Mansfield Park


You heard it here. Mansfield Park is the Austen equivalent of big girl panties.


I chose Mansfield Park because I was afraid no one else would want it, and I was interested in seeing what I thought of the book decades after my last attempt at reading it. Briefly, it is the story of Fanny Price, who is raised by her wealthy relatives the Bertrams in their luxurious home Mansfield Park (thought to be based on Cottesbrooke Hall), where [i]f tenderness could ever be supposed wanting, good sense and good breeding supplied its place.

I read the Oxford University Press edition–not my first choice but the local library didn’t have a copy and I couldn’t find my collected Austen. No helpful notes or introduction, and so I was left to my own interpretation. First, I had trouble figuring out what is the book really about–it’s unlike Austen’s other works in that it covers so much ground and so many themes, and the point of view shifts frequently; I believe it’s the only one of the novels that uses multiple points of view. It’s the only one of the novels that is concerned in a major way with fashionable mores of the ton and has more titled characters, at least mentioned in passing, than you can shake a stick at.

Is it a comedy? Sort of. Mrs. Norris, the only truly funny character, isn’t that funny after a time as you realize how mean-spirited she is and as you see her fall out of favor with the powerful Sir Thomas Bertram. There’s also the stagestruck Mr. Yates who really really likes his blue dress (no, not that sort of dress) and pink satin cloak.

Is it a love story? Sort of. Edmund and Fanny slide into marriage–and the one thing I do remember from earlier readings is that these two are well matched in vapidity and longwindedness. The moral of the book?–that if you wait, all things will come to you?–Fanny must have a horse, a fire in her room, and ultimately a husband (the cousin marrying thing was not nearly as icky as you might think). That virtue is rewarded, certainly; Miss Prism (The Importance of Being Earnest), whose definition of fiction was that the good end happily and the bad unhappily, probably enjoyed Mansfield Park.

Fanny develops from the poor, sickly relative into an attractive and well read young woman, although shy and given to longwinded rhapsodies on the beauties of nature etc. (this is a book of voluble characters. Edmund, bless him, goes on for pages and pages). She and her Bertram cousins are befriended by the worldly and ambitious brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, and Henry becomes involved with both of Fanny’s female cousins, playing them off against each other, even though one of them is engaged. And Fanny finds herself befriending Mary, even though she isn’t really sure she likes her or approves of her, and feels pretty much the same way about Henry.

One of the early crises of the book–ending with a splendid cliffhanger at the end of Volume I–is the amateur staging of a very naughty play, Lovers’ Vows. Fanny refuses to take part; poor Edmund, in a crisis of conscience, decides it is his moral duty to take a part in the play. (I think, but I’m not sure, that you are meant to laugh here.) Much later you find out that Edmund very much enjoyed rehearsing with the fascinating Miss Crawford, with whom he’s fallen in love, even though he suspects her moral code does not match up to his. And, yes, she really does say “What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?”

And then Henry Crawford tells his sister that his next challenge is to make Fanny fall in love with him.

Yikes.

Is Austen writing her version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses? Certainly Crawford, short, dark, flirty, and keen on farming as well as women, is no Valmont. Henry arranges for a promotion for Fanny’s midshipman brother and even wrenches good behavior out of her uncouth family in Portsmouth. But Fanny holds firm–she won’t marry a man she doesn’t love, however persuasive he, his sister, and her own relatives are in gently blackmailing her to accept him, even if Henry does seem to be genuinely in love with her. Her instincts prove to be right.

Mansfield Park is possibly Austen’s sexiest book, and I think this may be one reason–other than the yawn-inducing Fanny and Edmund–why it’s her least favorite. I suspect it may be beyond many readers’ comfort zones–it doesn’t sound like dear Jane. There’s a tremendously strong physical awareness between her characters:

… she gradually slackened in the needle-work, which, at the beginning, seemed to occupy her totally; how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it—and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken.

