Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Ah, Fanny Price. An Austen heroine so unpopular (well, comparatively) that Mansfield Park wasn’t even on clearance when my childhood Barnes & Noble closed up shop over the summer and that the recent film adaptation had to make her half-Jane Austen to make her appealing. She’s a difficult character, and Mansfield Park is a difficult novel. While I’m going to share my usual feelings with you, I’ll also discuss the novel a bit more academically–because whining about how much I don’t like Fanny or how, no matter how acceptable it was at the time, incest still skeeves me out isn’t going to be very interesting at all.
Mansfield Park follows Fanny Price, the poor niece of the wealthy and respectable Sir Thomas Bertram. When Fanny was young, she was adopted by the Bertrams to ease the strain on her mother who has been long estranged from her sisters, the indolent Lady Bertram and vicious Mrs. Norris, who lives on the Bertrams’ property. While Fanny is given opportunities she might never have had otherwise, she’s constantly reminded that she must be grateful and that she will never be equal to her cousins, especially her female cousins, Julia and Maria–except by her cousin Edmund, who has always been kind to her. When the local parson’s fashionable relatives, the siblings Henry and Mary Crawford, come to visit, Mansfield Park is turned upside down as Henry schemes to win over Fanny and Mary sets her sites on Edmund.
Among Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price is an anomaly. She’s not lively. She’s not witty. She’s so shy and eager to be ignored that Edmund accuses her of being a masochist–although not in so many words. I was much more interested in Mary Crawford, a fashionable woman who will gladly sacrifice principles for just the right bon mot–while she certainly shouldn’t be a role model, she’s also great fun, which Fanny is not. The romance can be hard to take; the professor teaching my Jane Austen class told us that, when she first read the book as a preteen, she was utterly shocked to find that Fanny married her first cousin. But even setting aside the incest (and possible child grooming, which Sir Thomas shrugs off at one point), Fanny and Edmund’s relationship seems to be based solely on Edmund being nice to Fanny and both of them feeling superior to others. In fact, I don’t think we’re ever explicitly told that Fanny’s secret, which she goes to great lengths to suppress, is her love for Edmund, which, due to her situation, must have some elements of gratitude involved. Edmund is certainly never aware of it until the last chapter, when the two finally marry after Edmund sees Mary Crawford for who she is (after she defends an adulterous couple). On the surface, then, Mansfield Park is a long and subdued novel about a shy young thing who, in rejecting an unsuitable suitor, stands up for herself and is rewarded with a suitable husband and elevation into society.
But after I read the novel, the notion of Fanny as masochist interested me enough to bring it up in class. That particular piece of the discussion concluded with the idea that Fanny can be read as a sadist, which I found fascinating. In the end, Fanny and Edmund set up housekeeping in the Mansfield Parsonage, the previous home of the local parson, Dr. Grant, his wife, and his wife’s relatives, the Crawfords–including Henry Crawford, Fanny’s unsuitable suitor. Dr. Grant is dead–the novel specifically tells us it’s because of having three particularly rich dinners in a single week. Mrs. Norris and the worse female cousin are trapped in a domestic situation together, a fate possibly worse than death. Any obstacle to Fanny’s happiness (and any offenders to Fanny’s sense of morality) has been eradicated and punished instead of healthily dealt with. Fanny is a woman who, when faced with something she doesn’t like or understand, such as a new suitor, immediately denies it and violently withdraws into herself. Edmund is the only character who can coax her into doing something she doesn’t initially want to do, even if it’s something she might enjoy. Fanny is a creature of habit to an almost frightening degree. Framed this way, as a severely introverted sadist (although she never directly punishes those in her way), Fanny becomes a much more complex character, and even her relationship with Edmund takes on a new cast; as Fanny turns as inward as she possibly can by marrying a family member, Edmund comes around to her way of thinking, complete with a sense of moral superiority. In fact, towards the end of the novel, Edmund can’t coax her as he used to. As we leave them at Mansfield Parsonage, you get the feeling that they’ll remain there, in the same way, until they die. I don’t want to put Fanny in a negative light, but merely a more complex one–I like Fanny the sadist better than Fanny the spineless. I hope this idea can help you get through Mansfield Park, if you undertake it.
Bottom line: Mansfield Park is, among Austen’s works, legendarily problematic, particularly because of Fanny Price’s legendary spinelessness. I found it interesting once I read Fanny as not spineless, but masochistic and sadistic–she enjoys being ignored (as the novel even acknowledges!) and all the obstacles to her happiness (and any offenders to her morality) are brutally swept away at the end of the novel. Her constant desire to withdraw is even rewarded with the ultimate withdrawal: marrying within the family. But otherwise, it’s long and subdued. Not the Austen to start with by any means.
I bought this book from Barnes & Noble.