MANSFIELD PARK: A Return to Jane Austen

auction-mansfield-park-122009-title-page.jpgThis book has been described as Jane Austen’s most politically-charged and therefore most controversial novel because she mentions the British slave trade and Fanny’s uncle does business in the West Indies. To me, however, it’s mostly just like Jane Austen’s other works – it is the story of a young lady becoming a woman. In the end, she gets married.

This is not to suggest that Jane Austen was not creative or clever. In reality she was extremely so. This is just her framework.

One of my last college courses was all about Austen and Dickens. We talked about how small Jane Austen’s world was. She and her family ran with a very specific social class – mostly landed gentry – and her novels critique and comment on exactly that. She seems to reward her main characters with marriage when they do good, and most importantly, they marry for love.

I love Jane Austen. I am on a mission to read all of her novels, and I am almost done (I have only Persuasion to go, and Lady Susan if you choose to count that). She writes with such subtlety, but she is so extremely descriptive. Once you get used to her language, you can easily see how well she sets a scene – she manages to capture the very feel of a room, every unseen tension, every unspoken air.

I mostly admire her snark (if you don’t find her snarky, you must have never read Emma before). It is that very British snark, almost equivalent to sarcasm, that is so biting that I often find myself dropping my jaw at each beautifully executed insult.

So let’s talk about Mansfield Park. When reading this today, you just have to get past the fact that she is in love with her first cousin – just remember it was normal in Austen’s time for first cousins to marry. For out purposes, let’s just pretend that it’s not a thing.

Instead, let us picture that she is in love with her best childhood friend. Ah yes, the story is much more romantic now.

Of all of Jane Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price is the one I personally identify with the most. She is a lot like me – shy, introverted, finds it difficult to express her true thoughts and opinions. I root for her. She is the hidden gem, a quiet idol. While she may not make the best first impression – she grows on you. Her overall character is something you fall in love with over time, for she shares her deepest reflections only with those she trusts more than anyone. 

Austen always likes to deal with the scandalous – well, what was considered scandalous during her time. In fact, the story starts off with somewhat of a scandal – the fact that the sister of Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram (Fanny’s mother) marries a man below her in status is indeed quite off-putting and creates a rift among them.

Austen also writes about the young people putting on a play in the absence of the patriarch (Sir Thomas Bertram), and a scandalous one at that. In fact, the characters in this play profess their love for one another in a very intimate way. How raunchy! Upon Sir Thomas’ return, they are, of course, greatly scolded.

Perhaps the most scandalous of all is the character of Henry Crawford, the greatest flirt to have walked the planet, who not only toys with Fanny’s heart, but the hearts of both her cousins. He even runs off with Maria after she has been married and after he had already proposed to Fanny! Gasp!

Jane Austen is great at cooking up a good scandal. In comparison to her “evil” characters, her heroines stand out. They are rewarded for their good behavior, and in this case, Fanny, who has been in love with Edmund since she was 12-years-old, finally gets what she wants most in the world. After visiting her family (who live in practical squalor compared to Mansfield), finding out her cousin Thomas is extremely ill, hearing that Maria has run off with Henry Crawford, and Julia has eloped with Mr. Yates, Austen ends the madness.

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest,” she says.

Fanny is rewarded with the knowledge that Edmund has grown to love her just as much as she loves him, and they are soon to be happily married. There is something extremely touching and romantic about marrying someone you played with as a child – I mean, people dream about that all the time.

I loved this book. I can’t wait to read Persuasion. But then, I’ll be out of Jane Austen novels to read, that that will be extremely sad.

My Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

[Also — the movie is on Netflix. Don’t watch it. It’s terrible]

Up Next: Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff

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