Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: B

From the back cover:
From its sharply satiric opening sentence, Mansfield Park deals with money and marriage, and how strongly they affect each other. Shy, fragile Fanny Price is the consummate “poor relation.” Sent to live with her wealthy uncle Thomas, she clashes with his spoiled, selfish daughters and falls in love with his son. Their lives are further complicated by the arrival of a pair of sophisticated Londoners, whose flair for flirtation collides with the quiet, conservative country ways of Mansfield Park. An outsider looking in on an unfamiliar and often inhospitable world, Fanny eventually wins the affection of her benefactors, endearing herself to the Bertram family and readers alike.

I feel very much that I ought to love Mansfield Park, Austen fan that I am, but I simply can’t. With any Austen novel—satirical as they are—one is bound to encounter excessively foolish and self-aggrandizing characters. I fully expect that and am accustomed to disliking a few in each novel. I did not, however, expect to dislike nearly everyone, which is lamentably the case with this novel.

Fanny herself is the biggest problem. She’s meek, weak, weepy, and irksomely virtuous, to the point where other characters annoyed me simply because they gave her fodder for her hand-wringing. Her cousin Edmund, our ostensible romantic hero, isn’t much better. He’s a wet blanket, too, fond of lecturing others about what is right, but also a hypocrite, since his objections to the scandalous idea of producing a play at Mansfield Park are easily overcome when he learns one additional man is required to play the suitor of his lady friend, Miss Crawford.

Everyone else is self-absorbed, indolent, or deluded to varying degrees. Though Fanny’s personality is the biggest blow to my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, the character I hate most is actually Mrs. Norris (though at least with her I can feel assured that this doesn’t run counter to Austen’s intentions). She’s Fanny’s aunt, a frequent visitor to her sister and brother-in-law at Mansfield Park, and is fond of claiming charitable acts for herself that she actually had no part in executing, getting into everyone’s business, and making snide remarks about Fanny at every opportunity. No wonder J. K. Rowling named Filch’s cat after this odious woman! The only character I truly like is Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas, for he’s one of those gruff but kind paternal types that I can’t help but love.

The plot itself, like Austen’s other novels, involves the social interactions of several country families, with the importance of marrying well uppermost on everyone’s minds. The back cover blurb quoted above says that Fanny “wins the affection of her benefactors,” but that implies that Fanny actually does something to bring this about. In reality, Fanny pretty much sits back, sticks to her principles in refusing one undesirable suitor, and, when he is proven a rake and her female cousin disgraced, is suddenly valued for all of her propriety.

Thus brings us to the inevitable conclusion, wherein Edmund realizes that Fanny would make a better wife than Miss Crawford. There’s no romance leading up to this, since he spends the majority of the novel longing for the latter and often employs Fanny as his confidante in this regard. Though I am probably supposed to be happy for Fanny at this outcome, I instead find it pretty icky. True, Fanny has sheltered romantic feelings for Edmund throughout the novel, but he has always treated her very properly like a close relation. In fact, as he ponders the match, he holds hopes that her “warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love.” To that I must say, “Ew.”

Although I had plenty to complain about, Mansfield Park is still an Austen novel, which means that the writing is excellent and the characters vividly drawn and memorable. Though it’s my least favorite of the four I’ve read so far it by no means decreases my regard for her in general.

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  1. Well, I am one of the only females I know who is not an Austen fan. I actually got further through Mansfield Park than Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility before giving up. The only Austen novel which I enjoyed (and finished) is Northanger Abbey.

  2. I also find Fanny very annoying, because maybe she is nice, but she is also a doormat and a prig.

    I also remember reading somewhere that Austen had originally intended for Henry to really reform and for Fanny to eventually give up on Ed and end up with him. Whoever talked her out of it should be shot!

  3. @Sara K. : That is one of the two I have yet to read, though I have at least seen an adaptation of the other (Persuasion). It’s definitely more somber than P&P, so I can see how it might appeal differently.

    @K: That would’ve been a far better ending!

  4. I recommend reading The Mysteries of Udolpho before Northanger Abbey, since part of Northanger Abbey is a parody of Udolpho. Of course, I love The Mysteries of Udolpho, so I recommend it in general.

  5. I’ve been thus advised before, and that’s my plan. 🙂

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