And the most blatant expression of physical desire of all of Austen’s books:

…Maria, still feeling her hand pressed to Henry Crawford’s heart, and caring little for anything else.

The characters are equally conscious of their physical presence indoors and outside. The book is full of references to space, horizons, the landscape improvements of Repton and others that open up vistas; and their movements around the house are like stage entrances and exits. There’s an extraordinary scene, elaborately choreographed, involving a locked gate, when the Bertrams, Fanny, and the Crawfords visit the estate of Miss Bertram’s fiance. When Fanny visits her family in Portsmouth you almost expect her to whip out a tape measure, so shocked is she by the humble dimensions of the rooms.

Enough from me. Have you read Mansfield Park? If not, why not? If you have, what do you think of it?

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34 Responses to Mansfield Park

  1. Despite yawning your head off, Janet, you read the book in tremendous detail. In short, I found the book boring. Also: artificially convoluted plot and of course too much prosing

  2. I too found this book boring and the first TV adaptation that I saw, even more boring. Fanny’s a drip, and Edmund even drippier. Even though I couldn’t stand the film version of Mansfield Park, the director at least livened things up a bit. I’ve never thought of it as her sexiest book. For me that’s Persuasion, or maybe I’m just thinking of Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Hubba-Hubba. But looking back on it, the fact that Edmund and Fanny are tempted by the Crawfords, despite the brother and sister’s moral flaws is rather interesting. Although I can’t figure out for the life of me why Henry Crawford would want to marry Fanny.

  3. It does make you wonder if dear Jane was ever tempted to the dark side by men like Willoughby and Henry Crawford.

  4. Elena Greene says:

    My problem wasn’t that MANSFIELED PARK was sexy (BTW I think PERSUASION is very sexy, too) but that the villains were so much sexier than the protagonists. It felt heavy and moralistic and full of guilt, as if Jane had somehow decided that goodness and sexual vitality can’t go together.

    Maybe a reread is in order but Northanger Abbey is much higher on my list.

  5. doglady says:

    I think you hit it on the head Elena. I think JA was attracted to the “villains” in this book and tried to fight that attraction with the heavy-handed morality. I guess parts of Mansfield Park are a little slow, but it is a great book for a long rainy afternoon. It gives one a lot of food for thought. I too cannot for the life of me figure out WHY Henry is interested in Fanny! Perhaps that is the point!

  6. pearl says:

    Mansfield Park is a profound novel which explores this era in a humourous way. It shows a more complex picture of early nineteenth century life. Fanny is an irritating character who can never be likeable. I found the ending extremely disappointing.

  7. Janga says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I find Mansfield Park a fascinating failure. Failure because the only way Austen could work her way back out of the convoluted relationships with the Crawfords is to have Mary Crawford, at the end, say something she never would have said (I’m not telling what).

    But there are so many fascinating things that make you sit up and take notice. Fanny’s visit to Portsmouth is extraordinary, immediate, and devastating writing:

    She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and notched
    by her brothers, where stood the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy…

    The immediacy of the physical description matched by her moral revulsion (at them for their slovenliness but partly at herself for preferring the better turned out if morally comatose Lady Bertram)

  9. Janga says:

    With a prig for a heroine, how can the novel be anything but boring? Even C. S. Lewis, who praised Mansfield Park’s morality, found Fanny lacking in wit and passion, possessing “nothing except rectitude of mind.”

    Mansfield Park is #5 on my Austen list only because I actively dislike Emma and when I read MP, pondering the character of the Crawfords is at least an interesting intellectual exercise. Mary Crawford is like Elizabeth Bennet without Lizzie’s moral compass and self-knowledge. The problem is that in MP, the reader’s choice seems to be between repulsive self-absorption or tedius virtue.

  10. Jenny says:

    I had mentioned in the Emma post my theory that Mansfield Park is Jane’s secret story of a doomed love for a morally questionable man with the genders reversed. Read Edmund as Jane and the true tale emerges.

