Subtle exploration of character with a surprisingly gripping narrative
*Some spoilers ahead*
With more time for reading than ever, now seems a good time to share my thoughts on the books that have been holding my attention. Despite being separated from most of my books by virtue of moving to Australia, I have managed to get a lot of reading done so far this year. The Kindle App on my phone has been a great help, and prevented me from spending too many hours on Twitter. I’m also trying to make an effort to read more books by women this year, and especially women of colour. It’s so easy to get into the habit of reading one dead white man after another, and miss out on some overlooked gems.
Having said that I haven’t done particularly well at this so far, in as much as my reading has been dead white women. But in a time of crisis and a long way from home, I couldn’t resist turning to the familiarity and comfort of Jane Austen. A lot of women, myself included, seem to have a slightly complicated relationship with Austen. We are brought up on adaptations and re-tellings, taught to aspire to the romance of her stories, yet as we grow into our feminism and and adulthood we find ourselves rejecting the straightforwardness and simplicity that these narratives push. Thankfully there is a growing crowd, also including me, who are reclaiming Austen’s feminism. Casting aside the Bridget Joneses and the Colin Firths, and returning to the texts, it is hard to miss the proto-feminism in Austen’s writing. Almost all of her works can be summarised as reflections on the precarity the patriarchy imparts on women’s lives. From Pride and Prejudice to Sense and Sensibility, we are led to dismay at the lack of agency women are supposed to have over their own lives, and to delight at the attempts of her protagonists to claim control over their choices. Though her stories focus on the landed gentry, she is not without class awareness, and frequently examines and satirises the hypocrisy, deceit, and vulnerability, of the class system. For some interesting takes on Austen’s works, try Seema Syeda’s article on Austen in the context of war, or Amy Watkin’s ‘Jane Austen is probably mad at us’.
Having stated (in a huge generalisation) that I found Elizabeth Gaskell’s more politically engaged works (having recently read North and South) a refreshing change from Austen’s focus on the middle- and upper-classes, a friend recommended Mansfield Park to me as being more explicitly interested in class than her other novels. Somehow I’d managed to never read it before, and I’m glad I found it now. It has many of the characters you’d expect of an Austen novel (Fanny’s female cousins are quite similar to Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst). But our protagonist, Fanny Price, differs from others, with the possible exception of Anne Elliot. Where we might expect forthrightness and wit, we find meakness and silence. She is no Lizzy or Emma. It is said that in Emma Austen tried to create a character who is hard to like; the opposite seems to be true of Fanny. Though she is quiet, she still displays the strength of her convictions. Daughter of a wealthy woman who made a rather bad match by running off with a man her family disapprove of, Fanny is born into a setting we later learn (although could easily guess) teeters on the edge of poverty, and sits just beyond the bounds of respectability, dominated by bad habits and too many children. On the whim of an interfering aunt, Mrs Norris, Fanny is whisked away to live with her other aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Lady Bertram, the sister who made a good match, although ultimately kind, is fairly lazy and disinterested, seemingly caring more for her pet pug than the human members of her family. Sir Thomas terrifies Fanny, through no fault of his own, simply by being her senior and a rather undemonstrative character. We are thus led to expect a fish-out-of-water story, which we do get to an extent. But the story and its characters are more complex than they first seem.
What Mansfield Park captures perhaps better than any other Austen novel is the little pains and pleasure of human relationships. Not only in the protagonist, but in almost all the characters, we are given little insights into the motivations, desires and doubts of our cast. The key event of the story is the proposed staging and rehearsal of a somewhat scandalous play. This becomes a device for revealing the nature of each character. As they act in the play in the guise of other people, so they show their own true identities. Though changes seem apparent after the play is abandoned, we finally see that their behaviour was an accurate depiction of their personal morality. Each is tested and to some degree found wanting by Fanny, who seemingly pays the price for her wisdom. When she declines a marriage proposal, the world around her is horrified, and those she loves are shocked. But in the end, as we would hope and expect, she is proven right in her judgement.
