Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Janespotting: Mansfield Park (Austen's original)

It's time for me to start looking at Austen's third published novel, Mansfield Park (1814), and I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to the prospect. I've always considered it my least favorite of her novels, and I suspect I'm not alone in this opinion. The problem for many modern readers is Mansfield's heroine, Fanny Price. She doesn't have the wit and liveliness of Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, the innocent charm and naivete of Catherine Morland, or even the superior sensibility of Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot. Fanny Price is a character who triumphs through endurance and inaction, not through any particular achievement or virtues (aside from virtue itself).

A short summary: Fanny is a poor relation who is taken in by her aunt's wealthy family, the Bertrams. She comes to Mansfield Park and finds little kindness nor affection from her relations, who seem most concerned that she remember her place. Her Aunt Bertram is ditzy and thinks of nothing but her own comfort; Sir Thomas Bertram is stern and intimidating; Aunt Norris is most concerned that Fanny not overstep her role or interfere with Aunt Norris's own plans; oldest cousin Tom is in pursuit of pleasure and can't be bothered with a little girl; and her older cousins Maria and Julia ignore her except when they find a third playmate useful. Only her cousin Edmund shows her any kindness when she arrives, and he soon becomes a trusted friend for Fanny.

Not much has changed as Fanny turns eighteen: Tom is more interested in gambling than in business; Sir Bertram is distant (often physically, taking care of the family's business interests in the Caribbean); Aunt Norris is still bossy; Edmund is preparing to enter the clergy; and Fanny stays home to keep ditzy Aunt Bertram company while Maria and Julia go out in society. Maria has just got engaged to very wealthy (if stupid) young man, as suggested by Aunt Norris, when the society at Mansfield Park is interrupted by two visitors, brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford. Both are attractive, lively, and flirtatious, and they and a friend, Mr. Yates, encourage the group to begin rehearsals for a play. Fanny refuses to participate, thinking the subject (romantic intrigue) inappopriate and believing that Sir Thomas would not approve of a home theatre in general. Even Edmund joins in against his better judgment, thinking it the only way to keep things from getting out of hand. Despite his efforts, Henry Crawford flirts with both Julia and the engaged Maria, and Mary Crawford seriously attracts Edmund's notice.

Sir Thomas's return to Mansfield puts a stop to the business; the Crawfords leave and soon Maria marries, taking Julia with her on her honeymoon. Fanny is left home with a newly appreciative Sir Thomas, and when the Crawfords return to the neighborhood, Henry decides to entertain himself by making Fanny fall in love with him. She is secretly in love with Edmund, however, and her steadfast refusal intrigues Henry to the point where he offers marriage. The family thinks she should be grateful and accept, but when she doesn't she is eventually sent to her parents in Portsmouth to think about the alternative. Her parents loud and slatternly household is a contrast to the peace and quite of Mansfield, but Fanny won't yield. Finally word reaches her that Maria has run away with Henry Crawford, and Julia eloped with Mr. Yates, and Fanny is needed home at Mansfield to comfort the Bertrams. Edmund realizes that Mary Crawford is not the woman he thought she was, and that Fanny would be the perfect mate instead.

This is where I should sigh, I suppose ... it's a happy ending, after all, although Austen shows us very little of it. (No romantic words, a la Mr. Knightley's "if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more," and not even a scene where they discover their feelings. Hmmph.) Fanny triumphs by doing nothing, saying nothing, and being steadfast in her virtue. She's always right, about everything! How boring.

Although as I read the novel this time, I began to wonder ... why is Fanny so inactive? After thinking about it for a couple of chapters, I realized: because it's her survival strategy. She comes to Mansfield at a young age, and soon learns her place is not to stand out:
"I should wish to see them very good friends," (says Sir Thomas of Fanny and his daughters), "and would, on no account, authorize in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals." (Chapter 1)

Though [Fanny was] unworthy, from inferiority of age and strength, to be [her cousins'] constant associate, their pleasure and schemes were sometimes of a nature to make a third very useful, especially when that third was of an obliging, yielding temper. (Chapter 2)

"I am not going to urge [Fanny to act in the play]," —replied Mrs. Norris sharply, "but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her—very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is." (Chapter 15)

"People are never respected when they step out of their proper sphere. Remember that, Fanny," [said Aunt Norris.] (Chapter 23)
It's pretty clear that if Fanny were the type of Austen heroine we adore—witty, assertive, vocal—she wouldn't have lasted long at Mansfield Park at all, and its quiet surroundings are really more suited to her personality. So on this re-reading I came out with a little more respect for Fanny Price and her steadfast correctness ... although I still think Austen could have written a more romantically satisfying denouement. Maybe I'll find one in the several "sequels" that have made written to the novel. We'll soon see.


  1. A hero who gets what they want in life by doing nothing...I really should read this book! :P

  2. My problem with Fanny Price wasn't about her lack of wit or lack of any resemblance to a character like Elizabeth Bennet. I found Fanny's character disappointing, because she rarely developed as a character. Worse, while passing judgment on the likes of the Crawfords, she blinded herself from Edmund's and her own flaws. And in the end, she came off as a hypocrite.

  3. Fanny Price is the most introverted character in the colorful set of characters that Jane Austen created. Introversion is not just a strategy to reach a goal such as survival, it is a fundamental trait. Introverted persons cannot undo it, they just can try to make the best out of it. Their thoughtful inner life is the center of their personality, and they need an exhaustive amount of energy whenever they are forced to expose themselves in society.

    Mansfield Park succeeds in portraying the mind of a distinctly introverted character - more than a century before psychologists such as C. G. Jung introduced the concept of introversion and two centuries before introversion became a fashionable topic of management and lifestyle literature ("How to be introverted and yet successful").

    One of the most extroverted Jane Austen characters is Henry Crawford. Extroverted persons often succeed in society, but they depend on being admired by others. By not expressing any admiration for Henry, Fanny gains an increasing amount of influence on him. There is a negative feedback loop between Fanny's introversion and Henry's extroversion, but Jane Austen hints at the possibility that this feedback loop might have become positive, so Fanny and Henry might have developed their very different dispositions in a favorable way, profiting from each other. As a reader, I regret that this possible development is stopped abruptly.