    Here is a bit more of the reasoning behind this: Jane wrote Mansfield Park shortly after the success of P&P. Now those of you who are writers know what it is like to go from being completely obscure to having a book succeed. And if you are like me, your reaction to a big publishing success was probably to write the book of your heart because now you feel like the world will read it.

    So you must ask yourself, why was Mansfield Park Austen’s “book of the heart?” The putative heroine is repellent. Jane was the first to admit it. Fanny Price is surprisingly like the sententious Mary in P&P. She’s a physical coward–no wet stockings and striding through the fields for Fanny P! And most importantly, Edmund does NOT love her, he loves Mary Crawford. He is friendly and brotherly, but that’s about it. Still, in one of the most unsatisfying endings in English Literature, he is stuck with Miss Price at the end, as a result of having to make a moral choice which robs him of the woman he has loved throughout the book for her courage, energy, and wit–the characteristics Fanny does not
    possess.

    As I mentioned earlier, the scene where Edmund renounces Mary Crawford is related to us with dialogue. If, as is often claimed, Austen never reported the dialogue of women’s conversations with men that she had not herself participated in, where did she get that emotionally wrenching scene?

    And is not the real effect of the book to make the reader rebel against the morality that underlies it? To make us loathe Fanny Price–the moralistic Conscience that takes all the joy out of life? Hmmmm.

    Add to the mix that Jane’s last completed book, as her illness closes in, is Persuasion, with its closely related moral that it can be a huge mistake to take good advice and to give up the love of your life, and it seems pretty clear to me that the pivotal event in Jane’s life was a renunciation of a sexually appealing man that she never quite got over.

    Whatever she experienced with that man, it made her unable to marry Bigg-Withers, despite all the advantages of the match. Perhaps she knew a bit too much about what marriage really entailed by then?

    Whatever the story, we’ll never know who the man was. Cassandra saw to that. It as certainly NOT that boy from Ireland. It probably was NOT any clergyman met at the beach who later died. That was a red herring.

    I’d guess it must have been someone she met when she was in London with her brother Henry. I’ve always wondered, too, why she left that surprisingly large bequest to Henry’s servant! Did she perhaps know something? . . . .

    And yes, I had mulled over the idea of turning these musings into novel–I’ve completed a few Regencies that are making the rounds–but I have not the effrontery to attempt to write in Jane’s voice. Maybe a genius like Anthony Burgess could do that–he did Shakespeare pretty well. But not me!

  11. Georgie Lee says:

    I’ve never read this one.

  12. Jane, what a fascinating analysis of Fanny Price, the Bertrams and the Crawfords. It doesn’t make Fanny less boring, but it does make the others more interesting, especially when put in the greater context of what was going on Jane’s life and the scrifices she made.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I read this book – for fun – in college and am a little amazed I actually finished it. It was such a bore. The Crawfords were the only sources of “life” in it if I remember correctly. Neither Fanny nor Edmund were appealing. It went at such a slow pace and then it abruptly ends with a chapter that sums up all that happens – stuff that could have been shown in the last half of the novel and immensely improved the pacing. It was just a frustrating read. I can’t imagine I’ll ever reread it.

    The title of the blog is hysterical though. 🙂 And, Jenny’s theory is very interesting.

    -Michelle Butler

  14. Diane Gaston says:

    Hi, Michelle!! (Diane waving madly)

    I, too, find Jenny’s theories fascinating. I do so hope Jane knew love!

    Mansfield Park is probably my least favorite of Austen’s books and I think it is all because of Fanny. It would be interesting to see what the reviews were of MP. I wonder if it went over better with a 19th century readership. Fanny is so unlike the sort of heroines we love today.
    I sorta think, though, that spirited heroines like Lizzie Bennet are always the favorite, no matter what era.

  15. I’ve read MP many times, and even though it’s not my favorite, I think I enjoy it more than most readers. Edmund annoys me, but Fanny doesn’t, because I see most of her flaws as being the product of her upbringing. She’s been so cowed, told so often that she’s the least and the lowest, that the only thing she has left to her is moral courage. I can’t enjoy her personality the way I enjoy Lizzy Bennet’s sparkle or Elinor Dashwood’s bracing good sense, but I can sympathize with her.