The honest humanity of the characters is also reflected in the relationships between Fanny and the adults in her life. The main cast are all very young, just going out into the world, but the older generation are given just as much depth, if fewer words. The father figure, Sir Thomas, is wonderfully drawn, and is a chance for Austen to reflect on what makes a good parent in the Georgian age. Lady Bertram is revealed in all her good nature, while Mrs Norris gets some form of comeuppance. Each is carefully and realistically observed.
Fanny herself is hard not to like, although some might find her meakness an irritation. She is perhaps less well-rounded than other Austen protagonists. She acts more as a foil, a test, for the characters around her. She is the novel’s, and by extension the reader’s, moral compass, seeing clearly through the confusion she is surrounded by. She is played off against Mary Crawford in particular, a witty, intelligent society woman, who acts as a love-rival to Fanny. They are more similar than they realise, both capable of deep and earnest emotion. As a pair they function as an argument for nurture over nature. Had Mary been brought up in a different setting, she might not have gained the fashionable cynicism and materialism that are her downfall. This could be seen as a running theme in the novel, the contrast of Mary and Fanny being seen alongside the contrast between Lady Bertram, Mrs Norris, and Fanny’s mother. Each shows how a similar starting point has been led down a different path by the vagaries of class. But then the contrast between the two Bertram sons shows that ultimately, very similar circumstances do not always lead to the same result – there is some argument for natural character too.
Strangely, Mansfield Park feels almost the least feminist of Austen’s works that I have read. There are the same issues of marriage as necessity, but the material comfort of the Park and the Bertrams is so emphasised as to dampen any sense of urgency. Interestingly, as throughout the novel, it is not financial need that is the focus, but emotional need. The Bertram sisters each want to escape the family home in order to secure their emotional well-being. Julia is even led to quite extreme action in order to avoid the unpleasantness of being at home with an angered and disappointed father, despite not herself being the subject of his strife. Even when Fanny briefly returns home to her parents, and is dismayed by all she sees, it is not their material position that is most grating, but the emotional instability she finds there. The situation improves considerably when she finds emotional comfort in her sister. This emotional lens could perhaps be seen as borne privilege – the Bertram sisters, and even Fanny herself, know that their family is wealthy enough to support them should they decline to marry their first offers. Their financial ease, and that of their mother, is emphasised and exaggerated by contrast with the performative stinginess of Mrs Norris. But in some ways it is refreshing to see a more varied approach to the internal lives of Austen’s characters. When need is taken away, we get to see another side, which is feminist its deep and complete acknowledgement of the personhood of her women. As modern readers, we have been largely freed from financial incentives when it comes to choosing partners, making the characters and motivations of Mansfield Park‘s women more reflective of our own experiences.
Arguably the novel’s ending feels a little rushed, and slightly unearned. The plot surrounding the play shows Mansfield Park to be perhaps the most tied to the conventions and standards of its time, and this is carried through to the conclusion. Convention required Fanny to have a happy ending, married to someone who she loves and who deserves her, and no reader can begrudge her it.
I’d quite like to write a study just about Mrs Norris. I haven’t given her much time in this review, but despite her being one of the key villains of the piece, I find her quite fascinating, and strangely likeable. She lives a complex life, on the edge of wealth, trying to prove her usefulness, and with a fragile sense of self-worth. Though she is responsible for Fanny coming to Mansfield Park, she does everything she can to mark her out as an interloper, perhaps because she worries she is one herself.
For all its subtly, Mansfield Park is still a gripping read, and I found myself eating through the pages. Whether you’re a fan of Austen or a more reluctant reader, I’d encourage you to give it a try. Keep your eyes open and you’ll find a lot to enjoy beyond your expectations and assumptions about what Austen has to offer.
What is your favourite Jane Austen novel? Do you think the huge numbers of screen adaptations have spoiled or simply changed our understanding of her works? And who do you think of the idea of Austen as an early feminist? I’d love to hear your thoughts!