Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park
Jane Austen
Published 1814

I could not wait to be done with this book.  It annoyed me!  The snobby individuals, the elite society, the social formalities, and all this talk about marriage - blah In all fairness to Jane Austen, it was a terrible time for me to immerse myself in this story.  Please forgive me, Jane, but my mood was intolerable.

Some details implying spoilers . . . 

Mansfield Park, which takes place in England (Northamptonshire), 1800s, reminded me of a kind of Cinderella story - a poor, less privileged young girl, Fanny Price, was sent to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram.  She lived with four cousins, too: Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia, while a stupid, high maintenance aunt, Mrs. Norris, meddled close by. Edmund proved to be a compassionate soul who took Fanny under his wing, and you kind of know where this relationship is going from the very start, even though it twisted and turned for the entire story before finally seeing the light of day.  But I digress.


Sir Thomas and his son Tom were removed from the story for a while, as they attended business in the Caribbean, while Fanny blossomed into a beautiful, sharp young lady and life changed drastically at Mansfield Park (the Bertram estate).  The enlightened Crawfords rolled into the neighborhood and introduced chaos to the inhabitants of Mansfield.  Henry and Mary, brother and sister, brought their progressive ideas to the group and the Bertram siblings were done for.  (Of course, it didn't take much to convince Maria or Julia to conform, and cousin Tom - who returned early from the Caribbean - was also caught up, though Edmund was very reluctant; even Mrs. Norris was completely oblivious to the wickedness.)  However, only Fanny wisely protested the perversity of their behaviors.  

Edmund tempted to join the frivolities (source)

When Sir Thomas returned, he put a stop to the frivolities, thank goodness, and he also noticed how much Fanny had changed.  When he learned that Henry Crawford was interested in marriage to Fanny, he greatly encouraged it; but Fanny rejected his proposal, for good reason.  Sir Thomas was incensed that Fanny - little poor, underprivileged Fanny - was so ungrateful after he, Sir Thomas, generously took her in and raised her up under his roof.  She should have known a good thing (Henry Crawford) when she saw it.  

Fanny stood firm, and soon a shameful and dreadful scandal rocked the Bertrams and Crawfords; true characters were brazenly exposed.  Ouch!  (Of course, today, this would hardly cause anyone to blink, but for England, 1800s, it was horrifying.)  This scandal changed everything for Fanny and Edmund, which was good, because they finally realized what the reader probably had known all along, which caused the story to close like the perfect happily-ever kind.  The End.


It is not a bad story, and there are all kinds of other characters and conflicts to complicate events and relationships; it is also typical Jane Austen composition and style; but I was bored with the plot and failed to read it deeply, which caused me to miss the little themes and ideas.  

Nonetheless, I am glad I read another Austen and will continue to read other Austens.  I still have to read Emma, Northanger Abbey, and The History of England By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian, and I would like to reread Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility someday.  So I have not been discouraged; I just have to be in the right mindset - a Jane Austen mindset.  


Stephen said...

If you don't want to read about marriage, I think maybe Austin won't be so much fun. ;-) I stalled on Sense and Sensibility last year for the same reasons, though. I'll have to take another crack at those sisters and their friends....

Jillian said...

I read this and then read the play they put on during the novel: Lovers' Vows. INTERESTING! I see Austen as debating that play within this book. The play's plot would have been well-known by readers in Austen's day. It was considered scandalous and dangerous (the French Revolutionary climate of the time made many things dangerous.)

My personal feeling is that Austen loved plays and drama: she put them on for her family. But I think there's both a conservative and a progressive message in this novel. She usually seems to argue for a balance. I agree it's not as exciting as, say, Pride & Prejudice, but I think it was really daring for its time. Emma is more exciting, and so in Northanger Abbey, so I hope you like those two. Northanger might be fun to read alongside Ann Radcliffe, which is what I did. :)

Jean said...

This is the one people have the hardest time with, and if you're not it the mood for it it's probably hopeless! I found it really helpful to read Nabokov's essay on it in his Lectures on Literature. He starts off grumping about how he hates women novelists, all except THIS ONE NOVEL that is totally genius, and it's Mansfield Park. And everybody else kind of goes "What." But he really does point out a lot of amazing things I didn't know anything about.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I am in the mood for this old view on romance. I find that Austen writes about the elite with an obsessive focus on marriage, and I can except the right moment. Although I can't speak specifically on Mansfield Park since I have not yet read it, I do find that Jane Austen at least likes to show her distaste for the separation of class.

Unknown said...