    The one thing that makes no sense to me is that Henry would run off with Maria like he does. He doesn’t really like her, he knows he’ll lose Fanny, and if he wants sex or the gratification of a conquest, surely as a rich, reasonably attractive young man, he could find that elsewhere.

    As I know I’ve mentioned here at least once, my first completed manuscript was a riff on Mansfield Park–one where my Crawford figures end up as good guys. “Edmund” actually ended up worse in my version, though–instead of just being a sanctimonious prig, he turned into an abusive, misogynistic, sanctimonious control freak. I had to kill him in the opening chapter of my next manuscript so his widow, my “Mary” figure (though she evolved into a very different type of character) could get someone who’d see her value.

  16. Jenny says:

    Diane,

    Mansfield Park was not a big hit with readers of its time either, including those in Jane’s circle.

    If I remember correctly her letters suggest there was the same sense of bafflement about why she wrote it among those in her circle as we feel today.

    We always hear that other authors of the time, like Miss Edgeworth, wrote “moral” fiction. But reading Miss Edgeworth was a revelation to me. Her plot lines include things like women dueling and facing breast cancer surgery without anesthesia.

    Mary Brunton’s “moral” fiction (Self-Control, etc) is also full of drama. In fact, both these “moral” authors remind me of the folks who write Made-for-TV movies. Though they may be “moral” in that their characters end up turning away from vice or suffering for it, vice is explored in considerable, entertaining detail. Their writings which were bestsellers did not embody the oppressive “morality” Jane explores in Mansfield Park.

  17. Diane Gaston says:

    Jenny, somehow I’m not surprised that readers didn’t love MP like they did P&P.
    Well, there is some consolation that even our revered Jane Austen didn’t always produce a best-seller.

    I keep meaning to read Maria Edgeworth and I have read Mary Brunton’s Discipline. That book, too, has lots of naughty drama going on in it.

    Jenny, you must keep visiting us because you have lots of interesting things to say! What the heck, we’re happy to have you (and all our Risky friends) even when we all are not interesting!

  18. I’d really suggest to everyone who didn’t like MP to let it sit for a decade or so and try again!

    Jenny, I very much like your theory–of course, the other thing writers do when they have a hit is to try something that pushes the envelope and may not work. But Austen as Edmund (rather than Austen as Fanny or Mary Crawford) makes sense.

    Pam, I thought one of the most striking parts of the visit to Portsmouth was the mention of the sister who had died after Fanny had gone to Mansfield. It’s the first mention of it and I’m wondering why Austen mentioned it then and not in “real time.” The Portsmouth visit is amazingly well done–it’s neither judgmental nor sentimentalized, and again, something Austen doesn’t do in any other book.

  19. Wow, I didn’t remember about the sister who died. Susan, I also tried to write a version of MP with Mary Crawford as the heroine, because she’s so, so appealing. In fact, that early Mary wound up as one of the sources for Mary Penley in The Slightest Provocation.

    As for erotics — the locked gateway scene is amazing. Somebody ought to adopt a ballet from it.

  20. Susan, I also tried to write a version of MP with Mary Crawford as the heroine, because she’s so, so appealing.

    The funny thing is that I don’t actually like Mary Crawford! She’s too bitchy and conniving for my taste, especially that one place where she’s all but wishing Tom dead so Edmund will be heir to the baronetcy! I like Henry, so my manuscript was all about making him the hero. Only his sister’s character evolved as I was writing until she had little in common with Mary beyond being a pretty, rather spoiled heiress who doesn’t take life seriously until adversity forces her to.

    Upon further reflection, I wonder if I’m more tolerant of the moralizing in Mansfield Park than most readers because I grew up in a moralistic environment myself–I was raised by old-fashioned, fairly strict Southern Baptists and then fell in with an even more conservative crowd in college. My beliefs have shifted since then (a LOT), but MP doesn’t feel foreign to me because I spent my childhood and first adult years in an environment that was actually stricter.

