A few months ago, my husband and I decided to embark upon a Jane Austen Retrospective, re-reading and discussing each of the novels together. So far we've read Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma, and Mansfield Park, and of course I've intended to write down my thoughts about each one as we've finished our discussions! I will try to return to the first three, as we did have some very interesting thoughts and conversations about them, but for now I'll just ramble about Mansfield Park, since I'm impatiently waiting for Bill to finish reading it.
I'll admit it: I used to be a Mansfield Park/Fanny Price hater, like many Jane Austen fans. Now, both have risen highly in my esteem, as I've recognized more of Austen's brilliance in this novel. It is, especially at first, hard to enjoy reading about Fanny: she is too self-effacing, even for someone in her position. Yes, she owes everything to the Bertrams, and could be sent back to her own wretched family if she makes a wrong move, but we see in the end that the more vivacious Susan is also welcomed by Lady Bertram (though this may be because of Fanny’s example). She hides behind her shyness and humility to such an extent that no one really knows her, and her humility frustrates people who are trying to be kind to her (at the ball, etc). But it’s unfair to dislike her because of her shyness, and also unfair to dislike her because of her physical frailty--she is not a strong and healthy person, and that’s clearly not her fault. She does take walks and ride; she’s not indolent, like Lady Bertram. And I think her bodily state greatly affects her emotional state.
It’s also easy to dislike Fanny because of her shy and stuttering inarticulateness, and her dissolution into tears at the slightest provocation. This is annoying, but I think Jane Austen is sly here. None of the characters in the novel know or understand Fanny, and they all think they can control her--but they can’t. Not a single person, not even the awe-inspiring Sir Thomas, not even the worshipped Edmund, can persuade Fanny to accept a marriage that appears astoundingly fortunate and beneficial. Any other woman in her position would have swallowed her scruples and accepted Henry Crawford, but Fanny did not.
Which brings me to another point about Fanny--she is amazingly intuitive. As I read the novel, I found myself being annoyed by all the other perspectives shown to the reader, and began to wonder about it. Jane Austen doesn’t do this in any of her other novels, but here we are allowed to see exactly what other characters think and feel. This is not poor writing style (obviously, since it’s Jane Austen!); on the contrary, I think that she is emphasizing Fanny’s intuitive knowledge of the people around her. She sees their true characters and is not fooled by outward appearances or flowery speeches. She’s not even flattered by the Crawfords’ attentions, but instead is made highly uncomfortable by them because she knows they are insincere.
Fanny also sees the real desires behind the theatrical madness. It is not, as many have claimed, simply a group of young people wishing to entertain themselves with playacting at home. Rather, they want to playact so that they can express the desires that must remain hidden in their real lives. Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford want to flirt with each other, as do Edmund and Mary--there’s nothing innocent about the play or the emotions that it excites. Fanny recognizes this immorality, and refuses to take part.
It has also been said that Fanny does nothing throughout the novel--indeed, she rarely even speaks. And yet, everywhere she goes, she makes changes. She makes people notice her because she is not what they expect. She brings a small oasis of calm to her family home in Portsmouth, and improves the lives of her sisters Susan and Betsey with her small yet effective actions. She devotes herself to the comfort of her aunt Bertram, who might otherwise quickly devolve into a whining invalid. She is a much more devoted daughter to Sir Thomas than his real daughters, and shows him how to be a good father. I think she makes Mrs Norris and Mary Crawford uncomfortable as they recognize their own faults in comparison to her own steadfastness. She never breathes a word of her love to Edmund, and yet eventually he notices her as something other than a young cousin.
This is a book about goodness, about morality. It’s not about the romance (in fact, I suspect that the last rushed chapter is not because Jane Austen didn’t know how to end what she’d started, but to emphasize the real point of the novel), and there’s so much that happens. One just has to be patient, and dig deep, and trust in the brilliance of a literary genius.