Maybe it's not the mood that is to blame. I also usually love everything that came from Jane's pen, but I could barely stand Mansfield Park. You're right at saying that reader sees clearly what the ending is gonna be, and one can't help but feel impatient with the characters for beating about the bush. I also couldn't bring myself to love Fanny. I admired her high moral standards - yes, but she is very unlikable otherwise.

Ruth said...

Good point. I probably should read something about Austen herself so I can better understand her perspective. I read this hastily b/c I wanted to finish it, and my life has been a whirlwind right now. I felt like rolling my eyes while reading this, but I don't mean to mock it.

I struggled with Sense & Sensibility, too, for similar reasons. I am curious: is Jane Austen mocking her society? I hope so. But for sure, I was able to take something away from S&S than I did with Mansfield Park. It was a better learning experience.

Ruth said...

Hi, Jillian,
I did some research after reading MP and learned about all the themes I missed. I missed the whole country vs. city aspect, and the idea that the French were wayward and loose and dangerously progressive, while the English were refined, safe, and traditional - something Jane wanted to convey. Totally missed that!!!

I thought the inclusion of the play was outrageous, in a funny way. The young people were so caught up in it, and that looney Mrs. Norris, but Sir Thomas extinguished the danger and saved them from ruin. The whole time I couldn't figure out if Austen was serious or mocking the offensiveness of it. Is she mocking her society? See, I really need to read about Jane Austen. I need to understand her worldview. I know I do.

Ruth said...

I felt like this with Sense and Sensibility, but I learned more from S&S than MP. Still, I think it is me b/c I have not been focused lately - the month of December.

I'm curious about this essay and will look it up. As I said to someone else, I totally missed all the little details in this one; and themes are kind of fun to figure out. So I am interested to learn more. Who knows: maybe I'll want to reread it like I did Persuasion and it will become a favorite the second time around.

Ruth said...

That I definitely get. In MP, you can sense the snobbery of the wealthy side of the family verses the meek and humble side of Fanny and her family. At least you see how the upper class looks down at the lower class, and it is distasteful. I think I wrote the word "snob" at least 15 times to denote the disparity of treatment toward Fanny.

Ruth said...

Yeah, Fanny was almost too perfect. She reminded me of Melanie of Gone With the Wind. And she was Cinderella, too, bc she came from humble beginnings and was "mistreated" by her girl cousins and looked down upon by her aunts; but at the end she gets her "Prince Charming," whom we all knew she would in the first place.

Jillian said...

My feeling is that she is ALWAYS mocking her society. ;-) I personally felt that she was completely mocking Sir Thomas as well. I remember at one point he is shouting at everyone for having been performing a play, and while shouting, he is literally STANDING on the stage where they were acting. Huge ironic moment. He has just returned from dealing with his plantation (Antigua, if I recall), where he is pretending to be a "gentleman" and is in fact a dealer in human property. The conditions there would have been horrific for the people he was enslaving. (At one point Fanny quietly asks about slavery, and everyone looks at her like she's crazy.)

So he's shouting at these kids for "acting" while standing on a stage being a FAR more dangerous actor. That, I think, is Austen's point. Not that acting is bad as a past-time (her own family CONSTANTLY put on plays for each other growing up), but that acting is dangerous -- when the people acting don't even acknowledge that they're acting. It's dangerous when it moves into society and becomes a way of life.

Fanny never acts: the rest do. Sir Thomas is mocked because he not only acts throughout the novel: he is a hypocrite (the FAR more dangerous actor because he carrieds so much influence, and because no one realizes he's acting). If you read Sir Thomas's role in the novel, alongside Lovers' Vows, you can see that the novel is an enormous trial of the role of patriarch. Certainly not to say Austen had issues with the conservative order. I don't think she did. Rather, that she wanted to shine a light on how much power a man had within a family. How likely it was that a man like Sir Thomas (one of high social standing and power) was standing on a stage even as he spouted about the dangers of acting. And his children are on the same stage. The implication? They are heading for exactly where he is, even as he shouts at them for it. Only Fanny has a sense of self enough not to become a social actor. That's why she says throughout, "No. I cannot act."

Austen uses a similar irony in Northanger Abbey: I don't want to spoil it for you, but she mocks society's "fear" of Gothic novels while putting Catherine through a far more real danger in society, which is overshadowed by everybody's comparably silly fear of Gothic novels.

All of this is only my viewpoint of course -- but yes, I definitely (DEFINITELY) think she's mocking her society. ALWAYS. You might love Claire Tomalin's biography on Austen. Gives some great insight on her personality and the political climate of her day. :)

Jillian said...

I absolutely hated Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it. But it completely transformed for me on rereads. I've read it three times now and loved every read more. It's now one of my favorite novels.

I've heard many say this about Austen. Every time you read her, you see things you missed, and you realize what you didn't understand the first time was actually really, really clever...

