Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s least-popular novel. I recently re-read it, and I think it has this undeserved rap because of one major misconception, that it’s a romance. It’s most emphatically not. And read with that understanding in mind, I had a new appreciation for this work.
I’ve come to love Austen less for the Marriage Plot and more for the glimpse into the world of early 19th century England. She was a cultural anthropologist who was able to draw her complex society and provide great insight into her life and times. I love reading about how men and women interacted, worked, ate, shopped (yes, shopped!) spent their leisure time, parented, prayed, and lived. Mansfield Park is full of this kind of observation. Emma is also good in this way, and come to think of it, Emma is also not a romance. (Emma’s actually kind of an anti-romance.)
It is also such a realistic look at how the poor lived that it’s as close to Dickens as we’re going to get for another three or four decades. The interlude in Portsmouth is wonderful in its depiction of the poor, crude, vulgar Price family, their dirty house, and their slatternly maid. Their only consolation, Mrs. Price’s handsome family, is pitiful in its weakness.
Mansfield Park is also the most modern of Austen’s books. She has a dense literary style, but Mansfield Park is almost streamlined in comparison to Pride & Prejudice. I was struck by how often I forgot I was reading a period work, since not only the style but the cadence and word choice are spare and to the point. Austen says at one point that Mrs. Norris is “sponging” off another character. Same word, same slang, and it was startling in its effect.
To modern readers, the big problem is Fanny Price. How can we like a heroine who is so priggish and mealy-mouthed and never sticks up for herself? Edmund too, comes across as a humorless prig. Come on! It’s just a play! I wanted to yell at both of them. As for the two villains of the book, Mary and Henry Crawford, really, how bad are they? The moral repugnance that Fanny holds for Henry, after he does everything for her, got really tiresome after a while. As for Edmund, since he’s ready to forgive Mary for her shallowness if she’ll only marry him, we can’t really take his concerns seriously.
And that is exactly Austen’s point. This is her most worldly book (and anyone who ever thought Austen was sheltered is laughably wrong – this is a very sophisticated novel) and what she is saying is, yes, to most of us, even in her time, the Crawfords really aren’t that bad. They are just rich and selfish, so give it a rest already!
I bet her contemporaries didn’t like Mansfield Park any more than modern readers do. Because that’s Austen’s point – where do we draw the line on badness? And what does it say about us that we’re ready to give Mary and Henry a pass because they are charming, and Henry really is trying to be good, dear boy?
If you haven’t read Mansfield Park in a while, give it another try. I gained a new appreciation, among other things for Austen’s evident admiration for sailors. I wonder if she had as a girl ever dreamed of going to sea, before the constrictions of society ground any sense of adventure under its boot. The scenes and characters are some of her best ever. The Portsmouth interlude and the character of poor Mr. Rushworth especially are vivid and memorable. Mrs. Norris is a one-note villain, but her villainy is so within character that once again, we know people like her.
If you’ve read it, chime in here and let me know what you thought.