  21. Jenny says:

    Diane,

    Thanks for your very kind words. I’ve been reading this blog for a while since you are all so knowledgeable about the Regency and have senses of humor, a combination I cannot resist!

  22. I actually like Mansfield Park. And I liked Fanny. Perhaps I have a soft spot for this book as it was the first Jane Austen I ever read. 🙂

    Susanne Saville
    http://www.myspace.com/susannesaville

  23. Diane Gaston says:

    Well, Jenny, what a nice thing to say about us!

    Susanne, you poor lonely thing. I guess it is okay that you liked Mansfield Park. I didn’t dislike it; I just didn’t like it as well as her other books.

  24. catslady says:

    No, I haven’t read it (as yet). I guess it was always a questionable read but you do make it sound interesting.

  25. I hope I didn’t overshare in my previous post–I’m just intrigued by how the life experiences we bring to a book can impact what we take out of it.

  26. Diane Gaston says:

    Susan, I didn’t think you overshared. You are among friends here!

  27. Cara King says:

    Elena wrote:

    the villains were so much sexier than the protagonists

    I’d guess that was part of the point. There’s more religious talk in MP than in any of the other books — so, in a way, the Crawfords are temptation personified — and by definition, temptation must be more tempting than virtue. (Though her argument would be that, in the long run, virtue makes you happier.)

    Susan Wilbanks wrote:

    The one thing that makes no sense to me is that Henry would run off with Maria like he does.

    I’ve always suspected that was to show that someone with a character like his couldn’t ever be trusted not to do something stupid, random, and self-destructive (and destructive of others.) He knows how to appear good — more than Fanny does (she’s all depth, no surface; he’s the opposite) — but every now and then he can’t keep his base nature from rising and showing itself.

    And, yes, he makes himself unhappy in the long run…just as does the on-the-wagon addict who backslides. I’ve always thought Austen meant him to be a severe warning. After all, Wickham and William Elliot never really try to reform; Willoughby may try, but not all that hard. But Henry Crawford seems to make a real effort. I suspect Austen thought that once a young person was thoroughly ruined, they really couldn’t ever save themselves… Or, if they could, another person couldn’t rely on them not to backslide…

    Cara

  28. Cara King says:

    I actually like Mansfield Park.

    I do too, Susanne! It’s not my favorite Austen, not by a lot, but I clearly like Fanny and Edmund a *lot* more than some folks here!

    To start with, I like the book because it’s funny. Though (as I mentioned yesterday) the comedy of Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse never worked for me, I do find Mrs. Norris laugh-out-loud funny. I think if one is trying to read quickly, one may miss it; Todd and I read MP out loud once, and that’s when I realized what a very funny book MP is.

    Also, I like Fanny. I don’t think she’s spiritless, or weak: as far as “moral courage” goes, she has more than any other character here. And yes, she gets ill from being out in the sun too much and various other physical exertions that can make us roll our eyes, but those are limitations of her body, not her character.

    I think Fanny realizes that she’s there on sufferance. Her parents *need* her to stay at MP, so it’s her job at MP to please. If she went around saying “I want a horse, I want a coming-out party and fancy clothes, and by the way Lady Bertram should do her own sewing” I wouldn’t respect her more, but less.

    As to what I don’t much like about MP… it’s long, and, overall, really rather dreary. Fanny is just so unhappy for so much of it that it can be hard to take.

    As for Mary and Edmund as a couple… I don’t think they’re well matched at all. Sure, she likes parts of him, but she wants him to be someone else. If they got married, one of them would end up miserable for sure. (And probably both of them.) Edmund is really very religious, and her failure to realize that is just one sign of how little she really understands him.

    Really, they’re the classic couple where each sees just what they want to see. (His raving to Fanny about what a kind and wonderful person Mary is is an example! Pathetic!)