Jillian said...

I guess my point is that she wasn't (I believe) suggesting that women should have power and the patriarchal system should be abolished. She was shining a light on the potential for a "poisonous" patriarch -- one whose poison hides in plain sight within society because he, along with everyone else, socially acts a role (gentleman) while horrific things like slavery were happening behind the scenes. Like a proper artist, I don't think she's implying a cure -- just pointing out a flaw in the social order. Shining a light on it. What's clever about her is that her novels mirror society: this stuff is hiding under the polite surface of her novels. She wants you to WORK for it. See beneath the surface, because if you can begin to find it within her novels, you might begin to see it beneath the surface of polite society. That's why, I think, it takes a few reads to begin to see it. She wants you to work.

SPOILER FOR LOVERS' VOWS FOLLOWS: In Lovers' Vows, the powerful patriarch is ridiculous unreal: he sees all kinds of social disorder and just forgives and forgets and they all live happily ever after because he's a good guy. It was a really, really popular play when Mansfield Park came out, and also scandalous, because no one wanted to think about the social order falling apart, but if it did, it was nice to think of the patriarch being forgiving and generous and it all working out. The characters in Mansfield Park replay that play within Mansfield Park, both as a "play" and as themselves. Austen basically suggests that it's all ridiculous. Sir Thomas would NEVER be that kind, generous, or forgiving. And then she tacks on her usual wedding at the end as if to say, "There you go, silly readers! Here's the happy ending you've been waiting for.) I didn't like Edmund, and I don't think she did either.

(There, now I've said enough to really try your patience! I'll leave you alone now. :) I find Jane Austen utterly brilliant, to conclude.) :-)

Ruth said...

Oh, I love it! I remember Sir Thomas' hysterical presentation and outrageous protestations, making a scene; I should have added quotations around ". . . Sir Thomas extinguished the danger and saved them from ruin," because I meant it sarcastically. I knew there was some irony in that, and it is starting to come together now. Ah, I will have to read this again, darn it - at a better time though.

I understand now it helps to have an understanding of the play. Austen is ingenious, and next time I need to investigate deeper BEFORE I read her books. Rereading them again and again also works.

Well, thank you for sharing what you know. I am glad for it and I never mind spoilers. With Austen, especially, I always need a prelude.

Brona said...

I seriously disliked MP when I first read it in my early twenties. It was the only Austen I had never reread or watched a tv adaptation.

Until a couple of years ago that is, when I reread it for Austen in August.

It was a revelation -

I doubt that Persuasion & P&P will ever be toppled from the top spots, but MP is now up there & will definitely be reread many more times in the future.

But I am an Austen tragic!!

Ruth said...

Brona, I enjoyed your post on MP. I am so confident now that I will reread MP again, and I feel like I must do it soon. I went through this with Persuasion - absolutely hating it and missing every good thing in it. Then I reread it soon after and it was an eye-opener. Today it is my favorite.

I missed a lot of the details that you describe in your post, like the Crawford siblings not considering love long lasting in marriage - which in fact, it should grow and blossom in marriage; not the other way around. I did not make connections with other characters, as you point out, in other JA novels. That shows how deeply you remember her characters. And I did not feel the insult of Edmund's treatment of Fanny, but you make an excellent point how he maybe saw her only as a little sister; it was only after his giving up Mary that he noticed Fanny as potential wife material.

Yeah, I will definitely reread MP again. : )

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Austen is always, always critiquing her society, sometimes overtly, sometimes snidely, sometimes obliquely. MP is the only one of her books I don't deeply enjoy, and partly it's because I just don't click with any of the characters, and partly it's because to me it's the most obviously critical of society and lacks the fun, sly let's-poke-fun-at-ridiculous-people vibe her other novels have. Her other novels make me laugh with delight, and this one does not. I've read it twice now, and will probably give it a whirl again in a few years just to be fair, but... I don't blame you for not liking it.

Carol said...

When I first read MP about ?16 years ago I thought Fanny was insipid & rated the book the least likeable of all Austen's work. Then about a year ago my 10 yr old daughter & I listened to it in the car on our long drives to various lessons etc - It was the only suitable audio I could find at the library at the time. I thought she'd hate it but she thought Lady Bertram was hilarious & for weeks afterwards she impersonated her voice (very well, I must say). Anyhow, I did enjoy it this time & appreciated Fanny much more than I had previously. Sometimes that happens if I've read a book then listen to a good audio. It gives me a different perpective.

Ruth said...

Yeah, I'll be rereading this again someday, too.

Ruth said...

I didn't have a problem with Fanny, as much as I did her relations. They were such snobs.