Goodreads: Mansfield Park
Adopted into the household of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny Price grows up a meek outsider among her cousins in the unaccustomed elegance of Mansfield Park. Soon after Sir Thomas absents himself on estate business in Antigua (the family’s investment in slavery and sugar is considered in the Introduction in a new, post-colonial light), Mary Crawford and her brother Henry arrive at Mansfield, bringing with them London glamour, and the seductive taste for flirtation and theatre that precipitates a crisis.
Mansfield Park is the first novel by Jane Austen I’ve read (shocking! I know), and I was warned by various friends that it is frequently considered by readers to be Austen’s worse book. I was confused by this judgment for a large portion of the story, as I enjoyed reading about Austen’s characters, their hopes and secrets and foibles and found the setting and plot generally interesting. However, my opinion plummeted in the final chapters of the book where Austen seemed to have some characters take wildly unexpected actions to conveniently further some plot points and then rushed the interesting aspects of the conclusion. I also had to finally admit that Fanny Price is an incredibly bland heroine.
Now, my experience is that if you mention Mansfield Park to someone, after they too mention that Fanny is kind of boring and goody-goody, they’ll generally tell you that what they most remember about the book is that it involves the characters putting on a play—and that this is to some degree what is “unique” about it among Austen’s works. I found this true. The play occupies a significant portion of the book and takes a particular place of prominence in the minds of the characters. To them, the play is either everything they adore about Mansfield Park or everything that ever went wrong. I found this overblow. I get the general emotions of the characters on the “inappropriateness” of the play as they were conveyed, but I think this does not entirely translate to modern audiences. I understand that Fanny and Edmund were shocked, appalled, embarrassed, but I don’t fully see why beyond the general objections that people who were not engaged were practicing love speeches together. (And also they took over a room without permission to start actually building a theatre, carpenter and all.) So while this part was interesting, I think it thematically fell bit short for me and took up more of the story than I would have liked.
I enjoyed the other parts of the book more, even if they were more mundane—people going on walks, completing their work, having chats. Austen gives readers detailed looks into the minds and personalities of a variety of personages, and I think this is one of the things she does best.
It’s just unfortunate that the main character is the most boring of this cast of characters. The primary thing that anyone has to say about her—and it is said repeatedly—is that no one can find fault in her deportment. She’s basically faultless. Even if someone does blame Fanny of some misstep, the readers can see it’s unjust. Fanny is just blandly good—unless you count her tendency to think about others have clearly less good conduct and thoughts. Much of the story hinges on the fact that her rival in the love triangle simply does not have the moral ideas one would wish. It’s dull. That’s not to say Fanny ought to do something bad or shocking, but she doesn’t even seem to have any hobbies or interests besides “being of help” to others. Her hobby is being a nice, polite person.
I honestly think Henry Crawford, one of the love interests, is the breakout star of the book. He has a much more interesting temperament and a gripping character arc.
My only real wish is that Austen would have sustained her characterization till the end. As I mentioned, I found the end rushed, and I think the characters made choices because Austen found them expedient, not because they really made sense. The book overall is good, and I think Austen’s prose and insight into human nature win her admiration from me, but I have to take some stars off my rating because of the rushed ending.