    And therein lies my problem with Edmund. I like him somewhat…but, as with Edward in S&S, I prefer a hero who doesn’t fall so easily for a selfish schemer. I like guys who understand people much better.

    Cara

  29. Cara King says:

    As to contemporary reaction to MP, here are a few snippets:

    JA letter of Mar 5 1814: “Henry has this moment said that he likes my MP better and better; he is in the 3rd volume. I beleive now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end; he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.C. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.”

    JA letter of Nov 26 1815: “Mr H. is reading Mansfield Park for the first time and prefers it to P&P.”

    Dec 11 1815: “My greatest anxiety at present is that this fourth work [Emma] should not disgrace what was good in the others… I am very strongly haunted with the idea that to those readers who have preferred ‘Pride and Prejudice’ it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred ‘Mansfield Park’ very inferior in good sense.”

    [I infer no one preferred S&S!]

    Cara

  30. robynl says:

    I have not read it because, until the other day, I did not know it or the other books existed. I have had my eyes opened, so to speak.

  31. Suzanne, I liked Mansfield Park too, so don’t feel lonely! I found a lot likeable about the book but a far lot more that was mysterious and left me feeling that I was missing something important. And the fact that it is so unlike Austen’s other works makes it all the more intriguing.
    If I was stranded on a desert island with one Austen of my choice, I’d find it very difficult to choose between this and Emma!

  32. Anonymous says:

    Susan,

    Thank you for reminding me that Fanny was very much a product of her upbringing and true to character.

    Janet – you may have convinced me to give MP another try, but Emma is still ahead of it in line for Jane Austen novels I must give another try.

    -Michelle Butler

  33. Lois says:

    Now, this one is in my love pile, my number 3 favorite. Yep, it was long, but still I never lost interest, but I really loved Edmund and Fanny together. But I do wish we saw more or the path on how they got together in the end. . . but I think that’s the problem with only showing the point of view of one side. I know I vastly prefer all the books I read now where we see more of both sides, if not an equal moving back and forth between hero/heroine. Still, I really liked it, and like I said, it’s high up on my list. . . but nope, it’s not P&P. LOL 🙂

    Lois

  34. Todd says:

    I’m late to this party–as is not unusual for me, alas–and as I read through the comments I was beginning to wonder if anyone (except, I guess, Janet) actually liked Mansfield Park! I was relieved to see a few stand up for it towards the end, because I actually like it a lot. It’s more or less in the middle of the pack for me, along with Emma.

    I like Fanny. She is physically the weakest of Austen’s heroines, but certainly not the weakest in character. She is more concerned with overt morality than most of JA’s heroines, but that doesn’t make her seem like a prig to me. She has the truest moral compass of anyone in the book, and if you put yourself in her world, you realize that she is always on the right side.

    I like Edmund. He has his flaws, and he’s far from the most dashing Austen heroe (though not the least dashing, either–I’m afraid Edward Ferrers holds that record for me). But he is a genuinely good person, and he genuinely loves Fanny. Not romantically, at first, but with more real feeling than he ever has for Mary Crawford. Physical attraction can easily lead one into self-deception, and Edmund falls into that. But physical attraction is not enough, by itself, and he realizes that, too, in the end.

    I like the Crawfords, as characters, especially Henry. For me, though I was pretty sure how things were going to play out in the end, there was a real feeling of suspense–the idea that, if Fanny could have brought herself to love Henry, he might really have been redeemed. The fact that he was not may be Austen’s way of vindicating Fanny’s mistrust of him. But I still felt that perhaps it might have come out differently, if she’d been willing to relent.

    The book is long, and sentimental for extended stretches, and it is (of all her novels) the one whose morality is the most foreign to us now. I think it is easy to judge characters of a past era by the standards of today, but this is rarely to the advantage of either the characters, or the reader’s appreciation of the book. I liked Mansfield Park very much, and it is very far from being my least favorite Austen novel.

    Todd-who-must-lie-down-on-the-sofa-now-after-walking-in-the-sun

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