chapters do drag on a bit. It is a story about people, about their merits and flaws, and about how they react to society’s claims on them. The contrasting family circumstances of the Bertrams and the Prices, and Fanny’s guilty but understandable feelings regarding the indifference of the latter, throw a light on the class inequalities of the age. Mr Price, as a pensioned-off naval officer is a sad character, Mrs Price a tired, used wife, ageing before her time. By contrast, Lady Bertram is a lazy, thoughtless woman who idles away her life in frivolous pastimes. Young Tom is fond of hunting, racing and gambling, something of a wastrel, Edmund his antithesis and almost too good to be true.
‘How could she have excited serious attachment in a man who had seen so many, and been admired by so many … who was everything to everybody, and seemed to find no one essential to him?’
Fanny Price is not at all like either Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennett, two of Austen’s most popular heroines. She appears at the age of 18 as a reserved, thoughtful and retiring young woman, her character shaped by her status as the poor relation.
She is modest, greatly underestimates her attractiveness and in so doing sometimes frustrates the impatient reader yet, as the novel progresses, we warm to her sensitivity and her high principles, strange though these are to our modern ideas of a heroine.
In her portrayal of the Mansfield cast, and especially of Fanny and the Crawfords, Austen excels, and fully justifies Scott’s opinion of her talent. I think there is more of Jane herself in Fanny Price than in many of the other Austen women. I enjoyed Mansfield Park, and I liked her heroine immensely.